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Troubled Production / Pinball

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I’ve been doing this for a really long time now, and it’s been an absolute rollercoaster of ups and downs... You know, I would hate to see it all go to waste, but at the same time I’m not going to ask anybody for anything to keep it going either.
Kevin Kulek, on the struggles of Skit-B Pinball

Small pinball manufacturers—and would-be manufacturers—over the 2010s have had so many problems, they've cast a shadow over its entire fanbase. Not that the big manufacturers weren't immune, either.


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     Boutique Pinball Manufacturers 
Judging by the litany of problems with various new companies, making pinball is not easy.
  • Dutch Pinball's The Big Lebowski has languished in a contentious production ever since its initial annnouncement in May 2014.
    • The project immediately faced conflict from Universal, whose Executive Meddling rejected the initial playfield artwork over offensive imagery (and an unauthorized usage of the Kahula brand) and the film soundtrack removed. note  Yet the seams in Dutch Pinball and Universal's relationship burst when the former brought an unapproved prototype to New York City, where members of the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) played it on video. Shortly after, Universal threatened to pull the license.
    • To complicate matters, Dutch Pinball was also overwhelmed by consumer complaints about their prior Bride of Pinbot: 2.0 project. Founders Jaap Nauta and Barry Driessen hired Philip Weinberg as their new Director of Marketing and Communications. Upon discovering the licensing issues, however, Weinberg backed out and began issuing refunds to reduce Dutch Pinball's debt. When bewildered customers caught on, Weinberg publicly posted about the company's problems and accused a game designer of financial fraud. He was replaced by licensing guru Roger Sharpe, but the damage had already been done.
    • Later, production was delayed, which the company claimed was due to circuit board problems...only for it to be revealed in February 2017 that ARA — the contract manufacturer overseeing production — were embargoing finished machines and refusing to build any more out of claims that Dutch Pinball had not met payment obligations. Finger-pointing ensued between both parties, while outraged customers accused Dutch Pinball of lying to them.
    • Dutch Pinball refused to reimburse ARA and began taking orders on $13,000 Bride of Pinbot: 25th Anniversary games to finance manufacturing the remaining Big Lebowskis themselves; the effort was quickly stalled amongst fierce derision from the 130 customers still yet to receive their machines. ARA offered to produce the machines in exchange for investing 51% into Dutch Pinball, but the latter declined (despite customers voting against this decision when asked for feedback). A new manufacturer — XYTECH Modules Technologies — stepped forth to aid production, and a redesign of the circuit boards was also announced.
  • Captain Nemo Dives Again by Quetzal Pinball, originally announced in March 2012, was delayed to November of that year after changes to its manufacturer, operating system, and mechanics. Ball trough and game decal-related issues delayed it further to 2015.
  • Two original projects by Classic Playfield Reproductions, a company that reproduces pinball playfields and parts, fell victim to this.
    • Their first project, Lost Vegas, was announced in 2010 as a conversion kit for Bally's Dolly Parton pinball machine, replacing its art and sound package with a Darker and Edgier theme of strippers in a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. The project went into Development Hell and was cancelled after CPR sought replacing their artist Stephanie, whose rough sketches of the backglass art were slammed on The team approached Greg Freres, but he was busy producing Whizbang Pinball's Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons and Jersey Jack Pinball's The Wizard of Oz, and later joining Stern Pinball.
    • Their second project, Hammer of the Godz, was a conversion kit announced in 2015 for Bally's Vector game. The game was loosely themed around Led Zeppelin (with images of band members, but original public domain artwork elsewhere to avoid licensing costs). Like with Lost Vegas, the art direction was criticized. CPR's Art Director Stuart Wright also butted heads with commentors on the project's Pinside thread. It was later canned due to lack of interest.
  • Production on The Crocodile Hunter Outback Adventure, the first game from Australian-based The Pinball Factory, died in 2006 along with Steve Irwin, who had provided speech and starred in the artwork. A whitewood playfield was finished, but no further updates materialized.
  • John Popadiuk has found himself a Creator Killer in Magic Girl, which was intended to be his masterpiece.
    • Rather than joining up with Stern or Jersey Jack Pinball, Popadiuk, after a short time with toy company Zizzle, founded his own company, Zidware, in 2011; Magic Girl was announced, followed by Alice in Wonderland and Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland. Prices for each table began at US$16,000, but pre-orders sold out anyway.
    • Popadiuk was notoriously secretive about these projects, which was initially welcomed, but people started getting suspicious when he still had very little to show for them except empty cabinets by 2014. Much to the ire of many, Popadiuk eventually revealed that he had run out of money for the project, despite the large amounts of pre-order money he received. In addition, his artist, Jeremy "ZombieYeti" Packer (who joined Stern following the debacle) and programmer, Jim Askey (known as "applejuice" on Pinside), both stepped forth and claimed that Popadiuk didn't pay them.
    • At the end of his rope, Popadiuk had to sell the rights to Magic Girl to another company, Pintasia, and put Alice in Wonderland and Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland on indefinite hold. Upon receiving Popadiuk's work and bringing him in as a consultant, Pintasia realized that Magic Girl was so incomplete that another two years would be required to bring the game to a condition acceptable enough for customers. After a rushed and ultimately botched attempt to bring a Magic Girl prototype to a pinball show, Pintasia swore off on helping Popadiuk any further.
    • During this time, Popadiuk had undergone a Creator Breakdown, writing a long, somewhat angry, somewhat coherent plea not to sue him and giving the people who pre-ordered his other two projects an ultimatum to switch to Magic Girl at a loss. Nate Shivers, of the Coast 2 Coast Pinball Podcast, was livid over this statement (though Pintasia would then step in and ease up on those pre-orderers, canceling out the loss to switch over and providing Popadiuk with legal defense).
    • Although he was interviewed on Coast 2 Coast Pinball, Popadiuk otherwise fell silent, never answering customer emails and refraining from public appearances. His reputation took a massive nosedive, with angry Zidware customers colluding via social media to push legal action against Popadiuk, as well as create a website bearing his name to document the situation.
    • In September 2016, newcomer American Pinball hired Popadiuk to design their first game, Houdini: Master Mystery, and committed to produce and distribute the Zidware games. Only Magic Girl was released, however, and in such an incomplete state; the software was bare-bones and the playfield had numerous design flaws. With just four months before Houdini's reveal, American Pinball scrapped Popadiuk's work and hired Joe Balcer to redesign the game.
    • Popadiuk then joined yet another pinball company in September the following year: deeproot Pinball, LLC, an ambitious startup which gained notoriety for CEO Robert Mueller's claim that making pinball is "easy". The company plans to redesign and release all three Zidware titles, and has offered assistance to Popadiuk's customers. Whether or not deeproot will deliver on their promises is unknown.
  • Pinball Gremlins by Vonnie D Pinball crashed, burned, and fell off the pinball radar following a public relations nightmare.
    • The company was founded by Von Davis and Wes Upchurch in 2014, with Barry Oursler aiding with game design. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund development on the game, set up manufacturing processes, and pay the team’s salaries. By the end of July, over $100,000 was raised.
    • Excitement then turned to skepticism. Outside some pencil sketches and a 3D-rendered playfield, few visuals of the actual game were released. Moreover, said Kickstarter required a full payment of the game, with no mention of refunds. Davis claimed that the company didn't need pre-orders at all; the campaign was merely just to involve the community and help avoid manufacturing delays. Because the company had been trying to attain high stretch goals by selling t-shirts and keychains, customers were baffled.
    • A surge of controversies followed: questions and concerns posted via social media were largely ignored or met with abrasive replies; Vonnie D's Kickstarter was accused of being filled with fake pledges; and Upchurch was charged with synthetic drug distribution.
    • As of 2016, the Vonnie D Pinball trademark and the company's social media pages have been abandoned. Some hobbyists postulated that things could've been much worse if the project had progessed further.
  • The Skit-B project, which was to make a pinball adaptation of Predator, pretty much imploded over the first half of 2015.
    • The project began in 2011, before many other companies and groups decided to make their own pinball machines; Skit-B got a lot of support for being, at the time, the only possible competition to Stern. They had shown prototypes of Predator with its own gimmick: dark modes lit by ultraviolet light, a la Sega's Viper Night Drivin', and they announced they could make 250 machines for roughly $6,000 each. Hype was so big that pre-orders quickly ran out.
    • By 2014, however, Skit-B had gone completely silent and were no longer going around conventions showing off their games. The red flag came up, however, when on Skit-B's site, all mention of the Predator name and the logo had vanished, which Kevin Kulek, the leader of the team, explained was due to request from 20th Century Fox. Later, Kulek would confess that he either misinterpreted the permission obtained from Fox or never had permission in the first place and that Fox was taking legal action. Furthermore, the team could not find a way to produce the number of machines Kulek had initially promised.
    • By this point, Kulek was the only person left on the team, the others having quit in frustration or to distance themselves from Kulek, who by now had become a Persona Non Grata among every pinball company and infuriated fans, particularly those who had already paid Skit-B thousands of dollars and were unlikely to get it back. Most eventually settled on pursuing legal action against Kulek en masse (the process of which is currently ongoing). Pinball News had a talk with Kulek about this situation from his point of view here.
    • At the same time the bombshell was dropped, a Wordpress page surfaced with more details. The anonymous authors — identifying themselves as some of Skit-B's customers — claimed responsibility for alerting Fox about the project's licensing violations. Moreover, they suggested that Kulek insisted on continuing production despite the threat of legal action from Fox, who apparently had no idea about the project's existence until it was later brought to their attention.
  • In June 2013, China-based manufacturer Homepin — a replacement pinball electronics maker — announced that they were to begin their first romp into mass-producing specially-made pinball machines themed after the Thunderbirds franchise. Unsurprisingly, production was turbulent.
    • Reactions to the initial announcement of the game were extremely divisive; while those who were fans of the original series gave their immediate thumbs up, while others unfamiliar with the show lambasted the license as being a little too obscure for them. As such, this ruled out many of Homepin's potential customers.
    • In 2015, Pavlov Pinball wrote an article documenting Homepin's progress. Australian company founder Mike Kalinowski quelled fears of a possible repeat of Skit-B Pinball's Predator blowout, confirming that the project was indeed licensed. However, he admitted that production was "harder than expected", in part to Homepin's inability to buy off-the-shelf pinball parts or import parts to China, leaving him to either build parts himself or source them locally.
    • A year later in June 2016, it was sadly reported that Homepin's programmer was discovered to have passed away in his apartment.
    Stern Pinball 
Despite being in the pinball business for quite a while, not every game by Stern Pinball has gone smooth sailing in production.

  • Over the years since its inception in 2000, Stern as a company has had to jump several hurdles.
    • The poor sales of 2001's Striker Xtreme, Sharkey's Shootout, and High Roller Casino resulted in Stern laying off 15 people, avoiding unlicensed themes, and producing three titles a year instead of four. It's because of this that they took on Pat Lawlor to produce Monopoly.
    • 2008 saw more layoffs, including designers Dennis Nordman and John Borg; programmers Keith Johnson and Dwight Sullivan; and Director of Technical Support Joe Blackwell. While CEO Gary Stern remained confident about the future, he would've sold the company had investor Dave Peterson not approached them. Stern's infastructure, marketing, and social media presence were improved. Ever since, their business model has consisted of a stripped-down "Pro" model geared toward arcade operators, and expensive fully-featured "Premium" and "Limited Edition" variants for collectors.
    • Behind the scenes, there was allegedly a power struggle between Stern's new Director of Marketing, Jody Dankberg, and Texan marketing/advertising guru Jared Guynes; the former ran Stern's social media with an iron fist, deleting any remotely critical comment and banning people from the company's Facebook page; the latter was fed up with Dankberg and pushed Stern to hire him. Pinball player and marketer Zach Sharpe replaced Dankberg in 2017, with Guynes assisting and Dankberg becoming Stern's New Director of Licensing and New Business Development.
    • In the coming years, tight schedules and a miniscule roster of programmers left many of Stern's games produced with unfinished software. Stern customers didn't mind initially, but after months of no communication from Stern and the game code seemingly languishing in Development Hell, they had enough. In 2015, Pinside user "flashinstinct" led an online movement titled Where's the Code?, petitioning for Stern to provide timely game updates and demanding more transparency in general game code development.
    • Stern battened down the hatches, issuing a cease and desist order against "flashinstinct" when he created t-shirts featuring a parodic logo too similar to theirs, as well as deleting any comment on social media requesting for code updates. In hindsight, both wound up drawing more attention to the movement and Stern's handling of negative feedback. Eventually, Stern began churning out frequent code updates as requested (even producing a massive one in 2016 for The Avengers (Stern), a title released four years prior). The Where's the Code movement nonetheless remains on the lookout for any moment the company returns to their old ways, prepared to speak out to Stern again whenever need be.
    • In 2016, quality control issues plagued various titles (including Game of Thrones, KISS (Stern), and Ghostbusters). Playfields were shipped with "insert ghosting"note  , chipping clearcoat, and cabinet decals which were wrinkling, improperly installed or peeling. It was suggested that the producer of Stern's playfields, Churchill Cabinet Company, had experienced staff walkouts. Stern was mum about the issues, resulting in yet another online movement: Fix My Playfield Stern. At the 2016 Pinball Expo, Gary Stern vowed that replacement playfields would be sent to all affected customers; by the new year, nothing had come of it. In response, a petition was created, demanding for Stern to fulfill the promise they made, or at the very least offer full refunds of game retail and shipping costs. Furthermore, "kpg" (the Pinside user leading the movement) vowed to pursue legal action against Stern for their lack of communication and commitment to the problem. This isn't to say that the situation hasn't already alienated even the most loyal of Stern customers.
  • To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Stern unveiled Batman '66, based upon the classic 1966-86 television adaptation of the comic starring Adam West and Burt Ward. To say that the announcement was controversial (as much as it was exciting) is putting it mildly.
    • Right from the starting gate, the increased prices generated major outcry (the game had no base Pro model, and the top-tier "Super LE" had a hefty price tag of $15,000). Furthermore, those wanting the most expensive version of the game were required to fill out a form and submit a video explaining why they'd be worthy of getting a "Super LE"...with Stern allowed to incorporate said videos for marketing purposes and buy back a "Super LE" from a customer if necessary. Outraged fans found Stern's decision to be in bad taste, but — unsurprisingly — video submissions were posted on YouTube left and right (including this sarcastic one), and all "Super LE" games were accounted for.
    • The "Super LE" was originally announced as a run for thirty games. A few weeks later, fifty more were added. Stern's fanbase began accusing them of being "greedy" with the profits they raked in. Stern game designer George Gomez, in an interview with Pinball Magazine (downloadable here), claimed that the extra games were in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Batman television series.
    • At the Pinball Expo 2016, all three versions of Batman 66 were showcased. Unfortunately, they were unplayable throughout the entire show because Gomez and programmer Lyman Sheats thought the software was unfeasible to show off publicly. In a case of bad timing, other pinball manufacturers showed off their newest offerings in playable format (including Alien from Heighway Pinball and bitter rival Jersey Jack Pinball's Dailed In!).
    • To drive customers away from competitors at Expo, Stern and Jared Guynes threw an "Epic" party at the Viper Alley event venue in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Guests who paid their nonrefundable tickets were treated to — among other things — performances by Barenaked Ladies lead singer Ed Robertson, and meet-and-greet opportunities with Stern's development team and Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame. Pinball News editor Martin Ayub was banned from both the Stern party and the factory tour (despite having already paid for tickets to both) after criticizing the high price of Batman 66. Guests had to pay extra for food and drink, and one of the "guests", Mindy the Monkey, didn't show up because her trainer passed away. Ed Robertson even took a little jab at Stern's pricing. The party continued on regardless, though many critics found the celebration needlessly self-congratulatory for the company (especially with Gary Stern's "roast").note 
  • Shrek was supposed to be a quickly-made, small-budget project using the design and rules of the Family Guy pinball machine, changing the artwork and sound, after receiving requests from operators to make something more family-friendly. Stern found itself staring down the legal gun barrel from both DreamWorks Animation and Smash Mouth, the latter due to the machine's use of the song "All-Star." In order to comply with all of the rules set forth by both groups, from finding soundalikes approved by the voice actors of the movies themselves, to Smash Mouth's ban on Cover Versions (meaning Stern had to pay the record label for far more than what would've been needed to record Stern's own version), Shrek took twice as long as projected to complete and ran to the budget of a normal machine despite reusing a layout and rules from a previous machine.
  • Stern's new Spike operating system that debuted in 2015 to a rocky start. Its new placement of the power button from the bottom of the cabinet to underneath the backbox faced poor reception among fans, and to make matters worse, the system's first game — Wrestlemania — sold very poorly and has since been regarded as one of Stern's weaker games. Furthermore, when Kiss was released, customers experienced constant issues with the Spike system that "froze" their games and rendered them unplayable. Luckily, Stern released code updates to prevent these problems and openly assisted owners of the game with their troubles.
  • In a Facebook comment, programmer Lyman Sheats attributed the stagnant code on The Walking Dead to having to work on Stern's new Spike system, and a "botched" license with AMC.note . He's since released numerous updates to polish the game, with its reception now better than it was at launch. Fans who wanted to hear the cast have also updated their machines via third-party software to add speech back into the game.
  • Ex-Stern programmer Keith Johnson claims that World Poker Tour was plagued with issues at launch. Since it was the first game to utilize Stern's SAM system, it suffered from faulty hardware. It also had an "infinite multiball" bug that affected all future SAM games, which was never found until about two years later after the game was released. Also, Johnson and designer Steve Ritchie had little creative control over the poorly-received art package.
  • During a seminar at the Chicago Pinball Expo, game designer John Trudeau claimed that WWE Wrestlemania was the byproduct of their original license for the game falling through shortly before production (though he didn't explicitly say what the license was). The game has since been immensely criticized by Stern's fanbase for the theme and design, and subsequently sold very poorly. However, Trudeau remains upbeat and proud of the final product.

    Williams Electronics 
Williams Electronics had dealt with a handful.
  • Cactus Canyon was the last conventional game released by Williams before their ill-fated Pinball 2000 platform (see below). All employees were assigned to work on Pinball 2000, leaving programmer Dave Coriale around two weeks to complete Cactus Canyon's software. Ultimately, the game was released incomplete and only about 925 units exist today. Years later, a fan project to complete the code, "Cactus Canyon Continued", surfaced.
  • Demolition Man's backglass art kept getting rejected by the movie production team; actor Wesley Snipes, who plays Simon, was concerned about his Hollywood career and didn’t want Simon to have a crazed look on the backglass. Williams changed the art in order to appease him.
  • In a post, designer Steve Ritchie claims Popeye Saves the Earth (released under the "Bally" label) was expensive because of custom tooling and molding. Frustrated Williams distributors, who despised the Popeye theme yet were contractually obligated to take minimum orders of the game, threatened lawsuits; Williams removed the minimum games clause from distributors' contracts. Popeye was ultimately a flop, and its reception has been frosty.
    I don't enjoy dumping on others games, but don't try to tell me that Popeye was a good game. If you enjoy playing it, that's certainly your prerogative. Most Williams engineering/management folks don't want to think about Popeye. It was an awful time in Williams history.
  • The second Pinball 2000 game, Star Wars Episode I, resulted in Williams shutting down their pinball division in 1999. It was discussed in the documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball.
    • Riding on the success and innovation brought on by Revenge from Mars, Williams got the Star Wars Episode 1 license...just as the film tanked, critically and financially.
    • Development was rushed and secretive. Licensing costs increased game prices, causing distributors to cancel their orders. Williams's own success also became its greatest competitor—operators saw no reason to upgrade to Pinball 2000 because the company's older titles were still performing well on route.
    • In the end, Star Wars Episode 1 failed to meet sales expectations. The next two games, Playboy and Wizard Blocks, were cancelled. Williams exited the pinball industry to focus on the gambling marketnote . Steve Ritchie, George Gomez, and other notable alumni were laid off, with most of them joining Stern Pinball.
  • Speaking of George Gomez, he was caught in a series of these the entire time he worked for Williams and Bally in the 90's:
    • His first project, Corvette, was given to him with Williams knowing full well he was an untested rookie. Consequently, he was given a team full of fellow newcomers and a much smaller budget than Williams's other projects at the time, he was frequently heckled and harassed because of his lack of experience, and unlike the other projects, he absolutely was not allowed delays as the machine was to be released in time for an anniversary celebration at the Corvette Museum. It turned out to be a success in spite of the hurdles to overcome, however.
    • When he was assigned to work on Johnny Mnemonic, he was give very little material from the movie to work with and a lot of criticism from Keanu Reeves, who, like with Wesley Snipes above, made getting the license and working on the machine that much harder by himself. However, Gomez is a fan of the novel the movie was based on and filled in the gaps based on details from the book. Nevertheless, the filmmakers were so thrilled to have a pinball machine based on their movie that they invited Gomez to an advance screening—which, to Gomez, was so disappointing that he wanted to cancel his project immediately. It was released anyway and flopped as hard as the movie.
    • NBA Fastbreak was created in a much shorter development cycle than normal, as Gomez was working on a non-pinball arcade machine involving battling tanks. Executive Meddling canned the tank project but tasked Gomez to make another pinball machine, with the time and money used in the tank game deducted from this new project's budget. (In other words, executives considered the tank game as part of the NBA Fastbreak project.) During this entire time, Gomez and the executives were constantly at odds regarding how the machine's scoring should function, with Gomez insisting on basketball-type scoring and the executives demanding normal Pinball Scoring. They eventually reached a compromise, with both options available and owners free to switch between them as needed.

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