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The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry
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The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry

January 9, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

By the early 1980s, nearly all of today's familiar video game and computer elements were in place. These elements ranged from input devices such as multifunction digital and analog controllers to online services, like the proprietary CompuServe and The Source, each of which featured a selection of relatively sophisticated multiplayer games (see book Chapter 24, "Ultima Online (1997): Putting the Role-Play Back in Computer Role-Playing Games"). However, before all of that happened, Pong had one more significant role to play.

In Sunnyvale, California, from the early to mid 1970s, gifted hacker Steve Wozniak ("Woz") worked as an engineer specializing in calculator technology at Hewlett-Packard (HP), where he reunited with an energetic summer employee by the name of Steve Jobs, whom he had befriended when the two were in high school.

The friendship generated a series of external business partnerships. For example, Jobs helped to sell Woz's underground "blue box," a device that "phreakers" (a type of hacker targeting the phone system) used to make free long-distance calls and to eavesdrop on conversations.

Jobs was hired as Atari's fortieth employee in 1974 as an hourly technician and, after a short hiatus for a spiritual journey to India, returned the following year to work at the innovative company that was about to repeat its arcade success with a home version of Pong.

Jobs, now a night-shift engineer, was tasked with creating Breakout for the arcade, which was designed to be a single-player, vertical Pong.[9] The goal of the game was to destroy rows of blocks at the top of the screen by bouncing a ball off a small, movable paddle at the bottom.

Atari was unable to lure Woz away from HP after witnessing his impressive self-built home Pong clone. Nevertheless, because he was a fan of both Atari arcade games and up for any engineering challenge, he agreed to help Jobs complete the assignment.

Woz completed the bulk of the work in about four days, with an efficient design that used far fewer chips than any other Atari arcade game at the time. For the impressive effort, Jobs received a nice payout and bonus -- most of which he kept for himself -- and a reengineered Breakout would become another Atari arcade hit.[10]

The Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) conversion of Breakout (1978).

After years of hardware hacking and his two dalliances in video games, Woz began development on a television computer terminal. Inspired by regular meetings at the legendary Homebrew Computer Club -- in which many early industry pioneers shared their ideas and passions -- Woz created and showed off what would become known as the Apple I.

Although nothing more than an elegantly designed circuit board with a low-cost MOS 6502 microprocessor, 4 KB RAM, and expansion connectors, the Apple I nevertheless laid the foundation for what was to come. Atari and HP were not interested in the idea, so the two Steves formed their own company, Apple Computer, on April 1, 1976.

Many variations on the paddle-and-ball theme hit the arcade. Shown here is Atari's Avalanche with simulated color overlay, which tasked players with catching boulders. The Atari VCS would receive an unofficial port of the game via Activision's popular Kaboom! (1981), which replaced the boulders with lit bombs.

Working out of Woz's bedroom and eventually Jobs's garage, they began production on the Apple I. The persuasive Jobs negotiated with local hobbyist computer store, the Byte Shop, for an order of units worth $50,000.

Credit, time, and supply constraints were tight, but the Byte Shop order was met, with the computer store providing full-stroke keyboards and wooden cases to complement the circuit board. Through the Byte Shop and magazine coverage and advertisements, the company had slow, but steady growth.

Taito's arcade Arkanoid (1986) would take the concepts in Breakout to the next level, with powerups, different types of enemies, and multiple levels.


[9] The concept was from Bushnell and Steve Bristow.

[10] Breakout was released May 13, 1976, and inspired a long line of clones and knock-offs itself.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

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