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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.

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Featured Game: Gottlieb’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS

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It can be said that nearly all of the early Gottlieb solid state machines were an exercise in form over function. We’ve spoken a lot about the perils of Gottlieb’s System 1 boardset here on Credit Dot–I dedicated an entire article to Gottlieb’s fall from atop the pinball mountain once solid state technology became the industry norm. I don’t know why, but I have a soft spot for these rudimentary, simplistic, one-dimensional games that Gottlieb put out between 1977 and 1980. Where the gameplay is lacking, the art package more than makes up for it. Charlie’s Angels is a curious case: the art package is up there with the best of the period and it tried to do adopt some pretty elaborate rules (bucking the simplistic limitations of the hardware), but is generally regarded as a ho-hum forgettable Gottlieb offering.

00-charl04By 1977, Columbia Pictures had taken over Gottlieb lock, stock and barrel. The studio giant wanted to diversify its global brand into other forms of entertainment–they already had their hands in music and television, so the arcade was the next logical place to claim dominance. On paper it was a slam dunk: they absorbed a company that was at the very top of its game, nearly unrivalled for pinball supremacy in the early-1970s. Who knew that Gottlieb’s industry supremacy would grind to a halt once the solid state era was ushered in. You can play the blame game here all you want–Columbia mismanagement, uninspired game design, unreliable parts–but I think it was a perfect storm of many factors at Gottlieb paired with the performance of their pinball contemporaries.

One of the early game-changers actually pre-dates the solid state era. Wizard! and Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Bally, in 1975 and 1976 respectively, introduced the idea of the licenced theme to pinball. No longer would a company have to rely on a card game or billiards to sell a machine to an audience, they used celebrities and well known film and television series.  Comfort for the pinball player now came from familiar faces, not familiar rules of popular past-times. Bally was quick to strike over the next few years as solid state technology hit its stride, licencing the images of the Six Million Dollar Man, Bobby Orr, Kiss, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Evel Knievel, Star Trek, and Hugh Hefner just to name a few. During this same period, Gottlieb licenced just five of their System 1 titles, despite being intimately connected to the film, music and television industry through their parent Columbia Pictures. For better or worse, I don’t know how Gottlieb resisted slapping an image of a Columbia property on each and every one of their games to make up for design and ruleset deficiencies.  [Ed. Note- Those five licenced System 1 games were: Sinbad, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Charlie’s Angels, Buck Rogers and the Incredible Hulk]

Charlie’s Angels did have an image slapped on it, almost literally.  The show had a connection to Columbia’s television arm, and was probably an easy acquisition on the licencing front.  I know the licences during this era seem pretty arbitrary to gameplay–one licence could be interchanged with the next with little to no alteration of the game itself. This was a time when fancy toys, like, say, Dr. Who’s Time Expander or Demolition Man’s Cryo-Claw, were not designed specifically for the licence. The Charlie’s Angels licence seems especially disconnected from the gameplay, and there may be a reason for that. In an interview with PA Pinball, game designer Allen Edwall had this to say about Charlie’s Angels:

“[Charlie’s Angels] evolved from a test design that helped verify the solid-state electronics, then to trying out all kinds of features, like dumping final scores to a teletype machine, allowing players in a multi-player game to tilt out or subtract score from other players, as well as many other innovations, most of which did not make it to the final commercial games because of the fact that customers paid to play. Tilting out another player probably would not have worked for the paying public.”

Reading between the lines, we see the reason for the disconnect on Charlie’s Angels: it was a test design for System 1 games to see how the solid state operating system would perform. Charlie’s Angels was released in November of 1978, a month before Gottlieb released both Dragon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If I had to guess, I’d say that the licence for Charlie’s Angels crossed someone’s desk, and it was quickly paired up with Edwall’s test design to get it out onto the street as soon as possible. If, say, the art package for Dragon was paired with the test design, perhaps it may not have fared as well. However, pair it with the images of everyone’s favourite female crime fighting trio and the cumbersome layout stood a fighting chance at holding the customer’s attention.

They made an absolute ton of these games, nearly 8,000 units, which sounds impressive, but puts it at the middle of the pack numbers-wise of all System 1 games.  Despite the high production run, Charlie’s Angels isn’t a game that is seen all that often in private collections or retro arcades: one can guess that many of these games found their way to the junkyard after their arcade runs, due to their operating system unreliability (one can draw the same conclusion for the low survival rate of many of the Gottlieb System 1 titles).  An electromechanical version of the game was also release in far fewer numbers, 350 units, to appease operators weary of changing over to solid state technology (many of these skeptical ops were European buyers).

Good morning, Angels...

Good morning, Angels…

The game would have first hit arcades during the Angels’ third season. The backglass features Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd, who were the Angels du jour at the time of production. The most iconic angel, Farrah Fawcett, had left the show after the first season to pursue other ventures (resulting in a messy contract dispute), which explains her absence.  Any casual consumer of popular culture would surely name Ms. Fawcett if asked to name an actress on the show, despite her appearance in only about one-fifth of the total Angels episodes produced.  Fawcett did return to the show during this third season for guest spots in a handful of episodes which bolstered ratings slightly, but overall, it was the season that marked the end of the show’s cultural relevance. Time slots changes and a revolving door of actresses in “Angel” lead roles didn’t help matters. The property was red hot in its first season with Fawcett on the payroll, and perhaps Fawcett’s absence from the pinball machine’s art package is why this machine isn’t more sought after in the collecting community.

The oranges, purples and yellows on this machine just pop and will make it stand out in any lineup of games. It is kind of disappointing that artist Gordon Morison wasn’t given more leeway with the licence—the actresses that portray the Angels appear only once on the mirrored backglass, and then just once more on the playfield, depicting the very same pose that appears on the glass. There were some disconnected choices for the playfield art: a dancing red-headed girl, a cartoon policeman and a blonde in a purple leotard flinging a man by his arm into the upper pop bumper. None of these people bear any striking resemblance to characters in the show, unless that cop is supposed to be an undercover Bosley. The playfield is busy with colour (that’s a good thing) with pinks, oranges and blues on a yellow background. Arrows point in nearly every direction indicating rule and scoring changes, but Mr. Morison  does his best to organize it in such a way that it doesn’t seem cluttered. I am a fan of the curl of smoke that arcs under the Angels as a 70s muscle car peels away behind the five-bank of drop targets. Gordon Morison is at the top of his game here, using flash, dazzle and colour to draw attention away from the fact that there is little to tie the licence to the game other than a heavy reliance on the iconic Angel outline.

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And then there’s gameplay. The game has a quirky set of rules that may have been deep for the time, but overall, end up bogging the game down. Whereas System 1 cousins Cleopatra and Totem have a clear objective to achieve (lighting all five coloured pairs in the former, and lighting the drop targets via the rollovers in the latter), Charlie’s Angels really doesn’t have a readily apparent objective past bashing drop targets. Like many other games in the System 1 family, points boil down to the bonus and its multipliers. If there is a chase in the ruleset, it comes from tracking down the multipliers, and it takes a pretty good memory to do so. The multiplier will advance by completing the 5-target bank or completing the C-H-I-C rollovers (the C’s are connected, roll one C and you get both). Further, if 2X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the stand-up bulls-eye on the lower right. If 3X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 5-target bank. If 4X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 3-target bank on the right. Got all that? Good.  See if you can follow me on how the rollovers work. Further to advancing bonus, the letters H and I will reset the 3-target bank and increase their value to 5,000 points each. If you can roll over H when your bonus ladder is full, it’ll light the 3-target bank for an extra ball (yeah, you gotta knock them all down to collect).  As you can see, this right bank of targets is pretty important. Star rollover buttons down the side of the game are connected to the downed targets in the 5-target bank, lighting each for 1,000, which is a decent payday for a rollover button. I said above, artist Morison organizes the writing on the playfield in a way that it doesn’t seem visually cluttered, however, the sheer amount of ruleset verbiage on the playfield is confusing. What isn’t written on the playfield spills over onto the apron card with more “If-Then” rules.

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The dead space alleyway between the upper rail and the 5-target bank. Balls funnel out from rollovers, but cannot be shot back up thru them.

The game has a kicker arm on the bottom right by the dancing ginger bikini girl, and another up top just to the left of the Angels. This upper left kicker is a spot of trouble with indirect hits and dribbling balls, as it likes to send the ball careening toward the right outlane. The slow dribbler happens often in this area as there is a channel between the 5-target bank and the upper rail which is fed by the C and H rollovers. This channel has always concerned me, as seems out of place as a dead zone. I was troubled that I could never get the ball up into the area with enough force and accuracy to get it up and into the rollovers from the bottom right flipper. In all honesty, I thought I had re-assembled my game wrong after tearing it down. I have come to the realization that it is more of a one way ball exit from the rollovers, and it takes a lucky shot to get it up through a rollover lane from the bottom: I’ve only done it once. It is a bit of a wasted space, but at least it randomizes the ball movement after exits the CHIC lanes: pop bumpers normally do that, but Charlie’s Angels has just one pop under the lanes. The other pop resides lower down on the playfield, dangerously close to the flippers. This pop, like the upper kicker, likes to send the ball over to that troublesome right outlane.

If nothing else, the game can be commended for its asymmetrical layout, which is a nice contrast to the symmetrical layouts of other Gottlieb games of the era like Cleopatra and Pinball Pool.  Angels game designer Allen Edwall is an odd figure in pinball history.  He designed Centigrade 37, which, for many, represents the high water mark of late electromechanical game design, but if you look at his resume, he was mostly in charge of Gottlieb’s solid state hardware design and software development.  That explains his less than prolific run as a designer: he had plenty of other duties in his job description.  Centigrade 37 was his first game, and I think we can agree, looking at the other games he designed, he wouldn’t have a hand in designing another game that matched the timeless popularity of his first.  Charlie’s Angels downfall may be that a “computer guy” was in charge of the design.  The game suffers, in spite of trying for a cumbersome and esoteric set of “If-Then” rules that tested the bounds of the early solid state system. In this day and age, folks call a cumbersome set of rules on a game “deep”. However, on early games like this one, that have to rely on the written word to explain what’s going on, it just gets really confusing. Compare the amount of playfield text on Charlie’s Angels to that of Joker Poker. Joker Poker has far less explaining to do, due to a more straightforward set of rules. Joker Poker is seen as the superior game because it uses its layout to keep the player engrossed, not a jumbled set of “If-Then” rules. Perhaps Charlie’s Angels was supposed to be a showcase of what the System 1 hardware and software was capable of through an intricate set of “When Lit” inserts, but I think it kind of backfired, making for a game that devolved into ignoring all the rules and simply hammering on the drop targets.

As I mentioned, I have one of these games in my collection (for the moment). It arrived at my home in quite a frightful state, having been neglected in a barn or other type of out-building for many years. The boards were dead on arrival: corrosion and burnt transistors had taken their toll. With some tender loving care, a playfield touch-up and clear coat, backglass preservation, connector re-pinning, replacement parts from the Pinball Resource and a PI1x4 board from Pascal Janin, the game now looks and plays great (well, it looks better than it plays, given the discussion above). The Pascal PI1X4 board, which replaces all three System 1 backbox PCBs and the rudimentary cabinet sound board, is a superbly-designed compact board.  In retrospect, it was a pricy addition to a game that doesn’t command that much money on the pinball market, but it certainly brought new life to a game that needed it and I picked up the game for quite a steal. The Pascal board adds extra rules to some of games in the System 1 family, but the additions to Charlie’s Angels are negligible: a roll-over skill shot and an extra ball re-light. Given the often questionable constancy of the System 1 boards, it is nice to have the extra assurance of stability that the PI1x4 provides. A refresh of the side cabinet art was also needed on the game, as the purple Angels had faded to a pathetic grey. I cut my own stencil, accounted for the trademark “Gottlieb overspray”, found a suitable colour match in a rattle can and brought the art back to life. I also went ahead and bypassed the PI1x4 sound components, which accurately mimic the early System 1 “bloops” and “bleeps”, opting to install a set of authentic Gottlieb chimes. The process was extremely simple, and the sound of those chimes really works to make the gameplay more appealing.

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From the FLIPPP! website: the amazing PI1x4 board that replaces all three backbox boards and the cabinet sound board. Less interconnect wires mean better stability. Better stability means less headaches!

I’m unsure whether Charlie’s Angels will have legs in my collection. I think sheer pride in the fact that I brought the game back to life is keeping it around for the time being. If I had unlimited funds and space, which at the current time I have neither, I’d like to obtain a Bally Six Million Dollar Man machine to install beside the Angels and create the ultimate pinball shrine to 1970s hour-long, action drama television (there’s a bit of history there too, missing pinball Angel Farrah Fawcett was once married to Lee Majors, the Bionic Man himself). You can’t expect the world from a System 1 game as, admittedly, it was a transition period in the business.  The cumbersome rules gave a bit more, but perhaps a bit more simplicity would have been in order.  In essence, I’m asking for more and less all at the same time.  Certainly the rules betrayed the game, and the layout did nothing to make up for its confusing faults. If Joker Poker represents the high water mark of System 1 games, Charlie’s Angels may very well bring up the rear.

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Many thanks to my beautiful wife for talking pictures of the Angels machine. You would have got some dumpy cell phone pictures otherwise. Also, I highly recommend reading PA Pinball’s interview with Charlie’s Angels designer Allen Edwall (I quoted from this interview in the article).  It provides a lot of insight as to what was going on at Gottlieb during the System 1 days from Edwall’s perspective.  It is a designer’s perspective that hasn’t been canonized in pinball history, and therefore, a valuable one.

Further Reading:

PA Pinball – An Interview with Allen Edwall
FLIPPP! Pinball (Pascal Janin) – PI1x4 All In One Board for Gottlieb System 1 Pinballs
IPDB.org – Charlie’s Angels
Pinside – Charlie’s Angels
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair