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Saturday 30 May 2009

Pinball Heroes: Greg Kmiec

Pinball Heroes: Greg Kmiec

The Pinball Blog: So you're Greg Kmiec. You designed 30+ games including EM, solid state and dot matrix in a career spanning 3 decades. Is there a particular machine you are most proud of and why?

Greg Kmiec: Historically speaking, the game that I am most proud of is Xenon. I designed Xenon as Bally’s first multi-level game with the pinball going under a part of the playfield (the tube.) (All of the contemporary games were single level.) The artist for the game, Paul Faris, saw the clear tube and he said it reminded him of a neon sign. He wanted a futuristic name for the game. He came up with the name Xenon (an inert gas like neon.) Paul did a terrific job with the futuristic artwork.

(There's more about Xenon later in the interview)

TPB: Who that you worked with was a highlight and who are you still friends with today?

GK: Without question, the person that I worked with who was a highlight in my career was pinball artist Dave Christensen. Wizard! was just the 4th game I ever designed and the attention Dave’s artwork generated on that game was unbelievable. The artwork was so different from contemporary games. It really put that game over the top. Bally Marketing VP Tom Nieman should be credited for his brilliance in securing the Wizard! naming and artwork rights.

When I designed the pinball game Wizard!, I had a different theme in mind. I designed the bonus lights in a W as the first letter in Wizard. I had envisioned a medieval-themed Merlin-type wizard as the main character in the game, flipping over the Flip-Flags with magic spells. The Wizard playfield was given to Dave for artwork. Dave had quite a reputation as an eccentric artist. Everything you’ve heard about Dave’s eccentricity is true. But, isn’t that the case with every great artist? 35 years later, I am still good friends with Dave. We communicate regularly.

TPB: There was break of several years between Transporter the Rescue and Breakshot. What was your brief with Capcom for the machine and how far did you get with other pinball designs that never made production before Capcom pulled out of pinball?

GK: I designed a game called Red Line Fever just as Capcom was going out of business. It was a beautifully designed motorcycle themed game with actual handlebars mounted on the front of the cabinet to actuate the flippers, movable ramps and directionally timed speed-measuring features along with several severe playfield mechanical animations. I brought the game to a Pinball Expo one year and a motorcyclist tracked me down and told me it was just like riding a motorcycle. That comment made me feel good. The concept of using handlebars to control flippers on a pinball game was quite unique and years ahead of current thinking in pinball game design.

TPB: Stan Fukuoka created some alternative art for Breakshot, which I'm guessing had a more adult edge. Was the art simply not suitable for the machine and have their been other instances in your career where the artwork was a way off what you had envisaged?

GK: I was brought into Capcom to design an economy game. Breakshot was designed as a single level playfield with an economy board set to distinguish it from 1995 contemporary games. Capcom wanted to offer a game to the operator at a lower price.

The original artwork by Stan was indeed adult rated. The original name of the game was Cloud 9. The artwork had the ancient Gods looking down on the 9 planets of our solar system (Pluto was still a planet at the time.) As can be expected with Stan’s creative license and extreme talent, the female Gods were very scantily clad (if at all.) The president of the company saw the artwork and although he personally liked it, he thought it would be hard to sell it to family recreation centers. So the 9 planets became 9 pool balls and Breakshot was born, with the pool games 9-Ball, Strikes and Spares and rotation.

I have already mentioned that the artwork on Wizard! changed from my original concept (thank goodness.) Also changed was the artwork on Supersonic. Originally the name of the game was Star Ship. I designed the bonus lights to be the 2 S’s in Star Ship (a Star Trek themed gamed.) At that time, I had several promotional themed games in a row and Bally had just hired a new game designer. I gave up the Star Ship name and artwork to the new designer. His game used newly licensed artwork and eventually was named Star Trek. My game was already designed and in order to utilize the 2 S’s already on the playfield, the back glass name was changed to Supersonic and the playfield artwork was changed to SST. (The Super Sonic Transport plane was also called SST.) (That is the reason that only the S’s are used in the bonus lights and not the T.)

Artwork also changed on Spy Hunter. Originally, I designed the game with an Elvis theme. The bonus lights represented the push buttons on the front of a juke box. Each button pair represented a different Elvis song. Aligning 2 bonus lights played the indicated song. The only problem with that was that at the time, Bally had not secured the Elvis license. I was a little ahead of the curve. At the time, Bally had a video game called Spy Hunter and wanted to cross promote it with a pinball game. The Elvis game was a completely finished whitewood with hand drawn lettering indicating scoring features. My boss (ED: Norm Clark) gave me 24 hours to change the whitewood from an Elvis theme to a Spy Hunter theme. I disassembled the entire top of the playfield and ran a belt sander across the entire playfield eliminating the juke box instructions. It took most of an overnight effort to re-letter the instructions to a Spy Hunter theme, reassemble the top of the playfield and trouble shoot the result. Let me tell you that sawdust does not mix well with playfield switches.

TPB: I'm led to believe City Slicker was planned to include a remote flipper button to enable an opponent to interfere with the game. Can you tell us more?

GK: City Slicker did indeed have a remote controlled flipper on the playfield. I designed City Slicker as a gun-fighting themed game. The Roaring 20’s styled artwork reinforced the gun battle theme.

There was a gun handle attached to the pinball cabinet by a 6 foot steel cable (just like the gun handles used in video games to shoot at the screen.) The concept was to have your opponent stand alongside of the cabinet and give him control of one of the flippers on the playfield. The flipper was positioned mid-playfield to shoot the pinball into the out hole on an exact shot. The pinball player could battle against the opponent’s shot and save the pinball. It was my attempt to make pinball more interactive instead of taking turns and watching others play their turn. The feature was years ahead of its time.

TPB: Gary Flower sometimes wears the most ghastly 'pinball' jacket I've ever seen. It's based on the Wizard! playfield and he blames you for the purchase, but I believe the story behind it's existence is a little strange, can you tell us more?

GK: Actually, that Wizard jacket was all the rage back in the day. You can blame Rob Berk, the founder of Pinball Expo, for Gary’s jacket.

Rob had arrived in Chicago, the location for Pinball Expo, several days ahead of the show. As is our tradition, Rob, Gary, Jim Schelberg (editor of Pin Game Journal) and I met to discuss the nominees for that year’s Pin Ball Expo Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. Rob then wanted to go shopping in downtown Chicago at Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. World traveler that he is, Rob wanted to acquire something that had the Chicago look. All of us went to a clothing store in Water Tower Place. I think Gary was the first one to spot an entire rack of Wizard jackets. No one in the industry had even heard about the jackets. The jackets were made with a pinball theme and the word Wizard across the back in Dave Christensen’s style of artwork. Needless to say, we all bought jackets and informed the rest of the industry of our find. So, I believe that Gary was the first to spot the jackets and unleash that fashion statement on the industry.

TPB: Your surname is spelled on the Spy Hunter targets and the computer on Vector . Your nickname Gypsy appears on Wizard. Where did the nickname come from and was there any resistance to designers putting their names in games? Any more subtle ones we may not have noticed?

GK: Dave Christensen was the first pinball artist to put the name of the artist and designer on a Bally pinball game. The artist and designer had to communicate quite regularly about the different aspects of game features and scoring to be represented on the artwork. And Wizard! was quite a break from contemporary pinball artwork.

At the time of the development of Wizard!, I was moving residences. As anyone can tell you, moving residences before the internet was invented involved a lot of legwork and waiting for utilities to be disconnected at one place and reconnected at another. And as anyone in the industry can tell you, there were deadlines that had to be met (in Wizard!’s case, the artwork had to be approved by the stars on the back glass and also by the movie company.) Dave could not get in contact with me as I explained to him later that I was in between residences. That is when, in his infinite creativity, he labeled me as a gypsy running around without a home. That nickname never really meant anything to me or anyone else and it never really stuck with me.

Of course, industry insiders know that I always included a single red playfield post on every game I designed. Here is the story behind that: When I was first starting out in design, it was industry policy that a designer could not put his name on a game. That was to prevent another company from finding out who designed what game and hiring them away from their current company. That was archaic thinking. In fact, literally within hours of a new game being placed at a test location, everyone in the design industry knew who designed what game and what features were on it. Anyway, under this company-imposed anonymous design decree, I decided to set apart the games I designed. Bally was running two production lines at the time, a pinball line that used white playfield posts and a bingo line that used red playfield posts. I just installed one red post on my pinball games, usually in an inconspicuous spot on the playfield. I kept that secret for quite awhile. Then it became a Kmiec game tradition.

TPB: Bow and Arrow was predominantly made as an EM but it was also Bally's first attempt at a solid state machine. I was quite surprised to see Norm Clark credited with the software for the solid state game. How did that come about and what was it like working with Norm?

GK: That’s an urban legend. Norm Clark never had anything to do with the software on Bow & Arrow. At the time at Bally, Norm was head of the design department and Frank Bracha was head of the software department. Obviously, Norm’s name was well known in the pinball industry, Frank’s was not. Norm and Frank were both interviewed about the conversion of Bow & Arrow from electro-mechanical control to solid state control. Someone, somewhere, somehow in some article credited Norm with Bow & Arrow’s software conversion. I guess it was a more interesting story talking to Norm about pinball than talking to Frank about bits and bytes. Frank really headed up Bally’s solid state conversion effort.

As to working for Norm, he really taught me about the business end of pinball. Up to then, I designed games that I thought were fun to play. Norm introduced me to the profit and loss of pinball. The entire industry was becoming cost conscious. Norm said that a designer couldn’t put every feature into every game. There had to be a reasonable cost to the game. I always introduced one new feature in every game I designed. There is a progressive thread of one new feature in all of my games.

Of course, the way I got to that point is an interesting story: Norm was the head of the design department at the time. He was charged with keeping the cost of the pinball product within certain price points as well as keeping the games interesting and desirable. He pretty much left the designers alone until the final review of a game. Then he would invariably take out a feature he deemed too expensive. To get around that, I always put in two new features in every game, one that was extremely costly that I knew Norm would take out and another less costly one that I really wanted in the game. That way, when Norm took out the costly feature and left in the other one I really wanted, everyone was happy.

TPB: Word on the street is Xenon was changed to be a multiball game at the last minute to compete with other manufacturers taking this step. Did you need to make wholesale changes to your design to accommodate multiball?

GK: Xenon was originally designed as a single ball game. The playfield had a ramp and a tube shot. It had great artwork and an infinity back box. This total package was complete.

Bally’s marketing department had heard of a competitor’s talking game. That’s when the decision was made to include speech. The decision was made to one-up the competition by utilizing a female’s voice, as dictated by the artwork. Bally’s marketing genius Tom Nieman secured the popular, technically astute, new-age recording artist Suzzane Ciani to supply the sounds and voices in Xenon. Ciani is known by some in the industry as the Goddess of Pinball.

So now Bally had a game with a multi-level playfield, great artwork and great sounds. Then, Bally’s marketing department heard that a multi-ball game was planned for release by a competitor. Well, Bally couldn’t be beaten at their own game of one-upmanship. Bally wanted to sell a multi-ball game also.

Alan Riezman was an electrical engineer at Bally. He was part of the software department. One day, he was helping to percentage Xenon. During lunch, he threw two balls on the playfield, just to see how it would feel. He liked the action. He showed me his idea and I liked it. I told him to take his idea to the marketing department. Within hours, Xenon was transformed into a multi-ball game. Credit is due where credit is due, to Alan.

Once I determined where to capture a ball on the playfield, the only change I had to make was to add a safety switch in the lane above the MOTA saucer. This was to prevent two balls from being captured in the MOTA saucer lane. (MOTA was just ATOM spelled backwards.)

TPB: Who would YOU like to see featured as one of our Pinball Heroes and why?

GK: From strictly an insider’s technical point of view, I’d recommend Doug MacDonald. Doug is an electrical engineer who was intimately involved in Bally’s conversion from electro-mechanical games to solid state.

An interesting story can finally be told now that all of the principles are out of the industry. When Atari first wanted to enter into the pinball industry, a representative of Atari contacted me at Bally and offered me a job. I was having some success at Bally at the time so I refused his generous offer. It seems that Atari then promoted an unknown technician working for them at the time named Steve Ritchie to a pinball design position. Many years later, when my supervisor left Bally to work at Williams as head of pinball design, he asked me if I wanted to leave Bally and work at Williams, as they had a position open. Again, I was having some success at Bally and refused his generous offer. It seems that Williams then consequentially hired an out-of-towner named Steve Ritchie. The rest is history.

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

GK: I was fortunate to experience the industry during the change over from electro-mechanical to solid state control and the introduction of promotional themed games in what I consider the Golden Age of Pinball 1975-1985.

Many thanks to Greg Kmiec for his great answers and we have more Pinball Heroes coming soon.


The Pinball Blog

Games designed by Greg Kmiec 1) AMIGO - Spanish theme 2) ROGO – Fantasy Historical 3) KNOCKOUT - Boxing 4) WIZARD - Promotional game - the movie “Tommy” 5) BOW & ARROW - Indian theme 6) HOKUS POKUS - Magic 7) OLD CHICAGO - Historical 8) CAPT. FANTASTIC - Promotional game - the movie “Tommy” 9) ALADDIN’S CASTLE - Fantasy 10) NIGHT RIDER - Transportation Realism 11) POWER PLAY - Promotional game - Bobby Orr 12) SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN - Promotional game - Lee Majors 13) SUPERSONIC - Flight 14) PARAGON - Fantasy 15) HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS - Promotional game 16) XENON – Sci-Fi Fantasy 17) VECTOR - Fantasy 18) GRAND SLAM - Baseball 19) CYBERNAUT – Sci-Fi Fantasy 20) KINGS OF STEEL - Cards 21) SPY HUNTER - Video game cross-promotion 22) MOTORDOME - Fantasy 23) CITY SLICKER – Retro Historical 24) TRANSPORTER – Sci-Fi Fantasy 25) BREAKSHOT

Photos & Pictures
PinGame Journal
Gary Flower /
Red Post Page
Internet Pinball Database


Federico Croci said...

Great article!
I've been a fan of Greg Kmiec since 1981, when I played a new out of the box "Xenon" at the age of 15, at a local arcade, obtaining some free plays as the result of helping in installing it :-)
It was just then I decided a day I would have owned my personal "Xenon" ;-)
In 1994, at the Chicago Pinball Expo, amongst the others I was lucky enough to met him in person. I was in touch with him via email, and some messages in the newsgroup, where I explained him my passion for his games. If you look in the RGP archives, I think my messages are still there. As a result, he very kindly brought me a b/w promo photo of "Xenon" which was still hanging in his office at the time. eBay was not an option in those days, and such a thing was virtually impossible to obtain if you were not in the industry. At the same Expo, I was able to have a poster of the game, as well as the photo, signed by him and Paul Faris.
Ten years ago, at my home in Bologna, Italy, the first thing you notice while entering is a "Xenon" pinball, with the signed poster and the promo photo still there, guarding the game. The "Xenon" pinball I own, is the very pinball I helped taking it out of the box in that arcade at the time, as I was able to track it down later and buy it.

Here is that b/w promo photo of "Xenon", signed by Greg Kmiec and Greg Freres:

Ps. years later, on eBay, I was able to buy a proto serigraphated mylar Bally made at the time as an experiment to produce different made playfield. But that's another story :-)

Federico Croci said...

Ops :-)
In a hurry, it seems I mentioned Greg Freres as the man responsible for the art of Xenon, and the signing of my photo. I was obviously referring to Paul Faris.
Moderator, please correct my post, thanks :-)