by John Adam Popadiuk
Copyright ©1997 All Rights Reserved
The next time you drop your coins into the ubiquitous pinball machine look around-- the work of the designer touches every aspect of the experience, imparting a sublime romantic allure to the game. On a flying carpet you can travel to Baghdad and relive the "Tales of The Arabian Nights" or battle a voluptuous temptress in her "Theatre of Magic". Surviving that, you could encounter a marauding band of aliens during an "Attack From Mars." Pinball Machines, the marvels of the mechanical age await to transport you there. A designer, leading a team of no less than ten other spirited alchemists, creates the means for these mystical journeys.
Pinball machines and earlier bagatelle or parlour tables have ancient histories, going as far back as when men would roll stones down hills in search of amusement. Basic concepts like the inclined play surface, ball capturing skillholes and sheer randomness were exhibited even back then. Those great boulders slowly diminished in size until they found their way onto tabletops during the French Revolution where soldiers and their aristocratic leaders used them for amusement. Pushing colored balls up around the colorfully adorned felt playfields was all the rage, making court for the most raucous games of gentlemanly challenge. Even Voltaire paused occasionally in his campaign of enlightenment, juggling a cup of coffee and marvelling away at the local bagatelle table.
The great ideas behind these early games revolved around their perceived fun and playability-- no table or board could be too hard or too easy. Someone had to strike a balance, figure the details out, determine the play, set the odds of winning a special or wager. This was the designer.
Though early games had no coin slide, gambling most likely took place with saloon keepers booking bets on games. Since skill determines a players balltime and level of achievement, owners of games wanted to offer games that were easy to use but hard to overcome; as businessmen their goal was sustained profitability. For the designer then, laying out a bagatelle table was to walk a fine line between the needs of the game owner and its user. This line exists today and is part of the mystique, the challenge of Pinball design. The balancing act of commercial and amusement goals makes some pinball companies hallmarks of success and pushes others to die a bloody death and fall off the face of the Earth. The designer is the primary visionary in the creation of the well balanced game and through collaborative efforts with technicians, fabricators, and artists the balance is struck.
For me the epic of the steel ball began on a long weekend at the Holiday Inn in Buffalo. They had a row of old games, all on dime play and brilliantly calling to me. I was wonder struck and in awe of these gorgeous machines. Designers, even in their youth, are naturally curious, and I was soon building my own tables out of wood and nails during school. I always had time to create new nail patterns on my sketch pad and rush back home to construct that days version. Little did I know that the pinball pioneers had done the same thing, but back in the 30's. I had found my calling.
After school I easily adapted my architectural instruction to drawing out playfield designs for commercial pinball. Drawing was not new to me, and sketching wonderfully curvilinear and sublimely subjective ball paths was too much to let go. I contacted the Bally Manufacturing Company on Belmont Avenue in Chicago and asked for a tour. I knew full well that their chief engineer was not really interested in any "new" ideas or industrial designers, but a tour would be awesome anyway. I came to Chicago and after showing my sketches over a hearty steak, managed to snag an entry level job in the design engineering department. I was in and learning the ropes from the pinball gods.
Engineering departments are magical and secretive places in the pinball industry, and tales of clearing three security guards, two passcode entries and surly receptionists are common. Game development takes at least a year from original sketch to production. Hush, hush is the key. A novel device or new technology leaked out and quickly adapted by a competitor could yield huge fiscal damage and leave those responsible in ruin.
The standard pinball table is made from 7-ply white birch, exactly 20-1/4" x 46" and has up to 14 screens of lustrous UV cured ink on top. Crystal-like jewels and inserts adorn the play surface and show the player what to shoot for with his chrome-steel ball of 1-1/16" diameter. Typical games have 200 parts of which 150 are unique. Ever since the 30's most tables and schematics were drawn on sheet canvas or newly invented vellum. All work was methodically drawn by hand with pencil or India Ink. Circuit diagrams, metal stampings, springs and the immortal electric bumpers all came from rigid engineering standards. Games were completed faster than today, but those past pinballs were far less complex.
The hardest and fundamentally most important design choice is the theme to begin with. Every game starts there and in some cases ends there too. A poorly rendered theme can trash a game's success. On my design team we use universal topics or concepts. alienation of any group or individual is too great a risk, so our games reflect a generalness. Once the theme is decided, such as "Theatre of Magic", we sit down for brain storming sessions and team lunches. Every tidbit is written down in my master book, one for each game, so nothing gets lost.
Concurrently I begin a new Autocad drawing, laying out the main playfield. The whole game is rendered this way and layers are created for all parts on a typical playfield. Layer designations usually reflect the actual physical property of the part designed so VACU1 becomes the vacuum formed ramps and METL3 includes the stainless steel ballguides rendered in blue hues. The baseline of the drawings is the rectangular outline of the playfield with positions for the flippers and outhole trough system. The flipper position had changed little from game to game since it's inception in the late 40's. A change here would adversely affect the players comfortable control and allow too much variance in game to game play.
This process differs from when I first started in the industry. My early games were all hand drawn on large mylar sheets accompanied by notes and details. In the initial stages of design, this method is still better than using the computer. Laying out a curvy shot on a 21" monitor is decidedly less revealing than using a beam compass or French curve on a full-size sheet. The feel can get lost on the computer so I still draw all the first key shots and ball paths by hand and transmit critical tangent arc points into Autocad via a coordinate base. The best of both worlds.
In many of today's themed games, an overall look or concept will be the next primary focus. For example, in "Theatre of Magic" we placed the player in an old theatre hall. The ball ramps became "stairs" and the main part of the play area was the magicians stage. Props like the "Tiger Saw" and "Magic Trunk" were placed right in the center of the stage. More than just for looks, these "toys" were fully kinetic mechanical designs using motors, rotational molded parts and light-optics to sense and interact with the pinball. At this point a side elevation allows me to start placing in some of these devices. Pinball tables have a sheet of glass covering the playfield, a barrier under which all mechanical parts must fit. This is design limitation, in some cases, forces the change or removal of a great feature.
After a rough Autocad design is in place I move to foamcore and styrene to mock-up a model. The model will show me some of my concepts in a real world setting, yet allow me to work it up in a matter of days. If I went right to steel and wood as my first explorative mediums the development time would quadruple. A foamcore model allows me to roll a ball around, adding graphics and illumination to create a sense of reality. Many games today use plastic decorative pieces to enhance the realism for the theme. Now is when these molded plastic parts can be sculpted, often by artists such as Chicago's Jerry Pinsler, and fit in place. For "Theatre of Magic," a Magic Trunk was created-- it sits atop an axial rotating mechanism, magnetically levitates a ball and makes it disappear.
Upon seeing many of the preliminary ideas modeled I revise my main Autocad layout and tighten things up, especially flipper shots and ball flow. A typical drawing will have up to 25 separate layers detailing everything from ramp angles to bumper placement. With a revised drawing I can begin to focus my team to our first milestone, the "whitewood". The whitewood refers to the early models we build to test components and get a real feel for the game. Pinball is still very much a kinetic artform and simulating anything on the computer always falls a bit short. The whitewood takes shape about 4 months from the project start. It lights up, bumps and kicks just as a production model would.
The concept, the artistic execution and the computer drawings all evolve along with the prototype.the concept along with software support and early artistic concepts. We start adding more real elements like stainless steel and Lexan. Up to four iterations of the whitewood may be produced during this phase. Using a computer has made this exploratory process a bit cleaner than the previous mylar drawing techniques. And although real parts never quite match up with what is on-screen, our Autocad drawing becomes the master footprint and reference for all work. Changes and revisions are implemented at a faster rate than before, allowing us more freedom and room for exploration in the prototyping process.
The physical testing grounds of the whitewood model speaks volumes to us as a design team, but because of the delicate physics of game play it can never fully reveals how the ball will roll in the finished machine. So we take our engineering and design work as far as possible, then release the drawings to build 15 early production prototypes. This happens at around month 7 of the design cycle. All parts are made and a dedicated team assembles these fully adorned games with complete art, chrome plated ballguides, full sound and software. This literally transforms our sketches and ideas and models into a thing of beauty-- one that commands attention. For the team and myself it is a real morale builder to see the game take form. After rigorous rounds of testing and some final tweaks the final manufactured version goes into mass production and a few months later the games are shipped around the globe. Most factories have upwards of 1000 people dedicated to the production process, and even more in the distribution channels.
Today pinball machines are manufactured and designed by historic companies like Williams, Bally, and the recently reorganized Gottlieb, with new entries from Sega and Capcom. Since the 1930's the Midwest has been the hub for the pinball industry. Its central location and abundant supplies spawned Bally Manufacturing in1931 and Williams in the early 40's. Innovations like the spring-loaded ball shooter, 1" ball and 21" x 42" tablesize were popularized there over 65 years ago and are still used now.
Even though Technology has significantly enhanced both game play and production since those times, the role of the designer has remained constant. From a blank sheet will emerge a new adventure or mystery to be played out by a hard steel ball in some unbridled land or time. From the working and re-working of a prototype comes game play that coaxes and challenges. And somewhere deep in the whole process that undefinable feel of Pinball is born and then delivered into this world by the hands of the design team.
John Adam Popadiuk, Designer @ Williams Electronics Games Inc.
(makers of Bally and Williams Pinball Machines)
All Images Copyright © 1997, WMS Industries. "Attack from Mars", and "Theatre of Magic" are trademarks of Midway Manufacturing Company, Inc., "Tales of the Arabian Nights" is a trademark of Williams Electronics Games, Inc.