Atari Breakout: The Best Video Game of All Time?

Breakout—as designed by Steve Wozniak—was a manufacturing nightmare

2 min read
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atari breakout game screen showing a paddle at bottom and rows of colored bricks and two score fields at top
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Breakout was the best video game ever invented, many designers say, because it was the first true video game. Before Breakout, all were games like Pong—imitations of real life. With Breakout, a single paddle was used to direct a ball at a wall of colored bricks. Contact made a brick vanish and the ball change speed. The game could never exist in any medium other than video.

Like Pong, the specifications for Breakout—its look and game rules—were defined by Nolan Bushnell at Atari Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. But along with the specs came an engineering challenge in 1975: design the game with less than 50 chips, and the designer would receive $700; design the game with less than 40 chips, and the designer would receive $1000. Most games at that time contained over 100 chips. Steven Jobs, now president of Apple Computer, Santa Clara, Calif., was hanging around Atari at that time. “He was dirt poor,” recalled Allan Alcorn, who joined Atari at its formation. Atari’s design offer was “good cash”—to Mr. Jobs. Mr. Alcorn remembered that Mr. Jobs quickly designed the game with fewer than 50 chips. He had help. He called on his friend, Steven Wozniak, who later designed the Apple computer.

This article was first published as "Breakout: a video breakthrough in games." It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special report, “Video games: The electronic big bang.” A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.

Mr. Jobs had to make a trip to Oregon, Mr. Wozniak related, “so we just had four days.” Mr. Wozniak went to his regular job at Hewlett-Packard during the day and joined Mr. Jobs at Atari at night. “We got it down to 45 chips, and got the bugs out, but after four days we wouldn’t have done anything to get it down further,” Mr. Wozniak said.

They got their bonus, but, Mr. Alcorn recalled, the game used such minimized logic it was impossible to repair.

Larry Kaplan, a designer who was also at Atari at that time, explained; “What Woz or Jobs liked to do was to design things that were parallel sequential, so at a given point in time this chip was used in one part of the circuit and three microseconds later it was used in a different part of the circuit. It’s a dream, but it’s impossible to debug or produce.”

Breakout sat in the Atari lab for eight months. Then the same design was reworked with 100 ICs before it was put into production.

Editor’s note (January 2022): The financial terms described were those explained to me by Steve Wozniak in 1982. Years later, Wozniak discovered to his dismay that the actual bonus received was $5000—and Steve Jobs kept it for himself.

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Video Friday: Drone in a Cage

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

3 min read
A drone inside of a protective geometric cage flies through a dark rain

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

ICRA 2022: 23 May–27 May 2022, PHILADELPHIA
IEEE ARSO 2022: 28 May–30 May 2022, LONG BEACH, CALIF.
RSS 2022: 21 June–1 July 2022, NEW YORK CITY
ERF 2022: 28 June–30 June 2022, ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
RoboCup 2022: 11 July–17 July 2022, BANGKOK
IEEE CASE 2022: 20 August–24 August 2022, MEXICO CITY
CLAWAR 2022: 12 September–14 September 2022, AZORES, PORTUGAL

Enjoy today’s videos!

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Remembering 1982 IEEE President Robert Larson

He was a supporter of several IEEE programs including Smart Village

3 min read
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Robert Larson [left] with IEEE Life Fellow Eric Herz, who served as IEEE general manager and executive director.

IEEE History Center

Robert E. Larson, 1982 IEEE president, died on 10 March at the age of 83.

An active volunteer who held many high-level positions throughout the organization, Larson was the 1975–1976 president of the IEEE Control Systems Society and also served as IEEE Foundation president.

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Modeling Microfluidic Organ-on-a-Chip Devices

Register for this webinar to enhance your modeling and design processes for microfluidic organ-on-a-chip devices using COMSOL Multiphysics

1 min read
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Comsol

If you want to enhance your modeling and design processes for microfluidic organ-on-a-chip devices, tune into this webinar.

You will learn methods for simulating the performance and behavior of microfluidic organ-on-a-chip devices and microphysiological systems in COMSOL Multiphysics. Additionally, you will see how to couple multiple physical effects in your model, including chemical transport, particle tracing, and fluid–structure interaction. You will also learn how to distill simulation output to find key design parameters and obtain a high-level description of system performance and behavior.

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