PINBALL BY DESIGN (CONTINUED)
MARK: Moving on, would you like to make any comments regarding Gene Cunningham.
STEVE: He is a nice guy.
MARK: Ok, enough said.
STEVE: I mean what’s he going to do, he is not an engineer.
MARK: He is a wealthy enthusiast.
STEVE: Yes, he is an enthusiast, but if he is really going to make pinball machines he better bring, oh gees, on a shoe string budget 30 million dollars otherwise, it probably won’t work out.
MARK: Yes, well we’ve seen Alvin G, Capcom and the others come and go. I don’t think he is going to start making them. I think the question probably relates more to his parts empire rather than production.
STEVE: Yes, I can see that happening if he can get the parts made and all that. Is he selling any parts yet?
MARK: Oh yes he is. I don’t know how he’s going to handle it because his problems are multiple and I won’t go into them too much here but lets say you have someone who wants a ramp for Indiana Jones OK. He has got to look at it and say how many am I likely to sell in what period of time. There is a minimum investment he must put in if he is going to make parts. But how many will he sell in say a year, perhaps 100? Who knows? Is it worth while?
STEVE: He may not even sell 20 of some parts.
MARK: Perhaps not ramps but some items would sell in large numbers.
STEVE: Yes. But here’s the first problem, they didn’t give him all of the tooling. The aluminum molds they made for those ramps were not included in the sale, or at least, that is what I have heard. You can reverse engineer any part, but at what cost? A new mold for ramps as I know them has to cost 15-20K today. I could be wrong. But even if it was only $10K, that would make those 20 ramps cost $500 each, and that’s at NO PROFIT. Good luck Gene. I hope you did get the molds when you bought the Willy stuff.
MARK: If that’s right, even if a 100 will be sold it will still to be a bloody expensive item to the consumer at the end of the day.
STEVE: Yes, Back to the original question, I don’t think there is much of a chance of Pinball ever coming back because, well I don’t think it is a product of the 21st century.
MARK: Yes you said that in an earlier E-mail. But I don’t know that I agree with that, that’s almost a convenient handle to give it, if you know that I mean.
STEVE: I gave it that handle, it’s not only convenient, it is true and I’m not the guy who made it be that way, there aren’t enough players is the first thing. How old are you Mark?
STEVE: 37 Yes. I’m telling you, young people don’t care about pinball.
MARK: I think video games were a big distraction in the early 80′s. Nowadays, it’s the Internet and the computers. It doesn’t mean they can’t swing back, they are getting tired of sitting in their room, they want to get out and socialise. It’s that social aspect, going down to the shop, you know gathering, that sort of thing. It’s probably more hope than common sense I grant you but as long as Stern is still going, I think there is a chance. When he goes, I’ll back your horse all way.
STEVE: Well I’m not looking for backing. I am a realist. I have lived it for 24 years and it’s over. There’s a slim possibility that it may just sweep the country and become the major new thing like free style motocross has. Are you familiar with free-style motocross?
MARK: Yes, I know what it is but I dont follow it.
STEVE: Ok, well that has become very big in the United States. If all the young people in the United States decided to love pinball one day I suppose somebody might give me a call and say Steve we need you to make a game again. OK, fine. That would be great. But I just don’t believe it is going to happen because who is going to put them out there in first place to let people know that they are fun to play. Where pinball has taken itself has also caused it’s own demise. Some of the newer games have rules that are so hard to follow. We always had to avoid the “geeks-only-please” syndrome by not making rules and play obscure for anyone except the most in the know player. I think we pushed the limit with ST:TNG, and that only worked because each item, each feature was analyzed and reduced for simplicity.
MARK: Same with Gottleib Street Fighter 2, very simple, you hit this guy and you get a choice. Same thing.
STEVE: I like it a little more clever. I like “make me do this”, but I don’t want to keep repeating this and that’s what Attack from Mars does, for instance. It makes you move around, it not only makes you move around, it keeps you satisfied all the way. A magnificent game. Brian Eddy and Lyman Sheats did a great job on that one.
MARK: Yes there is always something to do.
STEVE: The Games that are going on now, no way. Its kind of damaging.
MARK: Yes, I think what they need is perhaps some new blood with some totally fresh ideas.
STEVE: Games can be loaded with fresh ideas, that’s not the problem. The problem is now what you have is a very select group of people who love to play pinball and love to get into the little intricacies and what that does is it kind of pushes the new player out of the picture. It also is the only audience that pinball designers have to listen to right now, and that fact is going to be influential.
MARK: Your are 100% exactly right. There is clearly something wrong when Judge Dredd is getting more popular because people are looking for every tiny detail. Twilight Zone is generally a popular game in the home market but it is a very complicated game, the average person who plays a game just wants to kill 10 minutes. They don’t want to really have to learn too many rules, but they still want to be able to accomplish something.
STEVE: I never got into the rules of TZ. My favorite Pat Lawlor game is Adams Family. That game packed the power of 2 of the best pinballs guys in history, Pat Lawlor and Larry DeMar.
MARK: Do you know what Pat is doing now?
STEVE: He is making a pinball machine.
MARK: And Larry?
STEVE: He’s making gaming machines.
MARK: Like everybody else it would seem.
STEVE: Like Eugene and I. I mean there is no market for pinball. We all loved pinball so much, and believe me, if it made sense, we’d be doing it too. Pat’s situation is special, and he’s managing it.
MARK: I can’t argue with you on that point. Now moving on, this one you’ll love, Pinball 2000, what do you think, what are your comments on it? My thoughts were first time I saw it were it was horrible.
STEVE: OK, my exact perception is a desperate group of engineers who wanted nothing more than to bring pinball back to where it was. Operators weren’t buying many pinballs before pinball 2000 came along. It is easy to sit here in California and criticize Pinball 2000. I see a whole bunch of dedicated people coming together to make a last-ditch effort to save pinball. I can see them all trying desperately to save jobs and be heroes to the coin-operated game business. The main problems were that the $600 cost increase was back-breaking for a product that no one wanted or was buying in the first place. The second item was the deliberate removal of mechanical parts, to reduce mechanical liability, but then, people play pinballs (or don’t) based on the simple fact that mechanicals are what make pinball play desirable in the first place. The third and perhaps the most perplexing is that people who play video despise pinball and vice versa. The video/pinball combination has never worked in the past. They were desperate enough to try it anyway.
MARK: Well, the players don’t want to see both in the same cabinet that’s for sure.
STEVE: It isn’t fair of me to criticize the concept without offering an alternative, and I had one when they started Pinball 2000, but feelings toward me from some of the guys in pinball were not exactly friendly. A few felt that I abandoned them when I left pinball. I don’t know how I know, or why I know, what the heartbeat of the game (and gaming), businesses are/is, but somehow I seem to sense the ups and down and viabilities at any given moment. I left because I knew the death of pinball was coming in 1996. Nobody was going to have any big successes in the pinball business. I followed my instincts and they were correct. I wasn’t totally happy in my new job, but I was doing much better financially than I would have making poorly-selling pinballs, while still not being a traitor to my company of 20 years (at the time). A lot of good loyalty did me and most of the rest of us when they decided to trash us.
Anyway, I offer my alternative to Pinball 2000 here and now. I would’ve made a game that was 1 level, 3 ball multiball, cheaply clever and no deeper than 3″ from wood to glass. Maybe a couple of overhead shots, but lots of shots being important. I would go for 4 flippers and cause the playfield to be multi-directional. I would try to build it cheaply and cleverly with as many passive or cheap ball movers as possible. I would not waste money on a license, preferring to throw every penny into the playfield. Even so, it would not have kept the wolves from the door for long.
MARK: I would have gone for that in kits, you can make them cheaper. I would have gone for here’s a playfield, here’s a backglass and some decals slap them on your old Getaway or Dr Who etc.
STEVE: We would often say that and we did it a couple of times but there was no history of anyone making money with that. Resale value was also diminished. Who wants a converted Dr. Who etc?
MARK: Yes, that is always the problem.
STEVE: The manufacturers don’t make enough money on conversions. It’s wonderful for an Operator who decides I’ll just take this Pinball and convert it to this and I will only have to pay $2000 for it. But there is virtually no profit to be made so why would they ever do it? They wouldn’t and they couldn’t.
MARK: It’s a catch 22.
STEVE: You know I heard that from Operators and Distributors so many times. You know some of my best friends made Pinball 2000 and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
MARK: I’ll say it for you, when a game is crap its crap!
MARK: How old were you when your first game was put into production?
STEVE: I was 24 when Airborne Avenger was made.
MARK: In your career which year was the best year for you.
STEVE: I’d have to say 1979.
MARK: Actually so would I, it was a great year for Pinball in general.
STEVE: Do you know why?
MARK: Because Pinballs advances were going ahead in leaps and bounds and Video had not peaked yet.
STEVE: Right, I had 3 Pinballs on the Charts simultaneously and they were trading places for number one. It was the best time of my life.
MARK: I envy you for that, I would have loved to have been in the Industry in 1979 in any capacity but at fifteen I was VERY happy just being an avid player.
STEVE: Atari delayed the production of Superman. I was already working at Williams and I had already finished Flash and Stellar Wars when Atari finally released Superman.
MARK: Yes, Flash was awarded Pinball of the year for 1979 and as you know Stellar Wars is one of my personal favourites. I like Superman alot too.
STEVE: Those 3 Pinballs were trading positions for number one for well over a year.
MARK: To the best of your memory what games did you design or substantially participate in?
STEVE: Airborne Avenger, Superman, Flash, Stellar Wars, Firepower, Black Knight, Hyperball, High Speed, F-14 Tomcat, Black Knight 2000, The Getaway, Rollergames, Terminator 2: Judgment day, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and lastly, No Fear. I also made a video game called Devastator, California Speed, and helped out with numerous games, a little work on Defender, on Elvira, when Dennis Nordman was hurt and in the hospital, numerous butt-ins on others’ games, and lots of speech for many more games than my own.
MARK: Did you do Blackout?
STEVE: No, I didn’t do Blackout. That was my friend Claude Fernandez. There is a story here in itself. He worked at Atari in 1978 as a draftsman and I got him a job in Chicago after I got to Williams. He was a draftsman there too and he drew games and parts. He wanted to be a game designer really bad and so they let him make a game and it was pretty cool. It was Blackout.
You have to picture the fact that there were three of us in one room drawing seperate pinball machines. There was no privacy. One day out of the blue, Claude came into the office and he said “I am leaving-that’s it” and he quit and went to Bally. Everything I had on my drawing up to that point for Black Knight he copied and you can see it. Its the whole right side of Flash Gordon.
MARK: I never noticed that but then I never liked Flash Gordon.
STEVE: He stole the best parts of my concept and we were at the AMOA show with the first 2 level games ever, Black Knight and Flash Gordon. We smoked Flash Gordon with Black Knight and we sold 14000 units. Bally sold around 6000 Flash Gordons. But that was 6000 sales we could have gotten. That’s how I have always looked at it-6000 machines that he stole from us. After Black Knight I helped Eugene with Defender.
MARK: The Pinball or the Video.
STEVE: The Video, Defender Pinball was done by Joe Kaminkow much later.
MARK: Defender Pinball was a top game to play but was released at a bad time.
STEVE: I don’t think I ever played it. I didn’t help with Robotron 2084 much but I did name the game though. Eugene and Larry wanted to call it just 2084 and I said that the name didn’t tell the story of what the game was about. I like names that are game descriptive. l also named Mortal Kombat.
MARK: OK, Did you choose to spell Mortal Kombat with a K.
STEVE: Yes, I made up that name and gave it to Ed Boone. They had Mortal on the white board. I added the word Kombat.
MARK: Why spell it with a K?
STEVE: Because it was cool. We wrote it on the Board and there it was: Mortal Kombat.
MARK: OK, I always wondered about that, I thought It may have been bad spelling by an Asian manufacturer or something similar.
STEVE: No not at all. I did one other thing on the game too. I am the voice of the announcer. My voice is all over it. I did part 1 & 2 and my voice was used in the movie without my permission.
MARK: Why doesn’t that surprise me. What was next?
STEVE: OK, my next game was Devastator, a Video game. I finished Devastator in 1984 and brought it to the show, that was the time the floor fell out of the entire video game industry. Video games were worthless, everything was worthless. Manufacturers made too many and they were all the same. My game was a Flight Simulator, very cool. It was the first 68000 microprocessor game anywhere in the world but it didn’t matter–nobody cared, nobody would even look at it. Williams lost $18 million (not on Devastator!! They didn’t build any) that year and I lost a fortune myself. I called up Mike Stroll the president of Williams and said “Mike can I come back and make pinballs?” He said “sure”.
MARK: AT least that was easy.
STEVE: We threw together a contract and I packed up everything and went back to Chicago. Larry DeMar and I slipped in the backroom and we did High Speed and in about 12 months.
MARK: Boy, that’s a long time 12 months for one pinball back then.
STEVE: Yes, but it was revolutionary. It had so many firsts as you know. OK, after High Speed was F14 Tomcat with Eugene then I think it was Black Knight 2000 and then Roller Games.
MARK: Did you do Fire?
STEVE: No. At one time, that question would have been the ultimate insult. Internally, many of us called it “Fire Wood”.
MARK: Yes, it was a poor game. Then they did that champagne edition because the weren’t selling.
STEVE: Nobody wanted buy them until the champagne edition. Another bad one was Swords of Fury, we called that one Dick Swords. It was terrible. Terminator was mine it was another one year game to make. We believed in making quality games that received the utmost care, time and experimentation on my teams.
MARK: Getaway was very similar to the original High Speed in playfield layout.
STEVE: I even went so far as to get the same artist. He didn’t work for the company anymore. I contracted out for him to do it.
MARK: Management didn’t mind that?
STEVE: No, they didn’t mind at all, he was a friend of the company and he wasn’t in a competing position. His name is Mark Springer; he went into novelty games.
MARK: How many designs in general never see production.
STEVE: Very few, I have only seen a game trashed about 5 times out of 100′s of machines. It’s not a common thing.
MARK: That would also depend on how far along it was.
STEVE: Certain games were pretty bad, but salvaged because we had to fill a hole in the production schedule. It wasn’t always pretty, but we had some very long stretches of good games, too.
MARK: What game that you designed is your favourite?
STEVE: I don’t know, I have about three. Black Knight 2000 is up there. It might not be appreciated for the same reasons I like it because it’s an “adversary” game where your fighting this entity, I like that kind of stuff. I really like to play Terminator, it’s fun making the cannon shot and pretty exciting for me, anyway, I like to get it going and do the impossible. and Firepower of course.
MARK: Do you have any Pinballs of your own?
STEVE: A Black Knight 2000. I got rid of the rest of them because they are a maintenance headache at this point and nobody plays them. I don’t have any friends here that play. If I was in Chicago some guys would come over and we would play some games. There will be times again when I will have more.
MARK: What is your least favorite of your own designs?
STEVE: Stellar Wars is my first least favourite and I was never that happy with the way No Fear came out and I’ll tell you why. I really should have done one more white wood and taken out or modified one of the shots because they were too narrow if you ask me. Mr. Nicastro the President asked me to make the game quickly, as there was a hole in the production schedule. I should have just done what I needed to do.
MARK: Well, you did have to be a good player to play that game well.
STEVE: Yes, It didn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
MARK: It was not a bad game though. It came out in slow times but it was ok.
STEVE: I am not ashamed of it. It’s depressing though when you know there was a time when I was making pinballs and they would just stomp everything in the arcade. I felt like I was contributing not just to my own pocket but to the strength of the Coin Operated Game business. It was depressing to have to make products that just wouldn’t make enough money. I took it all personally, I felt like I wasn’t serving the business or anything else if I didn’t make the number one game.
MARK: I understand, but I don’t think there would have been too much you could have done.
STEVE: Maybe not, but I never liked to make excuses about that. When I thought I saw that the opportunity to succeed was not there anymore and it was still there for video games but even then, it was weak but it was what I could do at that moment and so I went into Video games.
MARK: Can you name a few favourite Pinballs from other manufacturers?
STEVE: Some of my favorites are pretty obscure. I really liked and was influenced by Captain Fantastic, no question about it. I liked that flipper on the upper right and you can see that on Flash.
MARK: Bally’s Skateball was clearly a close copy of Flash.
STEVE: Totally. Skateball was the product of my friend, Claude Fernandez. He made Skateball and that’s what is was– a copy of Flash. I think he might have taken copies of the Flash drawing with him when he left.
MARK: That was pretty bold.
STEVE: It was terrible and well the President wanted to kill him once when there was a big scene at an AMOA show in the Hilton Hotel. It was awful when Black Knight and Flash Gordon were there we both wanted to rip his head off. If you want another example of total similarity (plagiarism) check out Secret Service, it’s Flash and High Speed combined. Even the posts were in exactly the same positions as the original games. Claude struck again.
MARK: OK, What are some others you like?
STEVE: There are lots of others, I liked Pat Lawlor’s Adams Family- it’s fun to play. My brother Mark’s Taxi is a great game but my favourite by my brother is Indiana Jones. I like an older game by John Trudeau he made a game at Gottlieb called Hollywood Heat and that was a fun game to play, I love it. Going through the other designers’ games, I was influenced by Jim Patla’s Mata Hari. The game had a simple elegance and crusty Dave Christiansen artwork. I liked his attempt at making the ball go across the playfield if you made that A/B shot. I liked that and I liked the side to side action that game produces. From Barry Oursler, my Favourite game from him was Comet. My favorite Dennis Nordman game is Elvira. My favorite Brian Eddy/Lyman Sheats game is Attack From Mars. I love that game still. Special mention of Vince Ponterelli’s voice and humor is due, along with Dan Forden. A very complete and entertaining package that seems to have a depth of play well beyond requisite.
My favorite game by Steve Kordek was Williams Space Mission. When I first became part of the pinball division at Atari, we got a brand-new one, and it influenced me in many ways. Later in my career, he was my boss at Williams. He was the best at clever fixes and a wealth of knowledge and history. He is still alive and well, and contributing. He’s 90 years old now.
My Favourite Eugene Jarvis- Larry DeMar game is Robotron. It’s not a pinball but I played video too, and Robotron is one of the best and most exciting, physical experiences you could ever have playing video arcade games. It can’t be duplicated at home because it requires 2 joysticks firmly mounted in a control panel. I have the original coin-op version.
MARK: It’s not the same on a computer. If you don’t have it in an arcade cabinet running off the original board its just not the same.
STEVE: You are correct. Not to change the subject but I need to let you know that I also play a lot of computer and online games. I loved the Doom games, Unreal, Quake, and play them when I can. I am 51 years old and can still hang with much younger people on many video games.
MARK: I think I am more of a Pinball purist although I don’t mind some of the 80′s Video games like Hyper Olympics (Track and Field).
STEVE: I think I have missed a few designers.
MARK: Its interesting how you log games by their designers. I suppose you knew many designers so that’s how you remember many games.
STEVE: Oh yes, but not in all cases, I don’t remember everyone of them.
MARK: Did you know many designers from Gottlieb, Stern, Bally.
STEVE: We all pretty much knew each other.
MARK: What about back in the say the 70′s & 80′s?
STEVE: Absolutely, we would go eat lunch together. There was a place called the Round Robin Restaurant. We called it the Dinosaur Club because a lot of the older guys who worked at all 3 companies would go there for lunch. It was just a few blocks from Stern, Bally and Williams, Gottlieb was out in the Suburbs so we rarely saw those guys. That was when Bally was a separate company and we would go out there all the time and have a great time. We were all curious about each other, processes, and other rules of operation.
We complimented each other whenever we had a game come out, and met at Mother’s Pinball the same night any new game was placed by any of the 4 companies. With only a few exceptions, it was a time of honorable and fair competition.
MARK: Your Joking, I am amazed to hear that. Did management know about this?
STEVE: Of course!! Steve Kordek, our Chief Designer for many years, knew all of the old time guys. I met Norm Clark, Harry Williams and Wayne Neyens, as well as lots of other guys, whose careers I followed through their pinball achievements. Sometimes I’d eat with Gil Pollock, the President of Gottlieb/Premier, Billy O’Donnell Jr. (Bally President) or the guys from Stern including Gary and Tom Campbell as well as Mike Kubin. We were all pretty good friends, and knew what to talk about, and what not to. Norm Clark was and still is Steve Kordek’s best friend.
MARK: Why is it then they always gave the impression there was intense rivalry?
STEVE: There was intense rivalry but we got along. Williams started kicking ass in 1978 and we continued until we had owned the pinball market. The best people of most of the companies ended up at Williams. Williams by far and away had the largest group of talented people. There were so many good people in that company that it was stunning. We were unbeatable.
Nobody had that quantity, nobody even had half the power that we had. We were interviewing and only accepted the best people and we turned away lots of people. When somebody came through and they could prove that they lived pinball, and we knew it, we sucked them up. Like Ed Boone. His first assignment was to work on F-14 Tomcat with Eugene and I. He wrote a lot of good code for us and learned how to produce a game.
MARK: So why would you pick someone like Ed who didn’t know much?
STEVE: First of all Ed came to us as a great programmer and he was great player and he knew every detail, that’s one of the keys. If you don’t know the details and if your not up with everything that’s happening at that moment how can you pull out of your ass the next thing that’s going to happen? If you don’t know the history of what it takes to make a great game, if you don’t know the mistakes that were made and the features that were wonderful, how can you expect to pull the FUTURE wonder game out of your ass?
MARK: What was the most difficult design you ever did?
STEVE: Star Trek the Next Generation and second is Black Knight 2000. Did you know that the upper playfield lifts for cleaning? You can look at the thing and say, well, so what. Well, I can tell you that was hell to engineer.
MARK: When did you start and finish with Williams/Bally/Midway/Atari?
STEVE: I started working at Atari in California first in 1974. I got a nice offer to work at Williams and went to Chicago in April 1978. I worked at the Williams factory until 1996, when Williams bought Atari. I asked to transfer there and produce video games. They canned me in late 1999. I traveled around and we took some time off. I got myself together and then I began to work on a novelty game, but then realized that novelty was dead, too. I saw the gaming opportunity a short while after and began a new project in October of 2000.
MARK: Do you like designing Pinballs in particular or designing in general?
STEVE: If I have a great idea I really don’t care about the media or classification of the product. I must believe that there is a “space” for my machine. A hole to fill. A window of opportunity. The windows are wide open and plentiful in the gaming business right now. Its was enjoyable designing pinballs. They were very interesting and it was satisfying.
MARK: Do you have any pinball designs or drawings hidden away that no one has ever seen.
STEVE: No, they all got made. I have a few sketches of stuff but I never really spent more than an hour on anything that didn’t get built.
MARK: Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
STEVE: Well, I am really sorry that Pinball isn’t a real popular medium anymore of course. I wish I could bring it back because so many people would like it to be that way but unfortunately its not enough people to sustain an industry anymore.
MARK: I think that’s an appropiatte note to end on. Steve, I can’t thank you enough for your time, effort and enormous assistance and I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.
STEVE: Well, I am glad to help out and I have enjoyed talking to you too.
Interview conducted by:
One final note: I said this to Steve in a latter conversation.
MARK: You still have a BIG soft spot in your heart for Pinball haven’t you Steve.
STEVE: Yes. I loved my job. I loved making them. I always tried to make them as fun as possible and always with the player’s interests first.