Pinball Teeters on the Brink of Obsolescence and a Resurgence

Pinball played right is an act of violence.

Violence against that steel ball trying to slip past your paddles. Violence against gravity urging that escape along. Violence against the glass top that contains everything happening within and violence against the wooden casket packed with hundreds of moving parts, lights and noise.

You don't play a pinball machine, you fight one; slapping the buttons to knock back balls, bumping and nudging the machine just enough to cheat missed opportunities, but not enough to trigger a "tilt."

Pinball is a piece of play balanced on the disappearing line between the physical and the virtual. Only, maybe that line isn't disappearing so quickly anymore.

For decades Stern Pinball has been the sole guardian of the industry with companies like Sega, Williams, and Midway closing shop, one after the other. In 1999, Stern became the only company in the world making original pinball tables. But that doesn't mean it's dying. Speaking recently with Kotaku, Gary Stern says that the industry is starting to make a comeback.

"Pinball is coming off of a major decline since the coin-op market has declined rapidly," Stern said in an email interview. "We now focus on coin-op as well as the collector and enthusiasts markets. We are excited to see our recent rapid growth thanks to new r&d projects, marketing, and new business ventures."

Among the new projects are impressive new tables. Last week Stern kicked off a month-long roadtrip for their latest table, based on Transformers. The launch party for the $5,600 to $7,500 table coincided with the Pinball Expo held in Chicago each year.

Much of what Stern makes these days are tables tied to licensing deals for movies or television shows. That's because a big license ensures a big market, Stern said. That's especially true with overseas markets which make up more than half of Stern's business these days, he said.

Stern added that his company is also working to modernize the way pinballs are designed and manufactured. The results of that retooling should start showing up early next year, he said.

While Stern's numbers may sound relatively low (they made more than 10,000 tables last year) compared to the millions of people that video games reach, that doesn't mean the business is dying. Stern can even see pinball having a second golden age, though perhaps not one that will influence pop culture as much as the machines did in the 70s and 80s.

"The popularity will return but it will be in a different form than it was back then," he said. "Games are ending up in people's homes and part of bringing it back will be internet connectivity."

That connectivity could go a long way to help reinvigorate the competitive nature of pinball gaming. The same solution for fighting games like Street Fighter, Soulcalibur and Mortal Kombat, went a long way to help revive that genre - one also originally seated in the popularity of coin-op arcades.

Unlike with video games, there is no real alternative to playing the pinball machines that once packed arcades. Pinball is organic. No two games are the same. Turning something as inherently physical into a purely digital experience would change the complete nature of the experience. Stern knows this, he also knows how important the machines are to the history of play. So he keeps up the fight.

"We are the industry," Stern said. "If we stop making games, life will continue but a little fabric of Americana will be gone."


You can contact Brian Crecente, the author of this post, at brian@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.

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