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The History of the Pinball Construction Set: Launching Millions of Creative Possibilities

February 6, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Gamasutra presents its second exclusive web-only bonus chapter from Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's forthcoming book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time.

Here, the duo presents a history of Pinball Construction Set, one of the earliest and most accessible examples of a game that engenders user-created content.]

In 1981, when it was still possible to sell commercial computer games in plastic baggies,[1] Bill Budge released his latest game, Raster Blaster, for the Apple II. It was published through his own company, BudgeCo Inc., a cooperative venture formed with his sister.

Raster Blaster was a fast-paced, single-screen pinball game inspired by Williams's Firepower pinball machine. Although Raster Blaster was a critical and commercial success, its greatest claim to fame was that it provided Budge with the experience necessary to develop his legendary follow-up, Pinball Construction Set (PCS), subtitled "A video construction set from BudgeCo".

BudgeCo's Raster Blaster.

Right up to the early 1980s, commercial computer software often came in plastic baggies or small cardboard folders. Note the expanded contents from the zipper storage bag of subLOGIC's configurable Pinball (also known as Night Mission Pinball, 1982) game from Bruce Artwick of Flight Simulator fame.

The small cardboard folder included with the disk describes the game well: "The Pinball Construction Set contains the pieces and tools to make millions of hi-res video pinball games. No programming or typing is necessary. Just take parts from the set and put them on the game board. Press a button to play! Use the video tools to make borders and obstacles. Add game logic and scoring rules with the wiring kit. Create hi-res designs and logos using the BudgeCo magnifier. Color your designs with the paint brush."

The fact that Budge's own Raster Blaster could be recreated and even surpassed with PCS was enticing to anyone who had dreamed of making a virtual pinball game. Exciting stuff even today, it was downright groundbreaking in 1982 -- particularly considering that the Apple II had just 48K of RAM.

Partial scan of the exterior folder from BudgeCo's original release of Pinball Construction Set, featuring a very literal cover design.

Although PCS was another critical and commercial success for BudgeCo, Budge and his sister were soon overwhelmed with the demands of running a software publishing business in an increasingly sophisticated and competitive marketplace.

Budge agreed to work with Trip Hawkins and his fledgling startup, Electronic Arts (EA), whose goal at the time was to promote the idea of developer as "software artist" (or superstar), while at the same time presenting computer games in attractive, professional packaging. Computer games had remained on the margins of popular culture, and Hawkins's goal was not just to sell his own games but to sell gaming as a worthwhile medium.

Thus, in 1983, Electronic Arts published Pinball Construction Set in the company's iconic record album-style packaging with slick cover art, complete with a greatly expanded (though arguably superfluous) instruction manual. The game was eventually ported to the Apple Macintosh, Atari 8-bit, Coleco Adam,[2] Commodore 64, and PC. It was a big success for EA and instrumental in establishing the publisher's reputation for quality products.

Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) views of the unfolded album-style packaging for the Electronic Arts version of Pinball Construction Set, which portrayed Budge as an artistic superstar and his product as the revolution that it was.


[1] The Ziploc® brand or plastic zipper storage bags.

[2] As part of The Best of Electronic Arts, along with platformer Hard Hat Mack.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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James Hofmann
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I think that these kind of tools are rife with possibilities. It's unfortunate, though, that they've historically been sold without source, as disposable consumer products. The open-source approach points towards a way to create a truly powerful, long-lived tool, and commercial companies could still be involved by adopting services+support business models.

(I'm working on something like this.)

Mike Lopez
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I had the honor of working with Bill Budge on Virtual Pinball and I built several of the bundled tables. At the time we had to fight with The Powers That Be to ship on a cartridge with battery backup for saving (which was more expensive of course). I recall the pre-ship forecasts being quite low and the launch and post-ship support being low as well. In retrospect I think the product would have benefited from multiple camera angles beyond top-down like an isometric view but I do not even recall if the architecture might have supported even a faked 3D perspective (probably not is my guess).

Still I had a blast working on that title and I immensely enjoyed working with Bill, providing feedback / design suggestions (the worm hole item was my suggestion) and building tables.

Mike Lopez
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It makes sense but I never really thought of PCS as being the first game with user generated content because as an industry that was not a self-aware notion until the sharing aspect over the Internet became viable in the era of Doom.

Gary Lucero
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I realize it's not a game construction kit, but shouldn't Lionhead's The Movies be mentioned when talking about user created content? Some of LBP's creators came from Lionhead and I'm sure it was at least partially influenced by The Movies. Lionhead created movie making software that was used to great effect by a lot of people, and even though it failed to capture much market share, it was a breakthrough product in a lot of ways.

Lorenzo Wang
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Pinball contruction is not dead!

Check out this little treasure:

Wylie Garvin
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I remember seeing Pinball Construction Kit around when I was a kid, but like Mike, I never realized until reading this article that PCS was the first game to embrace user-created content, and way back in 1981! I do remember World Builder on the macintosh ( ) but that was five years later.

Mark Grant
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Thank you so much for bringing back such great memories. I spent way over a hundred hours playing with PCS in high school (1983-5).

Thanks Bill Budge - you made my childhood even better!

Jamie Mann
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It's nice seeing a bit of history unveiled like this :)

In the UK, an early attempt to enable user-created content was Penetrator on the ZX Spectrum. Released in late 1982, Penetrator is a Scramble clone which comes with a built-in GUI-based editor, allowing you to build a completely new and unique level and insert it in place of one (or all) of the built-in levels.

I reviewed this game for my website a while ago (*plug*
=penetrator) - there's an animated gif showing the editor in action. Sadly, the UK doesn't appear to have been as receptive to the idea of user-generated content - possibly because machines generally used tape for storage instead of disks, which made managing non-linear data more complicated.

Bryan Carter
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Maybe the industry wasn't aware of it, but anyone with a 300bps modem in the mid 80's for their Apple or C64 and access to the file transfer sites traded custom levels for games like Load Runner, Floppy and ACS. There was also lots of trading of MCS scores. So I wouldn't say trading was something special as a result of the Internet. If anything I would say it just became more prolific due to the increase of connected users and of course the burst of custom content with Doom.