It was at the start of January 2014 when I had the opportunity to visit the Jersey Jack Pinball factory in Lakewood, New Jersey, and meet Jack Guarnieri. For the first time I was able to see how pinballs are produced.
The Jersey Jack Pinball factory
On the JJP production line
During the tour of the factory I talked with Jack and some of the people from his team. Later we kept in contact via e-mail, and it was then I decided to conduct this interview.
I began by asking Jack about the current state of pinball manufacturing.
There are currently almost twenty active or planned pinball producers. I know most of them are small and some are still only hoping to make pinballs, but still... It that too many? It is starting to look like just before a bubble bursts when everyone rushes in with the same idea.
"In anything, the market finds its own level. No matter what is produced, the consumers can only buy so much of it. With PinballSales.com we have a trademarked saying, "We sell everything nobody needs". The exception would be that commercial game operators need pinball machines to make money with. Sadly that has not been true for the past ten years or more. They have had many other choices to make money with better earning equipment that is more reliable and has a better and faster return on investment (ROI).
At PinballSales.com (PBSC), when I founded that in late 1999 nobody else was selling commercial pinball machines to the home market full-time. Other distributors laughed at me. Nobody is laughing now, and that company has over 15,000 customers all over the world. Without PBSC, JJP does not get started.
It is good to try and do something but it is better to complete what you set out to do. Not everyone starting a race can complete it. If they do, they may be bloody and worn out. There is no victory. I do applaud everyone who sets out to make a pinball machine. Good products create good sales and they actually sell themselves. We will see how many good products there are for the audience that is willing to buy them."
Inside the JJP factory
Gary Stern said a few years ago that there is only room for one pinball manufacturer.
"It seems that people like to do what other people like to do. If they see something, they want to do it. If there is a line to get into a place to eat, they get in line. So it seems the same with pinball in some ways. Crying that there was only one manufacturer making pinball and that it was very difficult and expensive turned off many people. They instead went to buy good, used pinball machines, and that drove the prices up - supply and demand.
When other people said, 'Hey! We can design and build pinball machines too.' a lot of attention and headlines were made. People who had no job, all-of-a-sudden they were hired back into making pinball machines.
Competition is great. There is no horse race or auction with one horse or one bidder. People need to have choices what they want to buy and where they will spend their money. New manufacturers making games with new technology, features, themes and ideas gets more people interested. Who wants to eat vanilla ice cream only or drive only a black car? Variety is the spice of life and more pinball from more manufacturers is a very good thing! But nobody is right all the time, and everyone needs to keep open to the ability to be wrong and to learn from their customers."
You are sure that dot-matrix displays are dead and the future is in big colour screens like in WOZ and The Hobbit, right?
|"Again, you see what we did. I do not believe in the past, or I would be building typewriters."
WOZ machines under test
So do you think that other pinball manufacturers will follow your lead and also use full-colour large-screen displays?
"Others will follow us, but they will not have the time and resources in money or talent to come close to what we have done on WOZ and The Hobbit. That means putting a small LCD in place of a dot-matrix display is only a cost of that part. The true cost and value comes by adding content and fun play value to the game by displaying progress, information, score and other game intellectual property.
Proper choreography and integration of the video into game play is extremely difficult to achieve in a pinball machine. It's not a video game where people are always looking at a screen."
What about using a Pinball 2000-style system? Did you like it? It would be much cheaper to make now than at the end of the 20th century when the price was one of biggest problem for this design. I don’t understand why nobody returns to this concept.
|"It's nice for what it was - two games. From the start I thought it would get boring making all shots have to be in the middle of the playfield."
Let’s talk about pinball themes. I’m not big fan of music pinballs (if you know what I’m saying). Wrestling? Hmm... although I did eventually like WWF Royal Rumble so maybe with the new wrestling pinball it will be the same. However I love the idea of a The Hobbit pinball.
But with The Wizard of Oz there was a problem. The theme itself is not the problem, but its recognition in other countries. In Poland it was unknown - although I appreciate Poland is not that important - but it was similar in much of Western Europe. Were you afraid that, and you didn’t have any other thematic choices?
|"WOZ has brought young people and women to pinball. Customers on location and in-home tell me that all the time. The theme is timeless, and in those places where it is not known, a good pinball machine even without a movie title will always be played a lot. It also gets you to be curious as to what WOZ is, and then you get the DVD and discover new things like WOZ!"
WOZ shares the stage at Printimus Pinball with illusionist Krystian Bączyński
You wrote to me about how WOZ was selling “80% home, 20% commercial”. Has that changed at all? If it hasn't, then Stern must still have a near-monopoly with commercial operators, since Gary said, “about 80% of our games are commercial, 20% collector”.
|"We did not sell many games to operators YET because it took years to wait to get our games. Now that we have WOZ in stock we are briskly selling them to operators. We expect to sell many Hobbits to operators as well. Our games are loaded with fun and they make money. The rule of pinball is that if it ain’t broke it ain’t pinball – well, if it works and makes money on location: IT IS JERSEY JACK PINBALL!"
Don’t you think that making pinball machines mainly for collectors or for private use is very problematic for pinball, keeping the games amongst the same small community of home buyers? Surely the key for pinball is to open it up to new people, and commercial use is more important, don’t you think?
|"Everything is important – sales to everyone who want to play great games."
Jack in his office
Other than your own, could you list some of your favourite pinballs and tell us why you like them?
"Cyclone - a fun single-ball game
Buckaroo - a difficult older game that is fun.
Jumping Jacks - I like the drop targets and bumper layout."
And, if you agree, which of Stern’s pinball you like most?
|"When Gary Stern tells you which JJP game he likes, let me know."
Your future games won't focus on just one kind of theme, right?
|"Like every super hero or old rock band – I will not make a Jimi Hendrix or another Jurassic Park or Ghost Busters or anything that has been done before. We want to do new innovative things in pinball."
Could you tell as anything about your third pinball release? Maybe something about the theme? Your first pinball was based on an classic cult movie, the second on a popular modern blockbuster. The third...?
|"The third is by the most amazing pinball designer, Pat Lawlor, and is loaded with fun and new technology - an original idea from his genius brain. It is a lot of fun and a Genuine Pat Lawlor Creation. You will see it in 2016, for sure. Everyone who ever shot a pinball will want to play that game. I cannot wait to show it off."
What is your opinion about virtual pinball - simulations of real games like The Pinball Arcade or those which are made purely as video games like Zen Studios? Are these an opportunity or a threat to real pinball?
|"Any type of pinball is good. Simulators introduce new people to pinball. They then want to play a real mechanical pinball machine. The different media of pinball in mechanical and electronic can work well to promote each other."
What is your general prognosis for future of pinball in a few - let's say five - years? How many pinball companies do you think there will be by 2020?
"More pinball, especially on commercial locations. We have been working on Pindemption which is part of our patented 'pinball machine and redemption system'.
We just released the software that is activated by changing a dongle in Wizard of Oz games that enables the game to be set for time play rather than ball play as well as a different rule set. There are easily achievable objectives and collapsed rules, and in testing this software for more than eight months on location Wizard of Oz games saw a 192% increase in earnings and game play! We will be at the IAAPA show in Orlando next month teaching commercial game operators about these developments and how our games make money on location.
JJP will bring experiences to pinball players that could never be done before, and all of it is protected by our recently granted patent. We want to continue to innovate and not imitate. We want to do more things that have not been done in pinball."
When the two of us first met Jack hugged me. It was a very nice gesture and completely unexpected. At the end of our meeting he did the same – a pleasant signal that we had to conclude.
Łukasz and Jack
I spent around two hours in the factory of the second largest pinball maker in the world. Was it something special? I felt like the time I was able to interview Steve Kordek at his home in 2002.
The most vivid moment from our meeting was when he said about The Wizard of Oz, “Maybe we promised too much”. I don’t know about that, but what I do know that many people love WOZ.
WOZ mini-playfields signed by Jack were prizes this year at Printimus Pinball
However, I am not among them for a number of reasons. Probably one of the strongest is that in Poland we never had the original 1939 movie and novel. It was never part of our culture, and to me theme of a pinball is very important.
But I’m very happy that there is finally some competition in this market, because this is positive for everyone – players, collectors, pinball itself, even for manufacturers. All of them.
And I’m very interested in The Hobbit. This film I know and like, and I have heard this game is even better than JJP's first title.
© Pinball News 2015