Pinball Expo 2015 report
Posted on October 27, 2015
It’s Pinball Expo time again and as editor of Pinball Magazine I headed off to Chicago once again. I flew in on Monday and waited at the airport for Pinball News’ Martin Ayub to fly in an hour later.
Once Martin arrived we picked up a rental car and checked in at our hotel. After that we just did some shopping in a mall in Schaumberg. Two years ago I bought a very nice dress for my girlfriend at that same mall and again I was able to find a new, classy dress for her. At least I can check “Bring a souvenir” off my list 🙂
Later we went to check out Gameworks in Schaumberg. Unfortunately their row of pinball machines has been reduced to just five machines of which Mustang is a 2-minute ticket dispensing game. Right after that we had dinner at the Asian restaurant across the parking lot.
Where in previous years we had several visits planned, this year our agenda was mostly blank. We tried calling several people to visit, but without much luck.
So the first thing we did on Tuesday was drive to the Westin hotel in Wheeling to pick up a few boxes of Pinball Magazine No. 3 that had been delivered to the hotel. I was unaware the hotel would be charging me to receive goods, so that came as an unpleasant surprise. It will be discussed with the manager later on.
From there we drove to Huntly, IL to visit the World headquarters of Pinball Life. Terry de Zwarte was happy to see us and gave us a little tour of his place. This Friday the 11th Pinball Life Open House Explosion will be held and from what we’ve seen so far it will be another blast! In the game lineup where a couple of interesting titles.
I recommend playing Earthshaker Aftershock. Very interesting reprogrammed game with great music and nice voice calls. Martin managed to set a new Grand Champion score. There’s also a few games you don’t see that often. Vacation America and Motordome come to mind. It was fun to play Amazon Hunt II again. Love the simplicity of that game, yet it’s hard to master.
We also took a look at Scoregasm Master, the game that Terry and his crew are building themselves. As the crew was busy enough with preparations for Friday we didn’t stay that long. I did leave a box of copies of Pinball Magazine No. 3, so those who get in early on Friday may still be able to get a copy while supply lasts.
From Huntley we drove to an arcade where a new game by a well-known pinball designer is on test. It’s not a pinball game, but it was very fun to play. I’ve been asked not to reveal the location and any details for the moment, but will get the story on that game later on.
We also met with Kirsten and Michael from Germany. Both have been selling Pinball Magazine products on the German market over the past two years and it was nice to have a few drinks with them.
From there Martin and I went back to the hotel, while Kirsten and Michael went shopping. At the hotel we put on the Chicago Cups’ game, which apparently was a big deal. I had invited several pinball industry people for a pre expo dinner party that night, but some indicated they would only show up after the game was over. Thankfully the Cubs won and it didn’t result in large delays.
The pre-dinner party I organized was for people who have been very supportive of Pinball Magazine. The dinner is sort of my way of showing my appreciation for their support and contributions. This year the following people were present: Roger Sharpe, Greg Freres (pinball artist and Art Director at Stern), Mark Ritchie (former pinball designer), Steve Ritchie (legendary pinball designer), Jim Patla (former pinball designer and featured in Pinball Magazine No. 3), James Loflin (working on building The Pinball Circus), Gary Flower, Martin Ayub (Pinball News), Martin Wiest (former vice president of the German Pinball Association), John Popadiuk (pinball designer and featured in Pinball Magazine No. 3 in which his KISS Pinball Maximus prototype is discussed), Allan Reizman (former Bally engineer and featured in Pinball Magazine No. 3), Pat McMahon (pinball artist), Kirsten and Michael.
The dinner was very nice. It was great to have many of the people that I’ve worked with on the new issue of Pinball Magazine (and previous printed and online editions) to be there in person. At the end of the evening we took a group photo, which sadly caused some commotion after James posted it online. But let’s not go there. It was a great evening and I’m not going to let a few clueless keyboard warriors spoil that.
Wednesday was a very interesting day. Martin and I visited the controversial John Popadiuk in his workshop. We had been there a year ago, but could not take pictures then. This time we could and so I did. In the workshop wase the Magic Girl game as it was displayed earlier this year at the NW Pinball and Arcade show in Seattle. Unfortunately, while the game was supposed to be working, it turned out that it had a switch matrix problem, resulting in the wrong coils being triggered. So I could only plunge the ball and flip it a few times before the ball would be stuck in a scoop that didn’t kick the ball back out. From the games that were present MG was definitely the most complete although it seems to me that it still needs to be fine-tuned (to say the least).
Having said that I don’t think the game is as bad as some people claim, but it is definitely not finished yet. The optimist in me does still see some ways for John to make a commercial run possible and deliver the games to those who preordered one, but I can only suggest ideas. It’s up to John to decide where he wants to take his projects.
In the workshop were also several prototypes of Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland in various stages of being built. There was a foam core Alice in Wonderland mockup too and a few other concept games.
In the afternoon Martin and I did some shopping and then drove to the Westin in Wheeling, IL, the hotel where Pinball Expo would take place. After checking in we walked around the show floor area, which was still being set up. Then we went for a late lunch at the nearby Twin Peaks restaurant with Andrew Heighway (Heighway Pinball) and Paul Rubens (editor of Pavlov Pinball). Andrew had some details to discuss with the manager of the restaurant as he was planning a Full Throttle party for Thursday night. There were some spontaneous plans to have a local waitress defend her pinball champion title, but eventually that didn’t work out as she didn’t show up for the party.
Back at the hotel I hang up several posters of the cover of Pinball Magazine No. 3 in the lobby. I also set up a banner for the magazine that was gracefully given to me by Pinball Universe (Germany). This is my fourth time attending Pinball Expo and while setting up I immediately ran into familiar faces and people interested in buying the magazine.
Rob Anthony of Pinball Classics immediately bought a few boxes of the magazine to offer in his shop. Many of the magazines I had brought were intended for either people who contributed to the magazine or advertised in it, so I started looking for these people as well.
Around 8:00 PM the free Bumper Blast buffet started. At the dinner pinball designer John Trudeau and his band played, but before they started organizer Rob Berk gave me the chance to briefly announce the availability of Pinball Magazine No. 3. Thanks Rob!
Following the dinner I just walked around and caught up with people I had not seen in a while. I played a few games on Stern’s new Game of Thrones pinball. I’ve never seen the show, but it seems to be a fun game.
Thursday morning was the morning of the Stern Pinball factory tour. As Stern recently moved to a new location this was the first tour in the new, larger factory. This year things were different than previous years. Instead of starting touring the factory in small groups right away, all visitors were welcomed in an open area of the factory and had to wait there for everybody to arrive.
When most people were in Dave Peterson and George Gomez addressed the crowd, talking about the move to the new facility, the growth of Stern Pinball and introducing several new and old faces that recently joined the company. After that groups of about 15 people were guided around the factory.
As previous years I was allowed to sell Pinball Magazine products next to the Stern merchandise stand (thank you Jody) and I was happy to see there was quite some demand for Pinball Magazine No. 3 . I also sold a few copies of Santiago Ciuffo’s Pinball book. When most people had left I quickly gave myself a short tour around the factory. Then Martin and I rushed back as the first seminar was about to start. Martin still had to set up his recording equipment and so on.
By this time the Expo floor was packed with people. The pinball tournament in the hallway had started and more and more people were showing up. So lots of catching up with old and new friends. While I had planned to see several seminars, I missed all of them. So I will gladly settle for listening to Martin’s recordings.
Thursday evening I was invited by one of my readers to join him and a few of his friends for a dinner at Spears. Thank you J.P! Spears had an interesting choice of meats, but not the best bread in the world. Following that I walked into the seminar room at the beginning of the Jersey Jack seminar. I briefly talked to Martin Ayub of Pinball News to find out if I missed anything by not attending any seminars. He told me I did, so I went upstairs to my room, went on my laptop and did a quick read up of Martin’s summary on pinballnews.com. Isn’t that just great? While the event is still going you can already read about what happened a few minutes ago. Good job Martin!
Then I attended the Heighway Pinball’s Full Throttle party at Twin Peaks as I was curious how the local pinball champ would defend her title. Well, she never showed. The party was great. It had free finger food, free Octoberfest beer, free pinball and the Twin Peak girls. What else does one need? It should be no surprise the place was packed.
It was at this party that Heighway showed of their new full size backbox LCD for Full Throttle which they had announced at a seminar about an hour earlier. Without a doubt this is a huge improvement for the game. I’m happy for team Heighway that the party was such a success. The free drinks and food were not restricted to the first few hours, but kept coming the entire evening. There were three Full Throttle games available at the event and they were played nonstop. From what I hear the game was received very well.
I ended the night at the terrace of Spears in the company of pinball designers Mark Ritchie, Dennis Nordman, Dead Flip host Jack Danger and several others sitting around the open fire. That was fun. Everybody tried to convince Mark to come to the Pinball Life Open House the next afternoon, but Mark had work obligations.
Since I missed all the seminars on Thursday I intended to go to at least a few on Friday. I was curious to hear Nic Parks talk about his resurrection of Gameroom Magazine. However, last night pinball designer Dennis Nordman had offered to give me a ride to Pinball Life’s 11th Open House Explosion in Huntley, IL. That meant I would be missing seminars again, but from what everybody had told me that party was not to be missed.
So we left around 11am to arrive just a little before noon. There was already a queue outside, waiting for the doors to open. Once they opened everybody entered quickly. I picked up my VIP badge and then took a walk around. The place was packed with people playing pinball. There were four rows of pinball machines set up. The whole area was intentionally quite dark and misty, so that the laser beams on the wall would be visible.
There was free food, which was actually hot (unlike the Bumper Blast food from Wednesday night). The trays with food kept being replaced with full ones once they were almost empty. There was a separate table with cake for desert. Drinks, including a variety of beers, were free as well.
In the VIP room I was asked to order a drink and as there was vodka available I decided to mix that with the Coke I already had. The lovely lady bartender was very generous, which resulted in a drink that was much stronger than I’m used to. Don’t think I’ve ever been this close to being drunk around 12:30 in the afternoon 🙂
I think I played some Scoregasm Master in the VIP room and also checked out the LionMan game and the Oribtor 1 that was placed in a tent with weird light effects and more stuff to distract you. Very nice to have side games like that. Around 2.45pm Dennis drove back to the Westin and I slept most of the drive. I will use the jetlag as an excuse 🙂
Back at the Westin I think I sold some more copies of Pinball Magazine No. 3 and then went to a special dinner with Jody Dankberg. Jody is Stern’s Marketing and Licensing director. Jody acted surprised that twenty people were interested in having dinner with him. Unfortunately Jody was not buying, so the people in the room had to pay for their own dinner. The Westin staff provided a brief menu with two or three choices for each course.
In the meantime Jody started talking about how he was a traveling guitar player that traveled around, sleeping in a van, doing gigs wherever he could. At the age of 24 his dad told him he would never be famous and that he had to start looking for a real job. Jody then teamed up with a guy that build electric guitar amplifiers with a specific warm sound.
From there he went on to handle artist relations for a different company in the same business. When that company was bought by a competitor, who already had a Jody of their own, he started looking around something new to do. In the meantime he had gotten to know Dave Peterson, who at that time just bought Stern Pinball. Dave told Jody he wanted him to be working for him there.
So Jody came to Stern Pinball right after the 2009 lay-offs, when there were only seven people left working at Stern. He started handling Stern’s marketing department. After two years the guy who handled Stern’s licensing was moving to New York and Jody took charge of that too.
The first license he wanted to go after was AC/DC. Gary Stern apparently mentioned that that would be impossible, but as Jody had some contacts in the music industry he managed to secure the license within an hour of taking on the job.
As Jody told it the next challenge was to get Steve Ritchie to come back to design the game. That all worked out well and AC/DC went on to become one of Stern’s best selling games ever.
Next was Metallica, which also took just a few phone calls. Securing the KISS license was also not very difficult either after he mentioned to the band he was wondering when they would get a new pinball machine.
Game of Thrones was apparently also easy to secure due to the contacts in his growing network.
Jim Schelberg of Pingame Journal recorded video of Jody’s talk on his phone. I recorded the entire dinner as well and will look into providing an audio download, or submit the recording to Pinball News for them to host it.
Right after the dinner Stern’s Game of Thrones launch party started with free beer for those attending. At a table designer Steve Ritchie, artist Greg Freres and artist Bob Stevlik (who did the artwork for the LE version of the game) where signing flyers of the game. Gary Stern was also around. He had just came back from a two-week trip in Europe, but if you didn’t know you wouldn’t have realized it.
At the party the Limited Edition model of the game debuted. That is quite remarkable as the game was built and fine-tuned during Pinball Expo. From what I heard the game was put together on Tuesday and Wednesday, shown on Thursday during the factory tour and right after that Steve Ritchie had spent a lot of time making sure it would play well on Friday.
According to the response from those who played it the game is a sure hit. The queue of people to play it was so long I didn’t even bother to get in line. Jack Danger was also present, streaming game play of the LE on his Dead Flip channel.
After the party I heard bits and pieces of an interesting conversation. The Stern people were very happy that the response online to the game play live feed had been so great. Then someone commented that that may be great, but apparently it was too much of a task to put up a beamer so that everybody in the room could enjoy it as well. I found that an interesting suggestion, but didn’t stay around to hear the rest of the conversation.
My mind is a bit blurry on what I did after that, so I’m just going to skip to Saturday.
Saturday morning I realized I was running out of copies of Pinball Magazine No. 3. That’s a good thing, although it could also indicate that I didn’t bring enough. Rob Anthony still had copies, so I sent everyone who asked for a copy to him. I did reserve a few copies for pinball artist Kevin O’Connor who would be at the autograph session in the afternoon. Kevin is featured in Pinball Magazine No. 3 and as he could not attend my pre-Expo dinner on Tuesday night this was my first chance to see Kevin this week. It was good to see Kevin and he seemed impressed with how the magazine turned out.
As things were hectic at the session we didn’t get a chance to talk much, but at least he got the magazine.
The autograph session itself was a lot of fun, too. It had quite a few pinball industry people that I had not seen at previous autograph sessions, such as designer Bill Parker, programmer Dwight Sullivan and a few other Gottlieb related designers.
Knowing that the serving of the food at the Expo banquet, later that night, would probably start late I went for a burger with Paul Rubens (Pavlov Pinball) at Twin Peaks. Inside I found Jeremy and Matt Fleitz, two brothers from Louisville, OH, who organize the annual Louisville Arcade Expo.
Jeremy was featured in Pinball Magazine No. 1 as he collects Game Plan pinball machines and owns one of the very few Global Warfare games, designed by Roger Sharpe. I also spotted Mark Ritchie on his own at the corner of the bar and invited him to join us as well. That was fun. Jeremy and Matt asked Mark a lot of questions and in between they insisted Paul and I should try some of the bourbon blends the bar had to offer. Not my type of drink, but I appreciate the gesture. The hangover burger was pretty good too.
When I went to the banquet the charity auction prior to it had already began. I found a spot on a table with Martin Ayub. After the auction the food was served. I think the same food as last year was served, but this year the quality was better than last year. Following dinner pinball artist Paul Faris commented on a brief slideshow of him and his work. That was very interesting and I hope to feature Paul someday as a cover story in Pinball Magazine.
I didn’t stay around for the Hall of Fame inaugurations. Instead I went to the bar where I found Mark Ritchie, his wife Trudy and Steve Ritchie’s wife Diana at the bar. It was fun hanging out with them and don’t even remember when I left the bar.
Sunday is always a slow day at Expo. I packed my stuff in the room and took some last photos in the vendor hall. Around noon I shared a cab with JJP LCD animator Jean Paul de Win to the airport as we had booked the same flight back to Amsterdam.
And that concluded this year’s Pinball Expo. I had a great time. The best part is always meeting familiar faces and catching up with people I normally don’t see that often. Since I missed all seminars I still get to enjoy a second week of Expo as it will take me quite some time before I have listened to all of Martin Ayub’s seminar recordings.