The History of Breakout

Posted by Conor Murphy on May 30, 2012 in Editorial -- Share:

BreakoutThere has been a lot of interest generated from our post about the best arcade games of the 1970s. It seems we resurrected a lot of good memories with our look back at “the good old days”.

The overwhelming majority of the comments, however, focused on one piece of the post – the role Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak played in the development of Breakout and the Brick Buster gaming genre.

We wanted to take the time to dig a little deeper and tell you the complete story – or at least what most think of as the complete story…

Kee Games

In 1973, Atari came up with the idea of creating a mock-competitor known as Kee Games as a way to gain more market share. It would accomplish this by locking up merchants with exclusive deals. Joe Keenan, Gil Williams, and Steve Bristow were assigned to the startup. Kee Games was actually a hidden subsidiary of Atari.

Gran Trak 10 Arcade Game

By 1974, the plan had begun to backfire as Kee Games actually became a competitor. Kee had released several clones of Atari’s most popular arcade hits and had a hit of it’s own with the release of Tank. Fearing they would be upstaged by their own subsidiary, Atari absorbed Kee Games and together they went on to release the racing game, Gran Trak 10 (a game we regrettably left off our top arcade games of the 70s blog post).

Gran Trak 10 is noted for being the first arcade game to use ROM. This allowed it to feature objects more complex in shape than a simple box or a collection of dots.

The game also featured a steering wheel, a four-position gear shifter, an accelerator, and brake foot pedals – all firsts for arcade games. In a 1985 Playboy interview, Steve Jobs referred to Steve Wozniak as a Gran Track “addict”.

Moving forward, Atari began brainstorming new game ideas. Given the workout craze of the 70s, they had already created two new games titled Rebound and Spike meant to introduce a volleyball mechanic into the game. These games intended to capitalize on the workout craze of the 1970s and leverage the popularity of PONG. In essence, they were just updates to the PONG gameplay.

Rebound Arcade Game Flyer

While Rebound and Spike offered volleyball, Atari engineers wanted to take advantage of the racquetball craze of the 1970s. This led to the idea of updating the PONG gameplay to introduce the concept of breaking down the wall rather than simply rebounding off of it. Engineers began work on designing this game along with a new military game titled, Jet Fighter.

Fun Games

At this point in time, things got a little crazy.

A group of Atari engineers who were fed up with the company and its direction defected to start their own company, Fun Games, Inc. The story of Fun Games is enough to justify a complete blog post. Suffice it to say, they stole Atari’s plans and went on to release clones of Atari’s most popular games including Tankers (a clone of Tank), Race! (a clone of Gran Trak 10), Biplane (a clone of Jet Fighter), and Take 7, a collection of six of Atari’s PONG releases and Bust Out – effectively Breakout. Atari sued Fun Games, Inc. and they were shut down in 1976. This distraction, however, delayed the development of Breakout.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

It was during the craziness of the Fun Games saga that Steve Jobs, at age 18, became employee number 40 at Atari. Jobs was hired as a technician assigned to fix and tweak coin-op designs.

As the story goes, Jobs was quickly assigned to the evening shift as he tended to rub people he came in contact with the wrong way. His main job became “tweaking” the designs created by Atari and Cyan’s engineers by, for example, adding circuits for sound effects. It was during this time that Jobs invited Steve Wozniak, a childhood friend, to come and visit. Wozniak had already created his own PONG circuit board and he shared his work with the Atari engineers.

The hallmark of Wozniak’s engineering work was a very low count of TTL (Transistor-Transistor Logic chips). This is a critical metric for design as it dramatically impacts the manufacturing cost of the board. PONG designer, Allan Alcorn was so impressed with Wozniak’s work he offered him a job on the spot, but Wozniak was happy at Hewlett-Packard and refused.

Jobs + Wozniak = Breakout

With the Fun Games snafu behind them, Atari was looking to complete the Breakout project in dramatic fashion. Atari founder and engineer, Nolan Bushnell, and Alcorn offered a bonus of $100 for each TTL chip removed from the game design. At this time standard games used 130-170 chips while tighter games used 70 to 100 chips. Jobs saw an opportunity to leverage the skillset of Wozniak to complete the project and possible snag a hefty bonus. He volunteered for the job and Alcorn gave him the specs for the Breakout game.

Breakout Arcade Game

As expected, Jobs reached out to Wozniak with the project promising him half of the $700 purse. Jobs, however, did not mention the bonus for reducing the TTL chipset. Rather, he told Wozniak the payout would jump to $1000 if he could reduce the TTL count to below 40. He also put the project on a 4 day timeline to match his personal travel schedule.

In the end, Wozniak was able to reduce the TTL count to 46 and complete the design in 4 days by designing during the day at Hewlett-Packard and working with Jobs at night to build the prototype. When the final product was submitted to Atari, everyone was very impressed and Jobs was paid the $700 plus a $5000 bonus for the TTL chip reduction. He used the bonus to fund his personal travels and split the $700 with Wozniak. The lack of transparency regarding the bonus would go on to become a thing of gaming legend.

As it turned out, Wozniak’s design was so complex and minimal Atari’s engineers couldn’t properly test it. According to Alcorn, “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.”

Gary Waters of Cyan was assigned to take Wozniak’s design and reproduce it in a manner that could be manufactured and properly tested. The final game was completed and rolling off the assembly line on April 13th, 1976.

Breakout would go on to be the hit Atari hoped for and their biggest game until Asteroids was released in 1979. It was also one of the earliest titles for the fledgling Atari 2600 released in 1978 and led to the popular sequel Super Breakout in 1978.

Special thanks to Marty “Retro Rogue” Goldberg and his piece, A Complete History of Breakout for being a fantastic reference.

Breakout

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Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+