PINBALL EXPO 2006
Every year, on Thursday and Friday evenings at Expo, there are two special seminars called the Fireside Chats, where guests - often from the pinball industry - talk in a less formal setting than the daytime seminars.
Due to the popularity of the chats, the consequent size of the audience and then the move to the new hotel, the old practice of holding them in Rob Berk's hotel suite was abandoned in favour of using the regular seminar room.
This year, the first of the two Fireside Chats featured three people with the same surname. But that's not surprising when they are all from the same family - father Roger Sharpe and his two sons Josh and Zach.
As usual, the fireside chats are hosted by Gary Flower who introduced Roger to the audience.
Roger, he said, was partly responsible for legalising pinball in New York, was author of the book "Pinball!" and was the pinball critic for Playmeter magazine for 14 years - a position now passed on to his sons. But he also was involved in the design of six pinball games such as Sharpeshooter, Stingray, Cyclopes and Barracora, as well as being head of marketing and licensing at Williams and now as a licensing consultant working for - amongst others - Stern Pinball and is the Licensing Manager for WMS Gaming.
Roger then took the microphone and said he hasn't done many talks in the past as he's not entirely comfortable doing them and because there's no single subject he'd like to discuss, but this more open format is better suited to him.
Roger then introduced his sons Joshua and Zachary who he said are 3rd and 9th placed in the world pinball rankings respectively. He said his sons are involved with the Pinbrawl tournament as well as league play and the resurgence of the IFPA to connect, support and endorse a wide variety of tournaments around the world. By doing that, the IFPA can make pinball more visible and accessible in the way the old IFPA and PAPA was able to do, he said. And with his sons not only playing but also organising, the organisation should have some longevity after he runs out of steam.
He continued saying how in a similar vein, after he wrote Critic's Corner in Playmeter for 14 years, they subsequently asked Josh and Zach to resurrect the column reviewing pinball, video and redemption games which they have been doing since 1999.
In response to a question from the audience about the mooted World Series Of Pinball, he said it was a proposal by Frank Azzurro to link up with the IFPA but the initial idea it lacked any substance, so he was waiting to see if anything more substantial would develop.
Josh then spoke about the World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR) and how it tracks the results from many tournaments around the world, providing a ranking system for players with the intention of crowning an annual champion. The role of the IFPA with the WPPR, he said, can be as simple as tracking the results and awarding points, or they have set up and run tournaments at events that didn't previously have any competition such as the AMOA and the PA Home Gameroom Show.
Roger talked about the AMOA show in Las Vegas and said how this year it was combined with Fun Expo- for amusement rides and redemption games - as well as a souvenir and collectibles show. The IFPA ran a tournament with an open division for anyone to enter and an industry division for those involved in the wider amusement and collectibles trade, which he said brought some people back to pinball who hadn't played the game for some time - something he saw the IFPA doing on a wider scale.
Steve Ritchie asked what was the first game Zach remembered playing, to which he replied he couldn't really remember that far back but it may have been Funland or Evel Knievel or possibly Steve's game, Flash. Roger said he used to have an apartment in New York with 5 pinball machines and he would use the flashing lights from the games to help get his children to sleep.
After a question about it from Steve, Josh spoke about his new job heading up the accounts department at Raw Thrills Inc, the games company started by Eugene Jarvis, which developed Big Buck Hunter Pro and The Fast & The Furious: Superbikes.
Steve final question was to Roger to ask about his involvement in the legalising of pinball in New York. Roger recalled how in 1975 he was the Managing Editor at GQ magazine in New York and he had written an article about pinball for the magazine. He was contacted by the New York coin-op association and asked if he would be willing to testify in an upcoming court case to try to get pinball legalised in the city. He met with the association's public relations head Danny Frank at the Broadway Arcade who outlined their strategy which was to demonstrate the various peep shows which took place legally in the city and to compare them with pinball as an innocuous pastime which was illegal.
Roger persuaded them to change the approach to allow pinball to be promoted on its own merits as a game of skill.
So the city council met to examine the legality or otherwise of pinball. There were six member on the committee and a room packed with spectators and press, and it was in this room that Roger was to testify and then demonstrate how pinball was indeed a game of skill by actually playing a machine. After some initial nerves, Roger took the stand .
The committee Chairman was vehemently opposed to the legalisation but the Commissioner for Consumer Affair supported the proposal and saw it as a good revenue stream for a city where shooters and skeeball games were the only permitted amusement machines.
The Chairman immediately questioned Roger about who was paying him to appear or which company was funding his upcoming book about pinball. In neither case had he received any payments.
After that he was allowed to talk more about the game, its roots and worldwide adoption and acceptance. He was able to dispel the impression that the industry was Mafia controlled as was the case for most forms of gambling at the time.
Finally, Roger was asked to demonstrate his playing skills on one of the two games set up. There was an El Dorado which was to be the game played and a Bank Shot as a back up in case of problems with the El Dorado. But the Chairman told Roger not to play the El Dorado but the Bank Shot instead - suggesting the first game may be rigged in some way. Roger said he had no knowledge of which games would be provided and they just happened to be the two newest models from the local distributor.
So after a recess while the lights and camera were moved to the Bank Shot, Roger explained the layout of the game, the goals and the scientific principles you needed to understand to get the most points from the game.
After playing one ball, Roger told the committee how there were five rollover lanes at the top of the game and with sufficient skill, a player could plunge the ball into the lit centre lane. He then proceeded to do just that at which point the Chairman told him to stop playing as they had seen enough.
A few days later he heard the committee had voted 6-0 to allow pinball back into New York, a decision that was made law on 1st August 1976.
Roger was then asked by Rob Berk to tell the audience about his time working with Gameplan.
He began by saying he was never employed by the company. His involvement began in 1977 at a New York coin-op trade association show where Ken Anderson of Gameplan collared him and wanted his opinion on a cocktail pinball table called Real based on a brand of cigarettes. Roger told him the game was great but pinball and a cigarettes theme wouldn't mix. If cigarettes were bad, later at dinner with the company president they spoke about another upcoming game Foxy Lady based on Black Velvet - a Canadian whisky.
Roger went to Las Vegas later in the year to the CES show for Gentleman's Quarterly where he was now working, and called in to the Gameplan factory where Ken said they were hoping to make a conventional size game and wanted Roger's ideas.
He came up with an immediate design - which was essentially the layout for Sharpeshooter - but said it would be too expensive to actually manufacture. The head of engineering Wendell McAdams agreed but Ken asked Roger if it would be a success. Roger replied that based on his knowledge of the pinball industry and market it would be, and so began his involvement in game design for Gameplan.
He then spoke about the book he wrote about pinball called, appropriately enough, "Pinball!". He said fundamentally he really wanted a pinball game but as he was living and working in New York at the time, and the game was still banned there, he decided to write an article about it for GQ magazine where he was in charge of all the non-fashion coverage.
For his research for the article he went to the local library expecting to find volume after volume about pinball but instead found nothing. He told the magazine's Editor how the piece would take a little longer as there are no books on the subject and he flippantly suggested Roger should write one if he knows so much about the subject.
While researching he visited several distributors in New York and - besides discovering how all these manufacturing companies were based in his native Chicago - he got to meet Gary Stern for the first time who subsequently introduced him to a number of people in the industry. Then, after visiting a trade show in Orlando, the number of contacts snowballed and he was able to meet the people he needed to make the book a reality over the next three years.
The book, he said, took his career in a totally different direction and opened a number of doors within the industry that would otherwise have remained closed to him, allowing him to get involved in something he totally loved and something important to the whole family now.
Roger said he could reprint the book but the time and expense involved in updating it the way he would want it make it impractical at present unless, perhaps, a publisher was willing to fund it. He said although the book was published at 100 pages, the original manuscript ran to over 400 pages so there is plenty of new detail he could add.
Asked about the games they own, Zach said he now has four games at home - Cybernaut, Jumping Jack, Frontier, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Josh has ten ranging from a Air Aces through to Attack From Mars, while Roger has twenty-two including the games he helped design.
Roger was then queried about the differences in licensing pinball games versus getting licenses for gaming machines as he is in his current job at WMS Gaming. He explained how, with the exception of Tom Nieman's work at Bally in the 1970s, nobody was working on licenced games before he started at Williams in 1988 and he had to convince the licence holders how coin-op was a good thing to associate with their product and not a shady or dubious industry. He related the difficulty he had working with Disney on the Pirates Of The Caribbean licence as they had never allowed a coin-op product with their name on.
But the same resistance he found in 1988 recurred when he began licensing for slots at WMS Gaming. His first title there was Monopoly which he said took him seven years to finalize.
So although there are many similarities, the main difference, Roger said, is the level of expectation and the revenues are greater in slots than pinballs.
All three were then asked about their differing experiences when they first started playing, Roger by paying to play in an arcade and Josh and Zach playing for free at home.
Zach started by saying although they owned some games at home, he always enjoyed playing games on location and two minute's walk away was an arcade where he and his friends used to play games they didn't have at home. Plus there was a different atmosphere at the arcade.
Josh said one of the greatest joys he has is getting to play a new game for the first time and the nearby arcade was a test site for Williams amongst others, so they often got to play the newest games first. That was a feeling they couldn't get at home and now they get that when they visit designers part way through their projects and play the games for the first time and give their feedback.
Roger said he is delighted they way he used to be consulted and make suggestions has been transferred to his sons. He also hoped they appreciated how lucky they were having a big kid for a father, meaning they got to play not only pinball games but also all the latest video games and computer games as that was part of his job. He says even today he comes home from work and plays a couple of games of NASCAR first to unwind. But over time the sense of urgency to see and play the latest game has diminished.
He was asked what it is about pinball that produces such a strong following and devotion to the game. Roger replied that he thought the experience of playing the first pinball machine is something they always remember. There is a warm spot in your heart and a memory that goes with it, he continued, and that is something unique to pinball.
A question from the audience asked how the family dynamics had changed now Josh and Zach are better pinball players than their dad. Roger replied there comes a time in every family when a child does something good and the parent is asked if they did something to help them? In his family's case of his sons playing competitive pinball, the answer is no - there was no forcing them to play, they just picked it up themselves and he is dumbfounded by it and very proud.
Roger then asked a question to Zach and Josh - which one of them is the better player?
Zach answered how on any given match either of them could win, but grudgingly admitted Josh is the higher ranked player by WPPR points.
Josh said on any game his strategy is to find any weakness and exploit it for his own gain, whereas his dad will just play the shots that feel good even if they don't score many points. He said you get to a certain point where you have developed your skills and can do pretty much what you want to do and it's then down to what happens on the day.
Roger said he was concerned about the competitive side of his sons' nature turning into a sibling rivalry but he was delighted when they teamed up for one of the last PAPA tournaments he and Steve Epstein organised, and cut through the doubles competition by working together.
Josh spoke about the Carlisle tournament at the PA Home Gameroom Show, saying this was an example of how the IFPA can help a show by providing a tournament. He worked with show organiser Jimmy Rosen to introduce a tournament, writing some software which he hopes will be available through the IFPA website for others to download and organise their own tournaments. Due to a wedding Josh couldn't attend but Zach along with Steve Epstein ran the event.
Zach said the tournament started out slow on the first day but on Saturday things picked up with the kids tournament on the Zizzle game a special highlight for him due to the intense competition between the participants and the way the tournament built awareness of pinball amongst kids who, up to that point, may have had no interest in the game but now realised how much fun, and how rewarding it can be. The tournament was a success and on a personal level he won the professional division and the cross-handed pinball tournament too.
Finally, Steve Ritchie clarified a phrase he used earlier in the seminar - "California style" play. He said it was a "spray and pray" approach, involving a lot of banging the machine, with the intention of avoiding a ball drain at all costs. He and his brother Mark Ritchie are classic exponents of this play style.
And with that explanation, Roger thanked everyone for coming and drew the fireside chat to a conclusion.
Gary Flower introduced Tom and Matt (Rob arrived shortly after) and explained how Cactus Canyon was a historically interesting game because it was both the last WPC game build by Williams before they changed to the Pinball 2000 system, but also because of the way the design team was chosen.
Matt began by showing some pictures from the making of the game, starting with this shot of some members of the design team - Matt, Tom, Rob and artist John Youssi.
He went on to explain how the game was begun without a formal design team in place, so the art , the music and dot matrix animations were all done as favours with the hope the design might be picked up and used by the company for their final WPC game.
He said the initial feel of the game was old fashioned and cheesy which wasn't the look he wanted for a 1990's game, so they junked that idea and moved on to the next one.
Tom said they had the title and theme for the game decided very early on, some time before the opportunity to make it actually arose. He and Matt knew they wanted to make a pinball game together despite the fact Matt was working for WMS Gaming at that time, so they were at Matt's house discussing game ideas and features when Matt's wife came up with the name Cactus Canyon which immediately pointed them in the direction of the Wild West.
Gary asked why they were not doing this work at Williams, instead of at Matt's house. Tom replied saying Williams were looking for a new design team but he and Matt were not officially a design team, so they were working on their idea in the background so they could present it to Williams management and ask to be considered for the positions.
They said they didn't choose a licensed theme because they wanted the freedom to express themselves through the game and feared a licence would be too restrictive. Also, there was only a limited amount of time to put their idea together - based on their knowledge of the production schedule - so trying to get licensor approval at every stage would only have hampered their workflow.
Rob got on board quite early on, as Tom and Matt said they needed a feel-good tune for the game while they were working on the whitewood and they also needed to discuss the game's characters and their vocal expressions. Rob discussed the characters with John Youssi and between then they came up with the visual and audible personalities who would appear in the game. Rob explained how there were three people voicing the male characters and two for the female. He was one of the male voices and did the town drunk.
One feature Matt wanted to include in the artwork was a lizard. He had a t-shirt featuring the reptile and thought they were cool, so tried to get one included in every new version of the art as you can see below.
It still wasn't the look they wanted, but John's next version gave the game the atmosphere and feel they were after - something modern with a little silliness but not goofy.
That, in turn, led to this cabinet side art.
But there was no lizard, so it reappeared in John's next colour 18" pencil sketch version.
Matt said he's never worked with anyone, in any field, who's as talented as John at just coming up with ideas and remember, this was all just a favour so far.
Here is the pencil sketch for the front artwork.
and the coloured version.
The backbox side art changed significantly with the addition of the "Help wanted" posters turning from this:
Moving on from the artwork, Tom showed a picture of the whitewood playfield CAD drawing.
He said the rules were starting to be fleshed out with notes written in the margin and inserts labeled. The next image was of a part of the playfield which underwent some important changes before the game reached production.
The drawing shows a set of saloon-type barn doors which guarded the trough at the top of the game. The doors needed to be hit to make them open, revealing the shot through. They had built a mechanism to achieve this but the design changed and they were dropped.
There was also a large centre ramp which they fought long and hard to keep but ultimately couldn't get it to work correctly.
Other than those changes, they said the final product and the whitewood were really quite similar.
Moving on to the prototype hand grips for the guns on the bottom arch, Tom said Dave Link did all the sculptures for the game including these handles. The centre one is hand painted.
The image below shows the beer mugs Dave created.
While these are the original designs.
It was intended for the beer mugs to fall backwards when hit until they were all reset, but they were so small they didn't have the visual impact intended, so that idea was dropped and they were put on rods like the frogs in Scared Stiff and designed so they could hit the playfield glass if hit hard enough.
Matt then showed the original artwork intended for the bad guy drop targets.
He said they look absolutely fantastic on a whitewood playfield with no artwork behind them. But on a full painted playfield they simply didn't stand out.
But even this wasn't their original idea for the drops. First of all, they were to be made out of clear yellow plastic and illuminated from below the playfield like this:
The problem here was with the clear polycarbonate material used to make the drop targets. It simply wasn't strong enough and kept cracking when hit with the ball. They tried different compounds and a different design because they really wanted them to glow but couldn't get a reliable mechanism, so they reverted to the standard black nylon variety. Tom said with advances in plastics since then, they could probably find a suitable material today to make the drop targets strong enough.
Each game was to be fitted with a special collector plaque. These were the colour samples made before they decided on the final finish.
Each plaque was individually numbered from 1 through to 925 as that was the planned production run. They were made on anodised aluminium which was then sanded to highlight the lettering.
The black version was rejected as it was too easily damaged and marked, making it difficult to produce. The bottom right version looked good but suffered similar problems to the black, so ultimately they were all made in the top right gold finish.
Unfortunately, the plaques were late arriving at the factory so by the time they turned up many of the games had already been made and shipped. The plaques were then sent separately but in some cases the distributors didn't forward them to the buyers.
Martin Weist spoke from the audience to recount a tale about how the big European distributor Nova received around 300 plaques for the games they bought but didn't know what to do with them so they just threw them in the trash. Through a stroke of good luck, someone was able to recover them from the trash and now has them available to any European buyers who never received theirs.
Returning to the formation of the team and the way the project began, Tom explained how he and Matt were working on the game in secret and the only person who knew about it was Matt's boss at WMS Gaming because he suddenly wasn't allowed in Matt's office any more as that was where the development game was kept.
When they began development they thought the vacancy was for an additional team since production runs had become shorter as sales fell and more teams were needed to keep generating new games for the production line.
They told the Williams management how they wanted to be considered for the design team position and brought them to Matt's office to try out their game. Others were also vying for the positions - such as Mark Weyna, Scott Slomiany, Pete Piotrowski and Doug Watson - but Tom and Matt were the only ones with a whitewood to show.
So to make things fair, the other design teams were given three weeks to put together a whitewood of their designs for consideration using whatever parts and tooling they could find or get made in the model shop in the time available.
Once everyone had a playable whitewood, the management tried them all out and chose Matt and Tom's game as the one to be developed. As time went on it became clear this would in fact be the last dot matrix game for Williams and very probably the only game the team would get to produce.
Rob spoke about his work prior to getting involved with Matt and Tom. He'd been with Williams for about a year and worked on the earlier Cirqus Voltaire game. Before that he'd worked in the advertising industry were he met a number of voice artists and musicians which were being used more and more in both amusement and gaming machines.
Matt and Tom both said when they moved to the new Williams factory in Waukegan from N California Ave in Chicago, they no longer walked past the production line on the way in to work, on the way home or when going out for lunch. Previously, when passing the line they would talk to the supervisor and maybe spot some problems or quality issue on the games which they could address immediately. But that was lost in the new facility.
Once the game was in production, each of the three of them went in different directions. Rob stayed with Williams and is now Lead Composer in charge of six other composers at WMS Gaming where they are making gaming machines in surround sound in conjunction with Bose at the WMS Technology Campus at 3401 N California Ave.
Matt said his first daughter was born around the time Cactus Canyon was going into production so his priorities changed. He is now working for Lexmark as manager of a group of software and hardware designers.
Tom moved across to Midway Games as Mechanical Engineering Manager for their coin-op games such as Hydro Thunder. He stayed there for a few of years before returning to WMS Gaming to set up their topbox studio - the toppers which go on the top of their slot machines - managing 15 engineers until he left about a month before Expo.
Matt said he had no involvement in Pinball 2000, but Tom did and Rob did the music for Pat Lawlor's unreleased Wizard Blocks game. Tom explained how Wizard Blocks got as far as the MEL - the Mechanical & Excellence Lab. Fifteen prototype games were built after the whitewood stage and sent to the lab for testing.
Asked if there were any features he'd wished he could have included, Matt replied how of course there were a few frustrations but he's incredibly proud of the game and of all the design team he's worked with, this was his favourite as everyone was treated as equals and got along really well with everyone else. So he doesn't have any regrets about what they produced but the ruleset is fairly shallow and never got the time to be finished. That means, he continued, a reasonably good player will see the end of the game much earlier than they should.
But when asked if the software on his home game is the same software publicly available, Matt became rather more cagey and suggested there might be a more complete version available. What code there might be, he said, is not his property and it's not his place to distribute it. Subsequently, though, Wayne Gillard who bought the rights to the code has said he will be happy to make any new software publicly available through the pinball.com website if Matt chooses to give it to him.
Asked what games they own at home, Rob said he has the two games he worked on that went into production - Cirqus Voltaire and Cactus Canyon. Matt has has 2 Corvettes, a Johnny Mnemonic, an NBA Fastbreak, a Stern Playboy, Cactus Canyon, a 39" Hydro Thunder and a Galaga. Tom said the first game he bought was a High Speed when he got out of college, World Cup Soccer, No Fear, Dirty Harry, Jackbot, Getaway, Cactus Canyon, Flash, Getaway, Corvette, Safecracker and a couple of video games. He said the first games he enjoyed were mainly by Pat Lawlor and Steve Ritchie such as Black Knight and Earthshaker which he still hopes to get along with Funhouse.
Rob said the team definitely put him through his paces for Cactus Canyon and they put a lot of time into it making many different versions of the various tunes - including fifteen versions of the Showdown theme - but had a lot of fun and laughter during the recording sessions.
Rob also spoke about the intended Bionic Bart feature which never made it into the final software. He said they had lots of good ideas, music and sounds for the mode, worked out the dots to show a Terminator-esque Bart but sadly never had the time to fully implement it.
Matt explained how the scorecard was made before the rules were finished and the initial attempt to implement the Bionic Bart rules didn't work well so they took it out until they could spend more time on it - which never happened - and the scorecard reference to the mode was never removed. There was never serious consideration of a video mode as nobody in the team is a fan of them and they didn't have a great idea to turn into a video mode. Matt said he wrote the video mode for Star Trek The Next Generation which he thought pretty cool but all the time the ball is locked waiting for the video mode to end, the ball time is increasing which is something any designer has to keep under control by reducing it elsewhere and making the game harder.
Martin commented from the audience how visitors who play his Cactus Canyon ask him why all the characters appear to be drunk? Rob said there were plenty of quotes for the town drunk - so many that they had to remove some of them - and one of the other characters may sound a little slurred but it's probably just that the town drunk's quotes are the most memorable.
And that concluded the fireside chat with the Cactus Canyon team.
© Pinball News 2006