MERTHYR TYDFIL, South Wales -- In a world in which most young people are more familiar with pinball apps than the real thing, Andrew Heighway has made it his mission to change that. The 41-year-old entrepreneur, and head of Heighway Pinball here, is priming his first flipper game for the coin-op market, and a new generation of players.
Called Full Throttle, Heighway's first pin game is not your traditional one-off. It's designed on a platform that supports the creation of new games, which in turn streamlines operations and product marketing. Hardware and software for the Heighway game are engineered to be updated regularly with new themes to keep the gameplay fresh. The playfield, backglass and game software can all be changed out on location to provide a new pinball experience. A changeover, according to Heighway, should take only 10 to 15 minutes.
In this regard, Heighway's business model is based on selling two products -- basic machine cabinetry and additional games for those units. Heighway hardware can be installed on site and stay there for years, while key components, like the playfield, can be replaced, eliminating the need for costly game rotations. This is not unlike the basic concept behind countertops or jukeboxes, which regularly receive refreshed content and stay on locations for years. Heighway said the success of his pinball business model will rely on steady releases of new games. The new pinball company plans to release three games annually, some built on licensed properties.
Full Throttle's motorcycle racing theme provides a fast-paced pinball experience. The player takes on the role of a racing hero who uses his or her pinball skills to master several playfield challenges. The machine plays a tutorial to help players understand the game's features and rules.
If Heighway's concept for pinball sounds familiar, it should. In the late 1990s, WMS Industries released Pinball 2000, a hybrid flipper and video game in which games could be swapped; Revenge From Mars (Bally) was the first title. However, WMS pulled the plug on its pinball division on Oct. 25, 1999, not long after the second game in the 2000 series, Star Wars Episode I (Williams), was released. "The industry widely recognized this system as having been a major step forwards, but it never had the time to prove itself," Heighway said. "So, we looked at the WMS system in detail and came up with what we believe to be an even easier and better one."
THE LOST GENERATION
"I believe pinball lost itself to a generation of players by standing still and not evolving, while the potential playing public moved on," said Heighway. "Pinball machines have basically remained unchanged for the past couple of decades due to lack of competition in the sector, lack of investment in new technologies and other reasons. It should come as no surprise that pinball is seen as a retro activity in most people's minds."
Heighway hopes Full Throttle will change all that. Heighway is offering two screen versions for its games. Standard models will have a 10.4" LCD embedded into the playing surface. Deluxe models, due later this year, will have a 46" transparent screen that resides over the playfield surface and below the top glass. With images and video appearing and disappearing during play, the transparent screen will reportedly provide truly immersive experience. But core gameplay remains true to tradition with plenty of ramps and drop targets. The digital technology, Heighway explained, is intended to enhance traditional play, not replace.
"Although the core pinball experience is the same -- humans have a fascination with challenging the laws of physics by attempting to control a heavy steel ball at breakneck speeds -- it can be enhanced by using new technologies," he said. "Display technology like transparent screens creates an immersive experience for players by putting amazing graphics right in front of them in a new, cutting-edge way.
Heighway's pinball design is also taking on service issues that have plagued pins in the past. He said that pinball is perceived as being unreliable for operators, particularly those with limited mechanical abilities. "We have improved aspects of the pinball machine to make it more reliable and easy-to-service, even by non-skilled people."
For instance, pinball machines have wiring looms, sometimes using a cable length of a half-mile. Snagged or broken wires and dry solder joints are common problems that can impact reliability. The Heighway machine, on the other hand, uses modern connectivity components that efficiently daisy-chain power and data throughout the playfield.
All of the machine's major components are designed with modularity in mind, too. For example, flipper assemblies, traditionally a tricky mechanism to fix and adjust, have been simplified: unplug a connector, undo four nuts, drop out the old mech and replace it with a new one. And the Heighway game incorporates inductive switches, which replace less reliable microswitches that need contact wires poking through holes in the playfield. Multicolored RGB LEDs also feature prominently in the game.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the new concept. Originally, Heighway was set to debut the new machine with an ancient Greek theme featuring the enchantress Circe from Homer's "The Odyssey." The concept may have been original, even mythical, but it didn't register with the market. "Circe's Animal House was a fun, light-hearted game, set in a bar with a twist of Greek mythology," Heighway said. "We were at an advanced stage with the game, but after talking to operators, we decided that the theme was not universal enough for a first release."
Responding to the market, Heighway went back to the drawing board and came up with the conventionally themed Full Throttle. "It was better to have a theme that would be understood globally, especially in foreign-language markets. Our first game targets the male, 16 to 50 years old. Future games will target different demographics." (the Circe game is not dead, and remains on hold.)
FOR FANS, BY A FAN
It could be said that Heighway comes by his love of pinball honestly. "I have played videogames and pinball machines all of my life, but I didn't truly get into pinball until my early 20s, in the early 1990s, when it boomed in the UK -- as it did globally," he said. "After three years of playing games, I purchased my first game, Rollergames (Williams Electronics, 1990), which I still own today. Over the next 10 years, I owned a few different games, but it wasn't until I moved to Ireland in my early 30s that I got into pinball in a big way."
Heighway noticed that pinball activity in Ireland was almost nonexistent. Having become proficient at maintenance, he started buying, selling and repairing games for the Irish market. Naturally, he added operations to his budding pinball services. His business eventually reached the UK, where his company became a leading supplier of machines.
When the UK Pinball Show folded four years ago, Heighway stepped into the void with his own show, the UK Pinball Party. "The whole show is under one roof -- at a four-star hotel in Daventry, Northamptonshire," he said. "It is now one of the biggest pinball shows, if not the biggest, in Europe."
Not surprisingly, Heighway plans to merge a social media element into his games. "Pinball needs to join the 21st century," he said. "To attract new players it is necessary to give them a product with which they can identify, and one that uses technology they recognize. A successful pinball product must fit into the player's lifestyle."
By putting pinball online, players can share their flipper experiences in their social networks, alerting friends and other pin fans about what games they're playing and their scores, and where they are. It's possible such information can become viral and lead to other people seeking out these locations to share in the experience. This may prove good news for locations and operators, and even better news the overall health of pinball. Networked machines can potentially allow players to challenge each other in different locations, and even different countries, by webcam links.
"In the near future, players will be able to create profiles online and the games will be able to recognize them via their smartphones, pin codes or text messaging," Heighway said. "We are exploring ways in which payments can also be made online or via smartphones to allow players without coins in their pockets to play pinballs. After their games, scores will be updated to local, national and global high-score tables."
Heighway believes there is still growth potential for the right pinball product. "Fresh ideas, technology and a new approach to operating pinball can spark a revival," he said. "Operators want equipment that is reliable, easy-to-service and makes them money. Players want a product that they can relate to, excites them, embraces technology and fits into their social lifestyle -- and it has to be fun. Our products have been designed with these factors in mind."