Tilt: documentary about the valiant effort to save pinball by merging it with video games

Scott sez, "I hosted director Greg Maletic and screened his excellent 60-min documentary, "Tilt," last week. In 1998, Williams saw pinball sales going down and their slot machines going up. Pinball was losing ground in the arcades to the new video machines. In a valiant effort to save their livelihoods, a team of great designers from the video and pinball world decide to combine the technologies into Pinball 2000, a platform the seemed like a great new gaming experience. (I've never played it.) Maletic made a film that is part game history, part product design, and part tragic business story. Well worth watching, and the clip on the website gives a good sense of its quality. " Link (Thanks, Scott!)


  1. They were terrible, both from a players perspective, and from a business perspective.

    They were profitable at first because arcades bought them. They were promised to arcade owners as a platform where you could buy the core system and get new games for less than the cost of a full table over time. The problem is that it wasn’t fun. The smaller playing surface, and the limitations of the physical/virtual interface made for a game with low replay value. Arcade owners didn’t make back their money on the machines, and stopped buying them.

    The older style tables are still successful, but Williams no longer makes them. Stern Pinball took over the market.

    The story was “tragic”, because it supposedly meant the end of pinball as we knew it. However, what it really meant is that Williams paid the customary price for a poor business decision, and others turned it into an opportunity.

  2. I’ve had this since the DVD came out about a year ago. The extras disc really makes it worth a buy for anyone who enjoys pinball, Greg put a TON of stuff on there.

    Ivan256, interesting. The film doesn’t really address arcade owner response beyond the sales of the two Pinball 2000 games, which were actually more than acceptable. Aside from a George Gomez comment about Star Wars: Episode I not being one of the better-playing games there wasn’t much to indicate how it was accepted by players after release. The timeline between release of Pinball 2000 and the shutdown of Williams’ pinball division was rather short, but I’m uncertain whether or not it was long enough for the company to make a decision based on additional arcade operator feedback.

    Have you seen the film? If not, I’d suggest it even if you disagree with the conclusion. It doesn’t end with any one answer as to why Pinball 2000 didn’t save Williams pinball, each of the designers have various theories. It’s kind of a shame, as Maletic has said, that he didn’t get Neil Nicastro to agree to an interview for the film, since he was one of the final decision makers.

  3. They made a valiant effort, but the error is, in retrospect, clear. They should have gone the steampunk route. Instead of being hailed a visionaries with a clear vision of the future (steam), they went down in flames of ignominy. But I can see it clearly – the Steampunk Pinball game of my dreams…

  4. As one of the people that worked on Pinball 2000, ivan256, I’d recommend you at least try the film as well. (Disclaimer: that’s me at 1:30 in the trailer)

    People didn’t reject Pinball 2000 because the playfield was slightly shorter (3″ which was mostly wasted space on the 90s-era boards anyway), or because of the low operator return (Star Wars stayed in the top 10 on the Replay operator polls for years after it’s release).

    The relationship between pinball manufacturers and operators was always a very tough area, to be honest. Operators became complacent with games that earned great amounts of cash with little maintenance effort, such as Golden Tee Golf. And who could blame them? Pinball machines became very complex maintenance nightmares to keep up with the other arcade games out there, and also to satisfy the internet-educated gamers out there that expected more and more from the manufacturers. The internet, in general, killed arcades.

    While P2K was a poor business decision for Williams, it was the only option it had left. History showed us that each new wave of pinball was sparked by a leap in technology that forced the older models to look obsolete and caused the operators to upgrade their equipment. Williams couldn’t keep making the same game over and over and hope to stay alive given the demands of management and shareholders. It’s my opinion that game companies shouldn’t be publicly held, but whatever.

    P2K never had the full opportunity to mature and develop into all it was meant to be, and I think that’s what Greg tries to address in his documentary without ever saying so much. It’s still a decent record of a massive engineering effort that never was fully appreciated by players or customers.

  5. I tried hard in the film to stay away from making value judgments about Pinball 2000. The part of the story that interested me the most was was how and why products are designed the way they are; that’s what the movie’s about.

    That said, Pinball 2000 unquestionably came up with great solutions to problems that had plagued pinball for a long time: how to make the game communicate efficiently with players; how to make the machines easier to maintain. So from a design perspective, the film has an interesting story to tell. (I talk more about the design issues in the second question in this interview.)

    There’s also a great human story to be told: how the best pinball design team of all time tried, and ultimately failed, to save their dying company (company division, to be precise). Finally, there’s the matter of documenting the soon-to-be lost art of designing a pinball machine. I’ve never seen the pinball design process recorded anywhere; this film seemed like a way to do it before the knowledge that created this product disappeared for good.

    —Greg (Maletic), Director of TILT

  6. …The decline actually started much earlier than 1998. By 1982 the number of arcade consoles sold exceeded the number of pinball machines, and the arcade industry was predicting the demise of the pinball machine altogether by 1990, if not earlier. And to make matters worse, Atari added a nail to the coffin by trying to address the same issues Williams did 15 years later. Pac-Man Jr. was a combination of Pac-Man and a 1/3 sized pinball table. The pinball side of the game was too small to be playable – even those with extremely fast reflexes found it difficult to keep the ball in play more than a minute – while the Pac-Man coding had some logic issues that caused further gameplay problems. What Pac-Man Jr did was to show arcade owners and customers that there’s a *reason* pinball machines are long and take up space, and that trying to shrink them down enough so they took up not too much more space than Pac-Man or Asteroids was going to be a waste of time and $$$.

  7. @om:
    >the arcade industry was predicting the demise of the pinball machine altogether by 1990, if not earlier.

    That prediction was wrong; remarkably so. 1992 and 1993 were the strongest years ever for the pinball industry, with five or six manufacturers generating record revenue (think T2, Addams Family, Twilight Zone, etc.) That’s why it’s all the more remarkable that only six years later, there was only one manufacturer left.

  8. Purists never liked the idea of the break with the past – but when I go to the CAX every summer – pinball 2000 get some of the most plays there. Their first outing was by far the best of the two – but in some of the extras (on the DVD) it was the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s a bit short (although the extras more than make up for it) – but it blows away King of Kong. Another great movie – still waiting for either wide release or DVD (and why they’re footdragging on the heels on King of Kong is beyond me) is Chasing Ghosts. Give it a peek if it gets screened in your area.

  9. This is a GREAT DVD package–I strongly suggest you check it out.

    Pinball fans, sure, will like it, but it really is the inside story about the development of an new entertainment product in a challenging industry. Anyone who has ever worked in a group creating a web site, product, game, movie,– really any creative group effort, will appreciate it.

    The extra are also really great–lots of excellent background material and details. Be sure to watch George Gomez’s product launch talk at an pinball industry event. These guys loved what they were doing at it shows.

  10. I’ve been a huge pinball fan for years, and still go on midnight pinball breaks with my friends ( the advantages of living in NYC – you can always stay young at hear ).

    The Pinball 2000 machines were great. I remember when they first started arriving in bars – people fought over playing them.I wasn’t much of a star wars fan, but the mars table was ridiculous fun.

    If the designers/engineers come back to read this comment: a heartfelt THANK YOU for hours of enjoyment.

  11. They were terrible, both from a players perspective, and from a business perspective.

    As an avid pinball player, I have to disagree. I have both “Revenge From Mars” and “Star Wars: Episode I” in my collection, and they have plenty of replay value. “Revenge From Mars” in particular carries on the wonderful tradition of humor and adventure found in games like “Medieval Madness”, “Addams Family”, and yes, “Attack From Mars” (among many others…one thing I’ve always loved about Williams games is their playful, tongue-in-cheek nature).

    “Episode I” could have been better (especially if they’d left out Jar Jar :p ), but you can’t expect a home run with every new design. It’s still a strong playing game, with lightsaber battles, pod racing, great loops, laser guns, and more.

    No, I think the real issue with Pinball 2000 is summed up by Louis’s comment:

    P2K never had the full opportunity to mature and develop into all it was meant to be

    As ground-breaking as the P2K machines were, they still had their teething pains, and were in some ways ahead of their time.

    The blending of video with the playfield was a stroke of genius, but the CRT’s can be maintenance hogs. Likewise, there are still a large number of incandescent lights on the playfield, and of course I hate having to replace the burned out ones all the time. Advances in LCD and LED technologies would have helped address these things, but of course P2K was killed off before it had a chance to enjoy those advances.

    Another issue was the relatively high cost of manufacture. As near as I can tell, these games still had a lot of hand-assembly, including the wiring harnesses. Today, more than half of all Stern’s machines (Stern being the only manufacturer left in business) go straight to collectors. But the high cost of production means high retail price, which limits the audience. I would like to think that, given the chance, Williams would have developed a more automated manufacturing process that would have dramatically reduced the retail prices of the games, to open up the market.

    I could go on — there are probably a dozen obvious improvements that could have been made to the P2K platform to make it even better — but that’d be beating a dead horse. They all point to the same thing: Pinball 2000 was a huge advance, and had the potential to redefine the game, but it wasn’t given the chance to mature into the industry-changing force that was its birthright.

    And that’s to the detriment of pinball fanatics everywhere. :(

  12. Those Pinball 2000 games sucked compared to real pinball. They did nothing to enhance the gameplay, they downgraded the gameplay in the name of fancy new graphics – sound like any movies you know of?

    The physical aspect IS the fun of pinball. They should have capitalized on that. I think pinball has a big advantage over video games, because home console technology has exceeded arcade game technology, but pinball is one thing the average person will never have in their homes. When I go in a mini-arcade or bar, I look to the pinball games for entertainment, not the video games. Video games I can play at home.

  13. i have not seen ’tilt,’ but i did download, print out and frame one of greg’s retro disney posters. if you haven’t seen his disney fan-art, you’re missing out. it’s fantastic! (i have that 36×54 poster hung in my office at work and everyone loves it).

  14. I look forward to seeing this. I loved Revenge from Mars when it came out, and it’s still one of the machines I love best. The gameplay wasn’t as deep as something like Twilight Zone, but it was rich and satisfying, and I got to really enjoy the closer-up shot style it seemed to require. Star Wars had a bit less to it and could be repetitive, but was always worth a quarter or two, and was a great machine for introducing friends to pinball.

    I think the years have been pretty kind to Revenge from Mars, partly because its gameplay survives indifferent maintenance, which a lot of the great ’90s machines don’t. Addams Family is a wonderful, wonderful machine, but it’s been years since I’ve been lucky enough to play one with a top flipper strong enough to get the ball up the left ramp. It’s a good game to spend a few minutes on even hobbled like that, but no good for serious play. A lot of the really brilliant games–Twilight Zone, Funhouse–are the same or worse; the maintenance standard you usually encounter isn’t high enough for the games to be more than shadows of themselves. Revenge from Mars, on the other hand, can survive moderately mushy flippers, and seems to overall stay in better shape (I assume because it’s mechanically simpler).

  15. …Of course, there was *one* table that had all others beat when it came to playing space. Paragon was one that I and quite a few friends became addicted to back in 1980-81. Addicted to the point that after spending a lot of quarters in the damn thing, we used a stack of speaker magnets concealed in a Pringle’s can to move the ball across the target curve on the upper left side, ring up 50 free games, and then play normally for hours. Of course, had the guy running that arcade not been a total prick to his employees – either verbally or sexually harassing them to where his employee turnover was about once a week it seemed – we’d have never done that. He honestly thought he was making $$$ off of us with all the time we spent playing Paragon!

    …Another classic was Pinbot, which was a machine that had become the addiction of quite a few strippers at one of the local Gentlemen’s Clubs. When the vending company that serviced it replaced it with one of those trackball golf games, the ladies damn near went on strike until they brought Pinbot back. Only then did the golf game start making any money, because the gals quit telling the customers “oh, that game sucks, and the trackball’s broke!” before they popped in a quarter.

  16. Even if both (a grand total of two) released Pinball 2000 games were terrible (they weren’t), Williams never gave them a shot, and really had no plans to in the end. They are/were a publicly-traded company, and could no longer be in the business of satisfying fans, as they had stockholders to please. A “successfuly” Pinball 2000 would have still yeilded profits that would have been too small to even matter to stockholders.

    Furthermore, the pinball market had shrunk considerably since the early 90s. It wasn’t just video games (the early 90s were the biggest boom in pinball history, with huge Pat Lawlor-designed Bally/Midway hits sucking up tons of quarters) and after video games had been around for years. Although bar-centric games, such as Golden Tee and, later, Big Buck Hunter, took a huge bite out of pinball which was, as somebody previously said, a maintenance nightmare (if you’ve had a pinball machine, you know that they breakdown).

    When Williams they left the pinball game and Stern was left alone, Stern could survive as they were/are a MUCH smaller company. The market could essentially sustain one small-to-midsize pinball company at this point, not two companies, one of which is enormous. In addition, Stern is privately owned by a man who LOVES pinball. Gary Stern may make a small profit, but he also likely gets a great deal of joy from keeping the game alive. WMS/Williams’ stockholders have no such feelings.

    Lastly, for the record, several Pinball 2000 games were fully conceived and designed, but never released before the division was shuttered. This includes a Playboy game, and a few others I can’t recall. The modular nature of the game, where owners could easily switch the theme, was a bit of a throwback to World War 2 when the war effort took over the pinball factories and operators had to use quick conversion kits to alter existing themes without signficant use of parts that might be needed for the war (such as copper, etc…) Some of those themes had oddly pro-America and borderline racist themes (such as “Victory in the Pacific”, and “Smack the Japs”)

    -Seth P.

  17. Paragon? Seriously? If you had had a Xenon machine available, you would have SHUNNED that table.
    The Xenon had the best coordinated sound effect track/lighting track of any table ever – when you had two balls in play, that machine could SCARE you into dropping one or both. It was a PSYCHOLOGICAL challenge.

  18. As a pinball “junkie”, I am saddend to see my beloved pasttime has gone away. I feel that the arcade owners wanted to remove the pinball machines and replace them with more popular video game machines that were really raking in the money. Williams & Bally offered the best machines, while Data East & Sega machines were the worst. The manufacturers of the pinball machines never grasped the concept that there will always be a need for their machines and that the video gaming audience is fickle at best, riding the newest, better graphics of the next game. A funny story, I found myself playing a pinball machine at a local laundrymat and I wasn’t even washing clothes! When I worked in NYC in the late 80’s-early 90’s, there was an arcade on Broadway & 51st, which I would go to everyday on my lunch break. The owner would lead me to the newest pinball machine like a proud father displays his newborn son. I noticed that the younger kids were lined up for the lasted video games, andI could always walk up to a pinball machine. As a owner of a PS3, I realize that the gaming consoles killed the arcade video games, which in turn killed the pinball machines. Having a console in the home meant that kids no longer had to go to the arcade to get their gaming fix. Plus after spening $200-$300 on a console, who had any money left to play at the arcade?

  19. I endorse this documentary as well. It’s a fascinating look into my favourite table manufacturer & their last effort to save the industry. There are so many bonus features I still haven’t gone through them all.

    Unfortunately, I’ve had opportunity to play both Pinball 2,000 games in recent months but hardly noticed them at the time. I passed over Revenge from Mars at a retro gaming show because I didn’t “get” the video screen integration. With the screen’s glare off the table glass I couldn’t see the ball which is a huge pet-peeve of mine. I never bother watching the animations on SS machine scoreboards because I’m too busy playing pinball & ignoring distractions to watch anything else. Regrettably, I didn’t know at the time the video was supposed to appear as part of the play field & didn’t bother. But now if I see one I’ll be all over it.

    It’s nice to see other fans of Pin*Bot. That is my favourite pinball table of all time. Thank you, Williams.

  20. #21: I still go to a laundromat by my house and play pinball without washing clothes. They have Attack from Mars and Addams Family sitting side by side. Unfortunately they don’t keep the maintenance up on them as well as I would like, but I’ve learned to live with it because I know this is as good as it will ever be, and soon I’ll have to buy machines if I want to play pinball.

    Sigh, now if I could find a place with Pinbot, Bride of Pinbot and Black Night/2000, I’d be one happy camper.

  21. I’m not a hardcore fan of pinball, guess I’m too young growing up in the 90s, but I still recall playing Revenge from Mars for the first time. Being used to playing games like “Twister” it was a totally new experience. I see some people feel it was going in the wrong direction for the “industry”, but I’m not sure I agree. To me this was like the synthesis of the two coolest things in the world, Pinball and Video Games, and a lot easier to understand at the time than the usual pinball games. Guess I have to go looking for some serious pinball now. It’s been years since I played one last.

  22. There were only two Pinball 2000 machines made: Star Wars Episode One and Revenge From Mars. There’s a RFM machine no less than two miles from where I write this. It’s poorly-maintained though, like at least 50% of the pinball machines I’ve ever played.

    What I heard was that the machines did do well after release, but not “well enough.” Williams pulled the plug on them and got out of pinball, meaning that all those operators who bought the machines expecting an easily-upgradable system that they could switch between many different P2000 games were screwed over.

  23. A “successfuly” Pinball 2000 would have still yeilded profits that would have been too small to even matter to stockholders.

    Furthermore, the pinball market had shrunk considerably since the early 90s.

    Pure speculation. Granted, speculation with justification, especially given the effect that home video game consoles have had on the arcade business generally. But there’s a surprising amount of disposable income running around, and the pinball market has shifted quite a lot toward personal collections rather than arcades.

    I stand by my comment that without actually having seen the experiment through and allowing P2K to mature as a technology, it’s impossible to say one way or the other whether it would have been successful. More important, there was a not-insignificant chance that it would have been. After all, anyone who had seem Microsoft Windows in the late 80’s would never have guessed that that operating system would dominate the GUI marketplace today.

    You can’t make accurate predictions about the future by assuming that it will be like the present. :)

    By the way, for all those who are wondering where to see all those pins they miss…in Vegas there’s the Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum, and there are various shows/conventions around the country from time to time (check out the Pinball Usenet newsgroup, also available on Google Groups, for notices).

    Pinball is not dead! It’s also very satisfying to see someone take the time to make a documentary such as “Tilt”, to give a bit of an insider’s look at what happened as the industry finally collapsed (for good?).

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