5. Road Map
Building a virtual pin cab is a big project. You shouldn't go into it
thinking it's the light work of a couple of weekends. But it's also
not an impossibly huge job, even though it can seem that way at times
- especially during the research phase when you're trying to get your
arms around all of the details.
Good organizers always say that the way to tackle a big job is to
break it down into smaller pieces until the pieces are manageable. So
let's look at the main sub-tasks that go into a pin cab build.
You don't have to attack these sub-tasks in the exact order listed
here. Even so, we've tried to put things in a reasonable order
that'll make the build process efficient. Some tasks are easier if
others have been completed first, so you might find yourself
backtracking or putting a job on hold if you tackle some of the later
tasks on our list before completing some of the earlier ones.
Decide on the cabinet dimensions and TV size
You don't have to plan out your entire system in advance, but one
thing you should settle early is the overall scale of your build and
the size of TV you're going to use. Many other decisions depend
upon the exact cabinet dimensions and the amount of space the TV
will occupy, so you'll save yourself a lot of backtracking if you
have hard numbers for these from the very beginning.
The thing that makes TV sizing tricky is that you can only buy TVs in
certain sizes. Ideally, you'd be able to design and build your
cabinet without giving too much thought to a TV, and then just drop in
a suitable TV when the time comes. But when that time comes, you
might find that all of the models you like are 1" too wide to fit, and
the next size down is 4" narrower than you wanted.
This leads some cab builders to start by picking a TV, and then tailor
the cabinet to fit the TV like a glove. But that's not for everyone.
If you plan to re-use an old pinball cabinet or buy an off-the-shelf
cabinet kit, you're stuck with standard dimensions. You might also
want to use standard dimensions for the sake of faithful simulation,
or simply because the cabinet hardware parts (lockdown bars, side
rails) are cheapest and easiest to find in the standard sizes.
The same issues apply to a lesser extent to the backbox TV, although
most cab builders aren't as concerned about an exact fit here since
it's hardly the focal point of the game. My advice is to figure out
the backbox TV separately after deciding on the main TV and cabinet
Once you know the basic scale of your system, you can start buying the
main components. We provide a master part list for a fully decked-out
cabinet in Cabinet Parts List
. You can choose a subset from that
list that fits your own goals and budget.
Even with our master parts list to work from, you'll still have to do
some original research, particularly for selecting the TV monitors and
the PC components. There are too many options for both to allow
simple one-size-fits-all recommendations, plus those product
categories move so quickly that any concrete advice we could offer
would be obsolete before you read this. Fortunately, apart from the
TV and PC, a lot of the rest of the cabinet can be built out of
standard parts. The real pinball machine manufacturers were very
cost-conscious, which drove them to build their games on common
platforms with mostly interchangeable parts. The exterior shell of a
virtual cab is almost identical to a real pinball (or can be, at
least, depending on your design goals), so we can build our cabs
out of those same interchangeable parts.
Build the PC
Now that you have some of the groundwork laid, you can start actually
building something. Most cab builders like to start with the PC,
probably because it's the most familiar territory to PC gamers. Plus
it provides some (relatively) instant gratification, since it doesn't
take too much work to get a new PC up and running.
If you've ever built your own desktop PC from scratch, you'll know
exactly what's involved in building the PC inside your pin cab. The
main work required is the research needed to pick out the parts:
motherboard, CPU, graphics card, power supply, memory, hard disk.
We'll tell you all the parts you need in Designing the PC
, and we'll
offer some advice about how to select them, but you'll still have to
do the research to select the exact components you want. Once you
pick out the parts, it's pretty easy these days to do the actual
Set up the main PC software
The next step after building the PC is usually installing the core
software, including the operating system and some pinball simulators.
Most of the popular pinball software runs only on Windows, so that's
the OS that almost all pin cabs use. We'll cover how to install
the main pinball players in Pinball Software Setup
Build the cabinet body
Now we come to the cabinet itself, in the literal sense of the wood
box that houses everything. This part of the build can be as simple
as buying a new or used cabinet that's already assembled, or as
elaborate as doing the woodworking from scratch. We'll cover the
various options in Cabinet Body
Design and install the artwork
A pin cab is a significant piece of furniture to have in your house,
so it's worth putting some effort into its exterior appearance. Some
cab builders opt for a natural wood look to better fit in a domestic
environment, and some choose a simple one-color paint job. For most
of us, though, the aim is to replicate the look of a real pinball
machine, which means using custom artwork in the distinctive graphic
style of the real machines. One great way to get a thoroughly
authentic look is with digitally printed decals. We'll cover the
options in Cabinet Art
This is one of those steps where the order is fairly important.
You'll want to get the artwork in place before you start installing
the cabinet hardware or any of the insides of the machine.
Assemble the cabinet hardware
Once you have the wood shell of the cabinet built and finished
with artwork, you can install the "hardware" - the side rails,
lockdown bar, coin door, legs, and the parts that attach the
backbox to the main body. We'll go over the standard equipment
and how to install it all in Cabinet Hardware Installation
Set up your power supplies
You'll need a standard PC power supply to power the motherboard and
other PC components. If you're installing any feedback devices,
you'll need additional power supplies for those. We'll explain what
you need in terms of power supplies for the various components in
Most cab builders also like to set up a power distribution system that
turns power on and off across the whole system with a single button.
We'll explain how to do this in Power Switching
This is all basic infrastructure that the rest of your system will
depend upon, so it's a good idea to get this figured out and installed
now, before installing any of the electronics. Another reason to do
this early is that the power supplies take up a lot of space - it's
good to reserve the space they'll need early so you don't find
yourself having to move things around later to make room.
Install the PC in the cabinet
You can now finalize the PC installation inside the cab body.
If you haven't already put together the computer components,
this is a good time to finish that up.
Mounting the PC in the cabinet is usually straightforward. The main
decision to make is what kind of enclosure you want to use: some
people use a regular desktop case, but most cab builders use the
cabinet itself as the "case", simply mounting the motherboard and
other components to the cabinet floor or walls. We cover the
possibilities in Designing the PC
Install the TVs
I think it's better to get the TV installed fairly early in the build
process, but a lot of cab builders feel it needs to go in last,
because it covers the whole top of the cabinet.
In either case, you should at least map out exactly where the TV will
go before getting too much further, so that you can plan around its
space requirements when installing everything else.
My recommendation is to install the TV in such a way that it can be
easily removed at any time. If you do that, you can get everything in
place for it early on, which will give you a very concrete idea of the
space you need to carve out for it in the cab. But you can leave it
out of the cab while installing the power supplies and feedback
systems, so that you have easy access to the interior, knowing that
you can pop the TV back in place when the time comes. And if you make
the install/uninstall process easy enough, you can pop it in just to
test clearances and fit from time to time.
We'll look at options for installing the playfield TV, including
advice about how to maintain easy access to the cabinet, in
Playfield TV Mounting
. That chapter includes a detailed plan
for how to install the TV that achieves the goal of easy installation
and removal, as well as allowing access to the cabinet interior for
most jobs without even removing the TV.
Most cabs also have a second and possibly third TV in the backbox, for
the backglass and score/DMD display. We'll look at how to install
those in Backbox TV Mounting
and Speaker/DMD Panel
You'll probably want to install and wire your cabinet buttons shortly
after getting the cabinet assembled and the PC working, both for the
sake of early play testing and because it's easier to do the
installation work while the cabinet is still fairly empty. We'll
go over which buttons you need and how to install them in
Set up I/O controllers
I/O controllers are separate components - usually USB devices - that
handle the connections between the PC and the unique devices in a
virtual pin cab: buttons, plunger, accelerometer (for nudging),
flashing lights, and mechanical and tactile feedback devices.
You don't have to set up all of the I/O controllers or functions at
once. At this stage in the build, though, you'll at least want to set
up the button input controller (also known as the key encoder), so
that you can test out the newly installed cabinet buttons.
We'll look at the various controller functions and which devices you
need in I/O Controllers
Install a plunger
The plunger can be installed at any point in the build, but you'll
want to get it in place before you finalize the TV installation. The
space in the plunger area is tight (even on a real machine), so it's
worthwhile to do some measuring and planning. The plunger is close to
the flipper buttons, and on a virtual cab it competes for space with
the TV. We'll cover the details of installing the basic physical
plunger as well as the options for connecting it to the software
Install feedback devices
You'll probably find that you'll install the feedback devices in
stages, rather than as all at once. Output controllers control
devices individually, so you can easily set up a few now and add more
Set up the sound system
The audio system in a pin cab is essentially just a PC desktop speaker
system, but it has some special considerations. The main one is that
most cab builders want to place the speaker drivers in the same places
they go in the standard 1990s cabinet design. You can also embellish
your system by using two independent audio systems - one for music and
one for mechanical sound effects - or even a tactile subwoofer like the
ones popular for home theaters and gaming chairs. We'll cover the
options in Audio Systems