Gamechanger – Bill Budge
December 31st, 1995, the last of Bill Watterson‘s Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strips ran, ending a 10-year run of brilliance and influence over a new-generation of cartoonists. Watterson left the industry he didn’t really like, and retired from professional cartooning to the things he was passionate about, simply painting and drawing for the love of it. Bill Budge is the game developers Bill Watterson.
In the late 1970’s, Bill Budge was a PhD physics student at the University of California, when he discovered the Apple II computer. Although not particularly into games himself, he was fascinated at the capabilities of computers, and the challenges posed by programming. His initial games were simple, but highly successful. Bringing his knowledge of science to his programming, and a drive to solve tough problems, Budge’s early games were graphically superior clones of Pong and Lunar Lander, with more realistic physics. These early games, Penny Arcade and Tranquility Base got Budge noticed. Apple worked a deal to trade a printer for the rights to Penny Arcade, and Budge ended up working at Apple, where he – amongst many others – got their ‘big idea’.
A pinball craze had captured Apple programmers, and, in 1981, competition for bragging-rights was pretty serious, running all the way up to Steve Wozniak. Budge, not altogether interested in pinball, thought that writing a realistic pinball simulation might be fun, and set about his most demanding programming challenge to-date. Raster Blaster was released by Budge himself, forming “BudgeCo”, printing instructions and putting floppies in ziplock bags to sell. The game was a huge success, combining bright colorful graphic, crisp collison-detection, and a physics-engine considered impossible at the time. By 1982, Bill Budge’s resume to-date already was one of an industry giant. In just three short years, Budge had delivered increasing popular hits. Those, together with Raster Blaster, would have been more than enough to insure his being enshrined in any gamer hall-of-game. But he wasn’t done yet, nor was he prepared for some of the things that come with being a successful indie-developer. Programmer-Budge was forced into a role he was not familiar with, nor at all that interested in – entrepreneur. Fortunately for Budge, and the rest of us, there was someone at Apple who was interested in that, Trip Hawkins.
Trip Hawkins was the Director for Strategy and Marketing at Apple, and left in 1982 to found Electronic Arts. Wanting to attract the best talent available, Hawkins modeled EA after record labels, where developers were the “stars”, and the software they developed would be the “albums”. This was an innovative – and incredible successful – difference from most software companies at the time. Hawkins pursued Budge to allow EA to distribute BudgeCo games. Eager to shed his business responsibilities and get back to programming, Budge agreed and left Apple to work on his newest game.
Pinball Construction Set was Raster Blaster, and 4 other tables, all the best, most realistic, simulations of Pinball at the time. Oh, and the game contained something never before seen… a WYSIWYG, object-oriented way of making your own table, any table you wanted, before WYSIWYG and Object-Oriented Development were even concepts.
Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Grab a bumper, drag it to where you want it. Set it’s tension and spring, and scoring, How many balls does a player get, what is the score for a replay? Build a table, put it on a floppy and share it with a friend. All of this, for the first time ever, was placed into the hands of the user. And video gaming hasn’t been the same since. By embracing the user, and rewarding the users creations, Budge kick started what would become level-design software for computer role-playing, strategy games and first-person shooters. Doom‘s WADs, Team Fortress, and beyond, can trace a major portion of their core appeal directly back to Pinball Construction Set.
Selling over 300,000 copies, Pinball Construction Set went on to become EA’s early best-seller. But, what does one do after completing their magnum opus? Like Watterson, Budge was not interested in being a ‘rock star’ for EA, semi-retired from game development, and focused on the things he was passionate about: solving tough programming challenges. Retiring from developing games does not mean retiring from programming, and Budge has been doing just that. He was with Sega and 3DO in the 1990’s, back to EA for a couple of years, then at Sony for most of the 2000’s, and Bill Budge has been working at Google since 2010. There are giants-of-the-industry, and there are legends. Bill Budge is a legend, and who continues to work with and inspire the next-generation of giants.