Pinball machines are a nostalgia blast from the past for interested players, but with a starting price of around $5,000 for a new machine or even more if the game is special or limited edition it’s an expensive hobby. So why are pinball machines so expensive?
Pinball machines are expensive because there are very few surviving machine manufacturers due to the game declining in popularity and the steep costs involved in the design, technology, production and licensing of the machines. Older pinball machines are expensive due to their rarity and collect-ability.
An amazing game of pinball involves more than 300 employees working as designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, programmers, artists and costs upwards of $1 million dollars. It’s also a risky business with dozens of pinball machine manufacturers closing down.
Surviving Pinball Manufacturers
Pinball machines were considered the latest electronic achievement in the 1970s with features like sound effects, microprocessors and electromechanical relays. During the late 1970s however video games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Asteroids started luring players away from pinball machines towards video games. Space Invaders is reported to have been popular enough in Japan that some arcades became dedicated solely to it.
Store owners noticed the popularity of video games and often found them a better source of revenue. Video games were also considered more reliable as pinball machines need to be regularly maintained. As time wore on many players lost interest in pinball machines and became more interested in racing their opponents in the arcade racers like Daytona USA or finishing them with brutal fatalities in fighter games like Mortal Kombat.
By the end of the 20th century three of the biggest pinball manufacturers Bally, Gottlieb and Williams, which had built machines for several decades shut down.
On the 26th of April 2018 British company Heighway Pinball also was forced to lay off its employees and close the factory doors, the company is currently facing liquidation. At the time of writing there are currently only six surviving manufacturers in the world.
- American Pinball located west of Chicago is the newest design and manufacturing company announcing their presence in 2016. American Pinball released their first pinball machine based on the legendary magician Houdini in 2017.
- Spooky Pinball LLC was created in 2013 the founder and CEO Charlie Emery was inspired to start his own pinball company after he could not find any working machines for his daughter to play. The first game produced by the company was American’s Most Haunted. Charlie says Spooky pinball has a focus on horror and he describes the company as; “Building games that are scary, sexy, funny, and had better not suck…”
- Dutch Pinball located in The Netherlands started after founders Barry Driessen and Koen Heltzel re-worked the Bride of Pinbot. In 2013 the company released a pinball machine based on the film The Big Lebowski.
- Jersey Jack Pinball was created in 2011 by industry veteran Jack Guarnieri. The company’s first pinball machine was The Wizard of Oz which was released in 2013.
- Chicago Gaming Company was established in 2001 and created remakes for the popular pinball machines Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars.
- Stern Pinball Inc is the oldest and largest designer and manufacture of pinball machines and can trace its lineage to the early 1930s. Stern Pinball have created dozens on pinball machines based on licenses from television shows, films and even bands including the AC/DC pinball machine.
Designing the Pinball Machine
The basic design of any pinball machine is for the player to score points by shooting metal balls at targets on an inclined playing field.
The game is started by launching the ball starting the game. Players then use the buttons on each said of the machine to control flippers and guide the ball toward objectives through the various parts of the machine’s playfield.
The individuality of pinball machines come from their unique playfields. The playfield not only must be engineered to ensure the game plays smoothly, but it must predominantly reflect the theme of the game.
George Gomez is Stern’s Pinball vice president of game development in an interview with Popular Mechanics he discussed the testing involved in ensuring the machine will work and function to satisfaction; “We have to actually see how it works, so we do a mock-up and we adjust the mechanisms over and over again until the shots are nice and smooth”
The theme of the playfield usually but not always relates to a popular licence. The designer’s job is to ensure that their theme is worked into the game in the form of the mechanical contraptions, artwork and gameplay.
Licensing Pinball Machines
Roger Sharpe a is the man credited with saving pinball and is author and expert regarding pinball licensing. He discussed in an interview with Pavol the costs of obtaining popular pinball licenses.
According to Sharpe, the legal approvals, asset acquisition, royalties and other business-related costs must be considered before a purchasing a license. Obtaining a popular licence ensures instantaneous recognition but the game still must be good to ensure success.
In the same interview Sharpe expresses concern that newer pinball companies may be paying too much for popular licensing rights which increases the cost of the machines produced. “I have heard that some companies have spent triple digits (Over $100 per machine) for a licence when they didn’t need to. This is serious because they could end up pricing themselves out of the marketplace. Next time around, when they negotiate, the studio or agency will want the same as was paid previously…”
Licences of popular bands, films and television shows have assisted in keeping pinball relevant. Stern Pinball is behind popular pinball editions of Iron Maiden, The Walking Dead and The Guardians of the Galaxy.
Morden pinball machines are more a complicated which further increases their cost. George Gomez who is responsible for game development at Stern is excited by the renaissance and improved technology emerging in pinball. In a BBC article Gomez states that; “Improved display technology and the raw computing power available mean games can weave a story, convey information and react intelligently to what players are doing in ways that were never possible before.”
In an article with Wired Stern applies these newer features in many of their games including the Transformers pinball machine allows players to choose to play as either the AutoBots or Decepticons with the different modes offering unique targets, bonuses and achievements depending which side the player chooses.
Jersey Jack Pinball released The Wizard of Oz pinball machine which featured several industry firsts including an LCD HD quality monitor, audio and a hand drawn playfield. The Wizard of Oz also has four mechanical toys based on the film including Dorothy’s house, the witch’s castle, flying monkey and a melting witch.
Jersey Jack also created Dialed In which was the first pinball machine to feature Bluetooth connectivity, a camera, and additional playing capabilities through use of a smart phone.
Building the Pinball Machine
Manufacturing pinball machines is an expensive infrastructure and it costs millions of dollars for parts, labor and assembly.
Chicago is often referred to as the pinball capital of the world. Manufacturers like Stern, Williams, Gottlieb, and Bally were all based in Chicago and the surrounding area.
In an ABC7 news article Stern Pinball Vice President George Gomez explains the process of building a pinball machine; “It’s a complicated product. There’s over 3000 parts in a pinball machine, over half a mile of wire, three and a half to four-man days of labor in a pinball machine depending on the model.”
Stern Pinball with the assistance of about 250 employees build up to 60 pinball machines a day. According to an interview with Jody Dankberg the director of Stern Pinball marketing and licensing the jobs are highly technical and specialized it require years of experience, Dankberg explained the process; “It’s tribal knowledge. We.ve been building pinball machines for 30 years.”
The machines are largely handmade with parts usually provided from local manufacturers, each part is inspected and tested several times before installation to ensure quality control. Machine parts include everything from screws, rubber bands to themed attachments such as the Gene Simmons figureheads used in the Kiss pinball machine.
Gomez explains how the software must also be developed and tested by a team of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, animators and sound designers working together. Their goal is to ensure the rules, story, and progression of the game are functional.
The pinball machines cabinets are often subcontracted from other manufacturers. Licence artwork is placed on the cabinets to advertise the game. The older models of cabinets from the 1980s usually used metal stencils or screened directly onto the wood. Newer cabinets tend to screen on vinyl covered wood or by applying decals.
Think you might be able to save some cash by getting an older model? Well depending on the condition and popularity of the game second hand machines are still relatively expensive. This is because of limited production runs and demand outweighing supply. Certain games are sought out by collectors for large prices.
Older pinball machines will often increase in value especially if the company which produced them no longer exists. Williams/Bally games for example have been consistently going up in value over the last 10 years.
Popular games made by shut down companies can be particularly pricy. The Addam’s Family pinball machine for example was produced by Bally and released in 1992. The game featured the hand known as Thing which would grab and move the ball. It remains one of the best-selling pinball game of all time with over 20,000 units sold. To give an idea of the value placed on this particular machine, a special collector’s edition of the 26 year old Addams Family machine was advertised this year for $10,000 dollars.
Pinball machines will always hold a nostalgic place in the hearts of fans despite the price. Pinball machines are an expensive investment because there are only 6 surviving manufacturers due to the game’s decline in popularity. There are many costs involved in designing and building the machines, as well as expenses producing technology and purchasing licence rights. Older pinball machines are expensive due to their rarity and collectability.