The Pinball Assistant

There is still few exchange between the dedicated pinball community that focusses on physical tables and casually interested people who know pinball primarily through software of the likes of “Pinball Arcade”, “ZEN Pinball” or older video pins. This is a situation that doesn’t need to be that way though: It’s great to get people outside the scene excited to try real playing pinball because it’s easy for them to understand and something physical that people tend to love in a more and more digitally connected world. Pinheads on the other hand can learn something about not taking oneself to seriously and keeping an open mind by trying out new things. Sometimes, for instance, it’s interesting what pinball related things you find when you search through smartphones and tablet app stores.

In a year or so, one of those things might be a special pinball companion app called “The Pinball Assistant”. It’s supposed to be an entertaining and informative support for people approaching pinball machines who have not yet thoroughly studied the information on sites of the likes of Pinball News, IPDB or dedicated pinball web forums. “The Pinball Assistant” is targeted to interested beginners who are enthusiastic about pinball but are still in the early phase of gathering skill and information about the field.

Gerard Vos and Richard van Zijll de Jong, two dutch friends with a background in graphic design, consulting and publishing, now want to make this app a reality. Recently, they started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money that should help them design “The Pinball Assistant”. The Ball is Wild took the opportunity to talk to Richard van Zijll de Jong via e-mail about some details of the project.

Hi Richard! First off, tell me a little bit about yourselves. How long are the two of you playing pinball and what fired your enthusiasm for it?

I think my story is like with most people my age (45). As a kid I played some pinball on vacation in Spain or France. In the mid and late 80ies I played pinball in arcade halls and pubs. After that, I forgot about the game for a long time. I think about five years ago I got a call from my friend and business partner Gerard. He read an article in a newspaper about a pinball association. He went there and summoned (!) me to come with him. The Dutch Pinball Association was housed in a former chicken barn. At the moment I stepped in, I became a member. Since then I play whenever and wherever I can … always with Gerard. We’re like the Laurel & Hardy of pinball … although I’m not sure who is who.

Being or stepping in a community with a good friend is a great thing because you usually talk about your shared experiences more often and reflect on the dynamics of the respective scene. So Gerard and you came up with the idea of the “Pinball Assistant” app that should serve as an information companion more than just a dry encyclopedia. Still, what is the main difference between your app and something like the Internet Pinball Database?

I’m happy with this question because I’ve noticed some misunderstandings about what we do and want and what IPDB does. First of all we don’t want to be an encyclopedia. Although not all the data on IPDB is correct, most of the time it’s a very reliable and extensive source of information. We don’t go that far. What we want is to give basic need-to-know facts about any machine: name, manufacturer, year of release, and what kind of machine it is – like SS or EM.

Besides that we will briefly inform you what’s special about the respective pinball machine. There are (little) stories to most machines. Our goal is that when you stand in front of a pinball machine and read about it on our app, you think: “Whoa, that’s really something!”

The third part consists of playing tips and fun tips – like secret modes. The playing tips are not complete manuals but short guides that tell you what you have to do to settle a nice score or to be a little bit more aware of what you’re doing besides shooting at everything that blinks or keeping the ball on the field.

And finally, there’s your personal area inside the app where you can keep your high scores, your personal ratings and comments – and in the future share them with your friends.

Also, a lot of older and special machines are stacked away in databases, never to be seen again. We thought out a way of bringing those machines to the attention of the people – by making them aware or interest them in the great history pinball has to offer and to honor the designers and manufacturers who made them.

We’re also working on some other plans like a competition, but first we need to have our database complete and correct. We’ve heard some concerns from people who think we are plundering sites like IPDB or Pintips etc., but that’s not the case. Our starting point is the massive trilogy “A Magical Machine” from Henk de Jager (well known for his book “Pinball Machine Maintenance”). This book was never published because of copyright issues concerning the pictures. But Henk gave us permission to use his content for our purpose. We cross- and double-check his information with IPDB and other sources. When we are finished we might also give our findings to those websites.

What we offer is a fast, reliable and practical app. We think it will be interesting for experienced as well as for occasional players. There’s a pinball revival going on and as far as machines go, companies like Heighway, Stern and Dutch Pinball are doing their best to keep the game alive and make pinball a modern game again (although I personally really have to get used to the LED lights). We (as non-technicians) want to do our part in this revival.

Your main source of research – “A Magical Machine” by Henk de Jager – already caught my eye when I read the description of your Kickstarter campaign. You mentioned him again now. Can you tell me more about him and the book? Why was it never published? Has the way of how information is edited in this book also influenced you in the creation of your app so far? It seems to me that it’s important to you that the information is never overwhelming and always entertaining.

Henk is, as far as I’m concerned, an authority in the field of pinball. He started in the early 70s as an operator. In 2001 he sold his company. He also manufatured (I think) about seven unique machines. Because of his interest in pinball machines and the history, he collected a huge amount of information and documentation and put it all together to write his book “A Magical Machine”. As I said, it was never published because of copyright issues (or he was afraid he might get them, I’m not sure) concerning the pictures. He did, however, send a version to some of his friends.

Once Gerard was in France in a hotel that has about 20 pinball machines. He talked to the owner, who was a friend of Henk and told Gerard about the book. Gerard started reading it and called me to say that he found a goldmine as he was calling it. Later on, we contacted Henk to meet with him and asked for his permission to use his work for the app we’re planning.

In his book he describes the history of pinball machines and bingos (per year, per manufacturer) in a narrative way. He did it nicely because every development or next step is, of course, a logical consequence of what happened before or will happen. Also, he sometimes pulls in general history to make things clear. On the other hand, he has a very personal style of writing. For example, for every year he chooses his machine of the year.

There are two reasons why it’s important for us to mention Henk. First of all, we don’t want to take the credit for all the work he has done. We just edited it and completed it for our own use – which is a hell of a job, too, but only a fraction of what he has done. Secondly, we want it to be absolutely clear that we don’t steal content. As I said before, there are concerns about that from parties like Papa.org. I understand this initial sceptisicm. But as soon as I heard about it, we contacted IPDB to clear things up.

Again, Henk made a narrative book. What we did is filter every bit of information and turn it into neutral facts – which we cross-checked, if possible. I think with Henk’s book and our database, the biggest part of the content is the same. We did however extend it and also made a list of things we want to discuss with him – concerning facts that are very different compared to what we found at other places.

Never overwhelming and always entertaining … there might be a language issue here but to me entertaining sounds a bit like shallow and that’s not the case. I prefer practical. As I said before, if you want to know everything about a pin (every person involved, rule sheets, how many ramps, bumpers or toys there are in a machine, and want to have a look at the flyers or every angle of the machine) please go to IPDB. The app we are developing will be different, and yes, it will never be overwhelming. We think that a smartphone or a tablet is not suited for too much information at once.

Entertaining wasn’t meant in a derogatory way. How is the app going to support interaction between users? You promised a feature where one can put in his or her scores. Will there be also something like a leaderboard or some other kind of online information that users can share?

There will be a general list of best appreciated pinball machines. I’m a little afraid that it could end up in a list of the usual suspects but we’ll see what happens. Since people don’t rate machines for a general list but purely for themselves, the outcome might be surprising … which is something I hope for.

There will not be a leaderboard of best players. I think it won’t be possible. Maybe people will cheat somehow and fill in fantasy scores and that goes against our goal to design the app as a personal companion.

Another thing is that there are too many variables to implement comparable scores: the amount of balls, if the machine is in competition mode or not, the way outlane posts are set, and so on. That’s one of the fun part about digital games like the Pinball Arcade: Everyone has exactly the same conditions in their competitions. But a digital game is still a digital game albeit it’s a recreation of a physical pinball table.

Sharing information in general and interaction is something we are working on. Not in a web forum kind or way. We have some early plans but it’s pretty complex and the costs of of getting the app live are high enough already at this point. So it will definitely not be available in the first release.

You want to raise over 15.000 Euro with your crowdfunding campaign which is quite a lot for a niche project like a pinball app – however ambitious. It sounds like you both want to work on the app full time until it’s done. What else do you need the money for? Will the app be free or premium? Do the pinball competitions you want to organise for children in the Netherlands (starting from February 2016 as stated in the Kickstarter campaign information) have anything to do with the app project?

You’re right, it’s a lot of money. I’m a graphic designer and Gerard is a strategy consultant. Both our businesses are doing fine but we can not afford to quit those for a while and work on the app full time – not even if part of the Kickstarter money would be for us.

We have been looking for an app developer the past half year. I do a lot of website design and I think I’ve never paid more than a 3.000 to 4.000 euro for the technical development. I was shocked when I contacted several app builders. Without any hesitation they offered prices ranging from 25.000 Euro up to 50.000 Euro with the features we want. This is, like you said, a product for a niche market so prices like that are out of the question. After a long search and with the help of contacts, we found a developer who was willing to do it for a reasonable price and who is, I think, a trustworthy party to work with.

Anyway, none of the Kickstarter money is for us. Aside from the technical development we need some money for getting the app in stores, place some ads to inform people and keep the server running. Gerard and I are investing a lot of time in this project and since it’s a hobby project, we need the app to financially survive by itself. So we will sell some ads inside the app – preferably pinball related so they won’t be too annoying – to cover the costs.

If we don’t raise the money we need, it’s my intention to develop the app anyway but it will take some extra time before that’s possible and I’m not sure if it will be completely free by then. The database will always be free but I can imagine that some features will be locked and can be opened for a small amount of money to cover our financial investment for that specific feature. For now we hope and expect that the Kickstarter will succeed.

About the kids: One of our goals is to preserve the pinball heritage. Most people I know play pinball (or started playing again) because they have good memories of the game. Most children today don’t and since there are few places where you can play pinball today, they maybe never will. With our app we’re trying to do our part in keeping pinball alive but we think that’s not enough. When our generation is gone, we need the next generations to continue playing this game. So that’s why we want to organise kids competitions. Just to make them aware of this fun non-computer game that you can play by yourself or together with others. If we make more money than we need for the app or it’s maintenance, we will “invest” in these events. We do realize that the world is a bit bigger than The Netherlands, so: If successful, we want to organise pinball events for kids in other countries as well, together with local people who support our idea.

The crowdfunding campaign for “The Pinball Project” can be supported until the end of December 31st, 2015.