Columbia manufacturer to build interactive pinball machine

Saturday, July 19, 2014 | 4:47 p.m. CDT; updated 5:58 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2014
Von Davis works on the Pinball Gremlins machine at his workshop.

COLUMBIA — Von Davis got the idea for the central character of a modern pinball machine he is creating while repairing old ones. Working for a pinball repair and sales company, he thought of the problems he constantly fixed as gremlins in the machines.

Davis, who graduated from MU in mechanical engineering, teamed with Wes Upchurch, who owns Gunther's Games in downtown Columbia, to form Vonnie D Pinball, an independent pinball manufacturer. They are in the middle of a fundraising campaign through crowdfunding website Kickstarter to build Pinball Gremlins.

By merging old-school aspects such as orbits and ramps with newer features such as interactivity and LCD screens, they hope to please people who play pinball and attract those who don't.

"We're hoping that our game will help show people there is more to pinball than just flipping the flippers and keeping the ball in play," Davis said.

One of the modern touches is Pinball Gremlins will detract from your score.

"This panel will actually have a random generator which will deduct points," Davis said. "So if you hold the ball waiting to do a shot, you could be losing more points than if you would have just attacked it right away."

Upchurch said that as with video games, the new machine will play against the player like in a video game.

"As you go through different stages, various gremlin modes are fighting back against you," Upchurch said. "They're kind of taking over control of different components of the game like the flippers or the pop bumpers."

Some obstacles include "Lights Out" and "Gremlin Attack" "Lights Out" features a gremlin pulling out the power; the player, now faced with only dim lights on the machine, must hit the power switch target to turn on the lights again. In "Gremlin Attack," gremlins try to interfere with your play as you attempt to make shots.

Another distinct aspect of Pinball Gremlins is its original theme. Most pinball machines use movie licenses, which may be costly and restricting, Upchurch said. Having an original theme allows freedom and flexibility during machine creation, he said, and it appeals to the pinball community, which wants something fresh.

"A company that's been around for years, they don't want to take a risk on it," Upchurch said. "They have a safe bet and a safe pattern on what they want to do. For us, we really have nothing to lose."

Vonnie D Pinball has until Friday to raise $100,000 through the Kickstarter campaign. As of July 18, $35,707 had been pledged from 45 backers.

As with other Kickstarter campaigns, people who donate can get rewards, including such things as Vonnie D T-shirts and key chains, a poster of the Pinball Gremlins and, for contributions of $10,000 or more, a limited-edition, gold-trimmed Pinball Gremlins machine.

If the Kickstarter goal is met, the money will go toward factory manufacturing of the machine. Davis and Upchurch are in the midst of making the prototype. They plan to test the games in several locations to make sure their code is running smoothly and to get feedback from players and store operators.

If they cannot meet their goal, the Kickstarter money already pledged will not be given to them and supporters will not be billed. Upchurch said they will show the prototype in trade shows for people to pre-order, but it will take them a longer time to get their pinball machines to customers.

They plan to keep the price of the machines under $7,500, which they say is similar to other pinball manufacturing companies. The store operators set how much it costs for each player to play a game.

Aaron Geiger, who plays pinball at Gunther's Games, said younger people might not be into pinball machines because of they lack electronics. He thinks Vonnie D's project has potential to become successful.

At another game nearby, Maria Jones agreed and called the project novel.

Upchurch said that since he opened Gunther's, he has realized how important pinball is to some people.

"Pinball cannot be replicated on a video device," Upchurch said. "To create something that you know your hands were on from start to finish and it's going to last for generations is something that's important. Whereas a video game that's out today, it's essentially going to be depreciated 10 years from now. There's not that long of a life on video games."

Davis loves the experience of playing pinball.

"You can have one game that you just could not hit, or the ball kept draining," Davis said. "But you could have some games where you play for hours for just three balls. The thrill of actually hitting that shot when you need to, it's beyond anything I ever felt in my life." 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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