In 1974, after dropping out of Reed College in Oregon, Steve Jobs becomes Atari employee #40 as a $5 an hour technician at their Los Gatos facility in California. As games come down from the company’s Grass Valley development labs, it is Jobs’ task to refine their design. Facilitated by an Atari sponsored overseas service call, Jobs spends several months in India following his quest to understand Eastern wisdom and philosophy, and after returning to Atari starts sneaking his good friend Steve Wozniak into the factory after hours for long playing marathons on the arcade machines. The first time Wozniak sees a PONG machine he is hooked, and designs a clone of the game himself that would put one of four questionable phrases up on the screen if a ball was missed, such as “DAMN IT” and “OH SHIT”. He does provide a switch to turn off the swearing, however.
Woz Gets Jobbed
In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout is released on May 13, 1976 and becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. It also breaks the wallets of gamers, with The Rice Thrasher, school newspaper of Rice University in Houston, TX., reporting in Feb. of 1977 that the game there is pulling in over $300 a week, one quarter at a time.
But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured.
The Two Steves Break Out
Later Jobs approaches boss Bushnell with the idea that Atari could produce the computer he and Wozniak are shopping around, and the two young employees go so far as to demo the system at Al Alcorn’s house. With the new home PONG unit and looming financial problems already on his plate, Bushnell passes on the project, referring Jobs to infamous Silicon Valley venture capitalist Don Valentine who in turn points them towards Mike Markkula. Jobs leaves Atari soon after, and he helps himself to some electronics that eventually end up integrated into the prototype computer Woz and Jobs create under the auspices of their newly founded Apple Computer Company. Atari will end up competing against the very company they let slip through their fingers when they release their 400 and 800 home computer systems in 1979. Atari follows up with the sequel Super Breakout in 1978, with trickier screens and faster action. It is on this sequel that legendary Atari game designer Ed Logg cuts his teeth. Both games naturally end up ported to Atari’s venerable VCS home system, but the extreme limitations of that system won’t even allow individual bricks to be drawn on the screen; players instead knock pieces out of colourful lines at the top of the screen. Versions are also ported to Atari’s other gaming platforms and their home computer products. And a radically revamped update of the game ends up in the limited library of the Atari’s 64-bit Jaguar home console, in the form of 1996’s Breakout 2000, released by Telegames months after the discontinuation of the Jaguar.
You could fill an entire circus tent with knock-offs of the Breakout formula featuring trapeze artists knocking out objects from a see-saw in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Some of these include Circus by Exidy (1977) and Clowns from Midway (1978), both for the arcades. The concept also bounces home in games like Circus Atari on the Atari VCS in 1980 and P.T. Barnum’s Acrobats! in 1982 on the Odyssey². In 1986, Japanese video game company Taito comes out with Arkanoid, a highly successful riff on Breakout with the added twist of power-up blocks that grant laser fire, extended size, and other upgrades. The game is distributed in North America by Romstar, and both of these companies end up being sued by Atari Games in 1987. The defendants are charged with infringing on copyrights and of unfair competition in the audio visual works of Breakout and Super Breakout.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Apple Founder Steve Jobs as Early Atari Employee
The Arcade Flyer Archive – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=home
Woz Gets Jobbed
Jobs Shortchanges Wozniak on Breakout Payment
Woz.org – www.woz.org
Cow, Sketch The, comp. “Happy Birthday Breakout.” Atari Coin Collection May 1977: 1+. Internet Archive. 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 6 Jan. 2022. Breakout was born on May 13, 1976. ;The Rice University paper, The Rice Thrasher, February 1977 issue, summarized the Breakout reputation saying, “The success of this game has been astounding. Breakout addicts poured in over $300 in quarters in one week in their attempts to conquer the electronic wall.”
Eimbinder, Jerry, and The History of How We Play. Gamestronics Proceedings, Jan. 1977, p. 207 Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings/page/n207. Image of cocktail Breakout games on the line, 1976
Coin Connection, “Happy Birthday, Breakout”, edited for Atari by Carol Kantor, pgs. 1,4, May 1977. “Breakout was born on May 13, 1976.” Retrieved from Pinball Pirate, Sept 15 2015.
The Two Steve Break Out
Jobs Leaves Atari/Other Breakout Versions
20th Apple Birthday email from Steve Wozniak to Charles Turley www.grin.net/~cturley/USA2WUG/@A2.20th.BIRTHDAY.GREETINGS/WOZ.A2.20th.Birthday.Greeting.txt
OLD-COMPUTER.COM Museum ~ software detail – Breakout –
The Atari Historical Society – Atari 400/800 Computers – www.atari-history.com/computers/8bits/400800historynote.html
The Atari Timeline, by Robert Jung – www.atariworld.com/AtariTimeline.html
History House: Stories: American as Apple Pie: Steve Jobs run Apple Computer – www.historyhouse.com/in_history/apple
I.C. When – 1976 – www.icwhen.com/the70s/1976.html
A Science Odyssey: That’s My Theory: Computers: Meet Apple II – http://tinyurl.com/2v9ngz
Digibarn Events: Apple@30 – www.digibarn.com/history/06-11-4-VCF9-Apple30/images/index.html
WallyWonka. “Atari 2600 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies. N.p., 26 Nov. 2019. Web. 19 Aug. 2020. Image of game box for Circus Atari on the Atari VCS
WallyWonka. “Odyssey 2 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies. N.p., 12 June 2017. Web. 18 Aug. 2020. Image of P.T. Barnum’s Acrobats! game box
EmuMovies. “Atari 8-Bit 3D Box Pack.” EmuMovies. N.p., 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2020. Image of Clowns and Balloons box, Atari 8-bit
Kondorito. “Nintendo NES 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies. N.p., 20 Feb. 2019. Web. 21 Aug. 2020. Image of box for NES version of Arkanoid
Jagu-Dome: Atari Jaguar Video Game System HomePage – jaguar.holyoak.com/jagu-dome.html
Associate-manuel-dennis. “Atari Files Suit.” Cash Box, 26 Dec. 1987, p. 123. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/cashbox51unse_25/page/122. Atari Games Corporation of Milpitas, California announced that it has filed suit in the Northern District court of Illinois, against Romstar Inc., Taito America Corporation and Taito Corporation involving the game Arkanoid.
“1983 Atari Coupon Calendar.” Edited by Savetz, 1983 Atari Coupon Calendar, Internet Archive, 14 June 2017, archive.org/details/1983AtariCouponCalendar. Image of 2600 Super Breakout artwork
Atari Age – Atari Jaguar Screenshots – Breakout 2000 – Telegames –
Unannotated, Uncategorized or I Just Don’t Damn Remember!
GameArchive – www.gamearchive.com
Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, by Leonard Herman
Plus correspondence with Stephen Wozniak