Published: December 21st, 2021
Author: Caitlynn Joann
Breakout was released in April of 1976 by Atari. But in homage to the 45 year anniversary of Breakout, let’s go back to where it all started…
Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in 1972, and after 6 months began looking for a job that would fund a trip to India he had been planning, to study zen and Buddhism. This is when he stumbled upon Atari and began employment in 1972 as a technician. Al Alcorn, the designer of Pong, was the manager who interviewed Jobs and hired him; although Jobs explicitly lied about his previous work experience and employment history at Hewlett Packard. Nonetheless, he began work and immediately was off to a rough start with his fellow coworkers. He was labeled as arrogant and repeatedly shoving his religious beliefs on others and was ultimately moved to the engineering night shift to minimize employee interaction. Atari didn’t have a night shift at the time, but after Jobs, they created one to keep him on the payroll.
Jobs, somehow, convinced Atari to fund his entire trip to India; under the pretense that he stopped in west Germany to fix electrical issues they were facing in coin-op games. Prior to leaving, Atari familiarized themselves with a man by the name of Steve Wozniak. “Woz” created his own version of Pong at home and Atari offered him a position that was ultimately turned down because he enjoyed Hewlett Packard. While Jobs was absent, Atari’s home Pong console exploded and upon his return, he volunteered to take on a project he had no knowledge of but was the only employee willing to do it. Other engineers felt the industry was abandoning ball and paddle games and had no interest in the project. Nolan Bushell and Steve Bristow, VP of Engineering, curated the idea of a single-player game based on Pong. It would involve batting a ball against bricks, Breakout. Points would be awarded by knocking down as many colored bricks as possible and the speed of the game would increase as more bricks were destroyed. All the while the paddle size would decrease once the red bricks were broken. Bushnell and Bristow ONLY allowed Jobs to have the project if he worked on it with Woz, someone who actually knew what they were doing with game engineering.
Jobs convinced Woz to help him, although Woz wasn’t an Atari employee, and unfortunately Woz was “stabbed in the back,” so to speak. Remember the group project days in grade school and the unfair work and grade credit distribution? Keep that in mind here. Jobs was offered a designer's bonus of $700, which he would “share” with Woz. Atari also offered an additional $100 bonus for the reduction of each chip, which he would ALSO “share” with Woz. Allow me to add that “the Steve’s” we’ll call them, also became future business partners. Does Apple Inc. ring a bell?
Jobs informed Woz they were required to complete the game in 4 days, although this was a blatant lie as Jobs simply wanted to attend an apple harvest in Oregon and required the promised money to get there. Jobs and Woz worked for several hours, day and night, to create a circuit design and delivered the prototype, in 4 days' time, to Al Alcorn. As you can imagine, Woz provided the majority of the work as he was equipped with real-world experience. While Woz’s prototype wasn’t used (it lacked the proper circuitry for coin-drop detection and scoring), Atari still paid Jobs the $700 designer bonus on top of a $5,000 bonus for reduction of circuits. This is where the metaphorical stabbing comes into play. Jobs never disclosed the additional bonus to Woz and only paid him half of the designer bonus totally to $350. Poor Woz was unaware until decades later.
Atari wanted to continue with Breakout and the final gameplay design is almost identical to what Woz created while the circuit board was completely different. They reassigned the circuit board creation to Cyan Engineering, an Atari subsidiary. Gary Waters then created the production-ready version which was then used in distribution. Manufacturing began and the game was released in April of 1976. 11,000 cabinets were constructed and Breakout was sold as an upright or a cocktail table.
Other titles were later released including Breakout Deluxe in 1976, Super Breakout in 1978, and Breakout 2000 in 1997. It is said that Tomohiro Nishikado’s design for Space Invaders was inspired by the original Breakout, based on stages and high scores.
Jobs and Woz later formed Apple Computer on April 1st, 1976, just days before Breakout was released in arcades. The first computer, Apple I, was sold as a kit while the follow-up, Apple II, was released on April 17th, 1977, and became a mass-market rival to other computers, such as TRS-80 and Commodore PET. Names in which you don’t even hear of anymore! Woz also shares it was his experience on project Breakout that led him to the creation of Apple II. Breakout indirectly inspired one of the most important pieces of hardware for mass-market computing and technological advancement. Atari has created more technological success than it ever imagined possible. What if Atari never took a chance on Woz, or Jobs for that matter? After all, he never had the experience he claimed to, to begin with.
Whether or not you’re a Breakout fan, there is no question that it may just be one of the most important video games of all time.