When you play the pinball game Boys Night Out, if you hit your shot just right, you’ll unlock a video of a late-night party. The clip shows a guy doing cocaine off a woman’s ankle, her belly, her lips. There is a lot of coke.
This is not a game you can play at your local arcade. Only one of these games exists. It was designed and built by Joel Kaiser, a 42-year-old indie filmmaker from Marina, Calif., and is based on a movie he wrote and co-directed called Popcorn Landfill. “I wanted to start a new career, and pinball is bumping right now,” says Kaiser.
Pinball is clearly bumping in Schaumburg, Ill. on a late October weekend at the Pinball Expo, a three-day gathering of 4,000 pinball junkies, vendors, and collectors. This year, the 37th annual expo (back after a one-year break from COVID) is celebrating a new category of games that are reinvigorating the pinball industry: homebrews. These are machines like Kaiser’s. They’re offline games in an online world. They’re physical. They’re bizarre. They’re miracles of ingenuity.
Why are people building pinball machines in 2021? The same reason people climb Kilimanjaro. Pinball machines are built with roughly 3,500 parts and a quarter mile of wire. They’re impossibly complex. They break easily. On a continuum, constructing a pinball machine is closer to building a SpaceX satellite than designing a website.
For perspective, at the Chicago factory of the world’s largest pinball company, Stern, it takes an army of 350 people to make just three titles per year. Stern’s biggest competitor, Jersey Jack, employs 125 people and has created six games — in its history.
Kaiser made his game all by himself, as did the 11 other homebrewers at the expo, more or less. One of them is Ryan McQuaid, who co-hosts an expo panel called “How to Build a Pinball Machine in 4,761 Simple Steps.” McQuaid, 34 and bald and built like a linebacker, had to teach himself how to weld, how to code, how to 3D print. This took him over two years and, he estimates, “between 1,000 and 1,500 hours.”
But he loved building his pinball machine for the same reason he loves pinball: It’s “physics as a game.” Unlike the digital worlds of video games, with pinball, “the one who says whether you won or lost is just reality,” says McQuaid, who lives in Franklin, N.H. “Not a code. Not a programmer. The ball did what the ball did, with that exact air pressure or that exact elasticity of metal.”
None of this was possible as recently as the early 2000s. Back then, if you wanted to create a new pinball game, the only way to do it was to “re-theme” an old machine by swapping out the artwork. Then came a man named Gerry Stellenberg. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1997, Stellenberg bought himself a pinball machine, then a second, and eventually a twelfth. By day he designed motherboards for companies like Cisco, by night he played pinball.
Then something started to bother him. He grew frustrated that “every time I turned them on, they’re the exact same thing.” Stellenberg had spent between $3,000 and $10,000 on each game, he says in a phone interview, “and it just seemed like a waste to have it be this fixed entity that was taking up so much room in my house.”
One solution would be to stop buying pinball machines. Stellenberg went the other route, and in 2009, as a side project, he designed a board called the P-ROC (Pinball Remote Operations Controller) that could be plugged into existing pinball machines, allowing you to “completely rewrite the rules.” The guts of pinball machines had always been a black box. Stellenberg cracked it open.
Stellenberg sold one board to a pinball hobbyist, then another, then another. Homebrew was born. In 2012, he formed the corporation Multimorphic, anchored by the new P3 board (a successor to the P-ROC) and would later sell a board to a top tournament player named Keith Elwin (arguably “the LeBron James of pinball”) who homebrewed a game called Archer, based on the animated TV series.
“Our whole dream is for some pinball manufacturer to say, ‘Hey, I want to build your game.”
People loved Archer. It soon caught the eye of a legend in the space, George Gomez, the head creative at Stern. Gomez remembers seeing that homebrew and thinking, “This kid’s got it.” Stern hired Elwin. He is now one of the most respected designers in the industry, creating games for the masses. Homebrew became the commercial brew.
Elwin’s ascension to Stern is an inspiration to Kaiser, McQuaid, and the other homebrewers who lugged their games to the expo. (McQuaid calls his game his “physical résumé” — a way to showcase his talents.) “Our whole dream is for some pinball manufacturer to say, ‘Hey, I want to build your game,’” says Ed Owens, a 40-year-old from central Wisconsin who’s brought along his homebrew based on Ghost in the Shell. (“The anime, not the live film,” Owens is quick to clarify.)
But the homebrewers have a more immediate goal. Their games were built during the pandemic, and for the most part, they have not been seen or played by anyone in the outside world. Now the homebrewers are here at the expo to unveil their creations, to share their secrets, to impress the pinball luminaries, and to see if their games can survive the slapping palms of thousands of highly caffeinated pinball nuts.
And then there’s a final prize: At the end of the weekend, the expo will announce the winner of the Best Homebrew, as voted by the attendees. Could one of them be the next Keith Elwin?
On day one of the Expo, the line stretches back so far that it snakes through four hallways. One guy’s bowling shirt says “Losing at life, winning at pinball.” Ironic slogans are everywhere, including the glummest arcade sign you will ever see: “Feeling sad and ugly? Buy a pinball, and just feel ugly.”
The velvet rope lifts. The crowd floods into a gaming center of 400 pinball machines, and most head to the glittering new games from Stern, like The Mandalorian and Godzilla (the latter designed by Elwin himself). The Stern gaming area is decorated with plush red carpet, a not-so-subtle reminder of their industry dominance.
At the very back wall of the expo, next to a shuttered concession booth, is the line of homebrews. The first one you’ll see is Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball, by McQuaid. (McQuaid arrived at the expo a day earlier than most, and he picked a plum spot.)
The game is slick and polished. It has the bright blue Sonic artwork that I remember from my childhood, it blasts cheery Sonic music, and an LCD screen shows clips from the original game. (As there is no commercial use — yet — the homebrewers don’t worry about copyright violations.)
A guy starts to play Sonic. McQuaid cheers him on, providing running commentary like “You hit the jackpot!” McQuaid is a natural showman. He wears a bright blue Sonic T-shirt and a Sonic face mask.
“I play a lot of pinball,” a player says to McQuaid. “This is an outstanding game.”
“Tell everyone!” McQuaid says. “Tell everyone to hire me! That’s why I’m here. I’m good at this. I’m not good at IT — and that’s my job.”
McQuaid has been a Sonic superfan since childhood. He also plays competitive pinball. He felt it was absurd that Sega, which once made 19 pinball games, never made one for Sonic, its flagship character. “It drove me crazy,” he says. “Mario got two pinball machines. Sonic doesn’t have one.” He speaks with real passion in his voice, as if this injustice is our nation’s defining problem.
Some of the pinball enthusiasts glance at McQuaid’s Sonic, some play it, some just keep on walking. Some stop to play Metroid, a game designed by homebrewer Mark Seiden, who has already been hired by Jersey Jack. (Proof that the Elwin dream is in play.) Most of the gamers — even in this pinball-savvy crowd — have no idea how many countless decisions go into the creation of these machines.
Consider the very rules of the game. “As a game designer, I should assume that the player is not going to read the rule card,” explains McQuaid. He needs to build in cues so that you learn to play it by feel. For example, when your ball hits the spinners, Sonic runs faster on the large LCD screen. After you do this a few times, you realize that the spinners act like a turbo button, so you shift your focus to the spinners to rack up points.
Today’s players expect more than blinking lights and noise; there should be stories, choices, and a flow to the game.
That’s just one aspect of game design. To outsiders, pinball looks like you just slam your hands on the flippers and hope for the best. And that kind of simple gameplay is essentially how pinball started in its origins as “bagatelle” in the time of King Louis XVI, when you used a cue stick to sink the ball on a tilted wooden table. (Flippers were introduced in 1947, in a game called Humpty Dumpty.) Today’s players expect more than blinking lights and noise; there should be stories, choices, and a flow to the game.
Flow is crucial. Take the case of Motor City Taxi, by Matt Benzik, who considers his game a “spiritual successor” to Crazy Taxi, the goofy arcade game that he loved as a kid. Benzik wanted to create a game that proudly showcases the treasures of his hometown of Detroit, hoping it might improve the city’s brand. But to pull off this kind of game — or any modern pinball game — you need a coherent story.
“I’m a story-driven type,” says Benzik, a 29-year-old with a short, dark beard. “I want the game to tell you a story and walk you through all of my modes.” The “story” of Motor City Taxi hews to the mission of Crazy Taxi: as a cabbie, you pick up passengers and deliver them to iconic Detroit locations like the Joe Lewis fist sculpture, Campus Martius Park, and the Detroit Art Institute.
It’s simple in theory, tricky in design. Benzik and the homebrewers need to consider “game balancing” — how hard should each shot be, and how do you activate the different modes? For example, to drop off a customer in the game’s harder levels, you need to shoot the right scoop (a curved target). But that scoop, which pops up and down, is only visible to the player for a short window of time. Should the window be two seconds? Three? Five?
This question of calibration is crucial, as it guides the flow of the game and makes it easy or hard. There are hundreds of decisions like this for every game.
And if you’re not sure of the best design option? Benzik shares a secret known by pinball designers for decades: “When in doubt, throw in a multi-ball.”
Since Stern releases three games per year, a single dud can be disastrous; this is why it sticks with brands that have built-in audiences.
“It’s really hard to get something that’s brand new and make a story out of it,” says Jack Guarnieri, the founder of Jersey Jack (the second-biggest manufacturer), whose most popular titles are The Wizard of Oz, Guns N’ Roses, and Willy Wonka. “You need to get titles that work all around the world.”
Tanner Petch, a 27-year-old artist enrolled in University of Buffalo’s Masters of Fine Arts program, has no such constraints. He could let his imagination romp. Petch didn’t just bring a homebrew game to the expo — he brought three.
They’re more art installation than arcade. In the minimalist game Sinkhole (modeled after the wooden pinball games before 1950), the entire pinball machine actually tilts away from you — unlike every other game — and is inspired by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who, as Petch says, “questions the things you don’t know you know.”
Connecting the dots: Pinball players instinctively know that games tilt toward them, but they’re not consciously aware of this knowledge — until Sinkhole compels them to consider it. In another of Petch’s games, Trashland, a group of mutants lives in an endless dump. “They’re followers of Epicurus,” Petch explains, “trying to get to a state of no pain.”
Then there’s the provocative content of Kaiser’s film, Popcorn Landfill, about two slacker friends who have a wild night that involves badminton, cocaine, sexual fantasies, and public urination. For his adapted pinball game, you access different movie scenes by entering different modes — hitting the side targets, then the left orbit, will unlock the “Donkey Tilt Disco Dance Off.” Left pop bumper, right scoop, middle scoop will reveal “Urination Station.”
Stern can’t take this kind of risk. Kaiser can. He had lost his appetite for the film festival circuit (“kind of a scam”) and thought that building a pinball machine could bring more attention to the film… or maybe the film could bring eyeballs to his pinball game?
Kaiser makes a living as a driver — sometimes he drives buses, other times he hauls caskets. It took Kaiser two years to build Boys Night Out; in the second year he worked an average of 30 to 60 hours a week, with the game his full-time focus. It cost Kaiser at least $4,000, and “probably closer to $5,000.” (The COVID unemployment checks helped.)
Kaiser tries not to watch while someone plays Boys Night Out — he doesn’t want to stare — but he’s eagerly listening for sounds that will tell him whether they activated any movie modes, like “Good Times” (the coke scene). This has the air of an art gallery opening, where the artist pretends to ignore the people admiring their work.
“This blows me away,” says one veteran player, in awe, after trying out another homebrew called Greek Gods. This was built by Dr. Coleman Martin, an athletic, crisply bearded, 53-year-old neurologist from Kansas City, Missouri. He treats aneurysms. Every morning, before going to the hospital, he woke up at 5 a.m. to work on his pinball game.
The idea was inspired by his then nine-year-old daughter, who adored the Olympians books from George O’Connor. His daughter drew all the game’s artwork on an iPad; his 18-year-old son was in charge of the game’s layout.
Daughter, son, and doctor teamed up to give the players of Greek Gods a delightful surprise. When you lose your final ball — if your score is high enough — you can “redeem your soul” in the game’s underworld. The underworld is a tiny, second pinball game at the very bottom of the machine. You play this mini game-within-a-game, and if you win it you are “resurrected” and rewarded with another ball.
And Martin has another trick. On the vertical front panel of Greek Gods, near where you’d insert quarters, there’s a large blue button the size of an orange. The button isn’t meant for your hands. You bump it with your knee. The “knee button” lets you control the board’s slingshots — tight rubber targets that make the ball ricochet — and everyone loves it. “I’ve never seen that in a game before,” says another player, openly geeking out.
When Martin first designed the board’s layout, he noticed that the ball kept getting stuck in a “repetitive cycle” between two slingshots and a pop bumper. “It was really boring,” Martin says. “It just kept bouncing, bouncing, and bouncing.” Thus the knee button. Now people aim for those slingshots, looking to rack up points. As Martin says, “It was a bug that became a feature.”
McQuaid is a fan. He suspects that the knee button is so innovative that the pinball industry will adopt the idea in the next five years. “The knee button needs to be patented,” he says with typical enthusiasm.
Many of the homebrews use hardware from Multimorphic, Gerry Stellenberg’s company; others use boards from a newer competitor, Fast Pinball. (Fast Pinball’s creator, Aaron Davis, neatly sums up the appeal of homebrew: “It’s like a STEM class in a box. Every discipline is there, from woodworking to programming.”)
The homebrewers also use new software platforms, Mission Pinball and Skeleton, which make the coding less daunting. “They basically take all the hard coding that takes years and years of learning, and they dumb it down,” says McQuaid. “All you need to learn is shorthand, a kind of pinball-y language.” Multimorphic, Fast Pinball, Mission, and Skeleton. Every homebrewer uses some combination of these four solutions.
All of them except one.
Rolando Martin, 55, a Canadian originally from Argentina, went one step further than the others: He built a faithful recreation of a classic 1980s pinball game, Black Knight, without the aid of any of the new hardware or software components. The motivation was partly to save money, but mostly to prove a point — that it could be done. He craved the intellectual challenge.
“I’m really good with computers,” says Martin (no relation to the Dr. Martin of Greek Gods). “So I thought, ‘How about I make a machine that will make a machine?’”
So Martin, a software consultant who has a background in electrical engineering, built a CNC (computer numerical control) that he used to cut pieces of plastic, wood, and aluminum with precision. This took 18 months. And instead of using the interfaces of “pinball-y language,” Martin built a network of seven cheap microcomputers to meticulously execute every instruction for the 66 LED lights and the 20 solenoids. He used a 3D printer to make custom plastic parts.
Holding up the guts of his machine, Martin proudly points out each of the components and computers. “A Multimorphic board” — Stellenberg’s invention – “costs $175,” he says, “but this Raspberry Pi costs $60.”
As the expo goes on, however, the crowds tend to overlook Black Knight. Martin might have done his job too well. His recreation is so faithful, so identical to the original, that it looks like a simple fix-up of an old machine.
“I’m not sure people know it was built from scratch,” Martin says almost to himself, a bit surprised. It seems like he’s just now grasping that his brilliance is hidden under the hood, lost on the casual and even the competitive gamer. I find myself pulling for Martin, as his game is even more quixotic than the others — with nothing shiny on the surface to show for it.
And then, on day two, the unthinkable: Black Knight stops working. While a crowd gathers to play Sonic and Greek Gods and the other homebrews, Martin, his face grim, carefully removes the glass from the top of the game, hoists up the playfield, and inspects the jumbled nest of cables and wires.
The rest of the games keep chiming and buzzing and humming with life. (“You hit the jackpot!” McQuaid says again.) Martin takes out a soldering iron and begins emergency surgery.
His own maverick brilliance could doom the machine.
Soon he spots the culprit: a cable jostled loose during transit and a few transistors burnt. (It’s unclear if the one caused the other.) The good news is that he brought spares, the bad news is that he’s not sure if he has enough.
The Pinball Expo, with all of its many vendors and suppliers, is the best place on the planet to find replacement parts. But because Martin had such a purist vision to build his game from scratch — shunning the industry-specific parts that would make the job easier — none of the expo’s spares would work. His own maverick brilliance could doom the machine.
The repair work is agonizing. Now Kaiser, McQuaid, and a few of the other homebrewers quietly watch Martin’s plight. They feel for him.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Kaiser.
“It’s a shame,” says McQuaid, “as he was giving a talk the next day on how to build a pinball machine from scratch.”
The guys are all concerned, and yes, they’re all guys. Roughly 80 percent of the expo crowd is male. Of the dozen homebrewers who brought their games to the Expo, all 12 are men (and most of them appear to be white). This gender gap dates back to the open sexism of the game’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, when games like Gorgar featured cleavage-heavy artwork.
“Another huge issue is being hit on — and being ‘pin-splained,’” says Deborah Tahlman, who’s running the expo’s tournament and was here until 2 a.m. the night before. She speaks quickly, in between sips from an energy drink.
Pre-COVID, Tahlman was the No. 10 ranked woman player in the world. She plays in over 20 tournaments per year. But dude after dude would pin-splain. As Tahlman describes it, “There’s nothing worse than just doing your own thing, playing your own game, and some guy who thinks you’re cute comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, hit that skill shot and you’ll get eight million points.’”
But she thinks the game is getting more inclusive. The majority of her tournament volunteers are women, and she says, “There are now more women’s teams and more women’s tournaments.”
After speaking with Tahlman I head back to the homebrews, and I notice something different about the lineup: Black Knight has roared back to life. Martin has done it. “A few transistors burned, but I had spares for everything,” Martin tells me, shrugging, as if nothing was at stake.
McQuaid gives him a fist bump. Martin’s panel would proceed as scheduled.
During an expo seminar from the manufacturer American Pinball, the homebrewers are informed of a surprise: the American Dream Competition. The competition is simple. Next year, at Pinball Expo 2022, American Pinball pledges to manufacture one of the homebrew games. (“There’s no way they’d ever pick mine,” Kaiser later says, aware that it’s the least family-friendly game on the planet.)
Such rewards aside, every homebrewer tells me that the creation itself — the hundreds of hours of welding, coding, sawing, wiring — was its own kind of payoff. You could even call it therapy.
McQuaid found that focusing on this hyper-demanding task — or really a series of 4,761 tasks — can sharpen the mind, snap his world into focus, and even induce a kind of mindfulness. That helped him during lockdown, and it helped him get through a divorce.
“If I was feeling upset, I would just go pour all my energy into this,” says McQuaid. “You can’t have unhealthy rebound relationships when you say, ‘No, not now, I have to get this game done. I don’t have time for a date. I don’t have time to download Tinder.’”
On the final night of the conference, McQuaid takes a rare break from manning his Sonic game, and sits down for an actual dinner. He gets a call from Rob Berk, the expo’s organizer. Berk asks him to return to the expo. Uh oh. McQuaid hoofs it back to the pinball machines, worried that Sonic has caught on fire. Instead Berk hands him a plaque: Best Homebrew.
McQuaid is still waiting for that call from Stern, Jersey Jack, or any of the other pinball manufacturers. But now he has a new goal: Pinball Expo 2022.
Building Sonic consumed nearly two years of his life. So when McQuaid first heard about the American Dream Competition, he panicked and thought, “Oh God, can I build a new game in a year?!”
He decided he can. And he’s starting now.