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

Tuesday 31 March 2009

Pinball Heroes Re-Visited: Jim Schelberg

We recently interviewed PinGame Journal editor Jim Schelberg for Pinball Heroes. As with much of the blog writing, the interview was done very much on-the-fly. Jim was interviewed on the 'phone as he headed to Chicago to meet some pinball folk and then was off to the Midwest Gaming Classic, and I was just bumming around like normal. We had hoped to add some pictures to the interview (other than stock pics) but add the schedules of 2 busy guys and these things can take some time. Finally we got our acts together and we've got a few pics of Jim on his pinball travels, so thought I'd share them here rather than update the original interview.
Many thanks to Jim for the interview and now for the photos. Jim has always been a great help with finding pictures of other Pinball Heroes guests, thanks Jim.


The Pinball Blog

Photos Courtesy Jim Schelberg/PinGame Journal

Friday 20 March 2009

Pinball Heroes: Jim Schelberg

UPDATE: Some belated pictures to accompany the interview.

If you think keeping a pinball blog is hard work, you should probably try and produce a pinball magazine. I've attempted both and the blog is easier by a country mile. So why on earth would anyone want to produce a magazine dedicated to pinball machines in the 21st century?

Let's find out and interview the man that normally does the interviewing on the PGJ.
The Pinball Blog. So you're Jim Schelberg, producer of the PinGame Journal. What do you do 9-5?

Jim Schelberg. I'm a podiatrist, I believe you may still call us chiropodists over there in the UK. Four years at college then another four years studying before I graduated and that was 1977!

TPB. What made you start a pinball magazine?

JS. Basically my wife wanted to buy me a pinball machine for my 40th birthday (bear in mind I'm 60 this October!). She did some research and contacted Gordon Hasse who was a big force in the hobby back then and a big woodrail collector. In then meantime we bought a Gottlieb Sharp Shooter from a local place. While I was there I noticed Gary Flower's book and I saw it said he competed annually at an event in Chicago. I had no idea what Expo was! I rang the Chicago tourist board to find out more and they had no idea what I was talking about! Luckily someone in the room overheard the conversation and said something like "Oh, that's the pinball thing out by the airport".

Eventually we found some more information and I contacted Rob Berk. That year I ended up at expo for 3 hours between other plans. I also picked up a copy of Pinball Trader, produced by Dennis Dodel and subsequently had letters published. A couple of years down the line it turned out they needed help to produce the magazine and I got myself geared up with all the computers. The next I heard two guys from California were buying the magazine. I rang
Dennis to tell him I was all set up to help him and he used the immortal line "Why dont you start one of your own". With an advert in Pinball Trader and not much in the way of internet or email back then I was amazed that 85 people sent me money for a magazine which didn't exist. $26 for a subscription! I produced the 1st issue in May of 1991.

TPB. Does your family understand the pinball thing and how important is their support?

JS. My wife, although she understands it is not thrilled with the amount of time it takes and the amount of time it takes me away from other activities. To start with I produced 12 issues a year, pulling all-nighters to get it done - insane! She was not happy. The kids back then were young and got to come with me to Chicago. We had a tour round the Williams factory with Pat Lawlor when The Addams Family was in production. The kids were of course fine with it, the wife less so! An article appeared in the local newspaper "Podiatrist's Hobby has Wife Crying Tilt". After that I changed to a more casual schedule where things get done when they get done. Not in a mean way, but everything has to fit around the family!

TPB. We've heard a bit of how you started as a collector, and we already know your first machine, but what else do you have and what your last purchase?

JS. I stopped buying quite a while ago, but I think my most recent was Star Trek: The Next Generation - which I bought NEW! I have around 60 games from woodrails, including Steve Kordek's first machine Triple Action and a 1940 'Metro' to Star Trek.

TPB. Do you still get the same buzz from producing the magazine as you always have?

JS. Yes I do. The 1st issue of course was pretty cool, but I still love seeing the magazine in print. I always get a paper copy sent to me as soon as possible so I can see what it feels like. There are a number of other great things that come with the magazine. Like the interviews, getting to see what goes on behind the scenes. One of the best things is the factory visits where I can see what games are on their way and how they progress. What gets added and what gets taken away and why. I've talked to some great people, designers and artists and all sorts.

TPB. You must have met some interesting celebrities over the years, any highlights?

JS. I interviewed James Doohan who played Scotty in Star Trek which was great for me as he was such a cool guy and I'm a big Star Trek fan!

TPB. And what about in pinball? Who would you say within the hobby/industry, has been the most influential to you? And any particular pinballing highlights yourself?

JS. Difficult, but if I had to pick I would say Roger Sharpe. Certainly early on, but even now, he knows how and what to write. He's written for GQ magazine and Play Meter and has done a LOT of writing. He'd be the guy I'd go an see at Williams.

As for highlights I used to go to Chicago 3 times a year, flying in and out on the same day. FOUR pinball factories in a day! In the morning I could go to Premier, then Williams where I would have lunch with some of the guys, then I'd pop into see Alvin G on the way over to Data East. I had to drag myself away to make the flight! I'd have a tape recorder running because so much could happen in a day and I'd not remember half of it - great, I loved

TPB. I know you visit Expo and other trade shows, how important is industry support for the PGJ and has it changed over years as the manufacturers disappeared and even more recently with the global economic slowdown?

JS. Industry support is important and thankfully I've always had it. All the companies and all the people have been extremely helpful and open all the way through from the beginning. One day I asked the guys at Data East if I could take some photos of the assembly line and it was late. Everybody left and I was the only guy in the factory! I was told to lock the door on the way out! Even at Stern today I have a free reign over the workings. If Stern were to stop, which by the way from what I've heard is nothing like the case, there are still so many other things going on, so many stories, that I don't think it would make a huge difference to the PGJ.

TPB. Tell us about the production schedule for an issue of the PGJ.

JS. Hah! There are tons of people who help, amazingly so, sending articles and helping in a number of ways but it all boils down to one man, one computer. I often think about going to the Detroit News office, throwing some magazines on the desk, take some pictures and say it's my production office, but it's just not like that. I've had some help with the graphics lately, not because I can' t do it myself, but my helper can work a lot faster than me. The product just has to come when I have the time and the mental time to wrap my head around sitting down. I've never really timed it, I'd be afraid to put a clock to it. Even when several of the pieces are done, I've worked every night until I've fallen asleep for 2 weeks solid. The calendar took longer. I dropped everything I normally do and it took me a month even with help on the graphics side.

TPB. Finally, please sum up your involvement in pinball in one word or sentence.

JS. The pinball hobby is great because it allows you to do so many different things other than just collect or play ... Including publishing a magazine!

- - - - - -

I interviewed Jim on the phone as he was driving to Chicago and then onwards for another pinball-packed weekend. Hopefully I didn't miss too much and apologies if I heard dates wrong or got anything else mixed up! I think I got most of what he was saying and he's certainly had a great insight into the industry over the last 20 years. Many thanks to Jim for taking the time to answer our questions and we have more Pinball Heroes coming soon.


The Pinball Blog

Saturday 7 March 2009

Pinball Heroes: Cameron Silver

When we first approach pinball designers we don't expect to get a response starting "I've been following your blog for some time and really enjoy it", but that was the case with this week's Pinball Heroes guest! If he already reads The Pinball Blog then he must know how it works, or perhaps he was softening us up to ask for a fee or maybe, just maybe, we could push our luck a little further than we have before..

Let's Try...

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Pinball Blog proudly presents Pinball Heroes: Cameron Silver. Cameron was employed at Bally/Williams in the nineties and worked on titles such as Scared Stiff and Cirqus Voltaire.

The Pinball Blog. So you're Cameron Silver, the way I see it is you worked your nuts off on pinball machines and then John Popadiuk put his name on them?

Cameron Silver. Well everyone worked their nuts off, at least on the games I was involved with. They really were team efforts, and I never encountered anyone who slacked off or didn't pull their weight. So on Cirqus John and I sat down and laid out the playfield together, but then he went away and did the real work to actually design a buildable product. Anyone can sketch a ramp here, or some bumpers there, but it takes a mammoth amount of work and skill to actually build something that shoots well.

I'll add here that I gave Cameron an alternative question in case the first one was a bit too blunt and he kindly answered that one as well!

TPB. Whose idea was the display under the glass on Cirqus Voltaire?

CS. The location of the display was not new, since Capcom had a display there for "Flipper Football" in 1996. Whether John had thought about this before is something that I honestly do not know, but when he suggested it to me I didn't hesitate to jump on-board. We actually talked briefly about mounting the display flat and reflecting it off an angled piece of glass (ie: like Asteroids Delux and Pinball 2000); it would have allowed us to do some neat tricks, but would have been quite expensive.

We did have a "Digital Multiball" mode in the game for a while - using the same idea from the video mode in Theatre Of Magic. The display served as a second playfield, and the idea was to knock down all targets to get the jackpot. You'd shoot physical balls into the d
isplay by shooting the loops, and could have up to all three balls on the display at once. It was pretty cool! However to do it properly would have required turning the ball-popper into a three-ball lockup (with three additional optos and more metal), which was too much money to devote to one single mode that wasn't really related to the theme at all.

TPB. How stiff were 'Team Stiff' when meeting Elvira?CS. No comment! :)

Actually she was amazing to work with, a lovely person who really loved pinball. She had loads of fun recording speech for us (a lot of it being improvised on the day), and added a huge amount of personality to the game.

TPB. Which machine did you most enjoy working on and which was the most challenging?

CS. The machine I most enjoyed working on was definitely Cirqus. First of all it was the first game I was involved with right from the start, and second of all it began with John unrolling a blank sheet of paper and asking the team "so, what game should we make?!". Considering that less than 12 months prior to that I was a college kid / tech in Australia dreaming about pinball, it was unreal.

Most challenging was Star Wars. The technical challenges have been discussed numerous times, but for me there were personal challenges too. The biggest thing for me was being locked away, separated from the rest of engineering. I don't care who you are, you can't design a good, balanced game in a vacuum. I mean this honestly when I say that Star Wars actually turned out pretty close to our original vision, but I still think it could have benefited from outside influence. Still it sold at least three times more than Cirqus and remained in the top-10 charts for close to a decade, so I probably shouldn't complain too much.

TPB. What started with an email to Dwight Sullivan turned into employment in the pinball industry, the stuff of dreams for many of us! I guess the chances of that happening today are pretty slim. Apart from the suit and haircut, what advice can you give a wannabe pinball designer in their quest for employment?

CS. First would be patience, the second would probably (unfortunately) be to find another way to pay the bills. I certainly don't think that pinball is dead; but it's so tiny that even if it quadruples in size, it will still be tiny. I'm in coin-op video now (which I love), but even that is minuscule.

TPB. The Pinball Blog is known for it's vast knowledge of programming(!) 10. PRINT "The Pinball Blog is da best". 20 GOTO 10. Did pinball programming change over the years with technology or were the basics the same throughout?

CS. Things didn't change that much through the WPC years. In fact it's possible to take the very latest WPC operating system (which we called A.P.P.L.E), and re-build the Funhouse code to run on it. Things obviously changed a lot when we started working on Pinball 2000, which was all C++ and PC motherboards, etc. Even though WPC was a tiny 2mhz 6809 processor, that has been the absolute favorite development I've done (admittedly a big part of that is the final product).

TPB. Was there a machine you worked on that never saw the light of day?

CS. I don't know if it qualifies but I worked on a redemption game called Ticket Tac Toe when I first started at Williams, and we only built about 100 of those; despite the fantastic earnings. Local pinball enthusiast Rush Luangsuwan and I added a custom built gumball dispenser to TTT for Pinball Expo 2007.

More recently, I just finished working on a coin-op, green-screen, video karaoke booth (themed to American Idol) that we were unable to produce due to music licensing issues. A huge shame considering the amazing amount of work (18 months), incredible technology, and long list of "it's impossible" we were able to overcome.

TPB. I personally prefer Star Wars Episode 1 to Revenge from Mars but some might say I'm in the minority (or stark raving bonkers). When people ask why one Pinball 2000 title is more 'popular' than the other I tell them the cost of the license influenced the budget for rules on SWE1, but to be fair, I completely made that up! Am I anywhere close to the truth?

CS. Short answer: no. Long answer (for me anyway) is that I don't like either titles. Revenge is just too dark, I can't see the playfield. Episode 1 has vastly improved lighting, but I'm not a fan of the mode-based rules structure. I feel that both games hold the ball too much, and both over-use the display; however understand that it was intentional to over-use the display in order to show it off (Episode 1 actually uses up less image space than Revenge). Amazingly though some people still don't "get" that platform, which really boggles my mind.

Wizard Blocks had lighting that was a vast improvement over Episode 1, and a much more pinball-like ruleset.

TPB. Who that you met during your pinball career was the most influential to you, and who are you still friends with today?

CS. Working with Steve Kordek on my first game (Ticket Tac Toe) was amazing, and I thoroughly enjoy catching up with him a few times a year. Working with programmers like Ted Estes, Larry DeMar and Tom Uban really shaped what type of programmer I have become today, and I remain close friends with all three (I still see Tom several times a week, and chat with Ted and Larry almost daily).

Dwight Sullivan opened my eyes to the amazing world of game mechanics, and is still one of my dearest friends. (Coincidentally as I type this, I can hear our testers playing "La Grange" on "Guitar Hero Arcade", anyone know what pinball machine used that song? Hint: Dwight programmed it...)

TPB. What does Cameron Silver do to pay the bills today?

CS. I currently work at Raw Thrills, which is one of the largest coin-op game houses around. We are headed up by Eugene Jarvis, and have released the "Fast And The Furious" driving games (three of them), Nicktoons Racing, Big Buck Hunter, and "Guitar Hero Arcade" which is rocking seriously hard.

TPB. Finally can you sum up your involvement with pinball in one word or sentence.

CS. Yes.

And there you have it, a great interview with Cameron and hopefully more of what you guys want to read. Many thanks to Cameron Silver for being such a great sport and answering some random questions!

Cameron was already reading The Pinball Blog which is just great, so if YOU'RE reading and you're a pinball designer or contributed significantly in other ways to the industry drop me a line and we'll hook you up. Or if you're a regular Joe like me, then let me know who you'd like to see interviewed on Pinball Heroes and we'll try and hunt them down!


The Pinball Blog