This article was written in 2002.

"It kept breaking down and it never took enough money."

If you've ever asked a bar owner why they took the pinball game out of their location, chances are you will have received that kind of reply.

Valid complaints, surely?

Let's look at the two individually.

"It kept breaking down" - that's not really anything we as players can do anything about. Or is it?

Stern do their best to make their machines reliable, but the more complex the toys we players demand, the more likely they are to break. The solution recently employed is to make the moving parts insignificant to gameplay. A toy may move, flash and suffer abuse, but it shouldn't incapacitate the game if it breaks. Look at The Simpsons Pinball Party - the biggest moving part on the game is Homer, and he could be totally missing without affecting the game in the slightest. Medieval Madness - if the castle falls apart more than it is supposed to, so what? You can still rule the kingdom if you make the shots.

So reliability should be improving but it still requires quality control at the factory. When a bunch of games go out with a fatal manufacturing error which traps the ball and effectively kills the game, that's just not good enough. It happened and I have one such game. It was only a five minute job to fix it, but it simply shouldn't be needed.

Mud sticks and so restoring pinball's reputation as a reliable money earner will take years from the point where there are zero defects leaving the factory and the games keep working without faults, and we're not quite at that point yet. It's partly game design and partly manufacturing reliability, so that's all Stern's responsibility, and they're well aware of it.

The best thing location owners can do it put a sheet of paper next to the game or behind the bar, so that players can note down problems for the operator to fix at the next visit. It keeps the game earning, and lets players know that their complaints will be addressed and doesn't constantly annoy the staff. If you have a favourite bar location, suggest it to them - it will make everyone's life easier.

If reliability is slowly improving what about the complaint about poor income from the games?

The main problem here is that pub and bar owners judge a pinball game's income as being the contents of the cash box, but it's not.

Pinball players, like many video game players, are sophisticated in their approach to the game. Pinball players largely know their game, enjoy playing it and return regularly to do so. Consequently, they're actually rather good players. They work hard and long to get the high scores and as anyone who's spent an evening doing the same knows, it's thirsty work.

So what do these skilled players do while they're playing? They buy drinks.

That's right, these players are sufficiently skilful that they win many free games along the way, so they don't have to put much money into the cash box, but they're pumping up the cash register all the while. Pinball players (especially groups) boost bar sales enormously. And all those free games keep the players in the bar even longer, buying more drinks. Who likes to walk away from a game leaving credits? Players will stay longer than they intended if there are free games to play.

So, any bar owner looking at the simple figures will see a small return from their pinball game but a large return from drinks sales. The easy way to make more money has to be - ditch the pin and make more room for drinkers.

How wrong can they be?

Pinball brings people out of their homes and into bars. It's a social gathering that delivers elements you can't get from your home game room - the chance to meet fellow players - often relative strangers - and get some real human competition, while enjoying some drinks and snacks. For the bar owner it's a win-win situation. Word spreads quickly and soon the bar is the location of choice for pinball players - if the game is a good one and well maintained, players will desert their usual haunts for the one with the great pin and bring their friends with them. Even if their friends aren't pinball players, pinball fans will choose the bar with the pin as a favoured meeting point - get there early and have a few games before their friends arrive. And a few games equals a few drinks.

So the message of this rant is directed towards bar owners and those customers who never counter the arguments often put forward by those owners.

Pinball returns far more than the cash box reveals. Players spend money at the bar and bring others to do the same. If you hold a weekly or monthly high score competition and publicise it, you will bring more visitors to your location and they will stay longer, just ask Stern - they've done the research and produced the ToPS system as a result.

Pinball has the power to do far more than a slot machine or video game because so many locations have shunned it. By putting one in your bar you have an (almost) unique draw for customers - and pinball players are a perceptive bunch. They will find the game and they will play it. Now it's up to you to satisfy their demands.


Pinball News reader Scott Terpkosh sent in these comments:

This has certainly gone on here for some time now.

Years ago when I first went to college a local bar (yes I was of legal age at the time. ;) used to give you marked quarters if you bought something to eat/drink. Buy a pitcher, get a a burger, fries and drink...get two quarters. These quarters had nail polish on them so the bar would get all of them back when the machine was emptied out by the supplier.

Well, as the 80's become the 90's that 'crap' was stopped. The supplier didn't like the fact that the majority of coins were marked and thus his profits were lowered.

Now, 20 years later...the same supplier (unfortunately there is only one in town) gets the first $20-$50 mattering on the location. Only after that does the bar owner get a 50/50 split. In fact, one of the dormitories just this year had their game room shut down. After 3 years it was realized they made NO money off the machines because the minimum $20 wasn't met. (Which isn't surprising since during that time they only switched machines out once...and even then one of the two pinballs was down for a good 6 months.)

Funny fact, just last week I saw a machine of theirs in a laundramat. It was shut off because the plunger was missing. How the hell do you steal a plunger?!?! The spring wasn't even on the inside. Considering how clean it looked I think it was just put in and no one noticed for some reason.

So much for attention to detail.

Anyway, I thought I'd pass around the polish suggestion. Because I always thought that worked out pretty well for the bar owner. And in case you're wondering...the bar owner always said that only about 1 out of every 20 or so quarters would go missing. But then again, he'd sometimes see them in his regular cash door so one way or another he probably got them all back. ;)

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