Date: 6th March 2009.
The Nucore replacement computer system for Pinball 2000 games took a major step forward today with the announcement of a licensing deal which could see Nucore on sale as early as this month.
Nucore is the brainchild of Steve Ellenoff, Chuck Hess, and Don Weingarden who devised and developed the PC-based alternative to the obsolete Pinball 2000 computer, as we first reported back in May last year.
At that time the trio believed they were not infringing on any of Williams intellectual properties and were free to produce and market Nucore without involving either Gene Cunningham or Wayne Gillard who were the licensees of Williams's pinball patents and copyrighted materials.
By October the team had revised their opinion and decided a tie-up with one of the licensees was the preferred way forward to avoid costly and lengthy legal wranglings. At the 24th annual Pinball Expo the same month, Chuck and Don held a presentation to demonstrate and answer questions about Nucore.
Chuck relates how the Expo "fireside chat" led to he and Don meeting some of the original Pinball 2000 developers. "What an incredible event. I want to thank everyone for the kind words, support, and general enthusiasm about Nucore. The seminar was incredible. Don and I were honored to have Larry DeMar, Cameron Silver, and Duncan Brown help us with the event. Larry even skipped a Cubs playoff game to help us out. It's not often that you get to stand side-by-side with some of the most respected people in pinball."
But after the presentation it was suggested only having one licensee's agreement might not be sufficient, as Chuck explained: "We talked to everyone after the seminar and a group gathered around Larry. We were all discussing patent issues. At that time it was our understanding that if one of the patent holders licensed us we would be covered. Larry DeMar has a lot of experience in patent cases and informed us that he thought we would need permission from all patent holders in order to be safe. This was definitely something we needed to investigate."
While they waited for the verdict from their legal advisors, Don and Chuck took the opportunity to work on completing the software, fixing any outstanding bugs and developing Nucore's added features. A new configuration system was added keeping the look and feel of the original Pinball 2000 menus, the performance of the existing code was improved and the jukebox software was rewritten to allow an almost unlimited number of songs with access to music on any drive on the same network.
They signed up a number of test users in the neighbouring area to try the first (or "Alpha") release of the system and report their findings. Several minor issues came up and were fixed, while the feedback included several suggestion for improvements or new features which could be added to improve the product.
With the software now working, Don turned his attention to developing the Nucore hardware while Chuck added a few extra hidden features into the software. He told Pinball News: "I decided it was time to have a little bit of fun. I wrote a routine to capture flipper button presses to enter codes for hidden goodies. The first thing I added was Nucore credits. We wanted to make sure to thank everyone who helped us and gave us support. I'll give you a hint on how to get to it: it's the drum beat for Living After Midnight (Judas Priest)."
After that was completed, Chuck added another "Easter egg" in the form of a secret game: "I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time writing it in case we had some major issue to take care of. I decided to write a Breakout game. About a week of coding and a little tweaking later it was done, nothing Earth-shattering but a nice little diversion. You'll have to find the code for this yourself."
While the software and hardware development continued, the problem of the patents continued to cast a shadow over the project's future. The legal advice they received was unanimous in telling them to make sure they were properly protected against potential lawsuits, since defending any lawsuit could cost them dearly and potentially spell the end of the Nucore project.
They consulted regularly with Williams who proved to be very helpful and supportive. However, their guidance culminated in the advice to get agreements in place with all the interested parties, not just some of them. That meant getting an agreement with both Gene and Wayne.
It didn't seem likely such an agreement would be possible but it actually turned out to be relatively painless as Chuck told us. "In January we contacted Gene and Wayne to propose a joint agreement. We were prepared for everything but what actually happened; both Gene and Wayne were willing to enter an agreement to make Nucore a reality. Over the course of three weeks our lawyer drafted an agreement and both of them signed it."
As unlikely as it might have seemed, that indefinite agreement removed the single biggest obstacle to making Nucore a reality. As Chuck put it: "Nucore can soon be released and no one has to worry about any legal issues getting in the way. After two years and seven attorneys, Nucore is finally here!"
As of March 2009, the audio amplifier has been build and will begin testing shortly while the software has progressed from "Alpha" testing to "Beta" testing - one step away from the release version. It is hoped to get Nucore on the market next month and sales of the system will handled by Pinball Life.
Prices have been announced on the Nucore forum with the Nucore system including the software, the USB module I/O board, USB cable, and an installation CD for $400. Several other options including a ready built system are also available.
With the end now in sight, it finally looks like all the hard work will finally pay off. "We never thought legal issues would take us nearly a year to resolve and at times we thought this project might die" said Chuck. "A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and caffeinated drinks were expended during this project but the end is near and we're glad to report it will be a happy ending."