12th November 2002

In part three of this review of Pinball Expo 2002 we will look at the rest of the seminars. We were going to cover the banquet and tournament in this part too, but this section is long enough already so it will appear in the final part.

As a special treat there are some audio clips for you to download and hear the key points of the talks.

So with lots to cover let's get on with it.

Thursday Evening

Internet Get-together - Dave Marston
(I'm sure you can make your own caption for that picture!)

The Internet get-together is an annual event (perhaps even an institution) where those who frequent the various parts of the Internet dedicated to pinball get a chance to see each other and discuss the important issues they face.

Everyone introduced themselves to the group and then the discussions started with the issue of copyright of scanned manuals and artwork.

Nobody was keen to suggest that all such items be removed from public access, but the implications of making other companies' property freely available were discussed.

Naturally the recent problems of the reproduction Twilight Zone clock housings were raised and - as luck would have it - two representatives of Illinois Pin Ball were on hand to answer questions.

Steve and Bob (shown right) explained how the original Williams part was manufactured by three different companies. Illinois Pin Ball had already approached two of the three to ask them about remaking the part when some third-party clock housings appeared on the market.

They went on at length to describe how IPB had been reproducing parts and the practical difficulties of putting a parts inventory on the Internet. In truth, the company isn't 100% sure what it has in stock as some boxes are mislabelled.

Steve and Bob reiterated some of the details of IPB contract with Williams and said that a surprising amount of parts are in stock, but nobody asks for them.

These discussions dominated the evening and much of it was better left to the next day's talk by Gene Cunningham.

The get-together concluded with brief thoughts about the usefulness of game owners lists and the distribution of usenet messages and why some messages never appear on various servers.

I think the format of the meeting makes it hard for people to chime-in with their thoughts. If the seating were arranged in a circle rather than rows and desks, everyone would see who was talking and it would have more of a friendly feel.

That said, it was a useful meeting and it's good to put faces to Internet names.

Friday morning

It's an early start for the second day of seminars but even at this time of day many of the seats are taken when events kicked-off.

The Fun of Home Sales & In-Home Sales - Dr Scott Sheridan

Scott started off by telling us how he got into pinball after working in advertising. Now he runs a pinball business dealing in home sales and servicing - he called it `the ultimate pinball dream'.

After recounting differing customers' approaches to buying pinball games he described various interesting delivery and service calls.

He now sells all his games with the same key locks, so he always has the correct keys even if the customer has lost theirs. He sells ten times as many solid state games as he does electromechanical.

Fond Memories - Mark Sprenger

Mark spoke about how he moved from designing food packaging to join Williams - he thought he was going to be working on video games when he joined the company but was put in the pinball division.

He told the story of how he had to redesign his original Space Shuttle backglass from a highly detailed and photorealistic image to the version we know today.

He worked for Williams for five years after which he finally got his wish and worked on video games, though he still did some pinball art for another five years. He still works on video and redemption games.

An avid hunter, Mark missed the start of the hunting season whilst working on High Speed 2 - The Getaway so added some deer to the plastics artwork. He described the problems with getting accurately positioned printing and explained how the black edging lines were made so thick so they would hide the misalignments.

Games he worked on include: Space Shuttle, High Speed, Banzai Run, Diner, Fire, Harley Davidson, Getaway (Doug Watson did the backglass) and Dracula.

Mark talked about Banzai Run and how it was originally based on a construction zone theme. Mark talked Pat Lawlor and Larry DeMar into using a motocross theme instead - originally called Banzai Enduro.


Illinois Pinball Company Update - Gene Cunningham

Gene started by describing the process behind reproducing the Kiss game playfields. When remaking parts for a game as old as Kiss it hard to get any reference or even to talk to the people involved in the original design.

He showed the first attempt at the playfield and pointed out the dozen colour errors both in the paint and in the plastics. Anyone not totally familiar with the original would have been more than happy but when he compared it with the final result the improvements were obvious.

Then he described the original process for making the Kiss backglass and how Illinois Pinball used computer techniques to distort the image to make the current techniques match the printing process used for the originals. New parts are marked with the IPB name so there will be no confusion. Backglasses cost $400 and playfields $450.

A questionnaire was handed out asking which parts were wanted most urgently - the greater the demand the more likely it is to be remade.

He said IPB had spent about $300,000 on making new parts this year and expected to spend the same next year. He now has over 7,000,000 parts in stock, including about 2,500 ramps. There are 10 or 11 new products in the process of being remanufactured and he expects the to make the same number next year.

He spoke about problems with people making parts and their infringement of patents. Williams have taken action over replacement parts not made under licence but Gene said he and IPB had no involvement in that action.
. Audio clip available (1' 55", 452KB, MP3 Pro) - click here to download.

Finally Gene talked about Big Bang Bar. He bought the remaining stock when Capcom closed their pinball division and could remake the game but didn't commit one way or the other. If there was enough demand he could make another run of the game - probably around 100 machines.


Alvin Gottlieb

This slot was due to be take up by John Popadiuk talking about Rally Play, but he withdrew (much to the obvious annoyance of Rob Berk).

In his place two of the big names in pinball stepped up and spoke - the first of those was Alvin Gottlieb.

Without any preparation he started off expressing his pleasure at seeing Stern Pinball producing games and said he thought demand was starting to revive.

He spoke about his memories of his father (David Gottlieb) and the Gottlieb factory. For a while pinball has a bad reputation with illegal methods of rewarding the player. When a free game was ruled illegal in Connecticut, Alvin came up with the add-a-ball system as an alternative. He spoke with Wayne Nyens about the idea who thought it had merit but his father rejected it saying nobody would play without a free play system. Alvin persisted and finally convinced him and so the add-a-ball system became widely accepted.
. Audio clip available (2' 32", 594KB, MP3 Pro) - click here to download.

For the last 40 years his family has been involved in the founding and running of a local hospital in Melrose Park and the Gottlieb name is well known in a different area now.


Gary Stern

The second speaker to fill the slot was Stern Pinball Inc's Gary Stern who spoke about the company and it's products.

He started off by stressing that the company's mission is to keep pinball alive while making a living using the best people from within the company and former manufacturers Williams and Gottlieb.

He spoke about "mechanical action pinball" and the feedback provided to casual players by the use of drop targets and game toys.

Casual players are of major interest to Stern Pinball as most of their games now go to street locations (i.e. not arcades, but places like bars, movie theatres and stores). Their games are designed to be instantly accessible to the very occasional player while keeping a depth which appeals to the rest of us.

Gary revealed that game sales are currently running at six to eight thousand a year, with the intention to bring that up to ten thousand soon. Touchscreen games have taken a large bit out of pinball's market, especially in new locations.

He reconfirmed his intention to continue with licensed themes for future games, saying that the licence brings with it extra costs and approval effort, but gives the game designer immediate ideas and a framework to design around, while improving the game's resale price to the collectors. Monopoly is a good seller to individual buyers, Harley Davidson even more so. Gary was surprised by the success of the Rollercoaster Tycoon licence.
. Audio clip available (1' 40", 397KB, MP3 Pro) - click here to download.

The talk then moved on to the new ToPS tournament system, pausing only to remind the audience of the monumental task Gene Cunningham and IPB have in organising the sales and reproduction of parts for older games. Gary asked that everybody be patient and allow IPB time to build up the flow of parts.

To talk about the ToPS system, Gary handed the microphone to Joe Blackwell SPI's head of customer parts sales and technical support, who co-developed the system.

Joe talked about the market for pinball games, what operators want from those games and how Stern are reacting to that demand. He stressed that operators want variety, not a long run of games of any one type or from any one designer.

He said the main aim was to expand the number of players and so the number of locations.

Players love to compete, he said, and they want recognition of good scores. These are addressed with the ToPS system - an easily installed hardware modification to Playboy, Rollercoaster Tycoon and subsequent models.

He criticised operators for not wanting to be involved with pinball, reminding them of their roots - providing a service to their customers.

Recalling the problems with the attempted networked-tournament system developed with Incredible Technologies, he insisted that operators really want a single location tournament where customers compete against each other, not a national or international one, though he didn't rule out a local-area network of one operator's games across different locations, though that is not expected in the short term.
. Audio clip available (2' 20", 547KB, MP3 Pro) - click here to download.

Joe described the different types of tournaments he had run and various locations and how the ToPS system can be adapted to these types.

He dismissed legal issues with running cash competitions but stressed that each operator should check with their local licensing authority. Gary explained that there are different issues in Europe but that operators usually find a way round them.

Gary continued, giving us his thoughts of Williams' Pinball 2000 system, the problems that he had with it, and how he knew that Williams were going to get out of pinball.
. Audio clip available (1' 14", 291KB, MP3 Pro) - click here to download.

He talked about game sales, saying that Playboy had been a bigger hit overseas than in the US - apparently American operators have become more conservative in recent years. He cited the high dollar exchange rate as largely responsible for the reduction in export sales from two-thirds of all game sales to between a third and a half.

Gary confirmed the company is working on a new hardware system, but moved quickly on without wanting to give any details.

Stern Pinball is making games specifically for the home market as a way of keeping the factory capacity utilised - the recent run of special edition Harley Davidson games and a run of 100 Austin Powers games for The Sharper Image were examples.


Perfect Pinball: The Ultimate Goal - Sean Grant

Sean is a well known competition player and Rob Berk was very excited to have him at yesterday's Play Better Pinball seminar - except he wasn't there!

So this was an unscheduled seminar and filled most of the lunch slot.

Sean started off by talking about the basic ball control skills and techniques required to maximise scoring and minimise ball drains.

He emphasised the need to keep ball speed down to the minimum possible, so that you have more time available to set up the next shot.

After discussing multiball strategy and the different tournament types he moved on to player temperament and the importance of focusing on your game, the aims and shot choices and finally having enough patience, not being hurried into taking your turn or to let the game dictate the pace.


17 Things That Killed Pinball - Tim Arnold

Pinball is dead? Well apparently so. But there are enough motives for an entire series of CSI so Tim Arnold was there to guide us through the usual suspects.

Naturally, there weren't actually seventeen things, nor were they all serious, so here's a list of all the serious ones as they were rattled off.

1. Bad operators - responsible for broken and dirty pinball games.
2. Too many alternative types of entertainment.
3. Change in use of leisure time - more staying-in, less going-out.
4. Failure of the dollar coin (in the USA).
5. Poor quality connectors - e.g. Williams GI lamps.
6. Over-engineering - e.g. fliptronics boards.
7. Low quality parts - e.g. wedge bulbs
8. Over complicated games
9. Restrictive game distribution and competition
10. US laws regarding restraint of trade
11. Lack of locations due to corporate take-overs
12. Americans who are too fat to stand for long periods.
13. Components used too close to their maximum specification.
14. Gambling machines taking over.
15 - 17. Err....

There then followed a presentation of recently rediscovered pictures taken during a factory tour of D. Gottlieb & Co. in 1971.

Finally Tim updated us on the progress of the Pinball Hall of Fame. This will hopefully be a museum devoted to celebrating pinball and requires initial funding of $1 million. Last year the total raised stood at $8 thousand, this year it was up to $90 thousand.


The (Im)Possible Return of This Old Pinball - Rob Hayes
& Clay Harrell

Rob and Clay started off their presentation with a video showing various sections and out takes from the This Old Pinball series of tapes. Throughout the tape they would stop and distribute various pinball goodies such as plastics, tapes and toys. By "distributed" I mean thrown - violently!

Naturally enough, the tape featured the destruction of various pinball games in a variety of ways, starting with a Data East Hook falling out of a tree house (as it would).


Repairing Williams Electronic Pinball 1977-1984 - Rob Hayes
& Clay Harrell

The talk and the goodies continued to flow into the second part of Rob & Clay's presentation - this time about the Williams System 3 to System 7 games.

They brought along an extensive test bed so boards and techniques can be tried without using a real game. The information they were telling us tied in with a new section of their Marvin3m web site.

(That blue Junkyard magic bus now sits on my monitor here at Pinball News)

They went through each of the different systems explaining what changes were made along the way and the various compatibilities and incompatibilities. There are a number of modifications that the chaps recommend should be made to improve the systems' stability and reliability.

Finally they powered up the test bed and.... it didn't work - at least to start with. It did eventually start-up after a bit of encouragement.

To close the seminar another batch of goodies went flying over the audience and into the hands of some lucky souls.

I don't know if it was just me, but Rob & Clay's presentation seemed a bit lacking this year - almost as if they were just going through the motions and not really enjoying it. Perhaps running two seminars back to back is a bit too much and they should have been shortened. But despite that you wouldn't want to miss them.


And that concludes our look at the Pinball Expo seminars. In the final part of our report we will look at the fireside chats (with Barry Ousler and Steve Ritchie) and the tournament competition.


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