Hot off the press, from Classic Playfield Reproductions, comes a definitive reproduction playfield for the Williams 1987 release, Fire! I have raved about the art package on this game in the past, and the playfield is, without a doubt, the centrepiece, and perhaps one of the most beautiful of the entire System 11 era. Early photos released of these repro playfields show that the integrity of the original Mark Sprenger art remains in tact, as is nearly always the case with any release by the folks at CPR.
CPR’s repro on the left, a NOS original on the right. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html.
The Fire in Mr. Wright’s game room, as it appeared in the Pinside thread “Williams Fire! Club”
This may have been a particularly interesting project for CPR artist Stu Wright, as his current collection includes a Fire! that has a restored cabinet and colour-matched power coated trim. Mr. Wright contacted me after the article was posted, and commented:
“I spent about 1,200 Hours on the Fire! Playfield artwork. Call me crazy for doing it, but as an artist myself I just love this artwork and I appreciate the original artist’s painting — I hope my repro artwork does justice [to] this beautiful game.”
Please take a look at the absolutely detailed production notes for this reproduction process, as Mr. Wright the CPR team had to make some difficult decisions. Since Williams used various manufacturers to produce their playfields, there were always slight variations in colour, artwork, masking, registration, dimpling, cuts and registration. This makes the process difficult for the folks at Classic Playfields, as a “definitive” version has to be decided upon for reproduction. And we all know how picky us pinball folk can be. Classic Playfield’s FAQ describes the process of selecting a breadth of new-old-stock original material to use as master pieces and account for variations when preparing re-mastered artwork. Fire! looks to be a special case, with some weird variances in playfield art and design that made it into production games: cut-outs for the skill-shot switches came in a variety of variations, the centerpiece “burning buildings” art had differences in colour, and, probably the most notable, the main playfield colour was released in brown, dark brown and black versions. I’m sure some will cry foul that the skill shot switch lane has five cuts instead of two, or that the playfield is brown instead of the “original black”, but to get your hands on a Fire! playfield that isn’t completely blown out to put into your machine…you’ll have to deal with it.
Skill shot switch cut-outs, as collected by Pinside user “Lonzo”.
Light bleed on the original playfield. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html
In addition to this, CPR has addressed two nagging issues in the playfield design and took it upon themselves to correct them: the light-blocking layer of paint in the CPR version is darker which makes for a less washed out light show in the building inserts, and a complete re-imagining of the shape of the large insert behind the Fire! logo dead centre of the playfield to eliminate some ugly light bleed. Thus, CPR makes every attempt to be true to the original Williams design and art, and they also leave room for innovation and change where time has proven that the original design wasn’t executed in the most effective fashion.
CPR’s custom window. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html
It seems that Fire! payfields, in particular, take quite the beating, and I’ve never seen an original in a working game that isn’t completely blown out or suffering from noticeable damage. Fire!, in particular, is prone to some serious mylar bubbling, lifting the art right off of the playfield inserts. And with inserts as large as the ones on Fire!, this is a serious problem. Lots of these playfields suffer from serious planking issues as well, in the un-mylared areas. [Ed. note: Is it just me, or did Williams use less-than-quality materials all around on Fire! production? The cabinets have more knots than my two year old’s hair after a bath, and the playfields have aged about as well as Keith Richards.] Further, the art on the playfield between the top set of slings–around the ladder/inner horseshoe–-seem to suffer from heavy wear on nearly every game with an original playfield. That poor “Rescue Shot!” insert is nearly always ruined by lifting mylar, and no replacement decal exists. These top slings are so close together that the ball just hammers the playfield when it gets going back and forth, not to mention that it also severely wears the lip of the playfield where the ladder rises, catching a bit of air in the process if not adjusted properly. The mylar sheet comes to an end in this area as well, so you are left with quite the mess at the top of the playfield.
Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html
With so many of these playfields beat to hell, it is great to see Mark Sprenger’s original artwork get a new lease on life. The beautifully rendered gold leaf seamlessly flows with the yellow and orange hues of the flames engulfing the buildings. These warm shades stand out against the dark background and surround the moonlit huddled masses of Chicago seeking protection from the raging, city-wide fire. The shadowy crowd was addressed using black and blue shades of the night, with orange and yellow highlights depicting just how powerful the raging fire is against the darkness of night. Sprenger perfectly captures the chaos and panic in downtown Chicago in one single mass of humanity–men, women and children headed in every direction. Also, it is nice to see the majority of the men wearing fancy hats, as was the style at the time, proving that even in times of high chaos, the 19th Century man still had an eye for fashion. Billowy smoke gives way to an intricate cobblestone design that dominates the upper symmetrical orbits, the majority of which is hidden by the playfield plastics and ramps. The vacuum-formed houses are obviously one of the most striking physical features of the completed game, however seeing the playfield without any hardware or plastic decor on it really highlights how much detail Sprenger put into his creation.
The author’s planking playfield.
The Fire! playfield in my game is better than some I’ve seen, but still displays much of the wear I’ve described above. I’m on the CPR list but my spot is near the bottom: as bad luck would have it, I got my Fire! one day after they closed their pre-order list. This playfield has been on the pre-order page for quite some time, and was there to properly gauge interest from collectors via e-mail. It appears that, like many of the CPR offerings such as their High Speed repro playfield from last year, that quantities will be limited to the approximate interest from collectors. It makes little financial sense for CPR to press thousands of these, with an unknown market. As of writing, the pre-order page states that interested parties are now being notified via e-mail, in “batches of twenty”, first come first served, that the playfields are ready to ship and that payment is due.
The author’s abused upper playfield. The mylar stops just below the ladder cut-out.
Even though it is a game that is not in particular demand, Fire! is the perfect candidate for a CPR repro: existing playfields are nearly always gassed, and it’s a high production game with a unique theme and gameplay that makes for a very small but dedicated fan base. Some will argue that dropping in a new playfield would be like polishing a turd-–sure, your Fire! will look fantastic, but it is STILL a Fire! Personally, if I do end up getting the invoice for a CPR playfield, $699USD+$59USD shipping, I’d be into my game within the range of about $1800-$2000CDN, which is by all accounts, even in today’s topsy-turvy pinball market, an amount I would never be able to get out of the machine if I decided to sell it sometime down the road. Given the steep ticket price of the reproduction playfields, any pre-1992 production game getting the CPR playfield treatment had better be a keeper (or done simply for the welfare of the game), as you’d be hard pressed to recoup your output when it comes time to move along (unless you can find someone who absolutely must have the given title in plug-and-play condition or, in the case of Fire!, a fire chief with deep pockets). Unless space really gets tight, I don’t see myself having a fire sale for the Fire! (see what I did there?), so I think the game is going to be a CPR candidate if I get the call.
With their work on Fire!, Classic Playfield Reproductions continues their tradition of quality and dedication to this hobby of ours that is constantly striving for polish and shine in aging, mass-produced, commercial amusement machines. I’m particularly proud that these guys are Canadian, if only for the fact that, as a Canadian, I pay ten dollars less for playfield shipping than those south of the border. For many, $699USD is far too much to pay to refurbish any game, let alone a lowly System 11/Oursler designed Fire!–bubbling mylar, worn playfield art down to the wood and broken plastics will suit them just fine. But for those looking to bring elegance and shine back to the topside of their fatigued Fires!, it is again CPR to the rescue. (I couldn’t have included more fire and rescue innuendo in this article if I tried…find them all!)
In one of the very first essay-style articles on Credit Dot, I talked up the impending arrival of the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod like it was the second coming of Christ himself. The brainchild of Jeff Thompson, the speaker panel added lights to the “Starlight Drive- In” sign, the moon, the UFO and the tail lights of all the classic cars lined up watching the DMD. Supposedly, it was something that was to be included in production games, but the project went over-budget and it was axed from the final version. Mr. Thompson has now begun asking for payment, and the first few batches of the mod are being installed in Creeches across the globe. Unfortunately, as of writing, it has been indicated by Mr. Thompson that all of the mods have been spoken for. However, perhaps if you e-mail him directly or message him on Pinside (username: thompso9, and be patient for a response), you can be put on a stand-by list, as there are bound to be people who will back out.
The mod as it arrived on my doorstep.
The panel arrived at my door this past week, and it took everything I had to not clear my schedule and install the mod upon arrival. However, things like this are best done when interruptions are minimized, and I waited until Saturday afternoon for installation, when I knew I’d have a chunk of spare time to dedicate. The mod was packaged extremely well. Contents of the box, as it arrived, included: the wooden panel backer with embedded PCB light boards, four new screws to mount the DMD, detailed instructions and the optional vinyl mask for the standard speaker plastic. Not being an owner of the Deluxe “chromed” panel from Classic Playfield Reproductions–and it wasn’t without a couple of failed attempts at trying to track one down in the past few months–I paid the extra ten bucks for the vinyl light mask that would have to be affixed to the back of my current speaker panel overlay. My total cost, shipping and optional vinyl mask included, was $180.00USD.
The sticky black mask peeled back to reveal the red taillights.
If you have the CPR speaker overlay, this step that is not needed, as it will already has the proper masking cut-outs for the lights. If you are using the original that is on your machine, like me, you’ll have to prep the overlay for installation of the $10 vinyl mask. Removing the speaker plastic from the wood panel was the first step and it was extremely easy. Twenty years of age had dried out the adhesive that held the plastic to the original wood. The wood side adhesive may have dried out, but the other side, that affixed the original blackout mask to the plastic was still holding strong. This was by far the most difficult and time consuming step of the entire installation. The blackout mask came off in large sticky strips, leaving behind a stickier film on the printed side of the plastic. In some places, the paper would pull off but leave behind a thin layer of black paper fibre. Despite the difficulty, it was cool to see the red tail lights first appear from under the blackout; they were originally left uncovered by the white paint mask which all but proves for certain that John Trudeau and the art department had visions of lighting them at one point.
The final Goo Gone clean-up.
The most frustrating part of this process is that you cannot use any sort of scraper to aid in removal of the blackout mask, as there is a chance you will damage the back-printed artwork. Thank god for my caveman-like, unkempt fingernails, as they were the perfect tool to lift and scrape the adhesive without damaging the plastic. Goo-Gone was also a godsend, batting cleanup, and removing any left behind adhesive and black paper fibre. A final rinse with soap and water and the panel backside was ready for the vinyl mask.
Installing the vinyl light mask on the original speaker panel. No fancy CPR panel for this guy, unfortunately.
The reason the vinyl mask needs to be applied is that it contains cut-outs that will focus the light from the PCB onto one single area, rather than being diffused and muddy. Thus, getting the cut-outs lined up with the taillights, Starlight sign, moon and UFO is extremely important. The instructions tell of both the wet and dry method of getting the vinyl mask onto the panel. The dry method is pretty much peel the vinyl mask so the sticky side is exposed, stick it onto the panel, remove the second backing and pray that you got it right. Some Pinside users who have purchased the mod have shared that cutting the large mask into smaller, more manageable sections has helped make placement more precise. I, however, left it as one piece and went with the wet method. I soaked the backside of the panel with Windex, peeled the backing so the sticky side was exposed, and placed it sticky side down on the panel. The Windex allowed me to shift and move the mask exactly where I wanted it without the adhesive taking permanent hold. Once properly lined up with the art, I squeegeed out the Windex allowing the adhesive to bond, and then peeled off the second paper backing. It took just one attempt, and it turned out pretty well.
Speaker and hardware configuration of the original wood panel.
The replacement wood panel is made of quality materials and is precision cut. All counter-sunk T-nuts are placed accurately with respect to the original. There is a plastic cut-out used to help focus the cascade effect of the Starlight sign, and on my unit, it had come loose and was floating around in the box. Thankfully, it wasn’t trashed with the packaging materials, and two dabs of glue put the plastic back in place. The rest of the installation was a breeze, as it was just a matter of moving over the speakers, DMD, plastic H-Channel and hardware from the old wood panel to the new one. The only hardware items that do not get recycled are four mounting screws that hold the DMD-–they are replaced by the four long screws included in order to accommodate, I assume, a ColorDMD. Two holes need to be drilled to hold the capacitor and wire clip that are in line with the smaller speaker. I found that they needed to be placed a little higher than their original locations, as to not damage the embedded PCB on the front of the panel. The completed masked plastic overlay from above was affixed to the front of the wood panel with the included 3M double-sided tape, and that finished the changeover.
Old (bottom) vs. New (Top)
Speakers and hardware installed on the new panel. Note the placement of the speaker capacitor and wire clip. Small starter holes for these two screws needed to be drilled with care as to not damage the embedded PCB on the other side.
The panel has a jumper located on the back that will allow the taillights to stay on, or perform dynamically, which makes them turn on an off at random intervals. It is a neat touch. It ships dynamic and I left it that way, but simply moving the jumper over one pin will make the taillights static. I plugged the mod’s four pin connector into J116 as indicated in the instructions. The red, yellow and black cable that runs from the panel has both a female connector plug and male pins on it. The mod’s female connector plugs directly onto the board at J116 (or J117, J118 can also be used), and the female connector originally plugged into the board is connected to the male pins on the panel’s wire. I fired the game up and the panel lit with no issues. It looks as if the panel lights need time to warm up: upon start-up, the DMD will be fully into its attract sequence before dynamic light movement of the Starlight sign and taillights begin.
Wiring hookup via J116.
Start to finish, the installation took less than two hours. I like that this mod is shipped with all the hard stuff done for you. Many DIY modders may feel differently, relishing a challenge. I was very happy that this mod wasn’t shipped as a handful of PCBs to affix onto (and embed into) the original wooden panel. Shipping a plug-and-play wooden panel, complete with reproduction speaker grilles, was the way to go. The embedded lights on the PCBs are nice and bright–the blue of the Starlight sign really pops–and the mask does a good job on focussing the light source. However, as I was installing this, I thought to myself: “Did I just spend $180.00USD for a few small lights on a panel I hardly ever look up at?” I also realized that these funds were about half-way to the price of a ColorDMD, which is the ultimate speaker panel upgrade. I’m kind of torn here. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely $180.00USD worth of craftsmanship in the mod, and the end product is fantastic, but I’m left to wonder what these lights really add to the game, especially in a game that has so many other mods and upgrades to consider. Look at it this way: if you invested in the CPR Deluxe speaker plastic, this mod AND a ColorDMD, you would be the proud owner of a $700.00USD+ speaker panel. That’s about the price I paid for my Williams Fire! at Allentown this year, for crying out loud.
Voila! The final product.
The interest in the mod is definitely there, and the early reviews have people raving about it. Pinside user nudgefree stated, “To me it ranks right up there with the Tron Arcade mod as ‘Best mod ever,’” while user schlockdoc says “It looks awesome with the Color DMD and deluxe panel. Worth the wait.” I don’t regret my decision of buying in at all: I’m spending more time looking up at the Creech DMD now than I ever did! The game is a keeper for me, so I felt compelled. I have a new set of ramps, plastics and hardware to put onto the game in the near future to make it an above average example, so this mod is the icing on the cake. Given the five year ordeal of getting these panels made, it looked to be now or never for this mod. You’ll probably never see a run of these again, and if they are re-ran by another individual or company, they probably won’t be made with such precision or to such a high standard of quality. This is a package that wouldn’t be easily replicated in a basement or garage by a hobbyist modder, either. I’m thankful that Mr.Thompson has accepted the call and released these speaker panels to a community hungry for this particular mod, and I can’t wait to hear of his future projects (rumoured: Twilight Zone lit speaker panels). All that is left now, I guess, is to start saving my pennies for a ColorDMD to REALLY make this Creech speaker panel complete…
I have a secret to reveal: I arranged to adopt a family from overseas. I offered to let them live with me. My wife wasn’t too happy when I told her. We’d have a lot less room in the house. She was even more upset when I told her how much it cost me to bring them here. I thought it was a good deal, actually. To have them at my service, year round? It was a no brainer. I brokered the deal through a man one province over, in Quebec, who had brought in multiple families in the past. He said the family would be arriving by boat, and would travel in a shipping container. I found this mode of transportation odd, but didn’t question the man’s motives–he claimed the deal was completely legal. I trusted him. I got word of the family’s safe arrival in the Montreal harbour, and arranged pickup through a good friend in the Ontario pinball community. Forty-eight hours later, the family arrived at my home for the first time. The Addams Family now lives in my basement, and I don’t ever want them to leave.
The above paragraph outlines my acquisition of an Addams Family pinball machine through the re-import process: it arrived by boat from Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean, down the historic St. Lawrence Seaway into the port of Montreal and finally by land down Highway 401 to my home in the Greater Toronto Area. I rolled the dice on this machine, buying sight unseen through pictures only, and, in my opinion, won. The game arrived as described and has worked 100% since its arrival. Others have not been so lucky with these so-called “re-imports” (also known as “container pins” in these parts) sent over in massive shipping containers from across the ocean. They arrive mainly from Europe, Northern Africa and, in some rare instances, South America. It is an approach to collecting machines that made sense at one time for North American collectors, however due to the recent climate of the pinball market in the U.S. and Canada, it has been less attractive, both financially and logistically.
A line of Stern games in an Italian warehouse, waiting for buyers.
Besides the incredible hassle of brokering a multi-national deal for the purposes of obtaining an amusement machine, there seems to be, in Canada anyhow, an incredible stigma associated with games that are re-imported to North America from overseas. The games are almost always treated as second class units. Many of the For Sale threads on our local forums will state explicitly “North American machine, not a re-import”, to add credibility. If it is not mentioned, given the number of re-imports on Canadian soil, Canuck collectors have been trained to ask the provenance of the machine or at very least perform a visual inspection of the machine to look for any sign of the letter “I” in the serial number, coin slot configuration, 220V stickers or country names that would explicitly mark it as a re-import. Collectors paint all foreign pinball operators as untrained hacks that “fix” machines with improper tools and parts. There is also the line of thinking that says the overseas machines are subjected to much more abuse than their North American counterparts. With many of the European machines being operated in bars and coffee shops throughout their life, there is the thought that they would be subjected to longer time spent on route, massive amounts of play upon them, little maintenance upkeep and a greater risk of beverages being spilt upon them. European operators have the reputation of trying to squeeze every cent they can out of their investment, riding the machines hard, and, given the beverages spilt upon them, putting them away wet. Some developing countries have been known to operate their machines out-of-doors, so there is a fear of finding those turn up in a container as well.
In reality though, a routed game is a routed game, no matter if it comes off of a route in Buffalo, New York or Hamburg, Germany. North America has its fair share of hack operators that substitute a wad of tinfoil for a 4 amp fuse, too, not just the ones working overseas. For some reason, collectors are under the impression that just because a game has been brought back through a European wholesaler, it is automatically a basket case that has been played within an inch of its life, complete with hidden issues and unfathomable hacks. Granted, many do arrive on North American soil in pretty awful shape, however, I would argue games in similar condition existed in North America at one time as well, but due to the incredible demand for pinball machines here it has driven these basket cases to be completely restored by capable collectors or pieced out as donor machines. In my opinion, a game should be evaluated on the way it plays and its overall appearance rather than the addition of a letter or two in its serial number, or 110 extra volts.
I actively follow the restorations performed by Chris Hutchins of High End Pins on his website. He provides clients and enthusiasts alike with before, during and after photographs of the games he works on, showing the meticulous care he takes in bringing the shine back to a machine. For nearly every game he brings back to showroom quality, Mr. Hutchins reprints the serial number decals as part of the restoration process. On one Addams Family restoration in particular, which I was able to peg from the outset as re-import game, Mr. Hutchins, at what I would assume was his client’s request, erased all markings of the game being a re-import. The coin door was changed to the North American two-slot standard, the European stickers that reference 220V were removed, and, when reprinting the serial number stickers, the “I”, which would have categorically marked the Addams as an original overseas export, was completely eliminated from all of the reproduction stickers. Thus, the stigma of the “re-import” ran so deep that this particular collector wanted the machine to look as if it never left the confines of North America. Did that “I” act as a scarlet letter for the collector? Did he not want his high end Addams Family restoration to bear the markings of a re-import game? This isn’t a common practice for Mr. Hutchins: the majority of the games he restores will transcribe the official serial number onto new stickers–digit-for-digit and letter-for-letter. This was obviously a special case. In the end, who cares, really? It’s the collector’s game. He’s paying for the high end restore; he can do as he wishes with it…even if it involves monkeying with a historical document such as a serial number. I think this just proves that the community devalues games that have spent time on foreign soil.
A FEW WAYS TO SPOT A RE-IMPORT…
Three-Slot Coin Door
Foreign Languages, “Export Only”
The Dreaded “I”, B-W games after Comet and before TAF only
So why import these machines in the first place if people approach them with so much trepidation? It boils down to a ravenous desire for a particular title (sometimes any title at all) at the right price. I only considered buying my Addams Family from overseas after about a year of not being able to find one in reasonable condition at a reasonable price here in Canada. [Ed. Note: Seriously…12,000 production games, and I couldn’t find a single damn one for sale here!] The lure of a deal will bring any collector to his/her knees. To be completely transparent with the bottom line on my container game, after all was said and done, I have $3900CAD into my Addams Family. The desire to get my hands on one drove me to this avenue, and it could have turned out much, much worse than it did. However, that is the risk you run buying a machine you have not played before purchasing and viewed only through a handful of pictures halfway across the world. In looking at the price lists available from the Italian wholesaler we worked with, “deals” on re-imports are few and far between, and if they are there, they will only be available on “A-List” titles that have rocketed in value on this side of the continent: Twilight Zone, Cirqus Voltare, The Addams Family, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and so forth. One must also think about landing a container in North America and the charges associated, which will also wreak havoc on your bottom line. After the numbers have been crunched and you find you can save a thousand or so dollars on a desirable machine, you still have to get past the idea of taking on a considerable amount of risk.
An Italian Monster Bash, with a pretty bashed cabinet.
A lot of the risk comes from the possibility that the game is misrepresented in pictures or the description. And the possibility that the machine was in fact operated just as horribly as the community assumes they were operated. It is almost impossible to capture the essence of a machine by looking at five general pictures of it, and that is really all you’ll get from many overseas wholesalers. We collectors can be faulted a bit too, expecting perfection from a machine that had a bargain basement price tag. Descriptions of the games are often vague and include lingo that is completely lost in translation. One popular term the Italians liked to use in the lists we received was “invisible wear on playfield”. What does this even mean? Do they mean “visible” wear? Do they mean wear that can hardly be seen? Games have been known to show up utterly filthy, reeking of stale smoke, water damaged, corroded, or missing parts/boards. There is a fabled story in the Canadian pinball community, which I cannot confirm or deny, that a certain Canadian retailer is known to import pinball machines from Algeria, a North African country on the Mediterranean, which are sold to collectors who end up finding that the machines are still filled with sand from the country’s vast desert landscape. Finding a reliable overseas contact is key when setting up a container deal. Just as we have saints and scumbags who sell machines here in North America, so it goes with wholesalers overseas.
A shipping container’s worth of Italian pinball machines destined for Canada, packed and ready to load.
I asked a fellow collector from the Toronto pinball community, Adriano Jorge (also known as Drano on Pinside), to offer his thoughts on the idea of buying container games. He’s one of the more seasoned experts, having bought a handful of games from our Italian source.
“From the moment I started collecting pinball machines, “container” or re-imported games were always something to be wary of. As I got more comfortable repairing and restoring machines, they started becoming a tempting source of inexpensive projects, especially in our relatively small Canadian market. But, who among us had tens of thousands of dollars to speculate on a container full of machines?
When a local collector started organizing group funded shipments, I had to look again. And, when that same source started offering titles such as Cactus Canyon, I was hooked. Cactus Canyon was/is my holy grail of restoration projects. So, I sold my restored Twilight Zone and ran, cash in hand, to try my luck. With shipping costs and taxes covered in the price of the machine, all I had to do was get it transported to my door.
I was expecting pure horror. My expectations were fairly low after hearing some experience a others had with their “gaucho games”. In the end, I was lucky. The Cactus Canyon arrived filthy with a terrible cabinet…but otherwise working with minimal playfield damage. It was a perfect restoration candidate.
Each month a new list was available… some with rarely seen titles like a Zaccaria Farfalla… which ended up being my next container purchase. After building a small rapport with this Canadian importer, I started getting an early peek at incoming games. Many were wrecks, but a few real gems were mixed in. I finally decided to try a bulk buy and committed to three more games (Fish Tales, Tales of the Arabian Nights, High Speed), while also coordinating transport for other local buyers and their games [Ed. note: I was one of these local buyers, and the TAF came over in this shipment].
It was here that I got to see the diversity of container pin buyers. Some were like me, capable of cleaning up a game or performing simple repairs, ready to deal with issues. Others, were wide-eyed new enthusiasts trying to get into this increasingly expensive hobby and praying for the best.
Eventually the economics got in the way…and maybe a little greed, too. As the Canadian dollar sank and the Euro rose, container deals just stopped making sense for us. The last frontier of the used pinball market was quickly disappearing into the sunset. Maybe it was for the best. With so many new manufacturers and reproduction WPC machines vying for our dollars, the decision to gamble on a container game doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did. I’m just happy I was able to stash away a few reasonable projects for the future.”
Container buys as I know them in Canada, and as Mr. Jorge has outlined above, are done on a group basis. A member of the pinball community in Quebec receives a list of games available from his contact in Italy which he distributes to anyone interested through our Canadian forums. He acts as organizer and middle-man. Pictures of the games are normally included, and can either be a detailed set including close-ups, or simply a shot of the machine lying on the floor with no legs. Our organizer crunches the numbers and attaches a bottom line price, in Canadian dollars, for each game which includes freight, import taxes and probably a cut for himself. The organizer has certain requirements he has to fill-—he can’t just load up a container full of Addams Families and Twilight Zones. He has to buy some of the lower echelon titles as well. Percentages, I assume, are set by the Italian seller. I’m sure they don’t want to be stuck with a warehouse full of Diamond Ladys and Cactus Jacks; they want to spread their A-Listers out to help move the undesirable trash. If the quotas are met, full payment is sent to our organizer and the wait begins for the boat to arrive on Canadian soil and clear customs. A link is sent out to the participants so the freighter can be tracked via satellite as it travels across the ocean. Once the game arrives, transport from the organizer’s facility outside of Montreal is the responsibility of the buyer.
There have been disappointments for individual collectors within our community from these group buys. One instance saw a collector lift the playfield of his re-import Doctor Who to find each and every mechanism, bracket and stand-off rusted beyond repair, which would indicate that the game was on location, or in storage, at or near a seaside town where the salt water would accelerate the oxidization process. Thankfully, this collector was able to exchange the “Doctor Rust” machine for a different title on a future shipment. Another collector saw a Cirqus Voltare arrive incomplete, with unique playfield parts and mechanisms completely missing from the game. It was sold at a loss by this collector, as he didn’t have the time or patience for such a project and, further, was completely crest-fallen with his failed “re-import” score and wished to wash his hands of it. These two cases I have mentioned are extreme, and are probably a result from lack of information and proper photos by the wholesaler. They are tales that should give buyers pause, and depict just how risky buying from overseas can be. For every gem, there are an equal number of turds.
Whovian Rust, Part 1
Whovian Rust, Part 2
I’d like to talk a little about my personal experience that I touched on at the outset of the article. Our Italian wholesaler had five-plus Addams Family machines on their list. Nearly all had burns in the magnet area, a couple were missing the topper, and some had completely trashed cabinets. The price difference between all of the machines varied by only $1000CDN. Not willing to take a chance on a bucket of bolts, I figured the most expensive one was probably the one in the best condition. Another positive indicator was that this highest priced machine had over twenty pictures available for viewing: both sides of the cabinet, areas with slight wear, under the playfield, behind the backglass, in the Thing Box and everywhere in between. Also, the machine was turned on in the pictures, and the DMD looked nice and bright with no missing dots or segments. It did, however, have a credit dot. Further, the machine had legs on it, and looked to be in a different part of the warehouse than the rest of the games. Most of the pins available from the Italian source had only one or two general pictures of the game’s condition, and most had their legs removed and were sitting on the ground in a veritable rouges gallery of pinballs. This Addams seemed like a special case: perhaps a game that was fully setup in the warehouse for potential customers or employees to play as a “showcase” piece. From these twenty pictures of the TAF, I saw a pretty decent cabinet, a bright DMD, an acceptable playfield with minor issues and very little magnet burn of any sort. I sent payment, and waited a month for its arrival.
One of the twenty original sales photos provided by our Italian wholesaler for this particular Addams Family.
I was nothing short of amazed at the condition the game was in when it finally arrived. It was plug and play (after jumping the game to 110V) has been solid ever since. The credit dot I saw in the pictures was due to a couple of switches that had not been activated for a long period of time. One good play blew the cobwebs out and it was good to go. I came to find that the playfield was waxed at some point recently; however the underside of the game and playfield nooks and crannies had their fair share of black carbon and grime. No rust to speak of on any of the mechanical parts. I did have to rebuild the flippers to add some extra snap and a new set of rubbers were thrown on to replace the ancient ones it arrived with. Another surprise was that a remote battery pack was already installed. My greatest surprise, though, was that there was no funky “container pin smell” of cigarettes and urine in the cab, as many of these games are known to have. If this machine wasn’t in a private collection overseas, it was well maintained by a god-sent operator in some location other than a smoky bar or coffee house. Language was default German, but coined for Italian Lire. My coin door still has three slots, and the serial number sticker still proudly sports its letter “I”. As stated above, I paid $3900CAD for the machine, shipped to my doorstep, which to me, was a good price. I was a successful experience. But would I do it again? Probably not. The chance of disappointment is too great for me to shoulder.
This sort of disappointment would probably be lessened if a single buyer (or company) was importing an entire shipping container on their own and could spread out the financing needed to fix up one or two basket cases over the entire load which may contain a few gems. Kind of like a shell game: a hundred dollars of parts on one is covered by a few hundred dollars of profit on another. But the days of retailers being able to bring these machines over in any sort of quantity is behind us, for the most part. The profit just isn’t there anymore. Our European connections can simply check the most times inflated prices of eBay and Boston Pinball and adjust their prices accordingly. The days of getting a Popeye Saves the Earth in a container for $250USD are long, long gone. I have a feeling the European sellers have now tried to target the collectors directly rather than selling to North American distributors. A distributor wouldn’t pay what amounts to $1500USD for a Roadshow with major issues–there just isn’t enough profit to be made after fixing it up. However, a private collector who wants to take on a restoration project might. Finding this collector, or group of collectors, that want a bulk load of thirty-five to seventy machines, with 25% of those being C and D list titles, is tough. Below is a list of prices for Bally/Williams games from an overseas seller, received in April 2014, just to give you an idea of how much a European wholesaler wants for their games now. The ever-hilarious “invisible wear” description makes a few appearances, as does the title of this article in reference to a Star Trek: The Next Generation, the absolutely eloquent: “Only give a defect on display, any stupidity”.
Anyone tempted by the €6000 sight-unseen Medieval Madness with a repainted playfield? Yeah, the one where the paint job is described as “not very professional work”? I didn’t think so. The series of Twilight Zone machines seem reasonable, and look to have enough meat left on the bone to account for near catastrophic damage or a few missing parts. However, the €700 Millionaire and €600 Fire! that is missing a flipper and won’t start definitely shows that Italians have no idea the value of D-list System 11 machines. And really, who does anymore?
In order to examine just how much times have changed in the last fifteen years, I went right to the source, and contacted pinball repair guru and current operator of the Pinball Ninja webzine Clay Harrell to ask him if he’d care to chronicle his experience importing container loads of machines in a very different pinball climate. Mr. Harrell is a veteran of over one dozen private container imports onto American soil, so he is obviously one of the experts in this field. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harrell’s pin repair DVD series “This Old Pinball” will remember that he included footage of his container spoils in episodes TOP3 and TOP4. Mr. Harrell writes:
Mr. Harrell, as Shaggy, with an unopened container. This Old Pinball, Volume 3
“Back ten to twenty years ago, I visited the rec.games.pinball newsgroup a lot. It was a different time: the group was smaller, friendlier, and much more polite than, say, Pinside. I forget how it happened, but through RGP got hooked up with a guy from Belgium named Bart. He was just getting into selling container loads of pinballs to guys in the U.S.
Now remember, back around 2000 or so the market was completely different. In Europe, few people wanted games, mostly because space was an issue and they had more local pubs and coffee shops where operators placed games. There really wasn’t a need to have a home pinball and house sizes are generally much smaller in Europe too, so it’s less practical to have games there.
Bart was driving around Belgium buying games, and assembling them at a storage place. When he got 72 games (the number that fits–shoe horns really–into a container), he would email me the list and ask if I wanted them. The answer was always “YES!”. The price for a 72 game container was generally about $15,000 to $20,000USD. Shipping was about $3500 (with about $50 per game added for shipping).
At the time, I didn’t have a place to land a full container. That, and you were only given two hours to unload the container, or you got charged heavily. So a loading dock or a fork lift was needed to unload (plus several guys). For this reason my friend Marty was the one that actually bought the container. My “tip” for setting up the deals was that I got ONE FREE GAME and I got to pick the game first right off the container, any game I wanted.
Prices for games was cheap. System11 games were generally $100 to $200. WPC games were $200 to $500. The only exception was the Addams Family and Twilight Zone and some other WPC95 games: those were usually $600 to $800.
I must of brought in at least eight containers for Marty. And I got eight free games. Good stuff too, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Champion Pub, Shadow, and other stuff like that. But after eight containers, Bart couldn’t find any more games in Belgium! He said we bought them all. It’s not a big country. Overall the quality of games from Belgium was outstanding. These games were NICE.
I then started buying containers from Phil of Pinball Heaven in the U.K. These were usually “half containers” of 36 games, but sometimes full containers, too. But, now I was the one buying them. I still landed the games at Marty’s shop, but then had friends come over to help unload. And they would each haul the games they wanted straight home. I would put the rest in my driveway and sell them quickly (and hope for no rain!) at $100USD over cost. I would keep the titles I wanted and essentially get them for free. The longest it ever took me to sell a container of games was eleven days.
The good thing about Phil at Pinball Heaven that was he spoke English and he was a blast to deal with. Also he was VERY picky about his games. If there were any cosmetic problems, he would sell them to me. He wanted low hanging fruit for HIS business, and I got the “junk.” For example, a bunch of Star Trek: The Next Generations for $240 each that had broken ramps. Now remember, Phil is in a different part of the world where parts are harder to find. Pinball Inc wasn’t in business at the time. So any “problem” games with hard to source parts he sold to me. For me, in the US, the STTNG ramps were not a problem source at the time.
I also got a Medieval Madness from Phil for $750USD. It had some minor flipper wear. And got a Safecracker for $400USD in the original box! (Not brand new, but very lightly used.) He
actually had a NIB Safecracker I could have had for $800USD, but I passed. Duh! I did probably
five or six containers with Phil, and then he ran out of games for me also. Overall the quality of games from the U.K. was not as nice as Belgium…
Then we switched to buying containers from South America. I only did a couple loads from Argentina because now the game quality was starting to get very poor. South America had no parts, so everything was hacked and modified. It was still worth it, but only marginally so. Also, now it was the mid-2000s, and prices were starting to rise. And this is before prices here in the U.S. were very high. I did a couple containers from South America and then stopped. Also, the South American guys weren’t easy to understand and were a lot less fun to deal with than Bart or Phil.
At this point, I think it was about 2006. I was done with containers. Games were crappy and too expensive. I see some people now doing it again with European guys. I just got a list of a half container of 36 games. The guy wanted 50,000 euros for it! Yikes!! That’s crazy. Unfortunately, the time has passed on containers…at least for me.”
The spoils of Mr. Harrell’s container, in his garage, This Old Pinball, Volume 4
Up until now, I’ve really only touched on the North American experience with container pinball machines. Looking to the other side of the globe, Australians, too, have a ravenous desire to build their collections, but the availability of games on the island is finite. Generally speaking, there is still a reliance upon container imports down under, and it probably has as much to do with game availability as it does finding a deal. I contacted the most famous Australian pinball enthusiast I knew, Rod Cuddihy who co-hosts the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast, to have him weigh in on container imports from an Aussie perspective:
“Australia is the biggest island on the planet, so unless it is produced locally it’s got to come into the country by air or sea. When it comes to pinball machines it’s pretty clear which option is the most economic alternative. However, after your freight costs, Customs agent fees, port handling charges, goods & services tax, trucking expenses and the potential of further fees from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service you can add anywhere from $1000-$2000AUD to the cost of your game.
It is at this point that the appeal of importing an entire container begins to look a lot more attractive to the Aussie Pinhead. The per unit cost of bringing pins into the country decreases significantly, however, the initial capital required to import an entire container combined with significant logistic challenges means most of us ultimately put the idea into the “Too Hard” basket. So generally, dealers are the ones importing the majority of containers.
A restoration professional who imports a container into the country annually once told me that at any given time, there is always a container of pinball machines on the water coming to Australia. Nearly all those containers are coming from Europe and house games from both the Electromechanical and Solid State eras. Obviously, this doesn’t include the new Stern games that are coming in from the US.
While my collection has a number of “Australian Delivered” games, I also have games that were initially sent to Italy, France, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand game, a Fish Tales, is odd, as I’ve never heard of anyone importing a container from New Zealand, but it’s made it’s way over here somehow. The biggest bone of contention within the Australian pinball collecting community is “container pin condition”. In a nutshell, opinions are generally formed from personal experience–some say they’ll never buy “trashed beaters” brought in by the container load. But generally Aussie pinheadz know that pins can get equally trashed wherever you are in the world, so if it’s in nice condition – who cares where it comes from. In my experience, the condition of imported games is generally very good. I’ve bought a collector quality Family Guy and Sopranos virtually straight out of a container. But, maybe I’ve just been lucky. Don’t get me wrong I’ve witnessed some disasters where unwitting first time importers have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous overseas wholesaler who’s dumped a load of “project pins” on them. But the stories of sharks are rare.
The overseas containers being brought into the country are the lifeblood of the pinball resurgence in Australia. In a number of cases we’re seeing games that were never released in Australia or initially brought out here in very low numbers.”
While the containers that came to North America in the last fifteen years contained mainly Bally-Williams and Data East DMD games as their prize bounties, the Australian’s receive a steady diet of pinball machines from all ages, including Electromechanical and early Solid State titles. That may be a sign of the interests of the Aussies, or perhaps that the collectors down under are hungry for whatever they can get their hands on. For a sampling of the types of machines imported into Australia, an idea of their general condition and their asking prices (in Australian dollars), please check out the blog maintained by Pinball Machines Australia, a retailer outside of Melbourne that regularly posts photos of their container imports. It appears that they clean and refurbish what they can to sell in their showroom and shuffle off the basket cases that require a significant amount of time and work as “AS IS” projects. More insight into what arrives into Australia via container can be gleaned from the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast Episode Three, wherein Mr. Cuddihy tags along with Pinball Memories, another Melbourne-area retailer based in Caroline Springs, as they open a newly-landed container and organize its contents.
A container arrives at Pinball Machine Australia, Melbourne.
With the worldwide resurgence of pinball, I’m sure overseas wholesalers are having a tough time prying loose merchandise from former operators and collectors to send across the ocean. As Mr. Harrell noted, some countries were completely tapped back in the mid-2000s, so there is bound to be little left. The significant price increase paired with the lower quality “dregs” still available to the wholesaler makes this market almost dead to North Americans. For the Aussies, it obviously remains a viable avenue. Does this have something to do with the Aussies being more adept at “making do”? Anyhow, I’m glad I participated when I did, and added a game to my collection that will probably never leave. I’m happy with it and in the end that’s all that really matters. My refugee re-import Addams Family stands as a container success story among tales of misrepresentation, foul smells, water damage, corrosion, missing parts and a few handfuls of sand.
I would like to thank Clay Harrell, Rod Cuddihy, and Adriano Jorge for their contribution to this article. Special thanks to Don Walton, Jr. Extra special thanks to the Credit Dot readership for their patience in what seemed to be a long break between posts.
Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t a hotbed of pinball by any stretch of the imagination. However, pinball is alive and well in the ABQ. The local group of enthusiasts, Duke City Pinball, is enjoying record numbers and the city can boast that it is home to both Don of the Pinball Podcast and the good people at Mezelmods. In less than one year Tim Mezel and Kristen Browning-Mezel (pronounced like the spotty disease) have been creating, making and selling pinball modifications that can be classified as “MUST HAVES” for the machines they are manufactured for. You probably know them best for their Metallica snake fangs and the “Donut Heaven” mod for High Speed II: The Getaway. I got a chance to ask the Mezel’s better half, Kristin, a few questions about how the company began, the mod creation process and Pinball Podcast Don’s frequent visits.
Tim and Kristin
Credit Dot: Can you give me an idea who makes up the Mezel Mods team?
Kristin Browning-Mezel: Our team is small but efficient. Tim is the entrepreneur and the founder of Mezelmods. He doesn’t rest until his latest mod idea is up and running. I’m the business operations person which includes everything from marketing, sales, customer service, inventory management and manufacturing. Don Walton [of Pinball Podcast fame] works in what I call Mezelmods West. He lives right around the corner and pours hours of his time into the electrical work behind most our mods. He’s also the brains behind the mods we’ve produced for Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz.
CD: How long have you been in business?
KBM: A whopping seven months! When I joined Tim in December he had just hit it big with the Metallica snake fangs. He was drowning in orders. Ever since, we’ve had consistently growing revenue.
CD: The “Donut Heaven” mod for The Getaway: High Speed 2 was another mod that helped put you on the map. Can you give me some insight as to what inspired the original build, and how it morphed into what it is today?
KBM: Tim got interested in pinball mods after purchasing the Getaway. He found the metal bracket above the ball launch distracting and ugly. After combing Pinside, he found others that felt the same way, and also the plans for a Donut Heaven café which was rumored to have been part of the original design for the game. His first effort to build Donut Heaven was less than sufficient. The materials available at the hobby shop just didn’t cut it. So, he decided to buy a 3D printer (technology he had coveted for some time) to build the mod. The feedback from Pinsiders was overwhelming and the rest, as they say, is history.
CD: Was the success of Donut Heaven that moment when you said to yourself “I can make a living from this!”?
KBM: I’m not sure we are convinced that we can make a living off of this yet! That being said, after Donut Heaven, Tim began to see many opportunities to mod Metallica. Those mods continue to be widely successful. As a result, we frequently talk about the possibility of growing the business into other aspects of pinball, and beyond into other niche hobby markets.
CD: How do you decide what mods get made?
KBM: We’ve had a few knock down drag outs over what to make, and what not to make. I want to make more for WOZ, whereas Tim says we are done. But in all honesty, Tim is the entrepreneur. He looks at the machine for places where something is missing or could use improvement. My involvement starts once a concept has been formulated and we are ready to start refining the idea.
CD: Tron and AC/DC top the list of Pinball’s Most Modded, having more mods available than any other game. Collectors really seem to love to mod their Stern games right out of the box: the mods you offer reflect this. Why does this trend exist?
KBM: The Stern business model lends itself to adding mods. The three tiered approach to releasing machines–Pro, Premium and Limited Edition models–means the lower two tiers quite often have lots of space for mods. Additionally, Stern seems to focus on what they are best at: building a great game around a popular theme. They have one or two centerpiece playfield ‘toys’ that are accentuated by colors and graphics. This leaves tons of room for modders to make interesting additions.
CD: After a mod is first made, how long, if at all, is it play tested in the machine it is made for?
KBM: Test time varies by mod. Some mods, drop targets for example, have to go through extensive testing, up to a month on multiple machines, prior to launch. Others simply need to be tried out for a few weeks.
CD: Quite a few of your products are dependent on 3D Printing technology. Can you give us some insight into what equipment you use?
KBM: We currently utilize a consumer grade printer by Makerbot and are in discussions to partner with a firm with more high-end, business printers. We want to be able to develop mods using technology that our Makerbot is not capable of producing.
CD: How many mods are too many mods in a pinball machine? Is there such thing as “over-modding”?
KBM: To mod or not to mod; that is the question. Some keep their machines pristine. Others come close to creating their own little version of pinball hoarding with trinkets everywhere. Modding is a matter of personal preference. We believe that the best mods are those that could have been included pre-market. They are obvious gaps: a snake without fangs, a dark area in the playfield, a trinket that was planned but cut from the final design. Those types of mods sell like crazy. While we sell trinkets or add-ons to the game, personally, we don’t like to over do it.
CD: What are your thoughts about Stern’s announcement of the “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” of Metallica? This is basically a “modded” machine straight from the factory! Is it worth the enormous price tag for what you get?
KBM: There are pinball fanatics who are also music fanatics who will no doubt pick up this game. Collectors may also be interested in this game because Metallica is likely going to end up on the majority of collectors’ top ten lists. It is a great game. Combine that with custom artwork and it is likely worth it to the right person. While it is a hefty price tag, the custom painting looks fantastic. Bottom line, this is a niche machine for a very specific audience.
CD: A game such as Funhouse has very little available, mod-wise. It stands out because it was a high production game with a theme that lends itself to adding “theme park” augmentations. What makes a game like Funhouse “immune” to modding?
KBM: Our biggest limiter to modding new machines such as Funhouse is accessibility to the machine. Tim’s creative genius comes from hours of play and staring at the playfield. While having Don’s machines just down the street has helped, nothing replaces having the pin at home. Maybe we will open an arcade so we have access to more machines!
CD: Can you give us a sneak peak on what new products do you have on the horizon?
KBM: The Wizard of Oz State Fair mod is just about to be released thanks to Don’s hard work. We are also working on a pretty cool backbox addition for AC/DC. One of our customers is testing a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Idol mod which is just about ready for prime time, too. Our next machine to work with is World Cup Soccer ‘94! Expecting great things from that one!
CD: How active are you in the social aspect of the hobby?
KBM: We are very active…social butterflies in social media, as it were! Pinside is our go-to place to get feedback on new mods and to find out what customers might want to see next. We are slowly, but steadily, growing our fan base on Facebook and Twitter. Come check us out! Like our page! Follow us! [Ed. note: links can be found at the conclusion of the interview.]
CD: What is your best selling mod to date?
KBM: Hands down our Metallica snake fangs. They have sold like gangbusters. This is likely due to what I mentioned previously about the best types of mods. If we had the chance, we would have loved to have manufactured these for Stern pre-market. Virtually everyone agrees: the Metallica snake needs its fangs!
CD: What games are in the Mezel gameroom currently?
KBM: We currently have eight games occupying a good bit of our front room and garage. The three games in the front room are primarily being modded–Metallica, AC/DC and High Speed 2. In the garage we have Johnny Mnemonic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Wars, Revenge From Mars and a currently non-functional World Cup Soccer ‘94. Have we mentioned the cobbler has no shoes? My WCS94 has been down since the business started!
CD: What is the pinball scene like in Albuquerque?
KBM: Small. And we’d love to change that. One of our business ideas is an arcade/restaurant in the 505’s downtown area. We know there are folks out there who play, we just don’t have a ‘go-to’ place here in town. We do have a group of enthusiasts organized under the Duke City Pinball banner.
CD: With Don from the Pinball Podcast being a neighbour, I imagine he comes over to “borrow a cup of sugar” quite a bit and ends up in your gameroom…
KBM: Pre-Mezelmods, Don and Tim did quite a bit of pinball visiting. Now that we are running full tilt (no pun intended) most of our get-togethers are business related. We talk about the best gauge of wire, what kind of Molex connectors we need, and the best type of LEDs. OK…we maybe talk a little pinball in between, but we hardly have a chance to play together!
CD: Any closing thoughts for the modest group of readers out there?
KBM: We love getting ideas from fellow players. If you have an idea for one of your machines please get in touch with us. We love partnering with customers on a new mod!
One week ago, after an extended build-up, a fledging pinball manufacturer announced plans for their first release via a crowd-funding campaign. What must have been an exciting time for Vonnie D Pinball quickly spiralled into a public relations disaster and near total alienation from their core customers…all in one short week.
The Vonnie D Pinball Kickstarter campaign for their first release, Pinball Gremlins, went live nearly one week ago, and has since been met with both questions and scorn. As of writing, the campaign has only managed to secure 30 backers who have promised a total of $8,218USD. The project will only be considered “funded” if $100,000USD is raised. The majority of that $8,218USD comes from a single backer who has pledged $7,000USD for the chance to own a Limited Edition Pinball Gremlins machine. You read right, only one machine, thus far, has been spoken for. When crunching the numbers, success doesn’t seem that much of a challenge: Vonnie D need only find fifteen people to step forward and pledge to “pre-order”, with full payment, the standard version of their machine at $6,500USD to reach their goal. However, finding fifteen people willing to shell out without seeing a flipping prototype or sample game is a different challenge.
If you want to find a seething crowd of pinball enthusiasts, many of which are gun-shy to the idea of pre-orders due to past disappointments, look no further than Pinside. The original thread that first announced the arrival of the Pinball Gremlins on Kickstarter had its share of users taking proverbial whacks at the beehive, however many serious and well written concerns were also raised. Jersey Jack Pinball’s delay in shipping their Wizard of Oz machines has made folks extremely careful with their pinball money, for fear that they will be waiting three years to actually receive a game. The idea of the pre-order has also been maligned with Stern Pinball’s past inability to update game code in a timely fashion after the initial release–-Metallica and X-Men owners suffered for about a year before code finally made their games whole. However, nearly all of the boutique manufacturers base their production on pre-order schemes. Almost all of them operate in the same way: they require a refundable deposit, always less than fifty percent of the purchase price, to sign up and secure your spot on the list. While not technically a “pre-order”, Vonnie D’s Kickstarter program requires a 100% outright purchase of the machine if you wish to participate, and no mention of refunds either. After a deposit has been taken, most boutique manufacturers, Skit-B for example with their Predator machine, will give the customer much, much more to work with after the refundable deposit is in so that the customer can make the determination of whether or not they are willing to buy the game. Skit-B has provided their customers with, amongst other things, technical details, photos of whitewood prototypes, completed art packages, toys, special features/modes, gameplay video and even a chance to play the actual machine. Only then did they ask for full payment. Vonnie D Pinball has given nearly none of what has been mentioned. What they have provided amounts to some sketch drawings and a 3D rendering of the playfield. They did announce that long-time Williams designer Barry Oursler was “working with” the company, but the extent of his participation was unclear from the Kickstarter information. Vonnie D Pinball claims a whitewood prototype does exist. In my opinion, they absolutely needed to release photos (or a video) of this prototype if they had their heart set on offering the machines through Kickstarter, even if the whitewood was in the early test stages. It wouldn’t have guaranteed backers, but it would be a start. Post after post on that original Pinside announcement thread raised concerns from a community already feeling the squeeze on their wallet (and patience) from pinball manufactures jockeying for position (and cash) within a crowded market. Asking for full payment from members of this community with nothing more offered than a good idea for a theme and a video with two talking heads was interpreted as a bold slap in the face.
Then things got downright out of hand. Pinside user “VonnieD”, presumably Pinball Gremlins designer Von Davis himself, posted this message to Pinside:
“First just so it is clear we do have Barry Oursler already on board helping with his knowledge of pinball and designing game modes.
Second, the items necessary for our prototype have been completely purchased and we have all the parts we have been waiting on suppliers like the cabinet, prototype metal pieces and currently the playfield. We have went through 3 of them getting it perfect to be populated. I am personally cutting the playfield by hand to make sure everything is where I want it before I start hiring or purchasing a CNC machine to run my G-code. The game was designed quickly in future pinball just to get ideas of shots, the real machine is designed in SolidWorks 2014.
Thirdly, I understand the pre-order issue you do not have to pre-order to help us out. We thought we would go to the pinball community to help get an efficient production line up and going, so we could avoid many of the delays you commonly see with boutique pinball makers. Even purchasing a T-shirt, a poster, or whatever you are financially able and willing to, will help the project. If necessary, we have interested backers, however we do not want to lose the flexibility of designing to a venture capitalist or drive prices up to meet an investors profit demand. We have other pinball themes and layouts ready at lower costs, however Kickstarter rules require we fund a specific project (so we choose Pinball Gremlins) and our first pin has many additional costs that future ones won’t as a result of being the first to use our custom boards, lights, etc.”
Puppets used to promote Vonnie D Pinball.
Thus, according to Mr. Davis, everything was just a big misunderstanding. Vonnie D Pinball doesn’t want pre-orders. They just wanted a way to involve the community in their excitement and passion for their new pinball project. Unfortunately, that was not the way it was interpreted by anyone in the community. A goal of $100,000USD, and stretch goals of $200K and $300K, are not reached by people kicking in ten bucks for a keychain or fifty bucks for a tee-shirt. These goals are reached by people committing to BUYING MACHINES. If you didn’t need the money, why was a Kickstarter created? Just give away tee-shirts or stickers or keychains to get your name out there and get people excited about your product. Regardless, when this thread appeared, many who had offered constructive criticism in the previous thread continued to ask questions in this one, hoping for an answer from Mr. Davis himself. Many who took potshots, well, continued to take potshots. Some claimed laziness, others claimed outright lies. The thread slowly adopted a mob mentality as user “VonnieD” remained quiet and did not bother to respond to the issues that were raised. It took 52 hours from when the thread was first created for a response to appear from the manufacturer: in the form of Pinball Gremlins “producer”, Wes Upchurch. Upchurch joined the discussion and did address some issues, but it was too far gone to salvage by this point. There were too many questions being bandied about, and far too many comments that sent reasonable thinking right off the rails. The credibility of the company was now being called into question–using everything from Vonnie D Pinball’s use of hand puppets to promote the Kickstarter campaign to Upchurch’s prior business ventures and financial solvency. I interjected early, urging Vonnie D to respond as it seemed that he wanted to take on the role of a “public designer” (like Ben Heckendorn or Charlie Emery), but in hindsight, perhaps it is best he didn’t. The positive buzz the company wanted to mold, like it or not, through a series of indiscretions, had been ripped from the hands of its creators and placed in the hands of the masses who have now surrounded it with an aura of negativity. Damage had been done. It is impossible to find fault or lay blame in this situation anymore, it is everyone and no one all at once.
It has been suggested by many that Vonnie D Pinball step back and re-evaluate their place within the current pinball landscape. Upchurch promised a working, flipping whitewood at the Chicago Pinball Expo this fall. Perhaps the company should lay low until then–keeping their eyes on the prize, and not on Pinside threads or Kickstarter funding. Only ask for money once something tangible has been built. There is a potential to create something special with this theme. If well designed and well executed, there will be buyers.
If nothing else, this whole fiasco has brought Vonnie D Pinball some good advice. Ben Heckendorn, designer of the Spooky Pinball release America’s Most Haunted, added his two cents to the Pinside thread:
“Unless you’re John Popadiuk, an unlicensed theme is like an uphill battle with no bullets and both of your legs crippled.
Here’s what Vonnie D should have done (from my Pinside/Kickstarter/Pin-building experience)
1) Build a cool whitewood that shoots great and has some cool features.
2) Get a quote for the cost of a pin/geek friendly license (Army of Darkness, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens) Have it ready to go pending down payment.
3) Kickstart the license cost like Farsight (Pinball Arcade) has done, successfully, several times. This would be around 50-60k, HALF of what they’re looking for now. (They’d probably have to pay a % on each game too, but that can come out the back end)
4) Have MANY reward tiers, all of which can be taken against the cost of buying the full game down the road. But have nothing higher than a 50% down payment.
5) Make it a $6000 standard body.
6) Don’t spend your whole video explaining what pinball is – explain what the GAME is. Non-pinball people don’t give a damn and will be on the latest Hipster Skinny Jeans RFID-Blocking Wallet page, not yours.
Once the Kickstarter succeeds and you secure your license, then start taking deposits to fund the game.”
I don’t often agree with what the man named Heck has to say, but it is some great advice for anyone looking to start a pinball company, and advice I’m sure Mr. Heckendorn would have given to Vonnie D Pinball if they would have just asked him before any of this had occurred.
What I have attempted to chronicle here is how an approach selected by a first-time pinball manufacturer went horribly wrong. They say any publicity is good publicity…well, at least a legion of pinball aficionados now know the name “Vonnie D”, but maybe for the wrong reasons. It ultimately went awry because the tightly-knit pinball community judged it to be the wrong way to go about asking for money. Like it or not, these are the people you have to satisfy. One week before Vonnie D’s Kickstarter went live, Circus Maximus Games quietly announced their Pinball Circus project at the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo. They showed some whitewood samples, stated their basic intentions and asked for absolutely no money. Two different approaches to announcing pinball projects–one has created anticipation and positive buzz while the other has an uphill battle to climb to regain the support of their target audience. I have no doubts that Vonnie D Pinball will have a version of Pinball Gremlins for display at Expo, but the way in which they choose to get there, through both public relations and private creativity, will ultimately spell success or failure for this freshman manufacturer.
With six episodes to their name and recording quality that rivals that of FM radio, the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast has quickly become one of the preeminent pin podcasts available for free download on the web. Broadcasting from the Australian capital city of Canberra, hosts Rod, Gaz and Pintech Stevie take a monthly stab at the world of pinball from their own unique perspective, which they have coined “Americana from Down Under”.
Every podcast has to have a hook. Coast 2 Coast Pinball has volume, with concise forty-five minute episodes appearing (sometimes) twice per week which allows for discussion of trending topics in the pinball universe. The Pinball Podcast takes the conversational, ‘round-the-campfire approach with few recording frills, allowing them to draw the listener into the causal presentation. For North American listeners, the Pinheadz hook relies heavily on the podcast encapsulating the Australian sub-set of our pinball community. It is interesting to get a foreign take, identifying differences and similarities in the way Australians approach the hobby. Pinball seems to be a universal language, however, and it turns out a lot of our interests and concerns are mirrored, regardless of the time zone. I originally had the term “outsiders” written down in my notes to describe the Pinheadz, however, that seemed to be a bit too dismissive. After all, we are all in the same parking lot; some of us just happen to have closer parking spot to the mall entrance.
The show itself is recorded in-studio at a radio broadcasting facility. I guess this is one of the perks of being a radio personality, which is Pinhead Rod Cuddihy’s day job. He’s a morning host at Mix 106.3, which apparently plays Canberra’s “widest variety of music” (this bold statement has not been confirmed or denied by the author as of press time). Joking aside, the recording quality and production value achieved by the Pinheadz Podcast is unmatched in the field. Mr. Cuddihy begins each show by introducing the topics that will be discussed on the show through a series of teasers and audio clips, before launching into the official show theme—the celebrated Sesame Street/Pointer Sisters “Pinball Countdown”. The topics encapsulate news and happenings within the community, with a fresh Australian spin. Gaz Christiansen and Pintech Stevie Hyde are along for the journey providing entertaining colour commentary on the topics at hand. The rapport between the three is fantastic. In true radio host fashion, Mr. Cuddihy massages the conversation in such a way that all three have an equal share of the discussion, playing on strengths. Pintech Stevie is the equivalent of Mr. Fix-It for capital region collectors, and each show he provides a “life-saving” tech tip, which can range from voltage issues to identifying spider infestations. I get the impression that Mr. Christiansen and Mr. Hyde are old hands at pinball collecting, and their personal gamerooms skew more to the Electromechanical era, while Mr. Cuddihy’s interests have a more Solid State bent (one of his most wanted games is a Party Zone: don’t hold it against him). Together, they have quite the breadth of knowledge, and communicate it in an entertaining fashion that never seems pompous or overbearing. As for guests, the Pinheadz regularly call upon local enthusiasts with impressive collections and those who have acquired/homebrewed pinball oddities (a prototype Data East Robocop, a Mad Max retheme). They have also scored exclusive interviews with HomePin Pinball’s Mike Kalinowski (Thunderbirds) in Episode 4 and SkitB’s Kevin Kulek in Episode 3, the latter being an in-depth, comprehensive and informative talk with the Predator pinball creator. Rod and company ask all the right questions, and the interviewees always seem at ease and excited to talking about the hobby they love. The show features little in the way of in-depth reviews and rankings of specific games, like Coast 2 Coast or the Pinball Podcast, but that is just another way the Aussie fellows stand apart.
My interest in this podcast lies in its national flavour. In listening, you get a good idea what is going on within the Australian scene, from both a player’s and collector’s perspective. It is also interesting to hear the challenges of being a pinball enthusiast removed from the pinball hub that is the United States–problems such as exchange rates, shipping costs, transit time, machine scarcity, geographic space between collectors, and, of course, the deadly spiders that tend to nest in the on/off switch cavity underneath machines. As a Canadian, I can relate, somewhat, to the challenges of being a “pinball outsider”, having to deal with a few of the same issues. We, too, have to consider roller coaster exchange rates when considering the purchase of a new-in-box game, geographic barriers within the national landscape and exorbitant shipping rates from American distributors…but, of course, not the extent as our brothers and sisters from Australia. My takeaway from the podcast is that Australia has a finite amount of games in the secondary market for collectors to amass. The game population is supplemented by the importation of “container loads” from overseas, much like it was in North America in the early 2000s. I get the impression in listening to the Pinheadz that the pinball pricing in Australia skews a bit on the high side, which is a simple issue of supply and demand.
The Pinheadz Podcast is a welcomed voice in the recently crowded world of pinball podcasts, and one with a unique perspective that sets it apart from the rest. They hit the right mix: between in-depth discussion to keep the hardcore collectors happy and explanatory education of some of the more complex concepts for novice listeners. Its monthly format leaves some news items a bit stale for those who stay on top of the latest happenings, but the special features and general discussion allow for interesting insights to be made about the state of pinball within Australia and abroad. These guys are doing it right.
Can you believe it? I made it through a review of the Pinheadz Podcast without once mentioning their accents. See…it can be done.
Catch the Pinheadz’ latest episode, their sixth, here. Topics include a Mad Max pinball machine, an interview with the creator of Slam Tilt ‘Zine, qualifying for the Australian pinball championships, and much, much more. The Pinheadz are also available for free streaming on iTunes.