The Original Pinball Wizard

Tuesday, July 19, 2005
By Danielle Smith/Staff Writer
Hollister - When most people perform a Google search on themselves, they get to laugh at which prison inmates or struggling actors share their names. When Hollister resident Steve Ritchie goes hunting for himself on the Internet, he can find a detailed analysis of every project he’s ever been involved with. Ritchie is arguably the biggest fish in a very specific pond: With 18 titles to his name and 30 years in the business, he could well be the most prolific and innovative living pinball designer.“I’m a mechanically-oriented person,” said Ritchie. “I spent all my time around motorcycles and stuff when I was growing up, so designing games came very naturally to me. Now, I can look at something (in a game) and say ‘that won’t last five years - that won’t even last five months.’”When Ritchie left the Coast Guard in 1972, he found himself in the same position as many young men of the time: broke. After several stints with dead-end jobs, he approached the Atari Company in Los Gatos and was hired as an electro-mechanical engineer.“It was an assembly line job,” he said. “They were making Pong in a barrel when I got there. After a year, they moved me up to repairing fixtures. After two years, I got promoted to the pinball division in the prototype lab.”As he worked his way up the ladder, Steve started drawing plans for his own pinball game. As he perfected his design, he began to demand attention from the head of the pinball division. With a lot of persistence, Ritchie was able to persuade him to make his vision a reality.Ritchie’s first design was called “Airborne Avenger,” which centered around a male hero and his flying sled.When the film “Superman” was released in the late 70’s, competition erupted among pinball designers about who would win the rights to the game license. Ritchie won, and his second design garnered him attention from Williams Games, the leader in the industry at the time. The company offered him a contract with one catch: if Steve wanted a job, he’d have to move to the company headquarters in Chicago.Ritchie’s first title for Williams, “Flash,” is considered a major jump for the pinball industry.“Before that, no one was really focused on making a smooth game,” said Ritchie. “I wanted to design a game where one shot feeds into another, so you can repeat loops and do all sorts of neat things. ‘Flash’ was also the first game with really cool lights if you hit a target or get lots of points.”Ritchie has designed several games based on popular movies.“One of the coolest licenses I ever worked on was for ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’” he said. “I sat in a meeting with James Cameron for three hours, just talking about the game. He had some good ideas for pinball; I used some of them. He gave us free run of the set, and would send us copies of the props that we would use for the models in our game, like the skull and the microchip.”Negotiating every game deal isn’t nearly as easy, however.“We did this game called ‘Stellar Wars,’” said Ritchie. “We couldn’t call it ‘Star Wars’ because, at the time, George Lucas simply didn’t want to license out the rights for a pinball game. Eventually, LucasArts did allow a game, but I didn’t work on it.” “Getting the rights to do ‘Star Trek: Next Generation’ was also a challenge,” he continued. “Because they didn’t want us to use any guns in the game. I said ‘Hey, wait a minute, when the Enterprise is provoked, they use photon torpedoes.’ I didn’t set out to make them space pirates from hell, I just wanted to represent the show accurately in my game. I told them that I had been a fan of the series all my life, and I would never violate the Prime Directive ... and they came around.”The average pinball game takes a year of work and the efforts of about five people on the design team.“’Star Trek’ actually took 14 months,” Ritchie said. “The script was very elaborate, with 500 speech calls from the original actors on the show. We did get to go to the Paramount lot though, they were filming the last episode of ‘Cheers’ while we were working on our game. It’s easy to get star-struck in a place like that.”By 1996, the industry was starting to suffer, longstanding companies were folding or being bought up by video game companies looking to branch out.“At this point, home systems were getting so good, the Playstation, the N64, that no one was going to the arcades any more,” Ritchie said. “They were staying home, and if they did go out, they weren’t playing pinball. They went for the driving games and things like that.”Ritchie designed a very profitable driving simulator himself, “California Speed,” but he knew pinball was his true calling. He founded his own company, Steve Ritche Productions, and contracts out to Stern Pinball, the only surviving pinball company.Ritchie regularly attends pinball conventions, held around the country and attended by thousands of fans known affectionately as “pingeeks” by those in the know. These fans will drag a pinball machine thousands of miles to have a game autographed by the designer and to display it for fellow enthusiasts.The next such event is “California Extreme,” August 6th and 7th in San Jose. “These things are like big class reunions,” Ritchie said. “I’m going to speak at this one, but I always have just as much fun listening to one of my friends or someone I’ve become interested in.”Ritchie holds a place in the Pinball Hall of Fame, which he says “probably exists in someone’s mind somewhere.”“People like to say pinball’s on its way out,” Ritchie said. “But I really don’t think it will die. I anticipate slow growth. Two years ago we sold 8,000 machine, this year we sold 10,000. Pinball is a medium that is mechanical by nature, and lots of people respond very well to mechanical games, they don’t like video games. I think if we start really developing better themes, like the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” or “Simpsons” or stuff like that, we’ll see a lot of interest from young people. Most buyers right now are of the older set, die-hard collectors, or bar or arcade owners.”While Ritchie cannot reveal his latest project, he did say that he would “really like” to do a “Spiderman” game in the near future.

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