CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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

Advertisements


Leave a comment

MODS: Foiled Again! The White Water Topper Reproduction

You could easily file this next twisted tale of never-ending reproduction development in the same category as the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod I wrote about earlier in the month. While the definitive Creech speaker panel is slowly making its way into the hands of collectors as you read this, the White Water reproduction topper foil is still surrounded by question marks and disappointment.

An original White Water topper is a sight to behold. I had seen the effect in arcades when I was younger, but I was still blown away when I bought my White Water and fired it up for the first time. To this day I’m still amazed at the ingenuity used to create a feature that was completely divorced from gameplay. It was purely a hook used to snag quarters from across a busy arcade. Like the Addams Family before it, the game title was featured on the topper alone, not on the backglass. This glowing topper also makes the game stand taller than all the rest in a lineup, mountainous even, which works well with the overall theme. Like many toppers of the era, quite a few were discarded, broken or stolen over their life in the arcade, so finding one with a complete assembly attached, no matter the condition, should be considered a bonus. I was lucky to get mine complete: with a relatively un-faded foil sticker, properly cascading lights and decent clear dome. However, many of the twenty-year-old assemblies have seen better days. The special bulbs used in the topper obviously generate heat, and the enclosed plastic dome hinders proper ventilation–so many of the white plastic backers are cracked and brittle, and the affixed waterfall foils bubbled, faded and stressed. The metallic sticker is a four-colour process on a heavy foil cardstock and embossed using a die, so that the sweeping lights reflect off of the stamped ridges, making the water and mist looks as if it is in constant motion. A bubbled or stressed sticker will interfere with this delicate effect. Further, UV rays have not been kind to the orange and blue hues, fading them to a muddy mess.

Great Lakes’ WH20 Topper Light PCB

Treasure Cove’s “masking” solution

I guess the good news first: if your topper is missing completely, you can get pretty close to replacing the entire assembly. The cascading lamp PCBs are available from the good folks at Great Lakes Modular for $30USD each (the game uses two). Keep in mind the bulb size for these lamps are the oddball 194s, not your standard 555s. A reproduction dome, the same one that is used by Fish Tales to house that damn flapping fish, is readily available from many sources, like Marco Specialties, for $69.00. Unfortunately, one piece of the puzzle is missing: the foil die-pressed sticker. The only solution offered to this point is available from Treasure Cove. Two versions are offered: a complete sticker printed on vinyl that lacks die pressing which does not reproduce the cascading effect at all, and a “cutout” version, also printed on vinyl, that would leave the original embossing exposed and would only cover up the faded colour artwork. This is by no means a definitive solution…but I guess it would look okay, and some have settled for it. If someone would come up with a true reproduction of the original effect on a foil sticker, there WOULD be a market for it. Word of a true reproduction surfaced on rec.games.pinball (RGP) in December 2011 via Daren Jacobs of Phoenix Arcade. Mr. Jacobs wrote:

“I have been in touch with the original artist Phillip Grear who says for sure the plates are gone for good. I take him at his word and didnt question them. New plates need to be made and he says he can do them but attached a very hefty price tag to them. There is also a relatively new process I’ve found through a company who says they can do this. Once we get a little further with this Ill get some samples from them. I also visited a company in PHX when I lived there that does this type of work and seen samples in person. But it was quite pricey to do. We want to target $200 and not go above it. That’s the goal.”

Response seemed fairly positive. Folks were willing to pre-order to cover costs, if necessary, and genuinely thought $200 was a fair price for the foil sticker. It would be up to the purchaser to obtain the white plastic support or reuse their old one. Having the original artist on board for consult and direction was a good sign. Rough numbers were bandied about, and it was stated that a cost-effective run would be in the area of 500 units and 250 would have to be sold to hit the break-even mark. 250 is a lot, however, there were a lot of sorry looking WH20 toppers out there with owners that wanted them looking their best. The die tooling would probably eat up the majority of start-up costs. James Loflin of Pinball Inc. posted in the thread and said he would help fund the costs of the project, which was met with, one can assume, off-board discussion between Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Loflin, however there was no sign that Mr. Loflin would be involved (Loflin will make his return later on in this story, so keep reading). Months passed, before Mr. Jacobs gave this update in March 2012:

“Made a little more progress and established a working relationship with the original foil artist Philip Grear who will be highly instrumental in getting this project done. At this point I’m stepping aside to let Rick [Bartlett, of Planetary Pinball/Bay Area Amusements] take it from here and get you all a sweet new topper. Just ask that you continue to be patient. I’m confident Rick will make you all pretty happy.”

Thus, the project was handed over to Mr. Bartlett. There is a gap that needs to be filled in here as to why. Funding? Licencing? General difficulty in getting this item manufactured? My money is on general difficulty. Regardless, it seemed the project was in Mr. Bartlett’s capable hands. The thread goes dead here after a few promises of progress. Then, in May of 2013, nearly a year and a half after the original suggestion of the project, a post appeared on Pinside announcing the White Water topper decal would be available from Twisted Pins, a relatively new pinball restoration online retailer. The post announced:

“Twisted Pins is pleased to announce that we have released a Whitewater foil topper that is approved and available under the PPS license. As you may know this topper has never been reproduced by anybody. Our topper decal is made the exact same way Williams made it. The topper is printed using a 4-color process over white and embossed artwork using .010 foil stock. These are not paper thin decals or printed by an inkjet printer or next generation technology.”

Screen cap from Twisted Pins’ web store

The original cost for the foil sticker with white plastic support was $179USD, or you could add the clear tub to the package for $219USD (prices have since increased). The foreshadowing should not be lost here: the project passed hands from Bartlett, a trusted retailer of quality repro parts, to an unproven player in the market with a shallow track record in large scale press production. Regardless, a pre-order schedule was included in this original announcement and folks started sending in their money. The printing and embossing work was done in Germany, as Twisted Pins claimed that nobody in the US could work with a die as large as this one. With hindsight being an author’s best friend, its very interesting to see so many participants in the Pinside thread asking to see a video of their first samples or early production pieces. Video was promised, but not offered. A photo surfaced of an original next to a Twisted Pins reproduction piece. One user, “ShaunoftheDead”, responded:

“It looks weird in the photos, the original seems more detailed, deeper embossed – the foil part. Be interesting to see if its just the way its been pictured, but I guess video will tell.. […] Surprised they announced/put it up for sale before a video…”

This post, read now, speaks volumes. The grand unveiling was to be at Pin-A-Go-Go 2013, however Twisted Pins were unable to fulfill the promise due to shipping logistics. Interested parties, those that had purchased and those that were waiting for further video evidence, were still waiting with baited breath. When the topper finally reached the hands of those that had pre-ordered, following the Pin-A-Go-Go-No-Show, the first signs of disappointment surfaced, led by user “Tortelvis”:

“Mine arrived today and I don’t see the same cascading water illusion like the original has.”

Many other “fail” reviews, and the above videos, followed. Quick on the recovery, Twisted Pins chimed in:

“We stand behind everything we sell. We will gladly exchange out the toppers at no cost for anybody who wishes when we get our next run done in 2 weeks. We currently are making a new die for the embossing that will allow for it to be much deeper. Should anybody wish to return it that is fine also.”

As an outsider, not having a horse in the race and reading this thread as it unfolded, it sure seems to me that Twisted Pins shipped a product that they knew did not accurately replicate the original. That isn’t good business. Especially not in a small hobby where trust is key and customers have an elephant’s memory. Twisted Pins claimed that if you used a shim under the white plastic support (in the form of a washer) the cascading effect would be more pronounced. Regardless, when the first batch arrived at Twisted Pins HQ and they tested the product, they most certainly should have been scrapped rather than shipped, or at least offered a video of its performance for their customers to decide if it was up to their standards. It’s great to have a customer friendly return policy, but how about being friendly to customers in the first place by not wasting their time by shipping them a product that does not live up to expectations.

Time marched on in the eight page Pinside post, up until the present day. James Loflin (see! I promised!) joined the conversation briefly in the thread. There now sits a series of blank posts where Mr. Loflin and Travis of Twisted Pins had a back and forth, presumably relating to Mr. Loflin’s non-involvement dating back to the Phoenix Arcade initiation. Every so often, Twisted Pins surfaces in the thread and offers that progress, albeit slow, is being made. They claim they have “too much money invested” in the project to let it fail–and I believe that–but how many failed die pressings does it take before you wash your hands of the entire project? Maybe someone else needs to take the reins. Maybe a different solution has to be implemented in the form of a digital display. The failure or unwillingness to follow through with topper reproduction by two other known and trusted commercial entities in the pinball community should speak volumes as to the difficulty of replicating the original.

Twisted Pins has recently announced they are going to start making ramps, beginning with the Taxi “Spinout” ramp. There is a lot of call for this particular ramp, however, to say that Twisted Pins has damaged their reputation in the White Water topper disaster is an absolute understatement. I sincerely hope they get everything sorted out, and a viable foil topper reproduction can enter the marketplace. Many have received refunds for their toppers, while others have kept them, waiting and hoping for a replacement to be sent. Either way, I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending just yet…

(Note: Twisted Pins was contacted through their contact email address AND through the “Contact Us” form on their website on May 15 2014, but no one bothered to reply. I clearly stated my intentions for this article, to chronicle the history of the WH20 topper with as little muck-raking as possible. I also included a timeframe as to when I was going to post it. They were either unwilling or unable to respond.)