Steve Jobs, Breakout Pioneer

One of my favorite games in ICHEG’s collection is Atari’s 1976 arcade classic Breakout, an elegant, one-player elaboration of Pong. Players move a paddle side-to-side to keep a bouncing ball in play long enough to knock down multicolored layers of bricks. A tone sounds each time a ball strikes a brick. The ball speeds up with each successive layer of bricks, making it harder and harder to hit. Breakout is a seductive game, easy to learn, difficult to master.

Steve Jobs, Atari employee #40, worked on that game. Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, and the company’s Vice President of Engineering, Steve Bristow, assigned Jobs the task of designing the board for Breakout. They also offered him a bonus for each Transistor-Transistor Logic Chip he eliminated, as the fewer of these chips the game required, the more money Atari  saved on manufacturing. Jobs enlisted his friend Steve Wozniak to work on it with him, and within four days Wozniak completed a design that used fewer than 50 chips. Atari ultimately found Wozniak’s design too streamlined to mass-manufacture effectively, but the company produced another version that mimicked his design, and Breakout became the top-selling game of 1976 and an enduring classic.To me, Breakout epitomizes Steve Jobs’ career. The game itself is elegantly simple, and this trait is the hallmark of Jobs’ design sense, from the first Apple computers (I grew up on an Apple IIe), to the Macintosh, to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

To accomplish these results, Jobs knocked down walls, brick by brick, to create breakthrough products. In the 1970s, computers were too expensive for the everyman. Jobs and Wozniak cobbled together components to make the original Apple computer, which became a machine for the middle class (as well as the school classroom). Although computers grew more common in the subsequent years, they continued to daunt the average user. Inspired by computer design innovations Jobs saw on a tour of the research labs at Xerox PARC, Apple introduced the mouse and the icon-based desktop. Many years later, when users needed a legitimate way to download music, Apple created the iPod and Jobs wangled the record producers into joining iTunes. 

Apple similarly changed mobile play. When cell phones first came out, designers salivated at the prospect of a gaming machine in every pocket. But low-quality screens, incompatible platforms, and poor distribution networks stifled the development of mobile games. Apple solved those problems with the iPhone, revolutionizing gaming in the process. To date, users have downloaded more than 15 billion apps—many of them games—from Apple’s App Store. Millions of users who never would have played video games have fallen in love with Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Words with Friends because of Apple’s products.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for changing the way we play with one breakout product after another.