The complete Bally Fathom pinball page


Part II of the Greg Freres interview:
Who is the woman in the boat?
Greg: The woman in the boat is the divers girlfriend. Never dive alone, although in his case it didn’t matter. I think he just told her to «wait in the boat».

Of course, that's clear, especially after reading the sell sheet. It's known that artists often added personal things which are hiding in the artwork (like Gordon Morison's girlfriend name Sue on Princess Ardala's bikini top on the backglass of «Buck Rogers»). What I wanted to know is, whether this woman is someone special or just a character of the whole theme?
Greg: The girl in the boat really is just a storyline element. I think the playfield was done and then I had the idea of turning the sell sheet into a introduction to the game via a quick storyline set-up.

The production run of 3500 pieces is quite low. Why?
Greg: The early eighties were a dismal period for pinball (duh!) and if a game wasn’t completely supported by sales, or the distributors, then production runs were short. Games with pool or card themes were always a safe and conservative approach when the market softened so maybe the theme of «Fathom» was a bit too esoteric for the sales department to really support. Compare Fathom’s production numbers to, say, «BMX», and it starts looking pretty good!

How much was paid for the game by companies leasing machines to arcades and how much did arcades have to pay for it?
Greg: I was too removed from the sales department to know what the sales price of any game was at that time. I would venture to guess in the range of $1,200.00 to distributors and then they would put their mark-up on it to operators, but that’s a total guess. I’m sure some readers of this would have closer estimates.

If you look at the machine now, over 20 years after the design – would you change something?
Greg: I’d probably re-do the back glass. I’ve learned a lot since then and I’d like to try and enhance the previous work. If I could, I’d re-do the cabinet graphics since we were only capable of doing stencil art back then which is a very limiting method of decoration. I wouldn’t touch the playfield, I’m good with that.

I agree – the backglass is a bit cruel in someway. But, in my opinion it attracts many people because of the controversy of the displayed situation. So how does a «new» Fathom backglass would look like?
Greg: New fathom backglass – is too much to think about but it would just have better technique and attention to detail.

Do you collect Pinball machines and have a «Fathom» for yourself?
Greg: I don’t collect pinball machines like the fans collect them. I was fortunate to work for a company that allowed the design team members to purchase a game that they had helped design. I own about 7 games that date back to when I began working for Williams. I have never owned a «Fathom» because Bally did not offer the same opportunity.

What is your favorite Pinball machine?
Greg: I have many favorite games for different reasons. My first recollection of playing a pinball machine because it was fun to play was «Wizard». I played many games because they were there but «Wizard» was the first that I had to go back and play again. At another point in my life (single) we sought out pinball games as we bar hopped in the Chicago suburbs. It’s funny how certain games remind me of different «watering holes». Sometimes certain bars had only Bally games or only Gottlieb games. I played «Cleopatra» at a bar on North Lincoln Avenue for beers, I played «Flash» at my friends bar in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and I played a broken «Evil Knievel» in Glenview, Illinois, because it racked up more points than it should have when the spinners were lit. My favorite game that I helped design is probably «Scared Stiff». Every game that I’ve worked on has special memories but I feel closest to «Scared Stiff». The design process involved some great highs and some very deep lows that had everything to do with the changing times of pinball.

Did you ever think that «Fathom» would become that popular?
Greg: «Fathom» was what I would call a «sleeper» when it was released – probably due to the sagging market conditions (and the strength of the new video market). I didn’t realize any pinball machine could ever become as popular as some have become over the years. The popularity of these games really kicked in when the Pinball Expo began in the late 1980’s. About that time, Gary Flower offered to buy the backglass art for «Fathom» and I almost worked out a deal (and I mean deal) with him, but quickly reconsidered. The pop culture value of these machines is just amazing to me and I really appreciate all of the fan support.

There are many collectors of Pinball machines around the world paying enormous prices for several machines. Do you think Pinball design is art?
Greg: Yes, I suppose you could say pinball design is art. It’s a great marriage of graphic art, kinetic art, engineering, music and sound, and software design. And when it’s all done it’s a fun game to play! I met and worked with many talented «artists», each one bringing their unique talent to the table. Working in this industry made 21 years of my life just fly right on by. But I’m left with great memories and good friends.

I’m proud to say my «art» is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Whole Pop Catalog, several books, websites and in numerous «locations» around the world. As an illustrator, I couldn’t have been in a better industry. I originally wanted to do album covers as an illustrator but I now know that Pinball was a better vehicle for an illustrator and probably a lot more fun. Right place, right time.

What do you think about Pinball in general and about its future?
Greg: I miss working in the pinball industry; I miss the camaraderie of the design department and I miss the creation of the product itself. I believe there is room for some amount of games in the world but I’m not sure if there could ever be a resurgence in popularity enough to support more than one company. The world has changed but Pinball is still a small part of the landscape because of its pop culture status. I recently saw an MTV commercial based on a young couple playing a pingame and a recent Mick Jagger video that included a cameo appearance by «Revenge from Mars». There is a place for Pinball but unfortunately, the practicality of the product as a money making machine in the coin-op business is an up hill battle. I hope Gary Stern can continue to make quality product for the existing market but I really want something to happen, maybe even an external jolt of some kind, that will dramatically (or magically) increase the demand for the product. But until that happens, it seems Stern Pinball’s will be the only new product around. And the rest will be in our basements (and family rooms, living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms…)

Right now you are working for Midway Games. What is your job there?
Greg: I am currently working as a lead artist for a Play Station 2 game development team designing an action/adventure title. It’s quite a challenging project and a great opportunity to learn a lot of new stuff. And our team lead is Brian Eddy, a familiar face that I’ve worked with in the Pinball past.

Would you go back to the Pinball business if there would be one?
Greg: Like I said earlier I miss pinball a great deal, and of course I’d go back to the industry if they’d have me! I miss the people, the in-house competition between teams, the creation phase, the production phase, but mostly I miss the laughs. When we designed pinball we built in plenty of humor and that’s really what I miss the most. When you design something with a sense of humor, the process of the design phase is usually loaded with laughs along the way. Even a more serious theme like «Star Trek: The Next Generation» had great moments when the entire team was having great fun (usually at someone’s expense). Every team had a unique chemistry of people associated with it, but the common thread was we were all having a great time doing the work. Recently, I’ve been offered work as a freelance artist for some pinball titles but my full time job prevents me from taking on any side work. Plus, if I did get an opportunity to do another game, I’d want to devote 110 % of my attention and skills to the project, because that’s what it takes to create a standout product. My best wishes go out to the people who are still making their living from pinball; their dedication and passion for the game are the reason we are still seeing some great new games. And thanks to all the fans for the years of support and appreciation of the game.

«Helllllllp, Surface, Fathom»

Thank you for having the time for the interview Greg! All the best for the future.

<< back to Part I