Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Impact of a Pinball Resurgence: The Tale of Metallica LE

The recent announcement of Stern's Metallica pinball machine line, specifically the Master of Puppets Limited Edition version, has presented some strong evidence supporting the pinball resurgence theory, but also in a way that isn't necessarily thrilling the long-time collector core community.  Let me try and sum this up in a nutshell, but some serious craziness has gone down in the last week, and even more in the last 24 hours.

On April 9, 2013, Stern released a teaser video for their latest machine, Metallica.  The initial announcements mentioned 400 Limited Edition (LE) machines in the plans, as well as a Premium (almost as good as the LE, but not numbered, and a bit less expensive), and a Pro version (a base model, fewer frills, and cheaper, the type more frequently put on location for public play).  Somewhere within the first few days, the LE run went from 400 to 500 machines. 

On April 11, 2013, a note from Gary Stern was posted on the official Stern Facebook page announcing that all the Limited Edition machines had been sold out (not what people usually mean when they talk about Metallica "selling out").  Keep in mind, there are two levels of "sold out" in pinball.  Sold out in this case meant that the number of LE units had been allocated out, or spoken for, to the various distributors.  Collectors didn't really panic at this because it doesn't typically mean a machine can no longer be had, even though the speed of Stern's sell-out was pretty fast compared to machines in the past.  Also of note; Stern's website crashed during this time.

The closest you may come to owning a Metallica Master of Puppets LE

LE playfield

Within 24 hours of that announcement, however, something unusual DID happen.  People started posting that distributors were also sold out of Metallica LE (the second tier of "sold out", a more true definition where a person can no longer purchase a machine, vs. just having to find the distributor who has remaining inventory).

It's unheard of for a machine, even an LE, to sell out that fast, and sell out it had.  There was a panic and scramble to try and get on the list for the LE.  People weren't used to having to make a $7000+ buying decision without even a gameplay video yet released, and many were left out in the cold. 

Normally the Premium model is an acceptable alternative to an LE (the playfield is virtually the same), but in this situation, people didn't like the art on the Premium translite:

Metallica Premium featuring actual band members

The draw of this pinball machine is partly the custom-drawn art package, and the Premium translite was the only one of the bunch that featured actual images of the band themselves.  People didn't like it, they wanted the fun, cartoon-style art of the LE and Pro translites.  This was one factor driving people to go after the LE.  Another factor that contributes is possible hoarding by speculators, both distributors, and buyers who went after multiple units with the suspicion that they would be able to flip them and make a profit.  Such value appreciation did occur in the case of the recent AC/DC "Back in Black" LE, and the speed with which the Metallica Master of Puppets LE run was snapped up is a strong indicator that the machine WILL appreciate.  We don't know how much of this has actually gone on, but the possibility doesn't help things.

SO these are pirhana-infested waters.  Then things got even worse.  As of this writing, it's not entirely clear what transpired on the afternoon of April 17th and into the next morning, but consensus and evidence suggests that Stern had to reallocate a large number of existing distributor units to either overseas distributors or potentially members of the Metallica fanclub, where the LEs had also been offered for sale and possibly over-sold.  Many distributors' allocations were cut in half, literally.  Whatever the reason, suddenly a large number of people who had thought themselves safely locked into an LE, even at a high price markup to ensure it, were being informed that they no longer had one.

Pitchforks and torches were taken up, and people were understandably furious.  Stern had drastically underestimated the demand for this product.  That doesn't mean more Limited Edition machines should be run, necessarily, but the problem was compounded by the fact that people didn't like the translite on the Premium.  That, paired with the speculators and the Metallica fanbase, and the gradual increase in pinball's popularity over the last couple years, created a perfect storm of demand.  People went pincrazy.

This is where Stern then did something right.  On April 18 (today), the day after the allocations cut and forum riots, Stern announced an alternative translite (actually an entire second art package) for Metallica Premium machines (shown below). 

Stern Pinball’s Metallica Game Success Leads To Second Premium Edition

World’s Leading Maker of Arcade Quality Pinball Collaborates With Legendary Rock Artist Dirty Donny Gillies to Create Metallica Game

MELROSE PARK, IL – April 18, 2013 – Stern Pinball, Inc., the world’s leading maker of real pinball games and the AAMA 2012 Manufacturer of the Year, announces the availability of a second Premium model Metallica pinball machine. The initial release of Metallica pinball captured the attention of gamers and fans alike. Stern sold out of both the US and International allocations of its 500 Limited Edition (“LE”) games within an hour of each respective customer announcement.

The second Premium edition machine features the vibrant artwork of Dirty Donny Gillies and complement’s Stern’s Metallica LE, “Road Case” Premium and Pro models.

The new Premium edition Metallica game boasts the same action-packed features as the Road Case Premium model and highlights the addition of Dirty Donny’s radical pop art creations. Dirty Donny is considered one of the most influential artists in the pop culture scenes of underground rock, punk and heavy metal. He is widely known for his creative work on concert posters, album covers and vinyl toys.

“Stern Pinball has pulled out all the stops for the Metallica machines,” said Dirty Donny. “Creating artwork for this special release game has been awesome. I can’t wait to see people’s reactions when they take a first look at it and get to play the game.”

For a glimpse of the game in action, Stern Pinball will be showcasing the Metallica pinball machine at Comic-Con International in San Diego this year with Nuclear Blast Records.

The Metallica game continues both the Stern Pinball and the Stern family tradition of producing quality pinball machines for young and old. The company traces its lineage to Philadelphia in the 1930s when Sam Stern entered the business of operating pinball games. Sam Stern subsequently became part owner and president of Williams Manufacturing, a pioneer in the pinball industry. Sam passed his lifelong enthusiasm for the game and the business of pinball to his son Gary Stern who founded Stern Pinball. Today pinball remains one of America’s favorite pastimes.

Pricing and Availability:

The Metallica pinball machine is available while supplies last through authorized Stern distributors and dealers.

Pro Version: $4,995
Premium Version (Road Case): $6,995
Premium Version (Donny): $6,995
Limited Edition Version: (Master of Puppets) $7,595 (SOLD OUT)

To learn more about The Metallica pinball games and Stern Pinball, visit

Metallica Premium, take 2!

We knew such a translite existed, as it is briefly visible in the teaser video. This was a good example of listening to your customers via social channels, and making a move to mitigate a supply issue when unexpected demand creates as big a problem as this overselling did.

It leaves the community wondering, though, if maybe it was more convenient to be a less popular hobby.  Oh, and did I mention, Stern had announced a $500 or so MSRP price increase for this machine?  Clearly that impacted demand about as effectively as a bucket of water on a forest fire.  So yes, pinball is growing, faster than anyone (even Stern) expected.  So fast that demand has far out-paced supply in this case, and resulted in some serious growing pains.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Custom Duck Hunt EM Pinball Machine is so cool!

So Skit-B, the guys making the limited run of Predator pinball machines, evidently had a side project going to while away the boring hours.  That project was a one-off custom pinball machine based on the NES game, Duck Hunt.

I want this.  I SO want this!  Just the sound effects are enough... forget Predator, start pumping out some of these babies!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How to clean a WHO Dunnit slot reel motor

The stepper motors that drive the slot machine reels on a WHO Dunnit pinball machine eventually need cleaning.  Here's how I dunnit, illustrated.

Yes, we have been doing an awful lot of maintenance lately on our pinball machines.  It seemed like once we finally got the board replaced for our new WHO Dunnit, another problem came up.  In this case, one night I noticed that the left-most slot machine reel wasn't matching what the DMD was displaying when it would turn.  By the next morning, it had stopped altogether.

I went online to research the problem (thanks, Google).  This is a common problem with these motors, and in most cases, it turns out, the motor has just become jammed up with metal shavings.  The motors themselves are pretty hearty, so it's less common that they have actually burned out.  That was good news, because you simply can't buy this particular motor anymore.  I found a German company, Kollmorgen, that used to sell them (USED TO), a company that repairs these motors, and also mention that certain pinball suppliers had them in stock... in 2009.  And even at that time the fact was noteworthy.  I emailed Kollmorgen just in case they still had them, but at the time of this writing, have not heard back.  So my step 1 option was to try and clean our existing motor.

WHO Dunnit slot reel housing

It's not easy getting at these motors.  All three are in a large metal housing under the playfield, held in place with 8 screws.  Each slot reel/motor set is in its own metal housing.  The motor has two circuit connectors, and the top one must be removed to remove the motor housing.  What went through my head at this point was, "I'm so glad it was one of the outer reels that stopped turning and not the middle one!"  The plastic reel is held in place by a set screw, and that's easy to remove.

The reel connected to the motor by a set screw

I also want to take a moment to mention, I am not the go-to pinball tech in our house.  That's my husband, but he was pretty fed up with the machine at this point after the board issues, and I wanted to step up to the plate and try to fix this motor myself.  It is by far the most ambitious maintenance I've attempted to date.  I'm usually the one cleaning the glass. :)  He was also at work on this day, and I didn't tell him I was attempting this.

motor housing

So anyway, after carefully disassembling things down to where I could actually get at the motor, I was able to remove it, and then take off one side of the casing.  I was at a loss for a while as to what needed cleaning, or what to do from there, and this is one reason I wrote this article.  You can find lots of mentions of cleaning these stepper motors (it's evidently the same motor used in Scared Stiff, by the way), but no pictures on what exactly that entails.  Eventually I realized that pushing on the inner gear assembly just sort of slid that part out.  Once I got that out, it was pretty evident that it did indeed need a cleaning.  I took it upstairs to MY laboratory... the kitchen.

note shavings between the two gears - yuck!

The amount of powder and metal shavings along the inner edge was impressive.  Now the pain in the BUTT with cleaning this is, the shaft housing is pretty freaking magnetic.  The shavings, of course, are extremely attracted to it.  Like they have found their one true love and they are never letting go.  I used broken toothpicks to get in there, but it took some time.  Once, I put the motor too close to the paper towel where I was keeping the shavings, and BOOM, they jumped right back on.  ARGH!!

metal shavings removed

Once I had removed all the shavings I could, also going in with the edge of a paper towel to really just clean this as much as possible, I went back downstairs, gave both that and the housing a thorough attack with a can of compressed air, and put the motor back together.  Before putting everything back in place, I turned on the machine, and held my breath.  The moment the power came on I felt the motor twitch, and my hopes lifted.  Sure enough, when the pin went through its reel spin on startup, the formerly defunct wheel spun like a champ.  Victory!  It was fully as great a feeling as getting a high score.

I considered taking out the other two motors then and giving them a cleaning; they are probably going to do the same thing eventually.  But in pinball, it is best to heed the old adage, "if it aint broke, DON'T FIX IT."  I read a thread on pinside once from a guy who wanted to clean the T-Rex on his Jurassic Park.  It was working fine, he just wanted to clean it.  Everyone warned him not to.  He did it anyway, and sure enough, after reassembling the T-Rex, it didn't work properly.  I'm sure he got it going again eventually, but the point is, don't go out of your way to find headaches in a pinball machine; they will come to you.

PS - While you're at it pampering your WHO dunnit, why not add some of these custom apron cards by PinZach?