A pinball shark tale: champion gets accused of cheating

I don’t write about pinball much on this blog. That’s actually a good thing, as most of the stuff here is about things that go wrong in the world from my point of view. Sometimes the wrongs aren’t all that egregious but give me a chance to write something semi-humorous, others things go really wrong, and a select few are the real head-scratchers that have me saying “what the actual duck quack?” (Usually with much more bleepable language, of course.) I’m not sure where this one lies on that scale, so I’ll state the facts and my take and leave the judging up to you, the readers.

On March 4, Eric Stone played the new Jaws (LE) pinball live on an internet stream. Stern was, at the time, also running a contest called March Madness. (This is not to be confused with the more widely known NCAA basketball tournament.) The idea behind the contest was that the state with the best players (i.e. highest scores) would win.

Eric, for those of you who do not follow competitive pinball, is a very skilled pinball player. His most notable accomplishment is the 2022 IFPA World Pinball Championship. These are followed closely by a 2022 YEGPIN Match Play championship, a 2024 IFPA Florida State Pinball Championship, as well as two top 20 finishes at the IFPA Open. One does not land those kind of victories without a high level of pinball skill. More importantly, one doesn’t land those kind of victories without being an honest player (i.e. not cheating). Perhaps the latter of these two is even more relevant to the circumstances.

On the night in question Eric put up a mind-blowing score of 4 trillion on this Jaws pinball (see video). For reference, most players consider one billion to be very good score, with my personal best being a paltry 144 million and change. To be fair I have not played this particular title nearly as much as Eric has. The controversy comes from how Eric got to this score.

If you go to 32:35 in the video, Eric has caught all four sharks. He then starts spamming (repeatedly shooting) the spinner. This, in the game’s current state, scores millions of points per spinner tick. The high scoring is likely due to a bug in Stern’s code. Note that it’s incredibly difficult to get to this point. It’s certainly not something even most wizard-level players can do easily.

When he gets to the point where he can make the high-scoring spinner shots, Eric’s score isn’t too far over 1 billion. Obviously, Eric will score big and skyrocket his score geometrically by the end of the game. The 4 trillion score would (temporarily) put Florida in the lead in the March Madness contest.

Temporarily. That is, until Stern decided to disqualify it. That’s bad enough but the social media posts from Stern imply that Eric cheated, using words like “fishy”, “unfair”, and “foul play”:

My take on all this: you really can’t fault Eric for playing the game as Stern shipped it. Everyone has the same (presumably defective) code on their respective Jaws pinball machines. The game was on video. We, the pinball players and fans all over the world, can all see what happened. Most importantly, we can see that Eric did not cheat. Stern’s bad code is Stern’s fault, not Eric’s. The right thing for Stern to do was fix the code going forward, starting with the next round of the contest, letting the current scores stand.

To his credit, Eric handled this rather gracefully, acknowledging that he “didn’t get [the score] the way [Stern] wanted it” among other things, but also emphasizing the score was “earned”. That, honestly, is remarkable composure in the face of a very thinly veiled accusation of cheating. A lot of people would take such an accusation personally, myself included.

The Predator pinball disaster

This is the first post related to pinball that I’ve made to this blog. Given what I usually post here, I’m kind of hoping it’s the last.

Pinball News, among others, broke the story of a company called Skit-B Pinball and their flagship title, Predator, based on the movie of the same name. Skit-B has been developing this game since 2011 July. I, personally, didn’t know about it until sometime in 2014, just because I wasn’t following the pinball scene. I didn’t even know there was much of a pinball scene to follow anymore; I knew Stern Pinball was somehow still in business, even after Premier Technologies (the last company to make games under the Gottlieb brand name) bit the dust, and later WMS Industries (owners of the Williams and Bally pinball labels as well as the Midway and Atari Games video game labels) exited the pinball business after releasing a grand total of two titles on the much-heralded Pinball 2000 platform. This was back in the late 1990s, and I had just happened to be on a pinball-related IRC channel when news broke of WMS leaving the industry.

Anyhow, so it was with great interest that I began following the companies trying to keep pinball alive, one of them being Skit-B of course. I had expected, any day now, to read news that this great game was going to ship. And then the above story broke, and it’s obvious now that the game in its present form is unlikely to be made commercially available at all. I’m going to keep the quotes to a working minimum, because the story is very long and convoluted.

The important crux of the story is that Kevin Kulek, one of the founders of Skit-B, did something incredibly foolish: instead of approaching Twentieth Century Fox Licensing (hereinafter Fox for brevity) and getting the proper licensing in place, he decided he would just make the games unlicensed, in a low quantity, before Fox and their lawyers found out. That’s sort of like taking a trip of some distance in a car with no license plates, and hoping┬ánobody notices. Even if a cop doesn’t notice, someone will probably call it in.

It turns out Fox found out about it. At first nothing nasty happens, but sometime in 2013 they got their first cease and desist letter from Fox’s attorneys. As the story says:

it now appears Fox had sent Skit-B a ‘cease & desist’ notification, requiring them to remove all Predator-related materials and stop promoting or producing the game.

This was the defining moment where whatever notion of implied consent Skit-B may have thought they had was shattered. If they ever thought they had an agreement, this cease & desist proved they did not. And without an agreement from the [copyright] holder, the game could never go into production.

This was in mid-2013. As the story rolls on, things start happening, like a group of potential Predator buyers approaching Pinball News. By the time someone representing the buyers write this anonymous letter to Pinball News, Skit-B had already announced a second game, Experts of Dangerous featuring the likenesses of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (of the TV show Mythbusters). The buyers became suspicious, and many had paid deposits already; they requested refunds as they suspected Mr. Kulek and Skit-B had no license to make the game. This hunch would be confirmed a short time later.

The anonymous contact would make Pinball News privy to a phone call in 2015 January between himself and the senior copyright lawyer at Fox Entertainment Group. That lawyer said not only was no license in place between Fox and Skit-B, but that Mr. Kulek had been told several times to stop work on the game and that Fox was “looking to escalate matters” regarding the game, which could only refer to a lawsuit of some type (certainly injunctive relief, and quite possibly monetary damages as well).

It’s disappointing to read the story of the demise of what could have been a great pinball game, which appeared to be made in the style of the classic Williams/Bally dot matrix games of the 1990s to boot. I would hope Fox comes around, and Skit-B passes the work they have done to a reputable pinball manufacturer who can secure the licensing and finish the project.┬áI’m not holding my breath, though, as it is entirely possible this episode has made the pinball community look like a bunch of lawbreakers, and we may not see a Fox movie licensed as a pinball theme for many years now. It’s quite likely Fox will at least refuse to license Predator for any pinball, whether the one that Skit-B started or a brand new one. I hope they don’t do this. The law-abiding pinball players and hobbyists, such as myself, don’t deserve to suffer for one rogue manufacturer’s First Class Foul-Up.

Moral of the story: when planning a licensed work, get the licenses first. Don’t expect the copyright holders to grant licenses later.