The Pinball Blog. The Machines. The People. The Events. The Addiction! Pinball Heroes: Industry Interviews.

Monday 19 January 2009

Pinball Heroes: Steve Ritchie

Steve Ritchie made some classic pinball machines in a career spanning 4 decades, and we're really looking forward to welcoming him to the UK as the special guest of the UK Pinball Show in July. In the meantime, he gets the Pinball Heroes treatment.

The Pinball Blog. Let's jump right in. Had you ever played poker before designing World Poker Tour?

Steve Ritchie. I had played poker when I was growing up, but I was never an
enthusiast. I was forced to design WPT, but I am not at all ashamed of it. The playfield turned out nice, and with the weak license, I decided to compensate with lots of innovative toys. Keith, of course, is a big fan of poker, and his rules are very innovative.

TPB. Hyperball. WTF?

SR. Hyperball was the result of my frustration designing a mechanical game when the world around me was far more interested in video
games. At that time, I wanted to produce a video game with a team at Williams but management refused, and said "more pinball please", even though pins weren't selling half as well as the popular video games of the era. I was determined to do something different, and came up with Hyperball. Look closely at the Hyperball playfield: Hyperball is a mechanical "firebase" game like Space Invaders. I wanted it to test the player's skill and accuracy at high speed, and wanted to make a shooting game with very fast machine-gun-like action. We sold 5,000 units, and they earned a lot of money. No regrets.

TPB. You're coming to the UK in the summer for the UK Pinball Show and European Pinball Championship. Any chance you'll be taking home the title?

SR. There is no chance at all. I am only a slightly better than average player, and got my ass trounced as recently as last night when Mike Hafner (phishrace) and other friends and I got together at Pizza Depot in Sunnyvale, CA. I love to play pins, but I am just not
that skilled. I consider my average abilities an important asset when designing games. It's too easy for guys like Keith Johnson and Lyman Sheats to play a game for an hour or more. Newer or less-skilled players want to enjoy a game too, and I temper the "front end" of the game to make sure that we achieve the broadest audience possible. Good programmer-players can then add the depth with features that we agree on to make sure there is plenty of challenge for better players.

TPB. I interviewed John Trudeau for Pinball Heroes and he had some kind words to say about you. Can you dish the dirt on John for us please?

SR. John Trudeau is a great guy and a talented game designer. He has been dedicated to pinball his whole working life. I enjoy playing CFTBL, and he designed one of my favorite games of all time, Hollywood Heat. He is very innovative and fun to be around. I haven't seen him in a long time, but hope to see him at EXPO if we both can make it.

(Editor: I guess not!)

TPB. So many enthusiasts with top-end 'A-list' machines also have The Getaway: High S
peed II which is, comparatively, a budget title. Any idea why it's so popular among collectors?

SR. I think that The Getaway appeals to better players, and it is an exciting game with flashy and violent toys like the accelerator and the shifter. I think there is some appeal in the visible locks and the ramp that feeds them. It has a good selection of some of the best features from the day. Loud ZZ Top music doesn't hurt either. "La Grange" is the best driving tune I ever heard. I used to play the cassette in my Porsche and turn up the volume as I ripped through the country lanes of Loomis, CA. I think HSII was a 'more modern' take on High Speed. We sold a lot of them, and that's maybe why you say it's a 'budget title'.

Collectors view games differently than I do. I must consider earnings above all else. If the fun to be had on a game is sufficient to generate a high earnings level, then I have done my job. Collectors do not base their pinball choices on any such thing. They buy games that they enjoy. Often, games that earned well end up in collections, as well as games that did not earn well.

TPB. Is there a machine you're immensely proud to have designed and sit back and think "I did that!"?

SR. I haven't made any games that I am not proud of. I spent many hours trying to d
o my best work on each machine, and tried to top my previous games with each successive game. I feel best when watching someone who is clearly enjoying the play of my machines. I don't say to myself "I did that!", I say to myself "What am I going to do next that will be successful?". In the game business, a developer is only as good as his last game. There is no 'laurel-resting' in my life. I am always ready to begin the next game adventure.

TPB. I'm a fan of the recent Spider-Man, and maybe wish I'd held out for a Spider-Man Black. Was there always a plan to produce a limited edition follow-up, did you have any say, or was it just a marketing strategy?

SR. The marketing plan was in place at the 6-month milestone. It was completely my idea, and I saw the opportunity in the script to produce a special version. Gary Stern of course approved it. He also suggested a mirrored backglass, which I never dreamed he would allow. I was most interested in the webby side armor and made 3 passes at the design for the cutouts. They had to be designed to look great, and not intrude on the player's ha
nds or comfort in any way. Others at Stern wanted a grey colored (!?) armor and legs, etc on SM, but only chrome would do it for me.

TPB. What have you been up to since parting with Stern and what does the future hold for Steve Ritchie?

SR. I have been actively seeking employment! Times are tough. I spend my days writing resumes, interviewing and networking. I have a few other irons in different fires, but none that I can discuss here.

I would love to be producing Xbox 360 or PC video games. I have produced several video games and the sky's the limit with platform games. In November of 2008, $2.3 Billion dollars worth of platform games were sold worldwide. It is obvious that people are realizing the extreme value in buying a game for their home systems instead of going to mo
vies, dining out etc.

There is a huge market for my work, and I can't wait to get started for some company out there.

TPB. I guess you didn't plan on being a pinball designer when you were at school, so what did you want to be?

SR. There was a time that I was very interested in electronics. I have had extensive training in this area and found it fascinating at one time. After my service in the US Coast Guard, I walked into Atari Games in 1974. I knew that I would be making games from that time on.

TPB. Finally, can you sum up pinball in one word or sentence.

SR. Pinball is great fun, but no longer a viable commercial product of the 21st century.

A huge thank you to Steve Ritchie for finding the time to answer our questions. The only trouble is I now have a whole load more I want to know! Guess, I'll have to wait until I see the man in July!

More Pinball Heroes soon..

The Pinball Blog


Brendan Bailey said...

Awesome interview! Ritchie is the man! ...and if you don't think so, look up the No Fear promo video on youtube - he lost half a finger on the on the spinning wheel of his dirt bike while he was trying to get back on it IN MID AIR!

Thanks for checking out my blog too! I had found yours, but couldn't figure out how to 'follow' it. I got it working now though.

Admin said...

No worries Brendan, your blog is really well written - I could probably learn a thing or two! Maybe one day I'll tap you up for a contribution over here! :)

djesno said...

BTW.....if i ever make it to vegas again, i'm totally playing the elton john game (i think it's called "captain fantastic") and the baseball pin game....i LOOOVE those old-school games i remember playing at pete's when i was 12-14 in 1982-1985! cheers!