Like budding authors, many pinball fans think they have one good pinball design in them.  Perhaps they have a killer theme in mind, possibly a rough playfield layout or clever toy to amaze the players.  But how many of us have actually put those disjointed thoughts into action and designed a game?

Anyone who has would quickly discover there's far more to building a game from scratch than just having those initial ideas.

One person who has taken on the challenge and is about to complete his own pinball machine is Christian Verryckt, an Instrument Technician from Melbourne, Australia who also goes by the name Nuggy.

The Coconut Island logo
The logo design

His Coconut Island machine has been built from the ground up, requiring not only a new playfield design, playfield toys and artwork but also a new computer control system to be developed to control the lamps, switches, sounds and display according to the game's rules.

To put this amount of work into a custom game requires not only electronic, programming and artistic talents but also a deep appreciation of what makes a good pinball game.

Christian began his pinball interest as a child.  After narrowly missing out on playing a Haunted House in a nearby fish and chips shop in 1983, his first real exposure to pinball was playing a Pharaoh the following summer where he discovered how games had a ruleset and objectives to aim for.  But at that time, pinball was taking a back seat to the rise of video games and so it was for Christian as he left pinball behind for the next four years.

It was video's stagnancy with repetitive beat-em-up games like Street Fighter that prompted Christian to look again at pinball and he was impressed by how it had changed over the past few years.  Games such as Space Shuttle and Fire drew him - and many others - back into pinball with their addictive gameplay and polished presentation.

Pinball remained in his life over the next few years but it really took off when The Addams Family arrived on the scene.  He said he was "totally blown away by the audio and total playfield/rules design (I even loved the side art), and proceeded to personally pump over AU$400 into this machine on location, playing with my brother and a buddy just about every night for a year!  The addiction had begun..."

Now he owns 8 machines including Whitewater, Police Force, Rocky & Bullwinkle and Party Zone all of which he loves playing, but he also repairs and restores them.

While that may be a familiar tale to many pinball collectors, what made him take the next step and think about developing a game of his own?

"I've always been playing with gadgets, electronics and computers, built some nice kits and radio controlled hobbies of various persuasions, even tinkered with software
for the 'nug rover' as used in the front yard mission of '04 (like the Mars-Rover). So for me, pinball design melds lots of basic technologies and entertainment formats together; engineering, software, systems design, artwork in both the actual art and also how it works within an obvious 3D canvas of the whole playfield... Now I look back, the project was inevitable!"

If the project was inevitable, the theme was still wide open and was the first stage in developing the game. 

"I found coming up with the theme the easiest, I simply imagined anything
that was needed and made it work within the realm of the island. A lot of synchronicity and 'Zen' moments occurred.

The Coconut Island initial drawings
An early sketch of the playfield artwork

Coconut Island is an imaginary island (although one with the same name does exist) located in a tropical zone which allows for numerous forces of nature to impact on the peaceful lives of the inhabitants.

Christian describes the island as having "...some tribal elements and a developed region. Because the island's visitors are of the tourist nature, plenty of coconut oil is required for liberal application to their skins, hence we have the Catalytic Coconut Cracker (CCC). The ferocious appetite of the Cracker demands plenty of coconuts, and as efficiency is supposedly the management buzzword of the day, the plantations have lawned isles.  These, when mowed, allow increased numbers of coconuts to be picked by the natives. Naturally a bar is present along with the casino. Coconut Island also has a volcano that is still active and known to erupt every now and then, usually during times of frenetic action.

The Catalytic Coconut Cracker sketch
Sketches of the Catalytic Coconut Cracker and the Mower Multiball display

Before the island was discovered in early 2007, mythical legends suggest treasure is hidden on the island. They also describe crazy 'tropical storms' and the loss of possessions if not stowed safely. The tribals also worship a mythical deity, known as the 'great mystery switch'

The player represents the island's "commercia-mental" (this is both a government and business representative) figurehead. The natives for all their good home cooking skills are, alas, a lazy bunch it seems - requiring you to collect the extra coconuts needed to fulfil coconut oil production quotas. Keep those lawns mowed or it'll slow your day. As is the case on most tropical islands somewhere, incidents of various
nature occur from time to time; rumours of bar-flies, the day the cracker shuts down, savage tropical storms, heaven forbid a tribal revolt.

With the theme decided and some initial playfield and ruleset ideas incorporated, it was time to start work on the software and hardware that would be needed to implement these ideas.

There were various options available to Christian including using an existing pinball controller such as Williams' WPC, design a new hardware boardset using customised controller ICs, or use an existing PC and add external components as necessary.  He chose the latter option with the following design criteria:

  • WPC class performance in all respects (DCS level audio, rules complexity, etc)
  • PC able to run with a Pentium II series
  • Single driver board solution for all controlled outputs
  • 80 switch inputs

He chose to write the control system using Visual Basic both for simplicity and to make it accessible to others. "Software development was the start. Conceptually I wanted to do something that anyone could use as a start point OS. I needed to know if I could do certain things with VB6 before embarking on playfield design, specifically an audio system that could concurrently do background music and sound effects independently and a switch routine that covered multiple simultaneous key presses reliably... Once this was achievable, the playfield was conceived."

Once again, Christian had some features he knew he wanted incorporated while others fell into place during the design process.

"I started with flippers and I knew I wanted good fast loop shots. The design pretty much grew from there. I worked from the flippers in radiating angles finding the sweet spots.  I placed parts here and there - a lot of trial and error. The under playfield placement was then simple to fit.

The upper part of the playfield
The upper part of the playfield

The toys were spawned from cheap AU$2 shop crap they sell. My favourite is the Topper which has an old PC fan that blows green wool to simulate grass through a AU$5 kiddy mower, this will be changed to the thin green foil strips I recently found."

Any conventional pinball playfield requires a standard set of components - ramps, switches, lamps and coils - before any special playfield toys can be added.  It rarely makes sense to reinvent the generic parts so Christian used standard GI-style lamp holders and switches from Williams System 11 era machines. 

"A local amusement dealer (Bumper Action) donated a System 11 populated playfield which really kicked development along as it had the ball trough and various under-playfield mechanisms needed, however the trough was modified to hold and sense 4 balls.

Under the mini-playfield
Under the mini-playfield

Before Bumper Action supplied the playfield, a bunch of RGPers ( newsgroup members) sent both parts and advice, and helped in many ways, even creating the basic web site for me! There's a list of contributors on the web site - 

One of the 'toys' is a ball muncher from a Data East Secret Service sourced as a stupidly cheap special!  The CCC valve is a bit of left over 90mm storm water pipe from the new house build. You can do anything with just about anything in the toy department."

Part of the Catalytic Coconut Cracker
Part of the Catalytic Coconut Cracker

The CCC in place
The Catalytic Coconut Cracker in place

Having the decided on the hardware, the next stage was to find a way to drive it from the computer system. This involved creating his version of a pinball operating system, called the Nuggy Pinball Controller or NPC.

After trying a computer keyboard encoder as the basis for the switch inputs, he found the duration of the switch closure when a ball hit a target was often too short to be registered.  So he used an existing product designed for video games controllers. The IPAC provides 56 high-speed inputs which also makes the connection to the rest of the system relatively simple.  It doesn't use a matrix but instead each switch has its own dedicated input and a common ground to complete the circuit.

The IPAC controller
The IPAC controller

The playfield switches include both optical and magnetic types as well as regular
blade contacts and microswitches."I wanted the system to be able to switch anything
that existed currently
", said Christian.  "The advantages of the IPAC were soon
realised with the simplicity of wiring per switch, while the connection to the CPU from the playfield is a simple PS2 cable.

For the lighting, he utilised the existing +5v output from his PC's power supply.
"I'm using a combination of LEDs and also regular GE47 type lamps. One advantage is I can run some pretty cool looking, cheap multi-coloured LED pendants, etc that you can get for next to nothing. Some of the PCB light boards underneath the playfield are from automotive dashboards. I just set up my lamp map accordingly and change globes for 259s."

The system needed to be able to drive more than low power lamps though.  It also needed to power the flippers, the slingshots, pop bumper and motors both on the playfield and on top of the backbox.

"The output solution I chose was the most versatile for anything I could imagine I would need.  Using standard transistors and a total of 128 outputs places the ability squarely into WPC-era performance and complexity. These are divided into 32 high-power outputs and 96 lamp or low-power toy drives (eg. the topper @ 12V). I used the traditional pop bumper driver board but put 4 channels on 1 board to control the pop bumper and slingshots."

Under the playfield
Under the main playfield

This new hardware needed some software to drive it and also a way to control the speed and position of the motors used in the playfield toys.

"I am proud of the lamp flash routines and also the protocol to the output board via parallel port. This is simple in operation and gives wicked performance allowing better lighting possibilities, more like Capcom's lamp effects.  The 'toycom' interface is really easy to use with both position and speed of movement controllable. The keyboard interface was a bit funny and still is in some situations, but we will get there."

The motor servo controller
The motor servo controller board

Connecting all these switches, lamps solenoids and motors requires a wiring loom from the playfield to the NPC boards.  Stern says there is half a mile of wiring in their games so keeping track of all the connections is vitally important.

"NPC says a white numbered wire is a switch and a black numbered wire an output, a simple ground loop is all that is necessary for switches and the power is negatively switched giving the user the option of a different power supply per driven component. Apart from the lamp and switch wiring not being a matrix, it looks the same-just not as neat.

Heavier gauge wiring is colour coordinated for the respective flipper, game solenoid and lamp power, these are also fused on the playfield for ease and less wire actually needed. The loom is pulled tight and the slack is cut at the encoder, labeling is very important as you may appreciate.

Keep notes of everything."

One of the game's power supplies
The power supply for higher powered devices

With the switches, lamps and solenoids taken care of, the next feature to consider is the display. "The intent is full DMD look-a-like. Because of the PC driving force, the natural use of an lcd was chosen - screened off by the speaker panel with virtually the same dimensions as a 128X32 plasma display. Initially to get things going Coconut Island is alpha numeric but don't worry folks, I'll upgrade!"

The last piece of the puzzle is the game's sound system which consists of a 2.1 stereo system with two speakers in the backbox and a cabinet bass speaker.  The computer's software has 5.1 capabilities however if matched to an appropriate amplifier and speakers.

"Most of the audio used is via freeware wave file sound effects available to anyone on the net. Similarly, the midi music is also from 'this and that' as it suited the modes created."

The NPC boardset
The NPC boardset

As with most pinball designs, the first stage of building the playfield involves creating a "whitewood" - an unprinted playfield with most of the components in the right places but where some changes can still be made to improve shot flow or remove problem areas such as ball hangs.

The underside of the playfield
The underside of the playfield

Coconut Island is currently at the whitewood stage although as Christian explains, that introduces some additional problems.

"The playfield is a bit of cheap ply from a local hardware, they cut it into a standard playfields (4 to a sheet) for me. It's about 2mm thicker than a standard playfield, this means I have to undercut a footprint for all industry standard components used.
The whitewood is hand routed with a jig for straight lines - lamps are added last as a trade off between the available space underneath and location, priority and artwork.

The intent is a fully clearcoated, one-off, hand-painted playfield made from marine grade maple ply with standard dimensions and thickness. 

This playfield will have the artwork. The artist is me! I think I can pull this off - I'm a good 8/10 in cartoonish sort of work.

The plastics will have laser printed decals that are sealed and primed for a good backlighting effect in the usual restoration manner."

In order to pull all these different parts of the game together, Christian needed to create some rules for the player to follow - some modes to play, features to complete and targets to aim for.

To aid this, he recently held a "Design A Mode" competition on the newsgroup with the winning entry being incorporated into the ruleset..  (It's here that Pinball News must admit to a self-interest since the Editor won that competition with his Tropical Storm mode.  We were, however, already working on this article when the results were announced.)

"I loved reading the competition entries.  There were about 5 really good ones and there was some debate to the eventual winner. The ideas are, in little ways, reflected
during regular game mode, like they recently found a monkey on the island, called him Al.

I'm always adding new little things. The rule card only gives part of it away.  There are plenty of little side games in an EM sort of way that will satisfy purists, a boatload of fast combos and don't forget the once-in-a-lifetime 'Eruption'. Some of the modes allow a stacked quick multiball for changes in direction and rules."

With work underway on all areas of the game, how near completion is Coconut Island and what help can the pinball community provide to give it that added push?

"The playfield layout is locked in, maybe a tweak or two that's it. It plays a lot better than on the videos, we just cant do it in front of the camera! The playfield lamp map is also virtually locked in. I would say its 80% done, I just need to route the playfield lamps and pull it all together now.

The playfield now
The playfield with inserts placed where they will be fitted

Software, of course, always gets updated as I learn, which is where others can help with the graphic side of things. I'm good at output control, its what I do in a roundabout way - I'm an Instrument Technician by trade. I put in at least an hour each night, sometimes just playing it! I want to get it transportable within the month for a local showing in white wood, with the view of completely finished in 6 months. I'll tantalisingly add, its 110VAC compliant!"

Bringing a project of this size near to completion wouldn't have been possible without the help of supportive friends who also love pinball.

"Sam assists in software development where he can and has been invaluable in
bouncing ideas off. Nick updates the website and has a knack of getting what I need, dealing with the tedious, allowing me to just get on with the job. Of course they're my playtesters as well and, refreshingly, both comment critically as required. Another good friend, Koshy, who I don't see often as he's out working in the desert sorts out my varied PC requirements - both software packages and hardware - as required and formulates theme/rule ideas.

Looking back at how the game has developed since those initial ideas, it would be unusual if everything progressed as expected, so Christian explained which elements he would change if he were to start again with the benefit of hindsight.

"I would have looked at using a CAD (computer aided design) package to develop the playfield and the artwork, and probably started learning C instead. I'm pretty happy with the decisions technically and creatively at this stage, in other ways it would have been harder to initially create, had I used CAD."

If Coconut Island is indeed completed over the next few months, it would be a shame if all that amassed knowledge was limited to just the one machine.  So will Christian be developing the NPC system further and perhaps building a second (or third) game?

"I am happy with the achievement - namely I can control a pinball machine with my own ruleset with anything and everything I could dream of, all the time sounding and looking and most importantly, playing like a polished game players expect from today's commercial offerings.

The software is extremely flexible and can be changed easily to another theme, its just a matter of editing the switch and mode blocks. I want to enhance NPC to drive DMD- type screens which is the last step for the OS as envisaged.

Nick has showed such enthusiasm for what were doing, he wants to do a theme he has long wanted to see done next, complete with an innovation or two in reliability design for pinball machines generally.  The 'toy' concept on this one makes Stewie's mini pinball seem basic. Its WILD!

Long answer, yes, I'm pretty handy with projects. The next stage is to build a CNC router, then we'll see what the future holds.

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