Allow me, just for one moment, to reference an article I wrote in February that, judging by the number of comments it got, perhaps seven of you read. Bill Budge? Billy, to his friends? Does that guy's name sound familiar? Before January, when I found out that the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences wanted to hand him a Pioneer Award, I'd never heard of him in my life. You all have an excuse, at least. Me? For shame, this is my job.
As can be read in that woefully neglected DICE 2011 write-up, Budge said that he "essentially" ripped off Pong to create the code for what would later become his first hit, Raster Blaster. In turn, Raster Blaster led to a job at Electronic Arts, where in 1983, he created Pinball Construction Set, a game that was seminal in its use of user-generated content, letting, as it did, gamers define their own flipper action.
So, yes, Pinball Construction Set, greatness, industry-inspiring, pretentious EA advertisements. I love it all, it's beautiful. But let me read one bit back to you: "Budge said that he 'essentially' ripped off Pong to create the code for…" etc., etc. That Pong code, he said, was written on the Apple II--a mass-produced, open platform--and he and his friends would engage in floppy swaps to freely pass around their work.
Said another way, because Budge had access to an open platform, because he could copy and iterate on others' work, because he had an accessible network that allowed him to share his work, he became a pivotal presence in our industry. His mother also probably read to him when he was a child. Probably.
And lest it not be said, Budge's story is not singular; in fact, it's kind of boring and ordinary among those who are often placed in the pantheon of the gaming industry.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Let's talk a bit about George Hotz. As has been widely reported, in January, Hotz opened the proverbial Pandora's Box on the PlayStation 3, disseminating what amounts to a master key that tells the system whether any given bit of code has been approved by Sony to run on the console.
According to Sony's most recent legal filing, 5,700 people in California alone have downloaded the keys to Sony's castle through Hotz's website. For those wondering, California is the most populous state in the Union, with 37 million and change. Also, for what it's worth, somewhere near 50 million PS3s have been sold worldwide.
Also, we appear to be on the verge of an international incident, or something?
The implications of what Sony would have us call a Security Breach! are reaching. Because of Hotz's accomplishment, individuals who own a PS3 are limited only in their know-how for doing whatever the heck they want with an extremely powerful machine. This includes, but is not limited to, coding and running homebrew programs and custom firmware. This also includes playing pirated games.
You heard that right: piracy…with an italicized p.
Judging from the fusillade of legal posturing, Sony appears to be approaching this situation as if Hotz has passed out the means by which every Timmy, Jack, and Eleanor out there can, on a whim, launch the US's full arsenal of nukes at whomever they wish. Uzbekistan, for example. Using the PS3. It's that serious. Clearly, Hotz is a madman and must be stopped. Cleary. Clearly?
In actuality, Hotz has given every Timmy, Jack, and Eleanor the means by which they can, should they choose, cheat and steal their way into a trove of high-quality, expensive-to-make, lucrative-to-sell, lifeblood-giving products. But wait. I like games. I don't want Sony to wither and die from an overwhelming crush of piracy. In this sense, my gut tells me piracy is supremely evil and it is worth repudiating some liberties to maintain The Way of Things.
Of course, my gut also says that I should stop getting chicken tikka masala at Pakwan. But Pakwan's chicken tikka masala is delicious, and therefore, in that regard, my gut is wrong. Perhaps it is also wrong on other levels…
Here's an argument that has an air of speciousness to it, but then again maybe not. As far as mass-audience open platforms go, the PC--and specifically, PCs that run Microsoft's Windows OS--can't be beat. If open platforms equate to rampant piracy, and rampant piracy equates to economic desiccation, then it stands to reason that Microsoft's coffers should be drier than a lizard's eczema-encrusted ass.
During Microsoft's fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, the software company posted profits of $18.76 billion on revenue of $62.484 billion. That's not bad.
And what about Apple, the company that provided a canvas for Bill Budge? For Apple's fiscal year ended September 25, 2010, the Cupertino crew reported profits of $14.013 billion on sales of $65.225 billion. Hey, that's not bad either.
The way here has been tortuous, so let me get to the point. Bill Budge, to my knowledge at least, didn't have a multibillion-dollar international megacorp shouting legal hysteria in his general direction when he and his friends were tinkering with the Apple II. Atari wasn't beating down his door when he riffed on Pong to create Raster Blaster. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials weren't pointing weapons at him and his friends as they swapped floppies over pizza and Fanta.
Instead, EA offered him a job and resources, and as a result, Will Wright now says nice things like: "Pinball Construction Set was the first game that introduced me to the idea of constructive games and systemic thinking. I doubt SimCity would have existed without it."
George Hotz has made it possible for the next Bill Budge to do some crazy-inspirational, game-changing stuff that my diminutive intellect can't begin to imagine. It seems to me that rather than depriving people of their tools--any of their tools--we should be fostering their aspirations, and our future.