Virtual machines, also called visual machines, are the past, the present and the future of pinball. If you ask purists about them, they will probably say, “they’re good, but they’re not the real deal”. We’ll agree to disagree: here are fifteen reasons why virtual machines are the real deal!
- You get 1000 games for the price of one
- Virtual machines might be the only way to play classic or rare games
- You can play games that would never be possible with a real machine
- You can even program your own game!
- A new virtual pinball machine is cheaper than a new real pinball machine
- They’re lighter and easier to carry around
- Virtual machines combine the best of each real machine manufacturer
- They’re fully customizable
- In fact, you can build one yourself
- You can build and play them in various sizes, making them ideal for kids
- They’re easy to maintain
- They have better lighting and sound
- You can play in various ways, making them accessible
- There’s customer support for them
- You can integrate them to a smart home environment
1. You Get 1000 Games For the Price of One
The Internet Pinball Machine Database lists 6,189 games. Imagine what it’d be like to have any of them in a single machine. You can play a different game every day!
The biggest advantage to virtual machines is that they can have many games installed on them. Instead of running games based on hardware, like real machines, virtual machines run games based on software.
This is a great solution for those who own games at home as well as for arcades, because the player will never run out of options. An arcade could have two people play the same game on two machines. Conversely, one person can play two games on the same machine.
Even if you don’t like virtual machines at all, you can consider virtual machines useful springboard tools. You can play many games and decide which will be your next real machine based on your experience.
2. Virtual Machines Might Be the Only Way to Play Classic or Rare Games
Few units of the oldest electro-mechanical games were produced. It’s incredibly hard to find them, either for sale or in public venues. So you might never have a chance to play them — unless you play a recreation of them for a virtual machine.
The majority of the games available for virtual pinball machines are digital versions of existing, physical games. This is important for two reasons — first, historical preservation. As years go by, antique machines go missing or suffer irreparable damage.
Virtual machines are a fantastic option to preserve the playable memory of pinball. A pinball museum wouldn’t account for much if you couldn’t play the games, and virtual machines guarantee it.
The second reason why it’s important to have digital versions of classic games is the establishment of a standard. We all know how classic operate and why we love them. Thus, we can’t call virtual pinball valid until their digital versions play just like their real counterparts.
Fortunately, technology has evolved to a point where we can call emulations just as good as the real counterparts. Everything from rules to physics can be replicated perfectly. This means there’s a solid ground for virtual pinball to evolve as its own thing.
3. You Can Play Games That Would Never Be Possible With a Real Machine
Virtual pinball is not constrained by something as frivolous as the laws of physics. Once the ground was set, some really inventive games were devised for digital spaces. Pro Pinball: Timeshock (Empire Interactive, 1997) is already a digital pinball classic that can be played on a virtual machine.
And it’s not like people haven’t tried porting it to a real machine. Silver Castle Pinball has worked on a real version of Timeshock since 2014. The results are beautiful! However, there have been problems in implementing the actual gameplay in a real-world environment.
The Pro Pinball game series are essentially video games, because they were designed for PC or console. However, emulating this game and others on a virtual machine is still simpler than recreating them in real life.
Furthermore, digital pinball offers possibilities for pinball aesthetics that wouldn’t be possible with real machines. Games like INKS, with its minimalist design and beautiful watercolors, are virtual in their essence.
Virtual pinball games can have multiple playfields for a single concept, too — further expanding the possibilities of the game. Overall, virtual pinball can both emulate real pinball and be its own thing.
4. You can even program your own game!
If you have ever dreamed of being a pinball game designer, virtual machines might make that dream come true. Visual Pinball, a pinball game engine with cabinet support, is part simulator, part editor.
This means you can create your own recreations of real machines, but also create new tables based on existing themes. Or, most importantly, create your own table from scratch. This isn’t an easy process, sure, but it’s still much more accessible than creating real pinball machines!
What’s more, the source code is open. So you’re a C++-savvy pinball enthusiast, the entire program is in your hands. The editor itself uses Microsoft VBScript and the engine runs on Windows environments.
There are more engines available, such as Future Pinball. However, Visual Pinball just so happens to be the most popular. That and, due to its open source nature, it doesn’t depend on customer support for troubleshooting.
5. A new virtual pinball machine is cheaper than a new real pinball machine
The price of new pinball machines has skyrocketed in recent years. You can attribute this to enhanced technology and more bells and whistles on the machines themselves. Another factor is the pinball resurgence we’re seeing — and that owes much to virtual machines, mind.
But the fact of the matter is that purchasing good new tables will cost you no less than $6,000. A hefty price for one game, especially when you can buy acclaimed and refurbished games for under $4,000.
Thus, buying or building a new virtual machine for something between $2,500 to $5,000 is a great idea. This rings so much more advantageous when you consider the past points. After all, it’s $5,000 for potentially unlimited games versus up to $8,000 for one.
Furthermore, the cost of virtual machines tends to decrease, whereas the cost of real machines tends to raise. Any innovations in virtual pinball will probably come in the software, not the hardware. This means less manufacturing costs over the years, always.
6. They’re Lighter and Easier to Carry Around
As we’ve previously mentioned in another article, the average weight of a pinball machine sits between 113 kg to 136 kg. A Virtuapin DIY cabinet weight, however, is around 72 kg. Even if you add legs and other hardware, you probably won’t reach 100kg.
The dimensions also tend to be smaller, as the hardware needed isn’t the same of a real machine. This makes it easier to move the machine around and relocate it in your game room.
In addition, modern pinball machines — real ones as well — usually have foldable backglass. This makes a huge difference when trying to fit your machine in a car or passing it through a door. Moving a virtual machine is basically the same as moving a common piece of furniture.
7. Virtual machines combine the best of each real machine manufacturer
Maybe you like wide cabinets, but not the games from the era. Maybe you love Bally games with their crazy toys, but not necessarily their hardware. Either way, virtual machines can combine the best of all worlds.
Most machines you buy at retailers feature Williams W95 cabinets. You can, of course, build your own with basically any cabinet you wish. But you can add any hardware you want to them and control them via software. Shaker motors, tilt sensors — anything.
The best part is that none of this will ever affect the games themselves negatively. That is, your tinkering you can improve them, but never break them. This makes virtual machines the best option for machine modders as well.
8. They’re fully customizable
Once you get to the machine’s interior, you can do more or less anything with it. You can rout any component to a PC to control it dynamically. You can replace the monitor and backglass, or add a subwoofer to the audio system.
This depends on how much personal labor you’re interested in investing, but the potential is there. And you can do most of the modifications laid out here on a real machine, but without something crucial. By connecting components to the motherboard, you can control them remotely.
This improves energy consumption, game performance and versatility, all being controlled in one device. By assigning your machine a dedicated PC, you can automate processes that would require recurring adjustments in real machines.
9. In Fact, You Can Build One Yourself
We’ve mentioned that you can build your own virtual machine. However, we can’t stress enough how much it improves your game. Everything from the materials to the playfield is in your hands.
This means you can get a machine tailored to what your game room needs right now. It’s also much cheaper than buying one from a retailer. In the worst case scenario, you can simply buy a widescreen monitor and set it to portrait mode.
The line between what really constitutes the pinball game, between software and hardware, is blurry in virtual pinball machines. If you’re willing to emulate a real pinball feel, complete with nudging and tilting, you can have that. Conversely, playing with the lowest possible setup is also possible.
10. You can build and play them in various sizes, making them ideal for kids
One of the biggest reasons for a revival of the pinball craze, seen in the last years, is virtual pinball. Not only do virtual machines expand the access to the legacy of classic pinball, they also expand it for everyone.
Kids may have trouble playing on wide cabinets, especially on exhibits in which them machines have a fixed height. Virtual machines solve this problem by allowing players to customize the display according to the size of the cabinet.
This enables faithful “mini” versions of a game, suitable for gathering a new generation’s interest in pinball. When we went to the arcades back then, there was always that one pinball game “for grown ups”. Not because it was hard or because it was expensive, but because it was wider than our arms could reach, or taller than we could see.
Virtual machines do away with that. Tantalizing game we could only play once we grew up contributes to the mystic and the nostalgia of pinball. But enable anyone, from any age group, to enjoy that game is even better.
11. They’re Easy to Maintain
The worst thing that can happen to a virtual machine is a computer virus. And not only would that be super rare, it’d also be easy to fix. While components can obviously fail, you won’t see that happening as often as with real machines.
Upkeep maintenance of a virtual pinball machine is very similar to that of a PC. Cleaning exhaust fans and keeping the machine clear of humidity are the basis of the machine’s health. But that’s still more convenient than buying expensive and hard to find replacement parts!
The existence of a single HDMI cord for display over dozens of lamps or LEDs makes virtual machines much cooler. You don’t have to worry about replacing a single light, much less about overheating a circuit.
The caveat to this is that all maintenance is basically electronic. If you don’t know how to work with circuits and motherboards, problems will be harder to solve. It’s worth it to take some time to learn how your virtual machine works.
12. They have better lighting and sound
Now this is something of an unfair advantage. A virtual machine is naturally more modern than an electro-mechanical one, but the effects are undeniable. You’ll hardly ever experience glare on the playfield, because monitor are bright enough to hide reflections more often than not.
Even if you are experiencing glare from the playfield, you just have to adjust the brightness of the display. Virtual pinball has come a long way when it comes to graphics, and the quality of the display is a part of that.
Nowadays you can have monitors that support 4K resolution. It’s true many games don’t support these many pixels on a screen, but those that do are absolutely impressive.
3D Modelling is akin to the fine craftsmanship that brought us the best real pinball games. So, making a virtual game visually indistinguishable from a real one is a feat unto itself.
The same applies to audio. The audio output systems that come with a virtual machine are often high-quality. In addition, disk space is the only factor limiting which sounds you can play from a virtual pinball machine.
The sky is the limit for your imagination with audio. You can play classic games with remastered audio. You can even play a game while listening to your favorite music playlist playing from the machine.
13. You Can Play in Various Ways, Making Them Accessible
Another factor that can’t go unnoticed is how you virtual machines support many controllers. Sure, standard flipper buttons are a given, and you can install tilt sensors for accurate nudge play. But there’s much more you can do than that.
Theoretically, you can play using anything you imagine. Because the interface is virtual, you can use anything to control the flippers, provided you have the adequate software. Many virtual machines even come with an USB controller.
The benefits this brings are important to broaden pinball’s audience. The games can be played with one hand, or on a keyboard. The feel of a real machine is important, but so is making pinball approachable for people who can’t play them.
14. There’s Customer Support for Them
When buying real machines, the only big manufacturer that can provide extended guarantee periods and customer support is Stern. Bally, Williams, Gottlieb etc. are all out of the market. This means you’ll have to rely on the community for any problem you encounter with the most beloved pinball games.
And while the pinball community is extremely dedicated and helpful, it’s nice to be able to refer to the manufacturer. VPCabs and Bespoke Arcades build every order from scratch, providing full support.
And since virtual pinball is more or less of a new market, it’s important that companies are thriving in it. The software platforms for emulating games can be proprietary, too — such is the case of Pinball Arcade.
Licenses may come and go, so you might not be able to buy every game you want at once. Even then, knowing that there is someone who will update the software keeps the virtual machine interesting for years.
15. You Can Integrate Them to a Smart Home Environment
While pinball machines don’t consume an absurd amount of energy, it’s still worth it to reduce their energy consumption. The convenience of controlling the machine functions from anywhere in the world is also a good feature.
As such, a smart home environment enables you to turn your machine on or off with a voice command. You may also want to enable different Attract Modes remotely. You can also program your machine to shut down immediately if the room gets too hot.
Of course, what you can do depends on other smart gadgets you may have. Regardless, integrating virtual pinball machines to how your house — or arcade! — operates means more control and improved safety.