The Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them that you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. Missing one of your precious balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1976)
Memories: The year was 1976, and Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, had an idea to revive the overmined “ball and paddle” genre: turn Pong into a single-player game, almost like racquetball, in which players must smash their way through a wall of bricks with a ball without missing that ball on the rebound. Bushnell was sure the idea would be a hit.
At Atari, despite being the visionary leader who’d kept the company afloat by sheer force of will, he was alone in that assessment. At the time, engineers could pick assignments from an “idea board” in the Atari offices, and nobody was springing into action to put together Bushnell’s baby, so he finally assigned it to someone himself. The job landed in the lap of a young employee who hadn’t exactly made a lot of friends at the usually open Atari due to his sometimes awkward social behavior – one Steve Jobs.
Jobs was offered a bonus for every chip he could eliminate from the elaborate circuit board that would be required to implement the game. He wasn’t exactly cut out for that sort of design, however, and called his best friend to come in after hours and help, a young Hewlett-Packard employee named Steve Wozniak.
Wozniak pulled an all-nighter redesigning the game’s circuitry, and would up eliminating at least 50 chips from the 100-chip original design. The Atari engineers who saw his work were stunned – and some could already tell that Jobs wasn’t the one who had pulled this feat off. But there was a new problem now – Wozniak’s redesign of Breakout was so radical that it couldn’t be duplicated. This Breakout as we saw it in arcades was a slightly revamped 75-chip design – but Jobs still pocketed a $7,000 bonus…only $350 of which was shared with Wozniak, who was happy simply to hang around the Atari labs playing games, and genuinely thought that $350 was half of the bonus check that had been made out to Jobs. He didn’t find out until many years later, when Bushnell inquired about what he did with his “half of the seven grand” at an industry function.
That wasn’t the last brush with Atari greatness that Jobs and Wozniak had, though. In 1977, they approached Bushnell (prior to his ouster by Warner Communications and Ray Kassar) with a mass-producible home computer that Wozniak had designed. Bushnell liked the machine, but didn’t see Atari as a home computer company. He did, however, introduce the budding computer entrepreneurs to a venture capitalist named Don Valentine, who in turn introduced them to a colleague named Mike Markkula, and Apple Computer was born.
The epitome of easy to learn and hard to master, Breakout is a stunningly simple and addictive game with gobs of historical significance into the bargain. It’s no surprise that one of the first games Wozniak implemented in Apple II basic was a Breakout clone – and that it continues to be one of the most copied and re-adapted classic game designs of them all.