Pinball machines have traditionally been ‘closed-box’ devices. You play a game, get a great score, but then what? The details are trapped inside the machine’s memory, and if your score isn’t one of the top few, all trace of it is lost the moment the start button is pressed again.
You could take a picture of the display or post a message on social media, but it’s a cumbersome manual process.
Just as with tournaments, where someone has to read the score and manually enter it into another device (without making any mistakes) so it can be processed by the tournament software.
Why, you might wonder, can’t scores, achievements, audits and even faults all be read automatically? An electronic pinball is a computer, after all, with the information all stored in memory. So, couldn’t these details be extracted so that tournament scores can be automatically recorded and progress to the next round calculated, high scores routinely uploaded to a central server, and operators immediately alerted to faults on their machines?
Unfortunately though, digging around in the game’s memory while it is running the game code is likely to be fraught at best, as you try to second-guess where various pieces of information are stored. Fortunately though, all that information is available in a different form – on the display. If you could machine-read that display data, you could get all the information you need.
Well, Spanish company Allplay has developed a hardware-based system to do exactly that. It reads the score, audit and diagnostic information from machine’s display and uses it to track scores, run tournaments and give operators remote information about their machines. It also makes this information available on a second display, and adds a webcam so players in different locations can play simultaneously against each other.
The system is called Pinball House and it was recently demonstrated at the TMAP tournament in Madrid.
Pinball House already works on a range of popular Stern and Williams titles, with more promised according to demand.
The eighteen machines currently supported are:
Addams Family, The
Dracula, Bram Stoker’s
Game of Thrones
Indiana Jones (WMS)
Theatre of Magic
Walking Dead, The
So, what is Pinball House and how does it work?
First of all, there are two versions of Pinball House available. The Home model is, as the name implies, intended for the home pinball machine owner who wants to hold in-house tournaments and keep track of their scores. The Pro model adds multi-site tournaments and gives a range of diagnostic tools to help operators run wide-area competitive events and keep an eye on the condition of their machines.
Whichever version you get, it comes with a hardware controller box which is made of fireproof ABS and sits on the base of the cabinet and plugs into the host machine and the power supply using the cables supplied. The Pinball House system intercepts the display cable to collect its information.
Although Allplay are reluctant to discuss their methods for gathering the data, the machine-specific code suggests they are using character recognition to convert the display image to text which they can then process to create their own score, tournament, audit and diagnostic displays, and save the information into their database. With each game putting the scores in different places on the display and using different fonts, the character-recognition settings would need to be fine-tuned for each title to ensure accuracy.
Pinball House generates its own display and outputs this to a monitor mounted on top of the backbox. The system can be bought either with the recommended monitor or without it if you prefer to add you own. There is also a webcam which is integrated into the supplied monitor but a standalone webcam is provided if you purchase the monitor-less system.
The final wired connection is to a board mounted on the rear of the coin door. This connects to a control pad which players use to navigate the system’s menus, register themselves or make adjustments to the Pinball House settings. There is a companion app which allows you to use your phone to perform these functions instead, if that’s what you prefer. With the Pro version there is also a connection to the game’s start button so this can be enabled or disabled, or a new game started by the Pinball House software.
There is one more connection, but this one is wireless – a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet.
So, once the Pinball House system is installed, what can you do with it?
The first thing is to create an account on the Pinball House servers. This can be done through their website, by using the phone app, or with the system’s monitor and control pad. Once that is done you can log-on before each playing session so that your scores and achievements will be uploaded to the servers and registered against your name. You can also join on-line competitions, leagues and team events, take part in the discussion forum and manage your subscription.
You get an 18-month subscription to the service when you buy the Pinball House system which allows you to host or compete in competitions as well as record your scores and achievements, and access the advanced in-game features, but beyond that you need to pay either €21.95, €35.95 or €59.95 for a 3, 6 or 12 month extension.
With an active subscription, the Home system allows home tournaments played on the single machine in which Pinball House is installed where all the participants are physically playing the same machine. The Pro version extends the tournament across multiple machines in different locations as long as they all have the Pinball House system installed, and also facilitates the creation of various types of leagues., while the webcam allows you to see and communicate with other players taking part in the competition. The Pro model also adds full remote access to the diagnostics and audit information in the game’s menus, using the app to replicate the coin door control buttons and view the display output, and lets an operator upload video clips to be shown on the dedicated monitor.
What does all this hardware and software cost?
Well, it’s not a cheap system but Allplay are reckoning the advanced and exclusive new features help justify the price. The home system costs €669.95 ($782/£585) excluding the monitor but including a webcam, or €765.95 ($896/£673) including the monitor with an integrated webcam. It is planned to sell the monitor-less Home model in the US for around $650, but distributing the version with the dedicated monitor is seen as logistically difficult and expensive. The Pro model pushes the price up to €920 ($1077/£808). All prices include sales tax but exclude shipping.
The system supports four languages – Spanish, English, German and Portuguese – with French and Italian being added soon. Transferring the Pinball House system to a new machine incurs a one-time €49.95 charge for the download of the new code, but transferring it back to a machine which previously had it installed is cost-free.
Perhaps the only feature lacking is the ability to get the data out of the Pinball House system if you wanted to create your own tournament software or share your achievements on social media. Allplay do say they are working on their own social media integration to allow you to post or tweet your scores, awards and tournament results.
For more details about the Pinball House system, take a look at the product’s website.