While The King of Kong made old school video games cool again, other classic forms of gaming are struggling. Nobody talks about pinball anymore, so filmmaker Greg Maletic hopes to change that with his documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball. Debuting on
Crave Online: Obviously you started your film before The King of Kong became popular, but is this The King of Kong for pinball?
Greg Maletic: I think it is, although it’s different in one respect. King of Kong really focuses on the players and Tilt focuses on the designers. The designers are pretty different people from the players. When you watch the film, you’ll get a sense of that. The players are a little more monomaniacal in their pursuit of what they’re trying to do. The designers are looking more for a design challenge. They’re not into the game as much as the design challenge. It makes for a very different kind of experience watching these guys versus watching the guys in King of Kong.
Crave Online: How much pinball playing did you film?
Greg Maletic: Let’s see, I went to several shows around the country. There’s a big show here in
Crave Online: What makes Pinball 2000 different?
Greg Maletic: A Pinball 2000 machine looks pretty much like an ordinary pinball machine except for the back box. The back box is the upright portion that shows the score and has the back glass on it. In Pinball 2000, it’s really thick and the reason it’s so thick is that it houses a computer monitor inside of it. The computer monitor reflects onto the pinball playfield. The reason that’s interesting is that it can essentially reflect video onto that playfield and put virtual targets on there. So in the case of Star Wars, was one of the games they did in this format, they were able to put robots and spaceships and so on, have them fly around the pinball playfield and you could hit them with the ball and have them explode. So it’s the same as pinball but it’s been kind of jazzed up with video effects.
Crave Online: That sounds awesome. Why didn’t that take off?
Greg Maletic: Well, it actually did do pretty well. That’s sort of one of the tragedies in the documentary is that it actually did do pretty well and people really liked it. The problem was that Williams was a public company and they had a lot of pressure from investors to devote more resources towards this video slot machine market that’s been doing so well. The investors just weren’t really patient enough to let Williams sit there and try to reinvent what they perceive as a dying industry when there were bigger markets to go after.
Crave Online: Is there a sense in the gaming community that people are going back to the simple classics?
Greg Maletic: That’s definitely true. If you look at things like Xbox Live Arcade, you can see a lot of that happening there where the games on there, they cost $5 and you can learn how to play them in about two minutes. That’s been I think even more popular than Microsoft expected in that specific case. But there’s been a real resurgence of sort of simple gaming. Pinball does fit into that. Everybody pretty much knows how to play a pinball machine the moment you step up in front of one. So it plays into that same nostalgia for simple games.
Crave Online: What are the great, classic pinball machines?
Greg Maletic: Well, there are a lot. Probably one of the greatest machines would have to be a machine that was built in 1948 called Humpty Dumpty. The reason it’s such a classic is that it actually introduced flippers for the first time. Pinball started in the 1870s but for 70 years didn’t even have flippers. All you would do is pull the plunger back and shoot the ball and watch it fall into a hole. All of a sudden, somebody got the bright idea to add flippers to the game in the late ’40s and it took off. It was a pretty big hit as you can imagine. So that’s Humpty Dumpty by Genco. Some more recent classic games, the game from 1992 called The Addams Family.
Crave Online: Wow, that was one of my favorites but I never imagined it was others’.
Greg Maletic: That’s the biggest selling machine of all time. They sold about 25,000 pinball machines in that model which in a way doesn’t sound like much, but about 3,000 or 4,000 would have been considered a hit machine. So to sell 25,000 is completely off the charts.
Crave Online: I remember other movie themed ones like Hook and Terminator 2 being good.
Greg Maletic: Sure, yeah, Terminator 2 was a pretty big one. That was designed by Williams and that was one of the first games to utilize the dot matrix display which has since become a pretty standard thing. It’s that orange flickering display that shows the score and showed all the animations and so on. Terminator 2 made that pretty much standard on all pinball games after that, so that was very popular. Hook was well known too. It came a little bit later but popular as well.
Crave Online: What makes these games great? What are the ramps and bumps and things they can add to vary up pinball?
Greg Maletic: It’s a good question. I guess it’s probably worth pointing out how much pinball changed over the years. It was originally more of a game of luck. As I mentioned before, for a long time it didn’t even have flippers. Once they added flippers, the balance started shifting from luck to skill. That trend kept on continuing all the way through the ’90s basically. These machines, they kept adding more and more features to them. They added ramps and so on like you mentioned, but they would even add extra things like in The Addams Family, they would add Thing’s hand that would come out of a box and pick up the pinball. They’re called toys and these toys were always a big feature of any new machine that would come out. Although those were always real crowd pleasers, in the process, the designers were making the games really complicated. That was one of the problems pinball had in the late ’90s. They were appealing to a really small demographic of guys who were really into really complicated pinball games. Because of that, they kind of forgot about the casual player a little bit. That was one of the things they hoped to correct with Pinball 2000, was to make the games a little more straightforward and simpler for a novice to play.
Crave Online: Why do you think it was the movies that inspired some of the greatest pinballs?
Greg Maletic: It had brand recognition. When you’re looking across the bar and you see a pinball machine, what you’re going to see is that back glass. I think it’s only natural that if you see a back glass for a movie that you think is interesting, you’re going to want to go over and see what the game looks like. So there is I think a natural response in people to want to go check that out when they see something they recognize. Since then, there’s only one company left in the world that’s still making pinball. They’re called Stern Pinball. They do movie themes exclusively now, or license theming. They also do TV shows like Family Guy and so on. They’ve got some pinballs based around that. It’s just a much safer, more secure way for them to go. They have built in brand recognition whenever they come out with a new machine as opposed to designing something in house, which has the benefit of being cheaper because you don’t have to license anything, but the downside is you don’t get that brand recognition. Pretty much every pinball machine made in the last seven or eight years has had that license tie-in.
Crave Online: Who came up with the idea of randomly matching your score for a free game?
Greg Maletic: I don’t know when that precisely appeared but it was quite a while ago. I think it was in the ’30s or ’40s when that first appeared. That was always a sticking point for pinball early on because for a while, in the ’20s and ’30s, pinball was actually a payout machine. You put your nickel in and you shoot a few balls and if you got a high enough score, it would pay out for you. That ended up being kind of a double edged sword for pinball because it made it very popular, but it also kind of riled up a lot of anti gambling forces that were around and pinball got banned in a lot of cities in the ’30s and ’40s because of that. The whole matching thing, the reason they went to matching I think instead of giving away a free game based on skill is that the matching thing is based totally on luck. There’s absolutely no skill involved. I think that gets around some of the gambling ordinances so that’s probably why that came about.
Crave Online: You can still win a free game with high scores, which no video games allow you to do anymore.
Greg Maletic: That’s true. They still do have that now. I think people have gotten a little more liberal view of pinball in the succeeding years. It was banned, I know, in
Crave Online: Where are pinball machines most successful now: a bar, an arcade or what sort of environment?
Greg Maletic: Probably a couple different locations. I guess I could mention three. One is kind of family entertainment centers which are things like putt putt games and places where they have skeet ball and go kart racing. That’s one big market for pinball. The other is very traditional bars, taverns, bowling alleys, etc. It still continues in popularity there. Then finally, the one big market that’s become more of a significant issue is the home market. There are more collectors now who are actually buying them to put them in their home. So I think that’s about 30-40% of Stern’s business right now, is selling directly to home collectors.
Crave Online: Of all the designers you interviewed, who was the biggest "get"?
Greg Maletic: There are several. The three main guys in the film are all pretty legendary. Pat Lawlor is one of the main guys in the film and Pat Lawlor’s the guy that designed The Addams Family in addition to some other legendary machines like Twilight Zone and Funhouse. So Pat Lawlor is a name that any die hard pinball fan would absolutely know. There’s a guy named Larry DeMar who’s also a legend in the pinball industry but he’s more legendary for his work in the video game world because he was the designer behind the games Defender, Stargate and Robotron which were just massive hits back in the early ’80s, so he’s become an absolute legend in both those fields. Now he works in the video slot machine business and has made an absolute mint for himself making gambling video games essentially. So he’s kind of proven himself in all those different gaming markets. Another guy, the lead guy in the film, George Gomez is sort of the inventor behind Pinball 2000. He’s well known in the pinball community. He was also the designer of the video game Tron back in the ’80s. Then there’s a guy named Steve Kordek who’s remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is he’s 96 years old. He was the guy that first decided that it would be great to put two flippers down at the bottom of the pinball playfield. He did that in 1949. He’s in the film and he’s absolutely great. On the extras, there’s actually an extended interview with him that talks about his experience throughout pinball history that’s really interesting.
Crave Online: Where do you go from here?
Greg Maletic: I’ve done some illustration work for companies like Disney Imagineering and I’m currently working for a software company called Bunchball and we do some video game related things. I would like to do another film although I haven’t quite selected a topic yet. I’m working fulltime pushing Tilt at the moment, but I’d love the opportunity to make another film. This is my first attempt at doing that and it was a really great experience. It was just a lot of fun. So once I find a topic, once I get through marketing tilt and getting it out there, I’ll try and find something else and pick another topic to work on.