PINBALL EXPO 2005
Welcome to this, the last part of our extensive Pinball Expo report.
In this article we'll hear from the two fireside chats and see how this year's banquet compared to the events of 2004.
The fireside chats are an integral part of Expo and grew so popular they had to be relocated. Originally held in a hotel suite, they moved into the main seminar room last year to allow more people to see and hear the speakers. Unfortunately, that move also removed most of the ambience and any sense of coziness. It's a shame and perhaps some middle ground can be found in a more comfortable location for future years. As has been the case for the past few years, the events are hosted by Gary Flower.
The first fireside chat was with Gil Pollock. Not perhaps a name familiar to many newer devotees of the game but Gil was formerly the President of Premier Technologies who manufactured games such as Stargate, Street Fighter II and Cue Ball Wizard between 1984 and 1996.
Gil related how he started at Gottlieb in the '70s as a personnel manager when the company expanded from 600 to 1200 employees. At the time, the company was in trouble with the government for paying men more than they paid women doing the same job and one of Gil's first tasks was to bring the situation to an amicable resolution while keeping the unions out. The equal pay liability was between $3 million and $4 million but Gil managed to negotiate it down to $184,000.
Over the next 18 months there were 3 attempts but the unions to get a foothold inside the company. Two of these three faltered before they became serious and the third was defeated in an election of employees. The company remained non-union throughout its existence.
One of Gil's philosophies was that to really know the business and make policy you needed to know how the different processes worked and that involved getting out onto the factory floor. He spent quite a lot of time in the engineering department with the game designers Ed Krynski and Wayne Neyens, learning the design process and playing the games.
He said his two mentors at Gottlieb were Wayne in the design side and Judd Weinberg on the business side. Judd was David Gottlieb's son-in-law and was running the company with David's son Alvin.
In 1976, Weinberg sold the company to Columbia Pictures and a year later when Bob Smith, the Vice-President of Operations retired, Gil took over his job, giving him more time to work with Wayne. Gil said that despite the company being owned by a large corporation it was still run by the Gottlieb/Weinberg family.
In the early '80s, Wayne left the company as did Judd and a raft of new people joined the management team making it feel much more like a large corporation.
In January 1982, Columbia was purchased by the Coca Cola Company and a new management team was brought into Columbia Pictures. They didn't want the Gottlieb name as part of the future for Coca Cola, seeing it as antiquated and outdated. So they employed a marketing company to re-brand the pinball division and they came up with the name Mylstar. Gil said he wasn't sure where the name came from or how it evolved.
The association with Coca Cola proved useful to Gil as he spent six weeks at the headquarters in Atlanta learning marketing techniques. The same manufacturer - distributor - operator chain served both Coke and pinball and Coca Cola were the kings of marketing at the time.
Alongside the pinball division - where Gil was now the General Manager - a new Mylstar video division was also starting up. The video division wasn't at all successful and so it wasn't long before Coca Cola decided to leave the coin-op business entirely and divest itself of the video and pinball divisions.
When Gil heard this he set up a meeting with Suren Fesjian of Mondial - the largest distributor of Gottlieb/Mylstar pinball in Europe - and offered to sell the pinball division and himself.
The deal was arranged in around ten days for the sale of Mylstar pinball to Fesjian with Gil as joint partner running the company. The sale included all the inventory and manufacturing facilities and equipment but not the Gottlieb name which Columbia Pictures needed to facilitate a large tax write-off.
Although they now had the name Gottlieb and could use it on the pinball games, they still couldn't use it for the name of the company, so Premier Technologies was born in 1984. It was called that because they wanted to be number one and nobody else had registered that name in the state of Illinois.
They had the company and the manufacturing facilities but had no games to make, so to get into the market quickly they developed a range of simpler games aimed more at bars than arcades. In bars, the players don't have the same demands for complex playfields and deep rules as the arcade players and this was an area they thought the near strangleholds of Williams and Bally could be attacked.
The strategy proved profitable and enabled the design of more complicated games to continue while the production lines continued to churn out machines. This was the start of an eight year boom for pinball and it allowed Premier to grow on the back of increased orders and renewed interest in the game.
This continues until 1992 when a dip hit sales prompting the recruitment of a new VP of International Sales and VP of Domestic Sales along with new some marking skills from Williams. These moves helped the company recover and continue until 1995/6 when the market really began to decline.
A series of questions from the audience followed including one about the reasoning behind disallowing the artists and designers to put their name on the playfield or backglass. Gil said he made that decision because the product was always a team effort and it would be wrong to single out any one individual from that team.
The themes for games came from a wide variety of sources - some were tie-ins with video games, others picked up on popular movies or TV shows without actually using a licence.
Gil revealed how his favourite games to play are Monte Carlo, Raven and Chicago Cubs.
Speaking about the unusual photorealistic images Premier used for some of its backglasses, Gil said the company wanted to get away from traditional artwork and get something more lifelike. It was also supposed to be a cheaper method of production but eventually the costs to getting realistic shots skyrocketed as helicopters and a Ferrari were used in shoots.
When asked about the possibility of another pinball manufacturer he was emphatic that the market wasn't large enough to support anyone else. He thought even a 20% reduction in sales could be enough to derail Stern Pinball who he praised for continuing to put out good games with no direct competition.
Talking about the last days of Premier Gil said he was the last one there and he turned the lights out at the end. He and Suren were 50-50 partners in the company and as the years went on Suren passes much of his control (which was mainly financial) over to his son Robert. As the pinball market dropped away, Premier diversified into video lottery terminals and were awarded a contract for the state of Oregon. The contract was withdrawn when the state claimed a company Premier had bought to assist in the lottery market had ties to the crime families of the East Coast and so Premier were similarly tarred. Gil said this cost Premier $6 million as that is what they had already spent on the materials for the lottery.
That loss combined with the depressed pinball market led them to conclude that the best course of action was to close the company. There was some money still outstanding to be paid to Mondial so they got the Premier intellectual assets which they still hold and manage to this day.
It took almost a year to finish winding-up the company after which Gil started a consulting firm which he still runs and he is actively developing a product for the self-serve coin op industry through his company Advanced Manufacturing Corporation.
The second fireside chat was not with an individual but with a group of people behind the Big Bang Bar game from Capcom. Big Bang Bar never made it into production but is said by some to be the best game never produced. The thirteen remaining prototypes sell for huge sums (over $20,000) and around 140 games are currently being manufactured by Pinball Manufacturing Inc. a.k.a. Illinois Pin Ball Co.
The designer of the game, Rob Morrison was joined by artist Stan Fukuoka and Jeff Powell who created the sounds. Once again, Gary Flower hosted.
Rob began by saying they started the project over ten years ago and he was honoured and proud that it still seems to have momentum.
Stan then took over and presented a slideshow of the development of the artwork from conception - where it was only known that the game would have a space theme - through to the final imagery.
Stan was working on a video game project when Rob asked him to work on the sci-fi pinball game.
He started working on ideas based around space exploration, thinking that's what the game would be about. The original working concept was "Planet Mars" and featured a mechanical arm that would pick up the ball and move it across the playfield.
Knowing most games ended up in bars, Stan though the idea below might help stimulate sales.
But the theme had settled down to a space bar, so Stan worked on several ideas based around that.
The bar scene from Star Wars was very much in the team's minds as a basis for the setting but the game needed more humour and a lighter feel. Note the first appearance of the tube dancer in the image above.
The ideas were starting to come together now and some of the characters from the final image started to appear but Stan said the impression was still of being outside looking in, whereas he wanted the view to be from inside.
So the viewpoint moved closer in to improve the perspective and draw in the viewer while showing more of the characters and making them more in-your-face.
At this point Stan was ready to start painting.
The image above became the final backglass picture (with the addition of the Big Bang and Capcom wording).
Stan then spoke about the cabinet's side art which began back in the space exploration and Planet Mars stages of development.
But the artwork above became the basis for the final cabinet side art with some finessing and a change of logo.
The backbox side art went through more variants until the final version was chosen.
And finally Stan showed the completed playfield artwork.
Then Rob took the microphone to relate the story of Big Bang Bar.
He said they wanted an outer space theme and concentrated on Mars because they thought it would be exciting if there was life on the planet and there was an underground development of some kind. However, as Williams were developing a Mars-themed game themselves (Attack From Mars) and Capcom couldn't get their game out first, the theme needed to change.
Rob explained how in most pinball projects the game designer led the thinking and drove the evolution of the game but for Big Bang Bar he did things differently by getting talented team members together and letting the team steer the project's direction. He said they would get together at least once a week and brainstorm every aspect and idea - the shots, the toys, the rules and the scoring. The input came not only from team members directly involved with the game but also from fellow Capcom staff working on different games and those not involved with any game at all.
When asked about the current batch of machines being made by Pinball Manufacturing, Rob said he hadn't been contacted about it, but he was pleased and honoured that they were finally being manufactured. Stan said he had spoken to Gene Cunningham of IPB/PMI at the last Expo but since then Gene has sourced enough translites for the production run and he hadn't spoken to Stan since. Jeff also said he'd had no contact with Gene about the project either.
Jeff talked about how he became involved in the game's sound design and development. This was his third game, having previously worked on Pinball Magic and Breakshot. He said Big Bang Bar looked like it was going to be a "pretty big game" and he was a little intimidated at first but when he saw how Stan's artwork was moving in the direction of a bar theme he could see the possibilities.
Jeff said he spent a lot of time producing bigger and meatier explosion sounds for Big Bang Bar after playing an Attack From Mars game and being wowed by the spaceship explosions.
The team was then joined by Mark Ritchie who had a supervisory position at Capcom, overseeing the different game projects.
Mark described the business at the time as "difficult" but he was pleased to have Rob in charge of the Big Bang Bar project as he was one of the few people he didn't have to worry about. There were a large number of new and inexperienced people working at Capcom and Mark was busy making sure all their projects came together.
Rob said there was always the possibility that Capcom would decide to stop funding the pinball division, so that was in the back of their minds but they also knew Capcom could continue funding as long as they want to.
He described a feature taken out of the game where a ball rolling along a ramp would fall through gaps in the ramp unless the player operated a bar stool toy at just the right time to plug the gap. The bar stool followed the ball along the ramp and the trick was repeated further along. The cost of this feature was deemed excessive and the game was thought to have enough toys already, so it was removed.
Jeff talked about the speech in the game and said they recorded around 300 samples but due to lack of EPROM space they had to cut that number in half. There are eight characters in the game and the voice of the tube dancer was by Mary Kinahan who was Mark Ritchie's secretary. Jeff mixed her seductive tones with some "ooh"s and "aah"s from a sound library. Dave Jones who provided the bartender's voice was the head of security at Capcom.
Although the Capcom operating system is generally though to be more advanced than the Williams equivalent, the sound system only had two polyphonic channels i.e. it could only play two sounds at the same time so with music, speech and effects, some things had to be pre-mixed.
The sound samples were recorded as AIFF files and Jeff inserted text markers into the files to help lip-sync the speech with the animations on the DMD.
During the talk, the Big Bang Bar from the show floor was brought into the room and at this point (after some confusion about the menu system and the location of the test menu),
And so the fireside chats drew to a close a people came up to play the game and experience it for themselves.
Last year we criticised the banquet for it's interminable length and the never ending string of awards and speeches of thanks, Banquet host Rob Berk clearly took notice and this year he was keen to move things along at a brisk pace. Those who had positioned themselves near the exits in case of a repeat performance need not have troubled themselves.
The new venue and dates meant there was no US Amusements auction this year and that meant there was no auctioneer for the charity auction, so Rob Berk did the honours.
One of the other regular banquet features is a guest speaker from the pinball industry. This year it was Troy Livingstone. Again, this may not be an immediately familiar name but Troy was in charge of pinball manufacturing at Allied Leisure. And if you're wondering who Allied Leisure were, they produced 16 games between 1972 and 1977 including some 4 cocktail table games from their base in Hialeah, just north of Miami in Florida.
Troy started his speech by explaining how he joined Allied Leisure from the computer industry and before that has worked on motor technology at NASA where some of the motors he designed ended up on the moon.
When the Apollo project was closed down he along with many technicians were looking for jobs in and around Florida. At that time, Allied Leisure were known as a manufacturer of kiddie rides but were looking to expand into arcade machines and eventually pinball at their southern Florida facility.
Troy said they were the mavericks - none of them had pinball experience and being on the southern tip of the country meant they had to buy any materials they needed from Chicago and get them shipped down there. That was going to be impractical so the only way to get around this problem was to set up and build everything they needed in the plant itself.
They made their own transformers, coils, playfields, mirrored backglasses, cabinets, in fact about the only things they didn't make were the circuit boards and rubber rings for the games.
He said it was a dream for everyone involved in setting up the three-building facility, to get the chance to invent these processes and then build them. One of these processes led to the very first solid-state pinball game. Designed by a man called Ion Richter it didn't use a microprocessor but used discrete TTL spread across thirteen large circuit boards, miles of wire and dozens of connectors.
But they weren't completely clued-up. When they first put a test game out on location, within two days the playfield was black. That was because they had used a chrome-plated ball and all the plating had worn away. They didn't know pinballs weren't chromed.
Troy moved on to tell the story of two of the games made by Allied while he was in charge of manufacturing but which weren't pinball - Rapid Fire and Crack Shot - both gun games with very realistic sounds. Troy also ran a route in South Florida and when these games came out he got the prototypes to try out. One of the locations - a small ice cream store - was closing down so Troy and a colleague went there to move the games out one day. The colouring of the game was blue-grey and it looks a little like a safe. As they were pulling the game out of the back door if the store they look around to see five police cars with armed officers waiting for them.
An Allied Leisure driving game called Super Shifter was the next subject of Troy's stories. It was Allied's most successful game and the only one to go back into production after the initial run of 3000 games sold out. During the manufacturing, the company got a bomb warning...
Despite that, Troy said the bunch of guys he worked with were the best people ever, working from 8am to 8pm, even on Saturdays they'd be there. In the seven years Troy was there, the company turned out thirty-three games -or just over two-and-a-half months a game - and they had a ball doing it.
When video games were starting out and Allied were producing games such as Paddle Battle and Tennis Tourney, there were no such things as monitors. So to build these games they bought up thousands of TVs, stripped out and threw away the tuner and case, put them in a wooden cabinet with a controller board and sold them as video games. They produced 12,000 Paddle Battles and 17,000 Tennis Tourneys. The profits from those games enabled the company to expand into areas such as pinball.
A catastrophic fire in 1974 wiped out the facility but amazingly they rebuild it immediately and within ninety days the factory was back at full production.
Looking at the pinball games, their in-house manufacturing produced the industry's first injection molded plastic thumper bumpers and drop targets and may have brought the first microprocessor-controlled production game to market with Rock-On (although some say Spirit of 76 was first).
They also produced the first cocktail cabinet games following a brainstorming lunch meeting to think of new ways to sell the pinball product. Three people designed cabinets and the final result was an amalgam of all three but the time from the idea to the prototype being on location was just four days.
After seven years at Allied, Game Plan made Troy an offer to come to Chicago and set up their pinball division which he accepted. Allied continued making pinball for two more years after Troy left before stopping production in 1979.
Troy spoke for 31 minutes which helped make this one of the shortest banquets of recent years.
Two new inductees to the Expo Hall Of Fame were announced at the banquet. The first of them was announced by Alvin Gottlieb.
He told the banquet audience that the first new member of the Hall Of Fame was artist, and subject of one of the Expo seminars, the late Charles LeRoy Parker.
Kevin O'Connor and Greg Freres introduced the second of the evening's inductees, fellow artist Margaret Hudson.
That concluded the banquet. The food was perfectly adequate and the buffet style is definitely preferable to the table service. But there was no prize raffle and the pace of events meant it was all over in about ninety minutes - an amazing difference from last year and it left guest feeling a little disorientated, especially those strategically seated near the exits.
And with that we end this year's massive seven-part Pinball Expo report - we hope you enjoyed all 50 megabytes of it. Although only a few hundred yards up the road, the move to a new venue and a new month could have been a major blow to the show but instead Expo has landed happily, if still a little shaken at it's new home.
Next year's Expo dates are already in the Diary and it will be held at the Wyndham hotel once again.
© Pinball News 2005