Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The case for a pinball resurgence

Recently there's been some talk about whether or not arcades may be making a comeback in the United States.  Ars Technica just ran an article about some of the new bar/arcade combinations that are springing up across the country.  Surprisingly, they are saying that more arcades are opening than closing now.

Most of the examples they mentioned don't involve a lot of pinball as far as I could tell.  But rumor has it, pinball is on a major upswing too, and I am one of those people who think it is making some degree of comeback.  I submit the following pieces of evidence to build my case.

Pinball prices spiking. 

"Pinflation" as some call it is causing much angst and debate in the pinball community.  Newcomers lament the fact that the most popular classic machines fetch prices approaching five figures (so do brand new, or NIB machines, for that matter).  Demand is very strong at the moment.  As collector and competitive player John Reuter pointed out:
"Lots of new people are coming into the hobby and it is fueling the price increase. Location pins are part of the story, and so are clubs, leagues, conventions and tournaments etc. The biggest factor of all is the home market. Pinball wasn't marketed directly to the consumer for many years and that has begun to change. There were never enough pinballs built in the whole history of the game to supply a significant consumer market and  pinballs are pretty much the ultimate collectible."
There's no faking demand.  And even with these higher prices, people are still buying machines.  Believe me, it's an impressive sight to walk into someone's basement and see a row of pinball machines all gleaming and flashing and beckoning.

New manufacturers. 

For many years, the last remaining manufacturer of pinball machines was Stern Pinball.  They have been producing a handful of new machines each year and in doing so have probably helped a lot in keeping pinball alive in the new millennium. 

World Poker Tour Pinball

But in the past few years, other companies have sprung up.  Long-time designers have done individual micro-runs of new machines.  The biggest news on this front is Jersey Jack Pinball, a company that's been working on a state of the art new Wizard of Oz pinball machine, complete with LCD display and software updates via wireless connectivity.  The machine looks gorgeous, and is due to start rolling off the assembly line by the end of the year.  And it has "ruby flippers".  Oh yes, they went there...

Video streaming by Ustream

Reuter also points out that computer technology has made it more possible for indie style pinball designers to create one-off machines without necessarily being an established pinball manufacturer. Boutique style, if you will.


Video game reproductions like Pinball Arcade by FarSight Studios have been reproducing classic old pinball tables such as Theater of Magic, Medieval Madness, and Funhouse for XBox, PS3, mobile devices, and other electronic platforms.  They are actually using the original software that runs the real machines, so that leads to a pretty accurate rendition.  They have run a successful Kickstarter to acquire the license to do Twilight Zone, and are currently at 67% on their funding goal for Star Trek: Next Generation. 

In addition to emulations of classic tables, there's a lot of simulation of totally new video pinball tables.  One example is Marvel Pinball.  I've found this collection to be really fun (it has Blade!), and there are some things it does that you could never do in a real pinball machine. 

New users joining pinball fan sites. 

Sites like Pinside are seeing a noticeable increase in new forum members.  A welcoming community is extremely important for newcomers to a hobby like this, as both a knowledge resource and a source for buying machines.  A spike in new members on a site like this means increasing interest in the hobby.

New printed materials.

In addition to the new Pinball Magazine issue that launched this month, I just ordered a book on pinball, The Pinball Compendium: 1982 - Present with a publish date of February, 2012.  You can bet the authors and especially the publishers believed that there was sufficient audience to warrant that.

Those aren't the only signs, either.  There are more pinball tournaments springing up, with plenty of participants.  Places like Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, NH, which opened just over a year and a half ago, partly because the owner, long-time pinball route operator Sarah St. John, had a feeling that the hobby was gaining traction.  Last month, I participated in my very first pinball tournament there (their second annual).  I came in like 70/100, but let me tell you this; it was exciting!  And that tournament was tiny compared to ones like PAPA (Professional & Amateur Pinball Association), with serious cash money prizes.

I recently spoke to another arcade operator who told me that a West Coast pinball distributor said that pinball is already back big-time on the West Coast, and that he predicted it'll be as big on the East Coast within the next 5 years or so.  Nobody can predict the future, but someone in that part of the industry could certainly spot a trend.

Honestly, it all makes sense.  Those of us who grew up playing pinball are adults now, with nostalgia and disposable incomes.  As Ars Technica pointed out, these uncertain financial/political times tend to make one yearn for simpler days.  It's true that prices are spiking, but if you want a specific piece of nostalgia badly enough, that's not going to stop you.  The other thing about pinball that is not the case with most video games is that you can flip it on and play for 5 minutes... or a couple hours.  You don't need to form a raid party or get your gaming group together, and there's a lot to be said for that flexibility when a working adult gets home at 6 or 7 at night.

But nostalgia isn't the only thing going on here.  There are plenty of 20-something younger people getting in on this hobby and acquiring classic pinball machines for home use.  They don't have prior memories of pinball, and are more often discovering the hobby through video game adaptations like Pinball Arcade.  Something about the hobby is compelling enough to both young and old to get people to drop thousands of dollars on a high-maintenance (and very heavy) leisure commitment.

Owning a pinball machine is not a feasible option for everyone.  But while the video game simulations have gotten very good, there is simply no substitute for the actual kinetic experience of playing pinball, especially a well-maintained machine.  If arcade games, which can actually be emulated quite well for the most part, are making a comeback, pinball has double the justification to do so.  That, I believe, is what will help pinball get a foothold in more public venues.  We're not talking, nor will we probably ever be, about things on the scale of Japan's arcade scene (check out 100 Yen).  But enough to support more than one pinball manufacturer when combined with the private owner market?  It seems likely.

I considered making a documentary about it (I'd have to cut back on playing pinball though, which is problematic).  There are a slew of topics I just touched on above that need some serious exposition, and I barely scratched the surface.  Don't even get a passionate pinball enthusiast going on the LEDs vs. incandescents debate!  So, that's what I'm obsessed with right now, and that's what is going to occupy this blog for the near-term.


jeromejj77 said...

I've started a website for pinball localization in France and the trend is going up. More and more people interested in playing and ready to fin the last one of the Stern models.
Check it at

Anonymous said...

Kudos from Caracas,


Unknown said...

I just got into this about a year ago. Picked up a PinBot (my childhood fav.), a Funhouse, and rebuilt a Laser War. Glad I got in before it gets any crazier price-wise. I paid less for all three of those than the Funhouse goes for currently.

Unknown said...

Picked up a Pin*Bot, Funhouse, and rebuilt a Laser War all within the last few months. Super fun, going to keep them for a very long time!

Unknown said...

Got a Pin*Bot, Funhouse, and rebuilt a Laser War over the last few months. Super fun and a great relaxing hobby.