April 13, 2008 12:00 AM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another documentary, but one that takes a look at pinball, and examines what once was, and what could have been.]
Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball [whose director, Greg Maletic, we interviewed earlier in the week] is a loving look at the those machines that filled smokey arcades with loud lights and bright sounds, but sans computer monitor, at least back in the day. Yet the documentary establishes early on that pinball was not directly killed off by video games as many would assume.
In fact, in the early nineties, despite the fact that the hearts and minds of video gamers across the land were being fought over by Nintendo and Sega via their 16-bit devices, the pinball industry managed to earn record sales. There was much promise for the future, but all of a sudden, very sudden actually, it all came crashing down. But a shining white knight on the horse came to the rescue, one that many felt would save them all. And... it didn't.
Tilt kicks off with a brief history of pinball, starting with Harry Williams, who completely changed the already established landscape; not only did he create the very first electric powered pinball game, as well as introduce the concept of tilt, but also created the flipper. Previously, balls were launched to the top of the field and then simply dropped into one of numerous holes on the way down.
Pinball was all about luck, until flippers came along, and all of a sudden the game was about skill. But due to the stigma that pinball machines supported organized crime because some awarded players' skills with a cash payout, and were therefore gambling machines, they were run out of most major cities in the 50s and only made a comeback twenty years later.
Though it was somewhat stunted by the appearance of video games, which may not have killed off pinball, but surely did not help it whatsoever, with their ability to accommodate simultaneous players, meaning more $$$ for arcade operators, as well their ability to crank up the difficulty, which also translated to larger profit margins. Plus video games were a lot less fragile than pinball machines, with all those moving parts, any of which could break down and needed costly servicing. Pinball managed to hang in there, but just barely.
Enter Larry DeMar, an MIT graduate who joined Willams in 1980, joining the company to create pinball machines but was immediately enlisted to make games instead. Which he was able to do quite well; DeMar was a key force, along with Eugene Jarvis, behind such early arcade classics such as Defender and Robotron 2084. But he eventually went back to what he really loved, and helped to lead Williams as the number one pinball company in the industry throughout the 80s and 90s with design innovations such as double level play-fields and multi-ball.
Along with along with the sweeping changes came a greater one to the game itself, almost a change in the core philosophy; instead of just providing the player with a series of challenges, all for the purpose to score points, pinball evolved to the point that, as fellow Williams pinball designer Pat Lawlor says in the documentary, it could tell a story.
As the industry entered the 90s, the machines became more and more complicated and advanced, on both a technological and gameplay level, the latter of which did not alienate players as one also might expect, but actually helped to attract them. Just as the arcades were having their last true time in the spotlight, thanks to the rise of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and before the advanced 32-bit machines finally stole arcade video games' thunder (at least here in the United States), pinball was entering its greatest era.
Unfortunately, success is only relative. 1992 saw the most successful pinball machine of all time, based on the Addams Family motion picture, and designed by DeMar and Lawlor. It sold over 21,000 units. Now, if a console game moved those kind of numbers, even back then, it would be considered a bomb. But for pinball, that number was good. Very good. Note that at this point, even 5,000 units shipped was considered successful in the pinball world.
Also, Williams became the place to be. Back then, their designers were practically rock stars within the industry, and had total control over their work. Today, in the year 2008, with video games being as big as it is, designers still seem to have relatively very little respect in their companies, even big name outfits - whereas Williams treated their creative minds with the utmost respect and gratitude. It's no wonder the folks from that world speak of that era in the movie with such fondness. They just weren't making entertainment or products, they were creating magic.
Williams began to grab more and more market-share, by gobbling up the competition. And soon the inevitable happened; the numbers plummeted. From 1993 to just 1996, sales took a sharp dive, mostly because there was too much of a good thing out on the streets, though the general public could no longer discern significant differences between one game and another as well. Case in point: Addams Family won pinball game of the year for four years in a row.
Reinventing The Wheel
For the designers and innovators at Williams, the writing was on the wall by the late 90s. Either think of something quick or head directly to the unemployment line. CEO Neil Nicastro came up with an initiative called Pinball 2000 to help re-invent the form... though more importantly, to make the machines out there seem all of a sudden obsolete. The seven different teams within Williams were brought together. And to work as a single unit, which was a tall order; each unit as designer George Gomez put it was "a gang.”
Because there was no longer any competition in the streets (as time went on, Williams simply gobbled up the competition), they had to pick battle among themselves, such as over bragging rights over whose machines had the best sales. As a result, everyone had their own idea to do every little tiny thing, which in turn lead to inefficiency and further turmoil.
There was also the issue of there seemingly being no new ideas out there. Williams had literally tried everything (and the viewer even gets to oh so briefly see some of the more wackier ideas in motion). Along came a very radical idea to add video games to pinball, by replacing the back-glass with a computer monitor that displayed animation, film clips, as well as sprites that would compliment the balls in motion.
This would become Pinball 2000, though not everyone was convinced. Aside from the fact that it was rather sacrilegious to taint the purity of pinball with video game elements, it had been done before (such as Baby Pac Man, which had the player playing both a pinball game and a traditional Pac Man game simultaneously) with zero success.
The idea was presented to the man in charge, who was somewhat "meh" about it, and he asked all that assembled if they truly believed if this was really the direction to go forward with. A few folks, such as Lawlor and Gomez raised their hands, much to the annoyance of the others, who wished not to rock the boat. Nicastro then simply laid it all out: either get with the program, come up with something better, or get the hell out. And option two is precisely what happened, but accident of course.
While going out for beer and pizza, software architect Tom Uban and Gomez came across an old Asteroid Deluxe machine. For those not familiar with that particular cabinet, and those like it, the game's screen is actually at the bottom, facing up, with the image bounced off reflective glass, over a cardboard backdrop, adding additional details and depth to what the player is seeing. And Uban and Gomez figured that the same could be applied towards pinball, with the video game elements overlaid the "real" action, therefore solving the problem of having the player trying to figure out what to look at, and when.
The idea was presented to the rest of the Pinball 2000 guys, but most were not convinced, so the two spent their evenings and weekends creating a mock-up, and after three or four months, they had a working prototype. It was presented to upper management, and they all loved it. Nicastro was convinced that it was indeed the future of pinball, and the rest of the team were also finally won over, ready to realize the dream. All seemed well...
The Alpha And The Omega
Eventually the Pinball 2000 team were off; to change the landscape that they had already forged and established. And is often the case, there was precious little time to do so. With so many new variables to consider, as well to create for the first time, when it came to the game itself, it was determined that the safest route would be the best, and to create a sequel to prestablished hit, Escape From Mars.
So the first Pinball 2000 game would be Revenge From Mars, and what was once conveyed via a four color dot matrix display just above the play-field was finally alive with aliens running all over the place and space saucers exploding in one's face. It’s at this point, while hearing about the all the business concerns the creators had to face (this new fangled machine had to the deliver 21st century pinball at 20th century prices), that Tilt actually presents, albeit briefly, how a pinball game is composed, as well as all the underlining philosophy behind design choices, and its all pretty fascinating stuff.
Anyhow, eighteen months later, Pinball 2000 and Revenge From Mars was at last complete. And everyone was happy, at least industry-type folks. Fast forward to the public unveiling, along with a cheesy video intro heralding the new world order with MLK saying "I have a dream" (it would seem that every corporate entity is guilty of parlaying the greatest civil rights defender of the 20th century to sell whatever item, whether it be pinball or cell phones or soft drinks... oh well).
Again, everyone who saw it, in this case arcade operators, loved it. They all lined up and threw their money on the table for the machine. All that was left was to sell the game to the actual players, and their reaction, primarily online was somewhat not surprising: rather negative. Hardcore pinball players are not unlike hardcore video game players; they don't like anything messing with the purity of their game. But as once they finally played the damn thing, Revenge From Mars found its fans, and Williams was finally making money from pinball once again. And happy days were here again.
Then then all of a sudden, they weren't. I won't divulge the rest of the story, though I will mention that the next and only other Pinball 2000 game was based on Star Wars Episode 1, a license that everyone thought would be absolute gangbusters, but ended up being somewhat the kiss of death for numerous folks.
In the end, the story of Tilt is a classic tale we hear all the time, and even experience first-hand; everything's looking good and golden, one's ass has just been saved from the chopping block, but slowly and surely, fortunes reverse. Those who felt so committed to the future throws their hands up in the air to say whatever. And the people who were once so revered are then looked down upon. Yet those same folks, when all is said and done, are actually relieved that it's all over. Despite the fact that, once the road has been travelled, there's very little else to go towards.
The story of Tilt is a fascinating one, as well as a depressing one. Plus an important one. A video gamer might be inclined, after watching Tilt, to ask if what they engage in might ever face a similar fate. And the answer is, yes it could. After-all, why not? When it comes to fun and games, nothing is forever. Most depressing is when it happens to them... if it happens, of course... there will be no clear cut answer, as is the case with pinball.
But one thing which is clear (and while film isn't the first to illustrate it, it still does so quite well) is how business is often for business types, simply stated, those who are creative will only give themselves headaches if they try to figure out the whats and whys behind dollars and cents.
Will video game aficionados enjoy Tilt? More than likely, as will anyone. The movie takes the viewer on a very relaxed, yet focused, and most importantly, loving stroll down the history and evolution of a form of play, which is sadly becoming increasingly forgotten. More than a few diehard video gamers out there will be more than able to sympathize.
On a technical level, Tilt is a top-notch production, with just the right mix of interviews and hard info, but without ever getting boring. The music is appropriately melancholy, and the on-screen graphics in the vein of pinball machine marquees are a nice touch. Also commendable is the integration of personal home movies, all of which helps to paint a fuller picture. It would have been nice to go deeper in the minds of those that created the games, but more than enough is provided for the subject at hand....
... Actually, all that and more is presented, outside of the film that is. Tilt comes as a double DVD disc set that is absolutely bursting with extras, such as expanded interviews (in the documentary proper, we only get a minute or two of how a pinball playfield is created, but on the second disc, we get a whole 17 minutes of the explanation) and videos created for arcade operators (including one that explains how to assemble and repair a Pinball 2000 unit that clocks in at 20 minutes at length).
Those who are video gamers and documentary fans in general should seriously take a look at Tilt, but for pinball enthusiasts, Tilt is an essential part of the collection, period. And to purchase your copy, simply head on over to the official site.
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso