For more than a year, a new small-scale pinball manufacturer has been secretly beavering away in their office in the city of Cardiff in South Wales, designing and building their first game.
With little-to-no outside knowledge of their efforts they have been spared the distractions of having to produce constant updates and respond to social media comments, and now have their first game ready to show the world. And guess what? They have already built ten of them and you can buy one right now.
Team Pinball is the collaboration of Janos Kiss, Otília Pasaréti and Romain Fontaine.
The three formed JOR Games Limited to design, build and distribute amusement games and accessories, with the Team Pinball brand used for their home-grown pinball products.
The first product is a modern take on an EM-style single-level game, entitled The Mafia.
The two-flippered game features a central spinner, a captive ball, two orbit lanes, three pop bumpers, three top rollover lanes, four bottom rollovers, five standup targets, LED lighting throughout and a 10.1″ LCD display in the backbox.
To find out more about both the game and the people behind it, Pinball News visited the JOR Games office in Cardiff and interviewed Janos, Otília and Romain.
We began by asking how the three of them joined together.
Janos explained, “Naturally it was pinball that brought us together. It is not just simply that we love playing pinball, but we always wanted to design and make our own games. It is so exciting to see our sketches come to life and then join people’s collections or arcades!”
That might seem premature, but the three all have experience of pinball manufacturing and their names might be familiar to anyone following the fortunes of another south Wales pinball maker. They all worked together at Heighway Pinball for several years until leaving to form their new venture.
Otília told us how they came up with a name for the business. “When we established the company in 2016 we considered many alternative names. Then, one day Romain came up with this idea to use our initials and we all liked it. So JOR stands for Janos-Otília-Romain, and it is brilliant as it means us – the Team.”
Given the fortunes of their former employer in the years after they left, Pinball News asked the trio what lessons they learned from their time at Heighway Pinball. Otília said, “It was understandable that this question would come up at some point and I am glad that it did right at the beginning. We learned that we shared a common passion about designing games and that we can work effectively together as team players. We also learned that you have to learn how to walk before you can run.”
Learning how to walk includes not relying entirely on their pinball business to pay their day-to-day expenses. All three have full-time jobs which have enabled them to work on developing The Mafia in their own time and at their own pace. Janos is a software engineer, Otília works as a self-employed I.T.-trainer and accountant, while Romain is a freelance engineer.
From their office in Butetown, Cardiff, the three have designed the game’s software and hardware, specified and ordered the parts, and have recently completed the build of the first ten machines. Now they are finished, the team are ready to reveal them to the world.
Janos told us, “We kept the development secret because we wanted to build the first run of ten machines before going public. That means we have already done the majority of the research and development by now. Doing everything ourselves was challenging, but every time we completed a stage it gave us the motivation to get to the next level.”
Giving your first release the theme and title of The Mafia could be seen as limiting your target market, but Otília says the team was strongly behind the choice. She told us, “We had many alternatives ideas, but this was the one we all fell in love with after looking at the initial drawings. If I remember correctly Janos came up with the Mafia theme, but we have modified his original ideas using our combined input.”
Developing a new game from a new manufacturer always takes time – usually far, far longer than anyone involved expects. Romain gave us the timeline for the development of The Mafia. “After the initial chats about the theme which took a few months, the actual design and build – to get the first complete prototype – was around 1.5 years. From that point to get where we are today with ten machines lined-up, came to approximately 2 years. As already explained, we have our ‘normal life’ jobs and were working on this project in our free time – after work, at weekends, as well as spending some holidays (such as last Christmas) in our workshop.“
Although the three all had their respective areas of expertise during game development, they are keen to stress how they worked together to solve any problems which arose. Romain explained their roles. “The main responsibilities are; Janos – software development, Otília – operations manager, and myself (Romain) – electronics and mechanical engineering. The assembly involved the three of us plus some family members who came over for a few days to give us a hand! A big thanks to them! The project was founded and self-funded by the three of us, so once again it was a genuine team effort to get to this stage.”
While software, hardware and project management are vital, they are not the only skills needed to produce a full-featured game. So, we asked Otília who else worked on The Mafia. She told us, “The playfield layout was originally designed by Balint Ats, and then refined by the team as we spent days and nights looking through dozens of drawings to reach a game concept that we all loved. The art – including the decal set, the backglass art and animations – was created by Attila Szabo, graphic and visual artist (ATALOGY). The main music is composed by an American studio, Moonwalk Audio with voice calls by Jason Howe, while most of the sound effects were made by Balint Ats our game designer who shows off his talents in many different ways!”
According to Janos, the ten games are complete from the hardware build perspective but, “We are constantly developing the software and we keep testing to ensure that they are going to be working reliably for our customers. You can expect regular software updates over the coming months.”
It’s a crowded market for new pinball machines at the moment, with several recent entrants and more poised to produce their first titles. What, we asked, makes Team Pinball’s game stand out from the rest. Janos explained, “The Mafia pinball is a single-level game, offering a classic pinball experience to the many without sacrificing the fun of the game. It has a simple, easy to explain ruleset which makes it easy to understand and fun to play, even for novice players. Additionally, each machine is a unique piece of art with hand drawn cabinet, backglass and playfield artwork. The factory-fitted playfield protector is reverse-printed and easy to clean or change. The 10.1” LCD display is fully integrated into the backglass art and features an ever-changing newspaper.”
Producing small quantities of machines denies any manufacturer the benefit of quantity discounts, while building the games in the UK also means none of the cheap labour rates available in other parts of the world. However, the team think the suggested retail price of £6,750 in the UK ($8,785/€7,544 including 20% sales tax, $7,500 in the US) reflects the boutique, hand-built nature of the machines and the limited number they plan to make.
Romain told Pinball News, “The Mafia pinball will be made-to-order, and a small number will be produced each month. It is a de-facto collectible game. The total number of production games that will ever be produced is limited to 100 units. We will take into account the response of the community in the weeks following the launch, and we hope people will be as excited as we are about this new game!”
Meanwhile, Janos told us who he thinks the game is aimed at, and why they should be interested in buying it. He said it will appeal to, “everybody who loves pinball! Our game is an entry level machine with hand-drawn art across the cabinet and on the screen, and original – composed for the game – music giving an authentic pinball experience. We believe this game is bringing something new, something fresh to the market, a game designed by enthusiasts for enthusiasts! The Mafia pinball is designed to be operator-friendly – it is manufactured with standard pinball parts such as WMS flipper and pop bumper mechanisms. The control system uses a single IO board and runs on a Raspberry Pi computer.”
The fact that the game runs on a small single-board computer made us want to know more about the hardware inside the game. As the hardware engineer for The Mafia, Romain was happy to provide more details. “The platform is composed of a Raspberry Pi 3 and a single electronic board (R-board) with through-hole components. The Raspberry Pi 3 runs the game software and interfaces with the machine through the R-board. All the switches are direct switches, they are connected to the R-board and scanned a thousand times every second. The CPU will send responses to the solenoids in less than 3 milliseconds giving sharp feedback and a no-lag experience for the player. The game comes with full RGB LEDs which are also controlled by the CPU. A 12V PSU and a 48V transformer are used for the electronics and the solenoids respectively.”
Controlling that hardware is the Raspberry Pi running a bespoke operating system. Software designer Janos explained. “For the software we are using a custom-built Linux called JOS. The software stack has been designed from scratch and is written in C++ to guarantee the best performance.”
Janos says that the operating system is not currently open to modification by users wanting to write their own rules or modifications, although he doesn’t rule it out in the future.
The Mafia will be available from several distributors who will also provide support and service for the game. Otília explained, “At an early stage we made the decision to work with distributors and we have already contacted them prior to our launch. As you will see on our website, we have distributors set-up in Europe and North-America as well. We feel it is a privilege to get the opportunity to use the already-existing network of distributors across the world. I would like to take the chance here and say ‘thank you’ for all the feedback and shared enthusiasm from the people we have been working with, and also to our friends and family members who have helped us during this exciting journey.”
The team’s plan is to sell the first ten machines to distributors, as they feel this would give the opportunity for a wider audience to experience the game. Beyond that, they intend to make the machines to demand in small runs of ten-to-fifteen units. Taking the lead time into consideration, they think building the first production batch will take ten-to-twelve weeks. “The waiting list may become quite long“, they say, “and we would advise people to contact their distributor sooner rather than later to be at the top of that list“.
Those first ten games will also be special enhanced “Founders Edition” machines to commemorate the establishment of the Team Pinball brand and the release of their very first product. These machines will feature a numbered plaque and come with an additional selection of special goodies. While most of the ten Founders Edition machines have been pre-sold to distributors, a couple may still remain for the collector purists out there who are quick off the mark.
As far as providing technical support to game buyers, the team are providing a mix of assistance from themselves and their distributors.
Romain said, “We will be in regular contact with our distributors to get their feedback on the game and give them the information and parts they may need to support our game. It is our duty to handle support the best way possible, and we trust our distributors to provide support for the products they are selling to ensure a fast and timely response to our customers.”
Meanwhile, Otília stresses how the use of commonly-available components and supplied bespoke spares will help buyers keep their games running. She said, “We are going to provide replacements for all the custom parts, and each machine will be shipped with a number of spare plastics. The single IO PCB uses standard components mounted on sockets, whereas the popular Raspberry Pi 3 is running the game software. These components are freely available and ensure the game’s technical longevity.”
Speaking of longevity, is the team working on their second title? “Absolutely!”, says Janos.