My name is Bill Hunter, and I run a website called "The Dot Eaters",
which chronicles (or tries to, anyway) the history of videogames. I'm
currently refining the entry I have for Breakout, and I was wondering
if you might be able to confirm a couple of questions I have about this
game and yours and Mr. Job's connection to it and Atari. For instance,
there is a tale that while you assembled the hardware for the game, you
only received 350 dollars for your efforts while Steve pocketed a cool
$5000 or so. And it is also believed that when you first saw Atari's PONG,
the first successful arcade videogame, you immediately built your own
version that would put "OH SH*T" (asterix mine) up on the screen when
the ball was missed. I was also wondering if you had any extra insights
or stories on your days hanging around Atari after hours, and how the
company actually figured in your eventual construction of the first Apple
computer prototype. Your appreciation of the value of videogames is well
known, and I would be eager to hear your thoughts on them and your connections
to them. I look forward to reading any information you could provide.
Your observations are right on the money, except that I had a switch to
turn the 4 'bad' phrases ("DAMN IT" might have been another) off on my
PONG. My low chip PONG caught the attention of key Atari people and they
wanted to hire me. They also considered such a small circuit as a candidate
for the first home version.
Also, I would gladly have designed the BREAKOUT game for Atari for free,
just to do it. I had a job at Hewlett Packard. I considered $350 a nice
bonus, something that I'd earned myself. I probably had a pizza to celebrate.
I was hurt in later years when I heard that Steve was paid more than he'd
told me, and I don't think that I hurt easily. But it was a long time
ago and I prefer to get away from it. Steve has always been a good friend
to me in many ways more than just palling around. It's so ancient that
maybe it didn't happen, and maybe the Atari people that said it and wrote
it were wrong in their own memories. I do believe that this is possible.
Also, if my own self, or my own children, or my own friends did such a
thing in their life, it's easy to excuse it if the circumstances were
as I described. It's not 'necessarily' akin to stealing. If there was
some dishonesty, I'm over that. Who hasn't done some things that would
be considered bad, anyway? I doubt that I'd find such a person interesting.
I must tell you that Steve Jobs was well liked by the Atari execs and
he'd work in their plant in Los Gatos for a while, then live up in Oregon
with friends for a while, on and off. Games that the Atari engineers designed
in Grass Valley would come to Los Gatos and Steve would examine their
design and make changes, like adding sounds, etc. It's like modifying
a program to do different things, just barely a step under designing them
yourself, and a step that all design engineers go through.
I thought that Atari was one of the most important companies in the world
and it was an honor to be close to them. I thought that they would be,
in the arcade game business, what Microsoft is now. My own arcade game
designs were my first combination of my logic design skills with NTST
TV. This was a very important step towards my Apple designs a couple of
years later. I forget right now how I generated the score digits on my
"PONG" and "BREAKOUT" screens but I probably used a char generator. After
these projects, I saw a friend, John Draper (Captain Crunch) typing on
a teletype and in communication with a computer in Boston. He bounced
around to others. So I had to next design my own terminal and modem. My
only affordable output device was my Sears TV because it was free. Going
to characters on the screen from a game on the screen was a natural step.
I already had the TV timing circuits minimized and just had to use the
horizontal and vertical counters to drive some memory with the characters
stored. I chose what I figured was the absolute least cost memories, some
dynamic shift registers. They were old (PMOS) and came in tiny 8-pin packages,
and were half the size of 14-pin chips. My design goal was to have the
fewest chips in the end. More correctly it was to have the smallest board
space used. So these tiny serial shift registers were the winners for
me. Some low level engineers or designers might be scared off by dynamic
parts, but I just thought it all out and made sure that they never stopped
shifting. This point I'd well learned in designing calculator chips at
Well, I won't go into the many more influences from the past that all
led to what my computer designs turned out to be. But a VERY significant
role was how my hardware BREAKOUT experience at Atari led me to a unique
and creative goal for my Apple ][. I'd designed this machine to have color,
which was totally based on an idea that I'd had one night working on BREAKOUT
over at Atari. The idea was to use digital chips, or more accurately a
single chip, to rotate a code around at a multiple of the color subcarrier
rate of NTSC TV signals. From 16 starting codes, you got totally different
digital patterns out of this shift register. If it was synchronized with
the TV via the color burst technique of NTSC then it would be 'similar
to' true color info. I was pleasantly amazed on the Apple ][ when it worked.
This gave me the unique idea, that I can't really give a good reason for.
I decided that I had many of the parts available to have a BREAKOUT game
on this computer, in software. Arcade games had just barely started appearing
with microprocessors. Maybe. In the case of the Apple ][ I was the designer
and I'd written the BASIC. So I took a bold step, not knowing if it was
even possible, to consider programming BREAKOUT in BASIC!
I had to add at least one paddle. I decided to use a timer chip. The microprocessor
could count how rapidly a capacitor charged and determine where your hand
controller was turned to. But by now timers could be obtained 4 on a single
chip. So I built in 4 paddles for virtually no extra parts. I added a
speaker, with 1 bit of sound. Just enough for beeps and clicks in the
game of BREAKOUT. I added commands in my BASIC to draw colors on the screen.
Then I sat down one evening and started writing BREAKOUT in BASIC. I started
by drawing some bricks. I didn't like their position and size so I changed
a couple of numbers in my program and saw the effect. I played with brick
color mixtures and found some that I liked. I completed the whole game
in this way. In half an hour I'd played with more options that I could
have in a lifetime were I dealing with hardware. I got Steve to come over
and see it. I was stunned. I hadn't foreseen how incredible software would
be for arcade games. I told Steve that games were going to be different
forever now. I was shaking myself at this incredible realization.