Interview with Bob Nies, Creator of Elf Pinball

Interview with Bob Nies, Creator of Elf Pinball
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Interview with Bob Nies, Creator of Elf Pinball
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Interview with Bob Nies, Creator of Elf Pinball
Published on
September 1, 2022
Updated on
September 1, 2022
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Bob Nies with Elf at TPF

TWIP: I love Elf as a movie and watch it every year at Christmastime.  What made you think it would convert well to a pinball machine?

Bob Nies: At first I didn’t know if it would work. But after watching the movie for the 100th time with the family, we just started to point out what would be funny in a pinball machine and started making notes. A lot of our original ideas did not make it because they would have been too complex and I was trying to build this within a year (took almost 3), or they just did not work. If you look at one of my first layouts, you will see a large hole where the left roundabout now sits. I really wanted to make “Lincoln Tunnel”, that went under the PF, but the ball would not drop into it at high speeds. I also wanted to make a working escalator in place of the ramp, a revolving door, and a large realistic xmas tree that was fully lit up.

TWIP: Did you take any inspiration from other games while making Elf?

Bob: When I started building Elf, I was almost a newbie to pinball. I had only owned a Gottlieb Jack-In-The-Box and a Data East TMNT. I then picked up an old Student Prince and wanted to restore it. It was so far beyond, that I decided to do a retheme with mods and a 2nd playfield. It wound up being “Anime Poker” and plays horrible. So my inspiration was to build a machine that wasn’t so horrible. For me, fun pinball machines are more about the toys and less about skill shots. I was not building Elf for a tournament, although it has now been in one. I guess you could say fun House or Champion Pub gave me the idea that I wanted a large toy (Jester) in the middle of the game. I also spent some time looking at JJP machines – Always liked the look of theirs. Beyond that, everything else came out of my head. I spent countless hours with foam board and tape. There was one ‘must have’ before I even started and that was the playfield monitor. I just don’t like having to look at the backbox to know what’s going on. The backbox to me has always been for spectators.

Elf Pinball Jester
Elf Pinball Jester

TWIP: Can you give me a quick rundown of how the rules of the game work?  What modes, multiballs, and special features are there?

Bob: It’s quite simple, you must complete 7 levels:

  1. Sea of swirly-twirly gumdrops – complete a loop
  2. 7 levels of candy cane forest
  3. Lincoln tunnel
  4. Gimbels
  5. Son of a nutcracker
  6. Worlds best coffee
  7. Central Park

For each level, the small Playfield monitor tells you what needs to be completed to reach the next level. It’s normally 2 or 3 shots that need to be completed, pop jester, and/or complete a sequence. I built it this way knowing that I could easily change the rules to make it easier/difficult to reach the next level.

Multiball consists of hitting the main ramp 3 times to lock the balls. Then during multiball, you get an additional ball for each narwhal visit(VUK) – up to 6 balls total in play.

There are 2 ways to get an award. The first is for every time you hit both blue targets, a random award is given (multiball, points, extra ball, snowball fight, etc.). The second way to score an award, is to just keep playing. For every 60 seconds of play, you receive one of the random awards.

If you make the 180 ramp (from the small yellow flipper) enough times to spell SANTA, you will receive the largest points award allowed. This is tough as it does not persist between balls. I have only done it a couple times.

Elf Pinball Start Mode
Elf Pinball Start Mode

TWIP: I had a chance to play Elf at TPF this year.  Have you made any changes to the game since then?

Bob: I barely made it to TPF. I was programming up until a few hours before I left Tampa for the 17 hour drive. I wanted to do so much more, but just ran out of time. The largest change has been the Snowball Fight playfield, and being able to play it! For TPF it worked, but I wasn’t sure how it would hold up, so I made it very difficult to reach. I think only 3 or 4 people out of the 450+ games registered reached it. Also I did not have any video/graphics for the Snowball Fight. Now there is a Lego scene with 5 characters and for each time you hit one of the Lego people on the PF, the video character explodes just like they do in the Lego movies. Knock out all 5 for a mega bonus.

The other big issue that came up was stuck balls. There were 2 spots that the ball would get stuck, mainly the pop bumpers. This has been fixed and I turned TILT back on. The Jester would pop up, but only for a fraction of a second and most people missed it. It has been rebuilt with a flipper coil so I can hold it open for a long time(its now random times).

Elf was missing most video callouts, like ‘extra ball’, ‘shoot again’ and awards. These are being worked on now so player 2 doesn’t take player 1’s extra ball, and you know your bonus points. If you look at the backbox video during attract mode, you will notice the player high scores are on page 1 of a book that flips (like the beginning of the movie – it starts as a book). I hard coded these scores for TPF because there was a bug when entering your initials – this has been fixed.

I still have a long list of TODO’s that I am trying to finish for Expo.

Elf Pinball Snowball Fight
Elf Pinball Snowball Fight

TWIP: There have been rumors that Stern asked to have Elf removed from a tournament in order to protect their relationship with New Line Cinema or because they might have the license. What is the story there?

Bob: A few weeks back, I was invited to bring Elf to a local tournament. I was excited to have Elf displayed and played by experienced tournament players. It was also a good test for my latest code changes. This was actually my first tournament I had ever played, and I lost on my own machine by millions!

I don’t like to spread rumors or have a shop owner angry at me, but all I can really say is that the tournament was asked to remove the game from play and pull any images from Facebook. I was actually relieved when I found out the reason because I thought it was pulled due to breakage or player complaints. Previous to this, I had noticed that a lot of my images have mysteriously disappeared on a couple Facebook groups, and another website. Also back on May 10, Stern posted a 6 second video on YouTube, of a machine being boxed up at their plant – google “elf pinball” and LISTEN to the video before they pull it. Very interesting, is it a teaser? Either way, It doesn’t really matter to me. I built Elf for fun, not to sell it. I don’t own the license so kudos to anyone that may have snatched it up after my TPF reveal.

TWIP: It sounds like you have plans to take Elf to the Pinball Expo this year.  Are you hoping for American Pinball to take some notice with their homebrew program? Any other conventions/festivals we can expect to see it at?

Bob: I plan on taking Elf to Expo. Of course I will enter in American’s competitions, just to see where I stand up to all the other awesome homebrewers. Over the past few years I have swapped tips and tricks with most of them and now I finally get to meet a lot of them. After that I will make an appearance at FreePlay Florida since it’s only 2 hours from me. Then I plan on retiring Elf to my small collection and focus on my next machine.

TWIP: You mentioned that you are going to start working on a Tommy Boy homebrew next.  Do you have any plans for it that you can share at this time?

Bob: When I decided to build a pinball, it was between Elf and Tommy Boy. So Tommy boy is definitely next. I really wanted to do a non-movie theme, but I can’t get Chris Farley out of my head! Damn I miss that fat guy in a little coat. I am currently in the planning and design stage. Working on playfield layouts with CAD and 3d printing prototypes. All I can say is that the main focus will be around the Callahan Auto Parts plant, and a road trip. Also focusing on creating an original playfield layout, just as I did for Elf. The largest compliment I get on Elf is that it ‘plays different’ – I want to keep that feeling for Tommy Boy.

Bob: Just a few short words if I may. There have been a lot of people in the homebrew community that made Elf possible. Without them, I would probably have burnt my house down – seriously. I almost gave up on my first attempt at building a hombrew (Anime Poker) after I caught fire to all my OPP circuit boards, twice! I decided to contact Gerry Stellenberg with Multimorphic and he spent a lot of time setting me up the correct way. I then joined his Slack channel, met lots of homebrewers, and it’s been an adventure ever since. Thanks to Jan Kantert and Anthony van Winkler for MPF. Coleman Martin, Scott Dansei, John M, Dan H. Eli C, and others…