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

February 6, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

How did one go about constructing a virtual pinball game with these humble machines? Budge took a pragmatic and surprisingly modern approach to PCS' interface, allowing for intuitive drag-and-drop construction, primarily with a joystick, though keyboard and other control options -- like the KoalaPad graphics tablet[3] -- were available on some platforms.[4]

As Budge recalls, "I was exposed to GUIs at Apple, and I had the pinball simulation from Raster Blaster. I saw that it would be a small step to do a construction set. This was the kind of program I liked, since there was no game to write. But it was a lot of work, since I had to implement file saving, a mini sound editor and a mini paint program."[5]

The player simply guided a disembodied hand, complete with pointing finger for selection, to draw, color, and drag and drop the various table elements onto the board.

As Armchair Arcade member "Rowdy Rob" recalls, "PCS was, back then, a groundbreaking program. It had an easy, intuitive, and Mac-like interface, and even without a mouse, it was a snap to place various targets, bumpers, and flippers on the table. The flexibility of the program allowed you to create very odd-looking pinball games, and was a great experimental tool. This 'game' was definitely a high point in the history of Apple II games. You could 'snap together' a cool pinball game in under an hour, and your friends could play your games for longer than it took you to create the game! How rare is that?"[6]

Most conversions, like the Commodore 64 version pictured on the right, were straight ports from the Apple II version (left), and -- although they played the same -- often suffered visually.

PCS was one of the very first "software toys," a "game" in which the fun is exploring one's own creative possibilities.[7] It also established several precedents that made it easier for novice users to achieve their vision. Everything took place from a single screen with a consolidated interface, and users could play-test their boards at any point in the development process.

The title also came with a complement of sample tables for immediate play or inspiration. Though a bit clunky by modern standards, the tables featured physics-based rules and allowed for many realistic and interesting features like multiple balls.

There were also more fanciful options. Rowdy Rob reminisces, "I remember creating a pinball game where, instead of launching the ball up the right side (which is standard pinball procedure), I created a table where the ball launched up the middle of the table, and most of the action took place on either side of the ball-launcher. My computer club compatriots liked the idea so much that they copied the idea in several of their own pinball creations, which irritated me back then ('they ripped off my idea!'), but looking back, I should have been flattered. The point is that the program was that flexible; crazy pinball tables could be created and playtested without fear of crashing the program."

Mirroring EA's future business model, the company tried to build on the basic ideas established by the success of PCS and released titles with similar functionality from other developers, including Music Construction Set (1984; Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, PC, and others), Racing Destruction Set (1985; Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64), and Adventure Construction Set (1985; Apple II, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, PC).

Back of the box for Music Construction Set, Apple II version.

Will Harvey's Music Construction Set (MCS) was really intended more for education than entertainment, but nevertheless was sold alongside the top such titles of the day and proved a popular diversion. Today, we'd probably call it "edutainment." As a music composition notation program, users could drag and drop notes right onto the staff, play back their creations, and print them out. What PCS did for approachable game development, MCS did for approachable song creation, spawning a series of increasingly sophisticated knock-offs.

Back of the box for Racing Destruction Set, Commodore 64 version.

Rich Koenig's Racing Destruction Set (RDS), was a split-screen, isometric-perspective racing game that could be played in either racing or destruction modes, the latter allowing for offensive weapons like oil slicks and landmines in order to impede opponents' progress. Available vehicles included a variety of cars, including a jeep and lunar rover, as well as motorcycles. Where RDS really shined, however, was the ability to modify various in-game elements, like gravity and vehicle components, as well as designing full courses with choice of terrain.

Back of the box for Adventure Construction Set, Commodore 64 version.

Finally, Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (ACS), the most advanced release in this class from EA, allowed gamers to craft complete role-playing games. ACS came with various toolkits to allow the creation of science fiction, spy or fantasy-themed games, and included some sample games to get users started.

Although naturally not as accessible as PCS, ACS nevertheless succeeded in its goal of allowing anyone with enough gumption to create their own top-down, side-perspective[8] RPGs, similar to Ultima (book Chapter 23, "Ultima (1980): The Immaculate Conception of the Computer Role-Playing Game") or Smith's earlier creations, like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Quality Software, 1981; Apple II, Atari 8-bit).

For those who either didn't want to make their own games or gave up in the middle of the process, ACS could either create a game from scratch or finish building a game already started.


[3] The KoalaPad could work with the included stylus or a user's finger.

[4] The Apple Macintosh platform could make use of that system's standard mouse for a more modern analog.



[7] More specifically, a software toy's primary goal is to provide either the parts or allow the creation of the parts to build a game. Compare this to a "virtual playground," like The Sims in Chapter 22, "The Sims (2000): Who Let the Sims Out?" where the primary goal is to essentially play with or manipulate premade elements, with less focus on creativity and creation, and "sandbox" games, like Grand Theft Auto III in Chapter 9, "Grand Theft Auto III (2001): The Consolejacking Life," where the player is able to move about a large environment and perform a wide range of typically realistic activities, but with a primary focus on accomplishing various goals and activities over any type of creative or creation possibilities.

[8] As in Castle Wolfenstein; see Chapter 2, "Castle Wolfenstein (1981): Achtung! Stealth Gaming Steps out of the Shadows."

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