What is Pinball Ghosting? Is It Real or Just a Ghost?

Whether you’re interested in pinball machines as a hobby or you have already invested plenty of time and money into buying new in box (NIB) or reconditioning vintage pinball machines, you’ll probably encounter the “ghosting” phenomenon. What is pinball ghosting? Real or a ghost?

Pinball ghosting comes in two forms. If that’s not confusing enough, the two forms of ghosting are rather different. Ghosting LEDs and Ghosting inserts.

  • Ghosting inserts is a term used in describing a problem with Stern Pinball Inc. pinball machines. The playfield’s clear coating came with cracks and air bubbles
  • LED ghosting refers to WPC era games in which the LEDs don’t function as intended. Some LEDs tend to glow or flicker when they should be turned off

Let’s talk a bit more about ghosting, what causes it, and what measures can you take to minimize or eliminate its effect in your playfield.

What is Pinball Ghosting?

To this day, even pinball machine owners are sometimes confused by the term “ghosting”, and it’s a very natural reaction. What is pinball ghosting? Is the issue present in your machine? Is it harmful?

The two types of ghosting are LED ghosting and ghosting “inserts”. These refer to two different types of machines. LED ghosting is something that’s present in the WPC/Bally era of games (the 90’s), and the other refers to Stern Pinball, Inc. machines. The former is harmless, while the latter affects the lifespan of the playfield and, ultimately, the machine.

Let’s start by talking a bit about what pinball LED ghosting is. Does it affect the user experience? Will it influence how your machine functions or affect its lifespan? Do you have any viable ways of fixing this effect?

LED ghosting isn’t something that can develop over time. It’s a problem that’s specific to a number of machines, namely those who were produced in the Williams Pinball Controller and Bally (now Midway) era of games. The problem lies within the lamp matrix software and the WPC ACIS.

Ghosting “inserts” refers to faulty playfields present in Stern Pinball, Inc. machines and it’s a problem which has caused an uproar within the community. It refers to the quality of the clear coating that’s used in treating the wooden playfield. The clear coat is a protective layer that’s meant to keep the paint job and other elements of the playfield intact.

A high number of Stern Pinball, Inc. machines were manufactured with noticeable chippings right out of the box. Some machines even had air bubbles, where the translucent areas of the playfield (plastic inserts) separated from the clear coating. This can definitely cause the entire layer to deteriorate much quicker, leading to a shortened lifespan.

Let’s further discuss the two types of ghosting and discuss how you can get rid of these annoying defects. From the best practices to the least recommended options, we’re going to go through everything, from cause to solution.

Playfield LED Ghosting

We’ve established that the problem lies with the WPC ACIS and the lamp matrix software.

The WPC ACIS is, basically, an address decoder. It takes the signal and translates it into matrix outputs. It controls how the binary signal is outputted within the matrix. The fact that these two components were not fully compatible at a driver level lead to the appearance of the ghosting effect.

Ghosting is, as stated above, the appearance of dim lighting on your LED when they’re programmed to be off. The LED bulb is a semiconductor, it reacts differently than a filament light bulb. The lamp matrix works with pulsating charges, and residual voltage sometimes leads to the ghosting effect.

To put it in simpler terms, a normal bulb won’t turn off immediately when its power is cut. It will drain any residual power from the circuit. LED’s don’t function under the same properties, explaining why the flickering occurs.

Ghosting is also different from flickering. Flickering is more constant and is usually produced by a physical issue, namely something loose in the matrix, while ghosting can be a product of a faulty software or driver. On that note, in 1995, Williams’ software engineers have solved the issue for further models.
What can You do to Get Rid of the LED Ghosting Effect?

The pinball industry is nothing if not crafty, so you can find a lot of fixes for the ghosting problem. Obviously, it has to fall upon you to modify your game. It’s also important to note that LED ghosting isn’t harmful to the circuit and won’t shorten your machine’s lifespan.

If you really want to get rid of the LED ghosting effect, you can replace your defective LED with Anti-ghosting models. They’re built in such a way that they won’t register the small pulses and only light up when they’re supposed to.

Please note that this doesn’t apply to machines which are designed with other types of bulbs. Converting a filament bulb machine to LED is a more intricate process and it involves tinkering with the matrix itself. While it’s definitely possible, it’s not my aim to talk about it now.

Ghosting Playfield Inserts

If this is your answer to the “What is pinball ghosting?” question, then you’re certainly entitled to be outraged. This is the phenomenon where hazy of foggy areas appear on your playfield. The reason? The coating gets separated from the plastic inserts and it will start chipping away as you keep playing.

Moreover, in areas like the drain or any other edges, you’ll probably notice chipping. There’s no definitive answer to why this has happened. A lot of people speculate that it’s because Stern Pinball, Inc. has outsourced the job, that they switched coating vendors, but really, there hasn’t been a definitive answer.

Here’s the big problem: the layer of clear coating is meant to be protective. If it’s faulty, then your playfield will start feeling the real impact of the game. While LED ghosting is harmless, these bubbles and chippings can really affect the lifespan of your NIB pinball machine and affect its resale value.

Are There Any Solutions for Ghosting Inserts?

While LED ghosting can be fixed with a steady hand, things aren’t that simple with the “ghosting inserts”. Forums are filled by DIY masters who recommend that you use a clear coating or clear spray to fix the defects, but you might end up making an even bigger mess.

When you’re tampering with an expensive machine you can have a big negative impact on its resale value, and we’re talking about thousands of dollars down the drain.

The Stern Pinball, Inc. Playfield Replacement Program

This should be the first thing you try once you start noticing production defects. If you haven’t heard about it, after the community uproar, Stern Pinball, Inc. has started a playfield replacement program.

Stern Pinball has promised to replace the defective playfields for NIB machines. If you’re among the unlucky shoppers who received defective products, then here’s what I recommend. Before acting, talk to your dealer and find out if your purchase is eligible.

Here’s what to do afterward:

  • Document the problem. The moment you notice air bubbles or chipping, take pictures and note the date
  • Get in touch with your dealer. Your local dealer has a bigger interest in keeping his or her client base. They will get in touch with Stern Pinball, Inc. and push for a replacement playfield
  • Be patient. It’s a lengthy process to get your playfield replaced. It can take several months for the company to get in touch
  • If you feel that your dealer hasn’t been effective enough, get in touch with the company directly. File a complaint and wait

Gary Stern himself hasn’t addressed the issue directly.

If you Have to Take Matters Into Your Own Hands

If your request doesn’t go through, then you’re left with three main options:

  1. Sell the machine
  2. Use it as it is
  3. Try to fix the coating

Where 1 and 2 are pretty self-explanatory if you plan on fixing it, I recommend that you get in contact with someone who’s no stranger to the process. Ask for proof of their reconditioned playfield and for a step-by-step description of the entire process.

Hopefully, You’re More Familiar with the Concept of Ghosting

What started as “What is pinball ghosting” has developed in a pretty lengthy answer. What you should take away from this is that it’s a real phenomenon and others have experienced it as well.

Something that’s great about social media is the consumers’ ability to give voice to their issues and to ask for explanations directly from the manufacturer. Because of this, you see programs like the playfield replacement program taking place.

It’s easier to hold manufacturers accountable when you know that there are more people involved and that the quality of their “USA” and “American-made” machines isn’t up to standard.

Hopefully, this increased transparency will lead to manufacturers becoming more responsible and investing more in branches like QA. Now that you’re up to speed with the whole ghosting concept, you can be assured that the community and the industry have found ways to fix it.