What Is a Pinball DMD? and Why Is it So Important?


In pinball, there is no lack of flashing lights and indicators. One of the most important is none other than the DMD or Dot Matrix Display. So, what is a pinball DMD and why is it so important?

Dot Matrix Display (DMD) is a type of electronic display which uses a 2D matrix of dots to represent words and images. DMDs are used to show players their score and allowed the pinball programmers to add an unparalleled number of new features to improve the gameplay by:

  • Giving players game objections or goals
  • Providing detailed game graphics
  • Immerse players in a narrative
  • Playing mini-games known as video modes

Dot Matrix Display

DMD refers to a 2D matrix of dots that can represent words, symbols or images. DMDs are not LED matrices but rather high voltage plasma gas discharge displays. The technology was first invented in 1964 and became popular in the 1970s and continues to be used today for electronic road signs, airports, and stock exchanges.
In DMD the images are created using a discrete set of dots instead of lines and shapes. More dots mean better clarity and detail, for example, a 16×16 dot matrix can represent the letters more accurately than an 8×8 matrix.

If enough dots are used the image will appear as a contiguous display rather than a group of dots. The human eye blends the dots together to create a coherent image. Newspaper print is made up of dot matrixes, but it is hard to notice unless examined closely.

DMD Pinball Machines

Before the invention of the DMD, pinball machines showed their scores on spinning reels powered by gears which made quite a bit of noise. Interestingly, pinball manufacturers were concerned that players would find digital scoreboards too quiet. To combat this more gear and spinning features were placed on playfields.

The racing-themed game Checkpoint released by Data East in 1991 was the first pinball machine to use a DMD. For the first time, a pinball display could show more than simple alphanumeric text. It could display animations, graphical cues, and tailored messages.

The Terminator 2 pinball machine created by Williams in 1991 was the first pinball machine to use what became known industry standard DMD. The Terminator 2 DMD was taller and could show larger and better-detailed graphics.

The technology was considered revolutionary and remained the standard display choice for most pinball machines released from 1992 onwards.

SEGA made some further innovations in DMD technology by making their displays larger by about twice the height of the then established standard display size.

DMD is still used today for modern pinball machines, in 2016 Stern released The Ghostbusters pinball machine which featured a DMD which assisted in giving the modern game a retro feel.

Older DMD pinball machines are also receiving an upgrade with a popular aftermarket modification. The color DMD allows the same information to be displayed in dot format but with the benefit of color.

DMD became such an iconic part of pinball that the technology persisted even after more advanced alternatives of display became available.

Pinball machines which use DMDs allow the designers to provide players with improved gameplay by providing players with additional information such as game goals, graphics, and video modes.

Pinball Playing Goals

The DMD allowed manufacturers to feature additional methods of gameplay by providing written instructions and goals for the player to follow. In Medieval Madness, for example, players are instructed on the DMD to spell out the word “Fire” by hitting the individual letters of the word eight times.

Last Action Hero machine uses its DMD to guide players through difficult objectives such as lighting up dynamite and shooting the crane to save the character, Danny. The additional goals add extra layers of gameplay and allowed for more complexity.

DMD or Graphic Communicator

DMDs allowed manufacturers to implement more licensed content into their games by showing characters and scenes from movies. The Back to the Future machine uses DMD to depict scenes from the film, such as when lightning strikes the clock.

Lord of the Rings DMD showed many scenes from the films and the characters actually look like their movie counterparts. The Guns N Roses pinball machine featured images of topless women, making it a popular addition to bars and clubs around the world.

DMD graphics allowed for further narrative and storytelling within the game. The Creature from the Black Lagoon machine allowed players to beat up a peeping top.

The greatest feature of DMDs, however, would have to be the introduction of a new kind of mini-game. A game within a game called video modes.

DMD Video Modes

DMDs are important because it allowed game designers to introduce mini-games called video modes which are played on the display itself. When a video mode is activated, the action on the playfield temporarily stops and switches to the video screen.

A simple video game starts which is played with the left and right flipper buttons. Once the video mode is over the pinball is returned to the playfield and the game is resumed. The difficulty of activating video mode depends on the specific pinball machine.

The first machine to feature a video mode was Caveman created by Gottlieb. The machine had a video screen embedded at the top of the pinball playfield. The player activated the video mode by shooting the ball into either side of the screen starting the mini-video game. The player would control the Caveman and guide him through a maze hunting down dinosaurs whilst collecting extra balls and avoiding a T-rex.

The Terminator 2 is credited as popularising video modes on pinball machines. The Terminator 2 video mode was a shooting game where the player moves an onscreen cursor left or right while fighting off advancing terminator robots and HK drones. The mini-game ended once all the enemies were defeated or when the player is shot three times.

Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure featured three separate video modes. The game was based on the original Indiana Jones trilogy and the movies were represented equally with a video mode dedicated to each film. These were called Gunfight at the Raven Bar, Escape in the Mine Cart and Choose Wisely.

The Theatre of Magic machine even featured a pinball game inside a pinball game. After activating the video mode in the secret basement, the player could play a digital game of pinball in the video screen before returning to the playfield.

Alternative Displays

LCD screens are replacing traditional DMDs in some modern pinball machines. LCD allows full color with higher resolution. Jersey Jack Pinball introduced the first LCD pinball machine with the release of the Wizard of Oz in 2013.

LED dot matrix display consists of a 2-D diode matrix with cathodes joined in rows with anodes joined in columns. The flow of electricity can be controlled through each row and column allowing individual LED lights to be controlled. LED DMDs allows brightness adjustments and a full color display.

Video Graphics Array (VGA) is a display standard originally developed in 1987 by IBM for its PS2 range of computers. Pinball 2000 hardware was created by pinball manufacturer Williams used VGA in several of their machines including Revenge from Mars. The game allowed players to aim at projected holographic targets.

Problems

There are some problem players have experienced with DMDs. As DMDs age it will begin to run out of gas, which can result in flickering and decreased brightness. An outgassed display will take longer to warm up before achieving full brightness.

Sound can sometimes be out of sync with the animations which can be the result of a manufacturing defect on the pre DCS boards.  Glare is another problem with DMD which can affect the players’ vision causing discomfort and ruining the experience.

Despite its problems, DMDs remain the preferred choice of display in many pinball machines because it is cost effective and durable. Home repairs are also possible if you have some understanding of basic electronics. There are modifications available including the popular color DMD. The modification replaces the standard display made up of individual dots with a color screen.

DMDs revolutionized the game of pinball. It allowed players to further immerse themselves in the gameplay by providing goals, graphics, and video modes.