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Transcript from John Carpenter chat at Coinopspace.com

Back in the first week of May, pinball and arcade enthusiasts alike spent over an hour and a half chatting live with John Carpenter at Coinopspace.com. John used to work at Data East and helped develop a whole slew of well known pinball machines. A number of interesting items came out, like where most of the Michael Jordan pinballs machines landed and a rare variant of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

John Carpenter Live Chat at Coinopspace.com

Here is the formatted version of that transcript. You can view the raw chat log with John at Coinopspace.com. I have taken the information relevant to our conversation with John Carpenter and formatted it so that the arcade history is more easy to pick out. The original chat was over 15 pages so paring this down was imperative for anyone serious about reading πŸ™‚

John Carpenter – Questions and Answers

John signed on really early at about 1:30 and we started taking moderated questions soon after. Finding out information about John and his career at Data East was pretty tough, there is petty limited information online. I messaged half a dozen of his former co-workers to see what other insights they might be able to offer. About the only real detailed information I could find was about John’s involvement with a now infamous Data East fighting game named Tattoo Assassins.

Thank you all for participating and for your great questions and for understanding that, for simplicity stake, all questions will be asked by Coinopspace and all answers are by, of course, John Carpenter.

Coinopspace
John….before we formally get started in a little while, I may just ask you some general stuff…

John Carpenter
Fire away

Coinopspace
Your first pinball was Michael Jordan?

John Carpenter
When I first started with DE I was straight out of school and they put me on QA to get my feet wet. Michael Jordan was a rush project that needed a body, and I talked them into letting me have it.

Coinopspace
But it never made it to mass production.

John Carpenter
No, it did not. We wrote all the software in three days. It was a rush job to make a charity auction.

Coinopspace
Do you know how many were actually made? (Looks like maybe 7 of them according to Arcade History)

John Carpenter
Two went to the auction, one went into Joe Kaminkow’s home, one went into MJ’s home, one went to Kurt Anderson who was the primary art resource. The one that went to Kurt sat in the laundry room at his apartment and actually made some good money.

Coinopspace
It was full clad in artwork?

John Carpenter
Yeah, it had a backglass, playfield art, and display animations. Mostly done by Kurt. It was a pretty good looking game, but for full production the dot matrix stuff would have had to been reworked.

Coinopspace
John, do photos exist online that you know of?

John Carpenter
Not that I am aware of. Heh, I could ask Kurt if he still has his. Jack Liddon and Kurt Anderson did most of the dot matrix art while I was there. They live in Las Vegas now, doing slots for IGT.

Coinopspace
So then you went to work on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

John Carpenter
I did some more QA on Star Wars I believe, then went full time into display work on R&B

Coinopspace
Several years back we found a Batman Forever Pinball for my father. Game play is very nice and replay value is even better. Amazed at everything that Pinball is doing at once and wonder “How does it do all that at once”. What is involved when developing a Pinball that integrates traditional Pinball with an interactive Video Screen that is incorporated during game play?

John Carpenter
This is a tough question because the hardware and software have changed so drastically in the last 20 years. I have a BF, btw, but it doesn’t work right now because I can’t find the keys after my last move πŸ™‚

Back then we had a separate sound programmer, display programmer, and game programmer. Each was a different CPU. All the code was assembly. Nowadays everything runs off the same CPU, all C/C++ code. I learned that from Lyman Sheats, who worked with me at DE and still works for Stern.

Coinopspace
So, One CPU and many instructions?

John Carpenter
Yeah, that one processor has the horse power to handle all the tasks at once. Back when I worked there things were still pretty primitive hardware wise. Heck, the internet did not exist back then πŸ™‚

Coinopspace
When developing a new pinball what are the steps taken to develop such a beast? Is there lots of R&D? Or do you just have standard engineering formulas that you just start with to get it on paper and then just “build”?

John Carpenter
Hardware wise the game designer would be building a prototype months ahead of any software getting written. Software wise we would always start from the last game that hit production and work from that code base, since it would always have the latest widgets.

Coinopspace
Have you ever played any of your creations in VisualPinball?

John Carpenter
VisualPinball… never heard of it, to be honest. Is that like MAME, people supporting real world games?

Coinopspace
Yes, it’s like virtual pinball.

John Carpenter
Heh, excellent. I love that stuff. I loved it when Tattoo Assassins hit MAME, although it was an imperfect port.

Coinopspace
What are your feelings of PinMame?

John Carpenter
Not being familiar with them, I really don’t have any feelings. It doesn’t affect me personally from a business standpoint, so why not? It helps extend the life of work that I did a long time ago.

Coinopspace
Talk about the atomosphere for working at Data East and what a typical day was like. Did you arrive at a regimented time? Or was it like that Tattoo Assassins story? Where they were real sticklers about when you arrived? Did you work 10 hour days? And that was all work?

John Carpenter
When it was just pinball it wasn’t like the Tattoo Assassins story. I did work very long hours, but it was mostly voluntary. At the time it was a dream job for me, and I was single and didn’t know many people in Chicago.

Coinopspace
You were how old again when you did QA on Michael Jordan?

John Carpenter
21? 22? Somewhere in there. Data East was my first job after graduating from college.

Coinopspace
So there was some playing around in there during a long work day or it was pretty focused work?

John Carpenter
No, we used to play a lot of pinball, and keep track of “who beat who” on a daily basis. We used to have an informal “grand champion” moniker. And drink a lot of beer on late nights. It was a fun place to be.

The factory was generally a pretty cool place to prowl around after hours. Jack Lidddon, one of our artists, is an amateur filmmaker, and if you were around late you could get recruited to play a part in one of his films. Some of the films were pretty cool πŸ™‚

Coinopspace
What is your favorite pinball that you helped create? What is your favorite pinball someone else made? What is your favorite classic arcade game?

John Carpenter
Star Wars was probably my favorite. I didn’t write software for it, I was on QA, but there were a lot of engineers who were huge Star Wars fans and a lot of enthusiastic work was done on that game. Jurassic Park was my favorite pinball that I was a primary coder for. We knew very early that the game would be well received, and we worked very hard on it. I still see a lot of Jurassic Park machines in the field today, at local bowling alleys and restaurants.

Favorite classic game – wow, there were so many. Hard to choose there. Gyruss perhaps. I played a ton of pinball as a kid, too. My aunt had a bar, and my father would take me up there while he drank and give me a roll of quarters. I have since heard that many others had that same introduction to games as a kid – the parents taking them into a bar

Coinopspace
Do you remember one (bar) in particular from your childhood that you liked?

John Carpenter
There were some games before Space Invaders. I remember Space Wars or something like that. I dominated all the drunk adults in the bar, haha. I had an Atari 2600 with tons of games. Before that we had some other pong system where you taped plastics onto your TV. Named the “OMNI” perhaps?

Coinopspace
Do you have a collection of games? If so what is in your collection?

John Carpenter
I have three pins, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Tales From The Crypt, Batman Forever, Tattoo Assassins, and Gauntlet 2.

Coinopspace
The Tattoo Assassins is fully clad with artwork and all?

John Carpenter
Yes. Not a prototype, but one of the cabinets that went to the ACME show. Unfortunately the VSYNC is fragged and the game is unplayable right now. I have SVHS tapes of all the original blue screen tapes of the Hollywood shoot. I bet those are the last copies of those in existence.

Coinopspace
Has anyone pushed you to try to see the tapes of that shoot?

John Carpenter
No, never. Interest in TA has only grown over the last few years.

Coinopspace
If you could do a pin today, licensed or not , what would your theme be?

John Carpenter
Would my goal be to do something cool or to make money?

Coinopspace
Let’s say cool.

John Carpenter
Hehe, that is a harder question to answer then πŸ™‚

Coinopspace
Was there ever an idea you had while working on another pin that you thought would be killer?

John Carpenter
Maybe something based on the Terminator series. That is coming back into popular culture now, and I am a big fan of the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Coinopspace
Arnon Milchan, tell me about this a little bit?

John Carpenter
You know about the Aaron Spelling pin?

Coinopspace
I don’t.

John Carpenter
Aaron Spelling’s wife purchased a pin for him, and we personally delivered one to his office and one to his home. Arnon Milchan’s wife heard about it and did the same. We did the Spelling pin in the interest of gaining some licenses, i.e. 90120. The Milchan pin did not garnish as much attention. I did the dot matrix art myself, because the artists were busy. And they suffered as a result.

Coinopspace
Sounds like from earlier they’d use the most recent software at the least…

John Carpenter
We used the same playfield layout as the last production pin, just created new playfield art, back glass art, and dots.

Coinopspace
Are there photos of the Milchan pin online?

John Carpenter
Not that I know of. All the game rules were the same, with new sounds and dots.

Coinopspace
Who is Arnon exactly?

John Carpenter
He produced some TV shows. It was worth it to do, from a potential license standpoint.

Coinopspace
What was the budget for a pinball from start to finish?

John Carpenter
Not sure about the cost. It was four months of code for two devs, 8 months of mechanical engineer effort from two mech engineers. Then, if it was geared as worthy for production, the costs ramp up from there

Coinopspace
The licenses were surely the most costly part.

John Carpenter
Yes, pretty expensive. But if you consider 10,000 machines types 2,000 per machine profit, that is some good money.

Coinopspace
John, after Tattoo Assassins did you truly just ‘leave’ for Florida? Or was it something other than that?

John Carpenter
After TA I was burned out. 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, and it was cancelled. I was bitter. I could have stayed, though, the job didn’t change much. It was me.

Coinopspace
Do the movie studios usually approach you to do a particular pin to promote a new movie?

John Carpenter
Joe Kaminkow spent a lot of time going to Hollywood to get licenses. He was great at promising money and personal pins to individuals in order for us to get the license. Data East survived as a result of the Hollywood deals.

Coinopspace
Did you have a job lined up in Florida from your great experience at Data East / Sega?

John Carpenter
No. We moved back into my parent’s house. The normal hires were more experience programmers. I was one of the first younger hires because I was an enthusiast.

Coinopspace
Is there any particular pins that you have a high score you’d like to brag about?

John Carpenter
I turned over a few pins back in my day. High Speed, Space Station, Space Shuttle.

Coinopspace
I noticed some of the pinball’s were in production for what? 5-10 years… How was this decision made? Supply and Demand? I mean, if it was still selling then you kept manufacturing it?

John Carpenter
5-10 years? We never built anything for more than 4 months. It may be that pinball distributors have stock for longer than that? Or, the market has changed.

Tommy was a cool project. All of engineering was flown to NYC to see the play and meet the actors. The blinders on the flippers, that was the genius of the game designer Paul…. forget his last name. He was a great guy, though. He was in some of Jack Liddon’s movies, a very good actor actually. I did not do much for Tommy. Lyman was the primary display guy on that one. Paul was a mechanical engineer on that, it was his idea to use that particular motor for the blinder.

Coinopspace
The IPDB list is incorrect then. Rocky and Bullwinkle said it was sold for 9 years.

John Carpenter
Yeah, that is incorrect. Data East was on a four month schedule back then. The whole factory would refit in between games.

Coinopspace
What is your view of the future of pinball?

John Carpenter
Future of pinball…. not good. I think Stern is doing what it can. Once they run out of parents who buy pins for their kids out of nostalgia…. But what do I know? I’ve been out of the industry for a while. I do notice that my kids play a lot of other stuff, the pins don’t hold their attention long.

Coinopspace
After you moved to Florida were you ever asked to come back?

John Carpenter
I offered to contract remotely, but they did not need me. After Williams folded, there were a lot of pinball guys looking for jobs.

Coinopspace
What has killed this industry? Modern game consoles and different interests from the kids?

John Carpenter
Yes, game consoles killed video games. Pins take up a lot of space in bars, which are now better served by smaller vids that sit up on the bar top.

Coinopspace
You talked about how Japan was involved earlier, you went over as QA to inspect the manufacturing of the materials and parts?

John Carpenter
I went to Japan, along with another programmer, for a week to take a look at the hardware. We were there to evaluate whether the hardware could be used for Tattoo Assassins, which it could… but only if Tattoo Assassins would be on the same scale as Mortal Kombat.

Coinopspace
How do you currently find contract work for software development?

John Carpenter
I am usually an employee, but recently a company that I founded a few years back has received a contract from a business partner. For anyone interested in software, the network is the most important thing. Resumes cease to count if you know the right folks.

Coinopspace
Well John, we all appreciate you being here and the work you did at Data East.

John Carpenter
I am very honored and happy that there are still enthusiasts out there who care enough for this to exist.

Thank you John for all your creative contributions to a great hobby. Over the years I am sure there have been many requests made for your time and questions repeatedly asked about the history of these games. We just appreciate that you are still so accessible and willing to talk about the past and keep this hobby alive and going. If you liked this chat, you might also check out the transcript from our chat session with Tim Skelly.

The next creator chat is with Warren Davis (Creator of Q*Bert), on June 27, 2009 from 2-3 EST. Don’t miss it. RSVP at Coinopspace.com or on the Coinopspace.com Facebook page.

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