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The Making Of BreakOut

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Breakout took the original bat and ball approach of Pong and added a brand new spin to it, creating a brand new genre in the process. Here Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak recalls how the design of the game first began.

A direct member of the Pong lineage, Breakout not only retained the perilously addictive gameplay of its elder brother, but was immediately inaugurated into the original videogame pantheon. Each brick that was knocked from Breakout’s simplistic black and white monitor was laid in the foundations of the industry that changed our lives.

Breakout Screen Mockup

The original BreakOut in all its glory.

“When I set out to build the Apple II, I chose to make a machine that was not only a computer, but had the hardware capable of playing arcade games. I had Breakout on a computer in mind the entire time,” remembers the game’s designer, Steve Wozniak, as he reflects on the importance it holds for him.

The full story of how Woz found himself working nights at Atari designing a game for his friend, Steve Jobs, has been thoroughly recounted a few times, proving the significance of the electronic wall destroying concept. Less well known, perhaps, is the sheer weight of genius that was behind its hardware design, and to tell that side of the story, Steve walked us through his introduction to computers, electronics and the world of videogames.

“I played a lot of games before computers came along. We had a GE timeshare terminal at our high school for a day or two in 1968 and I may have seen games on it – I don’t remember, but I did take the short chance to try programming for the first time,” remembers Steve, casually breaking our hearts as he brushes lightly over the moment Apple’s seeds were planted. He continues.

Woz 1

Although he worked for Atari, Steve Wozniak is best known
for his efforts made at Apple.

“In 1970 I visited my friend Allen Baum at the Stanford AI Centre, and they had Spacewar running on a PDP 11. I saw it played but didn’t get around to playing it. So Pong in a bowling alley may have been the first videogame I played for real. This would have been about 1973. Shortly after that, in 1974, I built a terminal to access the dozen university computers on the ARPAnet. Also, I found out about a local timeshare system, Call Computer. I think it was Call Computer where I got to play Star Trek and Wumpus.”

An introduction to computer and videogames that is no more remarkable than yours, mine, or the billion other people who developed a passion for this marvellous distraction.

The difference between Steve Wozniak and all the other gamers of the world is his uncanny ability to understand the intricate workings of those games and their hardware – an understanding that would ensure his future was intertwined with the world of electronic design and prompt him to seek out people of a similar disposition.

“A friend, Bill Fernandez, and I built a computer I’d designed in his garage. I supplied the design, redesigns and testing procedures and Bill wired the computer. He introduced me to Steve Jobs as someone who liked electronics and pranks, like myself. I recall meeting Steve on the sidewalk and we sized each other up by the pranks we’d pulled.”

An intriguing, sideways glance into the personalities of two of the computer industry’s principal pioneers. Rather than comparing electronic design achievements, or even discussing Dungeons & Dragons as we might expect from such young, academic minds, their first encounter was filled with stories of juvenile high jinks. It was undoubtedly this rakish bonding of personalities that allowed them to reinvent the world of computing a few years later. Steve told us how the two of them got their introduction to the playboy world of game design at Atari, an experience that would resonate throughout their accomplished working lives.

Breakout Flyer

BreakOut’s arcade flyer suggest a prison breakout, adding a spin to
an otherwise flimsy plot.

“Around 1974 Steve went down to Atari and got a job there, finishing products that came from their design centre at Grass Valley. After I designed a Pong clone in only 28 chips, two of which were PROM’s from HP that would spell out four letter words when you missed the ball, Steve introduced me to Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, and they offered me a job on the spot. I explained to them that I already had my job for life at Hewlett Packard!” laughs Woz, musing on the direction his life took shortly after he had insisted he would never leave HP.

It seems inevitable that someone who had spent time wandering the hallowed shop floor of old Atari, and was able to build his own computer hardware from scratch, would be drafted in to work on one of Bushnell’s famous machines, and indeed Woz was. “I was a top designer of digital stuff, known for building things with about half the TTL chips of normal designers. Steve came to me and said that Nolan wanted a particular game making and didn’t like the fact that their PCBs were getting close to 200 chips. Steve asked if I would design it. The hitch was that Steve needed money or had to travel in just four days!” Despite the enormity and nigh on impossibility of the task, dangling such a challenging carrot in front of someone like Woz is a sure way to set the wheels of his talent in motion.

“A hardware design would typically take three-to-six months, minimum, working full time. I gulped and knew I probably couldn’t do it, but I took the challenge. By the last night I was so tired and my head spinning so fast that I wasn’t going to try and save any chips. It was expected to have taken about 120 chips, but my design came out to about 45 by that point in time. Steve and I had both got mononucleosis and I had work at HP a couple of the days, then classes at San Jose State as well. I didn’t sleep for four days, but I succeeded!”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Breakout in issue 28. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com.

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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