Roman Mars [00:00:01] In Williamsburg, Virginia, there’s never too much of a good thing. Whether you’re a foodie, a golfer, a history buff, a shopaholic, an outdoor enthusiast, or a thrill seeker, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Explore the grounds of America’s first English settlement in Jamestown, or shop along the quaint streets of historic Williamsburg and Yorktown. Dig into the forensics of the country’s earliest settlers or experience a day in the life of one. Williamsburg is the type of destination that you can go back to again and again and have a completely different experience. So, plan your visit now. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. There’s a new movie out called Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game. It’s a fun and extremely meta biopic telling the story of Roger Sharpe who, with one perfect shot, helped legalize pinball in New York.
Roger Sharpe (Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game) [00:01:29] If I pull it back just enough, then the ball should go down the center.
Councilman (Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game) [00:01:44] I’ve seen enough.
Roman Mars [00:01:44] That’s right. Pinball was banned in many states up until the 1970s. We told that story and interviewed the real Roger about 400 episodes or so ago. So, if you haven’t gone that far back in the catalog, we wanted to give you this free replay. After that, we’ve got a new segment with Keith Elwin, a tournament champion who made the move into designing pinball machines. But first, let’s go all the way back to Episode #135, For Amusement Only.
Oakland City Council President [00:02:14] Item four is actions on special orders of the day that typically proceeds with the council member announcements.
Roman Mars [00:02:19] What you’re hearing is an Oakland, California City Council meeting that took place in July of 2014. There’s a whole bunch of different issues on the agenda, everything from allegations of funds being misused.
Council Member [00:02:30] We know that there was a lot of manipulation of funds, okay? And there’s been a big rip off with those funds.
Roman Mars [00:02:38] To announcements of neighborhood parties.
Council Member [00:02:40] Basketball, pickup game, field games, face painting, Zumba dancing.
Roman Mars [00:02:46] And producer Mickey Capper sat through the entire meeting like a good reporter does.
Mickey Capper [00:02:50] To hear them say this…
Larry Reid [00:02:52] Move the item, Madam President.
Oakland City Council President [00:02:54] Move by Vice Mayor Reid.
Lynette Gibson McElhaney [00:02:55] Second.
Oakland City Council President [00:02:57] Seconded by Ms. McElhaney. And by consensus, we’ll adopt the items in the consent count.
Mickey Capper [00:03:02] So they never actually say it directly. But by adopting the items on the consent calendar, what happened there is that the city of Oakland finally legalized, for the first time since the 1930s, pinball machines.
Michael Schiess [00:03:18] I’m Michael Schiess. I’m the founder and executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum
Roman Mars [00:03:22] The Pacific Pinball Museum, which is a collection of really cool, mostly older machines that you can still play, is in Oakland’s neighboring city, Alameda. Until recently, coin operated pinball machines were also illegal in Alameda.
Michael Schiess [00:03:35] And it’s the reason that we started out as an admission-based establishment, and everything was on free play.
Roman Mars [00:03:43] Most of the museum’s pinball machines look a lot like the ones you’ve seen before in your local bar. But there are a few really old ones that look completely different. And pinball’s design history can help explain why it was illegal for so long and why, after nearly 80 years of being a slightly sketchy, leather jacket wearing ne’er do well, pinball can now go legit and claim its place with Pac-Man as good, clean family fun.
Mickey Capper [00:04:12] Pinball evolved out of a game that was also played in a tilted cabinet. It was a bit more like billiards. You’d shoot the ball onto the field with a pool stick.
Roman Mars [00:04:19] In the 1860s, the pool cue turned into a spring-loaded plunger that you’d pull and release to launch the ball. They were simple wooden boards with glass tops. No electricity. No flashy art or colors. And the game was made small to fit on top of a counter at a bar or drugstore.
Mickey Capper [00:04:37] The mechanics of the game were simpler, too. You basically did one action–pull the plunger.
Roman Mars [00:04:41] The ball would shoot up the right side of the board and onto the play field where there were–
Michael Schiess [00:04:45] Little pockets that would catch the ball. And then they were usually stamped with a point value.
Roman Mars [00:04:52] And there were pins, which looked like tiny nails that obstructed your way into the pockets.
Michael Schiess [00:04:57] That’s where pinball came from–the nails of the pins that were driven into the board.
Roman Mars [00:05:02] And the first games weren’t coin operated. Bars would buy one.
Michael Schiess [00:05:05] And they would rent it out to people that wanted to play it and gamble with it. It was kind of like renting out the card table.
Mickey Capper [00:05:15] By the 1930s, pinball games were coin operated, and you’d find these little countertop games all over the place–in bars and drugstores.
Roman Mars [00:05:22] You know, you’d buy an egg cream to drink and some horrible tasting elixir at the local drugstore, and you’d use your change to play some pinball. And maybe you’d win a pack of gum or a cigar. And you’d have fun doing it.
Michael Schiess [00:05:34] Then it moved to just straight up gambling.
Roman Mars [00:05:37] Where instead of being awarded a prize, you were given cash.
Mickey Capper [00:05:40] And it’s around this point that pinball became electric. Lights and buzzers started showing up along with other stuff, like bumpers that you could bounce off of to get more points.
Roman Mars [00:05:49] Points that needed to be tallied up on a scoreboard, which led to what is now referred to as the “back glass.” That’s the part of the pinball machine that faces you as you play.
Mickey Capper [00:05:58] And the art on the back glass became one of the most iconic things about the pinball machine.
Roman Mars [00:06:04] On the newer games, a lot of the art is licensed from movies, like the 1991 hit blockbuster The Addams Family. But if you go into the pinball museum in Alameda, almost all the old games from the ’30s and ’40s were done by one of two artists.
Michael Schiess [00:06:18] George Millington and Roy Parker.
Mickey Capper [00:06:21] The art was meant to appeal to men and boys, so a lot of it features pictures of pretty ladies.
Roman Mars [00:06:26] The back glass of a game called Marble Queen depicts a group of women in swimsuits and high heels gathered around in a circle, playing marbles. They’re surrounded by a big, tall fence, almost like they’re in a clubhouse.
Michael Schiess [00:06:39] And you see the guys that are, you know, peeking through the fence. And it’s pretty funny.
Roman Mars [00:06:45] The ultimate fantasy of a boy from the 1930s was women in their bathing suits playing marbles.
Mickey Capper [00:06:52] The lights and buzzers and women in bathing suits just made you want to put more and more money into the machines. Sometimes people were just playing to win a free game. Other times there was a bigger payout. But it all added up.
Michael Schiess [00:07:03] These things made a ton of money. I can’t emphasize enough of that. Because the mafia got involved. It was all cash.
Mickey Capper [00:07:11] With so much money disappearing into pinball machines, the authorities started cracking down.
Michael Schiess [00:07:17] It really got heated in the ’40s. More and more laws were being enacted to make pinball gambling harder.
Roman Mars [00:07:24] Manufacturers would try to get around this by labeling the machines.
Michael Schiess [00:07:28] It says right here: “For amusement only. No prizes, no wagering.” I mean, they put that right on the machine. And everybody knew that that’s exactly what it was for.
Roman Mars [00:07:38] By the end of the 1940s, pinball was banned in most major cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.
Mickey Capper [00:07:44] But perhaps nowhere was the pinball crackdown so extreme as in New York City, where in 1942, Mayor LaGuardia ordered the NYPD to round up all of the machines. Then in a press event, the mayor personally shattered some of the machines with a sledgehammer and had them dumped into the Hudson River.
Roman Mars [00:08:03] LaGuardia later reported that 2,000 new police billy clubs would be made from the wooden legs of old pinball machines. Perfect for knocking the heads of pinball-playing hooligans.
Mickey Capper [00:08:14] Mayor LaGuardia did not succeed in ridding the world of pinball entirely, though. It was still legal in some cities. And even in New York, it didn’t totally disappear. It just moved into seedy underground establishments.
Roman Mars [00:08:27] Meanwhile, the game designers were still developing new features, the most important of which were the flippers that first appeared in 1947 that allowed you to swat the ball around the play field by pressing two buttons on either side of the machine. In other words, the flippers gave you some control over the outcome of the game.
Mickey Capper [00:08:47] Remember, when pinball machines were first banned, the games were considered a game of chance. You basically put your quarter in, pull back the plunger, and hope for the best.
Roman Mars [00:08:57] When the flipper was added to the pinball machine, it should have changed the game’s legal status. It wasn’t a game of chance anymore. You could finally control the ball. If only they could find some way to prove it.
Mickey Capper [00:09:09] Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Roger Sharpe.
Roger Sharpe [00:09:13] I guess at one point I was considered to be–if not the best player in the world–one of the best players in the world.
Roman Mars [00:09:19] Nearly 40 years after the introduction of the flipper, in April of 1976, Roger Sharpe was called upon to prove that pinball was a game of skill before a meeting of the New York City Council.
Mickey Capper [00:09:31] On the day of the hearing, tensions were high.
Roger Sharpe [00:09:33] It was packed. A lot of camera crews.
Mickey Capper [00:09:36] The New York State coin operated Amusement Game Association had arranged for the hearing. And they’d hauled two pinball machines into the meeting room–one that Sharpe was to play, and another that would serve as a backup in case the first one suddenly died.
Roger Sharpe [00:09:50] And I started going over to the game that had been designated.
Mickey Capper [00:09:55] The council had been pretty antagonistic to Sharpe. They thought he would cheat. And right before he was supposed to play, a council member stopped him.
Roger Sharpe [00:10:03] He said, “No. Not that game. That game over there.” I think that the head of the city council thought that that game was somehow rigged. “Let’s go with the game that’s been turned off that nobody’s paid any attention to that’s over there in the corner.”
Mickey Capper [00:10:17] The council session took a 20-minute recess so that the camera crews could change the lighting from the original machine to the new machine.
Roman Mars [00:10:24] And then Roger Sharpe steps up and starts playing.
Roger Sharpe [00:10:28] Back then, I was able to really show off, so it was very nice to be able to call my shots and just do whatever I wanted to do–making backhands and shots from right to left and left to right.
Mickey Capper [00:10:38] And then for the grand finale, Sharpe wanted to prove that even the first shot–the one that involves just pulling back the plunger and letting go–that even that shot can be perfected with skill. So, he turns to the council members and says–
Roger Sharpe [00:10:51] “If I do this right, it’s going to land right down the center.” Pull back the plunger. It went up. Ball went straight down the center. And the head of the city council guy threw up his hands. “That’s enough!” And I was ready to keep on playing. I was having fun. City Council voted six to zero to pass the legislation.
Roman Mars [00:11:14] Sharpe has said in the past that he got lucky with this shot. But now he says that he was being modest–that his plunge was not luck.
Roger Sharpe [00:11:21] To do what I did–that was skill. To have done it the way that I did it was pure naivete.
Mickey Capper [00:11:29] Within a year, pinball was legal again in most places across the country.
Roman Mars [00:11:34] But not in Oakland and Alameda, where, as we heard in the beginning of the show, pinball just became legal in 2014.
Mickey Capper [00:11:42] Even with the rise of video games, the pinball industry continued to experience waves of success until the 1990s. But over time, people lost interest.
Roman Mars [00:11:51] The last big corporation to manufacture pinball machines lost millions of dollars on its pinball division and decided to shut down in favor of a more profitable operation–making slot machines for casinos.
Mickey Capper [00:12:04] After decades of fighting to prove that pinball could be a game of skill, it turned out that the most lucrative bet for game makers was on games of chance–gambling machines.
Roman Mars [00:12:16] You know Bally’s Casino? They used to be in the pinball business. And they took their name from their first hit pinball machine, manufactured in 1932, called Ballyhoo.
Pinball 2000 Promo [00:12:27] Welcome to the 21st century.
Roman Mars [00:12:30] In 1999, pinball tried to make a comeback with a game that integrated a video screen on the back glass with a mechanical playfield.
Pinball 2000 Promo [00:12:37] Welcome to Pinball 2000. Welcome to the new image in pinball. Welcome to the 21st century…
Roman Mars [00:12:52] That was a promo video for Pinball 2000. Despite the reverb, the menacing ticking clock, and the mountains of hyperbole heaped upon the promotion of the game, it never really caught on.
Mickey Capper [00:13:03] Which is probably because if pinball still has any appeal, it’s actually the vintage, analog nostalgia feelings it brings up in people. We like it because it’s not the future; it’s the past.
Roman Mars [00:13:17] Back at the Pacific Pinball Museum, Mike Schiess thinks pinball is making a bit of a comeback, and it’s because people are longing to get away from screens and from games that they play at home alone.
Michael Schiess [00:13:27] So with pinball, you can kind of gather around and watch your friends suck. And that’s the other thing that’s really cool–anybody can suck at pinball. I mean, it’s a great equalizer. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be physically an athlete.
Mickey Capper [00:13:45] I think what he means is that anybody can suck, and anybody can be great. It’s a nerd’s game, a rebel’s game, an underdog’s game.
Roman Mars [00:14:01] After the break, I talked to Martín Gonzalez about the many layers of modern pinball. As a business-to-business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long, and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You have direct access to and build relationships with decision makers. 900 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll be able to drive results with targeting and measurement tools built specifically for B2B. Audiences exposed to brand messages on LinkedIn are six times more likely to convert. Audiences on LinkedIn have two times the buying power of the average web audience. Make B2B marketing everything it can be and get $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to linkedin.com/invisible to claim your credit. That’s linkedin.com/invisible. Terms and conditions apply. If the whole point of stepping into an office is to fuel your creativity, office furniture should be unique and exciting. And Poppin makes furniture that makes work happy. Poppin is a commercial furniture company that has a unique take on designing modern offices. Create your dream office with a collection of flexible furniture built for flexible work environments. It is perfect for hybrid employees. Poppin provides a dedicated account executive to offer free space planning, guidance, and advice. And when you’re ready to buy, everything is in stock, ready to ship fast, and backed by a limited lifetime warranty. Poppin sent me a very comfortable office chair, an adjustable desk, and a file cabinet. And my first thought was, “Well, I don’t really need that file cabinet.” But I opened it up, and this thing is so cute and cool with the rounded corners, I actually rearranged my office studio to accommodate this file cabinet. So, if your office needs a refresh to properly support hybrid work or you’re planning on making a move in 2023, turn to Poppin at poppin.com/99pi for all your office furnishing needs. That’s poppin.com/99pi. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Therapy is all about deepening your self-awareness and understanding because sometimes we don’t know what we want or why we react the way we do until we talk through things. Ted Lasso didn’t know why he had panic attacks until he saw a therapist in Season Two. BetterHelp connects you with a licensed therapist who can take you on that journey of self-discovery from wherever you are, even if you’re coaching a soccer team thousands of miles away from home. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist. And switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Discover your potential with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. We are back with Martín Gonzalez. Hey, Martín.
Martín Gonzalez [00:18:30] Hey. What’s up, Roman?
Roman Mars [00:18:30] Not much.
Martín Gonzalez [00:18:31] I heard you talking about pinball last week on that Dear Hank and John episode that we played. Does that mean you’ve been taking advantage of it now that it’s legal in Oakland?
Roman Mars [00:18:39] I have. I mean, I’m not a very good pinball player, but when I see it in a place like the Stay Gold barbecue in Oakland, I’ll throw some quarters into a pinball machine for sure. I find pinball to be just intoxicating in a way. Like, even if you’re bad at it, watching it is very, very fun. But how long have you been playing?
Martín Gonzalez [00:19:00] Well, I used to actually cut class in middle school to go play at the pizza place across the street. It was like Baroque Theory 101 or Attack From Mars. Easy choice. But I started playing a lot more when I was living in Portland, Oregon, which is just, like, a real pinball mecca. So just to put it in context, New York, where I live now, has a population close to 8.5 million people, and there’s about 200 pinball tables. But the greater Portland metro area has 2.2 million people and over a thousand tables.
Roman Mars [00:19:34] Oh, okay. That’s very precise. How do you know all these pinball statistics?
Martín Gonzalez [00:19:39] Well, there’s this great crowdsourced website called Pinball Map, and it shows you what machines are where, and people can leave comments on, like, what’s broken when they swap a machine out.
Roman Mars [00:19:50] Right. Kind of like a pinball 311.
Martín Gonzalez [00:19:53] Yeah, exactly. And it also helps, you know, whenever I travel, I check to see if there’s any rare games I want to play near where I’m going. Everywhere is a little different.
Roman Mars [00:20:02] Okay, so when the story originally came out, we left off on pinball just starting to make a comeback. And it kind of feels to me like I see a lot of new machines. Where are things at?
Martín Gonzalez [00:20:13] Pinball has gotten much more broadly popular in that time. And now we’re in kind of like a pinball renaissance. Like, it’s more popular than ever. But we talked in the story about how by the end of the ’90s, manufacturers were getting out of the pinball business–the big flop of Williams’ Pinball 2000. So around that time, Sega sold off their pinball division, Data East, to Gary Stern, who’d been running it since 1986. And Stern’s been just cranking out these really high-quality games for 24 years now. And for a long time, they were, like, the only game in town. But now there’s a bunch of boutique manufacturers producing new machines and licensed reissues of some of those really great ’90s-era Williams tables. In 2020, a lot of enthusiasts bought home machines because they had extra disposable income and had nowhere to go play.
Roman Mars [00:21:05] Yeah, I know one of those people.
Martín Gonzalez [00:21:08] Oh, yeah. Can I come over and play? And these modern games are also just a lot deeper and more advanced and interesting than earlier games were.
Roman Mars [00:21:20] So in what way are they more interesting? Because I agree–when I see a new, modern pinball machine, it is, first of all, really beautiful and, you know, just gorgeous how the ball rolls and the ramps and everything. But they kind of stress me out because I’m kind of just, like, a keep the ball alive, flipper guy. And I don’t know how to do any of the, you know, missions. And if I get into multiball, it is by pure chance.
Martín Gonzalez [00:21:46] Yeah, multiball is like its own crazy thing. Like, really good players will do this thing where they hold a couple of balls in one flipper and, like, just shoot with the other one. I’m still trying to figure that one out. So yeah, the actual skills are the same across games, but the thing you’re talking about–all the objectives and shots–they’re different for every table. And it can just be really daunting to keep all this in your head. Most of them have this little cheat sheet in the lower left corner. And there also tends to be visual cues, like lit arrows, to communicate what the next move should be. And that can be the difference between a game that’s frustrating–impossible to figure out–whereas one that you can just, like, shoot and have a nice time even if you don’t have a bunch of stuff memorized.
Roman Mars [00:22:33] Right. I mean, this is where the real hardcore game design comes in, because you’re really trying to balance a player like me who can just walk up and play it versus someone who tries to master it and doesn’t get frustrated.
Martín Gonzalez [00:22:44] Right. And even in the Pinball movie, Roger Sharpe’s character gets a line in about that.
Councilman (Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game) [00:22:50] That is a game of chance.
Roger Sharpe (Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game) [00:22:52] That is a game of skill. Actually, it’s better than that; that is a game of choices. Everything that is on that playfield was put there for a reason. I’ve spent time with the people that have created this game. They’re not criminals. They should be celebrated.
Martín Gonzalez [00:23:07] And doing this episode is a great excuse for me to spend some time myself with one of the most celebrated noncriminal designers working today.
Keith Elwin [00:23:16] Hi, I’m Keith Elwin. I’ve been competing in pinball since 1993. I’ve won the most majors in tournament history, currently 11. And now I am a game designer at Stern Pinball. I’ve designed Iron Maiden, Jurassic Park, Avengers, Godzilla, and the Bond 60th anniversary edition.
Martín Gonzalez [00:23:34] Now, Keith’s not one for bragging, so I’m going to do it for him. He’s pretty widely considered one of, if not the best players of all time.
Pinball Fan #1 [00:23:43] The world’s best pinball player…
Pinball Fan #2 [00:23:45] He has been named the GOAT for many reasons.
Pinball Fan #3 [00:23:47] Best player in the world. Best designer? Or is that too early?
Martín Gonzalez [00:23:51] But even though his first commercial design was only released five years ago, he was practically born for it.
Keith Elwin [00:23:57] My dad would always have, like, scrap wood, nails, you know, whatever. I’d be bored. I’d take a scrap of wood, hammer a bunch of nails in it, put some rubber bands on it, and “Hey, look, I made a pinball machine.” I’d use my fingers or blocks of wood as flippers.
Roman Mars [00:24:11] That’s so endearing.
Martín Gonzalez [00:24:11] Yeah, I absolutely love that mental image. So, I asked him about the transition from being just a player to also designing.
Keith Elwin [00:24:20] One thing I’ve noticed that I didn’t really pay attention to when I was a player is that there are generally two types of pinball players–the ones that just want fun, kinetic action and to score as many points as they can, and then there’s the other set of players who are really into the story. It’s like, “Oh, I want to, you know, see every mode–every video.”
Martín Gonzalez [00:24:38] And when he said that, I was like, “Oh, that second one is, like, my true nature.” I like to just shoot around and see what’s there. I frankly never used to really care too much about what score I got. I was just, like, trying to have a good time.
Keith Elwin [00:24:51] So when you watch the game at a tournament, you’re going to see players just make the same four shots over and over just to get points. Rinse and repeat. Some players enjoy doing that, and you got to kind of give the full carrot for them. Like, “Yeah, if you skillfully do this thing over and over, you can get a lot of points.” But the average players just like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that. I want to see what else this game has.” So yeah, when I want to design a game, I kind of try to make, you know, choose your path.
Roman Mars [00:25:15] I mean, I submit that there’s a third type of player, and we are the biggest cohort of all, which is we’re just trying to stay alive. Like we’re not trying to get a lot of points. We don’t even know how to open up a new, you know, level or story mode. We’re just trying to get that ball on the table.
Martín Gonzalez [00:25:33] Yeah, exactly. It has to have enough there to be fun for casual players, too. And even Keith gets bored with, like, just shooting for points.
Keith Elwin [00:25:42] When I first started designing, you know, I always thought it would be so awesome to have a game where you’re just completely in control all the time. But then, yeah, in my later designs, I’m realizing that the out-of-control parts are what makes it fun and challenging.
Martín Gonzalez [00:25:56] Basically like, okay, Roman, you always feel out of control and like you’re going to die at any moment. And Keith’s trying to give that experience to even the people at the top of their game. The terror of losing is actually what makes it fun.
Roman Mars [00:26:13] Right. Right. They should feel more like me. I like this. This is very good.
Martín Gonzalez [00:26:17] And that’s what makes it more fun than a video game. No matter how you design it or how well you can play it, there’s always that physics element that makes it a little bit random and unpredictable.
Roman Mars [00:26:28] Yeah, I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons why pinball is so fun to sort of line up along the sides and watch someone play because the ball is bouncing around in this physical space and there’s always a little bit of a chance that there’s a little bit of wobble or, like, you know, the ball hits the glass and then smack down really hard. You know, it’s always fun.
Martín Gonzalez [00:26:45] And the ball is moving so fast, sometimes even just a couple milliseconds of reaction time will make it go hit a different ramp or go in a different direction. But some shots are a little easier to predict and hit repetitively than others that might send it careening around. But you know, it’s not any different than any other player of any sport with a ball in it.
Keith Elwin [00:27:06] It’s all about risk reward and making the player feel like, “Okay, I know if I shoot this shot, the ball is going to be a danger. There’s a good chance I’m going to lose it.” But this is the chance I’m taking to get this multiball or the jackpot or, you know, whatever big payoff is.
Roman Mars [00:27:19] I mean, is it ever a problem that he is so good that, you know, he would design a shot inside of a pinball machine that, you know, he could make but really no one else could make?
Martín Gonzalez [00:27:30] I mean, I’ve had that same experience sometimes playing his games where I’m like, “All right, this must be easy for him, but…” So, I asked him about it.
Keith Elwin [00:27:40] Sometimes. I get that a lot on Jurassic Park. But here’s my philosophy: If you make a game with all easy shots, you’re never going to, like, have that wow moment. “Oh, I did it!” You want at least one or two hard shots in every game that people are, like, initially frustrated, but then when they make it, they’re like, “Yeah! That’s awesome.”
Martín Gonzalez [00:28:00] And another cool thing about modern games is that they’re actually connected to the internet. They have Wi-Fi built into them, and they get their software tweaked over time. And something I love about Keith is he’ll purposely put in these risky shots that make you lose control, and then he goes back in and makes sure that the incentives are good enough for people to go for them.
Keith Elwin [00:28:20] One of my favorite things to do is, like, when one of my game releases, I’ll watch the top players play because a lot of them stream. And I’ll see them either avoiding shots entirely or just hitting the same shots over and over. And then I’ll go to Rick Nangle, my programmer, and I was like, “Yeah, we need to do something about this. How about we try this? We’ll put an extra ball here. Okay, now you’re going to aim for it? Yeah. Okay. You know, now I start to see people start to aim for it.”
Martín Gonzalez [00:28:44] He did this a lot on Godzilla, which is currently number one of all time on this pinball forum’s long running list of, like, the best games ever. And yeah, so I watched one of these videos he’s talking about. And sure enough, this amazing player couldn’t resist the rewards, so he took a risk to try and get the extra ball.
Pinball Streamer: [00:29:04] The sensible thing to do now probably is to trap up. I’m not going to… I’m going to play it. Oh! Don’t die. I really want this extra ball.
Martín Gonzalez [00:29:12] And he lost control.
Roman Mars [00:29:17] Wow. I mean, that’s really, like, the heart of an iterative design process. I just didn’t think that was possible in pinball because it’s this big, massive machine. He can’t go in there and, like, you know, move a ramp a little bit to make sure it’s better. But he can tweak the code and then make it so that, you know, it’s worth the risk.
Martín Gonzalez [00:29:35] He can, like, rebalance it. You know, he’ll also make certain objectives easier if he sees players struggling to reach them.
Roman Mars [00:29:42] Oh, I love this. This makes me really want to play one of his games.
Martín Gonzalez [00:29:46] Well, I’ve got Pinball Map open here. Looks like…
Roman Mars [00:29:52] What’s the closest?
Martín Gonzalez [00:29:52] There’s a Jurassic Park three blocks away from the Oakland office if you want to see if you can make one of these impossible shots.
Roman Mars [00:29:59] I will never make it. But, you know, at least I can admire its craft. I mean, have you ever gotten the urge to play in a tournament yourself and use some of this knowledge?
Martín Gonzalez [00:30:09] Well, I’ve just always been a little scared to. There’s this kind of, like, very macho, bro-y, like, slamming the machine around and, like, “Oh, I got the high score!” kind of thing that, like, kind of intimidated me. But, you know, my friend Michele, who works at WFMU– Shoutout to WFMU.
Roman Mars [00:30:28] Oh, the great WFMU. Yeah, shoutout to them.
Martín Gonzalez [00:30:30] They put a pinball team together. So, she talked me into it. She was like, “You know, it’s okay to just go and suck. You don’t have to win to have a good time. “So, I thought, “All right. I’m talking to Keith. I’m doing this episode. I just got to get over my fears and go do one.” So last week I went to Jackbar in Brooklyn for their regular Thursday night knockout tournament. The rules are you play on the same machine with one or two other people. The lowest score gets a strike. And three strikes and you’re out.
Roman Mars [00:30:57] Okay, so how’d you do?
Martín Gonzalez [00:30:59] So I got off to a really rough start on Cactus Canyon. I was just, like, super nervous.
Martín Gonzalez (field tape) [00:31:05] First of all, I’m up against Hunter. He got 5 million. I got 1 million. Not looking good so far.
Martín Gonzalez [00:31:12] I ended up losing that game, and suddenly I just didn’t really feel nervous anymore. Like, “Oh, losing is not so bad.” And then I ended up having a nice surprise in my second round.
Martín Gonzalez (field tape) [00:31:23] I had a Creature from the Black Lagoon second, which is actually one of my better games. Even though I didn’t do too well by my usual standards, I did better than the other two people. So, I’m alive a little longer.
Martín Gonzalez [00:31:36] But in round three…
Martín Gonzalez (field tape) [00:31:38] I got my ass kicked in Spider-Man. Apparently, I’m playing against one of the best here tonight. And I got absolutely shredded. It wasn’t even close.
Martín Gonzalez [00:31:46] And then in round four, I actually captured the moment that I got knocked out of the tournament.
Martín Gonzalez (field tape) [00:31:52] I’m playing Star Wars against Hunter, who I played on my first game. Typically, not one of my best games. I watched a video last night to try and find a strategy for it, but I think… Yeah, he just passed me, so it’s going to be my third strike.
Martín Gonzalez [00:32:10] He’d watched the same video, and he remembered a lot more of it than me.
Roman Mars [00:32:17] But still, that’s not so bad for your first time.
Martín Gonzalez [00:32:20] Yeah, I had so much fun, and I was really high off of that one victory. So, I actually went to another tournament two days later, and I won three out of my first four games. So I was, like, feeling great. But then I got eliminated with strikes on Iron Maiden and Godzilla, which are two of Keith’s games. So, I’m sorry, Keith! I tried my best for you.
Roman Mars [00:32:44] Well, I am just proud that you’ve used your job here as an excuse to play pinball.
Martín Gonzalez [00:32:49] Anytime you need me to, I’m quite happy to.
Roman Mars [00:33:15] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Mickey Capper, who originally made the story back in 2014, with production assistance from Katie Mingle and Sam Greenspan. Martín Gonzalez produced and remixed the rerun. Original music by Swan Real, plus “Kansas City Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton. Many thanks to Keith Elwin for talking with us. Thanks also to Zach Sharpe, Josh Roop, Michele Colomer, and Maja Raskovic. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Vivian Le, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, still headquartered in beautiful, law-abiding, uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg… as long as you don’t tweet to tell me that I should have made a “Pinball Wizard” joke. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
Radio [00:34:52] This is an emergency broadcast. The Earth is being invaded by flying saucers from Stitcher!
Civilian [00:35:02] Mamma mia! Save the Tower of Pisa!
Alien [00:35:03] Your city will be destroyed! Attack!
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