All the Macintosh links you need!
Woz answers your letters
Conventions, past and present.
Friends of Woz
Some businesses
Festivals and Fun
See Woz, if he's home.
Letters-General Questions Answered  



Comment from E-mail:
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 HP.

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.
-- Woz


to General Letters Contents Page

Home | WozCam | Education | WozScape | Unuson | MacLinks | Friends | Business | Conventions | Festivals

©Unuson Corp. 2002 | Los Gatos, California | v3.0 | Last Updated:March 1, 2000  
Design by Al Luckow

Made With macintosh