Breakout!

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In 2012, I was overjoyed to get involved with a curious new publishing project from former Yahoo! Exec Tim Sanders. Net Minds was created to empower independent publishing and help connect writers, editors, designers, artists and marketers. Another co-founder of Net Minds was Andrew Garroni, a producer of note in late 70s/80s low-budget cinema—most specifically, the cult serial killer flick Maniac (1980). As a fan of genre cinema, it was thrilling to chat with Garroni (even though I’d not seen Maniac) and hear tales of filmmaking from the era (for instance, they got Tom Savini to do makeup and effects for Maniac because he was already nearby doing the same for Friday the 13th).

After months of back and forth with the author of a Net Minds project that was going nowhere (there was never a full draft; author kept on submitting new “chapters,” completely replacing others and changing the focus of the book—it was all too fluid), Sanders hit me up for some last-minute copy editing on what would be Net Minds’ first published book. I wanted to grow my professional experience (similar to Savini taking the Maniac gig) and gladly accepted the opportunity. The book: Finding the Next Steve Jobs by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Nolan fucking Bushnell!

Th editing itself was straightforward (William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, not Necromancer) and I turned it around in a weekend. In my day job, as features editor for a business association magazine, I pitched a profile of Bushnell—the result of which was a supremely fun interview and award-winning story. I also recommended Bushnell as a speaker for our upcoming conference—he’d spoken at events plenty but was looking to expand the reach of that career. That year (2013), Finding the Next Steve Jobs was recognized with an Independent Publisher Book Award and picked up by Simon & Schuster.

An important element of this story, which is discussed in the book, is that while Steve Jobs was working at Atari, Bushnell tasked him with creating a two-player Pong. Jobs lacked the skill and/or desire to actually build the prototype, so he contracted with a shy, but talented, friend—Steve Wozniak—to create what would become Breakout (1976). This was especially groovy as my wife previously devoured Woz’ autobiography and, in the process, deciphered his phone number. Of course, she called him to see if she got the number right. No answer, so she left a message—and he fucking called her back! My involvement with Bushnell was feeling increasingly serendipitous.

In early 2014, at a Colleyville, Texas, estate sale, I picked up two remnants of 1970s U.S. pop culture: an early skateboard ($7) and an original arcade art bezel for Space Invaders ($25). The skateboard sold quickly online for $20 or $30; the Space Invaders art bezel proved to be more difficult to unload at a profit due to the necessary shipping costs.

Back at work, there was good news brewing, though. Bushnell agreed to speak at our conference in Minneapolis that summer—so I’d actually get the chance to meet him in person. Also for that conference, our events team asked if I’d like to lead a couple of small sessions about the nascent augmented reality (AR) technology. This was gonna be great! I messaged Bushnell and his daughter Allison, inviting him to join one of my AR sessions, if he was available. He said, “Sure.” That sort of blew my mind.

After almost giving up on selling the Space Invaders piece with any kind of profit, I researched arcade art bezels in general just a little more. During that process, I found an original Breakout bezel for sale online…and the universe started to reveal itself: Clearly, I needed to have Bushnell autograph the Breakout bezel, that’d make a unique and visually pleasant collectible—a reminder of my work on his book and appreciation of his pioneering involvement in video games, a field that had entranced me since early childhood.

Again, the shipping cost was an issue, and I didn’t have the expendable cash. I messaged the seller (incredibly, he was local) offering to trade my Space Invaders for his Breakout. A key point: Space Invaders is more popular and better remembered than Breakout, so that bezel would be easier for him to sell as he was an arcade restoration hobbyist and had a network of vintage arcade collectors. He instantly agreed and that weekend I gave him the fine-condition Space Invaders bezel (really great colors!) and gladly took home a Breakout bezel covered with vintage cigarette burns from where gamers would stamp out their butts on the actual bezel so as not to lose their turn.

Soon there was more good news about our upcoming conference. Because next year’s event would be in San Francisco, the preview lunch, organized by Bay Area volunteers, opted for an on-stage Q&A with Steve Wozniak. Yes, now Woz was going to be at the conference, too! Mission update: Get bezel autographed by Bushnell and Woz—the two main figures responsible for the creation of Breakout! Related to that, I was tasked with interviewing Woz for the magazine. The interview, of course, was a blast, and I even told Woz how my wife deciphered his phone number and called him.

“Oh, cool,” he said. “I’ll actually get about a call a week, [usually] somebody is just kind of testing to see if it’s really my number. And I’m always polite with them if I have time, if I don’t, I explain why I don’t have time, politely, and tell them to please call back or something. And nobody hounds me, no harassment, you know.”

Yes, the co-founder of Apple takes the time to call strangers back and explain to them why he doesn’t have time for an in-depth conversation—if he doesn’t have time. This guy is awesome.

“I try to be nice,” he said. “I mean, every time people grab me—sometimes it’s dozens or hundreds a day—for photographs or autographs...I do it gladly. It’s easy for me.”

Given the bezel’s awkward size, for safe transport to the event I had to carry it on my flights. I covered it with bubble wrap, sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard, taped closed and stored in the plane’s coat closet. The transport was the hard part mentally—that is, I almost gave up rather than deal with the potential hassle (thinking about it was more stressful than actually doing it) as I was concerned I may be told the bezel had to be checked, and I didn’t trust that would be safe. I felt no shame in turning fanboy once onsite.

Prior to Bushnell’s keynote, I grabbed one of our photographers and led him backstage for my meeting with Bushnell. There Bushnell grew a large smile when he saw the Breakout bezel and happily signed it, explaining to some Millennials in the room the importance of the game.

Later that day or the next day, was my first AR session. Bushnell showed up for that and, sitting next to me, we geeked out for an hour on the future of technology. According to the attendee reviews, we went way over their heads very quickly (and I forgot to introduce myself), but it seemed Bushnell had fun—and I certainly had a blast!

On the last day of the conference, our events team let me in early to the ballroom where the preview lunch for next year’s conference would take place. Minutes later, Woz arrived for a meet-and-greet with the lunch’s volunteer organizers. But first…sign this, please. His reaction was similar to that of Bushnell upon seeing the Breakout bezel: happiness and an opportunity to reminisce. Woz also explained Breakout to those around us, some of whom actually remembered playing the game in arcades in the 70s.

During the Woz Q&A, I stood in the back of the room with a colleague and Bushnell, a giant, grandfather-like figure. There, Bushnell looked to the stage like a proud father watching a grown-up child excel—and he shared what this experience felt like to him. He recalled what Woz was like when they first met in the 70s (quiet, couldn’t look people in the eyes), and marveled at what Woz had become: an opinionated, verbose, intelligent tech futurist.

On the way home, feeling like a victorious explorer, Woz was at the airport checking into his flight two people in front of me. When it was my turn to check in, I was called to the same person who just took care of Woz. I couldn’t hold back. “Do you know who that is?” I asked after Woz had left the immediate area. An empty look on the person’s face. “He founded Apple with Steve Jobs.” You could see the realization of what that meant as it crept across the worker’s face. I think another airline staffer mumbled something about recognizing Woz from his run on Dancing with the Stars. Walking to security screening, I saw Woz—like a school kid with an overstuffed backpack—approached by a twenty-something geek. He gladly took a pic and chatted briefly with the fan. Here’s a guy who could (should?) be flying on private planes, instead he’s humping around the Minneapolis airport with a backpack on, welcoming encounters with adoring strangers.

It’s been eight years and the Breakout bezel, signed by Bushnell and Woz, enjoys a prime location in an overloaded shelf of collectibles, shielded from sunlight by packaged Ren & Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead animation cels. In that time, I’ve kept my eye out for the piece that would transform this unique video game art into a genuine museum piece. You see, the bezel has art around the edges, but the majority of the panel is clear (so you could see the arcade monitor behind it). Wouldn’t it be cool if there was something Breakout-related to float behind that clear spot? The item already checks the “art” bucket…so something functional and non-traditional. The chef's kiss: an original, unused Breakout arcade PCB board floating behind the bezel.