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The most fundamental element in any pinball playing experience is the playfield design itself. Home to the game’s action, playfield design began as the main challenge of creating a good pin and remains a major element even as software aspects have grown in importance.
Fans of pinball have their preferred styles of gameplay, and that play is driven by the layout. Over the years, many designers have plied their craft, and an element that becomes apparent to players is designers tend to have habits, customs, and preferred elements that carry over from game to game. In other words, designers have unique styles they bring to the table (literally and figuratively). This guide attempts to capture that, on a designer by designer basis.
This guide is in two sections: solid state (SS) era and electromechanical (EM) era. While some designers straddle the line, all being reviewed have been categorized in only one section (as determined by the author). For each listed designer, there are three basic pieces of information provided:
- Designs With: Companies that produced the specific designer’s work (ignoring prototypes/one-offs; the focus is on significant production pins and when the person was a playfield designer versus other roles in the industry).
- Top-Rated Games: Some of the designer’s top-rated games. For SS era designers, the games chosen come from the Pinside rating system as of August 8, 2018 (and only SS games were included for designers listed in the SS section, even if they have highly rated EM pins as well). For EM era designers, the games chosen come from the Internet Pinball Database rating system as of August 8, 2018 (and only EM games were included for designers listed in the EM section, even if they have highly rated SS pins as well).
- Style: A brief discussion of the designer’s style (be it key pinball inventions or generally favored design choices).
This is not comprehensive. Each write-up has been kept short to avoid being overwhelming (this guide is for beginners after all). A number of designers have been left off (due to limited games produced, limited impact on the hobby, low chance of experiencing their games, or just simple oversight), and a lot of specifics on listed designers are avoided. Also remember: designers are not automatons! Some do not really have a repeating style, and those with a style do not always use it (it is simply an approach they seem to return to, be it time-to-time or constantly). The ultimate goal for this guide is to help the reader identify designers that best meet the design aspects they are interested in experiencing (to help identify the appropriate pins to seek out and play).
Solid State (SS) Era
As SS era games are the most commonly owned and encountered by players, it will be the era started with in this guide. Besides the use of electronics, the SS era was defined by less experimentation than in the past, with more established design concepts in play about what players generally expected to experience. As such, styles shine through more in the SS era than they did historically.
Style: Mostly known as an artist, Anghelo does have several playfield design credits (almost always in collaboration with a more experienced designer). Anghelo prioritizes the integration of gameplay with art, and is fond of layouts that incorporate various pinball mechanisms in visual harmony with the artwork on the game.
Style: Balcer is one of those designers that does not appear to really have a particular layout style. As such, he is known for trying radically different design concepts. From fan-style layouts (The Hobbit), multiple playfields (Wizard of Oz), and numerous narrow shots (Houdini Master of Mystery), Balcer revisits some concepts in various games, but not to a degree that any particular element stands out as a favorite to use.
Style: Borg designs often incorporate a bash toy, though the position and nature of the toy does see a lot of divergence from game to game. Borg’s games tend to be flow heavy. His ramp designs are often steep and oriented so only one flipper can usually access them. Borg also has a tendency to employ pop bumpers in positions that place an exiting ball at risk of draining (James Cameron’s Avatar, The Walking Dead, and Jurassic Park are some key examples of this), but he moves them around quite a bit from design to design.
Designs With: Gottlieb
Style: Becoming focused on software later in his pinball career (with Premier specifically), Buras’s playfield designs show a lot of influence from Ed Krynski (Buras, early in his career, engineered pins for Krynski). Buras favors easy-to-understand but hard-to-master gameplay and likes to take advantage of different pinball mechanisms depending on the pin’s particular theme.
Style: While Cebula is a prolific designer, it is difficult to identify any particular style with him, as most design credit he has is shared jointly with others. Designs “by committee” become murky, since without deep knowledge of each game’s particular design process it is unclear where the ideas flow from. Virtually all of Cebula’s Data East designs involve Joe Kaminkow as well. Cebula designs with Game Plan are a mix of collaborative efforts and solo work. Focusing on his Game Plan layouts, Cebula seems to favor the use of a single spinner to access one of the two orbits (which orbit varies by game), and the inclusion of at least one drop-target bank.
Designs With: Bally
Style: Many of the designs could be described as simple on first glance, though they tend to be more challenging to play than the layout suggests. The core element behind this is Christian often relies on wide-open playfields. Christian is also fond of a particular layout of three pop bumpers, where they were fed from top lanes and arrayed in a triangle shape (see Mystic, Frontier, Eight Ball Deluxe, and Beat the Clock for some clear examples of this).
Designs With: Williams
Style: With only three playfield designs at present (he has recently been hired by Stern Pinball to do more design work), it is difficult to identify a predominant overall style. His two most popular games (Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars), are both known as top-notch applications of the fan layout (in which shots are laid out towards the back of the playfield, in a fan-like pattern, with two flippers employed to make all available shots). Eddy’s fan layouts are favored for their flow, along with a center shot seen as risky and involving the main toy of the game.
Style: Some of Fernandez’s games are similar in layout to Steve Ritchie’s designs of the same era (and as Fernandez worked for Williams there have been claims he took some of those designs as a basis and then made his own modifications, namely Flash Gordon versus Black Knight and Skateball versus Flash). Separate from this, Fernandez designs often favor multiple drop-target banks (see Blackout, Spectrum, and Flash Gordon as some key examples).
Style: Most of Gomez’s designs follow a fan layout, but with less of an overall emphasis on flow versus the typical fan designers. While some Gomez shots are flow-oriented, his fan designs also favor a reliance on stand-up targets and/or toys for bashing or other interaction. Gomez also tends to use creative ramp designs (such as unique shapes, bends, movements, or positioning) for visual spectacle rather than spartan or efficient ramps oriented towards quick ball movement.
Style: Kaminkow usually collaborates on designs with at least one other person, so it is not readily possible to identify a style specific to him. Ultimately, Kaminkow is best known for his work on the theme side, specifically securing licenses to popular brands to incorporate into pinball machines.
Style: While Kirk did participate with playfield design in the late 1960s, on those few games he tends to be credited with concept work rather than leading the design efforts. Kirk is best known for his Stern Electronics career, at which point he was a lead designer. Most of Kirk’s games feature two key elements, drop targets and spinners, often arrayed in creative ways. His pins are often attractive to “rip the spinner” fans (those who enjoy games where a major goal is to repeatedly exploit a spinner to score points).
Style: Kmiec designs focus on the player being able to understand gameplay by looking at the playfield. As a fan of innovation, Kmiec tries to place a new toy or feature on many of his games, and tends to favor at least one playfield section where the ball will experience a lot of movement (usually designed in the pop bumper area). He also “signs” his games with a single red post as a sort of easter egg to identify his work. These red posts are designed to take a “dead” rubber ring (such rings have less bounce than regular rubber and were common on bingo pin games).
Style: Lawlor generally lays out a playfield in favor of a stop-and-go playstyle (which often stops the ball and encourages players to take their time by mandating precise aiming skills). Lawlor games also tend to be very toy heavy, and he is fond of implementing eye-catching innovations in his games (Thing on The Addams Family and Rudy on Funhouse are two prominent examples). Lawlor likes to develop mode-based games, and several of his layouts take advantage of double inlanes.
Style: Nordman favors elaborate ramp designs, with swirl elements, wiggles in the shape, or outright up-and-down aspects akin to a roller coaster. Many of Nordman’s games also employ the use of a spinning disc, though his preference is to incorporate it in a contained mechanism or as part of a toy (rather than placing the disc directly on the playfield). Nordman’s designs tend to adhere more to a flow philosophy rather than stop-and-go. Several of his games adhere to a form of party theme, and many of the games reference each other.
Style: As most of Norris’s career was with Gottlieb in the Premier days, his focus in playfield design often involves finding low-cost solutions for interesting gameplay elements (the cue ball in Cue Ball Wizard being perhaps the most famous example). While Norris is credited with a few flow games, the vast majority of his designs are in the stop-and-go style. Norris also works extensively on his games’ rules, and pioneered mode-based play.
Designs With: Gottlieb
Style: Osborne is probably best known for his work in the SS era but did EM designs as well. Osborne favors layouts with more than the standard two flippers (all his solid-state games have at least three). Osborne is also willing to shake up his pop bumper locations, employing dramatically different placements between his various games. He also was the first designer to make use of a tri-level playfield.
Designs With: Williams
Style: Oursler is fond of long ramps that occupy significant space, often sweeping across the playfield (Doctor Who and Hurricane are two excellent examples of this). He also favors designing the outlane section to be significantly more brutal than his peers, and thus his games tend to be good practice for those wanting to learn how to make outlane saves.
Style: Pemberton favors an experimental style, and often deviates from what his peers rely on. Some noteworthy examples would be the use of flex-lane saves (on Hardbody, BMX, and Dungeons & Dragons), reverse outlanes (Fathom), and the magnet ball-save (Goldeneye). His layouts can vary substantially and demonstrate a desire to try new things.
Designs With: Williams
Style: Popadiuk’s games focus on mechanical ball manipulation, with a given shot often having multiple ball paths depending on the current state of the game. His designs tend to rely on heavy ramp use, and those ramps tend to be elaborately designed. Diverters and magnets are a staple of his approach (both on and off the ramps themselves), and he has a fondness for incorporating prominent toys.
Style: Mark Ritchie’s designs often involve long shots, expecting the player to hit particular targets at the top of the playfield from the bottom flippers. He is probably best known for using crisscrossing ramps (such as on Taxi and Fish Tales), but has only done so on a few games. His designs predominantly adhere to the flow style (versus stop-and-go).
Style: The King of Flow, Steve Ritchie is known for layouts featuring fast, aggressive gameplay and smooth-flowing shots. Many of his games are designed to reward achieved shots with a quick return of the ball to the flipper. His designs tend to feature multiple shots that can be made with either primary flipper (for example, backhanding ramp shots) and on-the-fly combos tend to be a layout staple.
Style: Sharpe almost always works collaboratively with other designers (Cyclopes is the only game where he has sole design credit). Sharpe’s designs prioritize allowing the player to easily keep track of the ball while making it relatively clear what the player should be shooting for. Sharpe also favors designs where all needed shots have a reasonable chance of success for the average player.
Style: Now best known for working on the mechanics side (NBA is the only Stern Pinball game he has playfield design credit on), in Gottlieb’s Premier days he did work on a number of playfield designs. Tanzer’s design style is eclectic. His layouts tend to feature radically different pop bumper placements and counts (including none at all), and he is fond of eschewing the fan layout in favor of wildly asymmetrical designs.
Style: Known as Dr. Flash, Trudeau’s design style is defined by avoiding the reuse of his prior design approaches. Trudeau thus tends to have radically different layouts from game to game, due to his desire to try something new. One carryover often encountered, however, is a wider gap between the two primary flippers than his peers employ.
Electromechanical (EM) Era
The focus will be just on flipper pinball, to draw a clear line in the history of pin games. Even with this limitation, there are a lot of designers worth knowing about. It is important to understand that in the EM era the design philosophy was different. There was a higher degree of layout experimentation, and designers are often better known for various innovations and inventions rather than a particular layout structure consistently applied across their careers.
Designs With: Gottlieb
Style: Brenner only saw three pinball designs released (ignoring the add-a-ball variants) before exiting the industry, but those designs did have an impact on the future efforts of his peers. One highlight is Abra Ca Dabra, with its angled drop banks appearing to influence both Fast Draw and Spirit of 76. Atlantis is another noteworthy game, for while the game is almost a copy of Lawman (Brenner made a few minor adjustments), Brenner did introduce a unique scoring feature to Atlantis where hitting two drop targets simultaneously awarded more points than if they were dropped individually.
Designs With: Williams
Style: A prolific designer at Williams (Clark did eventually go to Bally and oversee their designers, though he is not credited with any playfields directly at that company), his most notable style choice is on “middle pop” games (defined as having a pop bumper between the primary flippers, usually beneath them). Middle pop games play quite a bit differently than other playfield layouts, and while Clark did not pioneer the concept many would argue he did perfect it. His first game, King Pin, was not a middle-pop pin but did exhibit a similar concept (instead of a pop bumper it has a kicker between and beneath the two primary flippers). Clark also has numerous designs that seem to adhere to a mantra of changing up rules as you keep playing. Clark worked extensively with Steve Kordek and they shared many design ideas.
Designs With: Genco, Williams
Style: Kordek was a prolific designer for Williams in the EM era (and oversaw the design teams at Williams during its glory days of the SS era). While his style varies substantially, he is known for a number of pinball firsts. He standardized the two-flipper placement at the bottom of the playfield (both the location itself and the direction the flippers faced), he invented the swinging target, and was the first designer to provide for multi-ball by allowing a ball to be locked on the playfield. Kordek worked extensively with Norm Clark and they shared many design ideas.
Designs With: Keeney, Gottlieb
Style: One of the most prolific designers in pinball history, Krynski is credited with over 200 designs. He invented carousel roto-targets, he invented the vari-target, he was the first to use multiple drop targets, and he was the first to create metal laneways to feed the ball to the flippers. Krynski became a fan of asymmetrical designs, recognizing them as offering more game possibilities, but never changed over exclusively to their use.
Designs With: Gottlieb
Style: Neyens pioneered a number of pinball elements, some particularly familiar to fans of woodrail EMs. He was the first to use gobble holes and also created the roto-target (versus the carousel version, which was designed by Krynski at a later date). Neyens is also credited for coming up with the first four-player pin.
Style: Well known for some of his SS designs, Patla actually was more prolific in the EM era. Having studied under Ted Zale, a lot of Patla’s approach adheres to that of his mentor. Patla favors games where the objective was obvious, and attempts to make layouts that feed into that concept so the player will come back repeatedly for more of the experience.
Style: Before founding the company bearing his name, Williams worked on a lot of innovative mechanical amusement concepts. Two standout inventions in the pinball field were creation of the tilt mechanism and the first pin to have electricity move the ball (both of these were developed prior to the flipper era). In terms of style, Williams is an adherent to a “the ball is wild” philosophy and was fond of using implementations to keep the ball out of control. Williams even designed some pinball machines with a single flipper (such as Nine Sisters and Skyway). Williams’ designs have different mechanisms and features, as he figured out new ways to continue to introduce randomness to the game of pinball.
Designs With: Bally
Style: Zale pioneered a lot of pinball concepts. He is perhaps best known for normalizing the use of the asymmetrical playfield and the various “zipper flipper” games he designed (where the flippers would close together if a switch activated, preventing down-the-middle ball drains). Zale has a number of other innovations, such as the first game with three-ball multi-ball, the first six-player pin, the first use of mushroom bumpers (a form of passive bumper, and one Zale uses on many of his designs) and the first modern-era pin to use a non-standard ball launch. Zale also likes games with progressive sequencing and turned to that scoring option on several of his designs.
The author extends his thanks to Nicholas Baldridge (of the For Amusement Only EM and Bingo Pinball Podcast), Eric Eickhorst, and Nic Schell (of the Roanoke Pinball Museum). All three provided invaluable assistance in identifying pinball designers (and identifying their styles, their noteworthy games, and their innovations) and overall help in reviewing the above guide.