Steam Dream Pinball Retheme: I’ll Find a Way

Guest post article from Paul Clarke describing his work and design on Steam Dream, a steampunk themed pinball machine.

By Paul Clarke


Steam Dream Machine

I am not an engineer, or an electrician, or a carpenter, or a plumber or even a handyman. I only have the most rudimentary knowledge of tools. All I have is a  very active imagination and a lot of willpower. The concept of Steam Dream came to me late one night about 2 years ago. I have loved playing pinball since I was  very young. My first true love came when I was 16 and the arcade near me had a Black Knight. It was 1980. The colours and sound drew me in like nothing before.  The game was heralded as a huge innovator with its double decks and magna ball save button that was a magnetic feature that helped save your ball from draining either left or right. I played that game every time I was in my local arcade along  with Donkey Kong, Asteroids and all the 80s classics. 

Fast forward 40 years and you arrive at the night I began conceiving Steam Dream. I am an artist at heart and have always loved the art of Steampunk. The gears, colours and melding of things that are repurposed with a ‘retro futuristic look’ really appealed to me. As I have said, I am no engineer. So I was going to need a ‘donor’ machine I could build my dream around. I looked for 2 years. I came close a couple of times to acquiring a donor machine, but fell short. As I sat dejected at my computer after missing out by a few hours (someone had been faster and scooped the game I was after), I looked beside me and there sat the pinball machine I have owned for several years. Was it possible to take my most  precious possession and turn it into Steam Dream without damaging or harming it in any way? 

My goal was to create a giant kinetic piece of art that you could actually play. I was a photographer for many years so visual aesthetics are of paramount importance to me. I did not want Steam Dream to look like any other pinball machine that had ever existed before. With a Steampunk theme, the pipes  surrounding the machine and other features seemed to come naturally in the early developmental stages. But how does one get a ball to leave the field and go through an external pipe system that has never existed before? If I started with a donor machine, my initial thinking was to drill holes and build the external pipe system right on that machine. But since I was using my own precious machine, there was definitely no drilling of holes possible. I was going to have to design a system that could carry the ball off the field to a place it had never been before. I finally came to the conclusion that a creative ramp system and vertical conveyor belt would get the ball off the field. Then what? Imagining a concept and building it are two completely different things. Anyone can imagine something, but to make it a reality takes knowledge that I simply didn’t possess at that time. This began the grand experimental process of “How the hell am I going to build this thing?” I am simply not a great handyman. I had a basic hand drill, hand saw, screwdrivers etc. So I did what every great dreamer does and headed to Home Depot. I picked up some basic strips of oak, some MDF board, a box of screws and headed home.  

Having not the slightest notion of how to build a conveyor belt, I looked to YouTube. There I saw some examples, but not what I specifically needed. Using some of the basic principles I saw on YouTube, I started to design the conveyor belt that was specialized to my needs. It needed to be quite small as the playfield on a pinball machine does not allow for add-ons. So basically, my prototype for the conveyor belt was quite crude but got the ball rolling. How was I going to turn this on? A switch perhaps? No, wait! Three switches that would control other components I would add to the machine. If you look at the pictures attached, you will see a bank of three switches. The middle one controls the conveyor belts.  

Now comes one of the most unique features of Steam Dream. I realized the machine was going to need an independent power system to run the extra features of Steam Dream. If I was going to try to tax the machine’s own power, it was going to end in disaster. So my solution to this was an auxiliary power system that runs all these extra features which are switched on by the player.

Now I’d like to talk about the aesthetics of Steam Dream. Initially for the art on the machine, I thought I would need the assistance of a skilled painter as every other pinball machine I have encountered has art painted on the external box as well as the art that would become the backglass. I tend to let these ideas incubate in my mind for a period of time before acting. This process has allowed me to save enormous sums of money in the building of Steam Dream. I wanted the name of the machine on the backglass which is obviously on every other pinball machine created. I also wanted the name on the sides of the pinball machine and done in a unique manner. This is the moment I came up with illuminated signage  for Steam Dream on the two sides. The signs on the side of the machine you see in the pictures are turned on by one of the three master switches. How do I mount the illuminated signs on the side of the machine without drilling holes?  The wood, the pipes and the signs on the sides of Steam Dream are mounted on a  giant “skin” that encases the original machine. This is not held in place by screws and nails. The external pressure of the four legs of the machine along with several cross members at the back of the machine holds all components on the sides of  the machine in place. It was my mandate to follow the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath…“to do no harm”. Or in my case, “to do no harm” to the original machine.  And there it was, I had a system now to design freely without causing any harm to my precious machine. Now I could attach components at will without apprehension. The 3 master switches are mounted to small strips of stained oak.  If you look at a conventional machine the game rules are in this spot. If you remove that card you will notice a rectangular hole in what is known as the “bowtie” in any game. This existing hole gave me the passage for all the wiring I needed to run from the switches to the series of motors etc. that make Steam Dream’s externals function. The power is simply a power bar I put in the box of  the machine that I plug all the components into.  

So now we get back to the development of the ramp system and conveyor belt as I needed to lift the ball off the field. I knew I couldn’t drill any screws into the  machine because of the promise I made to myself. So what do I do to stabilize a 15” conveyor belt without using screws? If you look closely at the pictures you will see a set of stilts that support the lower part of the conveyor belt on each side. 

These stilts use a pre-existing hole created by the game’s ramp. Thus the conveyor belt is supported firmly at the bottom. The top of the conveyor belt has metal components that secure it to the outer box of the pinball head. The box head of the pinball machine is encased in three boards; two for the sides, one for the top.  I purposely cut these boards oversize at the back in order to secure the boards using the pressure of the two cross members. Again, this upper skin allows me to fasten components to the machine without doing harm to the original machine. 

The ramp was a long journey…….I needed the ramp to hold the ball in place once it arrived at the top. The solution was a ‘saddle’ that the ball sits in as it waits until one of the buckets, I lovingly carved from sturdy small plastic containers (painted Steampunk brown, of course), picks up the ball from the saddle position. Carving the ramp and saddle from 5 pieces of MDF board I glued together was a 2 day affair. If I carved the ramp too shallow the ball would never have made it to the saddle. And then, I WOULD HAVE TO START ALL OVER! Luckily I aired on the side of caution and took it very slow with my Dremel. Let me just say that a Dremel is without a doubt, the greatest tool I have ever known. I have used it to do 80% of  the work on Steam Dream. It cuts, grinds, sands, buffs….if it could cook me dinner, I’d marry it! 

The backglass took me one and a half months to make. I mentioned before that I was a professional photographer for many years so the graphic design of the backglass came together more easily for me. A unique feature of the game is that the backglass actually interacts with game play. If you look at the art, the chest piece on the giant metal entity has 6 amber slots. Once you drop the ball manually using the ‘airship’ that the ball is in after you pull the plunger, you use the rocker switch located on the control box located by the right flipper button to drive the airship to the point you want to drop the ball. There are 3 sensor switches that the ball can drop on. Each switch controls 2 of the 6 lights in the iron giant’s chest on the backglass.  

The genesis of the ‘airship’ concept came from my idea to set the ball in play in a way no other machine had done before. If you look into the Steampunk genre one of the most recurring designs is an old ship carried by a Zeppelin. I wanted to somehow recreate this on the playfield. Well….back to Home Depot for more  wood etc. I came up with the idea of using 2 pieces of MDF boards and carving out the centre of each through which the ball would roll. The ball enters from the back of the ship when you pull the plunger to launch the ball. Then it rolls down an ‘S’ curve I carved in the interior of the 2 pieces of wood. So now the ball sits at the ‘out port’ position. Check the picture at the right side of the machine again.  You’ll see a button that looks like a mechanical camera remote push button.  That’s because it IS a mechanical camera push button. As I mentioned, I was a photographer for many years. The practicality of using something I knew well being part of Steam Dream seemed a perfect match. Once you depress the button the cable punches the ball out of the airship! The airship power is delivered by a small ‘motor car-like feature’ with treads that is driven by the rocker switch by  the right flipper button. It travels in a wooden box I made from some cedar planking used for fences. In this way the player has complete control over the ball’s location to start the game. A first, as far as I know. 

Controls for airship

The LED flipper design: I have played pinball all my life and the standard plastic flippers seemed to suffice. But for Steam Dream I wanted something special. I created flippers that house 3 blue LEDs with clear plastic protective rubbers. And the world’s first pair of lit flippers was born. 

The playfield design: This one came easy as I photographed a bunch of gears and blended them in using a photo manipulation program. I had them printed on thick archival photo paper and voila’ the 2 playfields are born. It took 3 hours on each playfield to make a template that I laid on each giant photo and cut out. The plastics on the game got the same treatment with a different gear blend. With the  sheer weight of this archival paper and the other bits that make up the playfield it holds down the new art easily. The ball glides on top perfectly. It isn’t unlike a sheet of Mylar used on some machines to protect the surface from wear. Once I had the backglass and playfield done, my colour palette was set. Again, I’m a stickler for art design. The game had to have a unique look that blended well. For your information, there is a custom glass top with cut-outs for the features I have created.

Brass balls, brass balls, brass balls. Early on I knew I wanted to use brass balls for the game as brass and copper tones are key to Steampunk culture. They give it that one of a kind look and feature that no other game has.  

The side pipes on the main box started off as iron. But the weight was 50+ lbs and WAY too heavy for the side panel ‘skin’. So PVC standard plumbing piping was used. I have painted some pipes on the machine Steampunk rusty brown. But I left the side pipes black to contrast with the weathered barn boards on the sides. Standard plumbing flanges hold the pipes to the side boards using an epoxy. Once again, materials were only adhering to the ‘skin’ around the machine and not to the original machine. 

Game flow: Once the ball is dropped from the airship and in play the object is to hit the barrier in front of the ramp. Now the ball needs to be hit up the ramp  where it then sits in the ‘saddle’. The conveyor belt can be switched on using one of the master switches. The ball is picked up and travels to the top of the conveyor belt where it falls into a pipe. That pipe will send the ball in one of 2 directions.  

The first one being to the pipe leading around the back of the machine which brings the ball to the right side where the ball can go in one of two directions. (It heads through one brass pipe to the ball lock or the other direction will spit it out back on the playfield and you try for the ramp again.) 

If when the ball falls into the pipe off the conveyor belt and goes in the other direction, it will then be picked up by the 2nd conveyor belt which will transport it to the top of the machine (pretty sure that is a first in pinball) and be dropped in the collector at the top. The ball then rolls through a long pipe. In doing so it triggers the primary goal of the machine. There is a small Steampunk figure that is triggered to move one space each time the ball reaches the top of the box. The primary goal of Steam Dream is kinetic movement. If you are able to move the figure 10 times during the game (quite a feat!) the game will deliver you a prize.  The prize being a brass ball with the game’s name engraved on it! The prize is delivered via the pipes at the right side of the machine. If you look at the picture of that side the lower pipe has a cap on it. Reach level 10 and the ball with roll from the top of the game to your awaiting hand! A pinball game where you actually win something? Now isn’t that worth playing? During gameplay, the ball comes through the long pipe on the games box head and continues down a pipe  spiral returning it to the game deck through a dual pipe system that once again either sends the ball to the ball lock or on to the upper playfield to continue play.  

In the future I’d like to have a custom spiral ball rail to drop the ball back to the deck. So for now my good ol’ PVC piping will do. When the game goes into multi ball mode there will be a time a player has balls both on the deck and others leaving the field through the external pipe system. This segment of the game will prove to be VERY interesting. Overall the game flow will be quite different from other machines. To be sure, it will be a bit slower when the conveyor belts are carrying the balls. But remember, the whole point of my design is based on kinetic movement and advancing the Steampunk figure on the very top of the machine.  The flow will be different as the objective is different. But when the ball is on the playfield the speed will increase dramatically. Maybe a bit like baseball, slower at  certain moments and faster at others. But make no doubt about it, when there are times you need to make things happen, you will need to be very focused.  

The light system I hooked up that flows from the box head along the rails and under the machine is synced up to the music and pulses with the game. The player can either have my music or use their own from their phone as the system uses Bluetooth. I wanted the player to have the option of my music or their own during play. The other sound effects are ones I have chosen for the game and come through a custom board in the game. 

The total building time for Steam Dream has been 198 days so far. Sourcing out materials, picking up materials, imagining innovative concepts, building and  building and building takes quite a bit of time. When I started it was as though I was in kindergarten. I really didn’t know how to use tools very well or build anything. Near the completion I feel I am about to graduate from high school. The learning process has been incredible to me. I can solve problems much faster now as I continue to build on my skill set. Also, to keep some sanity, I have endeavoured to keep a daily journal of the build to track my progress and make notes on what worked and what didn’t.  

So in the end, I have endeavoured to create a game where kinetic movement is the goal and not just a point system. As I write this I am actually designing other kinetic movements for the game. For me, this entire journey is an experiment into creation. I have learned so much over the past 7 months. It has allowed me to know now, if there is something I can imagine, then I “will find a way” to make it a reality for Steam Dream. I’m pleased to say that I have created Steam Dream for about ¼ of the cost of a new machine.  

One last feature…the 3rd master switch…well, it kicks in the steam/fog machine built into Steam Dream, of course. 

Cheers to all of you and the creativity you can bring to our pinball community. I’m just one guy with a dream. There has to be many others out there with tons more building skills than I have. Get out there and build your own Steam Dream! Then share it as I have.

Written by: Paul Clarke

Disclaimer: Any articles, interviews, or mentions of pinball manufacturers or pinball products is NOT an endorsement.

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George H
George H
24 days ago

sounds cool – would love to see play video…

TastyWasps
TastyWasps
11 days ago

Amazing design… Post this on YouTube to see the game play!

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