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

Saturday 18 April 2009

Pinball Heroes: Kevin Martin

Steve Epstein created PAPA, the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association in New York. When he retired, he sold the name and assets (magazines, shirts, trophies etc) to the guy who was organising the Pinburgh tournaments. Now the excellent 30,000 square foot facility that houses PAPA is opened up twice a year to host the PAPA World Championships and a fund raising weekend.

Still with me? Let's try and clear it up a bit, The Pinball Blog presents:

Kevin Martin. President of PAPA.

The Pinball Blog: PAPA looks like a beautiful facility. With all those machines couldn't you open it up a little more often?

Kevin Martin: We've been working on that, actually. There were some false starts, and it's by no means simple to achieve, but we're working on renting it out for events, company meetings, etc. It's also been used for a few private parties with great success. Also, there are now two annual events open to the public - the main tournament in August, and the Cupids & Canines Casino Night, which raises money for dog charities. This year we raised over $10,000.

TPB: PAPA/IFPA do we really need both?

KM: Ha! You'd have to ask Steve Epstein and Roger Sharpe - I think they founded both organizations originally. Roger's son Josh runs IFPA now, they have an "event points" system - sort of like what you see for online poker, only a little more haphazard because the events themselves are more haphazard. PAPA and IFPA had both been on hiatus, until in each case, someone new stepped up to run things.

PAPA has a ranking system, too - "PARS" - but it's strictly a mathematical endeavor, using the Glicko system to assign scores to players based on their competitive matchplay. It's a fun little project and doesn't attract too much controversy.

PAPA really exists just to run the best possible annual tournament. IFPA has a broader variety of goals.

TPB: Who that you have met through pinball would you say has been the most influential and why?

KM: Kudos first have to go to Steve Epstein (left in picture with Roger Sharpe), who ran tournaments and put up with the likes of me, a snotty-nosed kid, in an overpriced, rundown NYC hotel. The early PAPA tournaments really showed me what a pinball tournament could be, and how it should be run - to create a good experience for everyone, and to be as fair as possible to every player.

My actual pinball play benefited tremendously from being at the same grad school as Keith Johnson (recently an ex-Stern employee) and from driving to Norfolk one weekend to meet Lyman Sheats. Competing against Keith, and watching Lyman as he thrashed everyone, including myself, really sharpened my skills and extended my love for the game. Keith and I used to drive around the South, looking for pinball machines in every nook and cranny.

TPB: What do you do 9-5?

KM: I own pair Networks, Inc, which I started in the summer of 1995. It's a 24x7 business so "9-5" might not be the right term. pair is one of the oldest independently-owned Web hosting companies on the Internet.

TPB: I'm sure you've told the flood story a hundred times, but how do you pick yourself up from something like that?

KM: There was an interesting sensation of freedom, actually. I was there when the floodwaters reached the cabinets, and I knew everything was a loss - and I realized that I could choose to do, or not do, whatever I wanted about it. We had just run a hugely successful PAPA tournament in a brand new facility, after PAPA had been offline for seven years. Nobody would fault me for just walking away and writing it off. Of course, anybody who knew me realized I was just going to rebuild. Once you're crazy/determined enough to build the place, rebuilding it is only a few percentage points crazier.

I actually went to Kennywood, our local amusement park, for most of the rest of the weekend. On Monday, I had our contractor out, an environmental cleanup crew was hired, and we were using forklifts to carry all the games out into the p
arking lot and smash them for parts. It was a fast, brutal assembly line - or more like a killing floor.

By the time we held PAPA 8, I actually had more machines in the facility than we had at PAPA 7. And there have been more every year since, and in better working order, especially since I hired Dave to stay on top of everything down there.

After the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river and cleared its banks - so not only were the conditions in 2004 a "perfect storm" (two hurricanes coming through), the risks are much lower now regardless. And there's flood insurance on contents... which we had discussed, ironically, the day before the flood in 2004.

TPB: On the PAPA site you call yourself a formerly-somewhat-dangerous player. Do you think you're losing your touch or are other players getting better?

KM: Oh, I'm definitely losing my touch. Working for Data East/Sega Pinball was the first blow - when you play with the glass off, it's really hard to keep your skills sharp. My other big fault is concentration - trying too hard just makes pinball feel like hard work, and I prefer to just have a good time playing. I'm not a wild and crazy player, but I'm not going to sit there and shoot a ramp three hundred times, either. I've just got no patience for that.

I've been doing alright lately, mostly beating up on Dave. I hope to go to a few events sometime in the next year or two, but I've just been too darn busy.

TPB: What was the first machine you ever owned and what is the most recent you bought?

KM: When I lived in Virginia in grad school, I bought Dodge City and Gay 90's from an operator in the middle of nowhere. A few months later, I took the job with Data East and drove to Chicago - selling the games to a friend of mine. Since then, I've owned three other Dodge City machines, including one that was lost in the flood.

Today, I was getting quotes on 24 - so that might count as the most recent. Unless you want to know about some video games I just brought in from Hong Kong.

TPB: You also keep the excellent Pinball Archive which seems to have been around since the mid-13th century. Do you get much time to write the rule sheets like you used to?

KM: I would love to write more rule sheets, but I seem to have lost my ability to quickly grasp rules - I think I'm turning into an old man! For example, I've been playing a lot of Spiderman lately, and really killing it, but I couldn't explain about a third of the game to anyone. When I wrote rule sheets for games like Twilight Zone and Whitewater, I nailed down every detail, and that was before I even had access except as a player.

I think the Pinball Archive was an idea I had over Christmas 1991, and started up in the following month. That is pretty ancient - it was an FTP archive at my undergraduate school, in the image processing lab where they had Sun servers.

Lately, the Pinball Archive is pretty quiet - just the events page and very very rarely, an update to a rule sheet :(

TPB: Other than pinball, what makes Kevin Martin tick?

KM: Hmm. Well, I'm happily married to my brilliant, delightful, and adorable wife Doreen, and I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter, Rhiannon, as well as three dogs and three cats. I love to travel, either with friends & family or just for relaxation - sometimes, the further away, the better. I'm an old school computer geek who tends to learn new things just for the sake of learning, and I'm likely to solve any problem you give me by writing some crufty Perl, or C if really necessary. I've been playing a lot of poker in the last couple of years, mostly online, and although I'm not bad, I suffer from the same shortcomings as my pinball play - a lack of patience and concentration. Being impatient in a cash-based game is not usually a good idea...

TPB: Finally, we always ask our Pinball Heroes to sum up their involvement in pinball in one word or sentence.

KM: I enjoy the atmosphere of friendly competition that you find at tournaments and sometimes at leagues - I always say my goal is to "spread the pinball bug from player to player".

- - - - - -

Many thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer our questions and more pinball heroes coming soon. Plus remember there are PAPA12 registrations and division entries as prizes at the Monster Meet in May so thanks again to Kevin and Dave for those!


The Pinball Blog

Photos Courtesy. Kevin Martin, PAPA, pair Networks, IFPA Pinball

Saturday 11 April 2009

Pinball Heroes: John Borg

There aren't many guys who still design pinball machines in the 21st century, but The Pinball Blog tracked down John Borg who can make that claim.

The Pinball Blog. So you're John Borg, one of the only people on the planet who can still claim to be a pinball designer! What are your current responsibilities at Stern and who else does what?

John Borg. I am wearing a lot of hats these days as are many of the small staff at Stern. I am designing and a mechanical engineer, working with artists on concepts and content, Designing game rules with software, Creating the game manual with service and parts sale departments. I work with purchasing and production and building prototypes (whitewood game). I also put out fires.

Gary Stern and Marc Schoenberg are handling our licensing contacts. Kevin O'Connor and John Youssi are creating art packages. Mark Galvez is producing Dot Matrix art. Lonnie Ropp and Lyman Sheets are the software engineers.
John Rothermel and Robert Blakeman are the mechanical engineers. Patrick Powers and Dorothy Brown are Service and Part Sales. Sheridan Oursler is producing our Bill of Materials, Cable design and handles all of our Engineering prototype orders and change notices. He is a Jack of all trades. Ed Spears runs purchasing and Don Thorn runs Production.

We are certainly a smaller group than we were last. I am just about to prototype a game that
is two games ahead of 24. I am gaining ground and trying to get ahead in order to give software as much time as possible on future product. 24 turned out to be a very nice game and is being well received. The two games that will follow 24 will be awesome as well.

TPB. From all the machines you've been involved with, which are you most proud of? Commercial success, or personal favourite or innovation.

JB. This is a tough question Nick. I would have to say Data East Star Wars which was my first game. Indiana Jones which was my first game since I returned to Stern in 2007. My Frankenstein monster on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein game, the Moon and Rocket assemblies I designed for Apollo 13. Also have to add the Electro magnetic spinning Disc I designed for the Twister game and the door handle shooter on Tales from the Crypt.

TPB. You like your ramp shots on pinball machines, is this anything to do with your passion for BMX bikes? Do you still ride?

JB. Ramps and BMX - Bmx was a part of my life that ended in the early 80's. I started again in 2006. It was a mid life crisis thing. When I started again I never thought I would be getting 5-6 feet in the air again at my age but I have. What a rush !!!! As far as pinball ramps go, I like smooth long shots with smooth curves and a soft landing. Bmx ramps are sharp and abrupt and the landing is not very soft. The similarity between the two is they are both gratifying.

TPB. How difficult is it to work on a license like Indiana Jones when the theme has already been produced with much success as a pinball machine and the two will always be compared.

JB. I had a great time working on Indy Jones. I didn't have the budget or the timeframe that they had at Williams back in the day. However we did make a really nice playing game with a great multiball introduction and some of the best Dot Matrix work I have ever seen on a pinball game. The Arc of the Covenant is a really cool pinball toy.

TPB. A little birdie tells me you were working on Transformers as a pinball license for around 6 weeks before this was put on hold to concentrate on Indiana Jones. Is that the nature of the industry or is it a major frustration? How far had you got and is it likely to ever be finished?

JB. I wasn't working on Transformers. I was working on a rock and roll game themed on the best rock and roll band of all time. Unfortunately the license didn't go through. I was devastated and lost two months of work. I was really glad to get the Indiana Jones theme but still had to have a game ready for the same time slot.

TPB. When Ray Tanzer left Stern, you came in to run engineering and were given the schedule of the next 6 titles. I understand those 6 machines have since changed. Are you able to give us an exclusive on what's coming up from Stern Pinball?

JB. We didn't have a schedule of 6 titles at the time. NBA will follow 24 and a very cool theme follows NBA. We are looking at several titles for next year. I'm really pushing for Munsters. I miss Ray, Steve, George, Pat, Keith and Dwight. Maybe when the economy comes back some of the guys might come back. Hopefully before I'm in a rubber room in a straight jacket.

TPB. You designed Guns n' Roses and Slash also has a design credit. How much involvement did he really have with the design, did you get to meet him and did you party/jam with him?

JB. Yes Slash had design input on the GnR game. Joe Kamikow asked Slash to dig up an unreleased GnR song to put in the game. That was really cool and a nice touch. I visited Slash in LA and he came out to visit us a couple times. I still have the Jack Daniels bottle. We had a great time with him. When I visited him in California his 6 month old cougar Curtis pinned me and had his mouth around my neck. Never pet a cougar on his belly !!!!! I just layed there calmly until he was finished playing with me. I figured if he bit down hard it would have been over quickly.

TPB. Steve Ritchie may have moved on from pinball but I hear he was designing a game to follow 24, is it something that is likely to be finished and if not, (or even if so) can you tell us what it was?

JB. Steve started a layout for a game. I'm not sure if the license is secured yet or if it will be produced or not. Can't say what it is at this time.

TPB. How much time/money is spent on a machine like Richie Rich as a one-off movie prop and do you know where the machine is today (I believe it was given to someone at Stern, but subsequently sold)?

Well the playfield was a Lethal Weapon III. The artwork had to be produced and screens needed to be made. A few weeks of Dot Martix work, sound and programming. A custom game would not come cheap. I remember we made a few games for Aaron Spelling. We had a special artist come in and decorate the cabinets. He painted them to look like marble that matched the marble in Mr. Spelling's home. These games were a present from his wife.

TPB. Finally, I always ask our Pinball Heroes to sum up their involvement in pinball in one word or sentence.

JB. JACKPOT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Many thanks to John Borg for taking the time to answer our questions and for his great answers. If you would like to see YOUR Pinball Hero interviewed drop us a line and we'll try and make it happen!

More Pinball Heroes coming soon.


The Pinball Blog

John Borg Photo Courtesy The PinGame Journal

Saturday 4 April 2009

Pinball Heroes: Barry Oursler

This week we're interviewing a guy who helped pinball fight back against the popularity of video games in the 1980s.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Pinball Blog proudly presents.

Pinball Heroes: Barry Oursler.

The Pinball Blog: So you're Barry Oursler. Over 20 years working on pinball machines with the same company is impressive. Machines you've been involved with have sold over 100,000 units! Do you have a particular 'defining moment' you're most proud of?

Barry Oursler: I think that seeing my first game roll off of the assembly line would have to be one of the highlights of my career. Who knew that I would be there for 26 years.

TPB: Were you always aware that Gorgar would be the first talking pinball machine or was it a case of when technology was ready for that step it was the machine that was in production. Also were there any prototype 'talking' machines that we never saw?

BO: The truth is that I was not totally aware when I started designing Gorgar that it would be the first talking machine. As the development progressed, our programmers had finished developing a speech program. The chip that we used had very little memory, so we could only use 10 or 12 words total. We had to come up with different phrases using combinations of those words. Everything had to be monotone so it would sound right. There were no other talking machines before that.

TPB: PIN-BOT was hugely popular and also spawned a couple of sequel games. Did you think when designing the machine it would be such a success and what made it so?

BO: I had a feeling that it would do very well for a several reasons. The game had a new feature, the visor and target bank. I teamed up with Python and Pfutz again. From my perspective, it was one of the first games ever designed after the artwork was done. Python had come up with this "crazy" drawing depicting a giant robot in space with flipper fingers. I studied his playfield artwork and designed a game around it. He had a "visor" on his drawing. I created a moving visor and used two eject holes for his eyes. I also created the target bank, which became his teeth. I had a lot of help with the mechanical devices, the visor, target bank & the spiral "skill shot", from Joe Joos. He was the best mechanical engineer I ever worked with.

TPB: Following on from PIN-BOT, there are some similarities with the Doctor Who playfield. Obviously for us UK guys it was surprising to see a 'home-grown' theme being made by a company largely building for an American market. I understand that Bill Pfutzenreuter was a big Dr Who fan but did the license come up against much resistance from the powers that be at Williams?

BO: Bill and I were both Dr Who fans, that's why we teamed up on it. Bill tried to design the playfield himself, but just couldn't get it to play the way he wanted it to. I agreed to take his concept and design a totally new playfield. The PIN-BOT bank was a huge success, so we decided to take it a step further. We mad it a 3-level moving playfield. It took a while to get it to work right, but with the help of Zofia Bil, our mechanical engineer, we had it working perfectly. I just sold my Dr Who last year. It still worked flawlessly after 15 years. I don't recall too much resistance from management over the theme. If you can show them that you truly believed in a project, they would usually give it a chance.

TPB: Popeye doesn't get much credit from the pinball collectors. I guess back then you were building for the coin-op market rather than thinking we'd be collecting them in our homes all these years later. Were you happy with the machine at the time?

BO: Not really. Management wanted me to do another game with Python to try and capture the "magic" we had with previous collaborations. I wasn't too happy with the theme or the drawings that he had created. It was another scenario where the artwork was done first. I reluctantly agreed, due to pressure from "above". I think it was one of my two least favorite games that I designed, the other being BAD CATS.

TPB: Space Shuttle is often credited with the revival of pinball against the popularity of video games. Did you think 'this is the one' or was the time right for pinball to fight back?

BO: I believe that it really did spark the fire that revived pinball. We had a do-or-die situation. We were told that the next game had better be a "hit" or else that would be the end of pinball. Management & sales went over each project in development at that time. They decided to go with SPACE SHUTTLE. Luckily, it worked out. It's possible someone else could have had their game do the same thing, but we'll never know.

TPB: Your brother Sheridan I believe worked at Stern for a while. Who's the better pinball player and was there much rivalry between you?

BO: There has never been a rivalry between us, unlike the Ritchie brothers. My brother was mainly working on video games for Midway, while I was at Williams. He never played much pinball. He is still working at Stern in the engineering department.

TPB: Many of our Pinball Heroes say Steve Kordek was the most influential to their careers and I understand you had a close relationship with the great man. It must be time someone dished some dirt on Mr Kordek, maybe you can?

BO: No matter how had I try, I don't think I can come up with anything "bad" to say about Steve. I don't believe you can find anyone who doesn't love and respect that man. If he does have any secrets, he's not telling!

What does Barry Oursler do in the 21st century to pay the bills?

BO: From 1998 to 2006, I worked for Betson Imperial Parts & Service as a purchasing manager. They are the largest distributor of games and parts in the USA. Sadly, I was laid-off a couple of years ago. For the last two years, I have been working for EcoSure, a division of Ecolab, a worldwide company. They are mainly involved in food safety, sort of like a health dept. Big restaurant corporations hire us to come in and evaluate their restaurants, hotels, etc for cleanliness, proper food handling, etc. I do mostly administrative work.

TPB: Finally, I always ask our Pinball Heroes to sum up their involvement in pinball in one word or sentence.

BO: It was a great ride while it lasted! I truly miss it!

Many thanks to Barry Oursler for taking the time to answer my questions and becoming another of our Pinball Heroes. I'm constantly amazed at how much time these guys give to our hobby, maybe even years since their paths led in a different direction. More Pinball Heroes coming soon.


The Pinball Blog

Steve Kordek Photo courtesy Pinball News