CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

MODS: That Sinking Feeling– Earthshaker’s Sinking Institute

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Here sits the head accountant of Williams, in a small office, just before Christmas of 1988. Sad, threadbare Christmas decorations that were purchased in the late 1960s hang in his office. Gloom surrounds him. He sharpens his pencil and looks over some documents, dreading the time he would have to spend time with his extended family over the holidays. Cousin Al would drink too much and likely go on a tirade fuelled by egg nog and bigotry, his ungrateful children would be disappointed at their large haul of gifts (again), and his mother and wife would fail miserably at trying to hide their distain for one another. His heart sank. If HE wasn’t going to be happy over the Christmas holidays, nobody else would either. He dropped his pencil, grabbed the closest bill of materials report and picked up a red felt-tipped pen. “This oughta do it,” he whispered to himself as a twisted smile crept across his lips. He slowly struck out a line reading “Sinking ES Institute” on the Earthshaker bill of materials, and beside it wrote in big letters “OVER BUDGET – REMOVE IMMEDIATELY”. He let the pen drop from his hands and pressed a red button on an intercom. Softly, he said to his secretary, “Janet, can you please come in here and run a very important document down to Mr. Lawlor and his team?” The secretary enters the office, and the accountant extends the document across the desk. The secretary attempts to take the document, but the accountant’s grip will not relinquish. Their eyes meet. “Oh, and Janet,” the accountant whispers almost incoherently, “Tell Pat to have a Merry Christmas…” He lets go of the document and the secretary slowly backs out of the office. The melancholy account leans back in his chair, holds his head in his hands and begins to weep.

That’s how I imagine it happening, but it was probably a more subtle process. Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. Late in the production of Williams Earthshaker in early 1989, due to budget constraints, a device that would make the Earthshaker Institute sink into the playfield was removed from the bill of materials. About 200 units made it to market with the sinking feature, many of them sample games. The removal was decided so late into production that the playfield was still cut and drilled to include the feature and the programming still contained code to make the device work properly. This was the perfect toy to include in the earthquake-themed game, but was probably low on the list of importance given the other toys included–the California-Nevada fault line which directly impacts gameplay by diverting balls, and the almost mandatory (in an earthquake game, anyhow) shaker motor. Lawlor’s games always seem packed with toys and expensive hardware, Roadshow being the ultimate example of this. I think if Earthshaker would have been released after Funhouse and Addams Family, there would be absolutely no question that the sinking institute would have been left in, as Williams pretty much let Lawlor go to town after having these back-to-back grand slam successes. But Earthshaker was Mr. Lawlor’s second game after Banzai Run, an expensive game in its own right, and perhaps this reigning in process, in terms of budget was a Williams strategy to keep him in check. The subject of why the sinking institute was cut was brought up on part one of Clay Harrell’s three part interview with Lawlor, but Lawlor heads off in another direction to talk about High Speed and theme selection instead of answering the question as it was asked. As I interpret the answer, the sinking building helped reinforce the overall theme and helped set a specific mood, thus Lawlor saw it as an important element of Earthshaker and it should have been included in the final version.

Time for pingenuity to take over once again. With all the proper holes and programming to make the building sink, dammit if someone didn’t step forward and build a rig similar to the original to make it sink! Al Warner (Pinside ID: awarner) and Mark Davidson from Basement Arcade have become the brain trusts of the Earthshaker Institute. The two had previously formed Pinball Obsession, which had offered the kit, however, that website has since ceased operation and the Earthshaker kit now calls Basement Arcade its home on the web. The project of reintroducing movement to the building has roots all the way back to 2003, and has been engineered to near perfection since. Mr. Davidson was able to create an original rig by setting two Earthshakers side by side–a prototype model with lowering Institute and the more common production version with stationary building. Within a month of starting the project, Mr. Davidson had a sinking institute in his production version that sank much like the original.

The process of installing one of these kits seems simple enough. Remove the stationary building from the playfield and attach it to the rig that is provided. The most delicate part appears to be drilling out two rivets on the original assembly. Using the piggyback connectors supplied, wire the unit up through the power and interconnect boards and attach the connector to the rig itself. Then it is just a matter of reinstalling the new assembly below the playfield. It’s as easy as that really. There has been one slight hiccup: buildings raise in such a way that it will bind on games that have reproduction ramps, resulting in the owner having to notch their repro ramp for the proper clearance. Other than that, Mr. Davidson has done all the hard work for you, and left the end user with a very simple installation process and detailed photographic instructions to help you along the way. I particularly like the fact that piggyback connectors are provided, so those collectors who are not adept at splicing wires or crimping connectors would be able to install this mod with ease (also a plus for lazy modders, I guess). Further, it makes this mod completely reversible with little effort. However, once this mod goes in, it will probably never come out.

I find it incredible that this piece of machinery is made by hand by Mr. Davidson in his free time. Much of this sort of thing is farmed out overseas to minimise cost these days. At $275USD plus shipping, the mod is a pricy one, and all for the up and down movement of a square piece of plastic. Many have balked at the price, and in response, Mr. Warner, on Pinside, outlined all the man-hours and craftsmanship put into making one of these and touted its glowing track record:

“All of the parts are made, one at a time with a C&C. Some individual parts take over an hour each. After you have all the parts you made (at considerable expense), you then have to source motors that will work. You purchase the motors (that probably went up since the last time you made these) and now all you need is wiring harnesses which uses connectors that are not available anywhere so you MAKE YOUR OWN CONNECTORS that allow the unit to be installed without having to splice a single wire. Finally, you assemble it all and put it in a box to sell. Because you don’t have unlimited funds, you can only spend $5000.00 of your own money until you get some more orders or can sell the ones you made. then when you sell them, some people start complaining that “They are too expensive” or “They can make them cheaper”. This goes along until you sell them all and people want them again. Then they complain that they would pay anything for one now and that you should spend your entire life making these things not knowing if you’ll ever sell another. We have lives with Families. We make this stuff for a modest profit and provide something that no one else does. We can’t make them faster, we can only make them well and on our schedule. We’ve had one return in the 10 years we’ve made [Dr. Who] Wobble Heads and ES kits […] Everyone that has them has had no complaints.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot write-up without some bad news: the availability is very limited. Mr. Warner revived the idea of putting the kits back into production as recently as one month ago, and Mr. Davidson fulfilled the interest by making five (yes, just five) more kits to satisfy demand. I’m unaware if any of these kits are left for purchase at the current time. It appears from the Pinside conversation that finding and purchasing the motors for the unit is the key to the whole operation (besides the time needed to put the mech together). As much as the quality looks to be top notch on these kits, I’ll mention the Basement Arcade website is ghastly to navigate and not very appealing to the eye. It may turn some away. It is a good thing much of the interest is garnered through Pinside without having to go to the Basement Arcade to get your hands on a kit. There are a large number of DIY instruction pages on the web that show you how to make your own sinking Institute, if you’d rather not spend the money on the professionally made kit.

I’m actually surprised that a larger pinball company has not tried to build their own Institute kit at a lower price point, or even approached Mr. Davidson to make a small quantity to be offered on their conglomerate webstore. The thread I quoted above was started by a Pinside user looking to buy one of the sold out building kits, and it heads off of the garden path rather quickly into a discussion about the perceived high cost of the item. Mr. Warner mentions the Dalek wobblehead kit in the above quote, a project he and Mr. Davidson also worked on which brought motion back to the Dr. Who topper (motion that was also axed before production). It seems a version of their kit was offered by a different company for a lower price than what Pinball Obsession was offering it, but the quality was grossly inferior. Again, I’m shocked that it hasn’t happened with the Earthshaker kit as well, given the cutthroat mentality of some folks in this community. Perhaps it proves that there is still no substitute for quality.

Production of this mod looks to be a labour of love for Mr. Davidson. I’m not saying there is no money to be made here, but any profits to be had are well-deserved, as the time and effort that goes into making them appears to be at a maximum. The mod itself has been through three revisions throughout its existence. Revisions, as I observe them, are a redesign of the arm that raises and lowers the building, a clean up of the wiring/connectors and an overall sprucing up of the fit and finish of the actual unit.

If Earthshaker is a game that will reside in your collection for any length of time, this is the ultimate mod to have. It is a feature that was meant to be there all along, so it is only natural to retro-fit it back into the game. It is a modification that appears to be easily reversible, so one could conceivably remove it to keep the price of their game saleable, however, the feature is much sought after and if left in, would be a key selling point for the game. I personally do not have an Earthshaker, but I do enjoy the game immensely (more so than its disaster brethren, Whirlwind). I would have one, but having limited space in my gameroom and having two of those spaces taken up by Lawlor games already, I’m hesitant to add another. If I did have one, I would probably suck it up and spend the money on this kit. It’s a cool feature that doesn’t have much to do with gameplay, but it was part of the original vision for the game, and that is enough for most collectors to buy in. Here’s hoping production continues at a pace that satisfies demand.

If you are interested in adding your name to the list for an upcoming run of the Earthshaker Sinking Institute Kit, please contact Al Warner via Pinside PM (username “awarner”) or email Mark Davidson at mark[at]basementarcade.com.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Earthshaker Sinking Building
Basement Arcade – Earthshaker Institute Sinking Building Kit
Basement Arcade – Operation Moving EI
Pinball Obsession – Homepage (Inactive)
Pinball Obsession – Earthshaker Kit Manual Version 1 (original)Version 2Version 3 (Current)
KLOV/VAPS – Earthshaker Sinking Building Kit (2011/12)
Instructables – DIY Earthshaker Sinking Institute

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One thought on “MODS: That Sinking Feeling– Earthshaker’s Sinking Institute

  1. Nice article that will be particularly interesting to pinball/Pat Lawlor newcomers. I got in on the last order and am fully paid, looking forward to my mod. You are absolutely correct in mentioning that the Basement Arcade website is an atrocity that I stills zero confidence in those interested in ordering from them.

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