PINBALL EXPO 2007
Date: 24th - 28th October 2007
History & Influence of Bagatelle on Pinball - Ed Nickels
Kevin O'Connor was the artist for Medusa and came up with the theme. He brought along the original backglass art and talked about his influences at the time which led to Medusa's creation.
This year's second Expo Fireside Cat featured the final seminar speaker of the day - Pat Lawlor.
So instead we'll bring you a summary of the questions asked and Pat's responses. We'll add more over the coming days but we start with Pat's own introduction about himself and how he got into pinball in the first place.
Pat was working on DEC PDP computers in 1980 doing data processing and was constantly getting calls from headhunters trying to fill positions to earn their commission. In his spare time he was playing video games in arcades like everyone else at the time, so he told the headhunters not to call unless they could give him a job interview at a video game company.
Two weeks later he got a call offering him an interview with Dave Nutting. Dave Nutting Associates was a company responsible for the early video games of the '70s and a machine called The Puzzler which used film to display multiple-choice questions but had the answers encoded onto the film.
Dave Nutting was discovered by people at Midway when that company was part of Bally and they brought him to Chicago to work on video games during their heyday.
Pat described it as "the hardest job interview he ever went through in his entire life". Interviews for the video game business were highly sought-after and consisted of three meetings, the third requiring him to bring in work he had done on an Apple II. Pat said the company wasn't looking for technical expertise but wanted people who were creative, so he stayed awake a whole weekend to program a Pac-Man animation like the inter-level movies in the real game.
Pat said he played them the animation three times in the third interview but they didn't say a word until eventually they asked Pat if he really made the animation. When he confirmed that he did he was immediately hired.
In about 1983, the video business collapsed almost overnight and almost everyone in the industry was out of work. Pat ended up working for a former Dave Nutting worker alongside Richard Ditton and his wife Elaine who went on to found Incredible Technologies.
After that Pat worked for Nuvatech - a company making bowling pinsetters which could set any pattern of bowling pins, creating games for bowlers to play. Pat worked on the video side of the games alongside a former Williams employee Paul who knew Larry DeMar who had just finished programming High Speed. Pat and Paul would go out for lunch and play pinball and in particular, High Speed.
Pat said although Space Shuttle is often cited as the game that saved pinball, it was the game that allowed pinball to survive financially. For him, "High Speed was the game that made pinball cool again" and got it back in arcades.
Paul called Larry to see if he would be interested in doing some of the video for the bowling project. Larry came to Nuvatech and to Pat he was his hero - having loved playing Robotron, Defender and now High Speed. They got talking and Pat revealed his idea for a pinball game with a vertical playfield at the back. Larry said it was a crazy idea - let's build it.
They started building it at Pat's house before moving to Larry's place in Chicago where he made it presentable so it could be shown to the people at Williams - Ken Fedesna, Neil Nicastro and Larry Thrasher. After showing the new contraption, Ken wanted to know what it cost. But somehow Larry managed to persuade them to let he and Pat build the game and that got Pat started in pinball. After that, he said, the next one was easy because it only had one playfield.
Pat then, in response to a question from the audience, spoke about the apparent contradiction between the introduction of mode-based play on his games which led to increased depth of rules, and Pat's call for more understandable and less deep rulesets in pinball.
He said Ken Fedesna allowed him to build games that were"mechanically, over the top" for the time they were built. He said the culture at Williams was not to stifle innovative ideas and stick to a simpler playfields, but instead to give the designers the creative freedom to experiment. He cited Funhouse as a good example of a machine where, to realise the idea of a large talking head on the playfield, you have to be surrounded by "some of the most talented people in the world". Nobody in their right minds, he said, could take credit for all the effort and skill that went into realising that idea.
Pat said much of his success is due to Larry DeMar. For Funhouse, Larry not only programmed the game but he also wrote the new operating system for Williams pinballs to run it on. He said the collaborations with such a talented design crew were the things you dream of in a job and you have to allow those people to get on with their job and use their skills. The modes, said Pat, were a Larry DeMar invention when he was looking to take pinball to the next level by putting "little games in the game".
Pat then described an average day at Williams when he would arrive after the 60 mile drive from his home to find Larry - who lived nearer - already there, working away. He said they'd discuss the rules, argue over some of them, after which Pat would go off to "make sure the landscape in the game all looks right". The every afternoon the rest of the design team would come in to play the game while Pat and Larry looked on and saw how they reacted to the different features which in turn would lead to more discussions about whether they worked or not and how improvements could be made.
Pat said it was important to stress the ethos within the "good design teams" at Williams that it was "never too late to make it great". If something wasn't working correctly, the better teams were not afraid to tear it apart and start again no matter how close to production that was, which again was something the management at Williams allowed the design teams to do because they were the best and they produced "great stuff".
In 1988/9, Pat said, pinball was really starting to take off again with designers all producing great games and sales starting to rise. The logical progression for rules was to give the players more - more features, more depth, more scoring, not less. But, he said, "you can only do that to a point and at some point you fall over the cliff". Twilight Zone "fell over the cliff". When they had built Twilight Zone, said Pat, "we realised we'd done something wrong" because the people on the street who play pinball couldn't play it "because they didn't understand it and we had pushed the envelope too far. Finally".
But the game sold fantastically well. Pat recalled leaving a trade show where they had taken orders for 12,000 Twilight Zones and he was thinking "oh no, now what do we do?" having taken the game in its present form to the limit. Where was there to go?
Pat said he was negative about the current state of pinball rules which means today's games cannot be understood by the average person in a bar. He said players should be able to walk up to a game, insert their money and instantly see what fun thing they should be doing. "Instead," he said, "we've got games where you're expected to go on a death march for thirty minutes to get to the end of the game to raise your hands and tell everyone how cool you are." It is, he continued "the antithesis of a coin-operated game."
He contrasted it to a driving game where even a six-year-old kid can "walk up, sit down, yank the steering wheel around and have a great time."
Talking about The Addams Family, he said although it may have gone too far, its saving grace was that the really easy things to do are the most fun. There was, he said, "a vast number of people who wanted to play the game just to see the hand come out take their ball away."
He then talked about the bookcase in The Addams Family and how you beat on it and it turns and you get to do something else. Like Attack From Mars where you beat on the spaceship until it starts to shake and explode. "Great (pinball) games are carnival games. Great games are game that anyone... can put in their money and understand what they have to do" and he challenged anyone to take a modern game and show it to non-pinball people and for them to understand it.
He stressed that these are his personal views and not that of Stern Pinball or anyone else before continuing by saying "as an industry, we have given up our street players to continue to sell games to people at home. And there is a price being paid for that." The price, he said, was the continued reduction in sales "to the point where I'd be willing to bet you in five years there will be no more pinball."
He likened the difference to the difference between an arcade video game and a home video game. In an arcade the hope is to give the player three minutes of fun and excitement before the game ends and the next player inserts their coins. In the home, if someone buys a game they want to get a month's entertainment out of it. What pinball is doing now is "making coin-operated equipment but building it as though it is a home game. It doesn't work".
"Operators aren't making money with pinball", he said, but "the whole coin-operated business is in dire straits.. it's not just pinball."
In 1997/8 the level of pinball sales at Williams had dropped markedly and they needed to attract new players and in particular teenage kids. Pinball 2000 was their way to do that. Their approach was to take what they knew about making mechanical pinball and try to put a video element into that. The first few examples of Pinball 2000 were just that with people trying to get to grips with the possibilities and the demands of the system, "to figure out what was cool".
He said he thought Revenge From Mars was "an unbelievable effort" but he still thinks it "was probably a little too complicated". However, when the game went on location it did just what it was designed to do and brought back earning levels of $300-$400 a week, something not seen since 1994.
Pat said his intentions for his Pinball 2000 game (Wizard Blocks) was to "work harder on the magic and make it more transparent" to the player. He cited the rule he and George Gomez came up with during development of Pinball 2000 never to allow images to extend to the edges of the screen and destroy the illusion of being part of the playfield, something Star Wars - Episode 1 was guilty of. He wanted to make the virtual toys more interactive and reactive to the player, while maintaining the illusion that they were a part of the playfield.
There were various reasons why Pinball 2000 didn't make it, as covered in Greg Malatec's "Tilt - The Movie" documentary but Pat believes, in the current climate, it was "pinball's last chance to survive long term and... that chance has gone."
Wizard Blocks was some months away from completion and Pat said the team were still working out where they were going with the theme and the ideas he had. He thought it would require ridiculous amounts of money to complete it and it couldn't be released now since "the game isn't done because the game designer's vision wasn't complete - it's about half there." And even if someone did gather together all the skills and money needed, "how many are you going to sell?"
Pat then explained how the finances of a pinball game work. If, say, Stern Pinball make 50 games a day or 250 games a week, and you have to order parts for the games with a 6 week lead time. If the bill of materials for the game was $2500, you've got to spend $2500 x 250 x 6 = $3,750,000 on parts alone before you get a single game off the production line.
Pinball was born during the industrial revolution and was a pure mechanical device, Pat said. It survived into the '90s because it became a computerised mix of the mechanical and the electronic as a step towards the pure electronics age, just as everything else around us also did. But now we're past that stage, Pat said, and the mechanical part is no longer relevant.
Lightening the tone somewhat, in response to a question from the audience about the 'trademark' on many of Pats earlier games of the image of a hand holding a red button, Pat said it was just a thing between him, John Youssi and John Krutsch and he couldn't go into any more detail.
He did say it didn't feature on any of his newer games because the licensor wouldn't approve it and he didn't want them scrutinising the artwork and finding reasons to reject it. Many of today's games have 4 or 5 different licensors involved with contracts of 20-30 pages, and all the lawyers have to agree both individually and between themselves so that any change has to go back to everyone involved to get their approval. "That's how things have changed."
Returning to his theme of how to make coin-operated pinball game suitable for an arcade or street location, Pat said people often assume those in the industry don't understand there is a problem or what it is. He said the people at Stern understand it and are constantly trying to find a way to appeal successfully to both markets but Pat said he'd "come to the recent conclusion that's not possible."
He said pinball was like a mix between The Franklin Mint and a model train manufacturer. The home collector will buy the limited edition, individually numbered models (Franklin Mint) while there is a small and diminishing number of enthusiasts who still think the product is cool and wants to keep them alive (model trains). The only way to survive is to get more people apart from those two groups to find pinball cool and attractive again and Pat said he didn't think that was possible anymore. He wasn't going to stop trying, he said, and neither was anyone else at Stern but historically this was not a good time for pinball.