The story of Breakout

Atari’s Breakout is 35 years old today, and to celebrate, we take a look back at the making of one of the key titles in the history of videogames...

In modern videogame terms, Atari’s Breakout is the equivalent of a hoop and a stick. And yet this most simplistic of games, itself an evolved version of Pong, which came four years earlier, is perhaps one of the key stepping stones in the development of the videogames industry.

Thirty-five years old today, variants of Breakout, augmented though they often are with post-Arkanoid power-ups and colourful graphics, can still be found as Flash games and downloaded as mobile phone applications. Breakout may lack the instantly recognisable sprite design of Space Invaders (when was the last time you saw a Breakout T-shirt?), but its gameplay has nevertheless endured over the decades, and its influence on games in general shoudn’t be underestimated.

The genesis of Breakout came in the wake of the success of 1972‘s Pong, one of the very earliest mass-produced arcade videogames. A simplified, digital version of table tennis, Pong had glaring drawback: you needed a human opponent to play it.

Pong’s designer Nolan Bushnell therefore made a few simple yet important changes to Pong’s bat-and-ball principle: he rotated the play area through 90 degrees, and replaced the second player’s paddle with eight rows of bricks. By introducing a scoring system, whereby each coloured brick was worth a different number of points, Bushnell had created a single-player version of Pong with enough challenge (and a modicum of strategy) to give the public a reason to play it over and over again.

Ad – content continues below

While the concept for Breakout was Nolan’s, it was none other than Steve Jobs, then a low-level technician working a night-shift at Atari, who took up the challenge of building the prototype itself. At a time when microchips were extremely expensive, Atari were anxious to reduce the cost of each Breakout coin-op, and offered Jobs a $100 bonus for every chip he managed to eliminate from the initial concept.

Struggling to get the game built, Jobs brought in his friend and future business partner Steve Wozniak to help him finish the prototype of Breakout in just four days – then an employee of Hewlett-Packard, Wozniak had a reputation for his hardware designs that used a remarkably small number of microchips.

True to form, Wozniak not only completed the prototype over four sleep-deprived nights, but also eliminated 50 extraneous chips from Jobs’ initial design. Jobs was ultimately rewarded with a $750 dollar wage plus a $5000 bonus. Jobs, however, paid Wozniak just $375 for his invaluable assistance – a piece of information that would reportedly put further strain on the pair’s partnership years later.

The finished Breakout, which Atari modified slightly from Wozniak’s design due to its complex layout, arrived in arcades in on the 13 April 1976. Its success was immediate. Like Pong, it was soon cloned repeatedly by rival manufacturers, but the incoming wave of affordable home computers and consoles would also mean that a version of Breakout – official or otherwise – would soon make its way to every system known to humanity.

Atari continued to capitalise on the success of the Breakout name in the years that followed, with Breakout Deluxe following on later in 1976, Super Breakout arriving in 1978, and Breakout 2000 appearing for the ill-fated Atari Jaguar console in 1997.

While Breakout’s gameplay would continue to be borrowed and stolen for decades after, its influence went far beyond mere bat-and-ball games. Tomohiro Nishikado’s design for Space Invaders, released to extraordinary success in 1976, was directly inspired by Breakout, with its emphasis on stages and high-scores. Space Invaders is essentially, as Nishikado has admitted himself in later interviews, Breakout with bricks that move and shoot back.

Ad – content continues below

The economical design of Breakout’s cabinet, too, was an influence on Space Invaders, with that latter employing the same tactic of using coloured strip of translucent plastic to liven up its monochrome display.

Wozniak’s Breakout experience would later have a profound impact on the production of the Apple II. Jobs and Wozniak had formed Apple Computer on the 1st April 1976, mere days before Breakout appeared in arcades across America. Their first system, the Apple I, was sold in kit form. The follow-up Apple II, which made its debut on the 17th April 1977, was to become immensely successful, and a true mass-market rival to other mass-market computers at the time, such as the TRS-80 and Commodore PET.

When asked, in a 2007 interview with Gamasutra, whether his brief experience as a games designer had made an impact on the creation of the Apple II, his response was unequivocal.

“Totally, for the Apple II,” Wozniak said. “As a matter of fact, it was those four days that I did at Atari doing Breakout that really influenced the Apple II, to make it as special as it was.”

The advent of Breakout therefore not only influenced the direction of the games industry for years to come – inspiring Space Invaders, which would go on to even greater financial success – Breakout also indirectly inspired the creation of one of the most important pieces of hardware in the history of mass-market computing.

It’s easy, 35 years on, to squint at the eight strips of blocks, bouncing ball (which, like Pong’s, isn’t actually spherical), and slow-moving paddle and wonder what all the fuss was about. But as the last few decades of homages, sequels, clones and lasting influence proves, Breakout may just be one of the most important videogames of all.

Ad – content continues below