VIDBALL: The Untold Story of Midway’s Last Pinball Project by Teri Bertram

Guest post article from Teri Bertram about the story of Midway's Last Pinball Project

Note: this is a guest article, TWIP has not independently verified all the information below.


VIDBALL marquee and logo
VIDBALL marquee and logo

You’ve probably never heard of me. My name is Teri Bertram, and I was hired as a video game software engineer in early 1996 by Williams Electronics to help create the arcade game BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S. (the flying-fighting game brainchild of David Simon.)  The game software ran on a custom Midway Games motherboard, code-named Seattle, which utilized a then-new 3DFX chip technology. This chip was the first commercially available chip of its kind to enable real-time 3D rendering, and was an amazing leap for video games.

Flash forward to the summer of 1998. We had just finished BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S. and were looking for our next project. I was (and still am) an avid pinball enthusiast, and since Midway, Bally, Williams, and (later) Atari, all fell under the WMS umbrella, I had access to all of the latest pinball machines and parts – a perk I often used to good advantage.

During this brain-storming period I started toying around with the idea of using the BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S. hardware and support software to create a 3D video pinball machine, utilizing the Seattle board and the 3DFX chip. It turned into a secret passion-project that I worked on at home. I had a modest collection of pinball machines at the time, and decided to try to replicate the 1977 Gottlieb machine Sinbad, since the rules were fairly straight-forward, and it was one of my favorite machines from that era.

Working for a number of weeks in secret, I wrote the pinball physics routines, ball-rolling quaternion rotations, flippers, rubbers, slingshots, bumpers, drop-targets, roll-overs, and everything else needed to simulate the parts of a real pinball machine. Once all of the hardware simulations were in place, I took photos of my Sinbad machine and converted them into texture maps for the game. The final task was writing the logic for the game scoring. This turned out to be the easiest part, and once I had Sinbad written, I went ahead and wrote game logic for a second table, a Gottlieb Joker Poker, since the work for adding the second machine was minimal.

Bagatelle-2000 Sinbad
Bagatelle-2000 Sinbad
Bagatelle-2000 Joker Poker
Bagatelle-2000 Joker Poker

With the software complete, I needed to build a hardware control-panel to work with it. I started with a standard Williams “Fighting Game” cabinet (just like what we used for BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S.), with a built-in 25-inch monitor. I removed the joystick control panel, then built a custom control panel to replace it. Since I had access to real pinball parts, I made sure to use as many authentic parts as possible in the design. The final control panel had a standard size pinball lockdown bar (for feel), 2 flipper buttons with double-actuating leaf-switches, a START button, a LAUNCH button, and an authentic spring ball-plunger. The plunger would hit a real pinball that was stored within a channel inside the control panel. When hit, the ball would launch forward, running across 5 switches mounted along the channel. Measuring the time it took for the ball to trigger each switch would determine the speed of the ball launch in the simulation. It ended up working surprisingly well, and gave an authentic feel to the plunging of the ball.

Bagatelle-2000 Control Panel
Bagatelle-2000 Control Panel

On July 4th, 1998, the prototype was complete, and I moved the game to my office at Midway in preparation to show it off.  As it happens, the company’s “4th of July Picnic” was just beginning in the parking lot outside. Once I knew everything was working correctly, I went outside to join in the festivities. I slowly made my way to the studio president John Rowe, and in as casual a tone as I could muster said “Hi John! Do you want to see something really neat?” It was enough to spark his interest, and he followed me back to my office. Once there, I showed him the full-size arcade machine, which I had dubbed Bagatelle-2000. (Bagatelle being an early French word for pinball.)

I played a game to show him how it worked, then he played a few games. I explained how I had made the machine in my off-hours, and how I thought maybe Midway/Williams might be interested in pursuing it as a video-pinball option.  His response was immediate: He loved it! He wanted me to fly with him to Chicago immediately to show it to the head-honchos Neil Nicastro and Ken Fedesna, plus the various pinball team members there to see what they thought of it.

The following week, I found myself on a plane to Chicago, with a couple of ROM chips, a hard drive, and my home-made wooden control panel as carry-on. As soon as we arrived we were ushered into an upstairs conference room where I had a direct one-on-one with Neil and Ken. I described the game, and the idea behind it – which was to re-package our many pinball titles into a video format, creating an alternative revenue stream, and hopefully helping to keep pinball alive.  They responded with interest, but told me that there was already another secret project called Pinball 2000, which was also meant to help boost pinball sales. They instructed me to set up my machine downstairs, and that they would contact the various pinball teams to come down to check it out and give me feedback. I could barely contain my excitement! I was going to meet with my heroes! The wizards that designed the best pinball games in the world… and they were going to see my work!

Borrowing a game cabinet and Seattle board from Mark Turmell, I quickly got Bagatelle-2000 ready to demo. The various pinball teams came down, gave it a glance, and declared in one voice: “THIS IS NOT PINBALL!”  Some were more open minded and gracious than others, but most were against it. I remember George Gomez (ever the purist) being quite negatively vocal about it. Oddly enough, I didn’t disagree with any of their sentiments. Pinball is an amazing game of skill and physics, which gave birth to the phrase “THE BALL IS WILD!”  I knew my game wasn’t true pinball. I was just trying to offer an alternative in an era where real pinball sales had been drying up.

After receiving the mostly-negative feedback, I was invited to check out the secret PINBALL-2000 project. It was an early-stage prototype, which consisted of a gutted Attack-From-Mars cabinet with a preliminary white-board playfield, and a monitor mounted above the glass hidden within a cardboard-cowl. The effect was unique, and I immediately saw the potential for amazing new game play. With the video incorporated as an add-on to a normal pinball table it was definitely still REAL PINBALL. The verdict was in: I got my walking papers and caught the next plane home.  (Note: It’s worth mentioning that a year later that prototype Pinball-2000 cabinet was re-assembled by Brian Eddy back into a working Attack From Mars. I later purchased that machine from Brian, and still have it in my collection.)

For the next 2 years I worked with Midway’s amazing Pod-5 team on Ready-2-Rumble Boxing for the Dreamcast launch, then Ready-2-Rumble Boxing – Round 2 for Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 launch. Meanwhile, the “Bagatelle-2000” prototype sat quietly in my office. I would often play it, along with other employees that wanted a quick break, but otherwise it was mostly forgotten. In the meantime, Pinball-2000 launched with much fanfare. Revenge From Mars and Star Wars Episode 1 released together, with the promise of a third “Wizard Blocks” to come out soon after. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, as weak sales would ultimately see the close of the entire WMS pinball department.

It was around November, 2000, during the launch of our game Ready-2-Rumble Round 2, that I got an unexpected call from Mark Turmell. He tells me that the pinball guys in Chicago are now talking about possibly making a video-pinball game. He remembered that I had demoed the idea two years previous and felt that I should have the right of first refusal. So, did I want to resurrect the idea and do it, or let them come up with something? I told him I TOTALLY WANTED TO DO IT! And thus, VIDBALL was born.

VIDBALL pinball cabinet mock-ups
VIDBALL pinball cabinet mock-ups

VIDBALL was presented as a video-pinball solution, utilizing the company’s emmense pinball catalog. It would be a full-size arcade machine, with a front resembling a normal pinball cabinet, but with a large video screen in place of the playfield. (Large flat-panel LCD displays were not yet a thing.)  It would use accelerometers (a new chip at the time) to react to player nudges, and would offer both “Classic” and “Enhanced” versions of many of the company’s classic pinball titles. A plan was even considered to have the machine go into an “over 21” mode and offer risque-titles partnered with an adult magazine like MAXIM or PLAYBOY. These titles would unlock during certain operating hours.

VIDBALL arcade cabinet mock-ups
VIDBALL arcade cabinet mock-ups
VIDBALL enhanced-mode characters
VIDBALL enhanced-mode characters (Imprisoned Princess [TotAN], Graveyard Zombie [TAF], Pole Dancer [Risque Table])

The initial team was made up of three people: Myself as Lead Programmer, Game Designer, and Game Lead; Alesia Howard as Lead Artist; and Donny Hamilton as Modeler/Illustrator. Brian Eddy was also brought on as remote co-designer and consultant. Design docs were drawn up. Cabinet mock-ups were made. And ultimately a prototype was created. In an attempt to pique the interest of the WMS leadership, it was decided to make our first prototype one of the adult-only risque tables. Since this was to be a proof-of-concept, the game rules were kept simple. It consisted of a fairly basic playfield design, with outer loops and drop-targets, but backing the drop-target bank was a stage, and on the stage was a pole-dancer dressed in leaves. As you hit the drop-targets, leaves would fall from her body, until ultimately she would be dancing naked.

The big day came, and a posse of about 15 management and marketing types showed up at the studio to check out the VIDBALL prototype. Everything was running and ready to demo, so I led them all to the prototype and instructed Neil to press START.

As I remember it, Neil quite enjoyed the game. One of the marketing people behind him made the comment that they had never seen him so engaged in a pinball machine before – an obvious snarky comment to the fact that he was trying very hard to remove all of the leaf-clothing…

After the game was over, we moved back to the conference table and Neil had a seat. I was feeling pretty good, thinking the demo had gone really well!

“First of all,” Neil opened, “that was a lot of fun!” 

“Great!” I’m thinking.

“One thing though, before we continue…” he says.

“Okay…” I respond, wondering what he’s about to say.

“We’re closing down COIN-OP.”

I’m stunned. I’m speechless. I’m in shock.

The conversation continues with questions like  “Do you think you could sell this on the home market?”

“No, it wasn’t made for that,” I responded.

“How about TouchMaster? Could you write it for that?” Ken suggests.

“Touchmaster doesn’t have the 3D capabilities. Plus, It really needs to feel like a pinball machine, with nudge-sensing accelerometers, or there isn’t much point.” I replied.

“That’s what I thought,” Neil says. And with those words, VIDBALL was dead before it had even truly begun.

This was sometime mid 2001. Since then, many amazing 3D pinball simulators have come to market. VIDBALL was extremely primitive compared to what is available today, but back then it was cutting-edge, and (as far as I know) THE LAST PINBALL PROJECT under WMS.

Written for posterity.

-Teri Bertram

Email: teri1337@gmail.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/teri1337

 August 14th, 2021


Bagatelle-2000 Game Credits

Main Credits:

Game, Sound, Graphics, Hardware, etc. – Teri Bertram

Underlying Hardware:

BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S. Seattle Game ROMS – Jack Miller

BIO-F.R.E.A.K.S. Base Code – Dave Wagner

Supplying an empty fighting game cabinet right when I needed one! – Brian Johnson

VIDBALL Game Credits

Lead Programmer, Designer, Game Lead – Teri Bertram

Lead Artist – Alesia Howard Peterke

Modeler/Illustrator – Donny Hamilton

Co-Designer / Consultant – Brian Eddy

Motion Capture – J.R. Salazar

Music & Sound – Aubrey Hodges

Pole-Dancer Motion Capture Actress – Unknown

Pole-Dancer Voice – Redacted

MUCK database system – Dave Wagner

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

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Michel Korwin-Szymanowski
Michel Korwin-Szymanowski
24 days ago

What a story! Congratulations for being 20 years ahead of the times, and thank you for sharing.

Just an option
Just an option
23 days ago

So he was inventing VR pinball before VR pinball ever happened.

Railoffroader2
Railoffroader2
22 days ago

It’s a shame that never made it to production and even sadder that Williams shut down it’s pinball division.
They could easily come back today and blow away the current manufacturers taking the crown again, but most likely will never happen.

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