Creative Computing chats with Bill Budge. Arthur Leyenberger.
Creative Computing Chats With Bill Budge
It was an unexpected call that I received from Terrylynn Pearson. She is the public relations manager at Electronic Arts, and was calling to see if I was interested in interviewing Bill Budge, author of Pinball Construction Set. It seems that Bill was on the road doing some promotional appearances and would soon be in North Jersey.
Naturally I jumped at the chance, and the arrangements were made. I was especially interested in talking to a person who was being billed as a software artist who had some rather unusual ideas about software and what home computers should be. Judging from the ads Electronic Arts has been running, I was somewhat skeptical about the entire phenomenon. That is why I was not sure if I should expect to be meeting a rock star, a prima donna artist, or a hacker. As it turned out, I could not have accurately imagined what Bill Budge is like.
The day of my interview arrived. I was to meet Bill and his entourage at an opening of Crazy Eddie's in Totowa, NJ. I fought my way to the home computer section of the store and there found Bill Budge, a tall, lanky fellow, wearing casual clothes and a big smile. He couldn't be much over 21 years old, I thought.
As soon as Bill's obligations were fulfilled, we set out to get some lunch. New Jersey, being the "diner state,' afforded us several choices, and we quickly agreed on a local diner. Bill Budge, Dave Grady (publications manager), and I arrived at the diner and found a table. Feeling much like a cub reporter for the Daily Planet, and more than a little nervous, I took out my tape recorder and a list of prepared questions and proceeded to have one of the most enjoyable discussions about computers and software that I can recall.
CC: What personal computer did you begin on?
BB: I started on an Apple II which I had bought at the very end of 1978 for half of my annual income. I made $4500 a year, and I spent half of it on the computer.
CC: You mentioned before that you prefer the Atari computer to others?
BB: Yes, but when I am starting a new game I have to program it for the Apple, because I want to get all of the markets. The Apple has the fewest bells and whistles. It has simple sound and few graphics special effects, so I just use whatever is available on the Apple. In a way, that is a weakness because markets for the other machines are getting bigger. Sound is really important now.
CC: Is it hard for you to do a translation?
BB: The way I do it, it's easy. Big pieces of the program just go over because both machines use the same chip. It takes me about two weeks. The only part that can be hard is if you have to do a lot of disk access or disk protection. I never really worry much about that, though.
Pinball Construction Set took about two weeks to translate. It is just basically going through the whole program and finding all the places you were stupid, where you scattered bit maps, and things like that. On Pinball I didn't. I put them all in one file, and I localized all of the I/O stuff, reading the paddles, flippers, buttons, and keyboard. It's all in one big piece.
CC: Can you talk about your next project?
BB: Yes, I think it will involve a little more programming, but the program will help you. The subject matter will be robots. I think that is a hot topic.
CC: Will it be more of a tutorial type of thing?
BB: It will be a construction set, but the key thing is that the user will be able to actually program something. The Pinball Construction Set required only a small amount of programming. I think the program should start helping you as the sophistication of your programming increases.
There will be layers, too. You will be able to program a robot to follow a track on the ground and manipulate a hand. But you can also write little AI programs that will give the robots goals. The program will include some robots, but ideally you will be able to build robots just as good.
It will be a big program. In place of the little bit map editor in the Pinball kit that lets you turn on the dots, this one will have a full graphics editor that might be half the size of the Pinball Construction Set. It's going to be big.
CC: Now that you are no longer a free agent and have signed with Electronic Arts, how much freedom do you have with your projects?
BB: Pretty much total; I can do whatever I want. They will tell me if what I am doing is stupid or a total waste of time. I may tell them that they are wrong, and we will come to an agreement. Usually we agree. We have many similar ideas. I know when something is kind of half-baked. After two weeks of working on a project, you know whether it will work or not.
CC: Electronic Arts is to be commended for promoting the artist behind the product; in fact they are almost treating people like you as rock stars or celebrities. How do you feel about that?
BB: I don't think anyone is really sure how they should be promoting. The important thing is to be promoting the people writing the programs. I am not exactly a rock star personality who is going to kick in my hotel room door unless they take the brown M&Ms out of my M&M bowl.
Dave Grady: There are two things that contribute to this idea that we are setting them up as rock stars: 1) our packaging is like record albums which was done, of course, because the disk reminds you of a record and 2) the photograph in the We See Farther ad was taken by a guy who takes photographs for rock albums.
One of the things I take very seriously, especially after today, is the extent to which software is going to be sold in the Crazy Eddie environment. A quiet personality sure isn't what you need to attract attention.
CC: Bill, do you think the type of image you have affects your products?
BB: Not really. I am always worried about getting too far away from the people who make the market. You can do things as a combination the way John Irving does. He writes a mass market book that is also literate. That is what I want to do and what I am aiming for. But I write my programs primarily for myself.
CC: Who buys Electronic Arts products? Is it adolescent males or guys like me who are over 30 and still enjoy a good game?
DG: All of those. We are asking the same question. Our assumption is that there are people who want high quality stuff that pushes the medium right to the edge. That's our customer.
Our goal is to have a product that appeals. Tripp Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, talks about simple, hot, and deep as the things that you need a program to be. If you get a product that is both simple and deep like Pinball Construction Set, it can be used at different levels. You can simply play the five demo games that are on the disk. Or you can create an elaborate pinball game.
CC: Bill, if you could do anything with a computer without any constraints of hardware, memory or users, what would you want to do?
BB: I think I would start working on expert systems on personal computers. I think that this is the next big applications area; it is really hot right now on big systems. We need a little more memory than we have right now, but we will be there pretty soon.
My interest is home computer software. I'm not in it because it is booming; I have been writing it for a couple years. And I think the key in the home is that the programs must tell you how to use them. Actually, you don't really use them, you talk to them. That is where all of the excitement is right now.
CC: That sounds very similar to your quotation in one of the Electronic Arts ads, where you say, "Programming for a microcomputer is like writing a poem with a 600-word vocabulary.' Then you mention your idea of a software friend. It seems that this, your comments about a program teaching you how to use it, and your interest in expert systems all fit together.
BB: I think what I am doing is the next step. When I first started over a year ago on Pinball, everyone was saying that a program larger than 16K in size is death in this market. Now they say the limit is 64K.
Everything is getting bigger. That is just the direction that things are going in. So I think my next program should push just a little bit further. The way to go now is to program in a little more sophistication in the way the program interacts with the person. The program should know if someone is at the keyboard or joystick or if it is just sitting there idle. It should know if someone is proficient in its use or a novice.
CC: To what extent do you think that the programmer's personality comes through in the program and has an effect on the person using the program?
BB: A lot. On the robot kit, I can choose very boring parts or I can choose to provide exciting and interesting types of parts. And that is a reflection of my personality and the kinds of things I am interested in.
There are different ways that a personality can come through--at the coding level or at a much higher level. As programs get bigger, they are sort of like books; there is plot, characters, and dialogue or the equivalent.
CC: Do you think of yourself as an artist turned programmer or a programmer turned artist?
BB: Programmer turning into an artist for sure. I must admit, as the very beginning the only reason I was good at it was that I was a coder. And I really liked that. I was learning to program. I am really good; I'm a great coder. But I am not pushing that so much anymore because there are thousands of great coders.
CC: So, you are a good coder. How are you doing as an artist?
BB: I think I have been doing pretty well. Even though Raster Blaster was only a video game, I was learning about designing stuff. I got good at drawing. And with Pinball, I learned how to make the parts look good. And laying them out is like design.
Any artist always has misgivings about calling himself an artist. He thinks of himself more as a craftsman. I think a craft becomes an art form when the space of possible solutions becomes so huge that engineering can't carry you through.
Video games are engineered now, but the step I am trying to take now no one can engineer. No one really knows what I should do next, so I must figure it out.
CC: What kind of background should the people who will follow you as programmer artists of the future have?
BB: The programming is less important now, and the tools are getting better, but it always helps to be a good programmer. It is important to like computers and even more important to be able to think of things that people would want to do with their computers before they know themselves. That is a special kind of creativity. You must know in your heart before anyone else does what is going to be good and then follow through.
CC: I guess the question was a thinly disguised "what would you recommend to budding programmers' type of question.
BB: I had a kid ask me yesterday if it was too late to start programming and had all of the good software already been done. All of the good stuff is really going to be done in the future. The stuff we are doing now is crummy compared with what will finally mature.
The best thing to do is to get a computer and start programming. The tools are not yet that great, so you will probably have to learn assembler language, Pascal, or C. It should take about two years to catch up to the state of the art.
CC: Do you have any comments on computer literacy? Is it something we should be striving for?
BB: A lot of kids are simply users. They have no interest in programming. Others will sit down and figure out what programming is all about and get excited about it. But the power of the computer is starting to spread. Right now computing can be hard. Machine language is somewhat inaccessible. And Basic is not quite so bad, but is still blows some people away.
DG: I think it is unreasonable to expect computers to have a bigger impact than reading and writing. Reading and writing did not save all of mankind from stupidity. The problem I have is not with computer literacy but rather with the hype. There is far too much hype.
People are trying to struggle toward a definition of computer literacy that falls short of what literacy really is. I think that to the extent that we use the ability to read and understand Shakespeare as a measuring stick for literacy in the school environment, we use a similarly tough measuring rod for computer literacy.
I think what this stuff is, is paper. For a long time we have had paper, which is really good for expressing ideas that are linear or have to do with relatively static phenomena. If you want to use pencil and paper to think about dynamic phenomena, you've got to know a lot of mathematics that very few people know.
Computers let you think about dynamic phenomena. So I do not think you can overemphasize literacy in that medium. But I think you can hype it and come up with funny definitions of literacy that have something to do with naming the parts of the computer. If you take computer literacy seriously, what percentage of the population is truly computer literate? I'm not; I can't write in assembly language. And when I use that term to talk about someone else, I rarely use it just to mean capable of reading and writing at the simplest level. There must be very few people who are truly computer literate.
CC: Bill, one thing that is quite obvious is that you are an enthusiastic person who is excited about this whole crazy world of home computers.
BB: There is a lot of pressure on people who are trying to be artists. People have been let down a couple of times with their home computers, and they won't take it too many more times.
Usually there is a lot of excitement about a project, especially in the middle of it. I have to force myself to go to bed at 2:00 a.m. with something left undone until the next day. Middles are definitely the best time. The beginning is exciting in a different way, and the end is more agony than anything else--patching things and doing all the rotten stuff that you put off because you knew it would not be much fun. I have a really powerful urge to see things work.
CC: You are, to be frank, one of the superstars . . .
BB: I have been lucky. I have sort of been swept along on the crest of this wave right from the beginning. It gets bigger and bigger, and I try to stay a stroke ahead of it.
I really think that it is amazing that people actually buy software. When you think of what could be done and what is done. To be honest, I look at my Pinball program and feel that it is old stuff. I could do much better.
CC: I think you can too, and will. I know we will all be watching you.
Photo: Raster Blaster
Photo: Pinball Construction Set