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Interview With Pinball Designer Cameron Silver

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When we first approach pinball designers we don't expect to get a response starting "I've been following your blog for some time and really enjoy it", but that was the case with this week's Pinball Heroes guest! If he already reads The Pinball Blog then he must know how it works, or perhaps he was softening us up to ask for a fee or maybe, just maybe, we could push our luck a little further than we have before.

Let's try…

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Pinball Blog proudly presents Cameron Silver, who was employed at Bally/Williams in the nineties and worked on titles such as Scared Stiff and Cirqus Voltaire.

So you're Cameron Silver. The way I see it is you worked your nuts off on pinball machines and then John Popadiuk put his name on them?

Well everyone worked their nuts off, at least on the games I was involved with. They really were team efforts, and I never encountered anyone who slacked off or didn't pull their weight. So on Cirqus John and I sat down and laid out the playfield together, but then he went away and did the real work to actually design a buildable product. Anyone can sketch a ramp here, or some bumpers there, but it takes a mammoth amount of work and skill to actually build something that shoots well.

I'll add here that I gave Cameron an alternative question in case the first one was a bit too blunt and he kindly answered that one as well!

Whose idea was the display under the glass on Cirqus Voltaire?

The location of the display was not new, since Capcom had a display there for Flipper Football in 1996. Whether John had thought about this before is something that I honestly do not know, but when he suggested it to me I didn't hesitate to jump on-board. We actually talked briefly about mounting the display flat and reflecting it off an angled piece of glass (ie: like Asteroids Delux and Pinball 2000); it would have allowed us to do some neat tricks, but would have been quite expensive.

We did have a "Digital Multiball" mode in the game for a while – using the same idea from the video mode in Theatre Of Magic. The display served as a second playfield, and the idea was to knock down all targets to get the jackpot. You'd shoot physical balls into the display by shooting the loops, and could have up to all three balls on the display at once. It was pretty cool! However to do it properly would have required turning the ball-popper into a three-ball lockup (with three additional optos and more metal), which was too much money to devote to one single mode that wasn't really related to the theme at all.

How stiff were 'Team Stiff' when meeting Elvira?No comment! :)

Actually she was amazing to work with, a lovely person who really loved pinball. She had loads of fun recording speech for us (a lot of it being improvised on the day), and added a huge amount of personality to the game.

Which machine did you most enjoy working on, and which was the most challenging?

The machine I most enjoyed working on was definitely Cirqus. First of all it was the first game I was involved with right from the start, and second of all it began with John unrolling a blank sheet of paper and asking the team "So, what game should we make?!". Considering that less than 12 months prior to that I was a college kid/tech in Australia dreaming about pinball, it was unreal.

Most challenging was Star Wars. The technical challenges have been discussed numerous times, but for me there were personal challenges too. The biggest thing for me was being locked away, separated from the rest of engineering. I don't care who you are, you can't design a good, balanced game in a vacuum. I mean this honestly when I say that Star Wars actually turned out pretty close to our original vision, but I still think it could have benefited from outside influence. Still it sold at least three times more than Cirqus and remained in the Top 10 charts for close to a decade, so I probably shouldn't complain too much.

What started with an email to Dwight Sullivan turned into employment in the pinball industry, the stuff of dreams for many of us! I guess the chances of that happening today are pretty slim. Apart from the suit and haircut, what advice can you give a wannabe pinball designer in their quest for employment?

First would be patience, the second would probably (unfortunately) be to find another way to pay the bills. I certainly don't think that pinball is dead; but it's so tiny that even if it quadruples in size, it will still be tiny. I'm in coin-op video now (which I love), but even that is minuscule.

The Pinball Blog is known for its vast knowledge of programming(!) 10. PRINT "The Pinball Blog is da best". 20 GOTO 10. Did pinball programming change over the years with technology or were the basics the same throughout?

Things didn't change that much through the WPC years. In fact it's possible to take the very latest WPC operating system (which we called A.P.P.L.E), and re-build the Funhouse code to run on it. Things obviously changed a lot when we started working on Pinball 2000, which was all C++ and PC motherboards, etc. Even though WPC was a tiny 2mhz 6809 processor, that has been the absolute favorite development I've done (admittedly a big part of that is the final product).

Was there a machine you worked on that never saw the light of day?

I don't know if it qualifies but I worked on a redemption game called Ticket Tac Toe when I first started at Williams, and we only built about 100 of those; despite the fantastic earnings. Local pinball enthusiast Rush Luangsuwan and I added a custom built gumball dispenser to TTT for Pinball Expo 2007.

More recently, I just finished working on a coin-op, green-screen, video karaoke booth (themed to American Idol) that we were unable to produce due to music licensing issues. A huge shame considering the amazing amount of work (18 months), incredible technology, and long list of "It's impossible" we were able to overcome.

I personally prefer Star Wars Episode 1 to Revenge from Mars but some might say I'm in the minority (or stark raving bonkers). When people ask why one Pinball 2000 title is more 'popular' than the other I tell them the cost of the license influenced the budget for rules on SWE1, but to be fair, I completely made that up! Am I anywhere close to the truth?

Short answer: no. Long answer (for me anyway) is that I don't like either titles. Revenge is just too dark; I can't see the playfield. Episode 1 has vastly improved lighting, but I'm not a fan of the mode-based rules structure. I feel that both games hold the ball too much, and both over-use the display; however I understand that it was intentional to over-use the display in order to show it off (Episode 1 actually uses up less image space than Revenge). Amazingly though some people still don't "get" that platform, which really boggles my mind.

Wizard Blocks had lighting that was a vast improvement over Episode 1, and a much more pinball-like ruleset.

Who that you met during your pinball career was the most influential to you, and who are you still friends with today?

Working with Steve Kordek on my first game (Ticket Tac Toe) was amazing, and I thoroughly enjoy catching up with him a few times a year. Working with programmers like Ted Estes, Larry DeMar and Tom Uban really shaped what type of programmer I have become today, and I remain close friends with all three. I still see Tom several times a week, and chat with Ted and Larry almost daily.

Dwight Sullivan opened my eyes to the amazing world of game mechanics, and is still one of my dearest friends. (Coincidentally as I type this, I can hear our testers playing "La Grange" on Guitar Hero Arcade. Anyone know what pinball machine used that song? Hint: Dwight programmed it…)

I think they probably do know!

What does Cameron Silver do to pay the bills today?

I currently work at Raw Thrills, which is one of the largest coin-op game houses around. We are headed up by Eugene Jarvis, and have released the Fast And The Furious driving games (three of them), Nicktoons Racing, Big Buck Hunter, and Guitar Hero Arcade which is rocking seriously hard.

Finally, can you sum up your involvement with pinball in one word or sentence.

Yes.(!)

And there you have it, an interesting interview and hopefully more of what you guys want to read. Many thanks to Cameron Silver for being such a great sport and answering some pretty tough questions!

Cameron was already reading The Pinball Blog which is just great, so if YOU'RE reading and you're a pinball designer or contributed significantly in other ways to the industry drop me a line and we'll hook you up. Or if you're a regular Joe like me, then let me know who you'd like to see interviewed on Pinball Heroes and we'll try and hunt them down!

Pictures courtesy of Cameron Silver & Raw Thrills

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