Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 01/84 item 01 - scanned

SOFTWARE STAR IS DIMLY LIT (column)

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Bill Budge, software writer extraordinaire. For those who have been asleep lately, it was Budge who came up with the excellent 'Pinball Construction Kit', a top selling program for the Apple computer. The Journal was motivated to run the story because a lot of money is tied up in Budge's activities and those of games programmers generally. The money we're talking about is enough to make Eugene Evans, Budge's UK counterpart, want to emigrate to America. Budge expects to earn around half a million dollars for the Pinball outfit.

Oddly, Budge is quoted as having received an "under six figure" advance against the royalties from Electronic Arts, the company which has secured the rights to all Budge's games. I suspect that quote was deliberately misleading so that it would be read as "six figures" and frighten off a lot of people who might be planning to jump into the games publishing business.

Simon and Schuster is predicting a $5m royalty payout on a typing course and a Michigan professor is reputedly negotiating a $1/2m advance on some science education programs. Perhaps S & S, too, is trying to put the frighteners on the competition with its claims. In the case of the professor, for the word "negotiating" read "asking" perhaps? I have no doubt the figures are large, but maybe not as huge as people are making out. Bill Budge says he is on a royalty of around 10 per cent of retail. If this is true of the typing course it means that S & S needs to sell between one and three million copies to justify its claim: achievable perhaps, but it will probably take years and is not the sort of thing that one ought to brag about in public unless you have some ulterior motive.

Maybe these companies are simply spending the money in order to squeeze out the competition? They probably see a great future in software, providing they have a large enough slice of the action. The few million each company is spending is peanuts compared with a future in which there are just a few players. These tactics will certainly attract the best programming talent and this will still further tighten the grip of these companies on the marketplace. No small company can possibly offer the sort of advance royalties claimed by various interested parties.

The promotional activities are more like those of the record business than of computer software. Bill Budge, for example, is being made into a 'star'. He is sent on promotional tours as part of the marketing exercise. He turned up at one store to promote his product only to find that they had forgotten he was coming. It seems that the software 'star' system still has a few wrinkles to iron out.

The purpose of all this personal promotion is an attempt to presell his next software product in the same way that Clint Eastwood films and Police albums are presold. A software package at number one in the first week of release is a very desirable state because, like the record business, people buy software hits simply because they are hits.

Thankfully, there are some dissenting voices. The world hasn't yet gone crazy. A vice president of CBS says that a programmer, however important, is behind the scenes. You don't think about the programmer when you play a game in the same way that you think about Barbra Streisand when you listen to one of her records. Broderbund Software, which publishes a number of best sellers such as Choplifter, suggests that a reputation for quality and reliability counts for much when people are parting with cash for products that they've not yet seen. I'd like to think that effective marketing couldn't overcome such important details. Sadly it can.

Perhaps a clue to the future can be found in Budge's comment that his publishing company needs another hit and he's not sure that he's the one to provide it. Electronic Arts acknowledges the comment but firmly believes that the star system and Budge's own desire for another number one will keep him producing the goods. Budge will want to move on to ever more sophisticated programs, inevitably those which require a degree of effort on the part of the user. This dilemma faces many novelists: Do I go for the occasional substantial book or do I pour out pulp novels which give me little personal fulfilment but bring a fortune in royalties? Because Budge is regarded as a bit of a technical whizz by his peers, I suspect that he would prefer to follow the personal fulfilment route. This brings him into direct conflict with the objectives of his publisher who wants to churn out mindless games: a current suggestion is a sort of electronic 'Mr Potato Head' - ugh!

The Wall Street Journal commented that "Mr Budge is running hard to capitalise on public enthusiasm for computer games while it lasts". The "while it lasts" is an appealing notion, but I suspect that computer games will always be with us. They are likely to grow massively in sophistication, though, as the machines become more powerful and their users more educated. I am highly suspicious of the star system that some companies are trying to foist on us. Apart from anything else, it must play havoc with a programmer's productivity. I do believe that companies prepared to throw millions at the industry will do well in the short term, as we have witnessed with the marketing companies behind the ET doll and the Cabbage Patch Kids. Whether they succeed in the longer term may depend on whether they can broaden their horizons beyond short-term gimmicks and create the right marketing and distribution channels for more sophisticated software offerings.

Acknowledgements: Susan Chace, Wall Street Journal, 12 December 1983, and Felix Dennis for drawing the article to my attention.