Archival note: This article originally appeared on the web site ClassicGaming.com, part of GameSpy. Unfortunately, GameSpy is now defunct and the original article dissapeared along with it. Fortunately, an archived version was found on the Internet Wayback Machine and has been reproduced for here for future posterity with as close to the original formatting as Kinja would allow.
A Complete History of Breakout
Retro Rogue digs in to the full story behind Breakout
- by Marty “Retro Rogue” Goldberg
I recently had the opportunity to work with Atari on a contract for accurate reproductions of some of their older games for play on the web. Among the games requested was a hardware accurate reproduction of the 1976 classic Breakout. Since the game does not use a microprocessor it of course had no code to run, which in turn meant regular emulation was impossible. So, that meant I had to reproduce all the discrete hardware logic from scratch. Luckily I had access to plans, notes, and more importantly - Atari luminaries from the time period.
Taking advantage of the situation, I also used the time to track down exactly what the story was behind Breakout. We usually hear that the legendary Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designed it, but there have also been alternate stories coming from Atari notables like Al Alcorn that Wozniak’s version was not used. So what’s the story? Who did make the version that went in to production, and why is there so much confusion?
I present to you, the faithful ClassicGaming.Com readers, the first ever look at the full story behind the game. And for the first time ever.....the actual designer of the version that went to production. Enjoy!
In The Beginning
By 1975, Atari’s revenues were about $39 million, and net income was $3.5 million. The only way to maintain this growth in an ever crowding video game coin-op market had been to pursue several avenues, including for Atari to continue marketing a new game every few months. Unfortunately, this had meant Atari releasing a slew of PONG based games (which were getting old quickly), mixed with the odd “original” game such as Space Race and Gotcha.
Joe Keenan (l) and Nolan Bushnell (r)
One of those other avenues had been coming up with a plan to gain even more market share. In June of 1973, Nolan had started up a “competitor”. Called “Kee Games”, he had Atari employees Joe Keenan (also Nolan’s next door neighbor), Gil Williams (head of manufacturing), and engineer Steve Bristow “leave” Atari to form this rival startup. With Kee actually a hidden subsidiary of Atari they could create more profit by getting more games in to vendors, some who insisted on dealer exclusivity which in turn locked out other manufacturers.
In 1974, in an effort to keep the rapid pace of development from stalling, Nolan had struck up a partnership with two former Ampex associates, Steve Mayer and Larry Emmons. The two had left Ampex to start their own electronics think tank in Grass Valley, California called Cyan Engineering. Cyan quickly became advanced designers for Atari, “building the technical stuff that people said couldn’t be built” according to Nolan. Their first project had been a racing game (the first such video game) which was called Gran Trak 10. Unfortunately, the game that that was designed by people who designed things that “couldn’t be built”, could not be built. Steering and other manufacturing problems had to be fixed by Alan Alcorn before it could be manufactured. The resulting 3 month stall of the release inflicted a half-million-dollar loss, as much as the company had made in ‘73. Bushnell cut the company back by almost half in an effort to recover.1
Unfortunately during that time, the subsidiary Kee Games had been on fire. Besides releasing exact duplicates of Atari’s own coin-ops, Steve Bristow had designed an original game called Tank, which was proving a major hit. Likewise, Joe Keenan was doing such a better job at managing Kee than Nolan was with Atari, that there was talk of Keenan wanting to cut ties and “watch Atari die”. Having serious financial losses and the actual creation of a strong competitor on the table, Nolan wouldn’t have any of that. He instead “merged” Kee in to Atari, installing Joe as president and Steve Bristow as VP of Engineering. In the end, Gran Trak 10 was released under both Atari and Kee labels and became a hit as well. However the seeds were now sewn for the major hit for Atari in that time period, second only to PONG.
Breakout and a scandal....
It was 1975, and now that Steve Bristow was back at Atari, he and Nolan started brainstorming for new game ideas with some of the other engineers. The fitness boom had started in the early 70’s and Atari had already created PONG versions of Volleyball called Rebound and Spike (which was nothing more than a PONG upgrade kit). One of the more popular indoor sports however had been Racquetball, whose popularity had surged with an estimated 3.1 million players in 1974. Lending itself easily to the PONG concept, they also understood they needed to dress up the game to continue distancing themselves from bland PONG style games. Instead of hitting at a wall over and over again to volley back and forth, the idea would be to “break down” the wall, almost symbolic of what Atari was attempting to do in video games. The idea would be to chip away at bricks with the ball, even allowing it to break apart the wall from the other side when the ball would travel through a hole. As with other PONG games, successive hits would cause the ball to speed up - in this case successive hits with the bricks.
Engineering started on the concept as well as several other games, including a new military game called Jet Fighter by Lyle Rains. Unfortunately during the process, several of the engineers became disillusioned with Atari and the management and thought they could do a better job. Taking plans and parts from Atari, they started up their own company - Fun Games, Inc.
With the plans and parts stolen, Fun Games released an exact copy of Bristow’s Tank by the end of the year, even calling it Tankers. But it was the game announced that year and another released next year that proved their downfall. Released at the same time as Tankers, Take 7 was a compendium of six of Atari’s previous PONG efforts and included one extra game called “Bust Out”, where a player used a paddle and ball to break through a multi-segmented wall. Bust Out was in fact Breakout. In 1976 they released Race!, a copy of Gran Trak 10, and Biplane, a copy of Lyle’s just released Jet Fighter that replaced the jets with biplanes. Atari had enough and sued Fun Games over the Jet Fighter rip off, with Steve Bristow and others testifying. Easily winning the suit, 1976 was the last year a game with the Fun Games banner was released. The damage was done however, and development on Breakout had been stalled during the process.
Enter The Hippy And the Moonlighter
It was during the dramatic 1974 that a scruffy, smelly, bearded, long hair “hippie freak” walked in. The receptionist told Al Alcorn “We’ve got this kid in the lobby. He’s either got something or is a crackpot.” Al learned the kid was there for an interview, and the kid proceeded to lie - giving the impression he had worked at Hewlett-Packard, and had a bunch of technical knowledge that he didn’t. Al was so impressed with the kids desire to be hired that he gave him a job for $5.00 and hour as a technician - basically fixing and tweaking coin-op designs. Al had encountered the infamous “reality distortion field” that was to become legendary in Silicon Valley. The field of one Mr. Steven Jobs.
And so in the May of 1974, at the age of 18, Steven Jobs became employee number 40 at Atari, charged with putting the finishing touches on a game called Touch Me as one of his first projects. As many of the other 39 employees soon found however, Jobs didn’t make the same impression on everyone. With the freedom at Atari, Jobs was able to walk around and get involved in people’s work, going so far as to call them dumbshits to their faces when he didn’t like something. Walking around barefoot, putting his dirty feet on people’s desk, and calling people names while at the same time professing interest in heading to India to find a guru didn’t fly well.
Steve Jobs (l) and Steve Wozniak (r) not long before Jobs started at Atari.
Alan decided to put him on the evening shift, where he would do the least interaction with people. Steve’s main job became “tweaking” the engineering designs from Atari and Cyan’s engineers, by doing things such as adding circuits to add different sounds. It was during this time that he invited his childhood friend, Steve Wozniak, to come and visit. Wozniak had developed his own PONG board, and knowing that Atari was working on its own home version of PONG, Jobs had invited him down to meet the engineers and show it off. The fact that it included swear words drawn on the screen as color commentary for missing a ball entertained the engineers. However, it was the fact that it used a very low count of TTL (Transistor-Transistor Logic chips) that prompted Al Alcorn to offer Wozniak a job on the spot. TTL’s were the heart of all pre-cpu based arcade games, and having a low count meant cheaper materials and production costs and more profit. Wozniak declined, instead wanting to stay on his dream job designing calculators at Hewlett-Packard, however his mark on the minds of Atari engineers had been made.
Because of Steve Jobs’s ability to get his assignments done earlier than most, he also got Nolan’s attention. Nolan also admired Steve’s ingenuity to try and get Atari to fund a trip to India. Steve had approached Alan about Atari funding a trip for him to India to do “spiritual research”, and Alan said absolutely not. But his tenacity persevered and Nolan, Alan and Steve worked out a deal whereby they would fly Steve to Germany to help fix a grounding problem they were having in the Atari coin-ops ship there, and he could go to India from there. Steve flew over, shocking the Germans with his appearance but fixing the problem in two hours (thanks to a demonstration Alan had given him before he left), and went off to India from there at the end of Summer 1974.
By the Autumn of 1974 Jobs was back from his trip, shaved head and all. Dressed in a saffron robes and brandishing a Baba Ram Das book for Alan, Alan had decided to hire the odd sight back. What’s more, he had convinced Allan to make him a full engineer based on his performance in Germany. Settling back to his old late night shift, he continued to make modifications to games sent by Cyan and was often joined by friend and future Apple alumni Dan Kottke, who was living with Steve at his parents. Wandering Silicon Valley by day and working at night (while Kottke would do marathon sessions of gaming at the coin-ops on the factory floor), by September of 1975 the Fun Games problems came to light. Looking to recover from the delay time and stolen plans, Nolan and Al were looking for someone to pick up the ball. To try and make the dire project even more attractive, they offered a bonus of $100 for each TTL chip removed from the design at a time when games typically used 130-170 chips and tighter games in the 70 to 100 chip range.
Seeing a chance to make some more money so he could head back for the October harvest at the apple orchard commune All-One Farm, in Oregon, he put his name in the hat for the bid on the contract. He was eventually awarded the contract and Alan gave him the specs for Breakout.
Maybe they had an inkling that he’d actually work on Breakout with Wozniak, who they already knew from his low chip PONG. As Allan later said “Jobs never did a lick of engineering in his life. He had me snowed. It took years before I figured out that he was getting Woz to ‘come in the back door’ and do all the work while he got the credit.”2
Regardless, Jobs did approach Wozniak with the job and two of his own requirements which are now legendary. Woz would get half of the fee which was claimed at $700 and no mention of a bonus. In fact, the way Jobs described it, if they could design it in under 50 chips, they’d get 700 bucks; and if it was under 40 chips, they’d get $1000. Likewise the second catch - it had to be done in four days. As Wozniak later found out, “Atari didn’t put us on a time schedule; Steve did. I had to do it in four days because Steve had to catch an airplane to Oregon. I was the designer-the engineer-and Steve was a breadboarder and test technician.”2
Wozniak had designed it by hand, under the continuing pressure of Jobs to get it done quick (though he wouldn’t say why). Doing the designs during the day while at HP, at night Jobs would wirewrap the design under his guidance. Wozniak also spent much of his time those four nights playing Gran Trak 10, the game monopolizing most of the manufacturing assembly line at the time. Towards the end of the 4 day non-stop marathon, Woz’s Breakout prototype was almost finished. Wozniak was able to get the number of TTL’s down to a startling 42 chips, but still had a few problems he wasn’t happy with. When all was said in done, the Breakout prototype that was submitted by Jobs to Allan and Nolan had 46 chips and left everyone very impressed. They paid Jobs in cash, the $700 plus the bonus - which turned out to be a total of $5,000! Jobs turned around and paid an unknowing Wozniak the original $350 they had agreed upon.
Both Jobs and Wozniak got mono from the 4 day event, but Jobs was off to Oregon right away with his $350 plus sizeable bonus to support him over the next few months.
Will the real Breakout please stand up?
If the story ended there, Breakout would have been released in 1975. However, when it came time to move the game further in to production there were problems. As Al explained it, “Ironically, the design was so minimized that normal mere mortals couldn’t figure it out. To go to production, we had to have technicians testing the things so they could make sense of it. If any one part failed, the whole thing would come to its knees. And since Jobs didn’t really understand it and didn’t want us to know that he hadn’t done it, we ended up having to redesign it before it could be shipped.”3
And so it was that Atari turned to Cyan again, this time to take Wozniak’s version and redo it in a more easily producible version. Gary Waters was given the task, staying true to the look and mechanics of the game that Wozniak’s version had produced. Taking the standard several months, the game was finally done and ready off the assembly line on April 13th, 1976. It was the hit Atari needed, and their biggest game until Lyle Rains and Ed Logg’s Asteroids was released in 1979. It went on to become one of the early titles for the fledgling Atari Video Computer System (2600) in 1978 and spawned a popular follow up in called Super Breakout in 1978.
1. Covert, Collin (November, 1983), “Atari, Inc. The Early Years (An Unauthorized History)“, Hi-Res 1 (1): 60.
2. Williams, Gregg & Moore, Rob (December, 1984), “The Apple Story, Part I: Early History - An Interview with Steven Wozniak”, BYTE Guide to the Apple 9 (13): A67.
3. Young, Jeffret S. (1988) Steve Jobs - The Journey Is The Reward, pp. 88-89. Scott, Forseman Publishing. ISBN 0-673-18864-7.