Pat Lawlor

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For other people named Patrick Lawlor, see Patrick Lawlor (disambiguation).
For the model, see Pat Lawler.

Patrick M. Lawlor (born 1951) is a video game and pinball machine designer.

Lawlor's pinball career began as an engineer for Williams in 1987, when he co-designed a dual-playfield machine called Banzai Run with Larry DeMar. Pat Lawlor had previously been a video game designer and had entered the coin-operated game design world in 1980, working for Dave Nutting Assoc. In 1988, he was given the reins of his first individual design project, a machine entitled Earthshaker!, which was released in January 1989.

Early games[edit]

Lawlor's first solo project, Earthshaker!, was noteworthy for its integration of a relatively obscure theme (earthquakes). The follow-up to Earthshaker! tackled a different form of natural disaster: tornados. The new game, Whirlwind, was released in early 1990 to similar praise. Both games demonstrated components of Lawlor's design methodology.

Foremost, Lawlor exhibited his instinct for introducing elements that were thematically appropriate and altered gameplay. For instance, upon progressing toward the multiball mode in Earthshaker!, the playfield would begin to shake rapidly to simulate the effect of an earthquake. In a similar mode in Whirlwind, rubberized disks set flush in the playfield would spin rapidly back and forth to throw the ball off-course as it passed over them, while an electric fan mounted on top of the backbox would blow wind in the player's face.

Secondly, Lawlor established his general design style and signature playfield patterns in these first two games. Both games were noted for their crowded playfields, especially when compared to the more fast, flow-oriented machines that were most popular at the time. Lawlor also introduced his signature "bumper shot", in which players needed to shoot the ball on the level playfield between pop bumpers, which is a tricky shot that requires great precision. Also, many of the shots in Earthshaker! and Whirlwind were obstructed when attempted from the lower flippers, and Lawlor's affinity for "horizontal play" was accordingly displayed. Critical shots in both games were only likely to be hit from a third flipper, located near the middle of the playfield on one side, requiring that players develop acuity at sending the ball across the playfield rather than simply up the playfield. Thus, his style of gameplay has often been described by players as "stop and go". Whirlwind was among the first pinball machines to feature what became known as a "wizard mode," a final special mode accessed by particularly skilled players for completing numerous difficult tasks on the playfield, a reward that would be imitated in many future designs. "Wizard modes" were important in giving pinball games a sense of progression that pinball had lacked in its earlier years.

Lawlor followed up Earthshaker! and Whirlwind with a new game called FunHouse, released in November 1990. Funhouse was a carnival-oriented game which bore the trademark playfield elements established in Earthshaker and Whirlwind, plus a unique talking head named "Rudy" (voiced by Ed Boon), and over 10,000 machines were produced.

More recent games[edit]

The Addams Family[edit]

Lawlor's next design went on to become the best-selling pinball of all time. The Addams Family (TAF) was released in March 1992 by Midway (under the Bally label) and ultimately sold 20,270 units. The Addams Family was the first time Lawlor developed a game around a licensed theme rather than an original concept.

Addams Family included several new features. For example, Lawlor added a computer-controller mini-flipper that could "learn" how to hit a particularly difficult shot after numerous attempts: If the player activated the "Thing" flipper, the game automatically attempted the shot with no user control. Lawlor also used magnets on the playfield that were activated during multiball and other modes, adding tension and randomness to the gameplay. In 1994 a limited-edition Gold version was produced to commemorate the record-breaking sales of the original. The Addams Family Gold featured minor rule modifications, as well as cosmetic enhancements such as a gold lockbar and gold-trimmed rails.

Twilight Zone[edit]

His next design (over which he was given complete creative control) was another licensed theme based on a popular television show: The Twilight Zone (TZ). While Twilight Zone never sold as many units as The Addams Family (although it did sell over 15,000 units,) it is one of the more popular machines amongst pinball enthusiasts, due in part to its complicated ruleset.

This complexity, however, was a mixed blessing, and highlighted many of the unfortunate pitfalls of the coin-operated game industry in general and pinball in particular. The more elaborate the game, the more likely it would be well received by the die-hards but conversely seem overwhelming to the average player, which in turn would hurt sales. Twilight Zone was a tremendously expensive machine to reproduce, particularly in the massive quantities that were expected following the astronomical record sales of The Addams Family. Lawlor was well aware of the difficulties the project posed, as he told an audience at a trade show in 2003. "We had a nickname for Twilight Zone," he said, "and it was 'In Excess Pinball'...we had just gotten done setting the record with Addams Family, and [Williams executives] were willing to let us do anything, and we did, which was a big mistake." While he conceded that "extreme pinball players" would find the game to be great, he would add that "from a commercial standpoint, we were out of control...nobody would be allowed to do something that complicated again; nor should they be."

Among its toys were a magnetic flipperless mini-playfield in which the player used magnets that can shoot the ball up toward a hole to complete a mode. It had a gumball machine that could be loaded by the player, shooting balls into a lane, where the ball would be transported under the playfield and be loaded into a gumball machine. The gumball machine was also related to another new feature, in which a white ceramic "Powerball"—which was lighter and had a different dynamic—would be released in a certain multiball mode.

Road Show[edit]

After the release of Steve Ritchie's Star Trek: The Next Generation machine in late 1993, the fortunes of the pinball industry began to decline as the coin-operated arcade industry faltered in the face of increasingly advanced home video game systems. 1994 saw the release of Red & Ted's Road Show, a game that paid homage in many respects to The Addams Family and Twilight Zone while reverting to the more generic theme-oriented play of his earlier games like Earthshaker!, Whirlwind, and FunHouse. Instead of another natural disaster theme, Lawlor decided to make a game based on an even more obscure, but naturally occurring theme involving construction work and cross-country travel. It is said that he arrived at the concept for Road Show while sitting stuck in rush-hour traffic outside of Chicago due to road construction. The game naturally became very popular at truck stops.

While the theme of Road Show paid homage to Earthshaker! and Whirlwind, the game's most prominent feature was a duplication of one of Lawlor's toys, the talking "Rudy" head in FunHouse. Road Show included two talking head characters: a male bulldozer driver named Ted and his female boss named Red (voiced by country singer Carlene Carter; she also performs her song, "Every Little Thing" in the multi-ball and jackpot modes). The game's design, however, bore most resemblance to The Addams Family and Twilight Zone, in that a sinkhole started modes, the progression of which could be followed by a prominent display in the bottom center of the playfield. It had an interesting dual plunger design reminiscent of a similar setup in FunHouse.

Decline of pinball[edit]

1995 marked the first year since 1991 that a new Pat Lawlor-designed pinball machine did not appear. The decline of the pinball industry had intensified by this point, and even though several well-received pinball machines came out during this period, including Steve Ritchie's No Fear: Dangerous Sports, John Popadiuk's Theatre of Magic, and Brian Eddy's Attack from Mars, the commercial success of pinball machines was diminishing by each fiscal quarter.

In 1996, Lawlor designed a new take on pinball, an innovative game called Safecracker, which featured a much smaller playfield than standard pinball machines of the time, operated on a timer rather than a 3-ball structure, and featured a backglass-based "board game" as a major gameplay feature. Safecracker was unique in that players could earn collectible tokens by achieving certain goals. It is widely believed that Safecracker was actually originally intended to be a game based on the Monopoly board game, a contention supported by the prominence of the generic board game ultimately included in the final product, but Williams was unable to negotiate a favorable deal for the license. True or not, Lawlor would get another crack at Monopoly in 2001. Safecracker, however, met with uneven critical response and was not a particularly successful commercial product: only 1,148 units of Safecracker left the Williams factory (compared to the over 20,000 units of The Addams Family only four years earlier.)

Lawlor returned to his more conventional style in 1997 with No Good Gofers, an amusing golf-themed machine that returned to his standard signature design elements as well as featuring the return of the spinning disc from Whirlwind. The game included a retractable ramp that would launch a ball onto a transparent upper playfield with a hole at the top to simulate a golf shot for a "hole-in-one". No Good Gofers was a limited commercial success with only 2,711 units made.

1998, however, would mark the beginning of the end for the Williams pinball franchise, as its final three games, The Champion Pub, Monster Bash, and Cactus Canyon were released. The production run of Cactus Canyon was cut short as Williams made a drastic alteration in their hardware philosophy, attempting to revitalize the pinball industry by integrating video screens with standard pinball playfields with Midway's Revenge from Mars (the sequel to 1995's Attack From Mars, and designed by longtime Midway employee George Gomez) in 1999. This experiment, called Pinball 2000, ended ignominiously after heavy initial losses, and Williams ceased pinball operations in late 1999, leaving Pat Lawlor's only planned game for the Pinball 2000 platform, Wizard Blocks, on the cutting room floor.

Stern era[edit]

At this time, Lawlor founded Pat Lawlor Design (PLD) with partners John Krutsch (mechanical designer for all of Lawlor's games) and Louis Koziarz (software programmer), and agreed to terms with Stern Pinball to distribute pinball machines, beginning with a September 2001 release of a traditional pinball machine based on the world's most popular board game, Monopoly. Monopoly was well received by the pinball community and the signature elements of Lawlor design were prominently included.

Lawlor has since designed RollerCoaster Tycoon, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, NASCAR (also known as Grand Prix in Europe), Family Guy, and CSI pinball machines for Stern. NASCAR, released in 2005, was a bit of a departure from Lawlor's normal design philosophy, as it more "flow-oriented" gameplay, due to the more speed oriented theme. Family Guy, released in 2007, was notable for a unique design element, the "Stewie Pinball", a mini playfield within a playfield. Unlike other mini playfields which simply reduced the distance between pinball elements, "Stewie Pinball" actually engineered all the pinball elements to be completely reduced in scale, a first in mini playfield design. The Family Guy playfield design was duplicated and re-released as Shrek the following year, with all the same features and a different rule set.

Prediction of pinball's demise[edit]

At the 2007 Pinball Expo in Chicago, Illinois, Pat Lawlor predicted the complete demise of pinball manufacturing within five years. However, he failed to comment on whether or not the relatively small sales of STERN titles (compared with the heyday of Williams) contributed to his industry analysis.

Jersey Jack Pinball[edit]

On January 24, 2014, Jersey Jack Pinball announced that Pat Lawlor would be designing their third machine, after The Wizard of Oz (shipping) and The Hobbit (due January 2016). Unlike the first two based on movies, this machine will be an original theme.[1]

Games designed[edit]


Midway (Bally)[edit]

Stern / Pat Lawlor Design[edit]

External links[edit]