Date: 14th - 17th October, 2015
The 31st annual Pinball Expo is back at the Westin Chicago North Shore in the city of Wheeling with the familiar mix of seminars, tournaments, vendor booths, machines to play and the Stern Pinball factory tour.
Pinball Expo always begins with the Bumper Blast welcome party which takes place at 8pm on the Wednesday.
Guests are treated to a hot meal, an introduction by Expo organiser Rob Berk, and some entertainment.
Entertainment for the evening was provided by the band The Stone Daddies.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the hotel the show was being set up.
The free-play machines began with the familiar two in the corridor.
At the end of this corridor was the free-play room which was still being set-up but was already very popular.
Thursday starts with the Stern Factory Tour which should give us our first look at their new premises. Although photography is banned on the tour, we hope to have some pictures here to show you the inside of the building.
The day began with the Stern factory tour. The school buses turned up shortly before the scheduled departure time of 9am.
Stern are now firmly established at their new factory at 2001 Lunt Avenue, Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
The buses arrived and unloaded guests.
Unlike previous years there was no need to queue in the parking lot as there is space inside for everyone to assemble.
There were introductions from Dave Peterson and George Gomez before the tour began.
Photography on the tour was not allowed, but thanks to Jared and Jody at Stern we have all the 'official' pictures from the tour.
Then at the end of the tour, guests were given a souvenir pin badge and the opportunity to buy Stern-branded merchandise.
Then it was back on the tour bus for the return trip to Wheeling and the first of the Pinball Expo seminars.
1:00pm - Daniel Spolar - Project Pinball: How We Do Good Things With Pinball
Daniel said they now have 334 children's hospitals on their target list, and have supplied games to 15 hospitals so far. He said he wished everyone could see the broad smiles and tears of joy when the children get to play and enjoy these games.
He invited pinball enthusiasts to join Project Pinball to help install pinballs and keep them maintained in hospitals in their own neighbourhood.
1:45pm - Joe DiRusso - Custom Pinball Graphics (Pimp that Grail)
Joe explained how the production process has changed over the years, from hand cutting decals to laser cutting and how both printing technology and material choice have improved dramatically.
Joe's latest product is a range of magnetic apron decals which are interchangeable.
2:15pm - Jim Schelberg - Pinball: Illegal, Immoral and Fattening
Because Jim's seminar is mostly visual, we do not have the audio here.
3:15pm - Rich Huff - Promotional Pinball
3:45pm - Roland Nitsche - People & Pinball
4:15pm - Brett Davis & Nathan Purcell - The Evolving Technology Landscape
Regarding pinball circuitry, Brett showed a common point of failure with solenoid driver transistors in the WPC system, and how a more modern FET device protects itself against it being locked-on. He said this design is also half the cost of using individual transistors. He said it is important new technology is utilised to take advantage of the increased reliability, lower power and more flexibility, and not repeat the design mistakes of the past.
5:00pm - Jaap Nauta & Koen Heltzel - The Big Lebowski Pinball
Jaap then detailed the changes made between the prototype and production models.
The amount of wiring has been greatly reduced by using more PCBs under the playfield. The backbox has also been tidied up, resulting in fewer interconnects.
He then talked about the licensing restrictions on using the original music which demanded the associated video from the movie had to be shown in its entirety which, Jaap said, would be impossible. So the game will use newly-created versions of the songs. He showed several videos which illustrated how the music, video clips and call outs are integrated into the rules.
Jaap announced how CoinTaker and Nitro Pinball are now Dutch Pinball distributors in the US and Canada respectively, and orders for The Big Lebowski from North America should be placed with them. He also said that the on-line score system available to Bride of Pinbot 2.0 owners is expected to be implemented in The Big Lebowski.
Koen and Jean-Paul de Win then joined Jaap for questions from the audience which included how easy the licensing for TBL was compared to BOP 2.0 and the anticipated timeline for the hardware vs the software.
6:30pm - Andrew Heighway & Staff - Heighway Pinball
Andrew said they were ramping up production to be able to make 100 machines a month, and to help him achieve that several new team members have joined, while Barry Oursler is to move to the UK to work at Heighway Pinball full-time.
Alien Pinball was the next subject, and Andrew described the outline rules, the playfield features and how they work within the game, and showed the latest whitewood playfield. The artwork, he said, was with Fox awaiting approval. He then showed a video of the whitewood being flipped to show how the shots work.
Some artwork which could be shown was the cabinet art.
Andrew said at the very latest Alien Pinball should be released by Easter 2016.
He and the rest of the team then took a number of questions from the audience which included whether the large backbox LCD would fit future games too, whether they would consider making a Predator pinball, whether they would return to building one of their earlier themes - Circe's Animal House, and some clues about the Alien playfield artwork.
Finally, Andrew invited everyone to join the Heighway Pinball team that evening at a party in the Twin Peaks restaurant in the hotel's car park.
8:00pm - An Evening With Jersey Jack - Jack Guanieri, Pat Lawlor & Staff
Talking about their third game, he said The Hobbit's playfield is so packed there's no room for any more devices, so anything extra would need to be added virtually, so that's what Pat's game will feature.
Jack also said there would be no, or very limited, pre-ordering from game #3 onwards. He also said their intention is to make two games a year.
Jack was joined by ten other members of the JJP team.
Butch Peel then described the changes made to The Hobbit since last year, including new ramps, lots of new custom sculptures, a new book LCD, 30+ modes in the rules, new powder-coating, and new artwork and cabinet decals.
Keith described the changes in the new version of The Wizard of Oz software, before Jack moved on to describe how the Pindemption software works and what it is intended to achieve. Pindemption is built into the new code versions but enabling it will require a new dongle which will cost $399 but will be available for an introductory period for $199.
10:00pm - From Keyboards To Real Life - Meet The Pinball Forum Members
There was a small gathering of pinball forum members to discuss issues affecting pinball on the internet. However, after a day working in the seminar room we took this opportunity to take a break and get some sustenance for the full day of seminars tomorrow.
Right next to the entrance, the two main Pinball Expo organisers had their displays. Rob Berk has a selection of machines.
On the opposite side, Mike Pacak had his customary large display of books translites, flyers, manuals and assorted pinball collectables.
Mike also had some machines from his collection, including the custom Aaron Spelling conversion of Lethal Weapon 3.
Like the Aaron Spelling pinball most of the machines could be played by visitors, but a few were there for demonstration purposes only.
Here's a list of the pinballs set up and available to play.
And here's the list of pinballs which were for demonstration purposes only and couldn't be played.
Here's a full list of the vendors at Pinball Expo.
While there were fifty-seven machines in the vendor hall, If was games you wanted to play, you needed to move next door to the games room.
8:30am - Good Grief What Were They Thinking - Ron Coon Jr. & David Fix
The duo also talked about their use of LEDs in games, the benefits and how to avoid flickering issues.
9:00am - Pinball Through The Patent Office - Lawrence Steingold
In 1931 the tilt mechanism was invented and patented, while seven years later coin-operation of a pinball-style game was patented, both for a period of 20 years. Two-player pinball was patented in July 1972 by Alvin Gottlieb, son of David Gottlieb.
Lawrence then spoke about the differences between patents granted in Europe versus those from the US, and described how the US patent application system works. He continued by looking at some of the most recent applications, including tilt sensing using a 3-axis accelerometer from Stern Pinball.
The most recent trademark applications were then examined. These included The Pinball Circus, the name 'Pinball' for alcoholic beverages, and 'Flaming Ace McFealy' for pinball by Dreamworks Animation.
10:00am - New York City: The Anatomy Of A Pinball Resurgence - Kris Medina
One of those responsible for the growth since then is Allen Cihak who spoke about how he got started operating machines in New York City.
Kris then continued with the events of 2009, the first Pinferno tournament and the installation of pinballs in the Reciprocal skateboard shop which becomes the host for future Pinferno tournaments.
Kris then recounted his introduction to pinball at an illicit barcade in LA before he returns to NYC in 2008 and starts spreading the word about pinball and where they can play on location throughout the Pinball New York City website.
He listed the many different pinball events and leagues which are now being run, and the rapid growth in both players and pinball locations all around the city.
10:50am - The Reincarnation of Gameroom Magazine - Nic Parks
He said the didn't expect the magazine to make a profit but felt it important, even in the age of internet-based pinball information, that the magazine exists.
Nic said the magazine will cost $24 a year for US subscribers, but more for international buyers to cover the additional shipping costs.
11:15am - The Ann Arbor Michigan Pinball Museum - Clay Harrell
Then he spoke about his second location at Crazy Carl's, which was fun while it lasted but Clay was given two weeks notice of the store's closure he had to find a new location. Tilt Town was born.
Clay explained the monthly costs of $850-$1000 a month for rent, insurance and utilities, saying that effectively came out of his pocket. While the 100 machines club was a big success, that success started attracting the wrong kind of people.
Tilt Town was closed down after the city refused to allow them to open due to building code violations.
Flipper City opened with 130 machines but it had to be kept secret and the costs increased to $1250 to $1400 a month.
Clay said you simply can't make money housing a large collection unless you are located in a popular destination like the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
He decided the only way to make it work is to own your own building and get permission. He bought the VFW Hall in Ann Arbor and eventually got permission to open with 300 machines, but only as a museum with public opening restricted to four weekends a year.
1:00pm - Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks - Roger Sharpe & David Fix
Roger explained about the zoning restrictions in the area where Modern Pinball is located which mean games cannot be operated on coin-play, so a charge is made according to the time spent in the building.
David then described how Pocketeer Billiards in Buffalo, NY was transformed by the installation of more than 20 pinballs, holding a tournament there, running regular leagues there and making it a more attractive place to hang out.
2:00pm - Python's Pinball Circus - James Loflin
James said at the end of his seminar he would make a draw to award the right to buy one of these 12.
He then gave a pictorial biography of Python, his lifestyle and his career designing games and creating artwork, through his time in hospital, and up until his passing away.
After that, James showed a series of pictures documenting the development of Python's Pinball Circus, from the building of the cabinet, the playfields, the wireforms, and the cabinet artwork.
3:00pm - Improved Locator/Referrals For Repair - Dave Marston, Rob Anthony, Rob Ilvento & David Fix
Repairers will be able to self-register but their repairs will be monitored and verified by the Network. Service requests will come through the Network and it will take a 5%-10% commission. Manufacturers will be part of this, putting stickers on games with contact information for the Network.
Rob said the Repair Network is intended to expand beyond pinball to all kinds of collectables, but will test and launch with pinball machines.
4:00pm - Inside The Melons: The Electronics Behind The Four Original Whoa Nelle! Games - Kerry Imming
Kerry used the popular CAN bus hardware system - as used in cars - to connect the controller boards, but defined his own set of messages to, for instance, turn on/off/flash individual lamps or groups of lamps, activate solenoids, play sounds, or read the state of switches. Kerry then designed and had built all the various control and power supply boards.
5:00pm - Pinball + The Three Stooges: A History, A Future? - Jim Pauley
Jim then showed the shorts "Three Little Pirates" which features a Keeney's Red Hot pinball machine in the film, and "Three Smart Saps" which showed an unidentified pinball machine inside a jail.
There is already a Visual Pinball The Three Stooges game, and a custom Dolly Parton conversion, but no official mass-produced game yet, and Jim thinks it it long overdue.
6:00pm - The LTG Show - Lloyd Olson
Lloyd then answered questions from the audience which included how the refresh of SS Billiards went, whether collectors putting their games on location is a good idea, some of the most ridiculous tech support calls he's received, games which smoked or caught on fire, and the biggest accident with his games.
7:30pm - The Making of Pinball - Roger Sharpe
But Roger began by talking about how the book happened in the first place, the people he was working with at the time and who helped make it happen.
Roger said he didn't like the book, saying it wasn't the book he wrote. His original manuscript was so heavily edited with large sections cut out before it was published, that he said he didn't want to continue with it. But he bit the bullet and worked with the editor appointed by the publisher to bring the manuscript into print.
Roger then talked through his slide collection, starting with pictures of himself appearing on CBS TV, followed by shots of the pinball manufacturer's buildings at the time.
The slides illustrated just how prevalent and ubiquitous pinball was at the time - found in supermarkets as much as in arcades, and played by everyone. They also showed interesting or significant games from the time and the popular culture they portrayed.
8:30pm - Up Close With Gary Stern - Gary Stern & Dave Peterson
Gary and Dave spoke about their range of game add-ons, with Dave saying it's been a huge success for them so far and exceeded their expectations.
Asked about whether their The Pin range of home pinball models had any future, Dave insisted it still formed part of their strategy and they will be developing it further.
Gary also talked about his recent travels to the European Pinball Championship in Belgium followed by the EAS show in Sweden and then to Italy. He said they are making more Star Trek because there is demand for more, but they are all sold out of Iron Man Vault Editions.
9:30pm - An Evening With Stern Pinball
This session gave attendees the chance to play some of Stern's latest games, including the first chance to play the Limited Edition model of Game of Thrones.
9:00am - Preserving Pinball History At The Strong National Museum Of Play - Jeremy Saucier
In relation to how to preserve the history of pinball, Jeremy described the relationships between the games themselves, the producers of those games, the players, and the nature of the gameplay.
Jeremy then addressed the acceptable techniques for preserving games, using architectural methods as an example for how to maintain historical accuracy. He said their approach is to preserve original pinball machines, media about pinball and archival materials.
10:15am - Building A Hands-On Educational Display - Art Kreisel
But Art said hands-on displays work better than all of those in getting people to engage with the games. He brought along a series of such displays and demonstrated how they worked.
Art then gave his tips for making hands-on displays and informational signs which explain how various mechanisms work.
11:00am - New Hardware, New Software, New Pinball Makers - Aaron Davis, Dave Beecher, Brian Madden, Gabe Knuth & Brian Cox
The panel wanted to show how all the difficult work of creating the hardware and software has already been done, allowing game designers to realise their creativity. Tattoo Mystique is the first complete game to use the Fast/Mission combination.
Brian said the way he developed his game was to work out what he wanted to achieve and then work backwards to find out how to execute that within the Fast/Mission framework. He said on average he creates one game a year and typically has two games in development at the same time.
Dave spoke about some of the inner workings of how the hardware controls the playfield mechanisms, while Brian Madden explained how their software interfaces with the Fast hardware and how two-way communication between the controller and the hardware brings the ability to detect and compensate for hardware problems.
12:00pm - Ask Us Spooky Questions - Charlie Emery, Ben Heck, Kayte & Bug
Ben said America's Most Haunted was not designed with a family/adult mode option, but Rob Zombie's Spookshow International will have an adult mode, although it's not selected by default.
Charlie talked about how they worked on the Rob Zombie's Spookshow International logo for ages and sent Rob multiple variations, which he like parts of but none of them completely. So a couple of days later Charlie received a much cooler photoshop file logo which Rob himself had created over the weekend, and that's what they are using in the game.
1:15pm - Lexy Lightspeed & The Multimorphic P3 Pinball Platform - Gerry Stellenberg
Player Profiles allow different players be set up, each with their own difficulty settings. Team games allow players with the same profile to be on the same team and share each others achievements. Players can also be deleted from the current game mid-game.
Gerry was then joined by David Thiel who is working with Multimorphic to create music, sound effects and call-outs.
Gerry said he felt the game was 90-95% complete, with voice callouts and some additional polish to be added.
At 8pm the banquet began, but before that there was the traditional Make-A-Wish charity auction of pinball items.
Items up for auction this time included translites, pinball patches, pinball artwork - including the posters on the walls of the hall - and a couple of upright arcade video games.
Once the auction was over, guests were invited to head to the back of the room where the buffet dinner was waiting. Food items included salad, mashed potatoes, turkey breast, steak, green beans, soup, apple cobbler, chocolate brownies, coffee and assorted soft drinks.
With the dinner over it was time for the guest speaker to make their presentation.
Paul Faris created pinball artwork for more than twenty years, working for Bally, Williams, Data East, Sega and Game Plan.
Paul talked about his early career as a high score wrestling coach, and about how he joined Bally to set up their in-house art department. His first game was Night Rider in 1976, which led to his much more famous and memorable designs for the Bally games Evel Knievel, Paragon, Xenon, and Centaur.
After leaving Bally he did the art for a couple of Game Plan machines, Sharpshooter II and Andromeda before designing the art for a series of Data East titles, including Phantom of the Opera, Back to the Future and Batman.
His last commercial pinball was Twister in 1996, although he did some design work for Chicago Gaming for their Vacation America home game.
After Paul's talk, another three pinball people were inducted into the Pinball Expo Hall of Fame.
The first was the composer and sound designer for more than two dozen different titles - David Thiel.
The second inductee of the evening was Mechanical Designer at Stern Pinball for more than a dozen years, John Rotharmel.
The final new inductee for this year was software programmer for Data East, Williams and Stern, and top player, Lyman Sheats.
After thanks to various members of the Pinball Expo team, organisers Mike Pacak and Rob Berk brought the banquet to a close.
The main vendor hall and the games room then re-opened for the rest of the night.
Sunday is all about the tournaments, with the main vendor hall being torn-down and only the last few remaining games available to play.
The first of the competitive events to finish was the Kids Tournament.
Game of Thrones and The Wizard of Oz, it was Zachary Parks who triumphed in the final, beating Iasbelle Vaccaro into second, with John Palzer in third and Devin Guerra in fourth.
The Women's Tournament took place on Sunday afternoon in the game hall.
Thirteen women competed in this double-elimination format event, and the final came down to a match between Alysa Parks who remained undefeated, and Kate Porter who won the loser bracket.
Kate would need need to beat Alysa twice in the final, but in the end Alysa won the game on Congo and so won the tournament.
The main tournament was the next to finish.
The format had changed this year following a late Sunday night finish last year. Qualifying took place on a bank of nine machines: two Game of Thrones, an X-Men, a Kiss, a Whoa Nellie!, two Mustangs, a WWE Wrestlemania, and a The Walking Dead.
A multiple-buy (HERB) qualifying round had a huge 128 qualifiers from the 137 entrants, but in truth, qualifying wasn't the point. What was far important was where you qualified, because it was possible to earn up to 14 byes and skip the first 14 rounds. That may sound crazy until you see the ladder for the play-offs.
Play-off games were best-of-three in the winner bracket and single games in the loser bracket.
Despite the number of rounds, things moved fairly quickly, with any hold-ups generally being because players were also taking part in the Classic Tournament.
The final was between the winner of the winner bracket - Steve Bowden - and the winner of the loser bracket - Trent Augenstein. Trent needed to win both best-of-three matches to win overall, whereas Steve only needed to win one of them.
Trent won this one by 64M to 25M, as play moved on to Kiss.
Trent's ball one total of 71M was enough to win this one, so he won the first match 2-0. That meant whoever won the next 3-game match would win the final. The match started back on X-Men.
Trent won this game too, not needing to play his last ball. So with three-in-a-row, could he win the next one too and win the final?
It was a return to Kiss.
This time though, Steve's 49M was enough to beat Trent's 19M, to make the third game the decider.
That third game was Game of Thrones.
Trent put up 71M on his first ball, Steve 260M. Trent came back on ball two with 438M, but Steve matched him, making the last ball the one to decide the outcome.
Trent pushed on further to end on 571M, but Steve quickly caught and passed his score to win the game and the final.
The last tournament to conclude was the Classic Tournament which was played on four machines - Warlock, Strikes & Spares, Eight Ball Deluxe and Ali.
The last few rounds of this waited until the main tournament was over, before the two finalists - Andy Rosa and Derek Fugate - could decide the overall winner.
Their first game was played on Strikes & Spares.
Although Andy chose it, Derek was the one who dominated the game, racking up a score of 569K to Andy's 84K to lead 1-0.
Andy chose Ali as the next game and seemed to have put in a game-winning performance with the third ball total of 902K. Derek was back on 523K, but a couple of great saves and collecting the bonus twice during the game meant he ended on 959K, which gave him the win.
Trent Augenstein was third and Joshua Henderson fourth.
We've shown you the vendor hall, the games room and the tournament area. Now you can see them all for yourself with out exclusive Twenty Five Minute Tour video, as we show you around all those areas, and more.
There were several other events held at or near Pinball Expo which, due to our commitments elsewhere, we couldn't attend.
The Pinball Life Explosion was held on Friday afternoon from midday until 6pm in Huntley, around an hour's drive from Wheeling. The two events had been totally separate up until this year, but the schedule of events for Pinball Expo included details of the Pinball Life Explosion and there were reference to Pinball Expo at Pinball Life, so the two events seemed to coexist more happily this time which can only be a good thing.
We called in at Pinball Life on the Wednesday to take a look at what was in store for visitors to this free event.
Dozens of machines were set up for guests to play. The included a few rare or even unique games.
There were also three guest meals held back at Wheeling. On Friday at midday, game designer Barry Oursler was the guest at a lunch in the Saranellos restaurant attached to the hotel.
At 6:30pm, Stern's Director of Marketing was the guest at a dinner held in the hotel. Both these events were limited to twenty non-industry guests.
Then at 7pm, Jack Guanieri hosted his annual dinner at the Buca di Beppo Italian restaurant across the street from the Westin. Up to thirty guests could attend this one.
Finally, at 2pm on Saturday assorted pinball personalities assembled in the seminar room to sign autographs on flyers, posters, translites and any other piece of pinball paraphernalia brought along by guests.
And that brigs us to the end of our Pinball Expo 2015 coverage. We hope you enjoyed the nearly-200 photographs, 25-minute tour video, 26 audio recordings, and 9,300+ words about the show.
There was no doubt that last year's 30th anniversary show would be a tough act to follow, and so it proved. The number of machines this year was down, as was the vendor count, and overall there seems a slight sense of lethargy.
But it wasn't all down to the organisation. Many of the pinball makers who showed or announced their upcoming titles last year were showing the same titles this year, albeit in updated forms (The Hobbit, P3, The Big Lebowski, Medieval Madness Remake, Python's Pinball Circus), while others couldn't show their progress due to licensing restrictions (Alien, Ron Zombie's Spookshow International).
However, despite these issues, Pinball Expo still remains the greatest all-round pinball show. Nowhere else can offer the number of pinball personalities, or have so many of the latest machines all in one place, and that's not counting the Stern Pinball tour. And plans are already under way to make the 32nd Pinball Expo even better.
We'll be back in 2016 to bring you all the action.
© Pinball News 2015