There has been much written and spoken in recent weeks about the fate of Predator Pinball, and what really happened to a project which started out with so much positive energy and mass support. Is it the disaster so many seem to think, or is there still hope it can fulfil that initial promise?
While those with the greatest interest in finding out the truth are the buyers who have paid some or all of the game’s $4,750 price tag in advance of production, the consequences of a potential failure of the project would reach far beyond that small group.
While Pinball News has of course been following Predator Pinball since the initial announcement of its existence, we were drawn deeper into the story late in 2014 and made it our mission to discover the truth about how the project ran into trouble and what, if anything, could be done to save it and get the buyers their machines.
This article is the result of those enquiries. Unlike most of our articles, this one will be quite a long read and won’t include many pretty pictures. But the picture it paints is not a pretty one either.
To understand where the Predator Pinball project is now, we need to go back to the middle of 2011 and the announcement in July of that year that a company called Skit-B Pinball has started work to develop a pinball game based around the classic 1987 Predator movie.
The company was run by Kevin Kulek and Aaron Klumpp, and their chosen name - which is an acronym of Some Kids In The Basement - summed up their casually rebellious nature. They weren’t a corporate giant of pinball manufacturing (if such a thing could even exist anymore) and didn’t want to be. They were building games for fun, and Predator seemed like a great fit for their next title.
Kevin told Pinball News, "The Predator theme is simply very cool, and after taking a look at the movie itself a few times, the way everything flows together made it a perfect candidate for a modern pinball machine with the feel of a Bally/Williams game from the mid-nineties."
This was far from Kevin's first attempt at building a custom game. "Those who know me well would say I build everything. All of my formative years were spent at my father's side helping him with his arcade route across lower-Michigan. Doing cabinet conversions of upright arcade games was a very regular thing for route operators back then, as was the obvious tasks of cleaning pinball machines, unjamming coin-mechs, re-soldering push-button switches, that list goes on. As I got older, I was challenged with diagnosing the games we had on route and fixing them if they were to go out of order. Putting all of this knowledge to work throughout my life has led me to build anything and everything I thought I might be able to. With the assistance of a few friends, I've built countless MAME arcade cabinets, I've re-themed a few pinball machines, I've constructed a handful of those 60-1 Multicade cabinets that people like so much, I've made a bunch of custom arcade controllers for home video game consoles for my friends in the competitive fighting game community, and so much more."
As further details emerged and initial pictures of the whitewood prototype were shown, excitement surrounding the project grew rapidly.
Things got serious in April 2012 with an announcement that pre-orders would open on the 15th of that month for a limited run of between 200 and 250 Predator Pinball machines.
The price would be $4,750 but no deposit was required to reserve one. Instead, half the total sum would be payable when production began, with the remainder due when the game was ready to ship. Delivery was anticipated a mere eight months later, in December of the same year.
The change had taken place at Skit-B from building single or small numbers of games to making more than 200 units as a commercial enterprise. In retrospect, Kevin says they didn’t appreciate quite what they were undertaking. "At the time we were figuring all of this out, our little place in the world felt much smaller and simpler. Looking back from where we are now, this is probably the most naive way we could have looked at such a major undertaking, but the general thought on the table was that if we could build one, we could just repeat that process as many times as we had to. Simple, right?"
While the prospect of a small start-up company making up to 250 games maybe didn’t seem entirely incredible, the idea that this same company could have secured a licensing deal with the Predator intellectual property (IP) owners was rather more amazing.
Kevin is adamant that there was communication with the rights holders – Twentieth Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising Corporation – and that Skit-B received their consent for the use of Predator assets.
He told us, "When we first explained what we were doing to the license holders, they really loved what we were doing and were very helpful to keep it going. They laid out a bunch of rules for us to follow, and we did our best to follow them to a T. Any time we over-stepped our boundaries, they were quick to let us know and we were just as quick to take action to rectify the issue."
We asked Kevin to clarify exactly what was agreed at this stage and what form that agreement took. At the time of publication we have not received a reply.
As we shall see, this question of whether there ever was a licence for Predator is something which will dog the whole project and, ultimately, bring it close to ending in failure.
But at this stage the question of a licence was mostly pushed into the background amid the excitement about the Predator game, with Kevin and Aaron taking their whitewood and prototype games to numerous pinball shows.
Kevin recalls, “When we first brought the game out to our local expo for people to check it out, we were held in this incredibly high, nigh unattainable regard, like we were the guys who did the thing that everybody had dreamed of but ultimately decided was impossible. Less than a month after that, we found ourselves in eastern Pennsylvania, by personal invite of the curator of the expo due to the immense amount of requests by local fans who just wanted to see us and play our game. A few short months later we were holding our own seminar at the Chicago Flip Out Expo, that we wouldn't have been able to even attend if it weren't for gracious donations by those who wanted to see us there. Same thing happened in the Northwest, and Kentucky, and Milwaukee…“
Once people saw the Predator game - first on the Skit-B website, and then at the pinball shows they attended where they had the opportunity to play it - those places on the pre-order list soon filled up. By the end of Pinball Expo in October 2012 all 250 places were taken.
Kevin told us they didn’t need to persuade people to buy it. He said, “We never once went out to the public asking for money or trying to deliberately sell anything. We just made a stellar game that people wanted to be a part of and they all but literally threw their money at us hoping to get a piece of it.”
As Kevin said, there was no requirement to make any deposit at that stage, with the initial payment plan requiring 50% of the full purchase price of a machine to be paid just before it was manufactured, and the remaining 50% due immediately before delivery.
All seemed to be going well, but in mid-2013 all references to Predator disappeared from the Skit-B website, and their promotional videos were removed from YouTube.
Pinball News asked Kevin about this during the Skit-B seminar at Pinball Expo that same year, and he insisted that this was just because they were revamping their website to make it look more professional and everything would return shortly.
When no mention of Predator returned and the same reason was given to us at the Michigan Pinball Expo show the following Spring, it became apparent there were other forces at work.
Kevin now tells us, “We originally removed everything - not just the Predator stuff - from the website because the old site was simply a half-assed blog site showing random posts and pictures that I threw together in a single night just to show people what we were working on. In the interim of that changeover is when the license holders had asked me to take their properties away, so they simply never returned.”
In fact it now appears Fox had sent Skit-B a 'cease & desist' notification, requiring them to remove all Predator-related materials and stop promoting or producing the game.
This was the defining moment where whatever notion of implied consent Skit-B may have thought they had was shattered. If they ever thought they had an agreement, this cease & desist proved they did not. And without an agreement from the IP rights holder, the game could never go into production.
And yet the Predator project rolled on regardless.
Pinball News asked Kevin to explain the nature of that relationship with Fox at the time, but we have had no reply to that question. He did however say, “In hindsight, I should have foreseen much bigger problems coming from this and handled it much more directly, but, again, at the time, I was focused on only one thing: building games for people.”
And the game was essentially complete at this point. The artwork has been completed, as had most of the software along with the sounds and dots. Kevin told us, “Internally, the game was a solidly functioning unit very early on. Some new modes and things were added as we travelled around the country hearing ideas from everyone who had a chance to play the game in the early days, of course. We drove to essentially all of the gatherings we attended, so that left Aaron and I a lot of time to really digest all of the opinions and suggestions we had gotten from the folks who shared ideas.”
But Aaron’s involvement in Skit-B came to an end soon after Pinball Expo in October 2013. Although he and Kevin had been friends since childhood, the delays in producing a final version of the game and problems bringing that game to production created tensions between them. Kevin recalls, “Unfortunately, we had set a few extremely lofty goals for the Chicago Flip Out 2013 Expo and, for many reasons, those goals were only half-met. That made for an extremely poor showing at the Expo and we, as both friends and co-workers, had a few staggering disagreements that potentially could have gotten out of control. In the end we came to the conclusion that the stress of everything we were doing was putting an immense amount of pressure on both of us, and we mutually agreed that we should part ways as associates and stick to a strictly friendly relationship.”
From that point on, Kevin was the sole driving force behind the Predator Pinball project.
2014 came, and with it a new video on YouTube in February announcing 'Mission Complete'. Predator Pinball's design was done and the games would soon be built. The plaudits flowed on the Pinside on-line forum.
Despite the cease and desist, Kevin was back promoting Predator Pinball and moving forward towards production.
To help finance this, a new payment plan was introduced to encourage those who were yet to make any payments. It offered promotional incentives to buyers who chose to make pre-payments ahead of their game being manufactured. There was the assurance that, "any deposit made through this system will go directly and 100% towards your machine!"
For many buyers, this was the first financial commitment they made into the Predator Pinball project. With production being promoted as starting in early April.
A few months later, and much to the chagrin of Predator buyers still waiting for their games or any news of when production would really begin, Skit-B announced their second game title in June.
Experts of Dangerous was another licensed theme, based on a brand created by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from the TV show Mythbusters.
Initial reaction to both the theme and the artwork was less than enthusiastic. If this was expected to be the game to bring in enough pre-order money to resolve the licensing problems, it failed quite spectacularly in that regard.
And although it wasn't widely discussed at the time, it was clear to anyone following the story that there were licensing problems. But nobody seemed willing to delve too deeply into them for fear of derailing the project or being branded a 'hater'.
That changed in December 2014 when Pinball News received an anonymous e-mail from someone claiming to represent a group of Predator buyers. These buyers had requested refunds because they were convinced Kevin had no licence from Fox to make the game. Having received their refunds, they now began making their own checks on the validity of Kevin's claims.
But the anonymous author went further, claiming Kevin and Skit-B had never had any kind of licence and had been fraudulent by taking pre-order money based on a lie.
Pinball News doesn’t get many anonymous e-mails, so we treated this one with the greatest suspicion.
We began our own investigation by talking with those in the pinball business, those involved with the creation of licensed games, those who had been supportive of Predator Pinball on-line, and Kevin himself to see if we could either substantiate the claims being made by the anonymous group, or disprove them.
Our level of proof had to be that of the courtroom. Circumstantial evidence and speculation by themselves would not suffice. We needed proof beyond all reasonable doubt.
Nobody we spoke to in either the pinball or licensing businesses believed there was - or could have been - a licence for Predator. Claims made on Kevin’s behalf that the licence didn’t allow the promotion of the game were universally rubbished as unheard-of, unprecedented and totally unbelievable.
Even those on the internet who had promoted this version of events, when pushed to substantiate them couldn’t produce any proof there was a licence.
And yet the project still staggered on. Pictures were posted on-line of ten new playfields and bags containing enough parts to build the same number of machines.
Kevin confirmed to Pinball News that was still his intention. He told us, “The plan was to get the first ten finished and make sure there were no more issues that needed to be dealt with on the playfield or with the hardware involved. Any time a change is made, no matter how major or minor, there is a potential for that change to have an effect on any and all of the connecting parts. While we were pretty sure every angle was covered, we wanted a small batch done first to make sure there were no oversights. Once the first ten were found to have no glaring mistakes, the plan was to order the rest of everything all at once and just hit it hard.”
But all the while the evidence against there being a licence - and thus there being no way to actually manufacture the game legally - appeared pretty damning, even though at that stage it was still largely circumstantial.
But it was strengthened further in January 2015 when we were made privy to a phone call between our anonymous correspondent and the Senior Counsel for IP at Fox Entertainment Group.
In this call it was confirmed by Fox that not only was there no licence for a Predator Pinball, but that Kevin had been notified by Fox to stop producing the game on several occasions.
The phone call also revealed that Fox were looking to escalate matters, which we took to imply they would be filing a suit for damages.
Throughout this whole story, there was only one person who knew the full truth of the situation. So, armed with this information, Pinball News contacted Kevin.
We explained what we knew, what we suspected would soon be coming from Fox, and asked what hope there now was for Predator Pinball.
As an added pressure, we knew if Pinball News didn’t soon publish the details from this phone call, our anonymous contact would put them out in the public domain without any of the context we wanted to provide, and without regard for the consequences.
At first Kevin replied that he was unaware of the claims made by Fox's IP attorney, but over the following days he told us he was in the process of talking to Fox.
We certainly didn't want to rush into publishing something which could sabotage or derail those talks, so we gave him a little time to conclude his negotiations and hopefully come to a resolution which would allow the Predator project to continue.
It appears those talks were to try to secure an eleventh-hour deal which would allow the games to be made - to finally get the licence Skit-B had claimed they had ever since 2011.
They were to prove unsuccessful.
Soon after, Kevin told Pinball News that all efforts to negotiate a deal with Fox had been exhausted and he could see no way forward.
We could finally answer the big question about Predator Pinball. There was no licence, and in truth there had never been one. Pinball News had its exclusive.
And yet… and yet...
Did this have to be the end of the Predator Pinball story? Was there truly no way to prevent its collapse and the inevitable fall out on other pinball start-ups, the pre-order model, and the relationship between licensors and pinball companies?
We said at the start of this article how our priority had to be getting the games made for the buyers who still had money invested in the project. Could something be done, even if it meant delaying or killing our own story?
If Kevin’s relationship with Fox had become sufficiently toxic that there was no hope of salvaging a deal, perhaps someone else could negotiate a licence which would allow Predator Pinball to be made.
Kevin told us he hadn’t considered bringing in another company to help resolve the problems of both licensing and manufacturing. Maybe we could help.
Our thoughts turned in two directions.
One was Spooky Pinball. Kevin was already working with Charlie at Spooky Pinball for playfield production and Spooky had a proven track record of successfully building dot-matrix games in relatively small numbers.
But manufacturing had to come second. Dealing with the licence problem was the priority. Without that nothing could proceed.
So we instead looked at a company who had recently concluded a licensing deal with Fox to make a pinball game based on one of their classic sci-fi titles, and had already produced a run of 250 games in a short space of time.
With Kevin's blessing Pinball News contacted Heighway Pinball to see if they would be interested in trying to work out a way to make Predator Pinball a reality. They told us they would welcome the opportunity, so we put Andrew and Kevin in touch with each other and left them to work out the details in private.
Since then, Heighway Pinball and Kevin have been involved in detailed discussions about the current state of the Predator Pinball project, what it would take to bring it to production, and what that would mean for those buyers still with pre-order money invested. Those commercial details are subject to a non-disclosure agreement and not something about which Pinball News has knowledge.
We do know that negotiations have been held with Fox following the same method used to secure the Alien licence, and initial reports suggest they are open to working out a licensing deal in a way which wouldn’t have been possible directly with Kevin.
However, these are early days and there would still be a long, long way to go before any Predator game could roll off a production line.
It is quite possible it would prove too complex or expensive to acquire the different licences needed – for the Predator brand, the movie clips, the voice calls, the actor likenesses, and the music – and then re-work the game to side-step any missing assets. Or it might simply not be economic to build the games with the remaining pre-order funds.
Then there is the question of the buyers, currently estimated to number just under 200. Do they even want the Predator Pinball project to continue, or would they rather cut their losses and take back what they can?
For any of this to happen there needs to be full disclosure of the project's current state, an exploration of the available options, and what each of those would mean for Predator Pinball buyers. It would also need acceptance of past mistakes and a desire to work hard to correct them.
Without those things, Predator Pinball will fail. But even declaring the project a failure wouldn't draw it to a close.
There is undoubtedly insufficient pre-order money remaining to repay the buyers in full, so they would all lose out to a significant degree and could look to recover those losses through litigation. Then there is the continuing threat of legal action by Fox, the cost of defending it, and the potential award of damages if the case is proven.
Kevin told us, “As a colleague of mine has always said, we've always had something of a ‘punk rock’ approach to pinball which has inadvertently defined us from the beginning. We never meant to be the ‘punk rockers’ of pinball, it just sort of happened that way because we were always just simple pinball guys at fun pinball gatherings. In hindsight, we should have just kept that going and worked with it through the end. So here we go, as loud and clear as I can: I am not a manufacturer, I am a pinball designer. I am not a business man, I am a life-long pinhead and over-dedicated arcade rat. I don't need to get this done in the conventional way, I just need to make sure it gets done.”
There will be no simple resolution, no easy way to 'get it done'. But ignoring the problems which have lain at the foundation of Predator Pinball, and ultimately brought it to the verge of collapsing, is simply no longer an option.
© Pinball News 2015