Thursday, August 1, 2019

John Osborne, Retro Pinball Designer, in Lodi

Back in May, I got to hang out in California for a couple weeks to attend a couple conferences: Google I/O and IoT World.  I did a couple panels at IoT World, and one of them is already summarized on this previous blog post; the other one is coming later.  However, as a bonus during my time in California, I also got to attend the Golden State Pinball Festival in Lodi.  Here, they had John Osborne, a pinball designer who worked at Gottlieb from 1972-1984.  The following are expansions of notes I took during his Ask Me Anything presentation.

A Bit of Background


John Osborne started his professional journey by studying electromechanical (EM) engineering at Fresno State.  This, of course, elicited cheers from the local crowd.  After college, he started working at Gottlieb in 1972 at the age of 21.  Besides Gottlieb, he was also interested in working at Chicago Coin, which he said was sketchy, because the hiring manager's last name was always changing; as such, he never applied.  He was also interested in working at Williams, but rather than talking to corporate recruiting, he was told to talk to a distributor.  That also seemed weird, so he didn't bother.  There were some stories about being flown from Fresno to Chicago to meet the team and do interviews and such, but those are better told in person!  Anyway, the first thing John did after design was to work on the penultimate manual to describe all you would ever need to know about EM games.  However, it never got published due to still being unfinished when solid-state machines came out.  It doesn't seem like John kept any drafts or notes of this manual, sadly.

The Process of Design


Concepts would originate from both customers & engineers, but names & themes would usually not come from Gottlieb. The game Blue Note was something John came up with all by himself, but themes like poker & pool would always sell.

The first stage of design at Gottlieb involved the hand sample, where you assemble the game yourself.  This includes drilling holes on the playfield and other important spots, and running wire by hand.  I can testify to this being a large hassle from having done Wylie 1-Flip, which even still had much fewer components and thus less wire to run.  Nevertheless, after the hand sample comes the engineering sample: this involves drafting a formal layout (with schematics & cables) to make tooling, and using nail board to run cables in a more organized layout.  At this point, you basically have the real game, except for screen printing and artwork.  Lots of games would then be played on this machine where many metrics and percentages would be calculated, including score, how much of the game's objectives were completed, how far in any sequences you got, etc. Wayne Neyens, the head of engineering at Gottlieb, wanted people to test games who weren't too skilled at pinball; the average player was ideal for simulating what would actually happen in the field.  However, people testing the games would get yelled at for sitting while playing.

Given 3-ball vs. 5-ball play modes (why anyone would set an EM to 3-ball play is beyond me), the replay scores should be comparable given the amount of play, so logic might raise the necessary scores when moving into 5-ball play.  However, I'm not sure any EM schematic I've seen actually employs this logic.  In any event, to calculate the scoring for replays, the Gottlieb testers would employ a tally sheet that lists all possible scores for the game, rounded to nearest 1,000.  By tallying your rounded-off score, it effectively makes a histogram of scores achieved on the game.  The designers would then set the recommended first replay value to be the median of the tallied scores.  The second replay would be set to 14,000 points above that, then the third replay is another 8,000 points above the second replay value.  Before the first arrow was placed (onto the median value), 50 games needed to be played.  This tends to result in 30% replays in games in the field.  These tallies did not include specials, which were rare (2-3% of games).

Two game samples would be played with real money to make sure every last mechanic would work in the game prior to real production.  Portale or Lanielle, being the two better distributors of Gottlieb games, would typically get the sample games, thus the engineering samples might have wound up in the wild and into someone's private collection nowadays.

The most interesting thing to me that John Osborne said was that good games like Spirit of 76 or Card Whiz, which became popular, would keep the shop busy and the engineering team at leisure with little to do. On the other hand, whenever the design team was cranking out dogs, it kept engineering busy trying to satisfy unhappy distributors & a bored machine shop waiting for the next big hit to yield many orders.

The Oddball Add-a-Ball Games, and Italian games in general


New York and Wisconsin were big add-a-ball markets due to laws and the stigma against gambling.  Even "shoot again" features didn't satiate these laws.  Some add-a-ball games have an extra ball penalty upon tilt. Add-a-balls generally award 2.5 balls per game.

Italian add-a-ball games offer no replays at all.  The legislature had a unique way to envision how to protect the currency, and for pinball machines, it required manufacturers not to step up the ball count unit because buying 5 balls and getting 6 would devalue the Italian lira.  Another oddity about the Italian games is the "Light box advance unit" (LBAU) featuring a "card" rather than an apron that says "Buttons" rather than "Flipper buttons".  These games (such as Team One, exported to Italy as Kicker) increment a "Wow" feature that lights up lights and then takes each Wow off when you lose the ball rather than adjusting the ball count unit.  Yet even the LBAU didn't work in some Italian cities; they wanted a novelty feature, and this entailed setting the "Wow" feature to score a ton of points and only reset like 1/2 the sequence.

Transformers in Italian EM games run at 230 volts and 50 Hertz, but yet feature 6 primary taps (including 170V, 190V, and 210V for people who live far from the power distribution center). Incidentally, solenoids & flippers run hotter at 50Hz.

John might be the only representative of Gottlieb at this point :-P

This is a neat device that was fashioned for a hockey game.  As opposed to the action of foosball, this mechanism would allow the player figure on the field to spin more naturally and control a puck by rotating left or right.

A bunch of memorabilia, including a rare Q*bert drink coaster


Some EM Tips & Tricks


As John is one of the few EM designers still around, attendees were anxious to hear about some maintenance tips and tricks that have been lost to time.

All 1, 2, and 4-player light boxes are the same, except for Centigrade 37.  As such, as Gottlieb designers built an EM game, all that was necessary was for it to be compatible with the standard light boxes.

White lube goes onto any mechanical parts relating to discs.  Black lube should be applied to gears. Use just a dot of light oil between plastic & metal parts, like the metal/plastic interaction in a score reel or even a shooter rod.  The step spindle on a decagon unit would get some white lube. Parts catalogs from the 70s would mention recommended procedures.

The V relay was a neat innovation, since this relay subtracts if you press the replay button only, not if you're trying to coin in another player into your game. The price of 1 game for 25 cents, 3 for 50 cents was a cool mechanical innovation.

One interesting glitch that was expensive to operators was a Chicago Coin video game where you'd pull a shooter to start the video game. You could cause the lights on the game to flicker by messing with this shooter and/or other buttons, and the electromechanical noise through the lines would actually add credits to the game.  Gottlieb Totem had some kind of a weird trick to add either 68 or 86 credits when inserting quarters and performing some sort of interaction that might be described elsewhere on the Internet.

Developing for Solid State Machines


The development machine used to write all the game firmware was the Rockwell PPS/4.  If I recall, the language of choice was Fortran, and all the engineers on staff learned how to program, even if their background was originally electromechanical engineering with relays and solenoids.  (It's easy to think of solenoids as Boolean logic anyway; with solid state, now they have access to larger data structures and traditional math.)  However, John's account of life at Gottlieb was that after their sale to Columbia Pictures in 1977, it always felt like the company was on its last legs and about to close.  As such, there weren't too many engineers at Gottlieb that had to learn Fortran!

One device they used to test game code was called a "Romulator." It spoofed a PROM, allowing its user to enter machine code and plug it into your game.  However, its battery life was terrible.  Once you had the game code the way you wanted it, you had to run as fast as you could to the one PROM burner in the building, which was 3 offices away.  And if someone stopped you in the hall to chat... well, there goes your game!

Relating to Haunted House


According to IPDB, Haunted House was the last game John designed at Gottlieb.  As tends to be par for the course (for me anyway) when asking Gottlieb engineers about their games, he was disappointed with the outcome, complaining that the "design committee" had really taken his game and made it unrecognizable.  (On the other hand, John Trudeau lamented about the build quality of the Gold Wings game.)

If John had his way to modify the game, he would hide the trap door, and show the ball action as it happens down by the flippers rather than hiding it.  The game program got way too complicated; he'd rather see a simpler rule set, but advised me that folks tend to value items when retained in their original state rather than being "hacked" or modified in some fashion.  I had mentioned two things to him: one was to use Hall effect sensors to track the ball and only activate the correct set of flippers with one flipper button (rather than having to remember to press an alternate set of flipper buttons when it reaches a particular level), and also to add multiball to the game (and apparently this hack already exists).

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