CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


Leave a comment

FEATURED GAME(S): Gottlieb’s Target Alpha & Solar City

00-alpcity00

Travel with me, if you will, to a far off place in time (and space) where ninety-degree angles do not exist. To a place where jaunty headgear (with optional eye protection) is all the rage. To a place where flying machines pull strings of targets to be shot at. With lasers. For sport. To a place where only men do the shooting, and women do the…um, pointing at the things being shot. If this idyllic future is too much for your senses, how about a trip to the future past? There’ll be castles. And bow n’ arrows. And loin cloths. There is target shooting here too, but this time, women ARE invited to participate.

Welcome, friends, to the wonderful world of Gottlieb’s Target Alpha and Solar City, two of the most popular, and most beautiful, multi-player games the company produced in the 1970s. If the layout looks familiar, it should. It was a popular one–filled with an impressive fifteen drop targets. So popular with pinball players, the layout was recycled many times under different names. I’ve narrowed this article to discuss Target Alpha and Solar City, the 4-player and 2-player version of the layout, however, no discussion would be complete without referencing their counterpart games with similar shot maps. Target Alpha and Solar City saw release just as the electromechanical era was petering out and giving way to solid state games, but the relative success of the two games may have influenced Gottlieb not to give up the goat, as it were, on electromechanical technology.

00-alpcity04.jpg

I’ve discussed (at length) Gottlieb’s graceless belly flop into the solid state era in the article Stumbling Into Solid State and the feature on their first foray into computer-driven machines, Cleopatra. Gottlieb was clinging onto electromechanical technology for just over two years after it was completely abandoned in flipper games by competitors Williams and Bally. It may have been a selling hook for Gottlieb, though. Perhaps there were still a few operators who resisted the change from relays to PCB-mounted transistors–these may have been the operators Gottlieb wanted to cater to. However, such dedication to the almighty score reel may have put them behind the 8-Ball, literally. Bally’s success with Eight Ball (20,230 units), Evel Knievel (14,000 units) and Bobby Orr’s Power Play (13,750 units) in late-1977 proved that solid state technology in pinball machines wasn’t just a fad, it was a massive draw for players and was the inevitable future of pinball. It is no surprise that Gottlieb’s electromechanical production slowed to a crawl as these Bally games hit the market. However, take a look at how good things were just one year before the EM wall tumbled down. In 1976 and early-1977, Gottlieb did great business with their two- and four-player EM games–like Spirit of 76/Pioneer (13,925 units combined), Royal Flush/Card Whiz (15,500 units combined), Bronco/Mustang (11,385 units combined) and our focus here, Target Alpha/Solar City (9,810 units combined). The single-player wedgehead games were still being produced in this era, but not in the numbers they once were. Gottlieb’s highest production wedgeheads of 1976, Sure Shot and Buccaneer, were a drop in the hat compared to the giant numbers listed above. While not as popular with collectors today, it is pretty evident that the multi-player games were Gottlieb’s bread and butter in the late-EM era.

Making the historical link between wedgeheads and multi-player games comes full circle when discussing Target Alpha and Solar City, as Gottlieb presents the player with the same layout as a wedgehead game die-hards arcade goers would have been familiar with: El Dorado. The basic layout of the game remains the same: the iconic ten drop target bank across the top of the playfield, two off-set pop bumpers and the lower five bank of drop targets. Key differences arise in the rule-set, though. Missing from Target Alpha and Solar City is the “Moving Spot” on El Dorado. El Dorado offered a lit spot that moved from drop target to drop target with each hit of the lower stand-up target or middle rollover. The spot is important to El Dorado’s gameplay as it increases the value of each target from 500 points to 5000 points. Also, once all targets are completed on El Dorado, the targets reset, another important feature missing from the multi-player games with the same design.

00-alpcity01.jpg

Gottlieb’s single player El Dorado (Image borrowed from J. Weiss at https://users.cs.fiu.edu)

The layout specific layout was reincarnated a whopping seven times. El Dorado, the single-player replay game led the way; followed by the add-a-ball Gold Strike and add-a-ball export version Lucky Strike later in 1975. Target Alpha and Solar City, the multi-players, rolled out in late 1976. Concurrent with the 1976 production, Gottlieb used the design again with new art to create Canada Dry, a four-player clone of Target Alpha, which was exported to promote Canada Dry soft drinks in Europe. The final incarnation was released in the solid state era as El Dorado: City of Gold in 1984 with a few new rule hooks and a slick sound package, but with an identical shot map.

I think Target Alpha and Solar City are the most interesting of the bunch, even if they are not the most sought after. I, like most EM enthusiasts, prefer the added strategy that El Dorado provides. However, the two multi-player games attempt to convey a sense of futurism and mysticism in the art package that simply isn’t there in the inner workings of the game—an attempt to cover up the fact that Gottlieb wasn’t actively pursuing solid state avenues for their machines. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Bally’s first solid state offerings in 1977, they recycled an earlier popular design and masked it with colourful futurist artwork and two ultramodern names to project the feeling that they had an eye on the future of pinball gaming. (Aside: another example of this which is infinitely more pitiful is the seven-segment numbers used on the score reels of Hit the Deck/Neptune, released in 1978). The hint of irony should not be lost: Gottlieb chose an old layout based on olde tyme gold rush cowboys to “modernize” with catchy new futuristic graphics, while still relying on olde tyme pinball technology. The flyers for the games are not shy about the art being one of the few “new” selling features of the game, and turn it into its major selling point to operators. Both the Target Alpha and Solar City flyers trumpet, in italicized capitals: “NEWER THAN TOMORROW PLAYBOARD AND ARTWORK THEME WILL CATCH EVERY EYE!” This feature is placed in larger font above all of the other actual gameplay features. With a historical eye, it looks to be smoke and mirrors, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s the same old game we sold you three years ago, AND no, it doesn’t have any of those fancy new computers inside it, but the game looks like it came from the future, doesn’t it?” The next two multi-player games, Jet Spin and Super Spin, subscribe to this same “blind them with science” mentality in the artwork (at least they went ahead and designed a completely new layout those games). No amount of flying machines or helmeted men shooting lasers can cover up the fact that Gottlieb was playing catch-up to Bally and Williams in the race to the future of pinball.

00-alpcity02

Gottlieb Solar City flyer.  Check out that eye-catching “artwork theme”!

As the Target Alphas and Solar Citys were rolling out of the factory in early-1977, Bally was churning out their first solid state best-seller, the big-rig themed Night Rider, which meant that they had already perfected their solid state operating system for general release. It wasn’t until much later in the year that Gottlieb presented Cleopatra, their first solid state machine. There is some indication that Gottlieb was only beginning to test their solid state operating system in early-1977, as information points to a prototype Solar City that was created with solid state mechanics. Not much information exists about this test machine, or if its solid state internals would come to be Gottlieb’s (n)ever-popular System 1 operating system.

Moving onto the layout and rules of the two games, I’ve mentioned that the truncated features and rules work to hobble the game in comparison to its El Dorado cousin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a blast to play. I mean, who doesn’t love drop targets? It’s a sharpshooter’s dream. It gets a bronze medal for total number of drop targets with fifteen, behind only Gottlieb’s 2001/Dimension with twenty and Gottlieb’s High Hand/Capt. Card with sixteen. The five target bank that sit above the right flipper allow you to work the angles off of the left flipper, while the seemingly never-ending bank of ten targets that work their way across the top of the playfield challenge the player to long-range accuracy from both flippers. Barring long-range accuracy, the game provides two mini-flippers at the top of the playfield for the player to bash away at the targets. I own a Solar City, and I have my game at such a steep pitch, that I find myself using the bottom flippers to lob balls up to the top flippers for a better chance at knocking down targets. The top flippers encourage blindly flailing at any ball that comes near them as you cannot cradle the ball for an aimed shot. However, a timed drop-catch or quick flip can deaden an arcing ball for an aimed flip at a needed target. The last target in that upper bank row actually holds a record: it is the longest shot in all of pinball. Since the layout has no top arch, it allows the targets to run into the normally unused space occupied by the top metal arch. The distance from the left flipper to the target is an amazing 32.5 inches! The upper flippers are not very useful in collecting this target, thus the game encourages a timed shot from the lower left flipper (and it feels fantastic when you make it).

00-alpcity03.jpg

Solar City’s ten-target bank.

One of Target Alpha and Solar City’s main features, as advertised on the flyer, is that the gameplay is “convertible” to add-a-ball play. This is just a fancy way of saying that the player can get an extra ball during play rather than a replay/special. With true add-a-ball games, you can keep collecting up to ten extra balls during gameplay, whereas these multi-player games give the player the chance to earn just one extra ball for every ball in play. Knocking down either bank of targets will light the extra ball: if the entire top bank is dropped, extra ball is lit at the right rollover, while dropping the right five-bank will light extra ball at the left rollover. This is a key feature for collectors looking to put the game in their home collection. Specials mean little when every game is free, and provides little to play for other than a satisfying knock. A good sharpshooter can play for hours earning extra ball after extra ball.

Sadly, a good sharpshooter may get bored with the game: once all fifteen drop targets are collected and the bonus is maxed out, there really isn’t that much more to shoot for to build up your point total. The real strategy of the game is to knock down all the available targets, collect the extra ball, let the current ball drain thus resetting the targets, and then starting the process all over again.

00-alpcity10

All of the points in the game lie in the drop targets. Target values vary depending on whether the game is set on three-ball or five-ball operation, and a selectable score adjustment for the bottom bank of targets. For example, my Solar City is set on three-ball, thus the top bank of targets have the inflated value of 2,000 points each, while each bottom bank target scores 500 points each (this value can be adjusted to 1,000 points each each via a Jones plug under the playfield if the owner wishes). Five-ball play would decrease the top bank value to 1,000 points for each target. Replacing El Dorado’s “Moving Spot” bonus, is the multi-players’ end-of-ball bonus. The player is awarded an extra 1,000 points for each downed target. It’s pretty satisfying to feel the bonus stepper chunking away under the playfield and the 1,000 point chime ringing out when all fifteen targets are downed. To add an extra dimension to the bonus countdown, Target Alpha and Solar City will award double bonus on the last ball (be it ball three or five, depending on operator settings), giving you 2,000 points for each target at the end-of-ball. Obtaining an extra ball during on your last ball is lucrative, as it gives you another chance at the double bonus scoring. During the last ball, I like to work on the lower bank of five targets first in an attempt to light and collect the extra ball quickly before working on the upper targets.

If Target Alpha and Solar City bring up the rear to El Dorado in the gameplay race, they surge ahead in terms of the art package. Like nearly every other game of the 1970s, Gordon Morison took care of artistic duties. Target Alpha’s backglass makes great use of its space, especially with the male target shooter in the foreground shooting “behind” the first player’s score reels to hit his target in the top corner of the game. Like many of Mr. Morison’s backglasses, perceived depth is executed wonderfully. He presents us with a futuristic game of target shooting, complete with spectator areas, layered on top of a purple and pink background. The same colour scheme is used on the playfield, and works to tie the whole package together. The chaotic flow of the playfield art fills up the empty space nicely. Where Target Alpha has a sci-fi lean, Solar City takes the fantasy route. The word “Solar” certainly conveys a futuristic feel—it has also been used in Gottlieb’s Solar 00-alpcity12Ride and Williams’ Solar Fire to lend sci-fi flavour to the mechanized themes. Target Alpha’s lasers have been replaced here with the bow and arrow, the flying machines with winged humanoids, and the futuristic jumpsuits with an interesting selection of tribal wear. The pink and purple hues that dominate Target Alpha are abandoned in favour of reds and blues. I’m particularly troubled by the bearded, sleepy old man in the bottom corner of the backglass. Why is he there? Why is he so weary? It just seems out of place. A tribal figure is doubled on the playfield, which more or less reproduces the designs laid out on the Target Alpha package.

Mr. Morison created two very different visions in the art for these games. However, in a curious move, Gottlieb decided to only run one package of artwork for the plastics. The Target Alpha plastics, featuring characters that look to belong to the Target Alpha world, are used on Solar City as well–the only difference is that the Solar City plastics adopt a blue hue, instead of purple, in an attempt to make them blend in with the game’s overall colour scheme. Without seeing the games side-by-side, I guess it does not pose that big of a problem, but it is a bit of a gripe for Solar City owners may feel a bit cheated. It is an issue that doesn’t arise in any of the other two- and four-player sister games because the art packages tend to be identical save for the number of score reel windows on the backglass. Using the same art on both sets of plastics was probably a cost-cutting measure, but in the grand scheme of things, they really could have cut costs by adopting a single vision and colour scheme for both games, just as they had in the past.

00-alpcity11

Target Alpha plastics with purple accents, bottom, reproduced for Solar City with blue accents, top.  Character art remains unchanged.

As an aside, I guess it could be asked why Gottlieb made two-player versions and four-player versions of the same game in the first place. In every case, the four-player game outsold the two-player game (and nearly always, outsold it by a large margin). In every case except Target Alpha and Solar City, the same playfield and backglass artwork was used to keep production costs low. The real difference came in the internal hardware: the four-player game had twice the number of score reels, extra switch stacks and extra relays that the two-player version wouldn’t need to operate. I asked pinball maven Clay Harrell why he thought two- and four-player versions were made:

“It was cost savings and maybe regional preference, but it was mostly about money. It costs less to make a two-player. Not a ton less, but from a manufacturing point of view, two-players used eight less score reels, no coin stepper unit and a number of other relays were not needed. It’s actually pretty dramatic how much more ‘stuff’ is needed to make a 4-player versus a 2-player. This was reflected in the cost of the game. The extent of the differences can be seen in the backbox sizes. Four-player backboxes are about four inches taller to accommodate all the additional stuff.”

If Mr. Harrell’s well-reasoned analysis is to be believed, Gottlieb produced the less popular two-player games to appease cost-conscious operators–those who wanted to operate games, but wanted to be penny-wise with their initial investment. In a time when all other companies were producing nothing but four-player games, Gottlieb had again cornered the market on skinflint operators that wanted to save a few bucks or knew exactly what their clients wanted. (As a curious aside, Stern Electronics’ early solid state games, Stingray and Stars, offered operators the chance to buy two-player versions of their games, as well. They were shipped with a special backglass with only two score windows, included two less digital score displays and were switched to two-player operation via MPU dip switches. There was obviously a niche market, or regional markets, for two player games in the late-70s.)

Despite El Dorado being the more coveted game, Target Alpha and Solar City still have fans in the collector market. It is a game that has a proven layout and some unique artwork. The games’ price on the secondary market also has something to do with it, I’d imagine. Currently, you can pick up a Target Alpha or Solar City for about half the price of an El Dorado. Restoring the game has been made possible as many unique materials are available to make the games look pretty. Classic Playfield Reproductions, whose products normally skew to solid state projects, reproduced both backglasses for collectors some years back with the art expertly reproduced by CPR team artists Matt Farmer (Solar City) and Ray Lockhart (Target Alpha). Both glasses remain in stock at time of writing. There is a promise from Pinball Rescue Australia that reproduction plastics for Solar City will be available in late-2016, while the Target Alpha plastics are readily available from Steve Young at Pinball Resource (part number GTB-C15565B: because you know Steve Young is going to want it when you place your order). Jeff Miller, of Pinball Pimp Stencil Kits, is currently working on a licencing agreement for Gottlieb cabinet stencil production, and it’s almost a given that Target Alpha will be one of the first in the series to be produced.

The main complaint with the games, as discussed above, is that once all targets are down, there is nothing left to shoot for. The same problem exists in another popular drop target

00-alpcity13

French collector kangourou’s Royal Flush bottom board with an added relay for drop target reset.

multi-player game, the four-player Royal Flush and the two-player Card Whiz. One resourceful collector from France, who goes by the Pinside handle kangourou, took it upon himself to wire a work-around so that once all targets had been knocked down in his Royal Flush, they would reset again, opening up a whole new dimension to gameplay and scoring. The process involves adding a relay of switches to the bottom board, an extra switch to the target bank and a whole mess of new wires.  The walk-thru, in French, can be found here, and a discussion about the modification, in English, can be found on Pinside, here. Those resourceful enough to attempt such a modification to their game would need to translate the French instructions to English, and the Royal Flush schematic references to Target Alpha or Solar City. The process does look complex, however I’m surprised more people have not pursued this modification to add a new dimension to their game.

 

Before wrapping up, I’d like to share a tech tip unique to Target Alpha and Solar City that was added to the Pinball Ninja repair database by Clay Harrell, and involves the correct adjustment of the scan unit to properly count end-of-ball bonus scoring. My Solar City was incorrectly adjusted when it arrived for restoration, so I’m assuming it is a very common problem. (The video below is taken from the Pinball Ninja Webzine, which is a pay-per-view site and is used with permission. To get access to the entire catalogue of over 800 Pinball Ninja repair tips, please email cfh@provide.net)

I think the Solar City in my collection has a permanent home. The game needed lots of love. The playfield was touched up and cleared, as it had areas of paint worn right to the wood, and the ever-popular oversized screws that a previous owner had popped through the top of the playfield from beneath. I ended up cutting my own stencils and repainting the cabinet as there were large areas exposed wood. I invested in a reproduction backglass from Classic Playfield Reproductions, too, which was probably overkill, but it completed the package. It is, currently, the most played game in my modest electromechanical lineup. I much prefer the art on Target Alpha, but you take what you can get, and Solar City was available. Having less moving internal parts to troubleshoot and clean was a blessing in the long run, compared to the extra internals included on the four-player Target Alpha.

As I try to sum up my feelings about Target Alpha and Solar City, I keep thinking of that old man that appears in the bottom right corner of the Solar City backglass. The more I think about it, the more that man comes to represent D. Gottlieb & Co., the company itself. The old man was obviously a once dominant warrior, given his headdress that resembles those of his younger counterparts in the background. Time has now passed him by, and he stands, idle, as the younger, more virile warriors out-perform him on the same hallowed grounds where he once reigned supreme. He is part of a bygone generation: old, weary, tired, worn-out, out-dated and obsolete. He is an electromechanical warrior battling on a solid state battlefield.


Leave a comment

FEATURE: Code-Breaker, the Rise of #WHERESTHECODE

00-codes00

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

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

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

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

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

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

00-codes03

An early meme from the campaign.

 

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

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

00-codes0100-codes02

00-codes04

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

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

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

00-codes06

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

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

00-codes08

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

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

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

00-codes09

00-codes14

The “Offending” logo.

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

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

And an excerpt from Pinside boss Robin’s response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

00-codes13

The “Redesigned” Logo.

 


Leave a comment

MODS: Creech Speaker Panel Follow-Up and Installation!

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…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest / Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Credit Dot Pinball (that’s me!) – MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!


3 Comments

NEWS: Vonnie D’s Bad Week

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.

Further Reading:
Vonnie D Pinball – Homepage
Pinside – Vonnie D Pinball—-Now Live With Videos…Kickstarter LE?
Pinside – Vonnie D Pinball Update


Leave a comment

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


1 Comment

MODS: That Sinking Feeling– Earthshaker’s Sinking Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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