Breakout – the Atari game created by Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs Breakout – the Atari game created by Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs
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Breakout – the Atari game created by Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs

Breakout – the Atari game created by Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs

I’m not much of a gamer, but I think Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell may have put his finger on what is often missing from mobile games – a lesson he last week told the Guardian many have yet to learn from the early arcade games.

“When you look at mobile and arcade gaming, they’re identical,” Bushnell says. “Mobile has some of the same game constraints for the player, and that ‘easy to learn, and difficult to master’ metric.” This common phrase is, as it happens, known as ‘Bushnell’s law’ – he first uttered it in 1971 while making his preliminary steps into the arcade business with seminal coin-op Computer Space.com

That lesson – dating back to the days when Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created Breakout for Atari – was something arcade games designers had to learn if they wanted to get people first to try a game and then to keep feeding in the coins …

It was something present in one of Atari’s earliest and simplest games: Pong. Anyone could get the hang of controlling the bat in just a few seconds, but continuing to win as the levels ramped up got progressively harder. Many mobile gaming developers have lost sight of that approach, he believes.

They can be so focused on graphics that they forget they have to get the timing right, and they have to have proper scoring constructs. I have been so pissed off with some mobile games I’ve wanted to throw my phone, even if I’m only going to hurt my phone there, and not the game.

Bushnell is partnering with Dutch publisher Spil to develop at least three as-yet-unnamed titles that he says will demonstrate the validity of the lesson today.

I have only a handful of games on my iPad, but thinking about it, they all meet that criteria. Even flight simulator X-Plane is essentially easy to get started: push the throttle forward, release the brakes, then tilt the iPad. Within seconds, you’re flying – but smooth landings are tougher, and you can add rain, winds and darkness to make things as challenging as you like.

It was Bushnell who contracted the two Steves to create Breakout, because his in-house developers thought the days of bat-and-ball were over. The game proved skeptics wrong. It will be interesting to see what his team creates now.

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