This article was written in 2006.

This time Pinball News hands over the keyboard to prolific contributor Todd Andersen to give his view on the state of pinball today and how we got here.


There are many influences that have forced pinball into being what it is today. This article will show some major factors on pinball from its infancy thought the present.



For the purpose of this article, “pinball” will refer to more than just the amusement device itself. It will also refer to the culture, industry and philosophy.



The dictionary defines “pinball” as a “game”. I'm not going to plagiarize the dictionary. But I will provide a link .

Though I've played the game of pinball as a leisure activity, I've competed in pinball as a sport. Many others in the world have done the same as well. Like those who have attended
The UK Pinball Show
Dutch Pinball Open
European Pinball Championship
Pinball Expo
Pinball Extravaganza
Swedish Pinball Championship
There is even a world ranking of pinball players, which is governed by the International Flipper Pinball Association - IFPA. But, without the efforts of private individuals who brought their own games to the above listed events, there would have been no events.

The 1950s was the last heyday for the pinball machine and all associated with pinball. Modern movies still use the sounds of old electromechanical pinball machines when newer solid-state machines are shown in the movies. The era of the 50s is associated with and thought of when most non-pin-heads, the majority, think of pinball. Today, there are fewer and fewer places in which to play pinball. Pinball is the same as any other sub-culture. Only true enthusiasts support pinball.

There is currently only a single company, Stern, which is actively producing pinball machines on a regular basis. Though a few small pinball parts sellers hold booths at and somewhat support the above listed events, these events are mainly supported and attended by individual pinball hobbyists.



Because of “The Great Depression” of 1929, many people were forced to look for new ways to create income. In America, one way of making money was to start a small in-home business. Soon, a “cottage industry” of many start up companies started producing small tabletop devices called “bagatelles”. A bagatelle was a game, which used marbles or small balls that were launched by the player. The marbles careened off of brass pins and into scoring holes or into the collection trough. The original use of pins and advances in game design eventually led to calling the game “pinball”. In fact, the bagatelle itself turned into the playfield of the modern pinball machine. Shopkeepers and bar owners who could afford to purchase bagatelles from one of the many start up companies used the games as a way to collect much needed income. A round of play was just one penny. Players usually got five or ten balls for their penny. This was cheap entertainment. Not only was this entertainment, someone who played well could tally his score and win prizes or money. This was a win-win-win situation. Manufacturers made money from selling the games they produced. Shopkeepers earned money from the many unskilled or unlucky players who tried the games. And some skillful players could go home with useful/valuable prizes or more money than with which they started.

During the 1930s through the 1940s, at least a dozen manufactures were making the predecessor to the modern pinball machine. Companies such as: ABT, Gottlieb, and Stoner Mfg. were churning out less complex pinball machines than the modern technical marvels. Game manufacturers move out of their homes and into small (what was now becoming pinball) shops. Though many and various shops were located across the country, many of these companies were located near what is now named “Chicagoland” - the area around Chicago, IL, USA. These pinball companies used innovative toys and colorful art to attract perspective players to their machines. Just one year after battery power was first utilized to operate the simple lights and toys of the first set of more complex games, the games were wired so that they could be plugged into a standard wall outlet. In conjunction, the price for playing one of these more colorful and entertaining machines increased. This was the first golden age for pinball.

During WWII in 1942, the need for raw material, supplies and men to fight the war took parts and staff away from many early pinball manufacturers. Consequently, many of these companies ceased to exist. The people left on the home front hadn't the time or money to play pinball. Because of these factors, this time period marked one of the first downturns of pinball.

The last down turn happened to pinball when, in the middle 1970s, the technology making the games work changed from electromechanical (relays, motors, and advance units) to solid-state devices (transistors, SCRs, and computer chips). The repair force for pinball knew how to troubleshoot relays and ladder logic. But, that same work force did not know how to troubleshoot transistors and Boolean logic. Currently, anyone with the skill set to work on electronic circuits can make more money in other fields; with the benefit of not having to be out working in old, dimly lit, smoky bars. Those with electronic skills can work in new, clean, bright manufacturing plants.

With its first game of 2006, World Poker Tour, the only current pinball manufacturer has again recently changed the technology that makes the games function. This time the S.A.M. system is a change from through-mount electronics to surface-mount electronics. Again, the change in operating hardware is sufficient enough to cause a technological gap between those who manufacture the machines and those who repair them. This final change may be the last nail in pinball's coffin.



One - Real Estate
Pinball designers try to put fun and interesting “toys” on the pinball's playfield. But, in doing so, the space for the ball to travel is being taken up by the toys. There is no game to play if there is no place to hit the ball with the flippers.

Two - “Toys”
As previously discussed, pinball manufacturers tried to draw players to just their own games. In an effort to do this, manufacturers started adding a greater array of more complex assemblies under and on the playfields. But, these more complicated toys require more maintenance. The addition of toys only succeeded in making the games more expensive to purchase and maintain. And, some players are put-off by complicated games. The newfangled modern games don't play into the sense of nostalgia that pinball seems to bring out in many people. Much of this nostalgia is price. I, myself, remember playing an old electromechanical Gottlieb; five balls for a dime. Whereas, game play on a modern complicated machine may be one dollar for just three balls. In summary, you could say that pinball has always been a balancing act between attraction to and playability for the player. Pinball proves the old conclusion true, “You can't please all of the people all of the time”.



There is a common misconception that pinball is American. Though pinball was once brought to a glorious state through “Yankee ingenuity”, pinball is European. Europe is where the game got its roots, through a game introduced in the just merging United States called, “Bagatelle”. And, Europe it is where the majority of machines are sold.

Another misconception is that pinball machines are everywhere. This is nostalgia talking. See for yourself. Try to find a pinball game in your local: arcade, coffee shop, drug store, or restaurant. There are actually few coin-op arcades currently in existence. And news of yet another arcade closing seems too familiar on the pinball news group, RGP. One happy exception is SS Billiards. But, it is the great efforts of the owner, not the customers, which keep this small suburban arcade open.



Since the 1940s, the news media has been primarily responsible for spreading the negative image attached to pinball. Though pinball may have once been a tool for gambling, and though section 1178 of “The Gambling Devices Act of 1962” (“The Johnson Act”) disqualifies pinball machines as primary gaming devices, gambling via pinball is definitively controlled by sections 1176 and 1177 of the same act. The current gambling craze, Texas Hold'em, doesn't even involve coin-op. The casinos which house these card tournaments are taking the money people used to spend in coin-op arcades. Also, the perceived “seedy” locations many pinball machines once inhabited are now gone. Today, corporately run “sports bars”, like “ Champps”, have replaced many independently owned small bars. To draw the money of entire families, the large corporate bars now include restaurants. To a large extent, when families visit corporate run theme bars, the family members spend the majority of their time eating and drinking; rather than playing games.



I can't predict the future. But from what I've seen from pinball's past, I can only come to one conclusion. Through all of pinball's trials and tribulations, ups and downs, and even though pinball has been a host to entertainment, innovation, and mystique; pinball may currently have a few strongholds. And, pinball may continue to be around in some greatly diminished capacity. But, pinball is taking its last breath.

Originally written: 27 Sep 05. Updated: 25 Aug 06.


From Andrew Smith:

I've just read Todd Andersons piece on Pinball News. Pinball isn't taking its last breath. Technology moves on so new Pinball machines will have new technology. This technology is also cheaper to make than the old stuff and will permit things like bopard changes for quick fixes. Less down time and easier to repair means that it will be more attractive to operators.

I had to sell off my home pinball machine collection to pay my mortgage (all 7 games gone) and I'm not active on the UK Pinball scene at present.

But just like me, Pinball is alive and kicking.......


From Brett Barry:

The article was a little simplistic. Pinball future has a lot to do with the home environment, and I saw no mention of that idea. More and more people are putting pinball in their gamerooms, and I just had a client last week stop by home and he loved my games. Today he called me and said that HE now plans to buy a pin instead of the pool table he was originally thinking of.

This, in a nutshell, is a big part of the future of pinball. Word of mouth from enthusiasts, and young kids who have never even seen a game before who's eyes light up when they see their fisrt game. That sense of wonderment, when some of us older pinheads first layed eyes on a game, still exists.

Hats off to Gary Stern, and people like Jack G. from who are pushing the home gaming envelope. Pinball isn't taking it's last breath, its just taking a deep breath...


From Bret Malone:

WOW! Thanks for the postive outlook on the future.

But of course, we do still have Stern over here, which, alas, is about to out sell both LOTR as well as the Simpsons games compared to Willimas last gasp at air like CC and CV.

I simply have zero idea why you would both print such an article like this one unless you were short on info or breaking news! True, arcades arent what they once were, but the HUO market has expolded. I think in the future it would both benefit yourself as well as the Hobby and business overall to not pen such a very daft and stupid article on the future death of pinball.

Wise words: "Dont bite the hand that feeds you!" Sad article, very, very sad, and not worthy of your fine website!!!!!


From Steve Cooper:

Some of the replies you have from the article are quite funny!

These people are clearly home only pin heads! They just don't understand that pinball is a game made for operation to make money from! And if operators don't buy them, then Gary Stern can't make enough money to survive! I really can not see the home market being able to hold up pinball factorys! can you? Second hand pinball sales (over here anyway) have slowed down for the home owner!

Because there were so many dot matrix pins made in the '90s, then there are lots to keep the second hand home market going for a while yet! But the real future is mabee not that great!

I know alot of other operators here in Australia and only two including myself buy brand new pins, if any at all. They operate video product that, lets face it generates more money (on the overall average) then pins!. Don't get me wrong I love pinnys, that's what lured me into a being an operator 13 years ago. But to be real I think pins really need to go to another level to go any futher. What more can they do with a pinny?

This Ultrapin will be a very big test of the state of pinball mate, I really believe that! I know a lot of operators that are very keen on the sound of it! VERY KEEN! So that said lets see what happens!

Anyway you are doing a great job on this site and it is clearly not for financal gain so I can't see how you are biting any hands!!

The good old pinnys will always be around(they made 'em pretty darn good, to last) so let's not all get too upset and chill out a bit mate, life is too short to stress out about pinny's!!!


From Graham O'Connor:

I am 38 yrs old and have been playing arcade games for not only longer than I can remember, but also have owned quite a few for some years now (ranging from 1957 to 1990's). I still enjoy playing them all as much as i first did, when just a kid in a small rural town at the local cafe.

Over the more recent years with their now being only one manufacturer left, the hype about their value (collectabillity) by some people around has amazed me. I am sure a lot of us will remember when you could have bought a kizz out of your back pocket.

Although I see the home market going strong (still reasonable, have a look on ebay), I agree that this will not help Stern to stay afloat as it does not put money in theirs or operators pockets. I do have some machines sited and as much as it pains me to say this, a good arcade machine has no peer!

As to the current generation coming through. One thing that does give me a great deal of pleasure when we have friends come over is watching teens actually be shown how they really play and getting hooked, albeit for free. I too am hoping that the Ultrapin can help to lift the interest of this great pastime that has allowed us all to dream at one time or another of immortality with that high score never to be beaten!!

Bring on the next evolution.


From Lincoln Whisler:

The issue of how to breath live into pinball seems to come down to demand. Home use owners will be a factor, but for pinball to gain demand, machines need to be in front of the public.. and they need to be well cared for.

The mechanical beauty that is a pinball machine is the one thing you cannot create on a home video game machine. It cannot be done. You can simulate it, but thats it. And I'm not saying I'm not interested in seeing ultrapin or other simulations of it, I just
believe that the real mechanical feel is at the heart of what a PIN is.

It takes money and commitment to care and keep a machine in tip top operation. Arcades killed themselves by holding on to tightly to those money making video games, they let the console steal the day, and while they watched the numbers go down they also let pinball go with it. Bowling alleys and billiard rooms offered something you cant get at home for pennies - the physical experience. Pool and bowling are the physical
entertainment that has continued to make money, when consoles started taking a bite
out the arcade, the others kept floating along.

The Pin manufacturers would be wise to find a way to get more machines in front of people at those locations (lease options, trade ins?) grow the demand back.

I have opened a classic arcade with some partners, we charge a flat fee to get in and play unlimited video games and pinball for a quarter, the pins continue to get
played and make money, many people pay to get in just to be able to pay to play pinball. I hope to buy our first NEW machine soon.

If pinball fans are the only people buying pinball machines, we will be in trouble. Ask the manager at your local hang out to get a new pin, and those of you that know how, buy and old pin and put it into service. If we dont ask for Pinball and grow the demand for pinball, it will die.

Lucky for us, it's an easy thing to grow.


From Doug Redfarn:

For me, Pinball has simply reduced down to a hard core centre where it can still flourish. When you look at the many sites selling reproduction parts & spares, etc that tells you that the Pintable is still live and kicking.

I do think though that unless younger people can get 'into' Pinball, then as the older people fade out of the picture, then we do have a problem.

So, its up to us to continue promoting the things, letting friends and their kids play our home machines, and, support Stern in buying their games. If Gary Stern decides to call it a day, that's it. Of course, we do have the new Australian operation to consider too, but as yet, they are not the serious player that Stern is.

Interesting times ahead!


From Kyle Wren:

I really enjoyed Todd's article on the history of pinball, and his thoughts on its future (or lack of). The fact is a bunch of collectors like me buying, selling, and trading 5 to 15 year old machines back and forth does not make much of a thriving industry. We may somewhat be propping up Stern sales, but until there is widespread acceptance of a whole bunch of collectors to drop more than 4k for all the newest models off the line I have a bad feeling for the future.

Wanting something to be true, and that thing actually being true are 2 different things. I can want there to be a thriving new pinball sales market, and I hope that Stern is doing Ok. But I see little evidence of it around here.

There really are 2 things going on here: the sale of new machines from Stern, and the collector market. One is doing well, and hopefully the other (Stern) will continue for years to come. All I know is there are fewer than a dozen pinball machines on location anywhere near me, and less every year it would seem. If operators stop buying you can't run a factory on collector orders. We are a fickle bunch that only seem to like about 1/3rd of the titles that come out. We don't buy enough machines to pay for all that overhead. :-(


From Bob Golby:

I read the article and was somewhat bemused I must say.

As someone who has always enjoyed playing pinball I've been increasingly depressed by the difficulty of finding them on site in pubs, where once they were fairly common.

Yes, you can go to an arcade if you want but it's hardly a social event. Once upon a time you could go for a drink with your mates and play a bit of pinball and have a good evening out. Even those who weren't playing knew the table was there. But now they're just not in pubs and pinball tables have faded from the common consciousness. The truth is that most people don't even know that they still exist.

And why is this? Simple economics. The scourge of pinball machines hasn't been more complex maintenance (although that doesn't help obviously) or the proliferation of 'toys' on the playing field. Nope, pool tables are what has done for the pinball machine. They take money quicker (and, unlike pinball, the better the players get, the more cash it swallows), it's lower maintenance and it doesn't make a racket. It's clearly a much more attractive proposition for a pub landlord who's being squeezed for rent by the brewery.

Personally I'd prefer a pinball table anyway but then I'm just a soft, sentimentalist doomed for extinction in these days of hard-headed economics.

Got any thoughts about these opinions? Send them to us here.


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