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How Steve Wozniak’s Breakout Defined Apple’s Future

by Ben Hanson on Oct 09, 2015 at 10:30 AM

This feature was originally posted on June 27th, 2013 but we thought that it deserved another look in honor of the release of the Steve Jobs film.

Back in April within the Batman: Arkham Origins issue, we ran the following written interview with Steve Wozniak. This feature expands on the original interview by including several videos (including the full, unedited interview from his hotel room) that add to the full story behind Steve Wozniak and Jobs creating Breakout for Atari. Read and watch the feature below to learn how the co-founder of Apple Computer developed the ­Atari arcade classic Breakout, how the Apple II was built from the ground up for gaming, and why Steve Jobs dismissed the potential of games.

Could you start out talking about your earliest memories with games?

I played a lot of games. Some summers, I would sit there constantly playing all the games of solitaire that I could. [I] loved playing games; I had a very happy life, a very joking life. I later came to a philosophy that your life is all about happiness – that’s how you judge it. It’s not how successful you are, and how many yachts you own and that kind of stuff; it’s how much you smiled. Even today. I get so tired from hours of email, I just have to [take a] break and play a few card games online and play my Tetris on the Game Boy.

Watch Steve Wozniak play and discuss his love of Tetris in the video above or on YouTube.

Could you talk about your experience programming games?

I never thought about developing games. I knew that I was a really incredible digital designer, but I didn’t think digital design was about games. I thought it was about computers and logic games. In sixth grade I built a machine with 100 little rules, and every rule was a logic game. I pounded nails into wood and I connected transistors, resistors, diodes, and power supplies, and I built 100 little rules that played tic-tac-toe without losing. Then I saw a real arcade game, and that was Pong. I said, “Oh, my gosh, I know how TVs work. I know all their signals for drawing lines and drawing frames and putting dots on the screen.” So I built a little device with 28 little $1 chips, and I built my own Pong.

Then, Steve Jobs actually took my Pong game down to Atari. He didn’t have anything to do with the design of it, but they thought he did, and they hired him. But he couldn’t ever really do the engineering design. I’m sorry; he could do a little. He could modify a few pieces or put a sound chip in to make sounds for a game. He worked on the night shift all alone so I could go down and visit and see the new Atari games. I love playing the games as well as designing them, and I designed Breakout ­for ­Atari.

Where did the design for Breakout ­come ­from?

Steve Jobs said that it was Nolan Bushnell’s idea. He wanted a one-player Pong game. Steve described how it had to have bricks and all that. Now, it could be that Steve had actually thought up the design and sold it to Nolan Bushnell because [Steve] was very specific: the score had to be at the bottom. It was a real fun project. I’d already done Pong, so it’s really just an extension of [that] game.

Did Atari hire you after that?

Well, Steve Jobs came to me and he said that Atari wanted me to design this [game], and I had only four days to do it. They had hired me, even though I didn’t have a college degree, and I thought I was the greatest designer. But four days? I didn’t think I could do it. 

I went four days with no sleep. Steve and I both got mononucleosis, the sleeping sickness, and we delivered a working Breakout game. That was obviously a big classic. Supposedly, the Atari engineers couldn’t understand my design. It was just so beautiful and advanced, but they couldn’t get it. I never got to talk to them. I don’t know if they knew that I did it. They paid Steve Jobs, and then he paid me half the money, supposedly.

Wasn’t there some debate about that? 

Yeah, there’s some debate. So it’s a tiny thing. It’s only one thing in life, but he did tell me that we would get paid 700 bucks, then he wrote me a check for 350 dollars, and he got paid thousands. So, whatever. But he should have told me differently because we were such close friends. The fun of doing it overrides anything like that. Who cares about money? Well, I do care about friendship and honesty.

Watch the video above (or on YouTubeto learn more about how Steve Wozniak developed Breakout with Steve Jobs.

While you were working on Breakout, were you brainstorming other ideas for games? Did it inspire any passion in you to create ­something ­new?

I was so tired in and out of sleep, but that makes your mind creative. I was out on the [Atari] factory floor, and they had one huge game that four players would play with their own little cars. There was this idea that they were going to use microprocessors, but they weren’t using them in games yet. Games were not yet software, and that triggered my mind: microprocessors can actually ­program ­games.

There was a [color] TV set on the factory floor. They only used black and white TVs for their games, and this TV set wasn’t playing a game, but it had a dot going from left to right and right to left. As it moved, it was changing colors. I’m just sitting there thinking: color. It was hypnotizing, like a psychedelic light show at a concert. An idea popped in my head: a little way to put out a digital signal with ones and god, I have 16 different colors. There had never been a book that talked about color digitally. It wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t done. But I designed every single thing in the Apple II [to make] it possible. One little $1 chip could generate color instead of a $1,000 color-generation board – right out of the computer memory to the display. [That] was another trick I thought of that had never been done. 

This stuff had never, ever been thought of for a home computer that was affordable. But I just determined that my computer had to be a game machine. I called my BASIC [a programming language – Ed.] “Game BASIC.” You could go back on every note I ever wrote; I called it Game BASIC. My whole idea was, if you write a language that can play games, it can do all the things computers do, like financial stuff. I don’t know what companies use computers for; I only know what I like to use them for, and it’s games.

I knew that I had a machine with a microprocessor that could do a million things a second, move those bits around on the screen and make things move and play games and all. I thought, “I wonder, with my slow BASIC, can I write a game that’s playable?” Breakout. I’d done Breakout for Atari. I knew Breakout. 

I built paddle hardware into the Apple II deliberately for the game of Breakout. I wanted everything in there. I put in a speaker with sound so I could have beeps like games need. So, a lot of the Apple II was designed to be a game machine as well as a computer. That is the way to get it to people, to get people to start buying these machines.

I called Steve Jobs over to my apartment, and we sat down on the floor next to the cables snaking into my TV that had the back off of it so I could get wires inside, and I showed him how I could change the colors of things, change the shape of the paddle, and change the speed of the ball with an easy BASIC command. He and I looked at each other – we were both kind of shaking, because we knew that the world of games was never going to be the same. Now [games] were software. Until then, there weren’t software games in the arcades. Now that animated games were going be software – oh my god. And [the fact] that a fifth grader could program in BASIC and make games like Breakout? This was going to be a new world; we saw it right then.

I know Steve Jobs wasn’t a big fan of games. Do you have any insight into why that would be?

The funny thing is, I think he actually loved his time at Atari, but I think he found that he was not a designer or an engineer. He’s not technical and he doesn’t want anything technical to show in computers. We had this guy Dana Redington. He did the first high-res game with some little spaceships going by and you’d point your gun at them and shoot them down. We called it Star Wars at first, but we had to change the name eventually. He did this great game, and Steve thought it was really lousy. I admired his work so much, and yet he got dismissed by Steve.

In later times – and I don’t know why – Steve didn’t seem to have that light sense of humor that you should have. He became, I think, very serious and businesslike because his goal was to run a company. He wanted to look professional in the business magazines.

Eventually when he came back to Apple, Easter eggs were disallowed. Easter eggs! These fun little things that programmers put in that, if you know the special code, you pop up a picture, or a little game – maybe a game of Breakout. So much fun, and not allowed in Apple at all. You get fired if you try something like that now.

When I knew him in high school he was just as fun as anyone else, but he was really looking for serious ways of the world, too. It’s really funny, because games involve so much creativity. Somebody thought of some clever things that really give enjoyment to other people, so Steve should’ve appreciated the creative people that were doing games.

Watch the full, unedited interview with Steve Wozniak above (or on YouTube) to hear him talk about his history with games and more.

There are rumors that the console manufacturers are scared of Apple in the gaming industry right now, especially if Apple moves into the living room and fully connects the Apple TV or whatever it may be to the television set. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that potential future, and if you’d like to see it.

I don’t watch the gaming industry like you guys do, and I was not really aware of that concern. Obviously the iPhone and iPad became the hot mobile machines of all time. Everywhere you go, you see kids playing those machines now rather than the Game Boy.

Apple might be a big player in games someday. Companies always want to grow. Right now, you’re limited with the sort of products we can define: the phones, the tablets, and the computers. Where’s the growth area? Of course they’re talking about a watch, wearable computing and we’re talking about Apple TV and cars. Would a game machine make sense? Well, I think Apple would say, “The iPad is our game machine.” Our televisions might run all of the iOS software, and therefore instantly it would run tens of thousands of games. I think that would be more likely to expect from Apple.

Are there any games that have come out recently that have stood out for you?

A lot of people have spoken of games, and what they say about them catches my attention, [but] I don’t memorize them because I am so short on time these days, ­constantly ­traveling.

I’m going to program some games of my own again. I’m going to go back 40 years in my life and I’m going to use the Raspberry Pi [a recently released micro-computer] and actually teach myself Linux and programming on it. If they aren’t games, they’ll be little robots at least. It will be my own little dinky thing that has no value compared to today’s modern games that have hundreds of developers working on them – just for fun.