PINBALL EXPO 2003
And so we come to the final part of our report from Pinball Expo 2003 - The fireside chats. These are an integral part of Pinball Expo and gives those who can squeeze into Rob Berk's hotel room the chance to get up close to a pinball legend or two.
This year we had the chance to listen to the thoughts of two great ex-Williams game designers, Dennis Nordman and Larry DeMar.
Dennis was first with his Thursday evening fireside chat.
Dennis has been designing games since 1986 when his first production was Special Force. Since then he's designed such classics as Dr Dude, Whitewater, Demolition Man and Scared Stiff.
He first became involved in pinball when he went to college to study industrial design and for one of his projects he redesigned the pinball cabinet which hadn't really changed since they first appeared. He came up with a really futuristic design made out of fibreglass with a lower playfield so children could play it more easily. It had levers on the top where you could rest your hands and had a tapering playfield - wider at the back than at the front. Dennis always liked wide body games but didn't like stretching his arms out that far, so this was a way to solve that problem.
His design also had speakers in the backbox rather than just in the cabinet as previously and the score displays grouped together and not spread out around the backglass.
He had to leave college due to back problems but decided to build a full size prototype of his design and show it to Bally. They liked it and hired him as a cabinet designer.
As part of his presentation to Bally he made a slide show and to enhance the look of the cabinet he looked around at the local mall for a woman who would be prepared to model next to the prototype. A couple of years after the presentation Dennis was at Pinball Expo and saw the same woman who had since become Rob Berk's girlfriend.
Dennis was a pinball fan long before he started at Bally, playing Firepower extensively.
The first production machine cabinet he designed was for Mr & Mrs Pacman. It contained some elements from his futuristic design but was very different in other ways. Ultimately the cabinet is all about cost and the current design is about as cheap as it can get. Any variations cost more and so are not readily accepted.
After that he designed the cabinet for Rapid Fire. "A lot of people hated the small backbox, especially the art department" he said. The game was a response to Hyperball and Norm Clarke didn't want to work on it, so Dennis did some work on it, designing the force field and various playfield parts before it was handed over to Jim Patla.
Rapid Fire didn't sell very well, so many of those cabinets were used in Eight Ball Deluxe Special Edition and Centaur 2.
Dennis also met his wife at one of Bally's cocktail parties - she was the company president's secretary.
He was also a big dirt bike and motor cross fan back at college and tried to return to biking when he got the job at Bally but never really got back into it, until Bally was sold to Williams and he met Mark and Steve Ritchie who were both big dirt bike fans. They went out riding one day in the woods, Dennis was last behind Mark, tried to blast past him on a dirt road and missed a right turn at about 60 mph. He broke his leg, right collar bone, a bone in his hand, three ribs and finished his dirt biking for good.
The accident happened when he had just finished the whitewood for Elvira & the Party Monsters and he had to spend the next three months in hospital, so a lot of people at Williams/Bally had to pitch in to finish the game. Some of the broken bones on the backglass are a reference to his accident.
Dennis commented on how great it was to work with Elvira on the game and what a nice person she is in real life. Of course he got the chance to work with her again in Scared Stiff - a game Dennis describes as one of his favourites, along with Whitewater.
In that game the Bigfoot character was based on a legend from Washington state of a Bigfoot who steals camping supplies while the campers go rafting. The Bigfoot in the game was modeled on Dennis. Artist John Youssi came out to his house to take pictures of him.
Whitewater was unusual because Dennis just went straight in and built it out of foam board because he needed to see the ball clearances between the different layers of the playfield rather than draw it out first.
Dennis says he's really into visual stuff than in-depth rules and that's why he likes Scared Stiff so much, with all the three dimensional elements in the game. He\was disappointed that the dancing boogiemen and the lit eyes in the skull pile didn't make it to production (although they are readily available to retro-fit). There was a small upper playfield at the back right with an eyeball on it in an early version of the design.
Dennis said that he also likes turning off the lights in a game to emphasise that the player is in a different mode. He did it for the final mode in Demolition Man and again in Scared Stiff.
Dennis was then joined by artist Greg Freres who worked with him on many games. Although John Youssi did the artwork for the game, Greg did the initial design work on the Whitewater logo and developed the method to get a flowing water effect in the backbox header. Greg said he really wanted to work on Whitewater but he had to take his family on vacation, but he thought John did a great job. John put a Ford panel truck on the backglass - the same truck Dennis bought five years earlier to restore. He still has the truck and it's still waiting to be worked on.
Dennis doesn't have any pinball games at home. After he left pinball he had to sell them to pay the bills. He said that he never played the games he had at home - by the time he'd finished designing them he wanted to move on to the next one. The fun was in creating them, not playing them, so that's why he wasn't too interested in deep rules.
Dennis said that Demolition Man was always going to be a wide bodied game. He'd been wanting to do a wide body before the company started making them again.
Referring to the process of choosing designs to manufacture, Dennis said that themes weren't assigned to design teams, they pitched their ideas to the company and campaigned for them.
When talking about the rounds of lay-offs at Williams which eventually lost him his job, Dennis said he was pretty much unaware of how bad things were getting at the company. He was busy working away at Scared Stiff enjoying himself when he was called into the office and told the bad news.
Dennis is now working for IGT designing mechanical bonus systems for slot machines.
On Friday evening it was the turn of Larry DeMar. Larry was Director of Engineering at Williams having worked on the software and design of many many games since 1980.
Last year, Larry was able to add so much to the fireside chats of Barry Oursler and Steve Ritchie that it was agreed to ask him to do his own this year. He agreed and result was the amazing four hour chat you see here.
The fireside chat began with Larry explaining how the game Firepower was so influential on his pinball career. It was the game that was just about to start production when he applied for a job at Williams. He was interviewed by Ken Fedesna, then Head of Engineering, and met Steve Ritchie and Eugene Jarvis who had just finished Firepower which was to follow Gorgar on the production line. Larry described Firepower as the game that said "we can do anything we like in pinball".
He talked about the way pinball was evolving very quickly at that time with Steve's game Flash introducing continual background sounds, whereas previous solid-state games had emulated electro-mechanical by only making sounds when targets were hit. He talked about the culture of resistance to change and how hard it was to get the many new ideas accepted. Larry contrasted Steve Ritchie's recent arrival with Steve Kordek's longevity in the industry and how he had seen and evolved through so many changes in the way pinball was made.
Larry's didn't immediately hit it off with Steve Kordek but very soon they started to appreciate each other's skills working in adjacent offices for around seven years and now has nothing but praise for him and his passion for pinball.
Getting into pinball was very easy for Larry since his parents were good fiends with Alvin Gottlieb and his wife who lived very nearby and Larry used to play pinball there and in another friend's basement despite pinball being illegal in Chicago at that time. He went on a trip to Paris in 1974 and saw the profusion of pinball games in that city, spending much of his time admiring them instead of appreciating the city's other delights.
When at college he used to play pinball a lot; in particular the game Eight Ball. Larry found two programming faults with the game and wrote to Williams, Bally and Gottlieb describing the possibilities of solid state games and how he was about to graduate. That letter led to the interview with Williams.
Larry returned to Firepower and said it represented the same leap for pinball that Flash has created, bringing back multiball and introducing lane-change and some great space sounds. He talked about the one problem with multiball; you knock down the targets, lock the balls and start multiball, but what do you do then? We'll return to that question later.
Larry as worked at Williams for a year when he and Eugene left to start up a company making video games which lasted until 1984. After that he returned to Williams and stayed there until they closed in 1999.
The first production game he worked on was Scorpion with Barry Oursler - one of last year's guests. Although he described it a "pretty hideous game" it did provide an answer to that question above, as the player was rewarded for keeping the multiball going for as long as possible. Larry went on to talk about what he disliked about the game, especially the shot layout and the difficulty of some of the key shots. He likened it to Twilight Zone, saying the right loop shot to the gumball machine probably cost the game about half the potential revenue on site, as the average player simply couldn't make it. He said that was one of the reasons Twilight Zone wasn't the next Addams Family.
When Eugene left Williams pinball to do a video game, Steve Ritchie asked for Larry to replace him on his next game - one which featured a split-level playfield and would have Williams' new operating system. That game was Black Knight.
At that time, the operating system was stored in masked ROMs which were made in their thousands and used across all the company's games for the following two or three years. Consequently, any bugs or missing features couldn't be changed during that period until the next completely new version of the software was released.
Black Knight was the first game to use the new operating system that Larry had worked on while Steve was designing the game layout. Williams were concerned about allowing Larry - as a new recruit to the company - to design the new system alone, so they got one model of the previous game - Alien Poker - made using the new system to prove its effectiveness.
The new system allowed multi-tasking, making it possible to use timers for various game features. The game was also revolutionary in its use of a split-level playfield. Larry described how on a multi-level game, once a ball is on the upper playfield it is safe and cannot drain, so the lower playfield has to be fast and prone to ball drains if the play time is to be kept reasonably low.
Whilst talking about how getting the ball off the playfield was to feature in so many games after Black Knight, Larry discussed how pinball is now such a low-margin business, it is high risk and cyclical with so many new parts in each new game, so no-one would advise investing in pinball right now. When Larry started, the companies were run by private individuals who were passionate about pinball and after passing through corporate ownership we're now back with one company run by a man who is passionate about pinball.
After 43 minutes of talking we moved on to the second year of Larry's work at Williams, the 1981 game Jungle Lord. He described it as "another awful game I worked on" but it did introduce the grace period - the extra time after a counter appears to reach zero where you can still make the shot and have it score. It was included in Jungle Lord to overcome a problem with the centre bonus x loop which sometimes took so long to complete that extra time had to be allowed for the loop to register correctly.
Jungle Lord also had a neat feature called Double Trouble which appeared after you knocked down the drop targets about five times on the upper playfield - a single drop target would pop back up and if you hit it before the time ran out you scored 100,000 points, the timer reset and another target would appear worth double the value. This would continue until you ran out of time. Despite describing this as a really neat feature, it was difficult to start and he never included it in any of his latter games.
Steve Ritchie joined in to say that Larry was such a good player that he was always putting in features that Steve could never achieve, so they always had to compromise to make the cool stuff available to the average player.
Although he didn't work on the game, Larry talked about Hyperball, describing it as a really significant game on the pinball timeline because it showed how the companies responded to the dip in pinball's popularity, just as in 1998 Williams looked to Pinball 2000 as something different to revive that interest, so in 1981 they looked to Hyperball.
Hyperball was largely a copy of Bally's Rapid Fire, so much so that within Williams, Hyperball was code named Project Xerox.
Talking of copying, Larry spoke about Data East pinball co-founder Joe Kaminkow who was the subject of some criticism for copying Williams' designs. Larry said the one thing thing you could say for Joe was that he "never knocked-off one of their bad games".
Hyperball was designed by Steve Ritchie but was too complicated for the average player and also had the problem of not working very well. Steve himself described it as " a noisy pile of junk".
1981 was also the year Larry left pinball to work on video games with Eugene Jarvis. He said pinball was really down and out from about 1981-84. Ken Fedesna who was running Williams Pinball kept a skeleton crew working on pinball - Steve Kordek, Barry Oursler and Mark Ritchie, a couple of programmers and mechanical engineers, to continue making the games. The games they made were many and varied, including Joust, Defender, Warlock and Time Fantasy. They were enough to keep pinball ticking over, even as a low margin business, until things took off again. Larry lamented that Williams didn't have the wisdom to do the same thing in 1999.
By 1983-4, video games had joined pinball in the doldrums. Eugene went back to California to get another degree leaving Larry to look for new avenues.
Joe Kaminkow was setting up a video game design group called Logical Highs but wanted to make pinball games, so he got a job at Williams and in the summer of 1984 tried to get Larry to come back and design games with him. Larry was reluctant but Joe took him and Eugene out to dinner and threw out some playfield designs including Space Shuttle, Joe's first licensed game.
Eventually he persuaded Larry to come back and got Barry Oursler to join in the Space Shuttle game with Joe producing the project. Space Shuttle was the game taken to the AMOA show that year replacing Mark Ritchie's Sorcerer.
Eugene and Steve Ritchie also worked on Space Shuttle. Both were now in California but Eugene worked on the sounds while Steve voiced the speech (he had previously done the speech for Firepower and Black Knight but was by that time working on video games). The game was designed without speech since the System 9 boards didn't include it but it was added later on a separate board.
About a year later Steve returned to pinball to work with Larry on High Speed, the game based on Steve's 186MPH car chase with the police. Larry described the game as revolutionary because it was the first to tell a story rather than just have a theme.
Neither Steve nor Larry were on good terms with the rest of the engineering staff at Williams, so they found themselves working on the game in a room away from the rest of the department. Steve had a load of great ideas and features for the game, which led to the game being nicknamed High Cost.
Larry showed some pictures of the various whitewoods for the game, where the initial layout and rules were very different to the production game, involving a chase with the police around a figure-of-eight circuit. Larry said "this was a terrible game, we almost killed each other".
But High Speed was significant for two other reasons too. First, it was the first game to feature a jackpot. As the final answer to the multiball question posed way back in this article, Larry came up with the idea of having a jackpot to collect in multiball.
The other feature of note was that High Speed was the first Williams game to include alpha-numeric score displays. Gottlieb had just introduced them and Williams got some prototypes to try out. But once again the problem was the cost. The game worked so much better with them but they were too expensive.
The game was originally designed without background music but they added it in reaction to Gottlieb's Rock game which had lots of background music.
If the game wasn't innovative enough, it was also the first with auto-percentaging; increasing or decreasing replay levels to compensate for the abilities of the players, and it also introduced switch compensation; making allowances for broken switches.
Plus, it was the first game with ball-search capabilities.
Probably because of all these innovations High Speed remains one of Larry's personal favourite games, despite its simplicity and lack of rules.
After High Speed, Larry took some time off to do some software consulting at another company where he met Pat Lawlor. Pat had been working on a pinball idea and at the end of summer 1986 Pat left the company and Larry's consulting work had also finished, so Larry drove out to Pat's house where he saw a rough mock-up of the game that was to become Banzai Run. They agreed to collaborate and worked on the game in Larry's studio apartment.
Larry set his Space Shuttle on end so he could experiment with vertical shots, finding that the maximum distance the ball traveled was about 8 inches, so all the shots would have to be short ones. They disassembled a new Road Kings game for parts and mocked up a complete working game to take to Williams to convince them to make it. The initial theme was based around a wrecking ball but was later changed to Banzai Enduro as a dirt bike theme when artist Mark Springer came along with a drawing and they liked it. It later changed to Banzai Run to make it clearer to non dirt bike fans.
They were finding out how to make a vertical pinball as they went along, making many very different designs and at one point included some drop targets but of course they don't work when mounted horizontally.
When the game went into production it was not a great success, selling around 1,700 units and being very expensive to make but Pat wanted to go on to design more games and so he started work on Earthshaker and then Whirlwind, neither of which Larry worked on, since he was working on the next generation of pinball system, WPC.
He teamed up with Pat again for Funhouse in 1990. The design originally had an electromechanical clock next to Rudy but this was later dropped (but resurfaced in a different form on Twilight Zone) for cost and reliability reasons to be replaced by the lamp arrangement we all know.
Larry then spoke about the game Terminator 2. Although he didn't work on it, the game introduced a feature which Larry clearly sees as - at best - a double edged sword; a ball saver. It was put in to overcome a design problem where some balls coming out of the ball shooter would head straight down the outlane. So a ball saver was added but Larry believes it was over-used in subsequent games to compensate players for bad play leading to a culture where players expected the ball to always be delivered to them in an easy controlled way.
This led to the lack of a ball saver in Larry's next game - Twilight Zone - an omission he described as one of his biggest mistakes. He religiously believed that the ball saver was ruining pinball and so despite the unhappiness at every level in the company it stayed out until the much later software versions were produced.
He felt a similar way about buy-ins; continuing the game by using a credit to buy an extra ball. He said it helped marginally because it was such a rip-off, but when they added the ability to buy as many extra balls as you wanted, players would just keep buying balls until they've seen everything in the game and then never play it again. So a brief earnings boost led to a longer term drop in revenue.
Turning now to The Addams Family, he recounted how Pat Lawlor was asked to make a game with the Bally name, after the acquisition of the Bally pinball division in 1988/9.
So Williams now had two production lines, one for Williams, one for Bally and the Williams teams looked down on the Bally teams. since Williams were on a roll and Bally were the company struggling and eventually bought out. That attitude also spread to the buyers who would buy the Williams games but pass on the Bally ones.
So when Pat was told to make a Bally game it was thought that the brand name alone would hurt sales.
Although T2 had introduced the dot-matrix display to Williams, they had kept the new display under wraps, plus there was about a $100 overhead for the display and controller board, money Pat and his team thought could be better spent on the playfield, so development started on Addams Family using the alpha-numeric displays. It soon became clear that the new display technology not only introduced many new effect possibilities but also made all previous game look outdated forcing operators to buy the new games.
Talking of displays, Larry commented that people should appreciate the significance of the new low voltage LED displays produced by PinLED as they provide a new lease of life to games where the display technology is either unavailable now or soon will be.
Larry spoke about working on licensed themes. He said they paid almost nothing for the licences because companies were excited to have their product turned into a pinball game. Chris Granner and John Hay did the sounds on Addams Family. Chris flew to New York to a recording session to get the sound quotes from Raul Julia. Raul was so dedicated to giving a great performance for the game and that contrasts with other actors who think they're doing you a favour to give you anything. Angelica Houston insisted on changes to the way her nose was drawn on the backglass. She had final approval on all likenesses so John Youssi flew out to California to make a sketch of her and get her to approve it.
This time at Williams was marked by the increasing number of specialists working on the different areas of the games - licensing, musicians, voice-over artists, sculptors and display artists - all leading to a great improvement of the overall product but at a much higher cost and the need to sell more games.
Larry had wanted to put a game-activated flipper to make a shot in a game since he joined Williams, but the development of the flipper and the introduction of solid-state flipper mechanisms meant it was only now feasible to do it.
World Cup Soccer saw Larry working with John Popadiuk for the only time and his first time working with Kevin O'Connor. Larry joined the project quite late in development. He was brought in to pull the game together when it ran into difficulties and could have caused a break in production. The game was hurried into completion and now Larry says it's one of his favourite games and the one he tries to get for anyone making their first move into pinball ownership, because it is quite forgiving and instantly gratifying by shooting the ball up the middle to score a goal and getting all the sound and light shows. He also directs new buyers towards Time Machine and Monday Night Football for the same reasons.
The spinning ball in WCS was intended to be a scoring shot but they couldn't get it to register reliably and the metal mounting for the rubber ball prevented eddy sensors being used, so that idea was dropped. They also tried using a stepper motor for the ball but again that couldn't be made to work reliably.
The Magna-Goalie feature came in for some criticism as it is rarely used by players who prefer to try to save a centre drain shot using the flippers rather than move their hand off the flipper button to reach a second button. Larry said they decided to leave it in because the playfield artwork had already been completed and it made reference to the feature.
Larry said one of the great strengths and weakness of the design process at Williams was that the game designer was allowed to have their vision of the game and execute it within some very loose guidelines. So designers would make seemingly trivial changes to various regular parts like cabinet buttons which had much greater cost implications and made it difficult to stock all the variations of the standard parts.
A fairly major change to the game was introduced with Revenge From Mars. With the new Pinball 2000 platform, the designers took the opportunity to dispense with the idea of winning a free game if you reach a certain score level. Larry said they thought the game was cool enough that they could get away with it although there were a number of different opinions about the move. The game cost more to make, so it had to earn more and this was a way to achieve that.
Continuing with Pinball 2000, Larry spoke about the unreleased game Wizard Blocks and said that the game had a lot more time than either Revenge From Mars or Star Wars Episode 1 and was able to learn from those games' mistakes. Larry had insisted that those games had a lot of shots straight up the middle so new players drawn into pinball by the new look weren't put off by being unable to make the key shots. Wizard Blocks moved away from that idea with Pat Lawlor concentrating more on lighting effects, making things appear and disappear using the combination of lights and the half-silvered playfield glass.
Larry talked about the great people he had worked with during his time at Williams including Ted Estes, Cameron Silver, Bill Grupp, Louis Koziarz & Lyman Sheats. He went on to talk about hidden initials in game artwork, including those of his nieces, wife and himself, and then revealed that it really is possible to play breakout on Star Trek - TNG although he wouldn't be drawn on exactly how.
Looking forward, Larry said the future direction of pinball is now entirely up to the folks working at Stern. He said Gary Stern had a great plan to continue using licensed themes that get people to stop and look at pinball again because pinball has to have a way to deliver a good experience to those people who are not regular players. The market has been growing for the past two years (after falling significantly in the two years after Williams closed) and hopefully Stern can continue to produce attractive and well-balanced games.
Larry now owns and operates LED Gaming, a design company for gaming machines based in Wheeling IL., working with former Williams colleagues Duncan Brown and Scott Slomiany.
© Pinball News 2003