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TMCNet:  He keeps his eye on the ball [Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA)]

[December 29, 2013]

He keeps his eye on the ball [Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA)]

(Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) BENTON, Wis. - Few adults play games at work. Not only does Charlie Emery, 45, of Benton, play them, he builds them.

The owner of Spooky Pinball, Emery crafts the games in a busy, bright and colorful workshop - sort of like a young Santa Claus.

"There's no logical reason these should exist," he said. "People spend thousands of dollars to smack a steel ball around. I come here, build games, go home and play them (more than 20). My wife always knows where I'm at." In February, Emery left a good position at Signcraft Screenprint, in Galena, Ill., after 21 years and "after much thought and debate," to pursue his dream full time.

Through contacts and friends at Signcraft, Emery built a new, custom game from parts of an old game.

"We basically gutted a game like a fish, stripped it down to nothing, into a custom game, just for fun," he said.

Emery and his son, then 9 years old, took the game to the 2010 Midwest Gaming Classic in Chicago.

Industry people started coming by, looking at it and asking Emery about it.

"'Why did our game look so good?' 'How did we do this?' 'How does your home-brewed look as good, if not better, as our production game?'" he said.

That's what spurred Emery on his new journey. It's a collaborative effort. Emery credits Andrew Edgerton, of Benton, who serves as a game programmer; Ben Heck, of Madison, a game designer; and Dennis Nordman, of Lake Villa, Ill., who serves as a consultant.

"Andrew is an invaluable resource and incredibly talented," he said. "We don't exist without him." Heck designed America's Most Haunted, the company's first production game. Pinball Zombies From Beyond the Grave is due for release in April.

Emery calls pinball machines "giant Rubik's cubes of wire with infinite possibilities and only one correct way to get it." He said it takes a special skill set to physically manufacture the game.

Emery has energy-drink confidence in Spooky Pinball, in existence for less than a year.

"The sky is absolutely the limit," he sad. "We can survive on low numbers of games, where big companies can't, because we're so self- contained. We do everything here. We do all of our own printing, our own play fields, cabinets, circuit boards." Emery said the company has partners, who help with some of the common pinball parts, an on-site laser cutting machine, lamination capability and 3D printing, all in the Benton Business Incubator.

"We'll make as many (machines) as we can sell," he said. "And we couldn't have done this without the people in Benton." The entire process, from the development of the idea to the final product, takes about a year. He said Spooky Pinball has to generate its own music and speech. A script must be written, as well as programming.

The industry has noticed. Emery recalls taking America's Most Haunted, still in the prototype stage, to the Midwest Gaming Classic. It caught the attention of Steve Ritchie.

An acclaimed pinball and video game designer, he has been called "The Master of Flow" by pinball aficionados due to the emphasis in his designs on ball speed and loops. "He's the god of all pinball designers," Emery said. "He played our game and flat out told us it did not suck. We took that as the highest compliment from the highest pinball designer ever." RESURGENCE Pinball machines have been around since the early 1930s, with major advances in electrification and active bumpers that were introduced. "It's a part of our culture that we almost lost," Emery said. "It is its own little world." Emery noted the video game craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s dealt a severe blow to pinball revenue. It surged briefly in the early 1990s, tanked and in the late '90s, "came back strong," he added.

Emery thinks men his age and those younger are discovering pinball.

"Pinball, to me, you just can't duplicate it, any other way than to physically have the machine, and there's no other experience or game like it," he said.

He said in video games, players can do a "million different things. It's there, it's visual, but it's not real. Pinball is real. You're hitting a solid object at targets, at ramps. It's different." Part of the thrill for Emery is designing.

"It's insanely creative," he said. "It's a blank palette." GETTING THE WORD OUT Emery's creative mind spawned the Spooky Pinball Podcast, broadcast monthly, and has featured Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Butch Patrick, of "The Munsters" fame; Gary Stern, of Stern Pinball Inc., in Melrose Park, Ill.; and the industry's Jack "Jersey Jack" Guarnieri, of Jersey Jack Pinball.

The podcasts, which also have family members, are popular and can be viewed on Spooky's website.

Emery was born in Dubuque and "pretty much" grew up in East Dubuque, Ill.

Emery, when he can find the time, also is a musician - capable on the drums, keyboard and guitar.

But pinball is the nirvana, the insatiable nectar.

"There's a finish line, a spot that says 'I have to beat this game,'" he said. "It reaches the wizard mode, the ultimate objective. It's like dominating Monopoly, winning all the property." (c) 2013 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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