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Bill Budge, Pinball Construction Set, and the Popularization of User-Customized Video Games  

As a kid, I enjoyed racing my virtual dirt bike up 8-bit hill after 8-bit hill in designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s Excitebike (1984) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. What kept me riding was a design mode to create my own tracks. Designing a track on screen changed the way I saw video games. Suddenly, I wasn’t just playing; I was creating part of what I played. And a few well-placed speed bumps and mud puddles could trip up my computer opponent or one of my brothers. This kind of customizable game design is a standard feature of many current games, but in 1984 it was cutting-edge. Yet Excitebike was not the first game to introduce players to this innovation. A year earlier, programmer Bill Budge released Pinball Construction Set, one of the earliest examples of a game in which players could customize content and design certain aspects of their game play experiences. His game spawned an entire genre of construction games, influenced a new generation of game designers, and laid the groundwork for new kinds of video games.

Budge first achieved success as an independent game designer, releasing his popular video pinball game Raster Blaster (1981) through his company Budge Co. But Pinball Construction Set made Budge one of Electronic Arts’ (EA) early “rock stars,” while it opened up the possibilities of what a video game could do and be.

Imagine you’re staring at a blank pinball playing surface and you have access to a toolbox containing dozens of color, sound effect, and component combinations. All these choices provided a would-be game designer with millions of pinball possibilities. What Budge called his “software toy,” allowed players to construct a video pinball machine from scratch. Instead of a player writing a game program, or following a set of text-based instructions, she only needed to use her mouse or joystick to drag and drop icons of flippers, thumper bumpers, and sling shots onto an empty playing surface. Players could also modify the game’s gravity and stretch or compress an object’s shape in order to affect how the ball traveled across the table. Such seemingly endless options led many players to compose a new pinball game, save it on a floppy disk, and challenge their friends to top their creations.

Budge’s construction game, or what some called, “meta,” game sold more than 300,000 copies, and established the foundation for an entire game genre. Developers produced dozens of construction games including Music Construction Set (1984), which was the first EA title to sell 1 million copies; Racing Construction Set (1985); Wargame Construction Set (1986); and one of the first role-playing video game construction sets, The Bard’s Tale Construction Set (1991). All of these games provided users with the ability to create aspects and versions of games they might have previously purchased. In April 1984 an InfoWorld magazine cover story even called the “computer erector set movement” begun by Budge, “software’s missing link.”

At the height of the construction game movement, Budge toyed with the idea of producing a “construction set construction set,” but he never pursued the complex project. Nevertheless, Pinball Construction Set inspired a new generation of game designers who produced innovative games in which players could construct entire worlds. In 2011, Will Wright told the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences that he “doubt[ed] SimCity would have existed” without Pinball Construction Set paving the way.

By enabling causal gamers with no programming experience to customize games, Bill Budge democratized game design and directed the way for future game designers. Ultimately, Budge and his Pinball Construction Set paved the way for such popular user-customizable games as LittleBigPlanet (2008) and ModNation Racers (2010).

Budge donated the Apple II computer he designed Pinball Construction Set on to ICHEG and gamers can now see it in the eGameRevolution exhibit.

Tell us what user-customized games inspire you.