Solo climbers

November 30th, 2015 9:58 AM
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Most Apple historians know the name Jean-Louis Gassée: former Director of European Operations at Apple Computer, founder of Be Inc., and the mysterious informant who told John Sculley not to get on a plane to China, lest he be ousted by Steve Jobs.

But Gassée’s contributions to technology don’t end in the 1980s or even 1990s: he writes a fascinating blog at The Monday Note, drawing upon his experiences and perspectives in the industry. This past summer, he penned a post of particular relevance to Apple II users. "A Salute To Solo Programmers" pays homage to the days when a single developer could create an entire program:

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the "solo climber", the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Gassée goes on to offer examples of , Bill Budge, Dan Bricklin, and Paul Lutus, who worked independently to create programs that changed the world. It’s a phenomenon that’s unlikely today:

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

I encountered a similar sentiment at KansasFest 2013 when I interviewed Eric Shepherd, former senior technical writer for Be Inc.:

I don’t know how much of this is just wistful reminiscing for simpler times. As Gassée later acknowledges, modern computers are not only capable of greater feats of engineering, but they still offer wonderful opportunities for solo development. Access to programming tools and resources is unprecedented, with classes being offered for free at local libraries, universities, and makerspaces, including to underserved communities and demographics. Motivated parties can build anything as simple as a Twitter bot to as complex as as a best-selling video game with a team of one.

I don’t believe development has outgrown the boundaries of the Apple II — it’s expanded them. But the time when "solo climbers" were the rule rather than the exception was unique, and we have much to thank those pioneers who led the way.

(Hat tip to Thomas Compter)

Bill Budge & John Romero on the 6502

March 19th, 2012 9:10 AM
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Bill Budge has been a programmer extraordinaire, from the early days of his Pinball Construction Set to his more recent work with Sony and Google. Now he gets to pontificate upon those experiences to Jason Scott as part of 6502: The Documentary.

This preview joins the previous footage of Joe Grand, as well as this video of KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker John Romero:

Jason the documentarian explains:

These are untouched clips … right out of the camera and rendered out for you. I will probably tweak, push and pull for the final works, but I wanted you to see, clearly, the quality of image and sound you helped me achieve, and maybe even start to see how these subjects might play out. I have a very long way to go, but it’s happening, for real, and you’re seeing it. Thanks so much.

Did you not preorder your copy of 6502? Jason will be at KansasFest 2012; maybe he’ll take your money then… or just put you in front of the camera for his next film!

A chat with Bill Budge

October 13th, 2011 11:53 AM
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If a wave of nostalgia and retrocomputing enthusiasm has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the Apple II, then it’s natural that a spillover would effect the platform’s past and present celebrities. Bill Budge, for one, was honored with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’s Pioneer Award, concurrent with an in-depth profile by Wired magazine.

You’d think that the popular press might have forgotten Budge since then, but you’d be wrong. Gamasutra recently ran Brandon Sheffield’s lengthy interview with the programmer. In it, Budge talks about his evolution from programming games to tools for Electronic Arts 3DO, Sony, and Google — the seeds of which can be seen in his Apple II landmarks, Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set. The four-page, 4,383-word interview is somewhat technical as he reviews his favorite languages and the aspects that appeal to him. Fortunately, Apple II users tend to be a technical lot that’s likely to find much of interest in this piece.

As a programming peon, I most appreciated Budge’s closing remark:

At the end of the day, I think all that matters is what have you done. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how brilliant do you sound, or whether you sound like an academic paper when you talk. What really impresses me is people who have built things, who made things that really worked, who did something that nobody else thought would work, or followed their vision and made it real. That, to me, is very admirable; the only thing that counts.

By his own measure, I’d say Budge has earned our admiration.

Happy birthday to Steve Wozniak and Bill Budge

August 11th, 2011 2:36 PM
Filed under Happenings, Steve Wozniak;

As and Open Apple both recently acknowledged, today is Steve Wozniak‘s birthday. The creator of the 34-year-old Apple II turns 61 today.

But today is also Bill Budge‘s birthday! After Woz practically invented personal computers, Mr. Budge was one of the first to see their limitless potential, using the Apple II to create the popular pinball game Raster Blaster and, later, the DIY tool Pinball Construction Set. Mr. Budge’s name often received higher billing than the title of the software, a rare status in an era when Warren Robinett had to resort to inventing the Easter Egg to get his name into a game.

Though he may not be as famous as Steve Wozniak, Bill Budge is nonetheless an important person in the computer industry and its history, and I’m glad he’s still around to celebrate his 57th birthday.

Happy birthday, gentlemen!

Honoring Bill Budge

February 10th, 2011 10:36 PM
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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.

Apple II gaming in Retro Gamer

June 17th, 2010 12:07 PM
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As recently mentioned on the Juiced.GS blog, and as first told to me by Andy Molloy, Retro Gamer magazine issue #76 features an eight-page profile of the Apple II as a gaming machine. As not just an Apple II user but a long-time gamer, I enjoyed this retrospective, which featured many of the games I grew up playing. The text focuses on the Apple II and its history and fate, while high-quality pictures of dozens of games capture the unique look of the era and genre.

I especially enjoyed reading quotes from Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Set), and John Romero (Wolfenstein 3D) reminiscing about developing for the Apple II. As luminaries who acknowledge their origin, they’re in good company. In my role as KansasFest marketing director, I’m often the first contact with potential keynote speakers. Everyone we’ve approached has always been kind enough to respond to our invitation, and of those who did not accept, each has cited scheduling or personal conflicts. Never have I heard anything akin to “Sorry, but the Apple II doesn’t interest me anymore.” The gentlemen interviewed in Retro Gamer are proof of the magnanimous spirit of those whom the Apple II made famous.

The article includes a Top Ten list of the best Apple II games, all of which I believe are 8-bit:

Retro Gamer #76

  1. The Bard’s Tale
  2. Pinball Construction Set
  3. The Oregon Trail
  4. Karateka
  5. Choplifter
  6. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
  7. Lode Runner
  8. Prince of Persia
  9. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
  10. Taipan!

Seven of the games spawned sequels and franchises, some of which exist to this day. That’s a powerful legacy. The article’s last two pages consist of a collage of 56 different Apple II games, many of which I’ve never played but am now desperate to. Apparently, I’m not the only one, given how popular the trend is to port Apple II games to the iPhone.

What are your memories of growing up gaming on the Apple II? How did it compare with other computers of the era?