Pinball News: A Review of the year 2014

Date: 3rd January, 2015
Pinball News
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Welcome to our regular review of the people, events and headlines which went to make the past twelve months such a memorable year in pinball.

We said in our review of 2013 how it had been a year of consolidation and development which would make this the year when the fruits of those labours would become apparent.

In some cases that turned out to be correct, while for others 2014 produced a familiar tale of delays and missed deadlines.

But let’s start with the positive, because while drama and controversy were brewing elsewhere, three pinball companies got on with the business of actually making games.

Stern began the year producing more of their popular Star Trek machines.

Stern's Star Trek LE model
Stern’s Star Trek LE model

The Limited Edition models had sold out before the first game had been completed, but the Pro was the first on the line, providing all the gameplay but without either the bling or the $8,795 MRSP of the LE.

Star Trek continued Stern’s tendency to release games with incomplete software, a trait other manufacturers have happily embraced with some of the more recent models having significant code updates a year or longer after release.

Star Trek was followed by the debut game from recent appointee John Trudeau, who brought us Stern’s first car-branded game with a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ford’s Mustang.

Stern's Mustang Pro
Stern’s Mustang Pro

It would be fair to say that, while largely positive, the reaction to Mustang was muted slightly by either the hope or the expectation of a rather less-conventional design from Mr. Trudeau.

The last quarter of 2014 brought us Stern’s The Walking Dead, based on the popular TV series.

The Walking Dead Premium
The Walking Dead Premium

Designed by John Borg, this was the first recent Stern title not to have a Premium version announced at launch time, although it was subsequently added to the range as you can see above.

Stern’s reticence toward making Premium versions was demonstrated towards the end of the year when they announced there would be no more AC/DC Premium or Luci machines built, with just the Pro model available (the LEs having sold out long ago).

It is understood the current licence to make any AC/DC models expired at the end of 2014, although it could be renewed if there was sufficient demand for the current range or a later Vault Edition.

Now that they have competition from a number of new companies, Stern have been very successful at keeping their upcoming titles under wraps until launch time. This secrecy extends to most of their upcoming titles, although two games they will be manufacturing for third parties are well known.

Medieval Madness remake
Medieval Madness remake

Medieval Madness is expected to start production in the Stern factory on January 12th. It was originally announced at Pinball Expo in October 2013 with a delivery date of Q2 2014, but a number of technical issues have delayed the project by more than six months.

It is being manufactured for Chicago Gaming Company under licence from Williams Electronic Games through Planetary Pinball Supply, and it is Chicago Gaming who will provide the after-sales service and support.

Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons
Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons

Stern also announced they would be making Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons in collaboration with WhizBang Pinball. Production is slated for Spring 2015, although there is no word on pricing or the availability of different versions yet.

Finally, Stern will be moving to new, larger premises in early 2015. They will relocate around 12 miles north-west from their current Melrose Park home to Elk Grove Village. The move will almost triple their current floor space, allowing a second full production line to be built.

2014 was the year when Jersey Jack Pinball began delivering their The Wizard of Oz machine in large numbers. All 1,000 Emerald City Limited Edition models were delivered by September, when production switched to a mix of the Standard model and the 75th Anniversary model which was announced in November 2013.

The 75th Anniversary The Wizard of Oz
The 75th Anniversary The Wizard of Oz

Throughout 2014 a number of reveals were made of the company’s second title, The Hobbit, which was originally expected to start shipping in late December 2014 but is now looking more like February 2015.

The Hobbit
Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit

A new Smaug Gold Special Edition of The Hobbit was announced in October at Pinball Expo, with limited availability until 31st December, 2014 and a ticket price of $9,000.

The Hobbit, Gold Special Edition
The Hobbit, Gold Special Edition

A number of changes have taken place on the playfield of The Hobbit, including the removal of a fourth flipper, new playfield artwork, new Smaug models, and a new shot into the pop bumpers.

Changes have also taken place amongst the personnel at Jersey Jack Pinball. Game designer Joe Balcer left the company, while in January Pat Lawlor joined to design the firm’s third model. David Thiel also joined to work on music, speech and sound effects for The Hobbit and future games.

The third company to actually manufacture and ship games managed to keep a lower profile than Stern or Jersey Jack, but Spooky Pinball have been busy building their production facilities in Benton, Wisconsin, and manufacturing the Ben Heck-designed America’s Most Haunted game

Spooky Pinball
Spooky Pinball
(picture: Spooky Pinball on Facebook)

Production of America’s Most Haunted is limited to 150 machines. So far, half of the $5,995 games have been sold, of which 25 have been built and shipped.

Meanwhile, Spooky Pinball appear to have put their Pinball Zombies from Beyond the Grave on hold, figuring one zombie game on the market is enough for now.

Spooky Pinball's Pinball Zombies from Beyond the Grave
Spooky Pinball’s Pinball Zombies from Beyond the Grave

Spooky Pinball has also teamed up with Scott Gullicks of Riot Pinball to build 250 Wrath of Olympus – the six-flippered, P-ROC-based Greek mythology game.

Riot Pinball's Wrath of Olympus
Riot Pinball’s Wrath of Olympus

Riot Pinball said Wrath of Olympus would only be built if 100 pre-orders were placed by the end of 2014. At the time of writing it was unclear how many pre-orders had been received, but with the suggestion of only around 50 by mid-December it looked unlikely the target was reached before the end of the year.

We’ll keep you updated on what happened and whether Wrath of Olympus will be built, or not.

Delays and dramas took their toll on several companies poised to start making their first pinball machines.

The biggest drama had to be at Dutch Pinball where their meteoric ascendency through September and October took a rapid downslide late in the year.

The success of the launch party for their The Big Lebowski game in Utrect was repeated soon after at Pinball Expo, where their stand dominated the exhibit hall.

Part of the Dutch Pinball stand at Pinball Expo
Part of the Dutch Pinball stand at Pinball Expo

Interest in the game came from outside the regular coin-op business, reaching the mainstream media and a wider Lebowski-loving audience. Our first video of the game has so far been viewed more than 36,000 times – over double the number for our next most popular.

Dutch Pinball's The Big Lebowski
Dutch Pinball’s The Big Lebowski at their launch party

Everyone was excited about the game, the speed at which the team had created a near-finished prototype, the display size, the quality of the animations and the way the licence was integrated into every aspect of the game.

Everything looked set for a highly successful first game, until one member of the team who was in control of the US side of the operation left the team in a fairly public and acrimonious way in mid-December, refunding many buyers’ downpayments and casting doubt on the validity of the company’s business and licensing practices.

However, by the end of the year the worst of the storm appeared to have passed. Dutch Pinball appointed an accountant to sort out the US operation, and hired Roger Sharpe to smooth over any licensing bumps. With the next round of pre-order payments now due, the only concern is whether the company will have sufficient equity remaining from the pre-orders to start production this spring.

One area of good new from Dutch Pinball was the shipping of the first Bride of Pinbot 2.0 conversion kits in December to totally rewrite the game’s rules, sounds, music and lighting effects, to add a new computer and a full-colour LCD dot-matrix display.

Dutch Pinball's Bride of Pinbot
Dutch Pinball’s Bride of Pinbot

Delays and a little drama at Heighway Pinball too, where their long-awaited first game, Full Throttle, is yet to enter production more than two years after it was announced as the re-theme for Circe’s Animal House.

Andrew told us just before Christmas that four units should be at the EAG International trade show in mid-January, and there would be a launch party the same week, as production of the first games begins in their new factory.

As with Dutch Pinball, the excitement generated by the launch of a new game was soon tempered. At Pinball Expo, company CEO Andrew Heighway revealed their second title as, well, this…

Heighway Pinball's second title
Heighway Pinball’s second title

But no sooner had it been announced with Dennis Nordman showing some of the toys he had designed for it, than Dennis left the project saying he thought the release date of April 2015 was unrealistic and that he should not be considered the game’s designer.

However, just as one door closed, another one opened, as Barry Oursler joined the Heighway Pinball team to design a game of his own, and lend his years of game design experience to the company’s other titles.

Barry’s name had previously been dropped at another pinball start-up – Vonnie D Pinball.

Vonnie D's website
Vonnie D’s website

In June, Von Davis and Wes Upchurch launched their company alongside their first pinball title called Pinball Gremlins.

The Pinball Gremlins logo
The Pinball Gremlins logo

Soon after they launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign which had a relatively lackluster initial few weeks, but a surprise last-minute rush at the end of July brought them their requested $100,000.

The money they raised is intended to fund development of the game, pay salaries to the team, and help set up their manufacturing processes.  But that money also has to fund the building of eleven Pinball Gremlins machines (nine Limited Edition models and two Standard machines) which were included in the Kickstarter rewards.  So how much will remain for game development is unclear.

In addition, Barry Oursler is now working exclusively with Heighway Pinball.  When Pinball News asked him about his involvement with Vonnie D, Barry said he’s only seen a ‘back of a napkin’ sketch of the playfield layout and had told them he needed much more detail to be able to offer any advice.  That had been the full extent of his contact with them.

Then, just to add an extra wrinkle to their story, Wes Upchurch is to appear before a court on a charge associated with the distribution of synthetic drugs.

Regardless, Vonnie D Pinball say they have continued to develop their game, albeit with some delays, and say their work on Pinball Gremlins will resume shortly.

More delays and concerns over licensing could be found over at Skit-B Pinball, who have failed to produce their P-ROC-based Predator pinball more than two-and-a-half years after first showing a flip-able whitewood.

Skit-B's Predator
Skit-B’s Predator

This year the subject of Skit-B’s licence with Fox for the use of the Predator name and assets was called into doubt once again, while company head Kevin Kulek remained silent on the subject for several months.

However he did recently say that although he had learned the hard way just how tough it is to make pinball machines, he now has a firm grip on how to take the game into production.  There was no predicted delivery date, though.

This difficult in actually building a game had been addressed back in June when Skit-B announced their second title, Experts of Dangerous.

Skit-B's Experts of Dangerous mockup
Skit-B’s Experts of Dangerous mock-up

Based on the brand created by Mythbusters stars Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the licensed game will not be built by Skit-B themselves.  Instead manufacturing has been contracted out to Jersey Jack Pinball at their Lakewood, New Jersey facility.

One of the earliest independent pinball manufacturers to show their had came very close to delivering their first game right at the end of 2014.

Quetzal Pinball's Captain Nemo Dives Again
Quetzal Pinball’s Captain Nemo Dives Again

Quetzal Pinball’s Captain Nemo Dives Again was first announced in March 2012 and appeared to be reasonably close to production-ready. But several changes to the operating system, modifications to the playfield mechanisms and the choice of playfield material and manufacturer have seen the game slip out of the limelight.

The first customer was due to receive their game at the end of November, but a problem with the game decals and the ball trough pushed that back once again. It should be delivered some time in January 2015 instead.

Down in Austin, Texas, the Multimorphic team have been working away at their P3 pinball platform and their first two titles, Lexy Lightspeed – Galaxy Girl and Cosmic Cart Racing.

Lexy Lightspeed - Galaxy Girl from Multimorphic
Lexy Lightspeed – Galaxy Girl from Multimorphic

The platform’s hardware has been through a number of changes since it was unveiled in March 2012, with various backbox and mechanical mounting options for the game’s key mechanisms and the large LCD panel, but those now seem to be settled and the focus of development is more on the software.

And speaking of software, Multimorphic plan to release their software development kit (SDK) in the first quarter of 2015 to allow those with the talent and the skills to create their own games for the platform, either using their own custom upper playfield module, or re-using one of the existing two.

The upper playfield for Lexy Lightspeed - Galaxy Girl
The upper playfield for Lexy Lightspeed – Galaxy Girl

Not that it’s all software though. Multimorphic are building two manufacturing prototypes which will be the template for the first manufactured machines. Their contract manufacturers can then build pre-production models to optimize their processes before production begins for real.

The company has also been drumming up interest by offering no-deposit and no-commitment pre-orders in an attempt to demonstrate the level of interest in the P3 system to potential investors.

Another long-time independent developer is John Popadiuk’s Zidware. The company is actively developing Magic Girl and Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland in their Illinois workshop, and have created many innovative artwork designs and playfield mechanisms.

John with some Retro Atomic Zombieland Adventure backbox artwork
John with some Retro Atomic Zombieland Adventure backbox artwork

They are also creating Alice in Wonderland, although that game was announced more recently and so its development is less far advanced.

Magic Girl is probably the game with the longest development period, having been announced in July 2011 at an initial cost of $15,995 plus tax. To date, there has been no announcement about delivery dates.

There was not much news in 2014 from the Australian firm Homepin who are making a Thunderbirds game, but that’s no surprise as the game isn’t scheduled for completion until 2015.

Homepin's Thunderbirds
Homepin’s Thunderbirds

Owner Mike Kalinowski has posted pictures on Facebook of some of the fixtures his company has created at their factory in Shenzhen, China, where they have already produced a run of Hankin-branded cocktail video games.

Video games being made at the Homepin factory
Video games being made at the Homepin factory
(picture: Homepin on Facebook)

Finally in this roundup of current and future game manufacturers is the most recent entrant to the field, Silver Castle Pinball based in the Netherlands.

In August we brought you the exclusive news of the Silver Castle Pinball team’s plans to bring the Pro Pinball game Timeshock! out of the virtual and into the real world.

A computer rendering of the Timeshock playfield
A computer rendering of the Timeshock! playfield

They are working with the creators of the computer version led by Adrian Barritt to ensure the real machine is a faithful recreation. Adrian’s team will be writing the software for Silver Castle Pinball alongside their work creating new Ultra versions of all the Pro Pinball titles.

At the Dutch Pinball Open in November, Silver Castle Pinball showed their progress so far in building the Timeshock! hardware.

Silver Castle Pinball's Timeshock!
Silver Castle Pinball’s Timeshock!

Timeshock! won’t be ready for some time yet as a whole control system to drive the real hardware has to be created before the rules can be ported over from the simulation.


Pinball Personalities

Several pinball people have moved companies this year.

  • Ray Tanzer – back at Stern Pinball
  • Dwight Sullivan – back at Stern Pinball
  • Paul Mandeltort – joined Stern Pinball
  • Chuck Bleich – joined Stern Pinball
  • Brian Schmitt – joined Stern Pinball
  • Dennis Nordman – left Heighway Pinball
  • Barry Oursler – joined Heighway Pinball
  • Dennis Nordman and Paul Reno – designing games at Dennis’s home
  • Pat Lawlor – joined Jersey Jack Pinball
  • Joe Balcer – left Jersey Jack Pinball
  • David Thiel – joined Jersey Jack Pinball
  • Philip Weinberg – left Dutch Pinball

Did we miss any? Let us know.

The biggest impact felt in 2014 was, of course, the loss of the hugely talented and flamboyant designer, Python Anghelo.

Python Anghelo
Python Anghelo

Python’s battle against cancer was finally lost in April, but his huge contribution to pinball history will live on, as will his final project – the revival of his Pinball Circus game.

A team of experienced pinball people came together to form Circus Maximus, with the express aim of fulfilling Pythons wish of putting Pinball Circus into production. At Pinball Expo they showed their progress.

Circus Maximus's Pythons Pinball Circus
Circus Maximus’s Pythons Pinball Circus

No pre-orders will be taken for Python’s Pinball Circus. When it’s built, you’ll be able to buy it.


Pinball Prices

The inexorable rise in the price of new pinballs continued in 2014. The new top end price for premium machines has hit $9,000 with Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit Smaug Gold Special Edition, while Dutch Pinball just sneaked in under the bar at $8,995 for The Big Lebowski. Stern’s Limited Edition models have been hovering just below the $9K level too, with Star Trek at $8,795, and Mustang and The Walking Dead at $8,495 and $8,595 respectively.

Although none were delivered in 2014, the impending production of Medieval Madness remakes saw the price of originals come crashing down from highs around the $15,000 level before the remake announcement to nearer $9,000.

Most other pinballs continue to creep up in price, although the pace has slowed considerably as collectors find their money tied up in pre-orders which are yet to deliver. And while Planetary Pinball Supply can remake many popular Williams/Bally or even Capcom titles and Stern can create Vault Editions if they perceive the demand is there, top end prices are like to be kept in check.

Was 2014 the year when the pre-order bubble finally burst? The Dutch Pinball controversy, the less-than-enthusiastic uptake of pre-orders from Vonnie D and Riot Pinball, and the fact Stern still have Mustang LEs available suggest the blind rush to pay up-front to secure games the moment they are announced might be a thing of the past.

That said, there will always be collectors who want the best and rarest version of any new game, and are willing to put money up-front to ensure they get it. So pre-orders are unlikely to disappear completely as long as limited edition variants continue to be offered.
Pinball is Back

Everywhere you looked, pinball was growing in 2014.

Apart from the increased number of manufacturers, there were more and bigger pinball shows, more pinball tournaments, more pinball leagues, more pinballs on location, more pinball mods, and more players.

From our own perspective, we had many more shows to visit and many more competitive pinball events in which to play – almost too many at times, with calendar clashes throughout the year.

So congratulations to everyone organising or attending shows or tournaments, taking along games their games, operating pinballs, running organisations or clubs, designing or building games, creating pinball publications, or promoting pinball in any way.

You made 2014 another great year for pinball.


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