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

 Matt Barton, Bill Loguidice February 6, 2009

 

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.

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