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Pinball is Undead; Observations from the 2012 Texas Pinball Festival
Texas Pinball Festival 2012
Jersey Jack Pinball Buyers
George Gomez, International Criminal
Steve Ritchie, Hypnotist
Stern Pinball's Transformers
Steve Ritchie's AC/DC Pinball
People, People, Everywhere!
Or is it just mostly dead?
Somewhere along the line, pinball died. You can’t put your finger on the place or the time. The reason is that pinball games continued to be manufactured. The problem is that the vast majority of the planet’s population did not give a damn, let alone two, about playing pinball.
I remember seeing a story a few years ago about a high school that made a production of Tommy, The Who’s rock opera about pinball, where the decision was made not to try and find a pinball machine (or machines). How do you do a show that centers around the main character’s ability to play pinball without a pinball machine? I don’t know, but the producers decided that a Wii made a great substitute. “That deaf, dumb, and blind boy sure plays a mean game of Madden?” I just don’t know.
If you do a little searching, you’ll find that the number of pinballs on location—that is pinballs that game operators have out there in the world for you to play—has been declining for years. When you start looking around, you find that the main reason is that pinball games in most locations just don’t earn much money. What’s not much money? $20 - $30 a week is what Jack Guarnieri of Jersey Jack Pinball points out as average earnings for a regular pinball. That fits well with both my personal experiences as an arcade owner and what I learned through discussions with other operators. Shoot, even Tim Arnold at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas told me once that it didn’t matter what game you put in a place like a laundrymat: as long as it worked, it would make $25 a week.
I work at a place with a pinball. My work is laid out for me. My pinball, that earns in that magic range, calls for 4 hours of labor a month to maintain it. OK, it really doesn’t take 4 hours a month to maintain, but that’s what my ultimate boss has decided it takes. Ultimate boss sounds like something you defeat to end one of those old scrolling fighters. Back to the story: Even if I spend half of that time maintaining a pinball, it means that the game—by the time you maintain the space where it sits with heating or cooling, pay some people to stand around to show you how to hit the start button, and have the walls painted or whatever—makes virtually no money.
When you can pick up a used pinball for $1000 and it makes $25 a week, that means that in 40 weeks you’ve paid off your game and anything after that is gravy. Not too bad, you’ll have to spend some bucks on it, but you’ll make money in the long run. Turn that into $2000 and the payoff is 80 weeks. You’re still dealing with used pinball machines. What does a new one cost? $4795-8395 for a Stern and $6500-7500 for a Jersey Jack. 8400/25 = 336/52 = 6.46 years. Basically a new pinball has a payoff that’s longer than a new car. Add a lot more maintenance than your car will ever need and making money looks impossible.
Now the introduction of Jersey Jack Pinball into the field has made a major difference. JJP declared that they wanted to make the best possible pinball. They want to wow you when you open the box. That costs money. Before Jack entered the manufacturing business, a Stern game cost about $4000. Now they cost 20% more than that for the stripped down version.
Why then is pinball undead?
Pinball was commercially dead. The only thing that was making it semi-viable was that the games were cheap enough that you could buy them, run them on a route for a few years, and sell them for what you paid for them. Once a game went out of production, the value started to rise (on a good title). Now that Stern has figured out that they can raise the price, it makes the payoff too long to keep this model going.
Why pinball continues is because of collectors—the home market. Whether it’s some insane guy with a house full of games or merely some insanely rich guy with a basement full of pinball games that are there to wow his friends, pinball collectors make the manufacturing of new games viable.
I asked Jack Guarnieri how the reaction to his Wizard of Oz pinball has been at the coin-op trade shows. His answer? He hasn’t even bothered to take his presentation about his company to the shows. He’s been an operator. He knows that coin-op isn’t interested in the $7500 machine that makes $25 a week. They’re interested in the $50,000 one that makes $5,000 a day. Or the $4,000 that makes $500 a week. Right now, pinball is not that game.
What was amazing to me is that the Wizard of Oz pinball has sold all of it’s initial production run—that has not even been manufactured yet—and people are excited to be an owner. I find it insane. If you try to sell me something that doesn’t exist, I’m not interested. The enthusiasm of the pinball community for Jack’s games is absolutely amazing.
That’s why pinball is undead. It’s dead to operators, but it’s alive and well on the manufacturing side.
The enthusiasm for a new pinball manufacturer spilled back to Stern, who’d been the last man standing since Williams left the field over a decade ago. Stern, who’d been cutting staff, slimming production, and slowly dying has gotten a new life.
The man behind the rebirth? George Gomez, who is now Stern’s Vice President of Game Development. Gomez’s enthusiasm for gaming is infectious. His credentials are impeccable—not only does he have some of the most collectable Williams titles on his resume (Monster Bash, Johnny Mnemonic, Corvette, and Revenge From Mars), he’s also the guy who brought you Spy Hunter, the video game. Spy Hunter is probably the most recognizable title in game history.
Now that both Stern and Jersey Jack Pinball are in high gear, there’s hope for a rebirth on the operations side. Hopefully credit card transactions will soon join the bill acceptors on pinball machines and allow operators to collect payments from folks who don’t have any cash on them. I rarely have cash. Do you?
Did you hear that? I think I heard pinball saying, “Brains.” That’s what’s at work right now, dragging pinball into the 21st century. No more sitting around being, “Not quite as good as the last Williams games because of limited budgets.” Perhaps this is the shock treatment that will make pinball live again. It’s hard to say right now, but undead is better than nothing.