Date: 19th - 23rd October, 2011
Day two began with the familiar bus ride to the Stern Pinball factory for the tour of the plant.
Crowds gathered in the lobby to await the buses from 8:30am and the first bus rolled into the parking area in front of the Westin just after 9am. Yesterday's wet and windy weather had improved only marginally, so there wouldn't be too much waiting around outside.
The visitors assembled in the parking lot of the Stern factory and were let inside in groups of around 10 people at a time, each group chaperoned by someone from Stern who would explain how each area operated and answer any questions.
The game on the line was Transformers - the regular Pro model - although various wire harnesses for the Limited Edition (LE or Premium, depending on where you looked) and The Rolling Stones were being made.
Once the cables are run together and wrapped into a single loom, the Molex pins and housings are added before the cable is tested. As with most other operations in the Stern Pinball factory, this is done largely by hand.
The end results are piled onto frames until they are needed on the production line.
Although Transformers was the game rolling off the line, there were plenty of other titles waiting in the wings.
Talking of cabinets, Transformers is the first Stern game to use decals for the cabinet and backbox artwork, rather than direct screen printing onto the wood. The cabinets come from Churchill Cabinet Company with plain black paintwork and the decals are applied by hand at Stern.
The decals have a much improved resolution and more vivid colours. They do not extend under the legs, so while the artwork may not completely disappear under the legs, there is a much-reduced chance of the decals wrinkling near the legs.
The decals are applied using a detergent solution to allow repositioning before the liquid is squeegeed off and the decals fixed.
They don't always go on perfectly though.
While Transformers cabinet decals were being applied, Avatar cabinets were on the line being fitted with all the necessary electrical hardware and trim.
The cabinet line runs adjacent to the playfield line, which starts with guide holes being drilled into the playfield top and bottom, and T-nuts fitted to allow the various assemblies to be mounted in their correct positions.
Once drilled and T-nutted, the playfields begin their journey down the line. Once some posts and ball guides are fitted, the playfield is flipped over and the bottom side is populated.
Each post, lamp, switch and coil is installed individually by hand.
To ensure all the necessary parts are available to be installed, on the other side of the playfield line are workstations where all the components and assemblies are made.
As the playfield reaches the end of the line, it is tested for correct operation before being installed in a completed cabinet.
These games then go into final testing where they are put their paces.
Those which make the grade are cleaned with Novus #2, vacuumed and have protective foam pieces installed on the playfield before the glass is fitted.
The games are then strapped down, packed with more foam pieces and have the paperwork added.
Then they go into their cardboard box to await shipping.
This particular game was destined for Italy where it is given the Tecnoplay branding on the coin door along with two €0.50 coin mechs.
There were dozens of completed games at the back of the factory, destined for countries all around the world, including Dubai and Singapore.
Also at the back of the factory was this curious NBA game, with large circuit boards under the playfield rather than lamp or switch looms. It also appeared to use LED lighting and may be the model made in China.
At the end of the factory tour, everyone was given a boxed Avatar toy and the opportunity to purchase Stern Pinball branded goods, such as clocks, T-shirts, caps and shot glasses.
Gary Stern was at the end of the tour to answer questions and explain the company's direction.
For some, the tour was their first sight of a pinball factory. For others, though, it must have brought back many happy memories.
Then it was back on the school buses for the return trip to Wheeling and the resumption of Pinball Expo.
Expo picked up again at 1:05 pm with the first of the show's seminars, featuring a familiar face.
Gary began by talking about the current situation at Stern Pinball in its 25th year, saying while they design pinball machines they are first and foremost a manufacturing company. He stressed the complexity of the product and expounded on the experience of the team working at Stern, saying many of them worked at Bally, Gottlieb, Williams and the old Stern Pinball.
Gary also spoke about some of the behind-the-scenes steps the company takes to improve quality and make sure mistakes are minimised, from daily meetings to address issues, test procedures during manufacturing and the stock control which ensures the correct parts are available when they are needed.
He then touched on the different versions of games they are currently making - the Pro and Limited Edition models - and the different markets for which these games are made. He stated Stern are not in the the arcade business, but the 'street' locations business - bars, bowling alleys and movie theatres - and those locations are where the Pro model is intended to end up, with more randomness and shorter ball times to help operators make money.
Gary said 55% of Stern Pinball's games are exported. Outside the US, most go to operators, but the home buyer market is much larger within the US.
George then took over to speak about Transformers and show some of the computer tools he uses to design games.
He showed the names 'Optimus Prime' and 'Megatron' typed out in the Autobot and Decepticon languages, explaining that there will be a laser-cut metal plaque mounted in the Autobot and Decepticon variants of the Limited Edition models with the appropriate name on it.
In the case of Megatron, there is also space for a second line containing a stylised version of George's signature in the same typeface.
He then showed the Megatron model he received from Industrial Light & Magic which was the same model used in the movie. George said he intended to make the Megatron model from it, but because it is made up from numerous objects floating in space, it wasn't possible to make a physical model of him and he was used for the game's artwork instead.
After showing the many different stages of development of the game's artwork, George moved to show the SolidWorks software he uses to design the game. The version he loaded was the Limited Edition model which included some of the features not yet seen in the game.
The Ironhide mini-playfield above was shown which will feature optical sensors in the base which register the ball's movement and light up as the ball passes over them. Access to the mini-playfield is controlled by a gate at the entrance which can open to allow the ball the enter, or stay closed to send the ball back down the right exit ramp.
There will be an Ironhide model at the top, and the mini-playfield will tilt left and right as though Ironhide is controlling it, allowing the ball to bounce around between the two long rubber rings on either side, and move up and down the mini-playfield's surface, even hitting the Ironhide model which will have a target mounted in front to register the hits.
George also showed the opposite side of the playfield where the left ramp has also changed in the LE version.
The Starscream mini-playfield will rotate to allow or block access to the red standup target at the back. A Starscream model will be mounted on the mini-playfield (you can only see his feet in the picture above) and a successful shot will pass between his legs to hit the target before exiting on the regular left ramp and heading back to the left flipper.
George said designing games and parts in SolidWorks means there is now an unprecedented level of control and accuracy, with no interpretation of his drawings needed and all clearances checked. Specific part designs can be taken directly from his model and built to the exact size specified.
Looking to the future, George and Gary said they are working on redesigning the whole game wiring system to implement a system like that used in cars where a small number of wires are daisy-chained between controllers to provide power and data. Each controller then drives devices connected to it - be they lamps or solenoids - or reports back the state of attached switches. This 'bus system' will dramatically cut back the amount of cabling and cable-making time needed to manufacture a game.
Talking about the QR codes built into the artwork and shown on the dot matrix display, George said it is important the time and date is set correctly in the game's menu as certain features will become active on specific dates once the correct code is entered.
George also confirmed that the dot matrix display will be replaced in the new hardware system due to be introduced in late 2012 or early 2013. Also due to be introduced is a new version of the clearcoat which will be more environmentally-friendly and provide better protection for the playfield.
George also hinted at some new Designers working the company soon, saying "some new Designers that you love and revere that are going to be associated with us"
As in previous years, Jim was here to show the audience a selection of clips featuring pinball in one way or another. Some were TV commercials which used pinball as their theme, while others were music promos, TV or movie clips containing a pinball as part of the scene, news reports about pinball and pinball in cartoon animations.
Jim collects these clips and sells DVDs of them under the Pinball Media Clips name, with two volumes currently available to purchase as part of a five disc DVD set.
Because Jim's presentation was mostly video-based, we do not have an audio recording of it here.
Phoebe and David spoke about their adventures finding and collecting pinballs. Phoebe showed the audience around here pinball barn and told some stories about how she came to own them, the different places show found them and the restoration work she undertook to bring them back to life.
Dave then spoke about his collection, including a Scuba, Paragon, X's & O's, a Pinbot and a Black Knight. He said to find these games he has to deal with operators, antique dealers, estate sale agents, shippers, moving companies amongst others. Some of these, he said, don't know anything about pinball so you can get some good deals.
Phoebe said her original crusade was to find one machine from each year in the 1980s. Her quest began with a Cosmic Gunfight and continued with Star Light, of which only 100 were made. She then showed pictures of her and Larry's living room where all the furniture had been removed and pinball machines had taken over.
Dave and Phoebe then traded stories of how they acquired several of their machines such as Algar, Farfalla, Defender and Spider-Man. Dave also described several games he had bought from lot buyers - people who buy up the contents of buildings after antique dealers have cherry-picked the best items - for a few hundred dollars at a time.
They then talked about games which never went into production which were found. Dave described finding an Alvin G Duo Pool whitewood game with cabinet artwork which wasn't previously known to exist while Phoebe found some Williams backglasses for a game called Sentinel which ended up as Jungle Lord and Lanes which was probably a spoof title which was never made.
Each appearance at Pinball Expo for Mark and Don heralds the unveiling of some new project of theirs, and this year was no exception. From purchasing a populated Stern Grand Prix playfield, Mark explained how he went about designing new cabinet, backbox and translite artwork to apply to a disused Sharkey's Shootout cabinet to create his own Grand Prix game with a Ferrari branding.
After describing the steps he took to prepare the cabinet, collect assorted graphical assets and work with an artist to create the composition and a printer to print the decals and translite, they unveiled the completed game.
Following the presentation, Don and Mark began a quiz section of their presentation where they combined questions on pinball and rock 'n roll with Stump The Tech questions, where audience members gave Gavin of Gavin's Game Service technical problems and he had to diagnose the fault with just three questions.
Anyone stumping the tech, or being drawn and correctly answering one of the pinball or rock 'n roll questions, would win their choice from a variety of prizes. Pinball Expo's Rob Berk drew tickets out of a bag to select audience members to answer questions.
COLOR DMD: CONNECTING THE DOTS
Randy spoke about the new colour DMD display system he has developed for Williams WPC games. He explained how the system used a notebook LCD panel as its display and custom circuitry he developed which intercepts the signals from the display driver (or AV) board before it gets to the display. The system recognises the images and applies a colour overlay to each one, feeding the new colour image to the LCD panel.
The technique requires hand colourising of each frame and so far only Attack from Mars has been coloured, but he gave a sneak preview of the next game to get the colour treatment.
Randy explained that if the system receives a frame it doesn't recognise, it will still render it correctly but with a single default colour which will be customisable. That means it can be transferred to any DMD game to give a single colour display in any user-specified colour.
The intention is to build 100 ColorDMD units for sale at a price of $399 at the end of 2011 or in early 2012. Pre-orders will be available through the ColorDMD website where you can also see the video shown in the seminar.
Jim is the designer of Centaur and Paul the artist responsible for the striking black and white artwork throughout the game.
Jim said it was a game he'd always wanted to make and was based on Balls-A-Poppin', a 1956 game his uncle owned. It was originally called Video Classic, due to the way it emulated the attract mode in video games where the various features are explained. Jim said he wanted to do the same thing in pinball and Centaur would show through the feature lights where each area of the game was located on the playfield.
With so many features and balls in the game, Jim soon ran out of switches and had to resort to mechanical devices and additional circuit logic instead to achieve the same functionality in areas such as the ball trough to achieve what he described as an "engineering masterpiece".
Paul had brought the original Centaur drawing he created with him - the first time it had been out since they moved out of the original Bally factory.
The artist rotated through various designers and it was serendipity that Paul was scheduled to be working with Jim on Centaur. Paul described the troubles the pinball market was in when Centaur was created back in 1981 and despite the cost restrictions in force at the time, all the other designers were trying to put all the bells and whistles on their games so they could compete with the video boom.
Jim asked Paul if they could do a black and white game which would both save money and make the game stand out from the crowd. While the marketing department liked the idea, the engineering department was less enthusiastic and put up some resistance to such a radical departure from conventional designs.
Paul described the theme as showing the mythological Centaur becoming a bio-mechanical creature. It was a concept he had devised earlier but put to one side until the mono-chromatic idea was brought up, when he thought the black leather and studs would work well without the need for any colour.
Paul then explained the order in which the game's different artwork pieces were created during the 8-10 weeks of art development. A backglass sketch was drawn first as it defined the look of the game, followed by the cabinet and backbox, then the playfield and the plastics, with the backglass completed last of all.
Jim later revealed that the game, when it was first shown at a trade show, featured a dot matrix display in the centre of the playfield which showed attract mode graphics of Centaur riding across on his motorcycle. It was never intended to be in the production game and would have been prohibitively expensive in any case.
This first fireside chat of Pinball Expo 2011 brought together ten members of the Jersey Jack Pinball Team to answer questions from moderator Gary Flower and members of the audience.
Sitting in a long line on the stage were Mark Weyna, Chris Granner, Matt Riesterer, Dennis Nordman, Bryan Hansen, Jim Thornton, Joe Balcer, Jack Guarnieri, Keith Johnson & Greg Freres.
Sitting in the audience was an eleventh member of the team, Drew Maniscalco, who is VP of Business Development at Elaut USA and recently joined JJP.
Each member of the team stood up and gave a brief biography of their career in pinball so far, and how they came to be working at Jersey Jack Pinball.
Jack then explained why he started the company and what had happened since he made the announcement at the start of the year. He also revealed he had just taken on Ken Holland as the Production Manager at the new JJP factory in New Jersey.
Greg Freres spoke next about his work on The Wizard of Oz and said while the playfield art was currently a collection of elements in Photoshop, the layout was there and the final playfield artwork would be hand drawn.
Keith then spoke about developing both the game's operating system and the rules, sounds and display graphics for The Wizard of Oz. He stated that the 26-inch Wells-Gardner monitor used in the game runs at a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and will be fed with a VGA signal from an off-the-shelf PC-based motherboard, which will connect to a custom-made driver board.
Roger Sharpe then spoke about the Wizard of Oz licence and how, when used on a slot machine, it appeals to the target demographic of 55-year-old women who shop at K-mart. But slot manufacturers and casinos are trying to appeal to a younger audience and bring in some male players, as demonstrated by the latest licensed slot from IGT - The Hangover.
Roger explained how The Wizard of Oz contained so many of the storyline elements needed in a pinball, from the timeless battle of good vs evil, to a group of engaging characters to the large number of set pieces and locations.
Speaking about the decision to make The Wizard of Oz a widebody game, Jack described how everyone came together at their first summit in January and when all the ideas for the game were presented, it became apparent that the only way to fit in everything would be to make it a widebody.
Joe spoke about the difference the relatively small increase in width and depth makes in allowing new shots and features to be included. Describing the game as a "...full-featured, mechanical, player-interaction, deep, pinball machine" and he said it turned out to be like "putting six pounds into a three pound bag". He also revealed it will be a five ball game (not including any captive balls).
Further questions from the audience and from Gary addressed the sources for replacement parts, what is shown on the monitor both during the game and when it it switched off, whether the game will have lots of flow or be a stop-and-go design?
Chris Granner said they will be auditioning voice artists to do impersonations of all the main characters in the movie for additional voice calls in the game and he will be taking themes from the original movie score to create his own soundtrack, much like he did in Indiana Jones for Williams.
Further questions asked how much extra pressure the team were under having so many regular updates on their progress made public, whether the game will have multiball, how many patents have been submitted, what the audio system will be like and why use VGA for the monitor?
Another regular event at Pinball Expo is the Internet Get-Together where those who have an on-line presence through web sites, chat forums, newsgroups or similar internet resources, have the opportunity to talk freely about the most pressing topics affecting their pinball enjoyment and usefulness.
As usual, Dave Marston hosted the meeting and presented a number of topics for discussion.
This year there were two special guests who were present to talk about their contributions to increasing the amount of pinball repair information available.
Tim Nobling was representing the team behind the new website called pinrepairs.com, while Casey Gardner was there to talk about PinWiki.com which we featured here on Pinball News recently.
To start the meeting, everyone introduced themselves and said what their involvement in pinball was, and any screen personas they used.
Tim explained the work going on at the website he represents where 35 team members are working on importing reference material on repairing games. Casey did the same for his site and described what someone who didn't have a fully formed article could submit in order to get it completed by other contributors.
The problem of finding previous answers to repair issues was raised, given the poor RGP search capabilities through Google Groups. Alternative means of accessing rec.games.pinball were mentioned including using a proper newsreader and the rgparchive.com website.
Finally, Casey and Tim were given a few moments to explain why people should contribute to their respective projects.
Because the Internet Get-Together is a social event where attendees are free to express their personal opinions, Pinball News does not record the conversations which take place.
© Pinball News 2011