Honoring Bill Budge

Filed under History, Mainstream coverage;
Comments Off on Honoring Bill Budge

Earlier today, Bill Budge was honored by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences with the Pioneer Award, making him only the second recipient of the award. The first was David Crane, co-founder of Activision and creator of Pitfall!, putting Budge in good company.

In conjunction with this award, Wired magazine published an elegant and insightful profile of Budge, creator of the Apple II pinball programs Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set. But other media have given us additional looks at Budge over the years — most notably in the early 1980s, when he first achieved fame, and then in the late 1990s, when he came out of semi-retirement and returned to the electronic entertainment industry.

First was his appearance on the Computer Chronicles, a PBS show that ran 1981–2002. Watch time indices 12:46–22:21 of this episode from September 28, 1984:

I was intrigued by Budge's belief that a programmer can't ask a gamer what kind of game he wants to play; a programmer has to have an "inner conviction" about what kind of game to make. Such a sentiment echoes Steve Jobs' own successful design philosophy.

Budge also participated in an eloquent interview with James Hague for a 1997 e-book called Halcyon Days, now available for free online. Here, Budge talked about his transition from programmer to entrepreneur to early retiree:

I realized I could do what my "publisher" was doing. In other words, put the program in a Ziploc bag with a sheet of instructions and sell them a thousand at a time to a distributor like Softsel, which was big in those days. So my sister and I started BudgeCo. I wrote the programs–"Raster Blaster" and "Pinball Construction Set"–and she ran the business. But it was getting harder to sell software. Before, it had sold itself. By 1983, you needed reps and a whole sales organization. We continued until the industry grew, and we either had to grow or ally with someone bigger. I didn't want to be an entrepreneur, so when EA approached me I was ready to sign …

[But] I [got] burned out from trying to constantly out-do myself. This was after spending a lot of time thinking what to do after "Pinball Construction Set." … I filled a lot of notebooks with design ideas. I spent a few summers in Maui windsurfing. I did some programming for Apple that got bundled with the Apple II mouse … I realized that what I loved to do is build things and that I wasn't happy unless I was excited about my work. So I decided that even if I was only programming video games, I could be happy as long as I was trying to do the best video game.

In the first episode of the Open Apple podcast, I recalled Budge's ambition to follow the Pinball Construction Set with Construction Set Construction Set, which would allow users to design their own games. It was too complex a concept for the hardware of the era, though it eventually saw fruition with tools now in use in freshman courses in game design programs at colleges across the country. Budge didn't think he'd live to see the day:

I think the construction set construction set is kind of a doomed concept. Construction sets are an exciting category, and I wish there were more of them. It's not easy to design them.

In a rather rudimentary interview with Sam Gabrielsson published in late 1998, made another prediction that might've required some re-evaluation, in light of technologies such as the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect:

Some areas of technology like computing cost and speed are advancing rapidly. But other technologies, like true 3D displays and tactile feedback are in their infancies and may face insurmountable obstacles. For example, feedback to simulate a solid object requires force powerful enough to rip your arm off. I could be wrong, but I think computer pinball should strive to exploit its special advantages, rather than just be a copy of real pinball machines.

Budge also talked about how Electronic Arts tried to make a star out of him:

Yeah, they sent me out on a kind of celebrity rock star tour. But it became obvious pretty quickly that programmers aren't quite rock stars. But it was a fun experience. I don't have a scanned autograph yet!

Even if he didn't achieve rockstar status, Budge is one of the few programmers to have created and maintained a reputation that has spanned the decades. Besides Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates, the only other name that comes to my mind is Jordan Mechner. As Open Apple co-host Mike Maginnis said on the show, "I sometimes tend to forget that [people like Bill Budge] went on to do other things in the industry. When I see Bill Budges name, I go, 'Oh, he's that Apple II guy from way back when!' But he's been in the industry this whole time."

Congratulations, Mr. Budge, on your accomplishment. You've earned it!

UPDATE: GameSpot and G4tv have post-event wrap-ups of the award ceremony.