PINBALL EXPO 2004
January 3, 2005
Wow, this has been a massive Pinball Expo report and now we reach the final stages with a look at the exhibition halls, the banquet and the tournament.
So let's kick off and look inside the two halls where the games and the vendors were set up.
The halls opened at 6pm on Thursday evening once the seminars for the day had finished. As usual the first thing you see are the tournament games - two rows of Elvis machines in a roped-off area.
But there was a difference this year, because there were also several Elvis games in the lobby area during the qualification stage, so players could try to get into the next round even when the exhibition hall itself was shut. This helped allay some of the criticisms of previous years and meant the queues to qualify within the hall were shorter as a consequence.
One perennial problem inside the halls is the overhead lighting. Some of the tournament games were almost unplayable because of the glare from the lights, although this was attended to for the final rounds.
Moving beyond the competition we find a very good selection of games and vendors.
Despite speculation about the number of games at the show, in the end there was a great turnout with some nice rarities and collections.
To save you counting, that's 166 games. Those games marked with an asterisk were not working or were not powered up on the Friday evening the list was made.
The best collection for me was Dave Gersic's entire row of Zaccaria games, from Farfalla to Time Machine, Robot to Soccer Kings.
This year's collection of games was the best for a long time and included this new third edition Harley Davidson from Stern with artwork from Jerry Vanderstelt.
A surprise find was this Gottlieb game Big House which was unexpectedly fun to play.
Designed by Ray Tanzer in 1989 it featured a corkscrew arrangement to raise locked balls above the playfield onto a wireform and panning searchlights.
This Rat Race game from Williams was a curiosity. The playfield tilts on the X and Y axes controlled by a joystick and the aim is to roll a ball round the various mazes and paths. It was designed by Barry Oursler but only ten were ever made.
Other than the games, there were also 25 vendors selling various parts, games and books.
Vendors (Main Hall):
Vendors (Second Hall):
Many were regular attendees but one particular new exhibitor attracting a lot of attention was Big Time Cabinets.
The company sells pinball cabinets for popular Williams/Bally games such as The Addams Family, Fish Tales, Getaway and Star Trek - TNG. There are two versions available - the Deluxe with plain black or blue paintwork and some of the internal fixings, and the Premium with the backbox hinges, side rails, leg plates and new decals on the cabinet and backbox sides.
Prices are $625 for the Deluxe and $1150-$1200 for the Premium.
Illinois Pin Ball also had their stall with several new products including Attack From Mars and Revenge From Mars saucers and Scared Stiff glow-in-the-dark plastic sets. But also on their stand was the Big Bang Bar bought by Gene Cunningham and featured in his seminar.
The two halls were open from 6pm until midnight on the first day (Thursday) and then from 6pm on Friday until 4pm Sunday closing only for the duration of the banquet on Saturday evening.
That gave two overnight sessions for die hard pinball players to get their fill and the chance to get on the more popular games in the early hours of the morning. The trick is not to stay up late like everyone else but to get up early instead. If you can get to the halls by 6am you'll have your pick of the games.
The tournament was largely the same as in previous years. Your show package gives you two goes on the Elvis games and the top 16 scorers go through to the finals. But there's a twist and it's one that leaves a sour taste in many people's mouths.
You can buy as many extra goes as you like.
If you're a moderately good player, after 20 or 30 tries you're very likely to get through to the next round. And while quality may win out in the end, a couple of lucky games in the finals could be enough. Obviously, selling extra attempts brings in extra revenue for the organisers but somehow it doesn't feel right.
Anyway, by the time the tournament qualifying rounds ended at 5pm Saturday afternoon the top 16 were split into two groups. The top 8 went into the A Division and the bottom 8 into the B Division.
There were Women's and Manufacturers' Divisions where the qualifiers were:
In the Women's Division Therese Edwards triumphed beating Tina Curtis in the final with Jennie Duffy third and Janet Stevens fourth.
Lyman Sheats won the Manufacturer's Division, Roger Sharpe was second, Greg Dunlap third and Orin Day was fourth.
The B Division was won by Neil Shatz who beat Derek Fugate into second place with Chris Newsom and Mikael Huselius in third and fourth respectively.
In addition there were competitions for seniors, youths and tots. Timothy Post won the senior tournament, Tiler Hall triumphed in the youth division and Andrew Rosa was the winner among the tots.
Finally, the big one - the A Division. In a tense best-of-three-games final between Andy Rosa and Keith Elwin, Keith walked away the winner.
But that wasn't the end because there was the Pinball Wizard to be crowned and that was a play off between Keith as winner of the A Division and Lyman as winner of the Manufacturers' Division.
Despite winning the recent PAPA championship, Lyman lost out to Keith who was on a roll after taking the A Division and was crowned Pinball Wizard and won this comically huge trophy and a hat to match to go along with the Elvis game he won.
Despite the high value top prize and cash prizes of $500 and $250 for the winners of the B and Women's Divisions respectively, the finals are something of an anti-climax. That's because the organisers don't promote them enough.
There are no major announcements when the various finals take place, hardly any seating for spectators, no running commentary announcing who won each game and no attempt to make it more of a spectacle by stopping play on other games in the hall for the final. Unbelievably, during the finals the other games were being carted off and dismantled all around the players.
Compare this to the Dutch Open for instance where everything stops for the final which have a video feed on a big screen with lots of seats arranged around the games. The Expo organisers would do well to take the finals more seriously in future if they want to give some value to visitors on Sunday which is otherwise quite a thin day.
And so we move back to the previous evening and the Saturday night banquet.
Over the years, the quality of the banquet has varied as much as the rest of the show but with this being the 20th Expo hopes were high that the improvements of recent years would be continued.
Events started much as before with the doors opening at 6pm for cocktail hour. It is important to get here early if you want a good choice of seating but it's a compromise - sit in the centre to get a good view of the speakers but you'll be last to get at the food.
Dinner is a buffet of meats, vegetables, pasta, salad and deserts. In theory you could go back to replenish your plate but because it takes so long for everyone to make their first visit, most people make just the one. Food quality was quite reasonable but the service was sporadic leaving many tables un-served with coffee and water. And as we'll see, that coffee was badly needed at times.
Entertainment started with the charity auction.
Items offered included several framed backglasses, T-shirts and other pinball memorabilia. The final item offered was a custom-made suit from Rob Berk's tailor.
During the meal, TNT Amusements' Todd Tuckey held a quiz on electronic pinball games.
After eating it was time for a familiar face to banquet attendees to speak.
Pat Lawlor has been here many times both on his own and with friends from Williams. This time he spoke alone and it was unlike any of his previous talks because of its subdued tone.
Before we hear what he had to say, it's important to look back at some of his past banquet appearances. The Pat Lawlor Show has been a title applied to several of them and it was very appropriate, with Pat as the game show host and people such as Ted Estes, Larry DeMar, Louis Koziarz and Duncan Brown helping answer questions and distribute prizes.
Even the solo appearances have been remarkably upbeat with Pat rhapsodising about his latest game and giving some of the background and development details.
This time it was different. With Elvis the current game and his Nascar awaiting The Sopranos in 2005 he was in a more philosophical mood. He claimed (partly in jest) that the reason he would not be giving away any cool pinball stuff was the price it was selling for on ebay.
To set up the main thrust of his talk, Pat said many of the people at the show and in the audience didn't appreciate how pinball machines are sold, and to whom. In other words, operators and with that in mind he would talk about where pinball is right now and where it is headed.
To do that he started with a history of the game from bagatelle but stresses how each game is a combination of everything in the industry at the time it was made. What he called a snapshot in time.
Allied to that idea is the thought that mechanisms we all take for granted today were state-of-the-art at one time. At its heart, pinball is a ball rolling around on a piece of wood and over time that idea has been embellished with all the bells and whistles we now think of as making the game.
And those embellishments come from the players as much as the industry itself. New concepts stand or fall depending on whether the players embrace them or not, rather than whether they are clever or ingenious in design.
But in the end, the games only survive if they make money. That's money for the operator (and in turn, the manufacturer). Pat said collectors think the role of the game is to mystify them but his single most important job is to make as much money as possible for the operator.
Returning to his historical journey, he described the introduction of electricity to the game as transforming it from a passive game to an active one, introducing a competitive element to the game and changing the way the games were designed. Designers could no longer just consider what happened to the ball after the passive elements had been passed but now had to think about where the ball could go when the active devices took charge.
The next change took place when the physical size of the games increased allowing more active components to be added. This led to pinball machines changing from gaming devices to amusement devices - a game where the prospect of a payout of some kind was no longer the source of entertainment but the game itself had to provided the fun element.
Then came 1980 and the boom of video games which hurt pinball badly. Game players were blown away by the new technology and pinball was seen as old fashioned despite the recent solid state advances in the game.
But the boom only lasted until 1983 and its collapse brought down a lot of companies and almost caused Williams to stop making both video and pinball games, but the Space Shuttle game was instrumental in saving pinball. Pat reiterated the point that the game was cool because it made the shuttle sounds and integrated the audio, the toy and the artwork.
Pat said the biggest influence on the modern pinball game is, perversely enough, video games. He described the next defining moment as coming with the game High Speed. For the first time in pinball, the game told a story - run the red light, get chased by the cops and try to get away. And with that came the idea that players could be part of - and try to reach the end of - the story. An ultimate goal just like in video games.
He said when he played Steve Kordek's and Steve Ritchie's games of the 1960s and '70s, what he enjoyed most were the mechanical elements and that's what he tried to bring back to the game in his own designs along with the story telling.
Talking about one of the problems facing modern day operators, Pat said today's games have to work well and be enjoyable with the sound turned down because that's the way they are operated in a large number of bar locations. The head bartender doesn't want to be disturbed by the sounds coming from a pinball game and will ask the operator to turn it right down or off.
Back in 1991, the introduction of the dot matrix display achieved what solid state games had done many years before and made the previous generation of machines look old. But more than that, Pat explained how the integration of art and sounds now encompassed animations relating to both what was happening on the playfield and the game's story, getting even closer to what video games were offering.
In 1992, the pinball industry sold 120,000 games with this new technology but over the subsequent years the games didn't immediately look new enough to grab the players' coins. The audience is constantly wanting new ideas and outwardly the game hadn't changed since the DMD was introduced.
Pat talked about Pinball 2000 as moving player interaction with the artwork to the next logical level by placing it right on the playfield, not just as flat artwork but 3D objects to be hit and destroyed. And when it went out on test, the new look and design brought the jaded players back to pinball and more importantly introduced new players.
Pinball now, said Pat, is still appealing to the same small group of players it did in 1993 and that's a big problem for Stern. Pat went over the return on investment calculations for a new pinball game saying it takes around 2 years for an operator to recover the cost of a new game on a decent location, so many will operate it for 6-9 months and then sell it for almost the price they paid to make money that way.
To get more players is the ultimate goal but there is an argument taking place over whether the way to achieve this is to increase the complexity of the rules to satisfy the existing players or to simplify them in an attempt to make the games more accessible to new players.
Pat said these days there is no time for the designer to explain how the game works, it has to be obvious when a player steps up and looks inside the cabinet and that is why licensed themes are used. Immediately, the player has some familiarity and knows what they have to do.
The end result is that games are "dumbed-down". Pat said that he was not willing to make games as complicated as they were ten years ago.
Also, even when you just consider home game sales, the majority are not bought by knowledgeable pinball fans but by the general public to put in their games room and again licensing helps with recognition and sales. The percentage of games going straight into people's homes varies according to the proximity to Christmas when people buy them to enhance their games room before the family and friends come to visit. Pat also spoke about the different demands placed upon the designer for games going into homes and those going into arcades. In an arcade the game is there to make money for the operator and limit the playing time to a few minutes but in the home, the player is also the owner and wants to keep playing as long as they want, completing the story long before an arcade player would. Despite that, Stern is looking at new ways to sell their games to a wider audience.
Pat concluded by explaining how the industry is making essentially the same games it was back in the early '90s and how that inability to move forward is a big problem facing pinball at the moment.
And so concluded Pat's Expo banquet speech. Although it seems to fly by, the talk lasted an hour and gave the audience some points to think about.
After a very brief break, it was time to induct some more pinball personalities into the Pinball Expo Hall of Fame by Greg Kmiec, Gary Flower and Jim Schelberg.
The list of previous inductees was read out but whereas in previous years only two or three new members were added, this year seven more joined the list.
Jim Patla read out the citation for Gary Gayton as he was inducted.
Steve Ritchie introduced Greg Freres for his induction.
Margaret Hudson presented Kevin O'Connor as he joined the Hall of Fame.
And with the help of this six foot chicken,
Joe Kaminkow introduced Ed Cebula.
Despite being in Europe, Gary Stern had some comments read out on his behalf congratulating Ed and presenting him with a watch.
Larry DeMar then introduced the next inductee - Joe Kaminkow.
Shortly after, Rob Berk and Mike Pacak as Expo organisers joined the previous inductees of 2004 in the Hall of Fame.
Next, Dave Marston spoke about his memories of Pinball Expo over the past 20 years including the Design A Game seminars, the different show logos, the numerous varieties of games and the various manufacturers' involvements.
By this stage the banquet has been going on for over four hours and everyone on our table was praying for the end. But while many other tables slowly emptied and guests deserted the banquet, the speeches continued and we stayed to report them all.
An award was given to Rob Berk and (in his absence) Gary Stern from the Tokyo Pinball Organisation in recognition of their contributions to pinball and a verbose talk was given about pinball in Japan. There followed a traditional Japanese chant of celebration to commemorate the 20th year of the show.
Now came the presentations for the best exhibitor of the show won by Keller Pinball Restoration with Mayfair coming second. The winner of the art contest was presented with their award. The winning entry was a superb Black Knight 2000 carving from Joel Cohen and was a worthy winner. Jim Schelberg was given an award, Mike Pacak got an award from Rob. Rob's wife got an award. No doubt if they had a cat it would have won an award too.
Any thoughts we might have reached the end were dispelled when Ray Tanzer took to the stage to read another message from Gary Stern about Joe Kaminkow and a gift of some Waterford crystal was presented to him on Gary's behalf.
Tim Arnold then made the prize draw of a pinball machine, mercifully keeping it as short as humanly possible. Thanks Tim.
Finally (and you've no idea how good it is to write that), as about the only person not to yet receive an award, the final presentation of the evening went to......well......me, your esteemed Editor.
The duration of the banquet went far beyond a joke not only for the poor souls in the audience who emerged looking like Survivor contestants, but for those who thought about sneaking out to play some pinball. Because, remember, the exhibition halls were closed for the duration of the banquet.
In the past, the sage advice had been to forget the banquet. When the main speaker was a crowd pleaser and the quality of the food improved, the advice changed to attend the banquet. If future Expos are like this one, that advice is to stay for the food and main speaker then head over to the sports bar next door to wait it out and admire the view.
Will we be there next year? It's too early to say. Over time you get to see and hear from everyone you want and play just about every game you want to play, so let's hope the schedule for next year is good enough to spend those frequent flyer miles on.
© Pinball News 2004