GS: Did you ever do any other video games in your own time other than your version of Pong and Breakout? Like hardware games or anything like that?
SW: Well let's see. I wrote many games in BASIC on the Apple II in later years. As far as hardware games, no. Just the Pong and Breakout were the only two I ever made. I was doing a lot of projects in a lot of fields back then.
GS: I guess you didn't have a lot of time to do more games.
SW: If somebody suggested another game or an idea popped into my head, I'd have time, oh yeah. I was always, you know...there were a lot of ideas I was always doing, a lot of interesting things, so games is only one thing.
GS: How did the existence of video games influence you personally as an engineer and computer designer?
SW: Extremely. Totally, for the Apple II. 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.
I saw hints of color. It was fake color with Mylar color overlays on a screen. I saw hints of color on a screen at Atari those nights, and I thought, "How gorgeous that looks."
That was when I was very sleepy, and an idea popped in my head for generating color on American TVs with a $1 part. And God knows it was an unusual scheme -- so unusual it might not even work.
It was weird, but boy, that was important. I was pressed to try to find..."Is there an idea? A way to generate color easy on these digital games?" And that was totally spurred by seeing whatever game it was that had Mylar overlays at Atari.
Also, I heard that they were going to use microprocessors eventually. So when I got into microprocessors in a later year -- microprocessors to build a computer -- I was constantly thinking, "for games."
And the computer by itself meant nothing to me. It had to have a programming language. So I wrote a programming language, BASIC, and I called it "Game BASIC." Every single note, every single folder I ever have, called it "Game BASIC." It had two purposes: a language that you could program games, and my work at HP. I mean, It was totally designed to be a language that was good for games.
GS: So the Apple II was a game computer from the beginning just so you could play and write games.
SW: It had to be a computer that could also play games. I didn't know what made a complete computer. I mean, I knew, inside, what architecture, what registers, what ones and zeros it had to have, but I didn't know what makes a real, complete computer that companies use for things that would justify spending so much money on them.
What I did know was that whenever you went to an open house at a company, they laid out their computers playing games for the families. So therefore, if a computer can play a game, it's at least a good start towards the computer that can do the financial calculations at a company -- something I didn't understand.
So I totally used it as a guideline that, as long as it can play games, at least it does a lot of what a computer can do.
GS: Do you think, if you hadn't included the color, sound, and paddle ports on your Apple II, that other computers would have been the same, boring, black-and-white stuff for a long time after that? Do you think the Apple II started...
SW: Oh, I think the Apple II had other huge advantages in terms of the design and the cost being low, even if it didn't have the colors, and graphics, and paddles, and all that. I think that really what spurred the home computer revolution; made it really successful, successful enough that we could have a huge company and go public and all that, was VisiCalc coming out. And that was a business software. That really instantly multiplied our sales by ten. And that would have happened because of other reasons in the Apple II: the expandability, the versatility, and not the game aspects. Because VisiCalc only relied on text. Not even graphics.
GS: That's interesting. Kind of in a similar vein, do you think Atari's success with video games, since they were a startup, inspired people to try to do the same thing with computers? As in, they were kind of like a ragtag band of people who didn't have a lot of formal experience...
SW: Well, look at me. I had a computer that I totally built around color at the center, computer second to that. I used the NTSC color signals, designed for games, and expanded that up to the computer level. The only thing I ever intended color to be used for was games, not productive computer use.
I also knew that once I had a microprocessor, I could write a game as a program, rather than design it as hardware -- in the earlier days. And then, I even got inspired. Since I had written my own BASIC, I decided to try adding commands to a BASIC and writing the game in BASIC, because then it opened up game programming to ten year olds.
Anybody could write in BASIC. You know? Set this location on the screen, "29, 38," set it to blue. It's that easy a command, and anybody can start programming. I just changed the colors on the screen and things move around, and it worked. I was shocked. I didn't know that BASIC would be fast enough.
Before we introduced the Apple II, the first thing I was showing off was really games. You know, maybe a little bit of "hello world" stuff.