Monday, July 8, 2013

Movin on up

Hey all,

So as promised, it got crazy.

First, my new documentary has been announced.  Shoot Again: The Resurgence of Pinball will cover the current upswing in pinball's popularity.  I'm serving as Associate Producer, and Blake Faucette is Producer/Director.  I have wanted to do a pinball documentary for a long time, but was looking for the right partner.  The minute I saw this, I knew Blake was the guy:

As fate would have it, he'd already been pondering the idea of a pinball documentary, just as I had.  The rest will be history. :)

Second, this will be the final post on Keeping My Cool.  I've moved my blogging efforts over to my new website,  Hope to see you there.

Third... well, there is a third, but I don't want to give away all the surprises at once!  The third item will be revealed in time.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Teaser: It's about to get crazy up in here!

SO.  I've officially kicked off my next documentary project!  I'll tell you how that came to be later, but for now, go to the Facebook page for Shoot Again: The Resurgence of Pinball and hop on board!

But there's more brewing, not just the documentary.  Oh no.  I'll have tons more to report on soon.  I'm very excited.

This about sums it up:

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

First Wizard of Oz Pinball Machine in a Customer's Hands

Jersey Jack Pinball announced earlier this week that they'd started shipping Wizard of Oz pinball machines, and today, May 1, 2013, it looks like the first non-employee consumer has one (which he picked up from the factory). 

Congratulations to David, all impending WOZ owners, and to Jersey Jack Pinball for making it to this date.  This is a big deal.  After a decade or so of a single commercial manufacturer of pinball machines remaining, a NEW manufacturer shipping units is just a wonderful thing.

David Shaw, with his brand new Wizard of Oz pinball machine!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Impact of a Pinball Resurgence: The Tale of Metallica LE

The recent announcement of Stern's Metallica pinball machine line, specifically the Master of Puppets Limited Edition version, has presented some strong evidence supporting the pinball resurgence theory, but also in a way that isn't necessarily thrilling the long-time collector core community.  Let me try and sum this up in a nutshell, but some serious craziness has gone down in the last week, and even more in the last 24 hours.

On April 9, 2013, Stern released a teaser video for their latest machine, Metallica.  The initial announcements mentioned 400 Limited Edition (LE) machines in the plans, as well as a Premium (almost as good as the LE, but not numbered, and a bit less expensive), and a Pro version (a base model, fewer frills, and cheaper, the type more frequently put on location for public play).  Somewhere within the first few days, the LE run went from 400 to 500 machines. 

On April 11, 2013, a note from Gary Stern was posted on the official Stern Facebook page announcing that all the Limited Edition machines had been sold out (not what people usually mean when they talk about Metallica "selling out").  Keep in mind, there are two levels of "sold out" in pinball.  Sold out in this case meant that the number of LE units had been allocated out, or spoken for, to the various distributors.  Collectors didn't really panic at this because it doesn't typically mean a machine can no longer be had, even though the speed of Stern's sell-out was pretty fast compared to machines in the past.  Also of note; Stern's website crashed during this time.

The closest you may come to owning a Metallica Master of Puppets LE

LE playfield

Within 24 hours of that announcement, however, something unusual DID happen.  People started posting that distributors were also sold out of Metallica LE (the second tier of "sold out", a more true definition where a person can no longer purchase a machine, vs. just having to find the distributor who has remaining inventory).

It's unheard of for a machine, even an LE, to sell out that fast, and sell out it had.  There was a panic and scramble to try and get on the list for the LE.  People weren't used to having to make a $7000+ buying decision without even a gameplay video yet released, and many were left out in the cold. 

Normally the Premium model is an acceptable alternative to an LE (the playfield is virtually the same), but in this situation, people didn't like the art on the Premium translite:

Metallica Premium featuring actual band members

The draw of this pinball machine is partly the custom-drawn art package, and the Premium translite was the only one of the bunch that featured actual images of the band themselves.  People didn't like it, they wanted the fun, cartoon-style art of the LE and Pro translites.  This was one factor driving people to go after the LE.  Another factor that contributes is possible hoarding by speculators, both distributors, and buyers who went after multiple units with the suspicion that they would be able to flip them and make a profit.  Such value appreciation did occur in the case of the recent AC/DC "Back in Black" LE, and the speed with which the Metallica Master of Puppets LE run was snapped up is a strong indicator that the machine WILL appreciate.  We don't know how much of this has actually gone on, but the possibility doesn't help things.

SO these are pirhana-infested waters.  Then things got even worse.  As of this writing, it's not entirely clear what transpired on the afternoon of April 17th and into the next morning, but consensus and evidence suggests that Stern had to reallocate a large number of existing distributor units to either overseas distributors or potentially members of the Metallica fanclub, where the LEs had also been offered for sale and possibly over-sold.  Many distributors' allocations were cut in half, literally.  Whatever the reason, suddenly a large number of people who had thought themselves safely locked into an LE, even at a high price markup to ensure it, were being informed that they no longer had one.

Pitchforks and torches were taken up, and people were understandably furious.  Stern had drastically underestimated the demand for this product.  That doesn't mean more Limited Edition machines should be run, necessarily, but the problem was compounded by the fact that people didn't like the translite on the Premium.  That, paired with the speculators and the Metallica fanbase, and the gradual increase in pinball's popularity over the last couple years, created a perfect storm of demand.  People went pincrazy.

This is where Stern then did something right.  On April 18 (today), the day after the allocations cut and forum riots, Stern announced an alternative translite (actually an entire second art package) for Metallica Premium machines (shown below). 

Stern Pinball’s Metallica Game Success Leads To Second Premium Edition

World’s Leading Maker of Arcade Quality Pinball Collaborates With Legendary Rock Artist Dirty Donny Gillies to Create Metallica Game

MELROSE PARK, IL – April 18, 2013 – Stern Pinball, Inc., the world’s leading maker of real pinball games and the AAMA 2012 Manufacturer of the Year, announces the availability of a second Premium model Metallica pinball machine. The initial release of Metallica pinball captured the attention of gamers and fans alike. Stern sold out of both the US and International allocations of its 500 Limited Edition (“LE”) games within an hour of each respective customer announcement.

The second Premium edition machine features the vibrant artwork of Dirty Donny Gillies and complement’s Stern’s Metallica LE, “Road Case” Premium and Pro models.

The new Premium edition Metallica game boasts the same action-packed features as the Road Case Premium model and highlights the addition of Dirty Donny’s radical pop art creations. Dirty Donny is considered one of the most influential artists in the pop culture scenes of underground rock, punk and heavy metal. He is widely known for his creative work on concert posters, album covers and vinyl toys.

“Stern Pinball has pulled out all the stops for the Metallica machines,” said Dirty Donny. “Creating artwork for this special release game has been awesome. I can’t wait to see people’s reactions when they take a first look at it and get to play the game.”

For a glimpse of the game in action, Stern Pinball will be showcasing the Metallica pinball machine at Comic-Con International in San Diego this year with Nuclear Blast Records.

The Metallica game continues both the Stern Pinball and the Stern family tradition of producing quality pinball machines for young and old. The company traces its lineage to Philadelphia in the 1930s when Sam Stern entered the business of operating pinball games. Sam Stern subsequently became part owner and president of Williams Manufacturing, a pioneer in the pinball industry. Sam passed his lifelong enthusiasm for the game and the business of pinball to his son Gary Stern who founded Stern Pinball. Today pinball remains one of America’s favorite pastimes.

Pricing and Availability:

The Metallica pinball machine is available while supplies last through authorized Stern distributors and dealers.

Pro Version: $4,995
Premium Version (Road Case): $6,995
Premium Version (Donny): $6,995
Limited Edition Version: (Master of Puppets) $7,595 (SOLD OUT)

To learn more about The Metallica pinball games and Stern Pinball, visit

Metallica Premium, take 2!

We knew such a translite existed, as it is briefly visible in the teaser video. This was a good example of listening to your customers via social channels, and making a move to mitigate a supply issue when unexpected demand creates as big a problem as this overselling did.

It leaves the community wondering, though, if maybe it was more convenient to be a less popular hobby.  Oh, and did I mention, Stern had announced a $500 or so MSRP price increase for this machine?  Clearly that impacted demand about as effectively as a bucket of water on a forest fire.  So yes, pinball is growing, faster than anyone (even Stern) expected.  So fast that demand has far out-paced supply in this case, and resulted in some serious growing pains.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Custom Duck Hunt EM Pinball Machine is so cool!

So Skit-B, the guys making the limited run of Predator pinball machines, evidently had a side project going to while away the boring hours.  That project was a one-off custom pinball machine based on the NES game, Duck Hunt.

I want this.  I SO want this!  Just the sound effects are enough... forget Predator, start pumping out some of these babies!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How to clean a WHO Dunnit slot reel motor

The stepper motors that drive the slot machine reels on a WHO Dunnit pinball machine eventually need cleaning.  Here's how I dunnit, illustrated.

Yes, we have been doing an awful lot of maintenance lately on our pinball machines.  It seemed like once we finally got the board replaced for our new WHO Dunnit, another problem came up.  In this case, one night I noticed that the left-most slot machine reel wasn't matching what the DMD was displaying when it would turn.  By the next morning, it had stopped altogether.

I went online to research the problem (thanks, Google).  This is a common problem with these motors, and in most cases, it turns out, the motor has just become jammed up with metal shavings.  The motors themselves are pretty hearty, so it's less common that they have actually burned out.  That was good news, because you simply can't buy this particular motor anymore.  I found a German company, Kollmorgen, that used to sell them (USED TO), a company that repairs these motors, and also mention that certain pinball suppliers had them in stock... in 2009.  And even at that time the fact was noteworthy.  I emailed Kollmorgen just in case they still had them, but at the time of this writing, have not heard back.  So my step 1 option was to try and clean our existing motor.

WHO Dunnit slot reel housing

It's not easy getting at these motors.  All three are in a large metal housing under the playfield, held in place with 8 screws.  Each slot reel/motor set is in its own metal housing.  The motor has two circuit connectors, and the top one must be removed to remove the motor housing.  What went through my head at this point was, "I'm so glad it was one of the outer reels that stopped turning and not the middle one!"  The plastic reel is held in place by a set screw, and that's easy to remove.

The reel connected to the motor by a set screw

I also want to take a moment to mention, I am not the go-to pinball tech in our house.  That's my husband, but he was pretty fed up with the machine at this point after the board issues, and I wanted to step up to the plate and try to fix this motor myself.  It is by far the most ambitious maintenance I've attempted to date.  I'm usually the one cleaning the glass. :)  He was also at work on this day, and I didn't tell him I was attempting this.

motor housing

So anyway, after carefully disassembling things down to where I could actually get at the motor, I was able to remove it, and then take off one side of the casing.  I was at a loss for a while as to what needed cleaning, or what to do from there, and this is one reason I wrote this article.  You can find lots of mentions of cleaning these stepper motors (it's evidently the same motor used in Scared Stiff, by the way), but no pictures on what exactly that entails.  Eventually I realized that pushing on the inner gear assembly just sort of slid that part out.  Once I got that out, it was pretty evident that it did indeed need a cleaning.  I took it upstairs to MY laboratory... the kitchen.

note shavings between the two gears - yuck!

The amount of powder and metal shavings along the inner edge was impressive.  Now the pain in the BUTT with cleaning this is, the shaft housing is pretty freaking magnetic.  The shavings, of course, are extremely attracted to it.  Like they have found their one true love and they are never letting go.  I used broken toothpicks to get in there, but it took some time.  Once, I put the motor too close to the paper towel where I was keeping the shavings, and BOOM, they jumped right back on.  ARGH!!

metal shavings removed

Once I had removed all the shavings I could, also going in with the edge of a paper towel to really just clean this as much as possible, I went back downstairs, gave both that and the housing a thorough attack with a can of compressed air, and put the motor back together.  Before putting everything back in place, I turned on the machine, and held my breath.  The moment the power came on I felt the motor twitch, and my hopes lifted.  Sure enough, when the pin went through its reel spin on startup, the formerly defunct wheel spun like a champ.  Victory!  It was fully as great a feeling as getting a high score.

I considered taking out the other two motors then and giving them a cleaning; they are probably going to do the same thing eventually.  But in pinball, it is best to heed the old adage, "if it aint broke, DON'T FIX IT."  I read a thread on pinside once from a guy who wanted to clean the T-Rex on his Jurassic Park.  It was working fine, he just wanted to clean it.  Everyone warned him not to.  He did it anyway, and sure enough, after reassembling the T-Rex, it didn't work properly.  I'm sure he got it going again eventually, but the point is, don't go out of your way to find headaches in a pinball machine; they will come to you.

PS - While you're at it pampering your WHO dunnit, why not add some of these custom apron cards by PinZach?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pinball ownership: maintenance weekend

Pinball ownership is super-rewarding, but it isn't all fun and games.  Here's a little breakdown of how a recent weekend went.

Saturday night
Installed AC/DC drum kit mod and replaced the flipper rubbers in the mini playfield of AC/DC.  It's not that easy accessing the mini playfield, so while we had it open, we cleaned the playfield and view window with a little Novus 1, and made sure the targets were all in good working order.

I don't think we actually played any pinball, because by the time we were done with that, it was time to get the kids to bed, and we needed to catch up on Walking Dead.  The only time we can watch zombie-related tv is when the kids are asleep.

We'd been having a fuse blow frequently on our new WHO Dunnit machine, and the preliminary steps that sometimes resolve this sort of problem, like replacing the batteries, hadn't helped.  It was to the point where we needed to remove the motherboard and bring it to a technician for diagnostics.  Upon taking the board out, we discovered that it had been "hacked" to death, meaning someone had done a non-expert job of trying to fix various issues that had come up during its lifetime.  Broken traces for one thing, judging by the network of worm-like wires strewn across the back of the board.  If you're not a professional pinball tech, that's the danger in trying to fix things; you run the risk of making it worse.  We brought the board to our pinball tech, who confirmed that the brain of this machine was beyond repair.  Replacing a motherboard isn't cheap, but at least now we knew the source of the problems we'd been having with it.

Lunch break.

The next machine in need of work was Judge Dredd.  The first project was to fix a fried connector for the general illumination (GI) backbox lights.  The connector has fried at some point before we acquired this machine, so I don't know the specifics, but the white connector housing was half toasted like a campfire s'mores only not delicious.  This was our first time replacing a connector, but it worked, and behold, there was light! :)  Now that those connections were restored, we were able to identify about a dozen burned-out bulbs, and replace them with working bulbs.

Next we did a flipper rebuild for the lower left flipper of Judge Dredd.  This is one of the rites of passage for being a pinball owner, doing your first flipper rebuild.  Once you're used to doing them it's not that bad, but the first time can be an intimidating prospect.  After all, if you get this wrong, it impacts the entire gameplay experience, and the angle of the flippers is a precision matter that you totally take for granted before having to do this.

About 8 o'clock that night, we got around to actually playing the machines.  It wasn't a long session, but it was a good one, and it felt great enjoying the fruits of the weekend's maintenance and repair labor.  Not every weekend goes like that, but there is almost always something needing doing when it comes to pinball machines.

Monday, March 18, 2013

ACDC Pinball Drum Mod Installation Details

My husband recently purchased the AC/DC Drum Mod from Pinball Life, and Saturday night, we decided to install it.  Yeah, I know, we lead a life of wild party-filled weekends...

The instructions for installing the drum mod were decent, but I felt that adding our own experience to the mix might help other budding pinball modders.  One thing we felt was missing specifically was more detail on the solder points for the wires.

The first step was to feed the wires up through the playfield.  The hardest of the two for this step is definitely the lower playfield drum.  We had to use tweezers and teamwork to get the wire up through the playfield where it needed to go, because there were already a good number of wires going through that pathway.

Wires feeding up for lower playfield drum

Wires feeding up for  upper playfield drum
The trickiest part of this was knowing where to solder the wires, because the instruction sheet we had didn't have a picture of this.  The kit said to solder them to the flashers, but we had to do some trial and error in test mode to see when we had the correct points.  My husband was already familiar with this type of installation, though, from when he put the under-cabinet LEDs onto Tron Legacy.  What worked was having the green and yellow side connected to the red flasher, and the orange and yellow wires (the one with the black tape near the bottom) connected to the farthest flasher from the red one.  Hopefully this picture helps illustrate that.

Solder points for drum kit wiring

Installing the drums was not a big deal at all.  You have a choice of flasher color for this kit, and we chose yellow.  Adding the LED piece to the drums was a simple matter of peeling off the covering for the double-stick tape and just sticking it onto the back of the drums.

Lower playfield drum, side view

Upper playfield drum, side view

And here's a player-view of the completed installation.

Upper playfield drum, front view

Lower playfield drum, front view

The video below shows what they look like in action.  It's always hard to film pinball flashers adequately, and they look kind of blinding in this video.  I was afraid ours would be like that, but in reality they are very nice, and it's a relatively subtle effect.  I recommend this mod to anyone looking to improve what is a near-flawless machine to begin with. :)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

STERN code updates for X-Men and Transformers Pinball

At long last, STERN Pinball today released code updates for its Transformers and X-Men pinball machine models.

Both these machines really needed a code update, and owners had been waiting a long time, and feeling pretty neglected.  Time will tell if these updates satisfy them, there hasn't been a lot of reaction yet in the community.  I did have a chance to check out the new code on a Transformers LE just now.  I don't know the game well enough to know how dramatic an improvement we are talking here, and I liked the game before this.  I will say, I just had the best game of Transformers I've ever played, so it certainly didn't hurt. :)

You're damn right I'm a Decepticon!
These two code updates are so fresh, there aren't even any patch notes yet.  I will come back and post them here when they are live, just to provide an example of the kind of changes a code updates involves.

As most pinball owners know, you can get the latest STERN code updates here, on their website.

4/3/2013: below is an example, the update notes from the Transformers LE update.

V1.8 - March 14, 2013

- First pass of the redemption system.
    for details.
- added an adjustment for launching balls after a locked ball.
- fixed a bug where Optimus/Megatron Super Jackpots were not initialized correctly when MB progression is turned off.
- The Optimus Prime Multiball progressive Super Jackpots are now scored based upon how many times Optimus Prime MB was started prior to scoring the Super JP.
  1 start = 100% of Super jackpot escrow.
  2 starts = 75% of Super Jackpot escrow.
  3+ starts = 50% of Super Jackpot escrow.
- The Megatron Multiball (A) progressive Super Jackpot is now scored based upon how many times Megatron MB was started prior to scoring the Super JP.
  1 start = 100% of Super jackpot escrow.
  2 starts = 75% of Super Jackpot escrow.
  3+ starts = 50% of Super Jackpot escrow.
- added Optimus Prime & Megatron Multiball minimum Super Jackpot scoring logic.
- added Autobot/Decepticon HSTD info to instant info
- added MB progress adjustments
- added Decepticon High Score tables.
- added Autobot High Score tables.
- added redemption ticket sounds
- added rule progression to the Optimus Prime Multiball rules.
- added rule progression to the Megatron Multiball rules.
- Changed text coordinates for redemption award display effect.
- Added game-specific display effect, lamp effect, and sound effects for redemption.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Reality Rush - Silver and Gold

Lately reality tv on the Discovery Channel has been all about gold.  First there was Gold Rush, with my boys the Hoffman Crew.  Then Bering Sea Gold, which also won us over.  So I was quite interested as the latest seasons of Gold Rush and Bering Sea Gold neared their ends, to see Discovery pimping a new series; "Silver Rush".

I expected something similar to Gold Rush, but about silver mining.  I was wrong.

Silver Rush is way cooler than that.  It's about the hunt for sunken ships and the treasures they took down with them.  It's a mix of oceanography (my college major), history, and a lot of the thrill of the hunt elements that make me like the gold shows.  In other words, I'm SOLD, possibly even moreso than I was with the prior two shows (never mind that Jungle Gold, that doesn't count, not even when the Hoffmans were down there).  So far, they are even following in the grand tradition of having equipment break regularly.

Silver Rush is kind of a misleading title for this show, but they wanted to keep the brand identity they'd established with Gold Rush. Fair enough. I joked to my husband that they should make a show called "Copper Rush" and have it be all about people breaking into abandoned buildings and stealing wiring and such. Though now that you mention it...

Yeah. I'd totally watch that.

Friday, March 1, 2013

STERN Valentine's Day code updates

This past February 14th, STERN Pinball made a couple code updates available on their website.  These were for the newest pinball machine, Avengers, and TRON: Legacy, a well-received machine from 2011 that, rumor has it, is going to be "reprinted" (i.e., STERN is going to produce another run of TRON machines).

I had just done my morning coffee run that day when I happened to catch the post on Pinside mentioning the Avengers update.  It was a surprise, really, because Avengers was still pretty new, and had launched with fairly complete code already in place.  Avengers owners were already pretty happy.  But I quickly downloaded the file, and put it on a thumb drive.  I then printed out the documentation, which I left on the kitchen counter along with a "Happy Valentine's Day!" note and a few candy hearts sprinkled about.

I think this was my husband's favorite Valentine ever from me. :)  But the surprises weren't over, because a bit later on, I discovered that TRON had gotten an update too.  We have a TRON. 

So when I got home that night, we applied both updates.  The process for updating the code on modern pinball machines is actually quite easy, just a matter of plugging a thumb drive into the motherboard behind the backglass.  The directions .pdf STERN has available for this is clearly explained and easy to follow.

I haven't really spent much time on the Avengers since the update, but I will say that the changes to TRON were dramatic and instantly noticeable.  Many people are saying that TRON is now a whole different ballgame, literally, and I've seen more than one person say that they'd been planning to sell their TRON because they were tired of it, but had quickly changed their minds for now.  This update made TRON fun again for players who had maybe gotten bored with it.

And that's yet another example of an element of the pinball hobby that most people probably never thought about.  STERN still owes X-Men and Transformers owners some serious code updates, but the fact that something as solid and physical as a pinball machine can be changed like that after it's already sitting in your home... well that's pretty cool.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Kickstarter: pinball as an artistic medium

I recently heard about an interesting pinball-related Kickstarter, and wanted to share:

These guys have acquired five pairs of matching pinball machines from the 70's era.  Their intent is to restore one of each set to its original glory, and then take its twin and give it the deviantART treatment, applying a unique design to each.  I really like the concept of being able to physically see the full before/after versions of each machine in the flesh, side by side.

I love so many things about this project.  First, that Wade Krause is involved.  I'd heard of him before via Anna Newman's short film, "Wade Krause: Pinball Artist".  Here's the teaser for that film:

I also feel that when a subject matter reaches the threshold where people start creatively adapting it, there is a certain level of "you know you've arrived" that comes with that.  Shakespeare, for example, like when the BBC gave that David Tennant version of Hamlet a post-modern wartime setting.  A topic has to have captured a certain degree of fascination and ubiquity to start to garner that kind of dedication and creative rumination.  It makes me really happy to think that pinball has.

Another thing I like about this project is simply the backer rewards.  I've been struggling to find interesting art to deck out our gameroom with, and this would solve that problem, too.  So please, do me a favor and back Bring Back the Arcade! Custom Pinball Art Show.

In other news, my Google Alerts have been going nutty over that new Star Wars video pinball game by Zen Studios.  We even came across it in the latest issue of Game Informer (issue #239, page 66).  I wonder if people know about all the different Star Wars pinball machines that came before this?  I'm not a big Star Wars fan, but I have to say I really like the Data East Star Wars from 1992:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pinball mods offer infinite customization options

As pinball has become a consumer market to a significant degree (i.e., more pinball machines being purchased by individuals for home use vs. your local pub or pizza joint) it has also joined the ranks of the modding world. There is a multitude of options for customizing your pinball machine beyond what the manufacturer's initial design created. Mods can be as simple as plastic protectors for spots prone to wear, or replacing the original incandescent bulbs with various LED options. Sometimes people even turn a machine into a completely new theme via modding.

Below are just some of the types of mods that a pinball owner might make to their machine.

Cliffy protectors

A practical mod that protects vulnerable exposed edges of playfield that are prone to wear.  Cliffy protectors are something that I think is almost a given for pinball owners, and should be for pinball operators as well. It not only protects the value of your machine, it helps ensure that your machine will be in good condition 10 years from now.  You can read more in my interview with the creator of Cliffy's Pinball Protectors.


Small action figures can literally be affixed to the playfield.  Our Lord of the Rings has tons of them, and we just added some to our new Avengers machine.  My favorite mod of this type, however, is the mini arcade machine we put in TRON that is actually emulating the original TRON arcade game code.  So awesome.  So meta.  There's also the Merlin mod you can add to Medieval Madness: holding a lit color-changing crystal ball.  Check out this thread about modding the Vokswagen van in JunkYard.

LED Lights

One of the first things we do with most of our new acquisitions is replace the older incandescent lights with LED lights.  These tend to be brighter, but burn much cooler, which is better for nearby plastic parts (anyone who has seen the damage incandescent bulbs can do to the clock in Twilight Zone knows this all too well).  There are all sorts of options for varying the intensity and color of LED bulbs.  Cointaker is a good source for conversion kits, but most experienced pinball collectors purchase individual bulbs vs. kits, for a more customized end result.

There are different camps of opinion on LEDs, but the good news is, you (or the next owner of your machine) can easily swap back to incandescent if you prefer.

Example of LED lighting, Hallmark light cycle toy mod, under-cabinet lighting, and mini arcade mod

Under-cabinet Lighting

I don't see this mod around very often, but we added it to TRON: Legacy when we were first getting into modding.  You can buy LED strips that go underneath the machine, and you can wire them in to specific triggers, like flashers, to make the under-cabinet lighting also flash in time with a specific event.  Pretty cool.

Color DMD

The only full-color DMD I've seen so far is in Medieval Madness, but WOW, what a difference it makes.  You can't get color DMDs for many games yet, as they take a lot of coding to create. I believe the next one being worked on is Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I think Addams Family is also available.

Powder coating

Powder coating is a very dramatic way to make a given pinball machine stand out as unique.  I have never heard of a powder coating job that made a machine look bad (unless it was a bad powder coating of course).  It does involve prying the siderails off your pin, and the coin door as well if you want to be thorough. 

Custom blue powder coated trim on Medieval Madness (Avengers Hulk LE comes with green trim)

Shakers and Audio Upgrades

Shaker motors can be added to a machine to cause it to reverberate during certain moments (for example, when multiball is about to kick off in AC/DC).  This is a cool mod to do, but one side effect you can run into is that it causes the playfield glass to rattle.  Enter another mod; anti-rattle tape for the edges of the glass.

Re-themed machines

Sometimes people go WAY beyond the relatively tame modifications mentioned above and completely re-theme a machine.  This involves not only changing the look of the playfield, but also re-coding the programming.  It's the ultimate mod, but certainly one that will make your machine uber-unique.  Two examples I know of this are one where a guy pulled off a Ghostbusters theme, and quite recently, a 1975 Abra Ca Dabra machine was re-themed into "Evil Mansion, a hand-painted LSD-themed pinball machine." Now that's creativity.


I'm sure there are loads of other mods to mention, but those are some that we've encountered so far.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Checking back in with Asheron's Call 2

I posted some weeks back that Asheron's Call 2, the MMO with an unexpectedly premature demise and a far more unexpected rebirth seven years later, was back.  AC2 true believers were ecstatic about the news, but would we be able to turn back time?

I know in my case, seven years later, a lot has changed.  I'm admittedly not as spry as I used to be, staying up till 2 AM to play games is a much rarer occurence.  I've got two young kids I didn't have the first time around, and many more responsibilities.  I feel like I have no free time to begin with, so the question is, even if the game is back and ready to pick up where we left off, are we who loved it capable of doing so?

So far, I would say the answer is yes.  I am feeling the same drive and desire to play that I felt back in the day.  Does the game hold up?  Yes, it really does, and it's a constant thrill to see familiar character names roaming around, or to come across a dungeon or vista and have the recollection hit of the times I'd been there before.  I'm also enjoying the discussions in general chat.  New players are present, and those experiencing the game for the first time frequenly comment that the lack of "everything being handed to you on a silver plate" is actually refreshing.

What that suggests to me is that probably more modern MMOs have gone too far trying to please the lowest common denominator.  The game is probably a bit harder than intended in that sense, too, because documentation is in short supply. On the positive side, players are extremely helpful to each other, and for the most part, general chat is actually fun to read, and that's unheard of in most MMOs.

The server stability issues that came up around Christmas seem to have been solved, and while you still can't add people to a friends list, that's certainly being worked on. 

In any event, I have suddenly found myself actually doing one or two of those 2 AM game sessions, and my carefully crafted blog article pipeline has evaporated.  Oops. :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Be the leopard

I have sometimes been told that I am "too nice" at work.  There is an unspoken assumption that being nice doesn't get the job done.  That the only way to get the job done is to "get angry" and go head-to-head with other departments, to scream and yell until you get what you want.

I spent a good deal of time feeling insecure about this, feeling like I needed to change.  I also did try to take it constructively, and make sure I was being appropriately assertive about my own department's agenda within the company.  Sometimes the hardest feedback to take is the truest, and I didn't want to dismiss feedback without analysis.

However, I take issue with the base assertion that one can't be nice and still be successful at work.  That one must badger one's co-workers and just blindly push their own projects forward with no regard for the greater company picture, or the priorities of others.  I just can't accept that.

It led me to realize that I don't need to.  You can accomplish far more by earning the cooperation of your co-workers in the long run than by being "that guy" who only cares about his own projects at any cost and instills a fight or flight response in his colleagues.  We should always look to adapt and improve ourselves, but I don't intend to change my approach beyond what I have already, because to do so doesn't make optimal use of my own basic characteristics.  Being nice does get the job done, but often in a less visible and more subtle way.  This can put "nice" employees at a disadvantage, as it is perceived that the "sound and fury" employees are the ones being proactive.

In thinking about this, I kept going back to the old saying that, "A leopard cannot change its spots."  This concept frequently comes with an underlying negative, with the idea that the leopard should change its spots but is simply incapable.  Actually, the leopard's spots are an evolved asset.  The leopard should NOT change its spots.  We should evolve the best approach to our world that works with who we are.

So I made this image as a reminder to myself and others that just because conventional wisdom says you should change, doesn't mean they are right.  Special thanks to Tom Sciortino for making awesome motivational poster photoshop templates available.

PS - leopards as a species could indeed change their spots, and if there was a significant advantage to doing so, over time, they would.  That's how they got them in the first place.  But as an individual, a leopard has to work with what it's got. :)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Interview: Cliff Rinear, creator of Cliffy Protectors

When I was thinking about who in pinball I would like to interview, Cliff Rinear was at the top of that list.  There aren't too many people, regardless of industry, who have a product named after them, but Cliff is one of those cases.  His line of metal protector parts, "Cliffy's," are designed to fit over specific places on pinball machines that are prone to wear.  For example, "scoops", where the ball drops in to trigger an event, frequently experience wear to the playfield wood around the edges.  Cliffy's prevent that.  This is one of those tweaks to a machine that would fall under the category of "mods".  It's also something that on-location machines would benefit from far more than home use only machines, even though it's the collectors who typically take the most protective measures to keep their machines in tip-top condition.

Interview with Cliff Rinear, creator of Cliffy's Pinball Protectors

Cliffy's Lab
Keeping My Cool: How did you get into pinball in the first place?

Cliff Rinear: First let me say thanks to you, Lorien, for this opportunity. I'm humbled and certainly never expected this - thanks!

I've been a tinkerer since I was able to use a screwdriver for its intended purpose :) Growing up on a homestead outside of Fairbanks, Alaska we had to make do with what we had. 8 month winters left lots of time to take things apart I probably shouldn't have. By 10 I was able to put things back together and by age 12 some things actually worked again. I was a voracious reader and pencil artist and my creativity was constantly searching for an outlet. Modeling railroads, planes and cars wasn't enough. I had to take 'em apart and make 'em better! By my teens I was tearing into motorcycles - I swear I had the engine out of an old Honda CL77 five times one summer in an attempt to get it to stay running on both cylinders. This much to my dad's chagrin as I was supposed to be doing farm stuff while summer daylight was burning (sorry pop!)

I wouldn't discover pinball until the arcade revolution of the late 70's. By then I'd left the homestead and came to California where I finished high school early and used my mom's place as a launching point to start my own life. By 1984 I was married and had two of my eventual five kids. On one particularly warm summer night we piled the kids in the car and headed to the local pizza place near us in Livermore. It was too hot to cook and too hot to wait for delivery so we went and waited for our pizza in their air conditioned restaurant. I remember standing at the counter when I heard this synthesized voice calling behind me. It was a Williams Space Shuttle! I was instantly transfixed and dropped quite a few quarters in it that night. I would play it again every time we went there but never dreamed of owning a game of my own. Didn't even cross my mind back then.

Fast forward to 1995 and I'm remarried and living in a new town, San Ramon. Up to this point I was still the avid tinkerer and adventurist having soaked myself in gold prospecting, model railroads, car restoration and even started a computer building business that ran well for several years. All this while still holding down my career job and keeping my family together. My kids always thought they had the coolest dad because of all the toys. One that always stayed with me was a 1982 Midway Tron upright vid. This was given to me dead in '88 and took 2 years to get working. It's still with me today. The PC biz was dying and I was again looking for the next big hobby project. Perusing the company bulletin board system one day I came across an ad for a pinball machine for sale and it was only 5 minutes up the road. Being a total newbie to this didn't faze me in the least. It didn't work right and the owners had whitewashed the cab in preparation for eventual stenciling. I could care less. I was all about the fixin'! So for $150 I picked up one beat up old 1966 Williams Hot Line, a single player EM pinball. I was like 12 years old on Christmas morning all over again. I couldn't sleep! I could not wait to tear into its guts. Let's just say "challenging" was an understatement :) I did get it figured out and working great but as we all know pinball is like Lays potato chips. You know you can't eat just one!

Addams Family Chair scoop Cliffy
Cliffy protector under the chair of The Addams Family

KMC: How did you get the idea to start creating protectors?

Cliff: Over the next couple years I hunted down different era pinball machines. A Sonic Mars Trek, Gottlieb Cleopatra system 1 solid state, WMS Swords of Fury and Bally's Strange Science. Finally, one I'd had my eye out for ever since Amtex promised it in their pinball simulation software... Funhouse. It was my holy grail at the time and I found one with the help of a friend in Arizona. All I had to go by was snapshots (those are real pictures taken with a camera and developed on film :) "Yeah yeah yeah, looks good to me" so my buddy trucked it up and it was Christmas all over again!

Now, as anyone who is familiar with Funhouse and many other plastic ramped games knows when the ramps are blown out they aren't much fun to play. Pulling the glass to dig a ball out from where it was never meant be gets annoying real quick. This was a challenge right in my wheelhouse. I'd been told all my life I could fix anything but a rainy day and here was another chance to prove it to myself. I gathered up some stainless steel sheet that was left over from a door kick panel replacement, made some cardstock templates and cut them out with tin snips. I was happy with the results but quite honestly a little embarrassed if anyone saw them on my game. Back then new ramps were somewhat available but there was no internet parts presence. You had to call the big guys like Betson or CA Robinson. Being in the S.F. bay area we were fortunate to have a fantastic pinball parts place in Jim and Judy Tolbert's For Amusement Only in Berzerkely. Yes Jim had a new Funhouse main ramp but it was $125 and no Steps ramp. In hindsight I should have popped for the new ramp but, ok, I was kinda cheap and cheapness is the mother of invention! :)

KMC: What is the process like to create protectors?

Cliff: The process details have evolved over the years but the principles never change. Find the weak spots and protect them! Mainly I'm concerned with coverage and mounting points. I've graduated from cardstock (mostly) and tin snips to high res scanning, digital measurements, CAD and laser. I may never have reached this point without the help of my very close friends, Steve Charland and Martin Reynolds. I doubt I'll ever be able to express my gratitude enough for their friendship and the unending encouragement from all the folks who use my innovations.

What was it like when people started calling them "Cliffys"?

Cliff: Well for sure that was very humbling. A comment made in jest on a newsgroup, perhaps. But it told me these inventions truly have a place in the hobby and with that comes expectations and a responsibility to the people who put their faith - and money - in my products.

I never got around to naming my protectors and truthfully, the community sort of did that for me. I would have probably come up with some grand name like Guards of Thunder (yes I was a comic collector too) or maybe Pintectors... you know, something really, terribly lame It's an honor to have been verbed :)

KMC: How do you decide which machines to make protector offerings for, and what spots need it?

Cliff: It all started with my own games, of course, and still when I get a game it's the first thing I look to do. As soon as word got out about what I was making for myself folks wanted to see them and shortly thereafter wanted sets for their own games. Today 99.95% of what I make is because of requests. There are limits to this though. First I need something to work from. Next it has to be actually doable. Some requests just can't be realized with today’s technology or the limit of my tools. Mostly though, I really need the game itself or a playfield or ramps - depending on the protection needed. In cases where that's just not possible, I will resort to the old paper template method but accuracy is always suspect in those cases. I've had great relationships with some very talented people though who are skilled with a ruler, caliper and templates. I try to always give them credit for their help on my web page. Shout out to Chris Heffner for being the most prolific templateer and just a really great guy.

What spots need protection is determined by obvious wear, in the case of older games or by following the ball path in the case of new, unworn games.

For the record sellability is NOT a determining factor in deciding which protectors to make. I think my inventory makes that somewhat obvious but thought I may as well squeeze that in there anyway :)

More examples of Cliffy Protectors

KMC: How's business?

Cliff: It's been growing, which I'm thankful for. There are times I find myself playing catch-up and I appreciate the patience of my distributors, absolutely. I don't expect to quit my, ahem, well over 30 year career job to make protectors but I do hope I can continue growing. I'll need something to create when I retire from the day job and hopefully Cliffy's will continue to fill that need for me.

KMC: Do you think pinball is on an upswing?

Cliff: I do believe pinball, as a whole, *IS* on an upswing but in a far different arena than what they were originally created for. Stern, Illinois Pin Ball and Jersey Jack Pinball are the only commercial manufacturers of pinball machines in the USA, right now. Stern was the last maker building specifically for the original market - distribution and amusement operators. Stern eventually realized that market was waning and turned to the collector and home market (not without some kicking and screaming, however!) IPB and JJP, on the other hand, unabashedly want to cater to the collector and home market. This has created a healthy new spark of creativity and I see designer friends like Steve Ritchie, Dennis Nordman, John Trudeau, John Borg, among many others, excitedly attacking the challenge, each wanting to bring the next hot game to the players. This new enthusiasm is invigorating the boutique creators too, like Nordman/Freres with their Whizbang! Big Juicy Melons custom game and look at the crop of other custom games coming up from Popadiuk and Heck, and new manufacturers popping up in Europe and the UK. Look at the 3rd party aftermarket too! WOW! We've never seen so many creative embellishments for pinball. Some loved, some not so much but what matters is people are enthusiastic and excited about pinball and it's not just us "old guys" anymore! Pinball is HOT!

KMC: What are some of your personal favorite machines to play?

Cliff: I knew this was coming :) Ok, I only buy what I like to play. If a game has great execution of theme and gameplay, all the better! Favorite really depends on my mood so my garage, gameroom and dining room are filled so I have my moods covered. Lately I've been playing the heck out of DE Star Wars and Twilight Zone. Some days I just want a straightforward game to have fun and forget about work so I'll fire up Cyclone. Other days I long for the nostalgic clickety clack and chimes of my Jumping Jack. When I'm in the mood for a fist fight Judge Dredd gets the coin. Of course there's always that one I don't own that I just gotta play... but now I'm out of room :)


Cliff, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, and thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep all our pinball machines safe.  We can all sleep a little easier at night knowing you are on the job. :)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hulk is smashing my confidence

A week or so ago, our Avengers pinball machine arrived from Stern.  We got one of the limited edition Hulk versions, partly because we totally called it that they were going to make one, and partly because my son loves Hulk.

The machine is gorgeous.  The lighting is some of the most beautiful I've seen.  The music is awesome, and the callouts (done by Marvel-approved impersonators, and not the actors from the film) always have me laughing.  I was a bit worried when I found out they weren't using film dialog or the actual actors, but they really did a good job with this.  I'm not one of those people that needs the audio clips on a pinball machine to always be referencing pinball.  Tron, for example, just tactically integrates actual movie dialog into the play experience, and I love that.  However, the Avengers callouts are great, and I'm now cool with that approach too.

You have to be a pretty accurate player to hit the shots in this game, you have to hit them pretty much dead-on, and the game is all about making those shots.  The ball will redily bounce into the outlanes and drain, too.  One of the goals is to assemble all the Avengers.  So far, I have assembled no more than two in any given game.  I almost always get the Hulk, and Captain America is not that hard to collect, but I've only gotten him a couple times, and Thor once, randomly. 

George, I love you, but it's pretty crazy when I'm falling back to AC/DC because it's nicer to me! :p  I think Avengers is a bit beyond my skill level, but I'm going to keep at it and see if I can improve.  I have to admit, the machine is brutal, but there's no doubt it'll make me a better player!  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, after all, and when I do make the Hawkeye and Black Widow shots, it feels really freaking good.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Get old-schooled with the Pinball 101 instructional video

Part of rediscovering pinball often includes experiencing the epiphany that pinball is a deep game involving a lot of skill.  This was certainly my own situation; the limited amount of pinball I played back in the day was mostly just me trying to keep the ball from draining in the hopes that cool light shows and multiballs would materialize at some point.

OK, I'm still doing that a little bit; I make much better shots now, and I'm much more aware of modes, but I'm still a newbie when it comes to the strategies of stacking modes and timing multiball for optimal jackpots and so forth.  My scores reflect this, but I want to get better.

Pinball 101 is a good step in that direction.  It's an instructional video that goes over different moves.  It does a great job explaining and illustrating how to do various passes. These moves are essential for controlling the ball, and they have the added bonus of looking pretty badass when executed in front of any pinball newb friends you might have hanging around.

The most common criticism of this film is the weird music video breaks in between instruction sets.  They have a tiny remote control car with a camera attached that they drive around various playfields.  I'ts actually kind of a neat idea, but it does feel like filler; I'm here to learn about pinball skills, dag nabbit!

The hardest part about applying these shots to your game is taking the time to practice them.  Even with home games on free play, it's very hard, for me at least, to not just go back to playing and actually practice.  Even when the reward is great.  And it is.  I taught myself the post pass move on Frankenstein without realizing that was what it was called, and it was extremely satisfying to make that shot.  The frustrating (or maybe just infinitely interesting) thing about pinball is, just because I can do a good post pass on one game, doesn't mean I can on a different game.

Overall, Pinball 101 is a valuable instructional video for a new player looking to improve and you just have to ignore the interspersed hokiness.  You can buy Pinball 101 on their website, and it is also available on iTunes.  These guys have a second DVD, The Pinball Collector, which seems like it focuses on older machines (part 1 will focus on pre-1960 machines, with a part 2 planned for machines created after that).  What perked my ears a bit more, though, was seeing that they are working on a Pinball 102 film.  I'll keep you posted on that one, but I better get to work graduating from Pinball 101 first.

Watch the Pinball 101 trailer on YouTube