PA Pinball Presents -
An Interview with John Buras
March 2007, I was fortunate enough to interview the talented pinball
game designer, John Buras. With his pinball career spanning over
three decades, John not only designed games for Gottlieb and Premier,
but played an integral role in the development of Premier Technology's
hardware and software for the System 3 pinball
platform. There are nearly a dozen
pinball machines that John has designed.
How did you get your start in the pinball industry?
I worked part time in the Gottlieb Northlake, IL factory while
attending college. I would test the individual assemblies,
bottom panel, lightbox), contained in electromechanical pins.
receiving my degree in electronics engineering (1977), I was offered a
position in engineering by Wayne Neyens.
I understand that your parents met while working at
Gottlieb. Can you elaborate?
Both of my parents had worked at the
Chicago, IL, (Kostner Avenue), Gottlieb factory over the years.
was a foreman of the playfield assembly line, and my mother was an
assembler and a solderer.
How were you initially exposed to pinball?
As a child, I visited the Kostner Avenue factory a few
father, and got to play some pins. Also, my father brought home
engineering sample of the game "Sing Along", that he put in our
basement. I still have that game to this day.
You mentioned that you still own a
sample Sing Along
game. Are there any other titles that you own, and do you play
machines on a regular basis?
I have a prototype Caveman and a Lucky
Exactly what years did you work for Gottlieb / Premier?
How did you become a designer at Gottlieb?
As I mentioned earlier, I was offered
a position in engineering in 1977. I worked closely with Ed
over the next couple of years. I would build Ed's experimental
electromechanical game designs for evaluation. In those days, Ed
transfer his design directly onto a blank playfield in pencil, and then
would machine the playfield, gather all the parts, assemble the
playfield, and then wire it. Also, I would assemble and wire the
panel, which mainly consisted of relays and the timing motor.
Buck Rogers, which was your first
credited design, was not supposed to be the theme when you started
designing it. What was the original theme, and why was it changed?
Originally, I had created the game
a golf theme. This theme was based around the captive ball and
vari-target combination. I also had a name in mind, Par
Four. But at
the time, space themes were becoming very popular, and golf was not
quite as popular as it is today.
Did you prefer working on license
themed designs or original designs?
I really did not have a
They both had their pluses and minuses. With a licensed theme,
design was already somewhat structured from the start, but you did not
have this limitation with original designs. But a good license
could really enhance the exposure of a game.
What inspired your playfield layout
Since I worked closely with Ed Krynski
for years, his designs definitely had an influence on mine as
Many of my new ideas would come to me when I was not even in the office.
I have read rumors that Ed Krynski
designed Asteroid Annie and the Aliens. Did Ed help in designing
the game at all?
No. I designed the game, but Ed
always offer advice, if I asked his opinion regarding any issue on any
game that I was designing.
When Asteroid Annie was created,
several System 80 games were already released months prior. Why
Asteroid Annie built based on the System 1 platform, and why was it
only a single player game?
I was asked to design a game using
System 1, because of the parts inventory still on hand. The game
designed as a single player, because I was able to carry over sequences
from ball to ball, without having to reset and start over on every ball
Gordon Morison is credited for the
artwork on three of your designed games. What was the process
like while working with him?
During my years at Gottlieb, I never
got the chance to work closely with Gordon. His work was done off
and then brought in to be reviewed by Wayne and other officers of the
Are you saying that Gordon was not
directly employed by Gottlieb? In other words, all of his artwork
was outsourced by Gottlieb?
I am not sure what arrangements Gordon had with the company.
When it was decided that you would be working on Black
Hole, what was your initial reaction?
What a challenge! I was lucky to work on two of the
unique and challenging designs while at Gottlieb, Black Hole and
Caveman. The Black Hole design brought many new aspects into the
process. What technique to use in cutting a hole in the upper
for viewing below? How will the ball be transferred to the lower
playfield and then returned to the upper playfield? Thats what
these games so fun to work on.
With Black Hole's extremely unique
design, (a standard and lower level playfield), what kind of feedback
did you receive from distributors, operators, and players when it was
We actually got calls stating that the coin rejectors were
getting jammed, because the cashbox was full.
Immediately following Black Hole, Eclipse was
appears to be a single level playfield version very similar to Black
Hole, except it has different artwork. What prompted the release
I believe Eclipse was done specifically for the
overseas market, because of the cost of Black Hole.
Which game design of yours took the longest to develop from
start to finish? Which took the least amount of time?
I would say that Caveman took the longest, because of the
interfacing of both the pinball and video systems. In addition to
I designed a totally new lightbox for the game. Asteroid Annie
may have taken the shortest time to design, because of the limitations
of the System 1 electronics.
Since you mentioned Caveman,
what particular reason was this game created?
Since video games were taking a lot of attention away from
pinball at the time, it was thought that this would attract some of the
video players to pinball.
I notice that the cabinet heads to
Caveman and Strike 'N Spares were very similar in design. Was
this done intentionally, or simply coincidence?
The design served dual purposes on Caveman. It gave a
unique look to the cabinet and also prevented glaring on the monitor
due to overhead lighting. It was also used on Strikes 'N Spares
the cabinet a unique look to set it apart from standard pins.
How did you come up with the design for Strikes 'N Spares?
I designed this game back at
Gottlieb/Mylstar shortly before the company was closed. I then
the design along when I started at Premier, but it did not get made
until the last days at Premier. My original design did not have
the flash, such as the animated bowling pins like the final version
Since I was involved with other duties at Premier, Ray Tanzer took my
prototype design, and enhanced it. I initially had the idea for
game, because the puck bowling machines were so popular at the
Many locations could not fit these bowling machines in their places,
because of their size though. I thought that this game could
fill a void, and turn people on to pinball as well.
Did the System 80 standard wide body
or ultra wide body playfield make designing easier or more difficult?
The standard wide body, which we used
to call our 2x4 playing field, was the most natural to work with,
because of the aspect ratio of height to width. To me, an ultra wide
body game was more difficult to design.
Do you recall who the artist of Star
Did you have any of your games or concepts never make it to
There were a few experimental games
that never made it. One of the games was in the 2x4 wide body
and was a multilevel design, which had a small independent playfield
located on part of the upper level, (game within a game). The
thing about this small playfield was that each flipper had an
independent flip counter associated with it. There was a display
below this playfield indicating the number of flips that were left on
each flipper. When either count reached zero, the respective
would stop operating. The counters were able to be incremented by
targets located on the main playfield.
Did you have a favorite playfield
gadget / mechanism that you used in any of your playfield designs?
Not especially. I usually incorporated devices that
with a particular theme or layout.
What is your favorite game designed by
you, and designed by others?
Mars, God of War was one of the
favorites that I designed. I think the game really came
together well as a complete package. I really liked the ball
on the playfield, and I also thought the artwork was excellent.
also a big fan of the older single level playfield designs, such as
Eight Ball Deluxe. The key to me liking a game was a simple
to understand, but tough to master.
What was your favorite platform, (System 1, System 80,
System 80A, System 80B, or System 3), to design for, and why?
That's an easy one. System 3 because it had the most
Besides being a designer, what other job responsibilities
did you have at Gottlieb / Premier?
During the years at Gottlieb, I mostly
concentrated on game design. I would also write the software for
of the games as well. There was a high level language developed
System 1 and System 2 (System 80) controllers, which simplified the
programming somewhat. Programs would need to be hand coded, and
typed into memory. This high level language was handy, but also
limiting in capability. The System 2 operating system was later
modified so that assembly language modules could be included to
increase the system flexibility.
You mentioned that you used a high
level language to program the controllers in System 1 and 2
platforms. What language was this comparable to, if any?
It was not really comparable to any
other language. It just made it simpler to control the scoring,
Was the System 80 platform transformed into the System 80B
platform due to contractual commitments with Rockwell, or was it
because another platform was not yet developed?
I was not involved with Rockwell directly, so I don't know
what agreements were made. Most of the interface with Rockwell
by our electrical engineer, Allen Edwall, at the time.
Shortly after the company changed
hands and became Premier,
there were several hardware design changes. Did you help
these changes, such as the separate power supplies, the alphanumeric
displays, the sound board, and the piggyback board on the CPU board?
I was involved in most of the
had handled the sound system. I was involved in the other designs.
Starting with the Premier game Rock, do you know who did
the majority of the music / sound programming?
Craig Beierwaltes was with us for most of the years at
Premier. He wrote the majority of the software for the sound
over the years. This included the sound effects and speech.
had composed some of the music early on at Premier. Later, Dave
Zabriskie joined the company, and composed much of the music for the
Did you play a role in development of
the System 3 platform?
When moving on to Premier Technology, I moved away from
playfield design, and concentrated on the software and hardware aspect
of game design. Early on at Premier, I would work closely with
Trudeau, and wrote the software for all of the games. In between
I would work on the design of System 3. Since I had worked with
2 for years, I was aware of the system's limitations. I made sure
System 3 was flexible enough for the future. I also wrote the
system for System 3.
Did you ever place any Easter eggs in
any of your code?
Did you also implement the design of the strobes on the
System 3 platform, where the lights and switches both shared the same
strobes? If so, how was this beneficial?
Due to the increasing requirements for
the number of lamps in a game, this was the most economical approach.
Is there a particular reason why
Gottlieb / Premier continued the use of open switching relays, as
opposed to encased relays?
They were much easier to service and
the company owned the tooling for the parts.
You were responsible for developing
the Smart Switch used in later Gottlieb games. What prompted this
design? Was the switch received well by operators?
One of the biggest complaints over the years after pinball
went solid state was dirty switches. This was mostly due to
contaminants due to the locations where pinballs were being
If you could come up with a switch technology that would be immune to
these contaminants, it would greatly reduce the maintenance on a
machine. This was very important, because pinball was always
the fact that the machines required more maintenance than a video
Anyway, I worked on the design with an outside company for over a year,
and finally came up with a version of the switch, which could be used
a drop in replacement for the standard leaf type switches in many
applications. To my knowledge, the switch was received
well. I often
wonder at times though how the switches are still performing in the
field, since I left the industry after Premier closed its doors.
Can you briefly describe what a Smart
The Smart Switch is basically a device which translates
mechanical energy into an electrical signal, that is similar to that of
a mechanical switch made with contact points, but with better
reliability. The switch design was based on the properties of
Do you keep in touch with any of the artists or other
designers that you had worked with at Gottlieb / Premier?
I keep in touch with some of them occasionally by phone or
What do you foresee in the future of
I do not believe pinball will ever be
as popular as it once was, but it will continue on as a unique niche
form of entertainment.
Can we expect John Buras to return to the pinball industry?
I can't see myself returning, due to the shrinking of the
industry as a whole. But as they say, never say never.
In closing, I just want to state that
it was a pleasure interviewing you, John. I appreciate you taking
the time from your schedule to do this. Is there anything that
you would like to add?
The only thing I would like to add is
that my time spent in the industry was very challenging, but at the
same time very rewarding with a personal sense of accomplishment.