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The Almighty Buck The Media Games

Pinball: a Resurgence In Retro Gaming From an Unlikely Place 107

Posted by timothy
from the shiny-and-physical dept.
woohoodonuts writes "The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association is creating a webchannel that will livestream content from their national circuit of tournaments ranging from Southern California to New York City. The most recent circuit tournament in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sold out of all 400 tournament openings in less than three weeks, months in advance of the event. With several new companies in the process of creating machines and hundreds of new competitive events springing up worldwide at a record pace, is the retro silverball rising to prominence once again?"
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Pinball: a Resurgence In Retro Gaming From an Unlikely Place

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  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @11:29AM (#43591127)

    >> Pinball...Resurgence...From an Unlikely Place

    Um...what's the "unlikely place"?

    • by Trepidity (597)

      Kirby's Pinball Land [wikipedia.org], perhaps?

    • by skine (1524819)

      As far as I can tell, this is another "[X] on the internet!" story.

      • True, but on the bright side, it's one of the few games available nowadays that have no DRM on it

        ('course, the anti-bot/cheat "tilt" switch is still in place unless you get in there and remove it...)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The "unlikely place" is pinball.

      Why is it unlikely? Two reasons. The first is that pinball's popularity has been in decline in favor of the rising popularity of video games basically since Pacman. There are children who don't even know about pinball, or if they do it's a pinball emulator on a video game system. Second, pinball is expensive relative to other retro gaming.

      Why is it a place? Place is being used metaphorically.

      The only problem with the headline is that the "a" should be capitalized. If you disa

      • by hairyfeet (841228)

        And that second part is why its doomed...the cost. Anybody who has looked into pinball cabinets will tell you how crazy expensive they are to build and maintain,not to mention how it'll wear out sooner thanks to the punishment the ball slamming into all those switches and bumpers causes.

        Now compare your average pinball cabinet, with several feet of wiring, pounds of glass plating,lots of rubber bumpers and mechanical switches to a video arcade cabinet...its pretty much a screen, a board, and a controller (o

        • by GlobalEcho (26240)

          it'll ultimately fade away again because like the muscle cars of the era they were cool but just cost too much to keep.

          Oddly enough, I have both a 1996 pinball machine and a 1970 muscle car. Not that I'm arguing the maintenance on either is easy, but they are not expensive -- probably under 50th percentile as far as hobbies for Americans go. Both have low or negative depreciation, and $100-$1000, plus 5-10 hours of my time, per year. I spend more on bicycling.

          • by hairyfeet (841228)

            Yeah wait until gas hits $6 a gallon and get back to me, you'll probably have that muscle car parked in a corner and just dream of being able to afford to feed the beast. I should know as i had an old Pontiac Le Mans Sport back in the day and i had to get rid of it when gas went over a buck fifty as it would take over $100 just to feed that monster for a single night of cruising. Don't get me wrong, like pinball the muscle cars were a blast, its just feeding those monsters got to be too much.

            I'm shocked

          • Oddly enough, I have both a 1996 pinball machine and a 1970 muscle car. Not that I'm arguing the maintenance on either is easy, but they are not expensive -- probably under 50th percentile as far as hobbies for Americans go. Both have low or negative depreciation, and $100-$1000, plus 5-10 hours of my time, per year.

            Hmm, I have a 1980 Williams pinball. I took care of some 'deferred maintenance' when I bought it 12 years ago, but since all I have needed to do was clean/wax the playfield and change an occasi

            • by GlobalEcho (26240)

              My cars, OTOH, are much more expensive to keep around. Local ordinances require all vehicles to be licensed or stored in a garage. And licensing requires maintaining insurance.

              For the 1970 car in Michigan, historical plates are $30 every 10 years. I don't recall the extra insurance costs, but those are relatively small too. (The car is uninsured and garaged for half the year, which helps).

        • And that second part is why its doomed...the cost. Anybody who has looked into pinball cabinets will tell you how crazy expensive they are to build and maintain

          Well, sort of. Then again, how much money does the average XBox gamer spend each year on new titles, the Live account, a huge flatscreen TV to see it on, the internet connection, accessories... ?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @12:03PM (#43591531)

      The back of a volkswagon?

    • by KatchooNJ (173554)

      I think it is just worded wonky... I get the impression that they mean that PINBALL is the unlikely place in retro gaming that people would expect a resurgence.

    • Um...what's the "unlikely place"?

      The Internet.

      Pinball was killed by video arcade games. Video arcade games were killed by home consoles and home computers (which included things like video pinball). Home consoles and computers moved to Internet-based distribution or multi-player systems. Now TV is becaming Internet-based, too, and livestreaming games is taking off like a rocket [twitch.tv]. Now people have begun livestreaming pinball, and it's popularity increases as new people are exposed to the games and they see how people really play them.

      Pinb

  • by jehan60188 (2535020) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @11:29AM (#43591129)

    i love pinball, but finding a machine is rare! let's hope bars/arcades start stocking them instead of that stupid bowling/golf thingy

    • I find them all the time in bars... broken

      Which is a shame, I've seen some great looking pinball games just sitting there with a jammed component.

    • by tlhIngan (30335) <(ten.frow) (ta) (todhsals)> on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @12:06PM (#43591563)

      i love pinball, but finding a machine is rare! let's hope bars/arcades start stocking them instead of that stupid bowling/golf thingy

      Pinball started dying out in the 80s and 90s because video games were cheaper and more reliable, and more importantly, smaller. Pinball machines required a lot of space and tons of maintenance.

      The problem is, a pinball machine's purpose is to make money. The money goes to the operator (the person responsible for buying and maintaining the machines) and the site owner (the guy offering up space for the machine). So whenever it gets broken or goes down, it stops making money and the operator has to spend money to fix it. Video games and other machines last a lot longer so less money is paid out ot maintain them and more money goes to the site owner and the operator. Plus, since a machine consumes more space, you could often fit two video games in the space of one.

      Plus, good pins are hard to get - Williams was the #1 pinball manufacturer - their machines were high quality, had good feel, and had various compensation mechanisms to allow for it to be in quite a bad state of disrepair and still be playable. As a result, even the worst DMD Williams machine is now horrendously expensive (maybe even more $$$ than new - $5000+). Some of the more popular machines command even more - prices of $15K+ aren't exactly unheard of.

      So now it's even a worse proposition for operators and owners.

      The only manufacturer left, Stern, evolved out of Data East/Sega, well known for very cheap crappy pins. However, they survived purely because Williams' factories are designed to pump up 10,000's worth of machines (pinball, slot machines, etc) and are very unprofitable building thousands or less, while Stern's can build hundreds and still be profitable. The latest WPC pins only sold between 2-5000 units (Pin2K was one of the first to reverse the unprofitability of the pinball division).

      Williams in the end stopped pinball in 1999, but they wanted to hold it in their back pocket just in case it was a bad decision. Unfortunately, even doing something like reviving old hit machines wasn't ever an option because the sales wouldn't be enough to make money (again, when you're geared to build tens of thousands, building sub-10K is very inefficient and expensive).

      Pinball machines will remain a niche these days because the economics aren't there. The problem is the machines have to make money, so it's a balance between ball time and difficulty - too difficult, and people don't play, but too long a ball and the machine doesn't make money because it's in use all the time. And what happened was pro pinball players started demanding more complex pins, which ended up excluding newbies and bringing fresh blood and new money to the industry.

      It's changing, slowly, thanks to video pins - for those of us wanting recreations of the old machines, The Pinball Arcade [pinballarcade.com] is one of the premier video pinball simulators that feature many licensed recreations (many fully emulated a la PinMAME) on every platform (iOS, Android (including Android clones like Ouya, Kindle), PS3, Xbox360 (currently on hold because Crave (publisher) went bankrupt and is holding the contract hostage), and OS X). PC was just greenlit a few weeks ago on Steam, so the PC version is coming out soon. And of course it has a fan site with forums [pinballarcadefans.com].

      There are many others as well, which have the advantage that if you're not making money per play, they can concentrate on fun more than balancing fun with the need to make money.

      • I never cared for pinball on the PC or consoles; it just felt "wrong". But I recently tried Pinball Arcade on my Android tablet and I'm hooked. It must be the way you can lay the tablet flat the way a real pinball table is oriented instead of looking up at a vertical screen.

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          I never cared for pinball on the PC or consoles; it just felt "wrong". But I recently tried Pinball Arcade on my Android tablet and I'm hooked. It must be the way you can lay the tablet flat the way a real pinball table is oriented instead of looking up at a vertical screen.

          It's supposed to be a mode exclusive to the upcoming PC version for those Ultrapin style machines.

          And yes, it does feel "wrong", but when the option is hunting around the globe for $10K+ machines or video pinball, the latter has to do. E

      • by grahamwest (30174) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @01:16PM (#43592351) Homepage

        I worked at Williams in the 90s. You're pretty much spot on but I do have a few other comments. The fact that games broke more than videogames is true, but what really choked the industry - and I'm counting arcade videogames in this too - was that all the games wound up getting more and more expensive, yet earning less and less money.

        Back in the day, if a game didn't pay for itself in 8 weeks, it was a dog. Really good games could do that in 3 weeks. Once they'd done that, the rest was profit. After a while the original location would sell the game and a lesser location would pick it up. Cheaper price, lower earning but still the game paid for itself in a few weeks. Repeat 2 or 3 more times and you have a game in a pizza joint, not earning much but doing well enough to be worth the effort. When the time-to-profit stretched out it choked this whole 'food chain' to the point that distributors were telling the manufacturers that they didn't want to buy any more games, even if they'd signed a contract for exclusivity in return for minimum orders, even if the game was incredible, because they already had a warehouse full of stuff they couldn't sell to the top-tier operators and thus just taking up space and (more importantly) non-cash illiquid assets.

        There was also bloody-mindedness on the part of the locations, operators, distributors and manufacturers. Manufacturers kept jacking up prices without enough effort in R&D (Pin2k was an exception and I have so many heroic stories of our effort on that!) and without coming up with enough other ways to add value. Distributors cut back all the services they used to offer (e.g. board repair, big parts catalogs), operators were no longer willing to spend time fixing and cleaning games (easier to put in a Golden Tee Golf instead) and locations didn't want to deal with the space or the noise.

        Pinball and slots at WMS were separate business units with their own assembly lines. Spinning reel slot design was briefly under Larry DeMar who was the head of engineering for pinball (and a legend in his own right thanks to Robotron, Defender, Black Knight, High Speed, Funhouse...) but that didn't really affect things and was before Pin2k got going. The fixed cost of the production line was a big drag on profit and we were barely hitting the minimum run rate most of the time, but it wasn't in the tens of thousands. 5000 a year was about where it was at, if I remember rightly. Revenge From Mars perked that up considerably but then the CEO decided to pump up the price for Star Wars Ep 1 and orders, which had been higher, dropped below its sales. That's when they pulled the plug.

        After that, a bunch of the WMS pinball people went to Stern and some others went with Pat Lawlor who founded his own design company, manufacturing through Stern. That's why Stern's games improved in quality and play appeal. You can thank Dwight, Keith and Lyman in particular, plus Louis, Greg and John K along with Pat at PLD. George Gomez (Tron, Spy Hunter and the Monster Bash pinball, among others) now runs Stern.

        • TLDR: The big boys saturated and mismanaged the market, then when they closed down all the talent went to the small houses.

          Sounds like normal business to me. Hopefully the talent can pass on what they know to the next generation and foster a real industry.

      • by Megane (129182)

        Also, video games are easier to convert to a different game if they get stale, since most of them used joysticks and NTSC scan rate video. It can be as simple as new marquees with a ROM swap or a new JAMMA-compliant mainboard.

        I don't know enough about pins to know if they kept to similar board layouts to allow easier conversions, but there's nothing keeping the positions of all those mechanical switches and solenoids in the same place, and you might have to trash everything but the frame and score wheels f

      • Williams was the #1 pinball manufacturer

        You have an odd way of spelling "Bally".

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You should look on http://pinballmap.com/ if you want to find machines...

    • by ZipK (1051658)

      i love pinball, but finding a machine is rare! let's hope bars/arcades start stocking them instead of that stupid bowling/golf thingy

      Pacific Pinball Museum [pacificpinball.org]
      Pinball Hall of Fame [pinballmuseum.org]
      Silver Ball Museum Arcade [silverballmuseum.com]
      Pinballz Arcade [pinballzarcade.com]
      Seattle Pinball Museum [facebook.com]

      Plus there are annual shows all over the country.

      • And back in the reign of Pinball, you would find a machine in every convenience store, and every mall had an arcade. But today you can earn more money by standing up another rack of Twinkies.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    As long as they much quarters and not dollars

    You know what killed arcades for me? Having to spend $1 per play and 50 cents for a continue.

    I appreciate that it costs more to make fancier games but way to price yourself out of the market

    • That was a big problem for me. As a tween/teenager I didn't really have that much cash to dump in games that had become designed for hardened arcade players.

      The second thing that killed arcades for me were the actual people who inhabited them and loved to kick a kid off a machine or join in a challenge against them. Not being able to be a 'regular' a lot of the fun was killed for me.

      Ironically, I love pinball machines because I didn't have to deal with other jerks at the arcade, and they tended to be less

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...sure plays a mean pinball. However, he doesn't seem to be able to explain what the "unlikely place" is.

  • It's just more hipsterism. These dbags are a scourge on modern American culture, with their PBR, artisan pickles, Instagram and crochet.

    Not that pinball isn't totally awesome - but its only getting a resurgence because there's a bunch of high disposable income millenials who think they discovered it.

    • by Trepidity (597)

      Is there any way for it to be otherwise? Afaict, the word "hipster" is applied pretty much tautologically to anyone who likes "retro" things. So it is in fact impossible to like pinball and not be seen as a hipster, unless perhaps you're old.

      • Identifying the hipsters is easy - they're the ones who will stop liking pinball once it is again "mainstream".

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Are you trying to say you liked pinball before it was cool because...

    • The key component of hipsterism is pretense. Just because people enjoy something "retro" doesn't mean they are hipsters.

  • by sootman (158191)

    "is the retro silverball rising to prominence once again?"

    No. Neither is vinyl or buggy whips. An increase in the number of enthusiasts is not a "resurgence" or "rise to prominence."

  • Microsoft's Space Cadet pinball game still works on Windows 7. And all you have to do is to copy the folder from your old machine to the new one (in Program Files, of course)...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    to play pinball.

  • and old guys love pinball. We grew up with it. I'm 66, and I've got 14 machines, a whole room full, all digital. Fun to play, fun to maintain. My kids love 'em too, but they prefer their MMO's.
    • and old guys love pinball. We grew up with it. I'm 66, and I've got 14 machines, a whole room full, all digital. Fun to play, fun to maintain. My kids love 'em too, but they prefer their MMO's.

      yep. I'm half a generation behind you, but I do have fond memories (late Carter administration through early Reagan) of pwning the Charlie's Angels pinball machine in Louie's Lower Level in the basement of the Student Union at the University of Arizona. Slapped my quarter down in the line of quarters over the plunger and studied math until it was my turn. Prior to that (tail end of LBJ through Nixon and Ford) it was Spanky's Pinball Parlor at the strip mall two blocks from my house, where we would ditch

  • Is the cost to maintain the machine. They are much more expensive to maintain than a stand up arcade; even games like DDR are cheaper. With the shift of gaming from arcades to consoles pinball has naturally also declined as you can't get an authentic pinball experience from a virtual display. Now, if there was a rise to bring arcades back, then you would see games that have a unique advantage in the arcade over a home console rise in popularity within the arcade.

    P.S. If you like virtual pinball games check

  • Do you play the silver ball?
    From Soho down to Brighton?
    Have you played them all?
    Have you played them all, in any amusement hall?
    I have played them all, I do play them all
    I like to play and play I must, in any amusement hall.
  • Pinball diehard (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AnalogDiehard (199128) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @12:28PM (#43591821)
    Thirty years I outgrew video games while in college because I recognized early that they were addictive and they burned a hole in your pocket. But I never outgrew pinball machines. I always preferred the arcade games that relied on predictable real life attributes such as gravity and inertia, and video games don't offer that. With pinball machines you didn't burn a hole in your pocket trying to decipher patterns like you did with video games. But video games drew better money because of the addiction so the arcade owners gradually displaced pinball machines. There aren't many pinball machines around anymore, but when I cross paths with one I just have to play them.

    The old pinball machines from 1960 onward are really easy to fix. When I was in high school I completely restored one that belonged to a neighbor and didn't have to spend one dime on parts - most of the work was restoring mechanical parts such as solenoids, relays, springs, contacts, etc. Projects like that were the impetus to my earning an engineering degree from college.

    There are resellers making good money from scavenging parts to resell to pinball enthusiasts. Many pinball machines survive from as far back as the 1950s. With a few exceptions, you don't see that kind of loyalty with video games because the effort isn't worth it and spare parts are an issue. Replacing a CRT in today's flat screen world? Forget it. Video game computer flaking out? You need expensive test equipment and good diagnostic skills to fix them. Many video games from the 1970s and 1980s used ICs whose substrates suffered from chemical reactions over time that ultimately rendered a dead chip. Fixing a video game quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns because with their lower market value you will never recover the restoration costs.

    Playing a pinball machine gives you physical feedback. You can't feel the bumpers kick or the solenoids advancing the score counters on a video game. Bells and tonebars sound much more natural than electronic blips and bleeps. The playfields and backglass on many pinball machines are works of art, further highlighted by flashing lights. Video games are no match for the visual impact of a chrome plated ball dashing around bumpers, ramps, dropholes, et al with lights which react to impacts from the ball. Some of the later pinball machines did integrate sound effects but nothing corny like video games. And some of the themed pinball machines are downright excellent - you haven't played pinball until you played The Simpsons themed pinball machine.
    • As someone who loves pinball games, but never became a fanatic, here is a big problem that I had with pinball.

      The points. I never knew what the hell was going on with the points. Weird multipliers, huge numbers that I think can be called 'bajillions', and not really knowing if I would get 1 or 5 balls out of a quarter. (Why did that peg on the side disappear?)

      I realize that a lot of people like the 'discovery' aspect of the games, but damned if that wasn't weird for someone new to the games. As it was,

  • by ReallyEvilCanine (991886) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @12:44PM (#43592003) Homepage
    Video games: two fit in the same amount of space as one pin. That golf game earns $1-3 for just 3-5 minutes, with a general spend of $3-5. The most people are willing to pay for a game of pinball is generally 50Â, and that game better last 2-3 minutes, and can last a lot longer.

    Service: unskilled labour can pull and replace a control in most video games; few other problems exist these days. Pinball machines break. A lot. Fixing them requires lots of parts and lots of skill. There is only one person in the world able to reliably repair major problems on boards which haven't been made for the past 15-30 years (he bought the equipment from Williams when they shut down).

    Machines: There is only one manufacturer now: Stern. New machines run around $5500 plus shipping.

    Parts: There are hundreds of standard parts (though half of them differ by manufacturer) and a shitton of specialised pieces. All of them are expensive, as is the time of the guy who can reliably repair/replace them.

    Personal: I restore pins as a hobby. General parts come from only a couple of suppliers and specialised/unique pieces mainly from old stock from eBay. There are some modern replacement items such as redesigned power driver boards and LED replacements for lighting (bulbs always burn out) but it's a niche resurgence which won't bring around a renaissance because...

    Economics: a 50-50 split with the location on the 50-75Â per game max, on a machine which costs $5500 plus at least $100 in time and delivery costs and can be expected to require skilled service at least once a month, on-call and available within 48 hours with at least 300 parts on-hand. After 6-9 months the machine will have to be rotated out and after a couple of years, you can sell it for around $1000 to a collector if it's not lame and completely blown, in which case you might get $500 from a salvager. The no-service $4000 golf game will have turned a profit within a year.

    • by dianebrat (212157)

      Just an FYI, the magic time for play time average was always about 2:30 to 3:30, less than that and repeat players leave, more than 4 minutes and you don't make money either.

      These numbers were across both video games and pinball games in the arcades for years, not sure how that's changed in the past 10 years since I've been out of the business, but those were the numbers from the 80's and 90's almost without fail.

      • by nabsltd (1313397)

        Just an FYI, the magic time for play time average was always about 2:30 to 3:30, less than that and repeat players leave, more than 4 minutes and you don't make money either.

        That's a big reason why good pinball machines started to disappear even before the Williams pulled out of the business. The last set of pinball machines were more like lotteries as far as free play (either games or balls) went. They had configs like extremely short time limits while the "extra ball" was lit, or the free game score was insanely high, and only hitting the "super amazing jackpot" would ever give you enough points to do that.

        Before that, many games were just a matter of steady scoring (i.e.,

  • ...where the narrator tries to find an old machine that he used to play.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinball,_1973 [wikipedia.org]

    Not hard to get a copy online, just google for pinball murakami pdf

  • If you live close to Central Jersey, there's an arcade called 8 on the Break in Dunellen that has about 10 pinball tables. They have old and new pinball tables, very well maintained, and the price per game is really cheap. Most are $0.50 a game. There's also a pinball league that's currently active and run tournaments there every Wednesday night.

What this country needs is a good five cent microcomputer.

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