|ADVANCE TO ILLINOIS|
“Just bring me chocolate.”
That was the price my wife placed on my taking a somewhat unusual trip. I actually expected a slightly different response – something more along the lines of “call your doctor” or “you’re out of your mind.” – but chocolate was good. I had the green light to fly from Denver to Chicago to play pinball and then fly home the same evening. I made a couple of phone calls, logged on to the United Airlines web site and, just about $200 later, had a window seat on flight 254 for the morning of Friday, September 7th.
Now I wasn’t going to play just any pinball machine, I was going to play Monopoly, the long rumored and latest offering from Stern Pinball and I was ready to travel two thousand miles in a day to do it.
Hey, it’s only pinball
The idea for the trip was born a couple of weeks earlier. Twice a year Dave Mercer of “For Amusement Only” hosts an open house where Colorado pinball enthusiasts gather to talk pinball and enjoy his impressive pinball collection. It was at the most recent event I met Allan Cecil while discussing Monopoly posts from the Internet newsgroup rec.games.pinball. Terry Nelson and his son had discovered the game at Season Ticket, a sports bar in Streamwood, about a half an hour from downtown Chicago, and one of the test locations for the game. Allan was planning his first vacation and wanted it to be something special. He had always wanted to take a tour of a pinball factory and was considering making a side trip to Chicago to do so and play Monopoly on his way back from a Labor Day weekend trip to New Jersey. Terry’s great review and some terrific pictures jump-started the idea. Sounded like a plan to me. And pretty good cover too (“See honey? I’m not the only one.”).
The Electric Company keeps the Bank from Safe Crackers
When Stern Pinball first announced that Pat Lawlor Design had been hired to design a game for them, I hoped it would be Monopoly. It had almost happened once before – what became Safe Cracker was originally conceived as Monopoly – and I thought for sure WMS would pursue a Monopoly-themed pinball after the overwhelming success of the slot machine venture. Pat Lawlor is one of the few designers that can take a property like Monopoly that has instant, worldwide recognition and turn it into a terrific pinball experience. He has this uncanny knack for designing games that beat you up and yet have you coming back for more. As design team member Greg Dunlap explains, “Pat likes a game where you can have one really good ball and the other two can suck. If you don’t have to work at it, it’s no fun to play.” And, as we saw in Twilight Zone, which captured many nuances of the popular television series, Pat can seamlessly integrate a licensed theme into a pinball game. Pat, who designed some of the most popular pinball games in recent memory, including the record-breaking The Addams Family, has clearly done it again with Monopoly. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Boardwalk, Park Place … Not just for Rich Folks
In addition to being a pinball collector, I’m an avid fan of Monopoly and its’ history. Popular legend tells us that just over seventy years ago, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Charles Darrow sat down at his kitchen table one evening and sketched out on an oilcloth what became the quintessential American game. Using street names from family favorite destination Atlantic City, his real estate game included the three railroads that carried vacationers to the resort city, the utility companies that serviced them, as well as parcels of real estate of varying prices. To make the board symmetrical, he added Short Line, a bus company, as the fourth railroad. Scraps of molding became houses and hotels, pieces of cardboard became title cards, colored buttons became tokens, and paint samples were used to color the game board. Darrow produced copies of the game for friends, who loved it and played it with their friends. A few years later, after an initial rejection from Parker Brothers, citing "52 fundamental errors", including concerns that the public would have difficulty grasping the concept, the game became an unqualified success in 1935, selling over one million copies that year. Though history shows the game was likely derived from “The Landlord’s Game”, a 1904 game by Quaker Lizzie Magie, much as pinball was derived from bagatelle, it’s clear that Darrow’s Monopoly popularized the concept and did for board games what Baffle Ball and Bally Hoo did for pinball. Monopoly and Pinball - I can’t think of too many other things that have such broad appeal. Each is instantly recognizable and holds a unique place in leisure history. It seems fitting that these two cultural icons became huge hits around the same time in the 1930s.
Did you know RACECAR spelled backwards is RACECAR?
I landed at O’Hare shortly after 9:30 am. Allan had arrived by train from New Jersey about an hour earlier, and soon met me in a rental car. We had four goals – to visit Stern, play Monopoly, meet with Pat Lawlor and head up to Grayslake to see Duncan Brown, who had graciously invited us up to visit, play pinball and have some great deep-dish pizza. Armed with MapQuest printouts showing every conceivable route permutation, we set off in the direction of Melrose Park after a few wrong turns and a quick breakfast at McDonald’s. We advanced to Janice Avenue to find Stern Pinball located in an unassuming building. (If anyone looked out the window that morning and saw two guys eagerly taking pictures by the Stern Pinball sign, that was us). Although we had made previous arrangements to visit, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect.
Become Lost in a Zone – Play Pinball
The first thing we noticed as we entered the building through the parking lot were boxes and boxes of Austin Powers pins being loaded into large trucks. About fifty feet inside was an empty Monopoly cabinet, proving to our eyes that the game wasn't just vaporware. We found Chas Siddigi, our host, and sat down to chat. It quickly became clear why Chas and service manager Joe Blackwell, who had kindly allowed us to visit, are two reasons Stern has such a well-deserved reputation for excellent technical support. In between our many questions, surrounded by Data East, Sega and Stern test fixtures and technical manuals, Chas took a number of calls, handling each quickly and professionally. This was someone who obviously took great pride in his job.
Chas led us back out to the floor and gave us a tour of the line. As we made our way through the open factory – it seems larger than it is - we saw one piece of eye candy after another, walking past stacks of cabinets ready and waiting for components to an alternative Austin Powers backglass and parts assemblies everywhere. Production of Austin games were in full swing, with a few Monopoly sample games in the pipeline as well. We observed each step of the assembly process. First was the wiring harness assembly and testing area – someone once told me that there was about half a mile of wire in a pin – followed by the playfield preparation area, where we saw the playfield press and drilling equipment along with blank playfields ready to go. This first thing I noticed about the Monopoly playfield is how bright, colorful and true to the theme it is. We watched the playfields go down the line and saw the various parts and assemblies being added by hand, one by one. Building a pinball game is certainly a labor-intensive process. (I had once asked a neighbor of mine, who designs industrial robots for a living and loves pinball, what it would take to design a system that could assemble a pinball playfield. I don’t remember the entire answer, but there was something about millions and millions of dollars.) We saw the finished playfields checked out on a test fixture, then installed into the waiting cabinet and backbox assemblies for final quality inspection and testing. Finally, the translight assembly is installed and the pin slides up a small cloth-covered ramp into a waiting pinball carton. We didn’t follow a specific unit from start to finish, but the process seemed remarkably efficient. There are multiple lines and stations, so it was hard to judge how long the entire process took. I was trying to figure out how many games could be built in a day - 75 seems about right, but I couldn’t say for sure. Chas invited us to play a Monopoly game that had been set up in a somewhat unofficial test area, and we gladly accepted, while he returned to work. Allan played more than I did. I was too busy studying games awaiting final inspection and taking pictures. With all the activity and noise and the glare from the overhead lights, it wasn’t the most ideal environment to play pinball in, but what fun it was.
Did you know famous people play Monopoly?
Everyone we spoke with was very friendly, despite our occasional interruptions for questions and pictures. There are 100+ employees at Stern and none of them seemed to mind two tourists in their midst. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk with more of them. We saw programmers Keith Johnson and Dwight Sullivan go by while we were playing a game and Joe Blackwell was so busy we never got a chance to thank him for the day. While the line broke for lunch, we were escorted back into the engineering area, just off the main floor, past Lonnie Ropp who was busy working on something housed in a Striker cabinet, to visit with company president Gary Stern. His office is bright and inviting, highlighted by a massive glass-topped desk and decorated with an impressive array of pinball memorabilia. Gary is obviously quite busy, but he graciously took the time to answer our questions and share observations on a number of issues, including the challenges of being the only remaining pinball manufacturer.
With SPI now in existence almost two years as an independent entity, I was curious to learn if his initial expectations had been met. Gary indicated the main surprise had been exchange rates. “The dollar got stronger so games cost more in the local currency. When the euro was introduced on January 1, 1999, it was worth $1.17. It bottomed out at 82 or 84 cents. Today it’s worth 91 cents or about 20% less than two years ago. So games cost about 20% more in Europe even though we charge the same price. That clearly affected our export market. When Striker was released, the export to domestic ratio was somewhere around 60-65% and now that ratio has almost reversed.” He indicated there was clearly strong opportunity in the European market, as there are fewer and fewer games of any type in pubs and taverns, which should be no surprise to those of you overseas.
I offered a player’s perspective that each title has been progressively better, and that High Roller Casino was my favorite game so far. "I was a little surprised that it didn't do better. High Roller as a theme is both classic – cards, roulette, gambling – and today. It’s almost like an unlicensed license,” commented Stern, as we started a discussion of the value of a good license, which, not surprisingly, was one of the reasons Monopoly was an attractive property. “Monopoly is a game, so it lends itself to game design. It is well known, liked and understood worldwide.”
Harley Davidson, South Park and Austin Powers have shown the power of a good license – they all did well for Stern and seem a natural fit for both the traditional and secondary markets. "Our target market is the 25 year old. We want games that appeal to both the novice and more experienced player. We need experienced players to enjoy our games – to be challenged. We need them not to run away with the game either. But if we only attract the experienced player, we won’t have enough players to support pinball. We are in bars, French cafes and the like. Arcades are diminishing. France is 15% of the worldwide pinball market, mostly in Paris, [where there are only] nine arcades. So we aren’t aimed at children." (There’s a really funny story that belongs here, but I just can’t do it justice. Put Gary Stern, dressed in a sharp pinstriped business suit in an arcade. Next, add a twelve-year-old girl walking up to a South Park machine with the X-rated sound ROMs. Picture her pressing the START button repeatedly. Listen. Add embarrassment, mix well and you can imagine some of the difficulties with target market issues.)
It was an interesting discussion, because at 21, Allan was clearly in the target market, and, at double that, I’m more a secondary market type. The era of operators buying games in large numbers is over ("four is a big sale", agreed Gary). The secondary market for home sales, collector sales, is important for both Stern and operators and where the licensed titles have an edge in keeping values high. And many who initially sat on the sidelines waiting to see what was going to happen with pinball may be back. “We got a lot of interest in Monopoly, for its’ title and for Pat, before we showed the game to anyone. Operators wanted Austin before it was out – distributors called. I think we've won the operators back with Austin and that we've now got some momentum’ said Stern. As a player who wants to see more pins on location, that’s a good thing. We wrapped things up after chatting more on Monopoly, Monopoly boards and Gary’s recent Hasbro visit. Allan and I left thinking that there couldn’t be a better man to be in charge of the only pinball factory in the world.
How many messages does this sign have, anyway?
It was too early to go to Duncan’s, so with a few choice words for some area drivers, we made our way to Season Ticket. It was early afternoon when we walked in to the surprisingly dark bar. We went straight to Monopoly, ignoring the rows of dart and video games. The contrast from the well-lit factory was striking. So was Amy, the friendly, blond bartender. She must’ve thought we had never seen a pinball machine before, the way we were looking at it. What a sharp looking machine. The cabinet features the classic Monopoly logo updated with pinball flair. The backglass has Mr. Monopoly (once known as Rich Uncle Pennybags) striding along a Monopoly board against a rich blue background holding the Boardwalk title deed with money, buildings and tokens in his wake. The game has a true attract mode - Allan and I were quite entertained with the messages that move across the Electric Company’s mini LED display. Allan said later that the thing he’ll remember most about our time there was reading off all of the clever phrases that kept scrolling by while I was frantically writing them down, trying to keep up. This may turn out to be the major problem with the game. If everyone stands around watching the game in attract mode, no one will push the red button and start a game. Of course, we didn’t have that problem and only made it through about 25 of the 100 plus messages before we just had to put some quarters in.
Collect all properties to play Land Grab
Monopoly is a joy to play. The theme is implemented beautifully. This is not the board game under glass, but the general idea is the same – advance around the board and own it all. The game is simple without being easy. The familiar game board occupies the lower center of the playfield and as you “advance” on the playfield, you “move” around the board. Initially I thought the game wasn’t counting spaces correctly (I know every one by heart), but that’s because there are only 32 of the standard 40 depicted. Income and Luxury Tax, the utilities, and the additional Chance and Community Chest spaces have been removed, though all are incorporated into game play. Water Works, with clever use of a mini-flipper, becomes the one of the best skill shots ever (make it multiple times and the game increases the difficulty), and it’s also a lot of fun to make the shot after the ball is in play. There’s an upper right flipper used for a variety of shots, a “cop” target, two main ramps, including one protected by the Bank door, an upper left ramp, and my favorite, the railroad ramp, a short track that returns the ball to the front of the left flipper in a heartbeat. The physical ball lock returns as you put balls in Jail. A scoop, covered “speed bump”, two sets of jet bumpers and various saucers and stand up targets provide for a wide variety of major shots. Though the current software provides no scoring for them, there are some very cool ramp combo shots possible. There are eight modes, one for each property group, and multiple multiball modes, including Breakout, Ripoff, Free Parking and Railroad. The dot matrix art and effects for regular multiball are some of the best in the game. Fans that love Pat Lawlor games will not be disappointed – the distinctive Lawlor game play is there, and, though there are elements and tributes to former games evident, this is not simply a recycled design or a game where you hit any three targets to start multiball. Scoring and game play is well balanced and there’s plenty for novices and experts alike. We had some decent scores, but never managed to get to “Land Grab”, a timed four-ball multiball where you build houses and hotels. Players that never learn a single rule will have fun; those that learn them all will find reasons to come back again and again. This was evident after talking to a hard-core videogame player who said he finally broke down and played a few games after seeing so many people come in and enjoy Monopoly. “I didn’t like the last game in here, but this one’s pretty cool” he said, still not totally sure we hadn’t pulled his leg by saying we came from Colorado just to play pinball in his favorite bar.
The ball is always wild
Time and quarters got away from us and we soon realized that we couldn’t possibly make it up to see Duncan and still be back by 6:30pm to meet with Pat Lawlor. Allan went out to the car to get his cell phone and got carded on the way back in by the manager, who stared in disbelief as Allan explained that he’d already been there for hours just playing pinball. I thought he might call for the white coats, but instead he called Pat Lawlor Design. A short time later, Greg Dunlap came to install version 1.1 of the software and chat with us, explaining that Pat had been unavoidably detained. It was interesting to talk with someone who knew the game so intimately. Greg explained that the team started in November 2000 and that he joined in February 2001 and gave us some insight on the design and evolution of the game. Among other things, inline and drop target banks and a vertical up kicker (VUK) had been in, then out, some for game play and some for cost reasons, some for both. The Electric Company entrance was originally a VUK, replaced at the last minute by a small ramp that feeds the lower bumpers. Not only is there one less assembly to deal with – less cost for Stern and potential maintenance for operators – I think the shot works better. Hardware and software changes resulted in improvements to flipper and sound support and of course there were the rules that might have been. My major issue was that a rolling doubles rule wasn’t implemented, though after listening to considerations for stacking modes and choreography, I can certainly understand why it wasn’t. Others will appreciate the Community Chest rule, which I consider a tribute to Bionic Bart.
We were curious about how well the PLD and Stern teams worked together, for this first game designed for Stern by an external team. “Everyone worked well together. There was a lot of mutual respect,” said Dunlap. Stern apparently provided the PLD team a lot of freedom. At one point Greg had come into Stern looking for some parts they might be able to use and picked up one of the mini-LED displays, used on the slot machine in High Roller. What started out as “Let’s see what we can do with this” ended up as the incredibly well integrated Electric Company ticker. Programmer Louis Koziarz went to Stern to learn the operating system, John Youssi and Kurt Andersen did wonders with the artwork and all had lots of support from the Stern team. And, in a fitting parallel, designer Pat Lawlor routed the whitewoods and made many of the prototype parts in his garage, using the same hands-on approach Darrow had used in his kitchen for his Monopoly.
The future of solar electricity is bright
Sadly, we had to cut our conversation short to make a banzai run to the airport for my 9:15pm flight home. On the way, we reflected on our day and on the game. We are both convinced that the game will be a hit. The game did quite well on test, so we are obviously not alone. Some outside the US may be disappointed that it’s ‘Park Place’ instead of ‘Park Lane’ or ‘Boardwalk’ instead of ‘Rue De La Paix’, but pinball players will come to see them as ‘Extra Ball’ and ‘Special’. Some will find little things they don’t like about Monopoly or perceive as missing, like no combo scoring or doubles rule. As a board game fan, I would have liked to see playfield plastics that looked like Chance and Community Chest cards above the scoop, some artwork on the underside of the ramps and to have allowed players to select tokens rather than use traditional player numbers for scoring, some of which had been considered. But adding those things that might appease hard core players or fanatic collectors costs more and won’t result in the sale of a single additional game, so why do it? On a personal note, I hope operators will consider adding bill acceptor for games on location. In addition to encouraging walk-up play, it’s a good match – everyone knows you use paper money when playing Monopoly!
Some have likened Monopoly to a long-lost Williams game. I had asked Gary Stern about that earlier in the day. It didn’t seem to bother him at all – Williams had produced some good games and had been the industry leader. I was surprised to learn that Stern had Attack from Mars, Medieval Madness and Monster Bash on site during the design of Austin Powers. They ended up with a nice seven shot game that incorporated popular design elements, just as Williams had done before them. But there is no longer any need to make those types of comparisons. There is no Sega. There is no Williams. There is now just pinball. Monopoly. And Stern has it. No matter how you choose to read that, it’s good for pinball.
Take a Chance … Play Monopoly
As I was sitting in the terminal with my newly purchased box of chocolate, there was a fireworks display off in the distance, perhaps from the Navy Pier. They served as a fitting finish to my whirlwind day. Monopoly is a game that saved Parker Brothers from bankruptcy and Gary Stern is a bankruptcy attorney who saved pinball from oblivion. Monopoly and Pinball - two of my favorite things. Each brings me the same joy today they did when I was a kid. I’m sure there are millions of others that can say the same. It is nothing short of inspired to create the ultimate "kid" experience by bringing them together. Thanks to Pat Lawlor Design and Stern Pinball for having done just that.