Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

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PEOPLE: Patrick Wall of the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo

You may know him as one half of the hosting duo from the Gameroom Junkies podcast. But by the end of June, Patrick Wall will also be a certified pinball and arcade expo organizer. That’s going to look great on his resume. Mr. Wall and his organizing committee will present the first ever Southern Fried Gameroom Expo on June 20-22 at the Marriott Century Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. Normally, these type of events have humble beginnings with a handful of people getting together to celebrate a shared interest. However, this event looks to be packed to the gills with special guests and exclusive events. The Southern Fried Gameroom Expo is reaching for the brass ring right out of the gate. I was able to conduct an email interview with Mr. Wall about the preparing for the show, his responsibilities and what attendees can expect from the SFGE.

Credit Dot: It is a tall order cutting the ribbon on your first gameroom show. What has the experience been like leading up to the big day?

Patrick Wall: It has been a lot of work! But, for the most part it has been fun work. The hardest part was trying to stay motivated in the early days of planning when the show was so far away on the calendar. Luckily, the other members of the planning group are truly big thinkers and they never wavered on their vision for how epic the show should be. As things got closer, the excitement ramped up quite a bit with support from around the country, confirmed guests, and committed games. That stuff makes the work fun.

CD: How did you decide on the name Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo?

PW: We really wanted a name that would be memorable, but also give the show the regional identification of being in the heart of the South. We toyed with the idea of integrating “Atlanta” into the name, but eventually just used it as a tagline: “Atlanta’s Own Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo”. We chose the term “gameroom” specifically because it would give the show’s scope room to grow beyond pinball and coin-op video games. I am thankful for that foresight because the show now features a retro-console gaming area as well as modern console gaming with exhibits by Microsoft and Sony.

CD: Is there a lot of local buzz about the show from those not in the gaming community?

PW: It is really hard to tell – we have not been picked up as of yet by any local media. By cosmic coincidence, our show falls on the 75th anniversary of the City of Atlanta outlawing pinball. That sounds like an interesting media hook to me!

CD: Did you follow the framework adopted by other successful arcade/pinball shows or attack it with a clean slate?

PW: We reached out to organizers of similar shows and they were all extremely generous with their time and they gave some valuable advice. All of that input was considered and we adopted the features and processes that we like the best from the other shows.

CD: From what I have taken in from other media, you are just one member of a much larger committee for the Expo. Who are the other members? Does each member have a specific duty or role?

PW: There are five of us who make up the planning group, called Player One, LLC. It is a great mix of talent and I really cannot imagine doing this without this group of individuals. Shannon Dewitt handles all of web related work, registration, and financial details. Preston Burt [Mr. Wall’s co-host on Gameroon Junkies] provides us with the graphics/art needed and he spearheads social media outreach. Dana Reeves is an expert in event planning logistics and she also handles all of the media outreach. Her husband, Joel Reeves, creates any show related videos needed and he is the coordinator of games. Lastly, my primary role has been to direct the special sessions/speakers and to develop the master schedule.

CD: Some folks got a sneak peek at the games of the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo a few weeks ago at Momo-Con. Can you touch on what the Momo-Con event entails, what pinball machines made an appearance and the reaction of attendees?

PW: Momo-con is an Atlanta based anime and gaming convention that draws about 13,000 attendees. Since Momo-con takes place a month before SFGE, we thought it would be a great chance get out and promote our upcoming show. We coordinated with the planners of Momo-con and agreed to bring a collection of pins and vids for a freeplay area at one of their host hotels. After renting a BIG truck, we were able to exhibit 21 video games and 3 pinball machines (Metallica, AC/DC, and Indy 500) from our combined personal collections. The Momo-con audience trends fairly young, but the reception was amazing. The games were constantly played for the entire weekend and the pins usually had a line 2 deep waiting to play them. It was a perfect time to talk with folks about the show and everyone seemed really excited about SFGE.

CD: The key to any good Expo is the special guests! You’ve covered every base imaginable, from pinball designers like John Trudeau and Barry Oursler to video game celebs like Billy Mitchell (of King of Kong fame) and Walter Day (founder of Twin Galaxies) just to name a few. Being in such a niche hobby, were all of these guests accessible and relatively open to appearing at the show?

PW: Yes, we are really proud and excited about the guests we have coming to be a part of SFGE. The key to that success was planning and contacting potential guests way before the event. Once we made that initial contact so early in the process, guests like John, Barry, and Billy were very open to our ideas and had a comfort level that things were being thoroughly planned out. Billy has been especially helpful in presenting ideas to make the show a success and reaching out to secure other great guests.

CD: Given Barry Oursler’s recent health problems, will he still be attending the show?

PW: As of this writing, Barry will still be attending.

CD: I guess you could call the podcasters that are appearing EXTRA special guests? Which podcasts will be represented at the expo and do you have a Gameroom Podcast Symposium planned?

PW: As the co-host of the Gameroom Junkies Podcast, one of the really cool things I’ve experienced with other podcasters in this hobby is that we all support each other in a variety of ways. When the hosts from the Brokentoken, Arcade Repair Tips, and Coast To Coast Pinball podcasts let us know they were coming to the show, we just had to get everyone together for a panel. We call it “Radio Free SFGE: Podcasting After Dark” and it is a late night session where do a wrap-up discussion of the show’s events and games. Also, Whitney Roberts and Brent Griffith (both from Brokentoken podcast) will join Jonathan Leung (from Arcade Repair Tips podcast) for a panel session about their experiences in arcade game repair.

CD: Lets not forget about the games…how many pinball machines do you have confirmed for the show so far?

PW: Our goal from the beginning was to have at 100 total games. We have 75 pins and 49 vids committed for the show and that does not include games that vendors may bring.

CD: I see you didn’t beef up security, so you don’t anticipate pinball fans and video game fans to clash in a violent rumble in the parking lot. How are you going to maintain the peace? Joking aside, how hard was it to maintain a balance between the pinball and video representation at the show? Or was it even a consideration?

PW: Actually, it was a consideration because the surge in the popularity of pinball has led to lots of folks wanting to bring pins! But, we really want more of a balance so we have had to look for ways to promote people to bring more vids to the show. There should be enough to please all tastes and our focus is really about creating a great show experience for everyone who attends.

CD: You started a Kickstarter campaign late last year to help fund the event and offered advance passes, rewards and tokens of appreciation for backers at every level. How much did you end up raising? What was your reaction to this outpouring of support by the community?

PW: The response to the Kickstarter campaign was really amazing! The concept that a stranger would pledge money to a gaming event that they may not even be able to attend still kinds of blows my mind. Dana and Preston we familiar with how good Kickstarter campaigns should be executed and they really led the way to making it a huge success. We raised almost $6,000 (not including the cut that Kickstarter takes) and I really can’t wait to thank our backers who are coming to the show.

CD: How do you get over the initial fear of organizing an event and not knowing if anyone will show up?

PW: It was certainly a leap of faith and I honestly had my doubts. There were times when I feared I would have to sell my entire game collection just to pay for my part of the show bills. But as I mentioned before, the other folks in the planning group were big thinkers who had a grand vision. We also had great sponsors like Atlanta’s Joystick Game Bar and Marco Specialties who believed in us and supported us early on in the planning process.

CD: If you had to give a few key pieces of advice to someone who wanted to start a show like this in their area with respect to planning and organizing, what would that advice be?

PW: Starting the planning early is the most important thing…and also include the local gaming community to help you. Unless you own a warehouse full of games, there is no show without them!

CD: Leaving the expo behind for one moment, what pinball machines do you have in your collection currently? What are some of your favourite eras of pinball games?

PW: I really don’t have a favorite era of pinball games, but I do really love anything sci-fi and space themed. My current lineup includes Bride of Pinbot, Johnny Mnemonic, Doctor Who, Star Wars (Data East), Congo, Space Mission, and Super-Flite. [Ed. Note: Preston and Patrick announced, on the most recent Gameroom Junkies podcast, that they will be holding a cross-platform Star Wars tournament, which includes Mr. Wall’s DE Star Wars pinball machine and the Star Wars arcade game by Atari.]

CD: You are going to be a busy man on June 20-22. Do you think you’ll be able to find time to relax during the weekend and play a few games of pinball?

PW: Oh yes…I definitely plan on playing some of the games. We have some volunteers lined up to help relieve some of our duties periodically, to allow us some downtime and for that I am truly grateful.

The  pre-order period for tickets for the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo has expired, however weekend passes and single day admission tickets will be available at the door.  John Trudeau and Barry Oursler will appear together on Friday evening at 7:00pm for “The Silverball Sitdown”.  Trudeau returns on Saturday afternoon for a session at 2:30pm entitled “Replay: John Trudeau and his Return to Pinball”, while Oursler re-takes the stage on Saturday evening at 6:00pm for “The Man Who Saved Pinball: 30 Years of Space Shuttle”.  There will be a pinball giveaway shortly after this session with Oursler.

Further Reading:
Southern Fried Gameroom Expo – Official Site
Southern Fried Gameroom Expo – Agenda
Southern Fried Gameroom Expo – Special Guests
Gameroom Junkies Podcast – Official Site

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NEWS: The Stern Facebook Conspiracy (or is it?)

(Ed. Note: I wrote this up over the last couple of days about Stern’s Facebook exploits. And then, last night into this morning, we got three more cryptic posts to drive collectors even more batty. A text only reference to “Blood Majik” (since deleted), a close up of “Coming Soon” art which highlights an animated bum, and a blurry picture of a Comic-Con International logo. A new release is on the horizon, and methinks we are being toyed with…)

The desk jockey that runs Stern’s Facebook page shares a lot of links and images on Stern’s Facebook wall. Many of them relate to recent Stern releases. For example, a link to an Easter-themed Mustang Hot Wheels car was posted over the Easter holiday after the initial release of the Mustang pinball, and multiple links directing readers to information about Metallica’s “Through the Never” concert film were shared in support of their successful Metallica pin. Easy to see why these items are posted–the themes are part of the Stern family and it makes for good brand integration.

However, the pinball conspiracy theorists have a field day when the social media department posts links to stories and photos from franchises that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with pinball. Is it just a total coincidence that all of the subjects of the shared media would make decent pinball themes? Probably not. Recently, visitors were met with a story about the new Planet of the Apes film and a trailer to the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. More titillating is when they post media related to an already rumoured pinball theme: a zombie playing a Metallica pinball machine (Feb8) or the Muppet version of one of those dreadful “Which Character Are You?” quizzes (Jan16). The zombie reference is an interesting one, as it follows a post that dates back to 2012 with an open-ended question on August 6 of that year: “Who are your favourite zombies?” These open-ended questions are another favourite of the social media team, and February 12, 2013 saw two appear back-to-back–“Who is your favourite Justice League character?” and “What is your favourite Angry Birds game?”

So, do these seemingly “random” posts serve as a crystal ball to foreshadow future themes? If you read nearly any pinball message board, they certainly do. Each Facebook share is met shortly thereafter with the obligatory “(FACEBOOK POST SUBJECT) IS THE NEXT STERN!!!” post. These threads are only second in absurdity to the ones that state: “I have a friend who has a friend who owns an amusement shop in Tulsa and he says the next Stern theme will be (INSERT THEME CASUALLY REFERENCED IN A FACEBOOK SHARE HERE)”. Sometimes you won’t even get “owns amusement shop in Tulsa,” it will be replaced with “close to an industry insider”. (Most times, this “insider” is the guy who wipes up the spilled beer from atop the pinball machines at the local barcade.)

Stern plays it pretty close to the chest in their theme development for the most part, and all of the posts, thus far, have turned out to be random shares of cool links that may interest Stern’s key demographic. Perhaps the PR department just likes adding fuel to the rumour fire. If history tells us anything, it is that Stern did not openly reference any of their last few themes with an allusion to them in the form of a Facebook post. They did not post pictures of classic cars or share links to the Chicago Auto Show before Mustang’s release–only after the announcement did we got a flood of Ford propaganda. Before prior releases, there was no close-up detail from the cover of “……And Justice For All”, no “Which AC/DC album are you?”–no teaser hints ever seem to be given. I mined the Stern Facebook page for a reference to Star Trek before the announcement of the machine, and I was stymied there, too.

The pinball community is full of professional speculators, especially when trying to guess what Stern Pinball will do next. They are a company that, up until about two years ago, was horribly inefficient at sharing information with their customers and fans. Heck, they still refuse to share production numbers, which shows how secretive they are about their business. Secrets in the arcade world are historically ill-kept–thus we have Premier’s Monte Carlo and Williams’ Millionaire, both with roulette wheels, released in the same month in 1987, as well as Pinball Magic and Theatre of Magic hitting the marker almost concurrently in the 1990s. I don’t think there is much need for cloak and dagger anymore, with Stern being the undisputed king of the hill in the pinball business, but old habits die hard. And it feels like the social media team is having fun with red herrings.

Each link to an ALF episode guide or Anchorman 2 movie trailer immediately becomes fodder for a new pinball rumour. All this blind speculation must be good for Stern’s business, too. It gets people talking about the company—a company that, almost overnight, has some stiff competition to contend with in the pinball market. Spooky Pinball and Skit-B are boutique companies that don’t have to show they have indy-cool credibility, it is built-in. Maybe Stern is going out of their way to mine some sort of pop culture credibility. Sure a few people will be disappointed that a Muppets or Walking Dead pinball machine won’t be hitting the market anytime soon, but those are people who probably wouldn’t be happy with the layout, or art package, or code, or colour of the post rubbers if the theme somehow did get produced. With the inevitable community buzz about potential themes in Facebook comments and on message boards, you have an automatic focus group (albeit a very unfocussed focus group) containing the sort of people that keep you in business—folks who buy and/or play pinball machines. Of course you can’t please everyone, but you can get a general feeling of what will work, and what will be met with utter distain.

Credit Dot isn’t going to join the professional speculators. I’m no industry insider, and I don’t know anyone who owns an amusement company in small town America. We can, however, assume that the next theme will return to its “roots” after throwing us a curve ball with Mustang: the smart money is on a music or comic theme that hasn’t been referenced on their Facebook wall. However, they have NOT made reference to a lot of themes on Facebook, so the guessing remains wide open for the masses: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ZZ Top, The Big Bang Theory and scrambled eggs. It is best not to join the speculators, as I’ll end up looking like a fool (well, more so) when the theme doesn’t pan out. But part of me wants to go directly to Pinside and post that I know for a fact that scrambled eggs will the theme of Stern’s next pinball machine…

(Another Ed. Note: Okay, f you want some wild speculation, I do have some. I referenced the Zombie/Justice League open-ended questions posted on August 6th 2012 in the above article, which I researched last week. When I went back to take a screengrab of the two questions back-to-back on their wall, Stern has apparently deleted the reference to Justice League between the time I saw it last week and today. The Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy posts were also scrubbed clean from their wall. Something is afoot…)

Further Reading:

Facebook – Stern Pinball Official Facebook Page

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PODCASTS: The Pinball Podcast/Coast 2 Coast

It was a big week for podcasts, and for Credit Dot Pinball. Both Coast 2 Coast Pinball (Episode 87) and the Pinball Podcast (Episode 33) released new installments, and both shows were nice enough to mention this site.

If you have not taken time to follow Nate Shivers’ podcast, Coast 2 Coast Pinball, now is the time. Mr. Shivers is scheduled to attend the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show in Tacoma, Washington this weekend, and will also attend the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta, Georiga at the end of June. If his field reporting from the Midwest Gaming Classic is any indication, Coast 2 Coast Pinball will be the place to get detailed information, comprehensive insight and exclusive interviews from these shows. Being total gaming events, the shows will have a great deal of video arcade content, and Nate’s coverage promises to be exclusively focussed on the pinball material. I was honoured that he took the time to mention Credit Dot on his show, even though he admits long form writing isn’t his bag. The best way you can show your support for Nate and Coast 2 Coast, besides listening, is by buying a Coast 2 Coast Pinball T-shirt, for only $15USD shipped within the US (see the link on the C2C main page).

The Pinball Podcast followed through with the promise of more shows with their second episode of the month. The appeal of this podcast comes from its unpolished style and wayward meandering through a loose structure of topics. Less structure certainly does not mean less professional or less entertaining. The Pinball Podcast is a favourite of mine because it feels like you are listening in on a conversation that Don and Jeff are having over a few beers on league night. Sure, there is lots of pinball talk, but they weave off course and talk about films, parenthood, travelling and Jeff’s favorite topic, medical ailments, before righting the ship back to a discussion about pinball. Given their rapport, it is incredible to find out that hosts Don and Jeff are more acquaintances rather than best friends. They live in different states and were originally united only through a shared love of pinball (So the story goes, at a Pinball show a few years ago, one host-to-be asked “Hey, wanna do a pinball podcast?”, “Um, sure,” the other replied). I am indebted to Don in particular, as I corresponded with him at length before starting Credit Dot, and to be very honest, it was his advice and guidance (along with my wife’s, too) that spurred me to follow through with the idea of writing about pinball. I have a very long e-mail from Don that I go back and look at every time I feel too discouraged, or too lazy, to sit down and write. So if you hate the essays that appear here, blame Don. I am grateful to the Pinball Podcast for mentioning Credit Dot on their show as well, and I strive to be to the pinball blogging universe what they are to the pinball podcast universe. I hope to bother Don and/or Jeff in the coming months to appear as guest columnists and provide some exclusive content for Credit Dot.

If nothing else, having Credit Dot mentioned on these podcasts has made me realize that verbally communicating the name of this blog is a challenge if not spelled out letter for letter–”” can be misunderstood as “” when mentioned in conversation. The chance for confusion seems to be a trend in the pinball world: Coast 2 Coast can be misinterpreted as “Coast To Coast”, and I’m sure gets lots of errant clicks to Hopefully Google figures everything out for us…

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PEOPLE: Randy Perlow of ColorDMD

When Ted Turner decided to colourize some of Hollywood’s classic black and white films, cinephiles were outraged. Film reviewer Roger Ebert labelled the move towards colourization “vandalism”, and further stated, “What was so wrong about black and white movies in the first place? By filming in black and white, movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious.” Nobody was this upset when Randy Perlow and Chris Enright waged an all out war on monochrome pinball displays. By installing one of their ground-breaking ColorDMDs, you too can eradicate the drab orange dots from your gameroom. ColorDMD has full colour support for eleven different Williams/Bally/Midway titles, while the Sigma option allows you to add nearly 100 different colour hues and various effects to spice up the dots in any WPC/WPC95 or Stern Whitestar/SAM system. I had a chance to ask ColorDMD founder Gary Perlow a few questions about the business, the hobby and the Canadian spelling of colour.

Credit Dot: How long has ColorDMD been in business?

Randy Perlow: ColorDMD Displays LLC was formed in January 2012, and our first product (a multicolor display for Attack From Mars) was released in April of the same year. The only members are Chris Enright and myself. I invented the the hardware/software that drives the ColorDMD and also manage the business. Chris designed the mounting hardware, has colored most of the games we support, and was responsible for test and assembly of our earlier runs.

The work for ColorDMD started much earlier in the summer of 2009. An early prototype was flipping by the Fall of 2009 but it took longer to integrate it inside the backbox, and longer still to reduce it to a form factor that could be shared with other enthusiasts. By September 2011, we had a pre-production display that was similar to our current display and this was the unit that we demonstrated at the Pacific Pinball Expo and Chicago Expo.

CD: How did you first identify this need for not only replacement displays, but replacement displays with colour support?

RP: To be honest, I was never really sure a need existed. I was inspired by some other projects I had seen and was looking for a fun project where I could contribute something back to the pinball community. A color display was the only idea I could come up with and I was curious why current games were still being built with monochromatic dot matrix displays.

The project really started as a challenge to see what could be done with current technology and what the impact might be. I hoped it would be cool and something people would be excited about, but didn’t really think about it from a business perspective until much later.

CD: Where are you located and what are your facilities like? Just a couple of guys in their basement or something more elaborate?

RP: We’re based in San Clemente, California and design from our homes. For over a year, we used Chris’ garage for final assembly and test but have since contracted that work to a local manufacturer.

CD: Fish Tales is the most recent game to get the full colour treatment, and it joins a list of ten other titles with full colour support. What is considered when selecting a game?

RP: We have joked that we pick them out of a hat. The truth is that about half the games were chosen based on the games we had in our collections. Others have focused on “A-list” titles that seemed to be highly requested titles and good candidates from a business perspective.

This year we have started to add additional developers to help build our library of multicolor ROM titles. Many of these titles are being chosen based on developer selection, complexity, and suitability to our hardware coloring engine.

CD: What is the process of getting dots coloured for a specific game? Lots of testing?

RP: The first step is to try to capture all the possible animation frames a game can generate.

We need to see the final frames produced by the game which often include layered animation, text, and scoring data. There’s no easy way to do this without playing the game and exercising the right switch sequences to show all the animation. It takes a deep knowledge of the game rules, and time, lots and lots of time.

The next step is bringing the sequences into the computer where we try to develop strategies to uniquely identify each frame, and generating complementary color data. We don’t store any of the actual game images… only the complementary color data. When the game is played, the hardware engine attempts to recognize each input frame and call up the color data that corresponds to the current frame. This step is a combination of artistry and problem-solving.

Then we export the data to a display and test in the game where we’re looking for sequences we may have missed or are not being recognized and colored properly. We’ll then continue to iterate until we stop finding issues to correct.

CD: I suppose it would be fair to revisit this question given some of the recent trends in the hobby: how do you avoid copyright issues given the images use are adding colour to?

RP: We don’t store or distribute any copyrighted artwork in our color ROMs or display hardware. If you paged through them, they look contain rectangles or amorphous blobs of color that bear little to no resemblance to the original artwork.

All the original game images are generated by the game, and coloring is done on the fly. The end result is similar to holding a multi-colored gel film over a black and white display.

CD: How connected are you with the pinball community at large?

I’ve been collecting pins for about 7 years, and have been active on RGP and Pinside during that time. Besides ColorDMD, I helped complete the emulation of the Micropin for PinMAME and recreated the lost “brain board” for the original Flicker solid-state prototype game, which was Bally’s pioneering entry into solid-state games. I compete (poorly) in the Orange County Pinball League and have attended many pinball shows over the past four years, and given multiple seminars on ColorDMD.

Chris is the founder of the Orange County Pinball League, nearing its tenth year. He has been active on RGP, Pinside, and the prewar pinball forums. Chris is highly regarded by pinball parts distributors and has been responsible for reproducing rare plastic and metal replacement parts that have been otherwise impossible to find.

CD: There was a time when you had trouble keeping these things in stock! Are you still having issues keeping up with the incredible demand? It seems like a good problem to have!

RP: We build in runs that are often aligned to the introduction of new products. We typically have displays in stock through most of the year but there may be an occasional month where we run out of inventory before a production run is complete.

CD: Buying one of your ColorDMDs is cost comparable to buying a more traditional uni-colour DMD. How do you keep the cost so low?

RP: Given the extended multicolor capability of the ColorDMD as well as it’s versatility (custom color selection and display effect), we think it’s a good value. Our pricing is primarily based on our manufacturing BOM, and we have tried to provide these at the lowest cost we can and still meet business needs and return on our time.

CD: Your online store lists twelve “unique” products to buy. Am I right in assuming this is all the same hardware just loaded with different software?

RP: That’s correct. All the ColorDMDs on our site today utilize the same hardware platform with different firmware. The firmware is easily installed with a USB flash drive and can be changed at any time. The only other difference is that the SIGMA display for SAM/Whitestar platforms ships with different installation cables suited for those platforms.

CD: When the product was first released, the displays were locked to a specific game. Why the change?

RP: As our library of supported titles grew, it became too difficult for us and our distributors to stock individual titles. Customers were also asking for capability to move their display to a new game if/when they sold their original game. We decided the best solution was to open the platform.

CD: You offer installation support in the form of videos, and the installation itself looks pretty straight forward. How close is the ColorDMD to being “plug and play” right out of the box?

RP: It’s pretty close. We tried to make it virtually “plug and play” but it’s not exactly so because our display is a different height than the original DMD display and draws low voltage from the power driver board instead of the high voltage video board. Most customers tell us it’s about a ten minute install.

CD: How close are we to seeing full colour dot programming for Stern games?

RP: We’re targeting release of a Stern multicolor title before the end of 2014.

CD: Do you see your product being compatible with the “new old games” being released by Planetary Pinball Supply?

RP: We’ve had some high level discussions with Planetary about supporting their new releases. They have a few options they are exploring, but we’d love to see this happen.

CD: Would there be a market for multi-colour or colour-changing text in earlier alphanumeric games?

RP: Possibly, but that’s not a focus at this time. The technical requirements are quite different than our current platform.

CD: Is there any indication that there would be a market for producing those extra-large Sega DMDs used on Baywatch, Batman Forever, Maverick and Frankenstein or the extra-small ones used on earlier games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

RP: We receive a few requests per year to support the large Sega DMDs. Most of the requests have been from people who have a line out on their current display and are looking for a cheaper alternative than a new plasma. The small screens we use aren’t wide enough to fill the larger speaker panel window on these games. We would need to shift to a larger 17” panel and manufacture a new mounting bracket.

With the added cost, our display would likely be at least as expensive as the plasmas that are still out there. As long as original continue to be available for these games, we’re treating it as a lower priority than other projects but it could be something we offer in the future.

CD: Will you eventually add colour to every Williams DMD game? Even Popeye Saves the Earth?

RP: That’s a great goal but we’re taking it one project at a time, and listening to what the market tells us. We’re also hoping that by broadening our developer program, we will be able to provide support for a much larger library of games than the high-priority titles that people are asking for.

CD: I’m not an owner myself, but its something I have to ask…when will support for Twilight Zone be released?

RP: I can’t provide a date for any specific title, but I can say that Twilight Zone is one of the hardest games for our engine to handle. We’ve been taking on easier titles and building up the feature set of the engine to handle some of the more difficult animation sequences. If/when we think we can do it justice, we do plan to release a multicolor ROM for Twilight Zone.

CD: We may be approaching a point when DMD screens will be eradicated from pinball machines altogether. How has the DMD held on for so long and what are you thoughts on the backbox LCD/LED display?

RP: This is a great question and one that I asked before starting the project… why are games still being built with DMDs? Trying to fit another display technology into a legacy platform isn’t easy. The added information needed to display three colors instead of one requires significant improvements in processor power, data storage, and throughput. If image resolution and color depth is to be increased at the same time, this places an even higher burden on the processing and storage requirements.

With the ColorDMD we insert powerful processing in a place it was never meant to reside… between the DMD controller and the display. While we have achieved very good results, it’s a difficult process and not one that’s well suited to the design of a new game. The better approach is to modify the processor and video display system of the game to handle the added requirements. This is costly and risky and a large reason it has taken so long for color displays to be integrated in new games. It is also more expensive and time consuming to generate high resolution content for these games.

Incorporating a high-resolution screen in the backbox is overdue and opens up new possibilities, but it will take some time (and a few games) for manufacturers and designers to figure out the best way to make use of the extra screen resolution and area.

CD: What is on the horizon for ColorDMD? New technology? New directions? New releases?

RP: We have a lot of active projects now but I’m not ready to reveal any of it! A lot of it is related to things that people have been asking for, but we still have some tricks up our sleeve and hope to unveil a few surprises before the end of the year!

CD: What games currently reside at the ColorDMD HQ or in your private collection?

RP: I currently own a LOTR, TRON, MM, WH2O, IJ, and a bartop Micropin. Chris has an AFM, MM, SS, TZ, Metallica, and SC. This gives us plenty of material to work with, but when needed, members of OCPL often step up and provide access to their collections.

CD: And finally, does it bother you that I’m using the Canadian, or British, spelling of “colour”?

RP: No, I love it! It’s funny but when I sought a name for the company I was looking for something clever that was immediately recognizable and identifiable with our product. It wasn’t until after the release of our first title, that I realized I had picked a name with an alternate spelling in many parts of the world! Thankfully Google is more clever than I, and people have been able to find us!

You can visit ColorDMD displays are available through their website or from purveyors of fine pinball supplies, like Bay Area Amusements in the United States and the Pinball Palace in the UK. Eleven titles are currently have full colour support: The Addams Family, White Water, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Attack from Mars, Medieval Madness, Cactus Canyon, Monster Bash, Scared Stiff, Theatre of Magic and Fish Tales.


FEATURE: Roger Sharpe’s “Pinball!”

I responded to an ad on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist) that advertised a “Pinball Machine” book. I clicked through the ad to find it was a copy of Roger Sharpe’s 1977 landmark coffee table book entitled “Pinball!” with photos by James Hamilton. The ad claimed the book came with the original dust jacket and that it was a first edition. Further, the ad went on to state that the book was signed by the author. Included was a photo of the inside end paper–scrawled in felt-tip pen it read “Best Wishes, Roger Sharpe”. The seller was asking $40. I immediately sent over a message and by Tuesday afternoon I had arranged a weekend pickup. Mr. Sharpe’s book is difficult to find on the secondary market, a signed first edition in good condition with dust jacket intact even more so. As an example, Amazon lists about five of them from their third-party sellers, and the cheapest one, which is also a signed first edition, will run you $250USD+$3.99USD shipping (this was on Quick! has one for $45.00USD+$3.99 shipping!). I have always wanted the book, however, I was not willing to pay the astronomical prices the book commands. I wasn’t looking forward to the Saturday morning drive to the other side of Toronto to pick it up, but I would have been silly to balk at the chance of owning it for $40CAD.

For someone like me, who admittedly is more comfortable talking about and working on games from the Solid State era, the contents of this book are foreign territory. Mr. Sharpe chronicles the emergence of pinball as a national pastime from its pre-war roots as modernized bagatelles, up to the colourful, noisy, non-licenced Electromechanical machines we recognize as a pinball machine. As stated in the introduction, the book was released in 1977, so the most recent games that are photographed are the Bally releases Captain Fantastic and Night Rider, however the text does briefly reference games that rode the crest of Solid State technology, like Evel Knievel and The Atarians. It is almost unbelievable that Sharpe chose this moment in time to release his book, as it bisects the EM and Solid State eras perfectly. Sharpe and Co. tie a bow around the manufacturing, playing, operating and legislating of pinball machines before the dawn of circuit boards and LCD displays.

Much of Mr. Sharpe’s writing early in the book is flowery and dramatic, which isn’t much my taste, but was probably influenced by the subject matter. I get it: he was trying to put feeling and emotion into the static workings of a mechanical machine. He is, in essence, trying to show that the machines are dynamic, almost alive when controlled by the player. Mr. Sharpe gets over-zealous in the text about playing a Bally Old Chicago, describing each ball in elaborate detail. This is a zeal that has waned and faded within the pinball community over the years, perhaps lost to a more jaded generation such as ours, who are now more focussed on resale values and the number of after-market mods in our prized machines. Some lines are very quotable, if not written specifically for entertainment value alone:

“Playing pinball is like making love: It demands the complete concentration and total emotional involvement of the player. Nothing else will do.”

Python Anghelo put that line of thought into circulation, but it looks as though Mr. Sharpe minted it in this book. I would disagree, however. I’m not totally sold on the similarities between sex and pinball. However, my wife may find a comparison between the two…given my reputation for “short ball times”…

A large part of the book is dedicated to chronicling the history of the game, which, now, can be taken for granted, as we can piece together our own history using various sources on the web. However, nothing of its kind would have been available in the 1970s and Mr. Sharpe’s documentation of pinball history and culture brought legitimacy to a pastime that had always been thought of as residing on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, and thus, had its history discounted and ignored. Giants of the industry, Sam Stern, Harry Williams and David Gottlieb are given their due in hearty helpings. Mr. Sharpe gives little significance to his own efforts of helping break through the legislative barriers in New York City, which can now be viewed as an incredible pinball landmark. It’s a good thing that everyone who has since interviewed Sharpe has made him chronicle, in detail, the experience, thus we have an accurate play by play of what happened that day in April 1976. The book only provides only one photo of Mayor LaGuardia’s “public busting” of pinballs in 1941, which seems to be too few for such an important event.

But Mr. Sharpe paints a beautiful picture of the pingame back in 1977. Let these words wash over you:

“Pinball games are no longer relegated to rundown arcades and shabby taverns. Carpeted, well-lighted game rooms, college student unions, suburban shopping malls, airports, department stores, and a new generation of family amusement centers–these are the places where contemporary pinball wizards can be found.”

Ah, to live in a time where pinball seemed to exist everywhere. Currently, the shopping mall arcade is all but dead, and you’d be lucky to see a pinball machine worth dropping quarters into at a family amusement center anymore. One can argue that pinball has come full circle, and has reclaimed its original home in the “shabby tavern”, which is now affectionately dubbed the “dive bar”.

Mr. Sharpe’s apparent vision for the book was that of situating pinball as a global phenomenon and he does so with panache. We are treated to gorgeous photos of long extinct bars, coffee houses and arcades from across Europe by photographer James Hamilton, each photo expertly capturing a slice of pinball life. Sharpe’s text adopts long-standing stereotypes of European countries and applies them to pinball culture. Sharpe paints a picture of the “rigid”, community-oriented German, the emotional “individualist” Italian, the “subdued” and “loyal” Brit and the “cool and detached” Frenchman. The Spaniards are given particular attention for their love of fast games with a steep pitch and their outright government-imposed ban of American-made machines. Both of these factors led to the Spanish re-working American machines to their own liking and adopting a prolific pinball manufacturing industry of their own. Sharpe couldn’t resist referencing stereotypical Spanish swordplay to punctuate the section:

“The players seem to slash at the speeding ball, like swordsman duelling with a deadly opponent.”

The book is also ahead of the curve in many instances. Mr. Sharpe references the machines as “work(s) of art”, at a time when they were pegged as little more than money-making amusement machines. There is also the “bold” proclamation that the arrival of video games and Solid State technology would change the face of the pinball forever, and I think we can all agree that it did, and to an extent that eclipsed what Mr. Sharpe had in mind. He then calls for a pinball “olympiad” where all the great players would converge and compete–an objective that Mr. Sharpe would later help establish through the creation of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), which in turn would pave the way for competition-based organizations such as the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA). Further, Mr. Sharpe dedicates space to describing how someone would go about examining and buying a game for use in a home environment. I’m not sure if Mr. Sharpe foresaw the movement, en masse, of pinball machines into basements across North America nearly four decades later, but he foreshadowed it quite nicely. Sharpe’s advice for buying a machine remains eerily true for the modern-day buyer:

“If you are thinking of buying a pinball game for your own home or apartment, however, be careful–especially if you are not dealing with an established firm […]. Examine the machine thoroughly before you buy it. Try it out. Then try it again. If there are problems, find out how they can be fixed, and ask whether the game is guaranteed or not. Service is important, too. […] Your choice of games is of course a personal decision, but I recommend picking a machine that will continue to be challenging and exciting every time it’s played.”

It’s as if Mr. Sharp was warning buyers about deceptive sellers decades before Craigslist even existed, and concludes by suggesting the buyer select a “deep” game long before the term “deep” became an overused buzzword in this community.

The book, as a whole, has worth in both its word and its photographs. It is a snapshot of a snapshot of history: we can look back upon how Mr. Sharpe looked back upon pinball. Sadly, Mr. Sharpe has not revisited the coffee table book format to bring the story of pinball into the Solid State era and beyond. The idea of a follow-up book is another popular question Sharpe has to field in nearly every interview. His answer is, most often, that it would be a immense undertaking to execute correctly, an undertaking that he cannot tackle at this time in his life. This is a man who has worked hard in the industry for countless years, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to rest, play pinball and enjoy the company of his grandchildren, rather than trek across the world compiling information for another book. In any case, it’s a different time now. If the pinball revival hits full stride and the machines become front and centre in popular culture once again, Mr. Sharpe (or perhaps his sons, Josh or Zack) may be able to capture the spirit of the original book. Otherwise, he’d be writing about, and photographing private basement arcades across North America, which is not the overall vibe Pinball! attempted to capture. (I believe there is a market for a picture book about private pinball arcades though…a huge untapped market.) Until such a time when Mr. Sharpe decides to put pen to paper again, we will have to make due with the similarly titled book “Pinball” by Argentinean photographer Santiago Ciuffo. My copy is in the mail, and I’m excited to see how his book stacks up against Mr. Sharpe’s beautifully crafted love letter to the game we all know and enjoy.