In August 2001 I had the priveledge of interviewing the well known and revered Williams Pinball designer, Steve Ritchie. At my request, Steve graciously agreed to be interviewed and as we are both Pinball fans we proceeded to discuss everything from Flippers and Favourites through to Design, Production and just about everything else in Pinball and beyond. Steve IS a nice easy guy to talk to and he took alot of time and trouble to make this interview an informative one. THANKS STEVE!!
I intended this interview to be 1 or 2 pages long at most but it quickly evolved into much more. I attempted to trim it down but soon realised I couldn’t cut out a single sentence because I knew my fellow Pinball lovers would enjoy it all. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did conducting it.
MARK: Thankyou very much for making the time for this interview. Have you done many of these before?
STEVE: Yes, over the years, Life Magazine, Science ’81, virtually all of the trade magazines and numerous other things, radio, web etc.
MARK: I’ve seen you in the Replay, Playmeter, Promo Videos and other magazines etc. Most of the people that will read this article will be the collectors, enthusiasts or players not the operators or distributors.
STEVE: Operators and distributors probably couldn’t care less.
MARK: Quite right. You were recently selling some of pinball memorabilia collection on Ebay, what motivated you to do that?
STEVE: It is just stuff to me. They don’t mean the same thing to me as they might mean to someone else. To me, it’s like I have lived with them most of my life, you know? They’re just drawings that I have made, I have made a thousand drawings.
MARK: OK, I understand. Stern’s now contracting out its pinball work, have you been approached or thought of contributing to the Stern cause if you like?
STEVE: Actually, yes I called Gary Stern. He is a great guy, I like him and we get along. I called Gary and said “Do you want a pinball design?”, we can talk about it and, well basically he said “sure, what have you got, bring it in”, but I would never invest my time and energy on speculation. Not now, at least.
MARK: I have spoken to Steve Kirk, he did some designs back in the late 70′s. Meteor is one that comes to mind.
STEVE: That was a good game, and yes, I am very familiar with Steve and his work.
MARK: He told me he did a couple of hope designs, as in hoping they would be accepted. I don’t think I would go to that much trouble based on hope. You did Airborne Avenger on hope didn’t you?
STEVE: Yes, but I was 24 years old, I was already working for the target company, and I worked on it at home and on weekends. I had the world to conquer! I had a boss that was just incorrigible. He was terrible. He said to me “you will never be a designer” and that just stuck in my craw. I felt like I had been a designer since the day I was born. When I was in 8th grade, people said “You are going to grow up to be a mad scientist in a toy factory” and that’s exactly what I became.
MARK: Yes, I think that’s a pretty good description.
STEVE: I was annoyed, but I was also very motivated; making almost no money, and I saw an opportunity in which I could apply my skills. Some things I just knew inherently and some of things that I didn’t know I learned from a guy who came to Atari. He told everybody at Atari that he was a designer of games, but he wasn’t. He was a mechanical engineer but a very good person who knew a lot more than any of us. He drew pinball machines for Atari, made the designs, and I built them up for him and in the process I learned how a pinball machine got put together and also the correct ways and symbols to put onto a piece of paper how to express what each device and part means. That’s what he taught me. He also taught me that everything I thought I knew was wrong!
MARK: I think I understand that.
STEVE: The Atari pinball division had a handful of people in those days. Maybe 20 people in the whole pinball division of Atari. It wasn’t pretty.
MARK: Your joking!
STEVE: 20 people was all that was in the pinball division when It first started at Atari. There weren’t even that many at first, there was only 5 in the very beginning and I was one of them.
MARK: OK, I had no idea.
STEVE: I was an electro-mechanical technician, basically a grunt who could build things. But that was OK. I had to break into this business and I did. This motivated me to take Airborne Avenger home every night and work on it. It took me a year and the day I took it to Nolan Bushnell, it became a game and I became a designer. And, I got a much-needed raise.
MARK: The beginning. That’s great. I have a saying “he who dares wins”. You have got to give it a go or you will never know.
STEVE: If you don’t work really hard you will never get anything.
MARK: That’s it exactly. Do you have any interesting recent stories about contact with fans etc. and/or do you still follow the pinball community or attend conventions, stuff like that?
STEVE: I haven’t been attending for the last couple of years because I have gotten totally away from amusement games and immersed myself in gaming. There is a lot to learn, and I have a product that will be ready to program this month.
MARK: You have been busy then.
STEVE: I’m sitting in a room surrounded with parts that I have made. A fortune’s worth of work I would say. I have a box with 16 gears in it. I just have all these things around me that I have been working on for months. I have 150 drawings that I have made of all these parts. I am going to hand this package over to some lucky slot machine company and it’s not going to be the parts. It will be the complete unit along with the drawings.
MARK: Is this the first one you have done?
STEVE: Yes, this is the first. We are securing a patent or two for this machine. That’s why I haven’t been involved in pinballs. For a long time I couldn’t do much of anything after Midway canned me. I had “designer’s block” and went into a deep depression. I was very angry about the way about Midway delivered the message that they didn’t want me anymore.
MARK: How was that?
STEVE: It was just very abrupt. The president of Atari called me in and said “Get out of here. We are going to pay off your contract, if you try to argue the settlement of your contract in any way, you will incur the wrath of every lawyer in this company upon you”. That may have been his exact ignorant words. As if I would WANT to work there anymore, after that statement.
Atari coin-op conducted game design and engineering on a good-ole-boys system. The “favorite” producers, (Friends Of The President) always got what they wanted even if their products were shit. And many were. Needless to say, I was not a good-ole-boy. I was trying to improve my team (the weakest at Atari, only 1 member had ever had been on an Atari game team that actually fielded a product to market, and that was 5 years before my arrival.
Every possible ridiculous obstacle was set before me, especially from the pathetic VP of Marketing. Brain damage everywhere you looked.
In an almost continuous recruiting attempt, I would see hundreds of resumes and pull in people. I would get them in for an interview and a GOB (good old boy) or FOTP (friend of the President) would come along and say this person has to go to an interview over here and we wouldn’t end up with anyone good. We ended up with what everybody else didn’t want. There were lots of other incidents too ridiculous to mention. It was frustrating as hell to work there.
MARK: Basically it looks like you weren’t seeing eye to eye.
STEVE: I guess you could say that somewhat, but there were tons of other issues. I mean it was lucky that Atari could make a game and be successful in spite of itself. The Atari operation got bought, sold and traded so many damn times because management was inept. The new owners would always keep the same president. I don’t have any idea how the guy pulled it off, after changing hands, what, 4 times?
MARK: Yes I know, Atari changed hands more often than a five buck note through a seven eleven.
STEVE: That’s right, and as you have lived through the entire industry over a span of almost 20 years you know what I am talking about here. Occasionally, Atari would have hits and basically it was because the same good teams would bear decent fruit. There are (were?) 2-3 good teams, but lots of terrible teams that picked flawed concepts or just didn’t have a clue, and there would be long, 2 year dry spells as the bad teams would pour forth their garbage in sequence.
MARK: That explains a lot. There were games Atari released I would look at it at trade shows and I would say, you have got to be joking, this is crap. Clearly they just didn’t have the right people in the right places to make the decisions.
STEVE: Right, there was quite a quantity of clowns at Atari when I was there again in the late 90′s, and I really just lived with it because I was happy to be back home. California is my home and I decided I was going to make a game no matter what. I led the California Speed team in spite of them and everyday they would come in and tell us how terrible It was. It did well despite every fiasco imaginable created by the marketing department. We sold about 7,000 machines and everyone made money on California Speed.
Our teams at Williams, Williams/Bally/Midway, and finally Midway (all the same company, folks), would never have been satisfied with the hit and miss rate at most other game companies. Peer pressure was far more influential than what the president ordered. Although we did have one president (Mike Stroll), who actually KNEW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BAD GAME AND A GOOD GAME, most of the time we had to convince management that what we were doing and what we wanted was right for the company.
MARK: My gripe with Williams has been the same since I was a player in the late 70′s’s. That is whoever was responsible for the engineering I would have sacked. Take 1978/79 when I was a teenage player. Williams’ pinballs were good games but they always had problems, mainly drop target banks and flippers.
STEVE: The drop target banks were horrible. They were developed by the pre-solid state mechanical engineers that were working around a Bally patent instead of doing something original and good.
MARK: Yes, despicable. Then of course when I came into the industry I realised whoever did the engineering was an idiot. It was grossly inadequate.
STEVE: Can I tell you some things about that?
MARK: Yes, I would love to know and I am sure the readers would too, because that is an even bigger problem now on 90s pinballs.
STEVE: Eugene Jarvis, (Master programmer of Defender, Robotron, Airborne Avenger, Superman, Cruisin USA, Cruisin World, and Crusin Exotica as well as Airbourne Avenger and Superman, Firepower, F-14 Tomcat and more…) and I would go to the arcade and actually find some games unthinkably lame. Hot Tip comes to mind.
MARK: Yes a poor game.
STEVE: The first solid state. What a pile of garbage Hot Tip was to play and then we would look under the playfield at the flipper unit to see that it was the same bad collection of bits and pieces of the electro-mechanical flipper units.
MARK: They were using them for a long time.
STEVE: The flippers were terrible, and we knew we had to do something about them when we got to Williams a year later. (Eugene delayed his arrival at Williams for 1 more year while I made Flash and suffered for lack of his good work). My point was the first thing that had to be done was flipper rework. It didn’t happen with Flash, but soon after Mike Stroll saw the problem and implemented a course to correction.
MARK: The first game to use them in production was Firepower.
STEVE: Yes, I think you are right. I think we increased the voltage on the flippers that existed so that it would be more fun to play and make some long shots like on Flash. Back when I started to make Flash I needed ball guides that were made of heavy stainless steel instead of the little thin metal guides. Those thin guides absorbed ball energy and the ball wouldn’t make it all the way around long shots. Later, the heavier gauge ball guides were necessary because of the general increase in ball speed from amped-up devices all over the playfield. So I applied whatever force and energy I had to the most needed devices on the playfield to make my games successful.
MARK: Flash, and later Stellar Wars and Firepower were all definitely a big winners at the time.
STEVE: A great deal of those games’ success can be attributed to changes we made as engineers at Williams, always in search of games that were more FUN to play.
MARK: Many 90′s Williams/Bally pinballs have some of the worst mechanisms ever put on a pinball. Some use motors that I find in children’s toys.
STEVE: What game is an example of this?
MARK: Indiana Jones, the Idol or Mini Playfield motor. It is woefully inadequate. It’s a cheap motor used in children’s toys like remote control cars that sort of thing. It is exactly the same part.
STEVE: That was the scourge of management coming through and knocking down the Bill Of Materials. The President would come into our lab and say “Steve, ya gotta take 100 bucks outta the game”, or some other equally ridiculous amount. My thought would always be, OK, why don’t we just throw it in the trash right now! We were also instructed that the primary goal of the company was to maximize profits. He would have us repeat it out loud. It is a true and correct goal, but at what expense? Quality of play? Durability? Our Quality Assurance and Quality Control departments were industry-wide jokes, and we made the BEST quality games of anyone during most periods of modern pinball history!
MARK: Well that’s the problem, Williams just became another corporation, whereas once upon a time it was more of a family business if you know what I mean. Perhaps more like Gary Stern’s business now if you like. Gary actually likes Pinball and that’s the difference.
STEVE: Stern has a history of cost cutting too. All companies make cost cutting concessions Right now, I’ve got to imagine that cost cutting is a dire necessity at Stern. Sometimes cool features can be cheap, and I especially admire that quality when I see it.
MARK: I could think of many other examples. You would not have experienced this after the machine hits the street, you will go onto your next design.
STEVE: No, that’s not true at all. Not for most of us anyway, not the diligent designers. In fact a game designer is responsible for the game in every way. I didn’t even start a new game often until 2 months after production start. Well, I would start a new game but I wouldn’t be doing much on it. Everyday I would be patrolling the line for people screwing up the same thing, same old stuff, bad parts, and substitute garbage. Every day, some number of assembly line workers would be sick. Management would grab somebody else who didn’t know the job and continue making games however bad the quality might be.
The biggest nightmare would be finding something wrong at the end of the line, and realizing that the hundred or so games on the line (winding like a snake all around a 3 acre assembly area) presently had to be reworked, AND, to unbox all the games that got packed with the defect. Needless to say, they wouldn’t always unpack them. Sometimes they would have meetings and agree to send new replacement parts to the distributors so they could exchange the parts.
MARK: So you would be responsible for aspects of the assembly line.
STEVE: We were the final inspectors very often. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the line workers were hard working people who cared about what they were making. But the shop union would make it almost impossible to fire anyone who was terrible. In the case of some guys, we would just say, “don’t touch my game”. I have almost come to fisticuffs with some of them and management guys who were looking the other way, as bad quality flowed down the line like a river of sewage.
Only during the Mike Stroll Regime did we see quality emphasized as it should have been, and even that ended when we went public.
A few nights a week we would go to Mother’s Arcade and look at the machines being played and talk to the owner, Bill Herman. We would find out what broke and why and then he would give me a handful of broken parts. I would then bring them back to the factory, report it to customer service, to manufacturing, to engineering and turn to the task of motivating people to correct the mistakes. When I recall this stuff, I feel like we were supermen, going all day and much of the night for the good of pinball and Williams. We were highly motivated, because having a game in production meant royalties, and every sale that was made was important to us. Anything, virtually anything that went wrong anywhere along the long road to and during production could screw it up for us and the company.
MARK: I had no idea and neither do many other people out there especially Collectors and Enthusiasts. This is why these type of interviews are invaluable and also very good from an historical point of view too.
STEVE: I am not the only one that followed up on my games. The people on my team would go to the line with me; everybody on my team would be mobilized to make sure that the games survived, worked well as much as we could influence. That’s the beginning of the process when things were still simple and we were always pushing the envelope about things we wanted to add on.
MARK: What years are we talking about here?
STEVE: I’m talking between 1978 through to the end of pinball. It was a progression that led games to being extremely complicated. I’m one of the most responsible and I am telling you as I sit here that this progression is what it took to make pinball machines sell. That is absolutely the truth, you had to have everything you had on the last machine as well as five or six brand new interesting cool things. Pretty soon they began to accumulate and pretty soon, you’d have Star Trek TNG in it’s complicated, endlessly mechanical glory.
MARK: What did you think of that game personally?
STEVE: I thought it was Star Trek, I mean it puts you there on the Bridge. I love that part of it, it said over 500 things. It was outrageous. I loved the shots too. The drains weren’t nice though.
MARK: I’ll tell you why I think that game was successful, you could walk up to it, drop in your coin in and soon you know what to do. You don’t need to be a proctologist like on Judge Dredd to work out what’s happening. With Star Trek it actually informed you what is happening, it is just a very well laid out game and people can familiarise themselves with it very quickly.
STEVE: It was a great team and everybody worked together so hard. I mean everybody really, I’ll put it this way, the mechanical engineer contributed to speech calls and the programmer contributed to mechanical and the artist contributed to the game rules. I mean everybody had contributed everywhere and it was because we all liked the TV show to. Greg Freres was outstanding in so many areas. Dwight Sullivan was as much a ST geek as I was and he made the game’s software special. Dan Forden wrote all the tunes except the theme song, and they melded with the entire psychology of the game. We would meet and hammer out things together, constantly checking to make sure the “vision blueprint” was followed, or ripping it up and making a new blueprint. I connect with Star Trek.
MARK: Yes I like the show too.
STEVE: I mean it had a great message. Basically live and let live and you know its a great show and we took 14 months — it was ridiculous.
MARK: It took 14 months to do?
STEVE: Yes 14 months!
MARK: I didn’t have any idea how long it took but 14 months surprises me, i didn’t think it would take anywhere near that long to make.
STEVE: How many do you think were sold?
MARK: I don’t know, I would expect about 7000 or 8000.
STEVE: No, almost 13,000.
MARK: 13,000, Ok, that many, that’s pretty damn good.
STEVE: The last pinball to go over the 10,000 mark.
MARK: Yes, that was the beginning of the end, Star Trek, World Cup Soccer, that’s when it started to slide.
STEVE: Oh, World Cup. World Cup was taken over.
MARK: It wasn’t a bad pin, it’s still all right, actually we still operate it.
STEVE: In the end it turned out to be pretty Ok, but in the beginning it was handled by a newbie. The game designer was a stubborn newbie, and it had to be taken over by someone else.
MARK: Did this happen very often?
STEVE: Actually it never happened before unless somebody died or got sick.
MARK: Did he abandon the project or did he just get the sack?
STEVE: Neither. He cooperated, learned and latter did Theatre of Magic and some other really good work. But when he first came in he thought he just knew everything about making pinballs and it is just not that kind of thing. You have to live it for a long time, you must have an affinity for mechanicals and you have to be able to work with other people.
MARK: Working with others is essential, unless you are a going it alone.
STEVE: No one could make a great pinball alone. The closest I’ve seen is Brian Eddy on Shadow, I think. I believe he drew the game and then programmed it. It was quite a feat, but he had to learn about mechanicals on that game. It was tough, but I will always admire him for doing that.
MARK: I suppose you get some people that are stubborn or arrogant.
STEVE: We actually all are, and we have egos, make no mistake. You can’t just BE those things because you feel like it, though. Like every other human group endeavor, there is a pecking order and rank. Your opinion will be more valued if you have a history of respected accomplishments in an engineering environment. Each person in the game design engineering dept. must earn that respect.
I would love to say yes to every suggestion everyone has for a given game design. I love it when others contribute to our project in powerful ways. It makes the game strong. It brings the team closer, and it makes everyone feel good about what they are doing. I don’t care where good ideas come from, who’s offering them or the fact that it’s my team. Good ideas, no matter their origination, go into my products. Bad ideas don’t. We as game designers do have final say, but we can be politicked, cajoled, pushed and convinced. Before I say no to an idea, I consider every aspect carefully. I do not let myself fall into the Not Invented Here syndrome. I am not insecure about my ability to create more ideas, and so I can be objective. What I am insecure about (Always!) is having a good product. Good ideas are gratefully accepted, always.
MARK: Well that’s a credit to you. There would be a lot of people out there who wouldn’t accept an idea unless it came out of their head or they could somehow mutate it looking like their idea.
STEVE: In a business as small as this biz, everyone knows who’s good and who isn’t, who is respected and who is not. At Williams, we only had a few designers who wouldn’t go all the way to glory on one front or another. We would all pressure each other to make good games. It often had more power than management’s whining.
MARK: That’s quite effective isn’t it?
STEVE: It was a wonderful thing when it worked out that way.
MARK: Yes, you would respect your co-workers opinion more that management’s because their motive ideally is the same as yours.
MARK: Let me give you a history flash back: we will go back to 1982/3. Williams are making 500 or so of each pinball, Time Fantasy, Joust Pinball, Defender Pinball, Cosmic Gunfight. Then jump forward to 1992 and their making 12000, 15000 of the things. Clearly a big come back I think you would agree.
STEVE: Oh yes, no question.
MARK: Now can you foresee any sort of comeback again. It doesn’t necessarily have to mirror that one but something you could definitely say as a comeback.
STEVE: No. Not possible.
MARK: You think there is no chance at all?
STEVE: I think there is no chance at all.
MARK: OK. Why?
STEVE: What aspect or weakness would you like to look at first? Would you like to look at manufacturing?
MARK: Well there is still someone manufacturing so the ability and the skills are still there. Gary Stern knows how to make them and he’s has been doing it a long time. So as long as there is still someone manufacturing, I think from the manufacturing side it is definitely possible. He could put more people together and expand his operation. The knowledge is still there.
STEVE: Actually putting parts down on a playfield, I would agree with that. Only at Stern, though. But where is everyone else’s tooling? Staple parts? Vendors? The rest of the culture has been dispersed. Its has been blown apart.
MARK: OK, what other reasons?
STEVE: From a marketing stand point, it would be a very tough road to success. Hardly anyone wants to operate them, and for the same old reasons. You can only operate them if you have a service man go out and repair them every week. In the United States a pinball needs service every week, there is just no question. Every week when you go out you will find bulbs out, either that or a broken rubber or something wrong. That’s the first problem. The second problem is, who is going to do the work and how much is it going to cost?. Are techs still sharp on how to fix what’s wrong? Is he well paid and diligent? I doubt that many operators are paying great money for special techs who actually care about pinball anymore. From a marketing stand point the return on investment is hopeless…its pathetic. Its a moot point but why would they even bother operating a pinball machine when you had a great video game that you don’t ever have to fix. People are incredibly lazy. And now video is dead, too. It’s not like the arcade is a popular place to go anymore, either. Internet and platform games are so good and exciting that no one needs to leave their home to experience great quality games to play.
MARK: It’s the same everywhere. That brings me to this point because a comeback has happened before there is naturally an implication that it could happen again. Take 1983, what was Williams making in 83, 84. Can you think of anything?
STEVE: Well I didn’t make any pinball machines in 1983. 1982 to 84 was a terrible time. I was working on a video game called Devastator. But I can tell you that there was no internet and no competitive platforms like X-Box and PS2 calling our players away. Operators were dying for good games, but the industry repeated itself too many times with clones of hit games. Some pinball was manufactured during that time, and although slow, many line workers were kept on and sent to the video lines and vice versa when appropriate.
MARK: Ok, wouldn’t there have been a lot of people disbursed from pinball production even in those very slow years. Yet it still managed to make a come back.
STEVE: Yes, it managed a come back because the people really didn’t go anywhere. We lost a bunch of manufacturing people but most manufacturing folks came back after the layoffs. When the factory was dark I remember going back there after the failure of Devastator, which Devastated me financially. We were all hopeful about making something happen and I came back to Chicago with a good idea, too. Larry De Mar and I jumped on High Speed, and renovated virtually everything that pinball machines did at the time. Space Shuttle kept the factory lights on, and we used that time to produce a spectacular 18,500 units.
MARK: Yes that was the beginning of the come back.
STEVE: Pinball got back on its feet, we threw everything except the kitchen sink in High Speed as well as every kind of trick that we could possibly pull. It was gratifying, and it put Williams back on the pinball map.
MARK: Do you know why I think High Speed worked?
MARK: It was the sound. I had only been in the industry for two years at that time and I remember a new High Speed was put into the city so I went and had a look at it. I played it and thought it was all right. It had a fault out of the carton that no one knew about. None of the music worked at all just the sound affects and speech.
MARK: No one knew and yet it still took pretty good money. It worked like that for nearly a month until they got a second one in. The first one was a sample so no one could know about the music feature.
STEVE: Of course, no one would know that there was supposed to be music.
MARK: Just the sound affects and speech worked none of the music and as I said it still took good money. When they discovered the music didn’t work and fixed it the take went through the bloody roof. I have always maintained since I was a player back in my teens that every electronic pinball from 1979 onwards that was popular with the players had good sound. If the sound was not good it was not a popular game.
STEVE: I wrote most of the music for High Speed.
MARK: You did a good job.
STEVE: I wrote a complete song called High Speed and got it copy written and tried to shop it around and see if anyone would record it. No one was interested. Oh well. I also wrote the Black Knight 2000 music.
MARK: I have to say I didn’t like Black Knight 2000 at all. In particular I didn’t like the music. It just was not “Pinball” and it sounded almost religious if you know what I mean.
STEVE: I want you to know that Black Knight 2000 won an award for the best music and sound of any pinball machine up until that time.
MARK: Did it really, well there you go perhaps my taste is in my bum.
STEVE: Oh no it’s Ok. Mark you just have a tin ear and I can’t help that. Hey beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
MARK: That’s true enough, Maybe I will have another look at it.
CONTINUED IN: Steve Ritchie Interview PART 2.