CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.


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FEATURE: Code-Breaker, the Rise of #WHERESTHECODE

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The story of Stern Pinball Inc. shipping their games with incomplete code has become a generally accepted practice in our hobby. Nobody is surprised when a new Stern game hits the streets with an incomplete set of modes, not much to shoot for, and “random” awards giving out the same point value over and over and over again. The practice is so accepted, it has become a tolerable joke: for example, “I’ll sell you my restored Fathom when Stern releases a game with complete code!”  A recent movement on Pinside asked collectors to take a pledge: resist buying New-In-Box Stern games until code is complete, in hopes of sending a message to the company by hurting their bottom line. It worked to a certain extent. In a totally non-scientific study, just from reading Pinside, there has been a lot more “I like the theme but I’m not buying ‘til I see code” talk than there was in years prior. Pinside user “Flashinstinct” of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada took it a step further, planting the hashtag “#wheresthecode” into the pinball collectors’ lexicon, hoping to promote change and accountability.

Flashinstinct (that’s how he wants to be identified in this article) was tired of the disorganization and rhetoric associated with Stern code discussions. He took to Pinside and called for a day of action, January 31, 2015, for pinball enthusiasts to bombard Stern’s social media and other contact outlets demanding that games like Star Trek, Avengers, and The Walking Dead receive a code update they sorely needed in order to make the games whole. Here’s what Flashinstinct had to say in the first post of the “@wheresthecode” Pinside thread (which has been heavily edited since its first appearance a month ago):

“Ok folks….. I’ve had enough of the where’s the code, when is Stern going to release new code…..can we do something about this code….Can we fix this code…. all these threads achieve nothing but getting a lot of people on pinside annoyed, others get mad, other bash each other and in the long run nothing gets done. So as of today…..Mark your calendars and do something productive….on January 31st I vow to post on Sterns facebook page and twitter feeds with something about finishing the code. And I encourage everyone to do the same. Mine will read something to the effect of:

“You keep releasing games but not finishing the code? What gives?? If you can create a new platform and 3 new games a year why can’t you polish the code?”

I don’t hold a particular hatred for Stern as I wait until the code is polished before buying there games but I’ll jump on board with everyone to make Stern a bit more accountable. If everyone that is pissed off is willing to get banned from Stern’s facebook page for a while I encourage you to do this and get it over with. This will keep the folks at Stern busy for a while and it will get the message across.  In turn, this will reduce the amount of bitching, whining and hatred on this forum and will clear space for more productive posts.

SO MARK YOUR CALENDARS AND POST ON JAN 31!!!”

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An early meme from the campaign.

 

Facebook was the main target to get the code complaints out to the public. It was known from the start that Stern’s social media team would simply delete posts and ban users that raised questions and concerns that ran contrary to the image they wanted to portray on their page. Heck, if you haven’t been banned from Stern’s Facebook page at least once for sarcastic or questioning posts, you can’t call yourself a real pinball collector (I got the ban hammer for the first time shortly before Credit Dot existed).

January 31st fell on a Saturday, which may have been either poor or genius planning on Flashinstinct’s part. Leading up the kickoff, there were a multitude of attitudes toward the project. Some thought it wasn’t worth their time because it wouldn’t change a damn thing. Others thought Flashinstinct should get off Stern’s back because the company is, singlehandedly, keeping pinball alive by releasing new games, regardless of how incomplete the code is. Others still, were just as fed up as Flashinstinct and wanted to do as much as they could to support the project hoping to inspire change. Below are some reactions to the project itself:

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I talked to Flashinstinct about a couple of issues in the past week, and the divided reception was one topic we covered:

“You’ll always have people on both sides of the fence and that’s fine. Some people will fight tooth and nail for something they believe in, one way or the other. Some people think I am doing this for fame, some to stir up the pot, others are totally for it and some people just flat out hate me. All I can say is that I wanted to create something for the little guy, the consumer and pinball enthusiasts that are tired of not being heard. I’m not against Stern, I do believe that they make good pinball machines. I just wanted them to be more accountable to the home market and try to make code a priority. It almost feels like they have put code files on the shelves and revisit them when they feel like it.”

Things ended up kicking off before the weekend of January 31st. Flashinstinct called for help to identify existing Stern code idiosyncrasies and bugs. Catchy, well-designed, “meme-like” images were created to support the cause. Re-reading the thread, it is plain to see that none of this was created with a mean spirit or sneaky ulterior motives–it was simply a grassroots campaign to try and push a company toward code responsibility. Since Stern’s Facebook page was going to be on lockdown, a “Where’s The Code” Facebook page was created so that pinball fans could have a voice. A minor “win” came early: it seemed that Stern’s social media team blacklisted the “#wheresourcode” hashtag on Facebook, proving that they were aware of the campaign and had preemptively battened down the hatches for a bumpy weekend ride. An insightful supporter tweaked his hashtag so that it wouldn’t be auto-blocked on Facebook and became one of the first to officially kick off the campaign:

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This post was, of course, removed within minutes of being submitted. Stern also completely removed the comment feature from their page to prepare for the barrage of code-related concerns raised by owners and enthusiasts. The night before January 31st, it was business as usual for Stern, sharing a picture of their new Wrestlemania Pro being filmed for a promotional video.  To try and keep the campaign as clean and fair as possible, Flashinstinct took the high road and also added praise for Stern games that were completely coded:

“I added the positive memes because I didn’t want to make it solely about code problems, but also Stern’s code successes. Obviously Stern as made phenomenal games…Tron, Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, to name a few. You have to look at both sides of the coin.

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00-codes11The January 31st date came and went, and obviously, no code was released. There was a promise that Star Trek code was on its way from designer Steve Ritchie himself, but really, that’s been rumoured to be in the works for quite some time. I guess Stern got the message, but this isn’t an issue where indicators of change can be immediately be pinpointed. However, in all honesty, I don’t think much is going to change. Stern will keep selling games, operators and collectors will keep buying, and the cogs in the machine will keep turning. If Gary Stern thought lack of code was hindering sales, I think it would be addressed immediately.  However, it is hard for the company to draw cause and effect between code dissatisfaction and poor performance on the balance sheet. It is much easier to blame a bland theme or a poorly designed game for lagging sales. Most of these code complaints are coming from the collector market–the very same market that Gary Stern has said, time and time again, is not the company’s bread and butter. He has made the assertion that operators are Stern’s most important source of revenue. Up until quite recently, I’ve found Mr. Stern’s attitude towards the home enthusiast very dismissive, which has always been troublesome for me to reconcile. I don’t think an operator cares if the “Zombie Horde” mode is not functional or not on the Walking Dead Pro he’s running at the local arcade, so in essence, why should Gary Stern? For the most part, Flashinstinct agreed with this in our brief correspondence:

“You can’t expect the home market to wait forever for these updates. People feel deceived and tricked when code never gets revised and the machine is not working as intended.  Stern sends out statements that they are “working on code”. You can’t have a more open ended statement than that. I would counter and ask: where is the proof? If they have time to release three games in one year, setup an assembly line for the Medieval Madness Remake, accommodate time to create a new operating platform, and plan the logistics of moving their facilities to a new location, then they should have made time to address code issues and fixes. I don’t really think Stern takes the home market seriously.”

Anyhow, the campaign chugged along with regular updates. More smartly designed memes followed, but with no apparent movement or acknowledgement from Stern on the issue.  It made for little to talk about. Flashinstinct again highlighted the soft-handed approach of the campaign, tagging each picture with the phrase “Make a smart pinball purchase…wait until code is finished before buying”, echoing the sentiments of the previous Pinside pledge campaign.  The campaign, from my perspective had slowed to a crawl. For those that like forshadowing, Flashinstinct posted this message on page 12 of his thread:

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The “Offending” logo.

A t-shirt campaign with the “Where’s the Code, Stern?” logo on it (based on Stern’s current logo) was made available via a tiltsourcing-style model. All of the profits were to go to charity. Regular followers of the thread will know where this is headed; those with any knowledge of trademark law will as well. It now seemed Stern wasn’t standing pat on the whole issue–they were instead drawing up a cease and desist order to send to Pinside, requesting the offending image be removed and as well as all links to the sale of the shirts with the logo on it. It seems the parody image of their logo was too close to the real thing for their liking. Flashinstinct removed what he thought necessary, but then tried to respond with a different logo that, again, was too similar to the Stern logo. In the end, moderators banned him from posting in his very own thread. The Pinside moderators did respond forthwith, as did Pinside founder Robin himself, stating that the ban didn’t have anything to do with expressing free speech or opinion, but due to Flashinstinct’s refusal to abide by Pinside’s copyright rules after doling out a warning about the order they had received. Here is moderator Xerico’s explanation of the action taken:

“We told the [original poster] that Stern had raised a copyright infringement notification to Pinside.  In accordance with Pinside rules, once the copyright infringement was properly submitted, Robin considered the request and then decided to remove the links to the t-shirts and logo.  The [original poster] was notified about the reason, which was the logo. He then continued to create different logos that were not much different.  He was then directly told by the Mod Team to stop.  He did not listen, and continued anyway. So he was ejected from his own thread.  He was not ejected for free speech issues. He was ejected because he ignored a directive from the mod staff.  We have been discussing the issue with him, and he will be returning to his own thread.  But when the Mod Staff makes a request regarding a post, please follow it. If you disagree, please feel free to start a moderator feedback thread and we’ll be happy to discuss our decision.  We work as a Moderator Staff. There are no lone wolves. We discuss these issues and then we reach an agreement and then act as a team.  I hope this clears the air a bit.”

And an excerpt from Pinside boss Robin’s response:

“We have made a very clear decision here, which is to follow the legal requests to take down (links to) copyright infringing stuff that was being offered for sale.  Note that we have not closed this thread because protest and fee speech is pretty important for a discussion forum. But this is also a privately owned website and I simply cannot allow people breaking the law and putting the site (and me personally) at risk.  Please try and be respectful to Pinside staff and try to understand that Pinside is not pirate country.”

Many were quick to assume that Pinside bowed to the request in an attempt to not rock the boat with Stern, or not biting the hand that feeds. Stern is a big player and Pinside maintains a pretty close relationship with the company (I believe Mr. Stern visited Pinside’s official arcade, the Koog, the last time he was in the Netherlands). From my point of view, it doesn’t look like Pinside is carrying a political agenda here, its just another instance of a pinball company protecting their trademark (and rightly so, I guess) and a third party trying to protect their interest from violations. Robin goes on:

“Look, I’ve talked to a lot of the people at Stern and trust me, I’ve been pretty critical in those talks about a lot of things. I’ve told them how I hate the LE model and that I am worried about the unfinished code situation. I’ve told them I disliked the new power button location. Etc. Etc. They were very interested in my criticism and we had great discussions.  In response to the takedown request for the infringing t-shirt design I have had a back and forth with some folks at Stern and I’ve pressed them that freedom of speech (and the right to protest) is very important, especially in a forum.  Me personally, I think this protest has gotten to a point where it might start to be doing more harm than good. The message has come across, maybe we need to give it some time now. However, if you feel differently, then please know that I have no intent whatsoever to close this thread down IF -and only if- it is kept respectful and not looking to find the boundaries of the law or putting Pinside in a position where it simply does not want to be in.”

00-codes12I’m not sure I would agree with this project doing more harm than good. It is being rolled out in a far more respectful manner than much of the other static about code on Pinside. Any Stern customer, which, for the record I am not, has the right to kick up a fuss if they are dissatisfied, just as they should sing praise when they are satisfied.  We have been assured that Stern has heard the masses loud and clear.  But how do we know that?  There has been little to no acknowledgement from the Stern camp to verify that change is coming.  The “wait and see” approach doesn’t work: just ask an Avengers or Star Trek owner.  Regardless, the #wheresthecode logo has been changed to one that carries a generic, off-the-shelf font, and looks as if it is going to continue unfettered, if not a little gun shy.

I don’t think the last chapter has been written here. The C&D order has only called attention to the #wheresthecode movement. It probably would have kept moving in a quiet corner of Pinside, continuing to release funny memes for the collector’s enjoyment with little fanfare (to the delight of those that doomed the project from the start). Now it has kind of grown into a bigger animal, and one that is much more difficult to control as it spins out of control, wrongly citing issues of censorship as a way to squash code talk. Maybe Stern should stick to selling to operators, as they really don’t know how to interact with the collector market. As I stated at the outset, there was an already shifting tide in amongst the community about buying games with unfinished code prior to this campaign’s appearance. I think the next year and a half will be very telling for Stern Pinball: to see if the message was received, and to see if home buyers refraining from buying machines with incomplete code can hurt the company’s bottom line. I’ll leave you with a final quote from Flashinstinct that I obtained earlier today:

“My original intention remains the same: not to give Stern Pinball Inc. a bad name, but to make them more accountable to their existing clients that are waiting on promised features and code updates, in some instances for more than two years. Potential clients have a right to know what they are getting into.”

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The “Redesigned” Logo.

 


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Featured Game: Gottlieb’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS

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It can be said that nearly all of the early Gottlieb solid state machines were an exercise in form over function. We’ve spoken a lot about the perils of Gottlieb’s System 1 boardset here on Credit Dot–I dedicated an entire article to Gottlieb’s fall from atop the pinball mountain once solid state technology became the industry norm. I don’t know why, but I have a soft spot for these rudimentary, simplistic, one-dimensional games that Gottlieb put out between 1977 and 1980. Where the gameplay is lacking, the art package more than makes up for it. Charlie’s Angels is a curious case: the art package is up there with the best of the period and it tried to do adopt some pretty elaborate rules (bucking the simplistic limitations of the hardware), but is generally regarded as a ho-hum forgettable Gottlieb offering.

00-charl04By 1977, Columbia Pictures had taken over Gottlieb lock, stock and barrel. The studio giant wanted to diversify its global brand into other forms of entertainment–they already had their hands in music and television, so the arcade was the next logical place to claim dominance. On paper it was a slam dunk: they absorbed a company that was at the very top of its game, nearly unrivalled for pinball supremacy in the early-1970s. Who knew that Gottlieb’s industry supremacy would grind to a halt once the solid state era was ushered in. You can play the blame game here all you want–Columbia mismanagement, uninspired game design, unreliable parts–but I think it was a perfect storm of many factors at Gottlieb paired with the performance of their pinball contemporaries.

One of the early game-changers actually pre-dates the solid state era. Wizard! and Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Bally, in 1975 and 1976 respectively, introduced the idea of the licenced theme to pinball. No longer would a company have to rely on a card game or billiards to sell a machine to an audience, they used celebrities and well known film and television series.  Comfort for the pinball player now came from familiar faces, not familiar rules of popular past-times. Bally was quick to strike over the next few years as solid state technology hit its stride, licencing the images of the Six Million Dollar Man, Bobby Orr, Kiss, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Evel Knievel, Star Trek, and Hugh Hefner just to name a few. During this same period, Gottlieb licenced just five of their System 1 titles, despite being intimately connected to the film, music and television industry through their parent Columbia Pictures. For better or worse, I don’t know how Gottlieb resisted slapping an image of a Columbia property on each and every one of their games to make up for design and ruleset deficiencies.  [Ed. Note- Those five licenced System 1 games were: Sinbad, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Charlie’s Angels, Buck Rogers and the Incredible Hulk]

Charlie’s Angels did have an image slapped on it, almost literally.  The show had a connection to Columbia’s television arm, and was probably an easy acquisition on the licencing front.  I know the licences during this era seem pretty arbitrary to gameplay–one licence could be interchanged with the next with little to no alteration of the game itself. This was a time when fancy toys, like, say, Dr. Who’s Time Expander or Demolition Man’s Cryo-Claw, were not designed specifically for the licence. The Charlie’s Angels licence seems especially disconnected from the gameplay, and there may be a reason for that. In an interview with PA Pinball, game designer Allen Edwall had this to say about Charlie’s Angels:

“[Charlie’s Angels] evolved from a test design that helped verify the solid-state electronics, then to trying out all kinds of features, like dumping final scores to a teletype machine, allowing players in a multi-player game to tilt out or subtract score from other players, as well as many other innovations, most of which did not make it to the final commercial games because of the fact that customers paid to play. Tilting out another player probably would not have worked for the paying public.”

Reading between the lines, we see the reason for the disconnect on Charlie’s Angels: it was a test design for System 1 games to see how the solid state operating system would perform. Charlie’s Angels was released in November of 1978, a month before Gottlieb released both Dragon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If I had to guess, I’d say that the licence for Charlie’s Angels crossed someone’s desk, and it was quickly paired up with Edwall’s test design to get it out onto the street as soon as possible. If, say, the art package for Dragon was paired with the test design, perhaps it may not have fared as well. However, pair it with the images of everyone’s favourite female crime fighting trio and the cumbersome layout stood a fighting chance at holding the customer’s attention.

They made an absolute ton of these games, nearly 8,000 units, which sounds impressive, but puts it at the middle of the pack numbers-wise of all System 1 games.  Despite the high production run, Charlie’s Angels isn’t a game that is seen all that often in private collections or retro arcades: one can guess that many of these games found their way to the junkyard after their arcade runs, due to their operating system unreliability (one can draw the same conclusion for the low survival rate of many of the Gottlieb System 1 titles).  An electromechanical version of the game was also release in far fewer numbers, 350 units, to appease operators weary of changing over to solid state technology (many of these skeptical ops were European buyers).

Good morning, Angels...

Good morning, Angels…

The game would have first hit arcades during the Angels’ third season. The backglass features Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd, who were the Angels du jour at the time of production. The most iconic angel, Farrah Fawcett, had left the show after the first season to pursue other ventures (resulting in a messy contract dispute), which explains her absence.  Any casual consumer of popular culture would surely name Ms. Fawcett if asked to name an actress on the show, despite her appearance in only about one-fifth of the total Angels episodes produced.  Fawcett did return to the show during this third season for guest spots in a handful of episodes which bolstered ratings slightly, but overall, it was the season that marked the end of the show’s cultural relevance. Time slots changes and a revolving door of actresses in “Angel” lead roles didn’t help matters. The property was red hot in its first season with Fawcett on the payroll, and perhaps Fawcett’s absence from the pinball machine’s art package is why this machine isn’t more sought after in the collecting community.

The oranges, purples and yellows on this machine just pop and will make it stand out in any lineup of games. It is kind of disappointing that artist Gordon Morison wasn’t given more leeway with the licence—the actresses that portray the Angels appear only once on the mirrored backglass, and then just once more on the playfield, depicting the very same pose that appears on the glass. There were some disconnected choices for the playfield art: a dancing red-headed girl, a cartoon policeman and a blonde in a purple leotard flinging a man by his arm into the upper pop bumper. None of these people bear any striking resemblance to characters in the show, unless that cop is supposed to be an undercover Bosley. The playfield is busy with colour (that’s a good thing) with pinks, oranges and blues on a yellow background. Arrows point in nearly every direction indicating rule and scoring changes, but Mr. Morison  does his best to organize it in such a way that it doesn’t seem cluttered. I am a fan of the curl of smoke that arcs under the Angels as a 70s muscle car peels away behind the five-bank of drop targets. Gordon Morison is at the top of his game here, using flash, dazzle and colour to draw attention away from the fact that there is little to tie the licence to the game other than a heavy reliance on the iconic Angel outline.

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And then there’s gameplay. The game has a quirky set of rules that may have been deep for the time, but overall, end up bogging the game down. Whereas System 1 cousins Cleopatra and Totem have a clear objective to achieve (lighting all five coloured pairs in the former, and lighting the drop targets via the rollovers in the latter), Charlie’s Angels really doesn’t have a readily apparent objective past bashing drop targets. Like many other games in the System 1 family, points boil down to the bonus and its multipliers. If there is a chase in the ruleset, it comes from tracking down the multipliers, and it takes a pretty good memory to do so. The multiplier will advance by completing the 5-target bank or completing the C-H-I-C rollovers (the C’s are connected, roll one C and you get both). Further, if 2X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the stand-up bulls-eye on the lower right. If 3X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 5-target bank. If 4X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 3-target bank on the right. Got all that? Good.  See if you can follow me on how the rollovers work. Further to advancing bonus, the letters H and I will reset the 3-target bank and increase their value to 5,000 points each. If you can roll over H when your bonus ladder is full, it’ll light the 3-target bank for an extra ball (yeah, you gotta knock them all down to collect).  As you can see, this right bank of targets is pretty important. Star rollover buttons down the side of the game are connected to the downed targets in the 5-target bank, lighting each for 1,000, which is a decent payday for a rollover button. I said above, artist Morison organizes the writing on the playfield in a way that it doesn’t seem visually cluttered, however, the sheer amount of ruleset verbiage on the playfield is confusing. What isn’t written on the playfield spills over onto the apron card with more “If-Then” rules.

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The dead space alleyway between the upper rail and the 5-target bank. Balls funnel out from rollovers, but cannot be shot back up thru them.

The game has a kicker arm on the bottom right by the dancing ginger bikini girl, and another up top just to the left of the Angels. This upper left kicker is a spot of trouble with indirect hits and dribbling balls, as it likes to send the ball careening toward the right outlane. The slow dribbler happens often in this area as there is a channel between the 5-target bank and the upper rail which is fed by the C and H rollovers. This channel has always concerned me, as seems out of place as a dead zone. I was troubled that I could never get the ball up into the area with enough force and accuracy to get it up and into the rollovers from the bottom right flipper. In all honesty, I thought I had re-assembled my game wrong after tearing it down. I have come to the realization that it is more of a one way ball exit from the rollovers, and it takes a lucky shot to get it up through a rollover lane from the bottom: I’ve only done it once. It is a bit of a wasted space, but at least it randomizes the ball movement after exits the CHIC lanes: pop bumpers normally do that, but Charlie’s Angels has just one pop under the lanes. The other pop resides lower down on the playfield, dangerously close to the flippers. This pop, like the upper kicker, likes to send the ball over to that troublesome right outlane.

If nothing else, the game can be commended for its asymmetrical layout, which is a nice contrast to the symmetrical layouts of other Gottlieb games of the era like Cleopatra and Pinball Pool.  Angels game designer Allen Edwall is an odd figure in pinball history.  He designed Centigrade 37, which, for many, represents the high water mark of late electromechanical game design, but if you look at his resume, he was mostly in charge of Gottlieb’s solid state hardware design and software development.  That explains his less than prolific run as a designer: he had plenty of other duties in his job description.  Centigrade 37 was his first game, and I think we can agree, looking at the other games he designed, he wouldn’t have a hand in designing another game that matched the timeless popularity of his first.  Charlie’s Angels downfall may be that a “computer guy” was in charge of the design.  The game suffers, in spite of trying for a cumbersome and esoteric set of “If-Then” rules that tested the bounds of the early solid state system. In this day and age, folks call a cumbersome set of rules on a game “deep”. However, on early games like this one, that have to rely on the written word to explain what’s going on, it just gets really confusing. Compare the amount of playfield text on Charlie’s Angels to that of Joker Poker. Joker Poker has far less explaining to do, due to a more straightforward set of rules. Joker Poker is seen as the superior game because it uses its layout to keep the player engrossed, not a jumbled set of “If-Then” rules. Perhaps Charlie’s Angels was supposed to be a showcase of what the System 1 hardware and software was capable of through an intricate set of “When Lit” inserts, but I think it kind of backfired, making for a game that devolved into ignoring all the rules and simply hammering on the drop targets.

As I mentioned, I have one of these games in my collection (for the moment). It arrived at my home in quite a frightful state, having been neglected in a barn or other type of out-building for many years. The boards were dead on arrival: corrosion and burnt transistors had taken their toll. With some tender loving care, a playfield touch-up and clear coat, backglass preservation, connector re-pinning, replacement parts from the Pinball Resource and a PI1x4 board from Pascal Janin, the game now looks and plays great (well, it looks better than it plays, given the discussion above). The Pascal PI1X4 board, which replaces all three System 1 backbox PCBs and the rudimentary cabinet sound board, is a superbly-designed compact board.  In retrospect, it was a pricy addition to a game that doesn’t command that much money on the pinball market, but it certainly brought new life to a game that needed it and I picked up the game for quite a steal. The Pascal board adds extra rules to some of games in the System 1 family, but the additions to Charlie’s Angels are negligible: a roll-over skill shot and an extra ball re-light. Given the often questionable constancy of the System 1 boards, it is nice to have the extra assurance of stability that the PI1x4 provides. A refresh of the side cabinet art was also needed on the game, as the purple Angels had faded to a pathetic grey. I cut my own stencil, accounted for the trademark “Gottlieb overspray”, found a suitable colour match in a rattle can and brought the art back to life. I also went ahead and bypassed the PI1x4 sound components, which accurately mimic the early System 1 “bloops” and “bleeps”, opting to install a set of authentic Gottlieb chimes. The process was extremely simple, and the sound of those chimes really works to make the gameplay more appealing.

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From the FLIPPP! website: the amazing PI1x4 board that replaces all three backbox boards and the cabinet sound board. Less interconnect wires mean better stability. Better stability means less headaches!

I’m unsure whether Charlie’s Angels will have legs in my collection. I think sheer pride in the fact that I brought the game back to life is keeping it around for the time being. If I had unlimited funds and space, which at the current time I have neither, I’d like to obtain a Bally Six Million Dollar Man machine to install beside the Angels and create the ultimate pinball shrine to 1970s hour-long, action drama television (there’s a bit of history there too, missing pinball Angel Farrah Fawcett was once married to Lee Majors, the Bionic Man himself). You can’t expect the world from a System 1 game as, admittedly, it was a transition period in the business.  The cumbersome rules gave a bit more, but perhaps a bit more simplicity would have been in order.  In essence, I’m asking for more and less all at the same time.  Certainly the rules betrayed the game, and the layout did nothing to make up for its confusing faults. If Joker Poker represents the high water mark of System 1 games, Charlie’s Angels may very well bring up the rear.

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Many thanks to my beautiful wife for talking pictures of the Angels machine. You would have got some dumpy cell phone pictures otherwise. Also, I highly recommend reading PA Pinball’s interview with Charlie’s Angels designer Allen Edwall (I quoted from this interview in the article).  It provides a lot of insight as to what was going on at Gottlieb during the System 1 days from Edwall’s perspective.  It is a designer’s perspective that hasn’t been canonized in pinball history, and therefore, a valuable one.

Further Reading:

PA Pinball – An Interview with Allen Edwall
FLIPPP! Pinball (Pascal Janin) – PI1x4 All In One Board for Gottlieb System 1 Pinballs
IPDB.org – Charlie’s Angels
Pinside – Charlie’s Angels
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair


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FEATURE: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Michael Jackson and Pinball

It is surprising that no official Michael Jackson pinball machine exists.  His global celebrity and constant image reinvention lends itself nicely to a pingame.  Despite the lack of a licenced pinball bearing his image, the troubled pop icon’s relationship with this crazy hobby of ours runs deep. From being photographed with machines, to having a solid row of Sterns at his Neverland Ranch, Mr. Jackson certainly appears in the footnotes of pinball history. I originally intended this article to chronicle the somewhat bizarre eBay sale of a Data East pinball machine mocked up to promote a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial (yes, you read that right: a pinball machine was made to promote a promotional advertisement), however, in doing some preliminary research, I realized that perhaps a brief exploration of Jackson’s connection to the pinball world would be beneficial to situate the one-off Data East “Pepsi Chase” machine into proper historical context.

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A Thriller-era Michael Jackson playing a Bally Space Invaders. A Bally Time Zone is in the background.

 

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Mr. Jackson as Peter Pan, airbrushed on the hood of Jackson’s Neverland golf cart.

Michael Jackson had a unique take on the idea of opulence: commissioned paintings of himself in nineteenth century royal garb, life-size superhero statues, animatronic robots, carnival rides, live animals (Bubbles the Chimp being the most famous) and, of course, arcade machines. These days, a pinball machine or stand-up video cabinet is probably the most normal thing you could own from that list, but in a time when having one (or multiples) in your home was a rarity, it was just one more reason to characterize the King of Pop as a weirdo. I’m no Jackson expert, but I assume his love for coin operated ephemera stemmed from his fascination with being young and refusal to let the feelings of childlike wonderment slip away. Some call it Peter Pan Syndrome. Mr. Jackson did nothing to help this persona characteristic, as it was reported that he himself leaked an untrue story that he was spending time in an oxygenated chamber to defy the effects of growing old.  As Jackson aged, the public perception of his obsession with being young became more troubling to comprehend…and then the allegations of child molestation surfaced.  His public image went from “obsessed with being a young child” to “obsessed with being WITH young children”, and it is a reputation that never really went away.  Michael Jackson’s is a story of a childhood lost to super-stardom, and he tried just about everything he could to recreate those lost feelings and memories. In the end, I guess that is what many of us from our generation are doing as well: trying to recapture, or somehow commoditize, those fleeting moments from our youth by amassing souvenirs of a bygone era.

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The Jackson 5, Michael in the middle, surrounded by a Bally Kick Off and Six Million Dollar Man.

Sentimentality aside, here are a couple of the more interesting pinball footnotes in Mr. Jackson’s oeuvre:

In the book Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, there is one amusing anecdote retold about Jackson and a pinball machine. Luckily for you, the reader, you don’t have to plow through Greenburg’s book for one small reference. Washington Times reviewer Mike Musgrove does the hard work for us and mentions it in his review:

“Although he later became famous for his erratic behavior and million-dollar spending sprees, music executives who worked with Jackson from the beginning of his career turn up in Greenburg’s pages to declare that the young singer had a head for business. Jackson wrote notes in the margins of his contracts, recalls a former CBS records executive; Jackson made attentive comments in meetings, remembers another business associate. Unfortunately, the most memorable anecdotes that Greenburg unearthed tend to undermine his thesis –– such as the time Jackson called his lawyer in the middle of the night to complain about a broken pinball machine. Oh, Michael!”

Dollars to doughnuts a service call was made for the malfunctioning machine–I can’t see the King of Pop busting out the soldering iron and multi-meter to diagnose and replace a fried transistor.

Another interesting pinball footnote comes from the song “Liberian Girl”, which appeared on Mr. Jackson’s Bad album in 1987. Watch the interviewer try to ascribe feeling to Mr. Jackson’s authorship of the song, only to be shot down by the King of Pop himself, saying the inspiration came from his gameroom:

The video for “Liberian Girl”, which in all honesty was a throwaway song from the Bad album, featured Billy Dee Williams, Paula Abdul, Lou Diamond Phillips, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Debbie Gibson, Steve Guttenberg and a host of other decades-past throwbacks (including Mr. Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles). Sadly, no pinball machines appear. The credits for this wandering, directionless, annoyingly self-reflexive piece run almost as long as the video itself, giving each “star” a still frame and text credit (Bubbles gets one too, just before Suzanne Somers). After listening to the song, any guesses as to which pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing that inspired the beat?  (I’d guess either Williams Big Guns or Space Station, for the record…)

In 2008, Julien’s Auctions secured the right to liquidate Michael Jackson’s gameroom and other items from the Neverland Ranch, which had recently been foreclosed. All the items were removed from Mr. Jackson’s property and the original “arcade” space from the Ranch was recreated in a downtown Los Angeles building for public viewing. Shortly after securing the rights to sell, Mr. Jackson reneged on the agreement with the auction house, wanting instead to keep the items. Courts intervened, and a settlement was reached: in lieu of selling the items which had already been staged for auction, they would be displayed publicly, for a short time, in a museum-like exhibition entitled “The Collection of the King of Pop”. Thankfully, the people over at Pinsane.com have preserved a virtual walkthrough of the arcade collection. In looking over the items, I guess it is somewhat impressive, but I wouldn’t call it jaw-dropping.  The collection features a garden variety assortment of arcade games (curiously, no Moonwalker), and the pinball fare included the newest Stern titles of the time (Striker Xtreme, Austin Powers, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Terminator 3, and The Simpsons Pinball Party) along with two Williams Superpin classics (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure). It is interesting to note that Indiana Jones is the only pinball machine not powered on for the interactive tour. I’m unclear as to the status of the gameroom items after their public exhibition.  The King of Pop died just a few months after the exhibition’s closing and Julien’s continued to be the go-to source for estate liquidation. They famously sold the jacket he wore in the Thriller video for $1.8 million dollars in 2011.

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“Pinball Row” from Julien’s Los Angeles exhibit of Jackson’s arcade memorabilia.

Perhaps the oddest connection to the pinball world is the seemingly never-ending sale saga of a “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine cobbled together from a Data East Laser War machine.  All signs point to the machine first appearing in 1987 at the time of the release of Mr. Jackson’s aforementioned Bad album. Jackson was a long-time Pepsi pitchman. He most famously set his hair on fire at a mock concert filmed by Pepsi for a commercial–the torched tresses were due to ill-timed pyrotechnics. Despite a lawsuit that followed, Mr. Jackson and Pepsi continued their mutual promotion into the late eighties when a five-minute television commercial titled “Chase” was produced (or, over-produced, much like the music videos of the time: everyone thought they were an auteur no matter the medium).  The commercial featured tired action film tropes and a version of the song “Bad” with lyrics changed to suit the Pepsi brand.

At some point, someone took a Data East Laser War machine and repurposed it to create the one-off “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine. One can probably draw the conclusion that Data East had little to do with the machine’s re-theme, and was probably mocked up as a promotional piece by a third party. The re-theme kept the Laser War playfield unchanged, adding only new side art and a new backglass.  We do have a picture of Mr. Jackson playing the machine, and the haircuts of the people in the picture do look historically correct (which, for me, is a great indication of authenticity!) The game has floated in and out of the pinball community’s consciousness through marketplace sale advertisements over the past few years.  Curiously the Internet Pinball Database has no entry for the game, and little information exists other than the cached sale listings.  As I stated before, my gut tells me Data East had nothing to do with building the machine for Jackson or Pepsi, even though Data East is a company whose motto could have been “Licencing Everything”.  They were known for pricy one offs based upon existing machines—they most notably made two Aaron Spelling machines at his wife’s request and made a single unit for film producer Joel Silver.  Looking at pictures of the Spelling and Silver games, you can tell Data East did them in house as the art has all the spit and polish of a professionally assembled game.  Everything was themed: playfield, music, callouts, DMD animations, backglass and side art.  The “Pepsi Chase” machine is a little bit harder to peg due to very few pictures and incredibly faded artwork.  Data East was a new company at the time, Laser War was their first game.  Was the “Pepsi Chase” machine their first attempt at re-theming production games to kickstart extra income, or was this a private firm cobbling together a promotional piece to further the link between Mr. Jackson and Pepsi?  It is hard to tell.

The game first appeared in a California Craigslist ad in June 2010, which read:

“I am helping a friend sell a one of a kind pinball machine. We had an expert check on the validity of the claim. He looked for over 3 months for another machine like this and assured us that this was the only one of its kind EVER PRODUCED! Pepsi teamed with Michael Jackson for the famed faulty Pepsi ad in the late 80’s and as we all remember, Michael caught fire during the filming of one of the shoots. This machine was made to commemorate the joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi. Michael Jackson originally wanted this machine, but my friend was able to get his hands on it. It initially was going to be shipped to Germany (all lettering is in German and coinage is based in the old german deutschemarc). This is the perfect piece for an avid pinball machine collector or the ULTIMATE MICHAEL JACKSON fan. All of the commentary during the game was done by none other than Michae Jackson himself. The machine recently underwent an overhaul. Springs and rubber were replaced during the service. My friend is only willing to entertain serious offers. Don’t waste our time with a lowball offer. If you want to search the internet to locate another, go ahead and try. This is the only one out there. Machine works great and can be turned on inside the locked area or you can use Deutcshmarcs.”

The three pictures above were included in this Craigslist ad.  The machine appears to be sun-faded and washed out, and may be a sign of the less-than-professional materials used to create the Jackson/Pepsi art.  The “selling for a friend” theme seems to be key in the Pepsi Chase machine history. The Craigslist ad incorrectly links the Chase commercial with the one in which Michael Jackson’s hair catches on fire: four years separates these events.  The listing says the machine was made to “commemorate the Joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi”: they had already been partners for quite some time by the time that this game would have been made.  There is lots of verbal bravado using incorrect facts, which shows that the seller may not know all that much about the history of the game.  The seller also claims that the machine was made in the United States for export to the German market. The Craigslist ad also hints that custom speech was used to replace the original Laser War sound package. Some of the best pictures that do exist of this machine were originally included in this ad. From them, we can see the Laser War playfield looks to be in its original state.  Overall, the ad kind of smells fishy…but in the way all pinball ads smell fishy when written up by non-pinball enthusiasts: too much exuberance and salesmanship, leaving the pinball-attuned reader questioning the entire body of the work.

Pinball community mainstay “Pistol” Pete Haduch shared his e-mail correspondence with the same seller (at least it appears to be the same seller) on rec.games.pinball in May 2011.  The game’s owner writes:

“I have a friend who has a rare pinball machine. He was told it was a one of a kind. If you remember the Pepsi venture when they hired Michael Jackson on to push Pepsi (when Michaels hair caught on fire), they had some promo stuff with Michael and Pepsi stuff pictured together. Well, my friend has a pinball machine depicting Michael jumping off the back end of a Pepsi truck. The whole game has Michaels real voice as the actual voice over. Id like to know if you could put a value on this, or maybe know someone who can.  Thanks, Mike in California”

Pistol Pete’s response:

“Having never seen it really makes it tough to put a price on it. Photographs and video of the game would help, but your best bet is a local auction house for putting a value on the machine. The value could fall into several different categories: Pinball machine for a game player (probably the lowest), dedicated pinball collector, MJ memorabilia collector, pinball and MJ collector (best price). Being a one-of-a kind machine should also make it more valuable as long as it was produced by one of the major pinball companies such as Bally, Williams, Data East, Sega or Stern as replacement parts could still be available. If it was converted from a game to be used as a prop then it would most likely have a lower value than a game produced specifically for MJ by one of the major manufacturers.”

Mr. Haduch did not receive any further correspondence or photos from the seller. Nothing more seems to come of this. There doesn’t seem to be a retelling of anyone in the pinball community going to see this machine. No high quality pictures. No videos of gameplay. Nothing.  A revised Craigslist ad for what appears to be the same machine, surfaces a bit later, titled “Pin Ball Machine- Michael Jackson (Covina)” and reads as follows:

“This Pin Ball Machine is a one-of-a kind Pin Ball (which was verified by Orange County Arcades). This 4-player machine was built by “Data East Pinball, Inc.” out of Chicago, Illinois in 1987 for when Michael Jackson filmed the “Pepsi” commercial. I was told it is a “re-export” from Germany (all verbage [sic] and coin mech’s are in the German Language). The digital stereo sound system has recorded voice modules that sound just like MJ when targets are hit. It is a “three ball” machine that features the game “Chase / Laser War” but all the art work was designed to feature MJ (back glass portrait and cabinet artwork). The artwork on both sides of the cabinet are slightly faded (very obvious showing MJ driving what appears to be a Laborghini Testarossa down a highway passing a “Pepsi Truck”). The artwork was designed by “Hudson Graphics of O’connor Associates, Inc. The design team was “Team #28″. The machine works well. I am moving so I must sell. You can own this highly collectable Pinball for a fraction of what it is worth and own a piece of Pop History! Sacrificing for $3,500. Ask for Mark: Days (626) 331-3011 Evenings (626) 484-0274.”

The game’s seller is now Mark, not Mike.  Again we have a reference to custom, non-Laser War speech/sound. The first appearance of artwork and design information is teased, but it turns out these names are taken from the unmolested Laser War playfield: (Margaret) Hudson and (Kevin) O’Connor did the Laser War art package, while Team #28 was the collective codename for Joe Kaminkow and company who did the Laser War design. There is still no reference to any markings, trademarks or signatures on the replaced side art or playfield. The ticket price of $3,500 isn’t totally insane, but the “sacrifice” prefix placed on it by the seller is a bit dramatic. The price, in my opinion, remains not totally out of the question for a one-off curiosity that Michael Jackson himself may have played.  But at this point, we are without physical proof that the game was played or owned by Mr. Jackson.

Fast forward to late last year when the same Pepsi Chase machine surfaced on eBay. Remember how I said the first Craigslist ad seemed kind of fishy, and the $3,500 price tag on the second was somewhat reasonable? Yeah, forget all that with this eBay listing. The location of the game has apparently moved from California to Louisville, Kentucky. And the price has appreciated nearly thirty times in value: to a staggering $100,000USD. Seller “hollywuud8″ has a glowing 100% feedback record: the majority of Mr. Wuud’s 313 transactions he played the role of the buyer, having only been credited with four instances of seller feedback. The auction is currently live and has been so since just before Christmas 2014.  It inevitably does not sell and gets relisted every four days or so. Photos are again sparse: two general pictures of the game’s side art and backglass with a copy of the December 20, 2014 USA Today placed within the frame to prove the pictures are current.  We also get to see the photo of Michael Jackson actually playing the machine for the first time (the seller includes the photo twice for some reason).

The description of the machine from the ad is as follows:

“used. and everything that comes along with being used. some scratches on metal. 1 nick break in wood, small, top left corner. some bad fading on the sides, but can still make them out. and the pinball machine plays. and the playfield is good. we think it look’s supper. like some one took good care of it. we are giving the Michael Jackson pinball a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. it can be refurbished if some one want’s to have it done. will be like new. but hey, Michael Jackson played on this very pinball machine. Michael Jackson loved pinball and arcade machine’s. we think this is the pinball machine that got Michael Jackson to start collecting pinball and other arcade machines, and we also think this was the pinball machine he was playing when he came up with Liberian girl.”

The machine has seen better days, obviously. It is nice that the seller doesn’t pawn off the machine as a museum showpiece, giving it a mediocre five out of ten for overall quality. I would challenge the final deduction that this was the pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing when he came up with Liberian Girl. The song would have long been in the can and completed for the Bad album by the time the Chase commercial was being filmed. Anyhow, what follows is the lengthy description from the body of the listing. Having been relisted over fifteen times at the time of writing, I’m sure plenty of questions have been asked of the seller. He has been generous enough to answer them as part of his product description:

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Michael Jackson was and is the king of pop. we loved him in Kentucky. this is from an a estate sale. from someone that loved Michael jackson so much, that they had to have this pinball machine. after all, pinball and arcade machine’s played a big part in Michael Jacksons life. this is from Michael Jacksons bad tour day’s. the pepsi commercial ” the chase” probably one of the longest commercial’s ever. only someone like Michael Jackson could pull that off.  this was made by pepsi ( can you imagine someone made you a pinball machine)  what a complement. and he owned it, and played it, and loved it. we have at least two of the picture’s showing Michael Jackson playing his pinball machine. if you are a Michael Jackson collector, or loved him. how could you not want this. and this is it. there weren’t any other Michael Jackson pinball machines made.

we are offering a choice for the high bidder. you can have the Michael Jackson pinball machine delivered the way it is to you. or you can have it restored by a  professional ( we will pay for this service out of the money we get for the Michael Jackson pinball machine, in other words, it is included in the bid. if you want this service. ) it will be gone over cosmetically and mechanical wise. the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be close to new as possible. just like when Michael Jackson himself, would play on it. and loved it. please note. this service might and probably will mean it will take awhile, could be weeks or month’s to get done. we wont know till it happens. also, any money’s we pay out of the auction money we get, for the restore of the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be nonrefundable.  here is how this work’s .we will ship off  ( we will pay the shipping to get it to the restoration place as part of the restoration ) the Michael Jackson pinball machine. WE have a place in mind, they are supposed to be one of the best. we wont say there name right now. they will then be able to tell us a time line. and get the restore work in progress. then after the work is complete, the Michael Jackson pinball machine  will be ready to be shipped to the lucky new owner.

will add more pictures later. and more information on the listing. as we get it.

here are some questions we got and the answers we gave about the Michael Jackson pinball machine.

meszar2 asked this question.

so the owner does not want to add additional pictures so what is the plan with the machine when it doesn’t sell? for pinball collectors condition is everything and she is trying to get a 100,000 for a machine that you cant see other than the very faded side of the machine!?!?! I did a google search on this machine and there are pictures out there from a craigs list post selling this machine or one like it back in 2010 so I am perplexed wont allow pictures of the game. one has to assume the game is in poor condition and the reason there aren’t any picture’s showing the true condition of the machine is that it will show just that! I know you just listed this machine for the owner so please don’t take my question negatively against you. it’s just a pinball machine like this has a lot of collectible value for a pinball collector. , just perplexed as to how the owner can expect some one to pay any dollar amount for a machine you cant see. good luck with the sale!!!

hi meszar2. you got to remember that this is a estate sale. all of these items very emotional to sale. the lady that owns this Michael Jackson pinball machine says the same about this machine that she says about the other arcade items machine’s she is selling. and that is she don’t care how long they take to sell. and for your google search, this is the same pinball machine. straight out of California. we know, because we are the one’s that bought it for the person or the estate as it is now. right off craigslist. the person that passed checked the story. and it was 150 percent legit. ( we went out on a limb, and recommend that this person buy it also, even before he checked the story.) we sent the money order. the person that sold the machine was great, and had taken good care of this machine. it got picked up. and delivered, with out a problem. and that is how is the Michael Jackson pinball machine got to Louisville Kentucky. to later be sold at an estate sale.

pinballwizardmitch asked this question.

hello, as a big huge pinball and big huge Michael Jackson fan, I am very interested in this auction, and think it is awesome you have this. can you post some detailed picture’s of the playfield and back glass thanks so much.

hi pinballwizardmitch. yes we can get more picture’s. remember this is a estate auction. we have to drive where the woman lives to get picture’s. we are doing this for free. on our own time. we can take picture’s of the out side of the machine , but with the play field the lady is trying to decide to put pictures up or not. on one hand, she thinks who ever buys it , wont want the picture’s of the play field all over the internet. but on the other, she knows . people want to see it. right now, she is not putting picture’s of the play field up. that’s what we got to respect. she make’s the decisions on these estate item’s we have been selling for her. and we just say yes mam or no mam. she sold the new old stock major havoc arcade kit to a collector in a country in Europe, I cant think of the country’s name right now. he was happy to get it. and quiet a few other arcade related items to other’s. and every one has been happy with them.

since_2010 asked this question

i’ll give you 3000 for it without any pictures. 10,000 if I can get a lot of photos of the playfield and under the cabinet.

hi since_2010. what a great offer. you see the value we knew was there. and that is great. after all, we aren’t just talking about a pinball machine. we are talking about the king of music, Michael Jackson. and this Michael Jackson pinball machine was one of the things he loved. we are going to have to decline your offer though. but, your question has helped us make what we think is a good decision. we at the winning bidders choice, like leave it as is, or have us ( meaning the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine, have it restored to as new as possible, as we can get any way’s by professional’s.) and this will involve having the part we pay out for restoration to be nonrefundable. this way, any one concerned about not being enough picture’s. or not being able to come by and see the Michael Jackson pinball machine in person. wont have to worry. it will be as close to new as we can get. ( and to any bidder’s. this will take some time to get done. could be week’s. or 3 or 4 month’s. really don’t know till it happens. )

since_2010 asked this question also.

is this machine available to view in person before I place a bid.

hi since_2010. the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine and or the other arcade machines that are for sale. doesn’t want anybody coming to where she lives. this is because of a violent burglary that happened. and she says she is sorry, because she knows people want to come and see them. but, she likes to feel safe in her home. she hopes everybody understands.

Yikes, where to start. First, I guess it is kind of nice that the seller will have the machine completely restored before shipping it—a service that is included in the hammer price. Maybe they should offer to have the game restored to its original condition…as a Data East Laser War. It is confirmed that this is the same machine from the California Craigslist advertisements.  I needn’t say that the price is outrageous, it goes without saying.  I will say that it is very convenient that the machine belongs to someone other than the seller.  And that the lady who owns the machine is afraid of visitors so viewing the machine is impossible.  And that she doesn’t care if it sells or not.  And that the seller is too busy to take more detailed photos.  And the seller’s grammar.  And.  And.  And.  We could go on for days here.  I’m sure the machine exists and that it currently resides in the greater Louisville area, but further to that, I’m calling baloney on many of the facts contained within.  Sure, there is a sucker born every minute, but a sucker big enough to outlay $100,000USD on a machine whose origin is completely unknown with only two detail deficient pictures of it attached in the listing?  I don’t think so.  If only this machine could get into the right hands, or be accessed by the right hands, to gain a bit more knowledge about it.

I don’t think the eBay auction for the Pepsi Chase machine bears too much more analysis.  The pinball community has already concluded that it is a seller trying to hook a whale with some questionable business practices.  I wanted to collect the verbiage used in the auction listing to preserve it, and place it alongside the other appearances on Craigslist.  Since little information exists, perhaps it would be helpful to gather what we know and put it all one place, no matter how ridiculous that information is.

I know people talk about themes that were no-brainers in pinball’s hey-day all the time, but how in the hell did a Michael Jackson pinball machine proper not get produced in the late-80s or early-90s?  Slash, guitarist for Guns ‘n’ Roses and avid pinball enthusiast, used his celebrity sway to get Data East on board for a GnR pinball machine in 1994.  Jackson’s brand would have been ripe for a transition to the arcade world (and was, Sega released Moonwalker in 1989 to warm-ish reviews).  It would have been a fantastic, synergistic promotional tool for his worldwide brand (a fact that someone, somewhere picked up on when putting together the Pepsi Chase machine).  With Jackson’s apparent appreciation for the game of pinball and Data East’s love of licencing, I cannot fathom how this partnership didn’t happen.   Actually I can fathom it: by 1993 the sex abuse allegations against Jackson came to light, and really killed all chances of a game being produced whose main demographic would be young adults.  If someone really wants a Michael Jackson machine in their collection, they’ll have to spend $100,000USD to get one, or build one themselves.  I wonder what his high score was on Striker Xtreme?

Further Reading:

Pinsane.com – Julien’s Auctions Michael Jackson Memorabilia: Arcade Walkthrough

Julien’s Auctions – King of Pop, A Once in a Lifetime Public Exhibition

San Diego Pinball Club – Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association - Michael Jackson Pinball

rec.games.pinball – Never knew about this pinball machine: Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

eBay – michael jackson 1987 chase pepsi arcade pinball machine. from the bad tour days.

Pinside – Michael Jackson Pinball Machine Resurfaces on eBay

Anthony King – Michael Jackson The Chase Pepsi Commercial


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PEOPLE: Jess Askey of the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database

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I don’t consider myself a numbers guy, but there is something fascinating going on over at the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database (not to be confused by the equally useful Internet Pinball Database). IPSND webmaster Jess Askey has created a project that collects serial numbers from pinball machines and pinball parts, mostly through user submissions, and compiles them for public record. From the information collected, Mr. Askey presents his own analysis and identification of trends, and, since the data is open source, allows visitors to identify trends of their own. Personally, I have been a member of the IPSND for over two years and have recently volunteered my time to take care of some of the site’s administrative and moderation duties. Ever since I started doing interviews for Credit Dot, I’ve wanted to ask Mr. Askey a series of questions about the IPSND’s history and vision. In my opinion, the site is an underused resource in the community and deserves the attention. Please read on as Mr. Askey unravels the history behind the numbers.

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Credit Dot: How did you originally become interested in pinball serial numbers? It’s kind of a strange fascination…

Jess Askey: Well, I suppose it all started sometime in 1999 when I decided to buy a Jungle Lord from eBay. Back then, it was very rare for auctions to have photos but I found a good deal on one and decided to buy it. It shipped the old fashioned way: Forward Air, no palette required! When it arrived, I was very upset because the owner had clearly painted the cabinet blue (with red and yellow stripes) and not disclosed this information in the listing. I shot him off an email and he said that all Jungle Lord games were blue. He said I was crazy to think that it should be red. However, all the Jungle Lords I’d seen in my hometown were in red cabinets when I was a kid. A quick posting to rec.games.pinball revealed that the majority were blue, only a few were red. It seemed that the running knowledge amongst the RGP community suggested that the sample games were red and the production games were blue. The guess at the time was that Williams was making about 100 or so sample games for each title. I then did what everyone else did at the time for the games that they were interested in–I made a game owners list and rule sheet for Jungle Lord (archived here). People of course e-mailed me their serial number and I asked if the cabinet was Red or Blue and I updated the owners list until, just like every other owners list out there, I stopped updating it due to lack of interest and lack of time.

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The red Jungle Lord cabinet, taken from Mr. Askey’s Jungle Lord site that preceded the IPSND project.

 

CD: What renewed your interest?

JA: It sat for a few years until I decided that I would create the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database proper, and use it as a “practice site” for learning all the new programming technologies that interested me in my professional career. ASP.NET was the first challenge, Microsoft SQL Server was the second. I knew I didn’t want to conflict with the already established Internet Pinball Database, but I used their game identification numbers as my key for simplicity sake. I also had to get a listing of all the games on the IPDB along with pertinent info (number of players, manufacturer, release dates, etc). I wrote a little application that programmatically started at game number 1 and went all the way up to something like 4500 (which was the “newest” IPDB entry at the time) and screen scraped the data off the IPDB web server responses (Sorry Wolf!). Now I had a starting list of games. Next, I got the full listing of old pinball serial numbers from the deprecated and outdated Pinball Pasture/Internet Pinball Project, from Daina Petit (you can still find the original Internet Pinball Project on archive.org if you want to peek at it). From that, I had my first database of serial numbers.

CD: What was the original philosophy or goal of the serial number project?

JA: Circle back to the original Jungle Lord owner’s list project and its inherent problems–my goal was for the new IPSND to do three things:

1. Allow submissions of serial numbers to my database which was ‘in-sync’ with IPDB games.

2. Allow people with owners lists to easily incorporate my serial lists directly into their sites (using simple inline javascript and HTML) so they no longer had to maintain the “serial listing” portion of their sites.

3. Allow tracking of specific game traits (like cabinet color, or other minor changes that happen throughout the production run of a game) along with serial numbers, so collectors could see trends on those game traits and understand if they were specific to the production run. In the case of Jungle Lord, it also allowed us to know that there were more like 400 red cabinet Jungle Lords and not 100 as was originally suspected.

Points two and three were the big long term goals as it really allowed the IPSND to become a centralized storage mechanism for all these game serial registrations, but also allowed that centralized knowledge to be shared outwards to other sites and collectively freed the owners list community from needing to waste minutes a day to update their sites with submissions. Owner’s List site owners rejoice!

CD: How long has the IPSND been active?

JA: I first registered and put the site up in 2006 with about 7500 serial numbers from the Internet Pinball Project. As of February 2015, there are 32,917 serials registered by over 4900 different people.

CD: In what ways has the site changed from when you first started it?

JA: Well, it started simple. On launch day, it just allowed you to search games and look at serial numbers, plus submit a serial number of your own (without the option of submitting a photo). By 2008, we had added photo support, our “nudging” system, the SerialBot points rating system, an RSS feed, geolocation mapping using Google Maps, bulk uploading, mobile Android support and a host of other features. Late last year I added backglass images to help submitters get the correct game more often. To see a log of all the changes, updates and feature announcements over the years, readers can view them here.

CD: What are you attempting to achieve by collecting all this data?

JA: Well, outside of the 3 goals I started with, I just continue to enjoy seeing the data come in, and with the help of other members, come up with interesting questions and solutions to fixing them. My overarching goal is that eventually this whole thing will go into the cloud and will be improved and maintained by other collectors long past the time when I’m gone (maybe?) Since serial numbers get submitted multiple times throughout the course of a game’s existence (as a game is bought/sold, or shown at a pinball show), in like 50 years, not only should most circulating games be in the database, but you will be able to see how they have moved around the country, or even the world. Perhaps this becomes the main registry for finding a game you want to buy, or to sell?

CD: In what ways can this open-source information be used by collectors and pinball fans?

JA: That is a great question. I suppose I don’t have the answers for this but I definitely see that this should become something like the IPDB that is a public repository of all information. It makes sense for the IPSND and the IPDB to combine at some point, I would think, but I don’t think Wolf and I are up for that challenge yet. Maybe some awesome young pinball coder will come forth and take on that responsibility at some point…

CD: What is your day job? I’m guessing something to do with statistics?

JA: Ha, not so much, but I guess in a way. I currently am an I.T. Project manager for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. If you pinball collectors are ever in town for a Brewery tour, let me know, I will come have a beer with you and we can talk pinball. Beer + Pinball = Awesome!

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The grounds of New Belgium Brewing. Home of Mr. Askey’s day job and the delicious Fat Tire Amber Ale.

 

CD: Say someone new to the site wants to submit the serial numbers for their games. Can you outline the steps one would take to submit that serial number into the database and maximize its usefulness? Is there any other information other than the serial that needs to be collected for submission?

JA: Sure, that is the point of the IPSND and it is amazing because I think this kind of stuff actually happens. I get lots of non-pinball people who submit serial numbers just because they found a game in their basement and somehow found my site. In general, to submit a serial number, it is very straightforward.

1. Search for the game name and make sure you find the correct one (we have added backglass images for the more popular games to help identify them better since some are very similar: for example, Bally’s Capt Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the Captain Fantastic Home Edition)

2. Look at the serial numbers for that game already submitted to make sure that your number is actually similar to the submitted ones (there are lots of non-serial numbers printed on games). Alternatively, you can click on the ‘finding the serial number’ tab for game listing to find user hints on the best way to accurately find the correct number to submit.

3. Click on the ‘Submit Serial Number’ button and fill out the form. Adding a photo helps immensely, so try to add a photo of the actual serial number if you can. That’s it. Done!

If a game has ‘traits’ (color variations, feature variations, etc.) then on the serial submission form you can select if your game falls into those categories, otherwise, you can simply leave them at ‘Unknown’ which is the default value. The submission form has several other pieces of information that you can add if you have it: date stamps on the game, whether you are physically looking at the serial number or perhaps you are just looking at a picture. There are little ‘?’ icons on the form that describe what each field is for.

CD: The database is “peer reviewed” by a nudging system that was briefly mentioned above. Can you explain how that works?

I added this feature because the one fatal flaw in the original system was that these numbers could be totally fictitious and made up unless there was some sort of physical proof of the serial number’s existence. So, I figured that it would be great for a submitter to upload a photo of the actual serial number. However, one of the first issues was that users were submitting photos of their machine, and not of the serial number! So, I figured that leveraging the IPSND points feature (members get points for doing various things on the site, submissions mostly) might make sense to allow the members to have a vote on the quality of the photo. So, basically that is what happens! When a submission comes in with a photo, it is “Open for Nudging”–meaning that another member can look at the photo, compare it to the submitted serial number and give it a ‘Thumbs Up’ or ‘Thumbs Down’ vote on the accuracy and quality of the photo.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively "nudged" by five IPSND members.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively “nudged” by five IPSND members.

The nudging process is only open until the voting swings +3 or -3 nudges (and has a minimum of 5 total nudges) and then it closes with the result of being ‘Nudged Up’ or ‘Nudged Down’. On the submission page for the individual serial number, this nudge result affects the points that the submission gets, and ends up being +3 points or -3 points accordingly. So, if a person submits a serial number with a poor photo that doesn’t show the serial number clearly or accurately, the submission quality will get dinged points. Additionally, members get a point for each nudge they complete. As of now, our highest “nudger” has examined and voted on over 7500 photos. Some members submit rarely, but nudge regularly. If there is good consensus on the nudging, the submission will close quickly, sometimes within minutes, but some submissions generate a discussion-heavy nudge history and some submissions have taken over 25 nudges simply because the voting result never swayed more than +3 or -3 over the opposing vote. You can see the Most Contentious Nudges and read the comments on the IPSND Statistics Page. I think the best part of this is that everyone judges a photo differently.

CD: You mention a point system that is in place. Do we win anything if we collect enough points??

JA: Well, you know how we humans work! Unless there is a way to create competition, some things can get boring pretty quickly…especially serial numbers. I figure that the points were created simply to let people get credit for their work and effort they put into the site. Originally points were only awarded for submissions. Points are now awarded for nudging, too, but the original motive remains: to try and get a high quality score through quality submissions. Right now, IPSND member John Vorwek has over 13,000 points on 2,270 unique serial number submissions. John has been supporting the site for years and has become very good at scouring eBay for good serial number photos and scrutinizing them to make sure that the game assignment is accurate. Some members have very few submissions, but mostly concentrate on nudging to get their points. On the topic of winning something: right now you just get name recognition on the site. I definitely owe a small handful of people an IPSND t-shirt, so I figured that I would get a bunch silk-screened and pay off my debts to supporters of the site. However, there is no formal time frame for that.

CD: The software you use to run the site and gather information is very intuitive–for example, your “Serial Bot” recognizes and alerts the submitter when a serial number doesn’t match the known format used on a particular game’s run. Can you talk a little about the software/code used and how it was developed?

JA: The IPSND site was actually created by me sort as hobby for the reasons I spoke to in the very first question. I have done enough software in my life that I didn’t want to make something that was just a database. The things that give systems and organisms something special are ‘closed loops’ which means systems collect, recycle and re-feed data in such a way that the whole system or organism evolves. While I’m no rocket scientist, the premise of the site evolving and potentially ‘self-governing’ itself seemed pretty cool to me: make some basic rules and let the site and members go at it and see where it goes, then modify the rules to keep it balanced. The site actually attempts to dynamically calculate everything. For example, the points are not scored once and then saved, but the software calculates the points on each load of the page–that keeps the math out of the database and makes sure that everything is interpreted at the time of viewing in case the rules (for accruing points, as an example) change.

CD: References to “The Internet Pinball Project” have come up rather frequently on the site and in this interview. Can you give a bit of history about them and how you came to inherit their collected information?

JA: The Internet Pinball Project was an old part of the original Pinball Pasture which started back in 1997. The Pinball Pasture was created by Dave Byers and included information such as the original Internet Pinball Database (before Jay and Wolf took it over to ipdb.org), playing tips and strategies, a Pinball Glossary and the original Serial Numbers Database. (check out the wayback machine here to browse it from 1999.)

Even in 2004, the original database was getting stale and the process of e-mailing in serial numbers and logging them manually was difficult. Additionally, there was no mechanism for submitting photos at that time (remember, this is back when digital cameras were not very common, much less phones with high-res cameras in them). When I started the IPSND, I posted on RGP about the old Pinball Database, and luckily Daina Pettit (of Mr. Pinball Classifieds) had saved a copy. They serials were only organized by ‘Game Name’ and manufacturer, so I had to do some cleansing of the data and also determine which exact ‘Game Number’ that each serial was for (for example, if a serial was for Williams 1960 Black Jack or Bally 1976 Black Jack). So, the database was born using that data. Thanks to Daina and David for all their work, because it certainly helped start with 7500 serial numbers rather than the 13 I had in my personal collection! One final note is that in talking to Daina about this, he requested that I make the site have a feature that would let people download the entire database for whatever purpose they chose at any time. I thought that was both a good idea and also a fun technical challenge. To this day, you can download the entire core database in a single, flat CSV format (.zipped and e-mailed to you) if you want to do any external analysis…or otherwise.

CD: What are some of the more interesting statistics you have extrapolated from the submitted information?

JA: Well, I have a handful of cool things that I reference…

1. Williams 1981 Jungle Lord – It was always guessed by the RPG community that there were approximately 100 ‘Red Cabinet’ sample games made. It is pretty clear now by looking at the data, that there were actually about 425 of them made (see here). You can see the early serial numbers are grouped by the ‘cluster tool’ on the left side of the table. Although we clearly don’t have all 425 accounted for and we probably never will, due to the habit of route operators taking games to the dump, it at least shows us the upper and lower bounds of the range for those particular games. I don’t think that the data could present itself any better in this particular situation. Luckily, this was the original question I had for building the database, so I seem to have found the answer.

2. Williams 1991 Black Knight 2000 – If you visit the page for BK2K here, and click on the ‘Game Traits’ tab, you will see something interesting. Summarized in the top table is a listing of two ‘properties’ for the game: the style of plastics on the game and the color of some lettering on the backglass. It was postulated on RGP, that both of these variations might have been related to the “sample game run” or early test versions of games. By looking at the gathered data, you can see that both the plastics artwork and the color seem to actually be dispersed across the entire production run, not just early run examples. So, more than likely, these batches were not made sequentially, but the assembly line were just delivered “either/or” versions of the plastics and backglasses, perhaps coming from different printers. As we get more data, we may start to see the smaller patterns of the game plastics flipping between the two styles, which may tell us how many plastics sets came on a palette from the supplier. Keep in mind that Williams also had two production lines, so maybe one line had the ‘futuristic artwork’ and the other had the ‘Stone Castle’ plastics. If I had to guess, this second scenario was more likely.

3. Williams used a single number sequence when making games, but as I mentioned before, they also had two production lines running at the same time. Imagine how games are created: they are done in “runs” or “batches”. If you take a look at this page or the graphic below, (it looks rough, apologies), you will see a listing of all 1980s Williams games with the highest and lowest number in a clustered range. You can see how most games are listed in this sequence, sometimes two to four times, as they were being built in “runs”. Let’s use Black Knight as an example (RED Color Block). You can see it first appears in the list around the time of Firepower/Blackout/Algar, which were the last of the System 6 games. Having Black Knight appear in that run shows that Williams actually made 42 Black Knight games at the same time as the System 6 games (and most likely, that is the version of the game with the System 6 hardware). Now, jump down to the next Black Knight (about 15 rows down): they made exactly 100 games in this run. Those must have been the sample games. You can see that they were finishing up with the Blackout and Alien Poker runs at this time too. I think that this view is pretty interesting because it really shows you how often they flipped games on and off of production, and this was probably very tightly related to pending orders from distributors. If you continue to follow Black Knight, you will next see the big run of 10,000 games and then a couple “clean-up” runs which probably took care of remaining parts inventory.

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CD: Is there a socially acceptable way to collect the serial information when in a public setting like a show or a friend’s collection? Do some people view it as “stealing” their personal information?

JA: Yeah, that is a great question, too. I think it sorta depends on how you approach it. If you are at a show and are crawling inside of people’s games without permission then obviously, they might get a little miffed. The best approach is to always ask and take the opportunity to inform the owner about the serial’s value and how their data may help clarify some interesting things for the pinball collecting community.

Along those same lines, I certainly have received numerous e-mails from individuals saying that someone else had registered their serial number on the site and they would like it removed because they were not the owner of the game. I think in part that comes from the site allowing people to print out ‘Serial Number Certificates’ for any submission which look nice but really are meaningless. When this happens, I try to explain the bigger picture goal of the site and also the main point is that we don’t just want ONE submission for each serial number, but we want MULTIPLE submissions of a serial number over time. Because we also allow submitters to track the location of a game (in a general way, you probably don’t want to put your specific address in there), we can see how games have travelled around in their lifetime. This type of data is going to take lots of time to gather, but my best example right now is this particular serial number for Aquarius which seems to show up often at the Pacific Pinball Expo.

CD: Do you get the feeling there is a negative perception in the pinball community toward people who are focused on the collection numerical data? I’m reminded of the somewhat unflattering light that the filmmakers used when chronicling old-school data collector Sam Harvey in their Special When Lit documentary.

JA: Well, like I said above: if you approach people the right way, then I think that a lot of benefit can come from the conversation. The thing to understand about Sam is that back in the 80s and 90s when the pinball collecting community was much smaller, everyone knew Sam and they knew what he was about. They expected to see him coming up to their games, opening them up and digging around until he found every serial number in that game. As the community grew (and changed), Sam’s behaviour didn’t and maybe it rubbed people the wrong way. Some people could get really pissed if some dude with a big afro was digging around in a game that you just restored. I think that what Sam was doing was a remarkable undertaking and I wish that I could get access to his books upon books of serial numbers recorded numbers. However, I would also expect that there are a significant number of errors in his recording of serials just because they are so damn difficult to read sometimes.

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit  documentary (2008).

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit documentary (2008).

CD: In your estimation, what percentage of all existing pinball machines has the site gathered the serial numbers for?

JA: Well, it is pretty small… I think that with the games we know of what the production run was, we get more than 3,300,462 pinball machines that have been produced. Since we don’t know production numbers for many of the ‘games of olde’ when pinball was really booming, I’ll bet that number is only 75% of the actual number. Right now there are 32,191 submissions for about 30,000 unique serial numbers. Thus, we only have .9% of all games registered. Looking at specific games that have a decent production run (reference the site statistics page: http://www.ipsnd.net/stats.aspx?id=2), we have 15.2% of all The Addams Family Gold games, 36.7% of Spacelab games and 8.4% of the Safecrackers. So, once you start looking at specific games, the numbers are a bit more impressive!

CD: How can the pinball community help grow the IPSND?

JA: Well, I think that it is sort of happening naturally. First and foremost, we can grow the site by talking about it and sharing the benefits. I think that conversation can ignite the curiosity that all of us pinball collectors have. Obviously, making sure that all your games are registered on the site, with a photo and a geo-location, helps move the site to its long term goals. Making sure that the data is correct is also important.

I have received help from many leaders in the pinball community in both organizing the site, submitting serials, and submitting traits…

• ‘Pistol’ Pete Haduch has been helping me on the site for years as far as fixing submission errors, following up with questions, approving tips and traits, creating game serial masks and overall keeping things in line.

• Convention Gatherers like Basil Leblanc, Mark Gibson, Dan Gutchess, Seal Clubber, KoP and yourself submit serials from games at the various shows around the country and can give us a snapshot of what is being shown, bought or sold without actually attending these shows.

• Service Gatherers like Daina Pettit, Ray Johnson, Antti Peltonen submit serials for games they service (these are the games often buried in people’s houses)

• Jon Vorwerk patrols eBay and doesn’t let a serial get past him. Of particular note here is that Jon is continuing to submit valuable ‘Game Part’ serial numbers, which, while are not associated directly with a game, helps us determine if a serial number exists for the future when we start to analyse bigger data trends.

• Pinball Eric helped out by giving all the serial numbers from the Pinball Price Guide (very nice of him)

• Jay Stafford and Wolf at IPDB.org have been very supportive as well, allowing me to integrate with their data and make our sites work in harmony. I think that if our sites were on the same technology (IPDB is PHP and IPSND is ASP.NET) it would make sense for them to merge someday… that is probably for the next generation of pinball collector software guys though!

These folks and many others are the real winners of the site.

CD: Can we help with a monetary donation to keep things running?

JA: I definitely get Paypal donations for the hardware of the server and the internet connection. Everyone that donates gets a little dollar sign next to their name on the site. I get about $100 per year in donations which helps a bit with costs (cost averages about $750/year). If you like the site, I would love to move it to an Amazon cloud server or something so that it isn’t sitting in my basement at risk of being knocked over and destroyed. Anyone own a hosting company? Ping me!

CD: Are there any concepts on the horizon to make the submission process easier? An “on-the-go” app for smartphones?

JA: Yes, I currently have an Android app made with Phonegap in the download section of the site. It works, but is a bit clunky. It certainly makes submitting games very easy with a smartphone, though. Anyone have any Phonegap skillz that could help out? Geez, I’m really starting to beg here!

CD: What challenges lie ahead for the IPSND?

JA: I think that with any big project like this, the guarantee that the data is secure and lives on is the biggest long term challenge. I will continue to make the site better in small ways, but that is time reliant, and my children really suck my time away from coding on the site (as they should). Luckily as I mentioned above, many people in the community are actively helping on the site which keeps it moving in the right direction. The thing I want this site to transcend is the 20 year lifespan of many sites. I want to eventually get the code for the entire site checked into GIT and made public so it can be maintained by multiple people and put into the cloud. Then barring some sort of apocalypse, the site should run for a very long time and this information can stay growing and informing into the future. With companies like Jersey Jack and Stern Pinball, luckily we still have new pinball machines coming off the production lines and keeping our passion alive for future generations.

CD: Finally, what games are in your collection? What era of games tend to be your favourite? What is your favourite game?

JA: I have a smaller collection than I used to, but I’ve whittled it down to my core games. I started collecting when I was 13 when my dad bought me a Williams San Francisco. I still have that, plus some video games, which are also my passion. Other than the San Francisco, I have a Tales of the Arabian Nights, Hyperball, Time Fantasy, Cosmic Gunfight, Solar Fire, Jungle Lord, Warlock, Joust (the pinball machine), Centaur, Big Chief, and a 1934 Pacific Novelty Contact. On the video game side, I have Robotron 2084, Mystic Marathon, Xybots, Alpha One (Major Havoc Prototype) and a Williams Spellbinder which was never released and is currently being rebuilt. Obviously, I love those early 80’s Williams games. But, Centaur might be my favorite!

The Internet Pinball Serial Number database can be found at http://www.ipsnd.net, and relies heavily on the support and submissions of the pinball community.  If you have not submitted the serial numbers of the games and parts in your collection ,or the routed games on locations near you, I strongly urge you to do so.  A greater understanding of the pinball business and trends within the collecting community await discovery…using the information gathered by pinheads around the globe.


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HARDWARE: The Elusive “Bally Side Rail”

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Quite a lot of Bally System 11 games have dented side rails.  It’s almost an epidemic.  Read any For Sale description of an Elvira and the Party Monsters, and more often than not, you’ll get a mention of damaged side rails from an errant backbox drop.  They seem be dented and left unfixed in high numbers due of the lack of new (or NOS) replacement rails available in the marketplace.  The rails are an oddball size and only appeared on a handful of games, so parts manufacturers have neglected making them.  Drop the backbox and dent the rails on your WPC machine and it’s a $50 mistake that is easily remedied with an order through Pinball Life.  Dent the rails on your Mousin’ Around? You’re pretty much screwed.  The dents will be a constant reminder of your stupidity.  Might as well get out the hammer and try to bang out the damage, because these rails are pretty hard to source.

The games bearing these rare rails are Truck Stop, Atlantis, Transporter: The Rescue, Elvira and the Party Monsters and Mousin’ Around, and the reference number for the elusive part is A-12359-1 (the parts catalogue mentions that Bally Game Show may also use these rails, however, I cannot find definitive photographic evidence of this–Game Show was the first Bally game to employ the external rounded hinge, which leads me to believe a different shorter rail was used.  If you have leads, or photos, please let me know.)  All of the above mentioned games were manufactured under the “Midway” banner (despite bearing the “Bally” name on the backbox) during a time when Williams had just absorbed the struggling Bally/Midway brand.  The rail length for these games, from end to end, for a System 11 Bally Rail runs 51.5 inches, making it nearly 5 inches longer than the identical looking in every other way WPC side rail (A-12359-3).

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin "Bally Rail"

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin “Bally Rail”

The reason for the extra length is that the backbox on these five Bally games sits on a built-up pedestal of sorts, and the side rails run underneath the backbox to the backside of the cabinet.  The hinges on the backboxes are not external, but rather contained within the backbox pedestal, allowing the rail to run undisturbed to the rear of the cabinet.  Bally games that followed Mousin’ Around had their backboxes sit flush with the cabinet and employ a set of external rounded hinges (similar to other late model Williams System 11 games), thus the side rails had to terminate at the backbox.  (It is interesting to note that Bally Midway’s  March ’88 release Blackwater 100, pre-Williams takeover, appears to be the first “modern game” with the thinner and longer 51.5 inch rail incorporated into the design, however, this version of the rail is affixed to the cabinet with a series of nails running its  length, whereas the later version of the rail we are speaking about here is affixed to the cabinet with double-sided tape, a Torx screw on the back end and a bolt on the front near the flipper button.)  To complicate matters more, rails on the games from the same era bearing the Williams logo, such as Fire!, Earthshaker, Jokerz! and Black Knight 2000 to name a few, were wider in height and incorporated the flipper button right into the rail itself.  You could almost cut two thin Bally rails out of the metal used on one of the Williams games.  Less metal meant cost savings: thus, it should come as no surprise that Williams adopted the thinner Bally-style rail when a standard design for all pinball machines was adopted for the WPC platform in the 1990s.

A quick search shows that Bay Area Amusements has the A-12359-1 rail advertised on their page for purchase; however, like many other desperately needed niche parts listed on their site, they are currently out of stock.  I have checked the page for the last five months, and I have never been lucky enough to find the item available for immediate purchase (if in stock, retail price would be $59.00USD+shipping).  The Ministry of Pinball, the Netherlands-based pin retailer, also lists the rails for purchase (retail price: 29.95 Euro), which remains an option for our Euro friends, but those stateside would pay dearly for shipping due to the awkward size of the parts (you’d have to add another 35.00 Euro for shipping to the US or Canada…it gets cost ineffective pretty quick).

In some rare instances, the rails do pop up for sale.  Not two months ago, a set was offered, and quickly purchased, on Pinside for $125USD (shipping included).  A search of the rec.games.pinball newsgroup shows that a few sets have sold over the years with the asking price ranging between $150USD-$200USD.  RGP also mentions the existence of a user named “Timathie” who manufactured the rails for the RGP community years ago.  As per a post from 2011, it appears that the user is no longer making them.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI bought an Elvira and the Party Monsters game late last summer, and wouldn’t you know it, it had dented side rails from an errant backbox drop.  It was disclosed to me in the original description and photos of the game, so I knew I would be (possibly) snookered if I ever wanted to replace them.  The ingenuity of the pinball collector took over.  I was able to locate a set of new, uninstalled Williams System 11 side rails within the community marketplace at a very reasonable price (the wide ones that incorporated the flipper buttons, which turned out to be a set of these: Pinball Life’s Williams Stainless Steel Side Rail Set – Circa 1989-90, pictured right).  I bought them hoping that they could be precision cut to fit my needs.  Unlike the other Williams System 11 wide rails, this 1989-90 version has no extra nail or screw holes that would be left behind once the excess was trimmed off, and they met the length requirements of 51.5 inches.  I contacted a nearby metal fabrication outfit (CIM Metals Inc. , of Burlington, Ontario, Canada) and for $45CDN they were able to cut both rails, using laser technology to replicate the look of a thin Bally rail for my game.  I pulled off an original dented rail for them to use as a template (they only needed one, each Bally rail is interchangeable with no characteristics or markings that require specific left or right side installation).  They were able to match the original tapering and square screw holes faithfully, which made installation a breeze.   For about $85CDN, all told, I had a new set of undented rails on my EATPM, which was a bit cheaper than finding a NOS set, and a bit less frustrating than waiting around for a North American company to stock them.  I had to jump through a few hoops to get it done, but I’m happy with the results.  I’m not one for total perfection on my games but when an opportunity presents itself, I can’t pass it up.  Here’s hoping someone takes the lead on this and starts producing the Bally rails for the community, in sustainable quantities, as they are sorely needed.  Until then, keep those backbox bolts nice and tight…

Further Reading:

Pinside – For Sale: 51-1/2″ side rails (EatPM, Atlantis, Mousin’) – SOLD
Pinside – WTB- set of Side Rails for Eatpm
Bay Area Amusements – Metal Side Rails (pair) – System 11, etc
Ministry of Pinball – Elvira and the Party Monster Side Rails
rec.games.pinball – EATPM side rails

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