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Atari Breakout: The Best Video Game of All Time?

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

2 min read
atari breakout game screen showing a paddle at bottom and rows of colored bricks and two score fields at top

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 Spectrumas 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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