While they aren’t quite on the level of your typical traveling carnival, modern day arcades are full of games designed to take your money and dispense as few tickets as possible. Games like Skeeball taunt you with the promise of big ticket returns, but are carefully engineered to make that difficult—or sometimes even impossible — in reality. Mark Rober, everyone’s favorite porch pirate prankster, decided to beat those games with clever engineering of his own. The result is a series of game-winning machines that bring in unlimited arcade tickets.
Rober designed each of these machines for covert operation in real arcades. He selected five different games that you can find in just about every arcade in the world. Those games incorporate sly mechanics or misleading challenges to keep players from winning tickets worth more than the proprietor makes from each attempt. Arcade game designers want players to think they’re close to winning big so they keep playing, but don’t actually want them to rack in the thousands of tickets necessary to “buy” anything valuable in the gift shop.
However, many of those are beatable when you cheat. To accomplish that, Rober had to build a machine dedicated to each game he wanted to beat. Those games were: Skee-Ball, Basketball, Quik Drop, Air Hockey, and the classic test-of-strength Punching Bag. Air Hockey machines in arcades don’t typically pay out tickets, but Rober’s contraption for that game is cool enough that it gets a pass.
It is possible to do well at Skee-Ball using your own skill, but it is very difficult. Professionals use a variety of techniques to maintain consistency between throws, but Rober’s solution was to take advantage of a machine similar to a tennis ball launcher. He rigged that launcher to run on battery and then hid the entire machine inside of a backpack. A water bottle in the backpack’s side pouch disguises the hopper tube that drops balls down into the launcher. Robber just had to set the speed and position the backpack, and then the consistency of the launcher ensured that every ball dropped into the 10,000 point target.
The goal of this game is to sink as many balls as you can before the timer runs out. It uses a simple infrared beam to detect each ball that falls through the hoop, which is what Rober was able to exploit in his cheat. He built a 3D-printed robotic basketball with actuated pins that pop out, causing the ball to get stuck on the rim. Once there, another actuator pops out the bottom of the ball every time Rober pushes a button on a key fob remote. Each time he does, the infrared beam breaks and the game registers another successful basket. By pushing the button as many times as he can in the time allotted, Rober can score a huge number of points. When it’s time to move on, the pins slide back in and the robotic ball rolls back to Rober.
This game challenges players to drop 50 balls into revolving buckets in a set amount of time. They have to press the drop button quickly and with precise timing to achieve that. Luckily, Arduinos are very good at precise timing. Rober built a solenoid into the bottom of a backpack, which he can place on top of the drop button. Whenever a bucket moves below the game’s chute, the Arduino rapidly activates the solenoid to drop more balls into the bucket than a human ever could. With that kind of speed, it was easy for Rober to sink 50 balls in the allotted time.
This is a game that pits one player’s skill against another, which means that Rober had to do more than exploit a machine’s logic. Using computer vision software running on a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, Rober built an entire robot that attaches to an air hockey table with magnets and uses a motorized paddle to dominate. It runs fast enough to track the puck as it slides across the table and blocks every shot. It doesn’t actively score goals of its own, but that is bound to happen by chance every now and then.
Some of these punching bag games spit out tickets when someone exceeds a certain score, but it is really about showing your friends that you’re the most muscular dude in the group. The game doesn’t actually measure force, but rather speed. Like the basketball game, it contains an infrared beam sensor. When a player hits the speed bag, a linkage rotates a mask across the beam. That mask has a small slot for the beam to pass through and the machine measures how many milliseconds that occurs to calculate a relative speed.
Rober’s original plan was to use a wrist-mounted device worn under a jacket to amplify the force of his own punch. That device used heavy springs to shoot out a piston into the speed bag. Rober believed that this would send the bag flying with greater speed than any human could match, but he was wrong. His strongman competitor was able to use his gym-forged muscles to beat Rober’s mechanically enhanced punch speed.
That forced Rober to come up with another solution on the fly, which he was able to do with parts available right there at the arcade. He bought a Pez dispenser and attached a game card with a notch cut into it. Rober could then place that card in front of the game’s infrared sensor, stretch the Pez dispenser spring, and release. The size of the cut-out notch and the speed of the spring retraction caused the game to think someone had hit the bag incredibly hard, yielding the maximum score.
As Rober points out, many of the other games in arcades are just plain rigged. Depending on the integrity of the proprietor, you might find games that only pay out a set percentage of the time or that are altogether unwinnable. In some cases, nothing aside from hacking the game machine itself will help you win. But for a lot of the games, good engineering is all you need to win the best prize in the gift shop.