Date: 25th July, 2012

Like the best ideas, it seems so obvious once you see it in action. But ColorDMD only became a marketable product thanks to Randy Perlow and Chris Enright's vision and perseverance.

When videos first appeared showing an Attack from Mars with all the dot matrix display frames and animations in full colour, orange became last year's colour at a stroke. Gas plasma displays all over the world were retired to the spares box as LCDs took over, and Martians regained their natural green hues.

AFM in colour
AFM in colour

The ColorDMD kits were priced to be affordable to regular collectors and, as a result, the first run sold out in next to no time. A second run of displays was then produced and they too sold rapidly.

A ColorDMD kit, just before it sold
A ColorDMD kit, just before it sold

In fact there was only one problem. ColorDMD was available for just one game - Attack from Mars.

Then earlier this year, a version for Medieval Madness started to appear at a number of pinball shows, although it couldn't be purchased. Yet.

Medieval Madness
Medieval Madness

Now though, ColorDMD's Medieval Madness is about to go on sale and they are announcing the next title at the same time. Here's a clue:

ColorDMD's next title
ColorDMD's next title

To find out about the launch of the AFM model and the developments since then, including Medieval Madness and their next game, Pinball News spoke to the brains behind ColorDMD, Randy and Chris.

We began by asking whether, given the enthusiasm for the Attack from Mars display, they wished they'd produced more?

Randy: Based on the interest level we had at shows and through our mailing list, I had hoped it would sell quickly. I thought we might sell a lot on the first day but then it could take a long time to sell the rest. I hadn't really counted on everything selling in one night. I wasn't concerned about not making more or trying to capture all the demand in one day. I was more concerned about being able to provide and support a quality product. I wanted to keep the first run small so we could evaluate and correct any manufacturing or design issues before trying to roll things out on a wider scale.

Chris: Based on this being the most incredible pinball innovation I've seen in years, I knew it would sell quickly. My prior experience with repro'ing pinball parts also led me to believe that we would sell out within hours. Of course, making more would have been nice, but had all the bugs not been worked out in beta testing, we could have been swamped with tech support questions. Fortunately, Randy is so incredibly thorough that the couple of minor issues that several customers experienced were cleared up with ColorDMD ROM patches that could be applied simply by using the onboard USB port.

The ColorDMD for Attack from Mars
The ColorDMD for Attack from Mars

At the time of writing, all the Attack from Mars displays are sold out. Will there be more of these available soon?

Randy: We just haven't been able to keep up with demand. We did put out a second run of Attack from Mars about one month after the first and they sold just as quickly. For our third production run in August, the supply will be twice that of the earlier runs and will include both Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars displays.

Chris: Our second production run was slightly larger than our first, and the next batch will be double that. We've implemented some custom machined fixtures and jigs that are helping to streamline manufacturing and assembly. Each time we produce ColorDMD, we become more efficient and gain confidence in our processes. As time goes on, we hope to be able to keep up with demand by ramping up production even more.

One of the features buyers found a little surprising was the way the unit is locked to just one game, meaning it cannot be transferred to other machines once the code for these becomes available? Why did you take the decision to lock in the game model to the board?

Randy: At this stage of the business, keeping things simple is a priority. Right now that means building up our manufacturing capability and producing the best platform we can to support a wide number of titles. Currently, our hardware platform is still evolving. We are making improvements to our color processing engine that increase processing and memory requirements. We are also adding hardware interfaces to the board to support future games. We just can't guarantee that a board sold today will support all future games.

From a business standpoint, our hope is that customers will prefer to install ColorDMD displays in all their games rather than move their display from one game to another. We'll have to evaluate demand for this feature as the platform stabilizes and the library of supported titles expands. However, because of the investment required to develop new titles, this feature will probably only be explored as an incremental revenue opportunity rather than as an open platform.

Medieval Madness in colour
Medieval Madness in colour

While Medieval Madness version has been on show for some time, it hasn't been available to purchase until now. Was this display a work-in-progress, or were there other reasons it hadn't previously gone on sale?

Randy: Chris did all the coloring for Medieval Madness, while I was focused on building and revising the production boards. The number of colored animation frames is about three times what it took to support AFM, and it really is a work of art. It was largely complete in March for the Ohio Pinball Show and Texas Pinball Festival, to the point that we felt comfortable demonstrating it and that it would help boost interest in the AFM release in early April. There was one nagging component missing which was support for the video mode.

The MM video mode is far more random than that used in AFM, and the same tricks for coloring the video mode just couldn't be applied. I knew what I wanted to add: a new pattern matching processor capable of identifying and painting sprite animations anywhere on the screen. I underestimated how long it would take to get this mode integrated or how much work would be required to modify the color processing engine. This development time, plus the demands for ordering and building the second run for AFM, pushed back the release date until now.

More Medieval Madness
More Medieval Madness

Can you tell us a little more about these sprite animations and how you track them?

Randy: The first version of the coloring engine includes a pattern matching engine to identify video frames being generated by the game. This works well for typical animations where markers appear at known locations on the screen.

In video modes, sprite objects can move throughout the video frame in almost any pattern, and more complex algorithms are required to track and paint the sprites. The new coloring engine incorporated in Medieval Madness is capable of performing these functions in real time as the game is played.

So the next game after Medieval Madness is going to be The Addams Family. Do you have a time-scale for that yet?

Randy: Except for some loose ends, TAF is largely complete.  Thank Chris again for taking on the coloring while I worked on completing the sprite engine. 

The Addams Family - now in colour
The Addams Family - now in colour

After the August production build, I will respin the production board to add a lamp interface to control the backbox "THING" lamps.  We're currently targeting early Q4 this year. 

More from The Addams Family
More from The Addams Family

How are decisions made about the next game to receive the ColorDMD treatment?

Randy: We pull a name out of a hat.

Chris: I write down all the names of my games on pieces of paper and I put them in a hat... Really, the first two games were no-brainers. Both Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness have incredible DMD animations and gameplay, but were somewhat low production games. Another game with awesome DMD animations is Monster Bash.

The Addams Family is a pin with huge production numbers. Other games with a good balance of dots and production are White Water, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Star Trek - The Next Generation just to name a few.

If readers want to increase the chance of their favourite game being next, can they volunteer to help with the colouring process?  If so, what skills do they need?

Randy: Knowing what's involved, I think you have to be a little crazy to volunteer in the first place. It's a lot like taking a trip to a sausage factory. Once you see how it's made, you may never want to see one again.

The good news is you don't need any coding skills. The main coloring engine is based on simple rules and so it just requires some experience understanding how the engine works in order achieve a desired effect. Every frame you see on the screen is colored by hand using a custom paint program for viewing and painting frames.

The tools cover about 90% of the work. The last 10% can be a mix of patience and persistence trying to work within the limitations of the engine. Like most things, the last 10% takes as much effort as the original 90%. In some cases, changes to the engine are required.

Chris: Randy once told me that after he gave me the tools to color Medieval Madness, he figured I'd work on it for about a week and a half and then throw in the towel. Coloring games is an arduous task. It's not a matter of coloring Cousin It just once and having him always pop up colored, he has to be colored in every frame and position he appears in.

One of the more difficult animations to color is a transition from one mode to another mode. These transitions sometimes scroll up, down, left or right. Coloring the Medieval Madness Trolls was like opening up a can of worms. That was by far the hardest animation I've colored so far and took a considerable amount of time to finish.

You mentioned before the possibility of releasing a development kit to make the colouring process easier. Do you have any news on that?

Randy: The kit is really just the paint program to color frames, combined with a board to aid with capturing and displaying animation frames. It's not anything I would ever consider for wide release, as the support required would just be too high. We hope to make this available to a limited number of artists over the next year to begin assisting with the coloring effort and help build up the library of supported titles.

One of the games which would most benefit from a full colour display is ironically the one in which the regular ColorDMD kit wouldn't work. Is there any way you could produce a kit for Cirqus Voltaire?

Randy: I really wish we had a good solution for CV, but so far we haven't found a display that fits the form factor required.

Thanks to Randy and Chris for bringing us the latest news about ColorDMD. Medieval Madness is expected to be available for purchase around the second week of August 2012.

In the meantime, here's a preview of their next title - The Addams Family.

ColorDMD's The Addams Family


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