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21st Century pinball wizards

Modded pinball machine

(Copyright Getty Images)

Around the world, a growing band of enthusiasts are hacking machines’ hardware and software to breathe new life into a familiar game.

Pinball machines were commonplace in arcades and snackbars when Koen Heltzel was a child in Roermond, The Netherlands, in the early 1990s, but by the time he had grown up and left home they had all but disappeared. Then one day in 2007 he spotted an old machine called Starship Troopers on an online auction site and bought it for his new apartment. "And that," he says, "is when the pinball bug well and truly bit me."

There's an adage in pinball circles that single machines get lonely: it is only a matter of time before the first is joined by many more. And sure enough, the 27-year-old web designer's first pinball machine was soon joined by one, two, three and eventually four more. Today, these large, heavy, noisy, but strangely beautiful contraptions dominate Heltzel’s small flat.

Heltzel is not alone. Pinball machines, or "pins", are increasingly falling into the private hands of a vibrant community of fanatics – known as pinheads. Some people are interested in pin history, some see them as an art form, some like restoring them, most people simply enjoy getting together with other pinheads and playing them. Then, there are those like Hetzel, who want to hack the hardware and software to give the game a decisive spring-loaded kick into the 21st Century.

These hackers, or modders as they are known, find it impossible to resist any opportunity to customise pinball machines to make them look cooler and play better – from adding new artwork or a few extra parts to building an entire souped-up machine from scratch. "In the past I used to mod cars," explains serial modder Stan Simpson. "Now I mod pinball machines. I think it's just that some generations are more hands on than younger people today, who maybe just sit down with an X-Box and don't fiddle."

Rebel reputation

Pinball machines are marvels of old-fashioned engineering: steel balls careering around a playfield, propelled by flippers, slingshots and pop bumpers. Take a look inside one and you'll find mechanical switches, heavy electrical coils, springs, levers and – more than anything else – hundreds and hundreds of yards of wiring.

Its origins hail from the 19th Century French game of bagatelle, but the first versions of the game as we know it began to appear out of Chicago factories in the 1930s. The tilt mechanism was invented in 1934 to stop players lifting and shaking the games, the bumper followed in 1937. Ten years later, the flipper made its debut in a pinball game called Humpty Dumpty, and with it the modern form of the game was born.

Almost immediately pinball became a symbol of youth and rebellion, helped in large part to the game being banned from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s in most of America's big cities, including New York, Los Angeles and even Chicago. Authorities said pinball was a game of chance, not skill, and therefore deemed it to be a form of gambling. New York’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia held Prohibition-style raids to round up thousands of machines, with high-profile scenes of him smashing machines with a sledgehammer before having them dumped into the city's rivers. Private ownership was permitted, but in 1970s New York pinball machines found their way into Wall Street brokerage firms, Harlem’s pornographic shops, and legend has it, the psychology department at Hunter College in the City University of New York – their shells providing handy mazes for conditioned-response experiments to assess how quickly rats can escape from them.

In terms of its technology, pinball machines from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s were entirely electro-mechanical, but the late 1970s saw the first electronic machines controlled by microprocessors running rudimentary software. By the early 1990s the computing power in pinball machines – though still limited – was sufficient to power dot matrix displays that displayed scores and other simple graphics, and this was enough to drive the last boom in the popularity of pinball. In 1993, over 120,000 machines were produced to satisfy demand.

But compared to slot machines and digital video games, pinball machines are simply too expensive to make: a typical machine has about 3,500 parts including 1,200 screws, 115 light bulbs, 72 switches and over half a mile of wiring. And assembling one requires more labour man-hours than a car. By the end of the century the great pinball makers like Gottleib, Bally and Williams had all left the business. Today, only one manufacturer, Stern Pinball, regularly produces a limited number of new machines every year out of its factory in the Chicago suburbs.

George Gomez, a veteran pinball designer for Bally and Williams, and who is now responsible for game development at Stern, admits that little has changed in the last 20 years in terms of the technology built in to machines. "The games we make are still stuck back in the '90s," he says. Pinball machines, on the face of it, are trapped in a kind of technology time warp.

Hand of mod

Which is where pinball modders come in: finding ever-more complex ways to supercharge their machines, and meeting at pinball expos and creating websites to show off their work, share tips and tricks, and offer their services.

For instance, Chris Williams, an aircraft service engineer from North Wales, but known to fellow pinheads as Poibug, replaced the rather innocent storybook-style artwork from an old Gottleib Genie machine made in 1979 with a theme inspired by the American punk band The Ramones – with the sound to match. "I thought about integrating a set of Ramones sounds with the machine, so that when the ball rolled over a given switch it would play a sound," says Williams. But instead he opted to fit a 50W guitar amp to the inside of the machine, which blasts out a selection of Ramones songs stored on a memory stick. He says his latest plan is to fit a 6-inch (15-centimetre) video screen into the back of the machine so that it can play Ramones videos as well.

Other forms of modding add new hardware features to an old machine. Some were built into a manufacturer's prototype before it was put in to production, like targets that drop beneath the playfield when hit, but then left out to keep manufacturing costs down, according to Stan Simpson. Some go beyond restoring original features, adding new ones, such as lighting or installing LEDs – especially in the eyes of figures on the playfield – or designing "toppers" – decorative fittings that sit on top of a machine's backbox. "On one Twilight Zone machine I have even installed a 2-inch (5cm) television screen connected to a DVD player that showed episodes of the Twilight Zone TV show while you play," says Simpson.

Not all pinheads approve of people modding their machines in this manner. "Many people like it, but some people think it is sacrilege,” says Simpson. “They think that if you change a machine from its original spec then that's wrong, machines shouldn't be changed from how they emerged from the factory."

PC power

However, what’s a modder to do when faced with a great looking game that is, quite simply, dull? Koen Heltzel says his boss had such a pin, called The Machine: Bride of Pinbot, at work. "We played the machine in every break, but it actually got very boring very fast. You just have to play one shot over and over again," Heltzel explains.

So Heltzel hacked the machine by rewriting the game's software, introducing new and more challenging rules requiring players to do a far more wide variety of shots. He also got a graphic designer to create completely new graphics and animations which explain the story of the game more fully, and which are played on a dot matrix display (DMD) screen that Heltzel retrofitted to the machine's backbox.

His new Bride of Pinbot software runs on a laptop computer connected to the pinball machine using an interface board called a Pinball Remote Operations Controller (P-ROC) designed by USA-based Pinball Controllers. "Using the processor and memory that came with the pinball machine it would be impossible to run the software I have developed," says Heltzel. "But with the power of a laptop PC running the software we can have a completely new rule set, make the new screen run animations at 30 frames per second, and create complex shows of choreographed lights and sounds."

Stern’s Gomez thinks that the added dimension that PC power brings will help to stage a revival for the game. “We are on the verge of a huge renaissance," he says. "Improved display technology and the raw computing power available mean games can weave a story, convey information and react intelligently to what players are doing in ways that were never possible before."

Virtual reality

For instance, Gerry Stellenberg, an electrical engineer from Texas and one of the designers of the P-ROC, has built a custom pinball machine from scratch, called P3. It has a 22-inch (56cm) LCD screen built in to the playfield with built-in ball tracking technology, so that it can establish the precise location of a ball as it rolls over the screen. "It can actually track multiple balls on the screen in a similar way to the way multi-touch technology works in an iPad screen," he says.

This allows P3 to display moving images on the screen, which a player can aim at with the pinballs. "Think of asteroids floating around the screen, and the balls smashing in to them. You have the physical pinball on the playfield interacting with the virtual world on the screen," says Stellenberg.

Former pinball service engineer and industry veteran Jack Guarnieri – known to pinheads as Jersey Jack – has formed a company called Jersey Jack Pinball, which will shortly release a machine called Wizard Of Oz. "Our game is still based on mechanical action, but it is loaded with new technology," Guarnieri says. The centrepiece of the new machine is a 26-inch (66cm) colour LCD screen that shows scores, plays movie clips and animations, and also guides players through the various parts of the game.

Other pinball machines under construction include Forbidden Planet, by a team of pinheads led by Mark Squires (known in British pinball circles as "The Modfather"), and Ben Heck's Zombie Adventureland, produced by Ben Heckendorn – an inventor best known for hacking video games consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox – and veteran pinball designer John Popadiuk. The machine will be made in a limited run of 99 featuring 3D graphics (and which require the player to wear cinema-style 3D glasses.)

And in Spain Antonio Ortuno, a 31-year-old freelance computer programmer has set up a company called Quetzal Pinball to manufacture thirty Captain Nemo pinball machines. Ortuno has designed and built all the electronics from scratch in his spare time – including his Quetzal pinball controller (QPC) which is similar in concept to Stellenberg's P-ROC. "Apart from the artwork, the whole pinball machine – the cabinet, the playfield, the software and the electronics – has been designed by me," says Ortuno. He plans to make the source code for the game freely available so that anyone can modify the rules for the game – or create completely new ones. The machine will also have a Wi-Fi connection so that new rules and software updates can be downloaded from time to time.

The internet will play an important part in any revival, says Stern’s Gomez, with the next generation of machines being permanently online and connected to social media websites like Facebook. "You'll be able to see what your pinball friends are doing with their machines, post your high scores, play online tournaments and compete with people on the other side of the world. And we haven't even scratched the surface in terms of online commerce: episodic content and extra features or software upgrades that you will be able to buy."

All of which means that the pinball machines of the future will be very different to anything that has been seen or played in the 65 years since Humpty Dumpty first appeared. "New technology means that the game of pinball will evolve in new directions that are hard to imagine," says Gomez. "The only things that are sacred are the flippers and the silver ball."

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