How the Breakout Game Turned the Apple II Into a Phenomenon

It started with the Breakout game. In the 1970s, the world was captivated by a game called Pong, the first real arcade game. It was elegantly simple – just two paddles moving back and forth, hitting a ball around, trying to angle it so the other player would miss. Even now, with the incredible games we have today, there is still something inherently captivating about the simplicity of pong. You can still play it for hours, because it captures something fundamental about competition: if you strip away all the graphics and guns and storyline and gameplay from today’s top games, they are pretty much just two people getting a ball past each other.

Very few people understood the fundamentals of the new computer revolution better than Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. They also knew it started with games. According to Wozniak, he designed a Pong game of his own, which Jobs showed to Atari, then a top video game manufacturer. Atari was impressed, and commissioned them to design a game of their own. Wozniak came up with Breakout, sort of a first-person Pong where you used a ricocheting ball to break apart walls. It was simple and addictive.

From the Atari to the PC

Wozniak and Jobs received $700 from Atari for the Breakout game. I’m sure it seemed like big money back then, but they would go on to make a little more over their lifetimes. However, still in the 1970s, the personal computer (PC) revolution was beginning, and Wozniak and Jobs were at the grimy forefront of it, working out of garages and ad hocing their way toward success. They were working on the Apple II, which was destined to change the way we saw computing forever. And a lot of its breakthrough capacities came because Wozniak wanted it to be able to play the Breakout game.

One of the main insights that those two, particularly Wozniak, had was that if people were going to bring PCs into their homes, they had to be fun. It was one thing to have computers in the lab, or in the Pentagon. Some proto-geeks had them in their home to experiment with, to do complicated technical work with, or just because they (correctly) found it thrilling and exciting to be working with such advanced technology. But most people wouldn’t be able to see an immediate need for computers. In order to draw them in, it had to be enjoyable.

So Wozniak designed a computer that would make things fun, starting with the screen. Here are just some of the Apple II innovations that came about because the fun Steve wanted to play games.

  • A speaker: while Breakout may seem grating, it just isn’t the same without the pinging and the trilling
  • Colors: Wozniak figured out how “(o)ne little $1 chip could generate color instead of a $1,000 color-generation board – right out of the computer memory to the display.”
  • Paddle hardware: the paddle was for the board in Breakout, but he programmed it so people could go in and tinker with the size, speed, etc. This helped lead to the personal programming revolution, where people could modify their PCs and even write their own programming languages.

Games lead us to today

Of course, the history of Apple wasn’t a straight line upward – the company faltered in the 80s and 90s, before rebounding and becoming the global behemoth we have today. But even though their rise wasn’t straight, the world of computing power was. Two straight lines, actually: one going up to indicate ubiquity, and a downward one for size.

The Apple II phenomenon helped bring computers into people’s houses, which led to our familiarity with them, our comfort, and more money going back in to make them smaller, faster, and easier to use. Today, of course, we walk around with devices thousands of times more powerful than the Apple II in our pockets. But we owe a lot of what we have to that machine. And in a realistic way, we owe that machine to Breakout.

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