Story dated 26 April, 2003

Chicago's Tribune newspaper recently ran an interesting article about pinball in the city, but it is a familiar story echoed the world over.

In the story Jason Compton interviews many people about the state of the game including Stern's Gary Stern and Illinois Pinball's Gene Cunningham.

Computers and PlayStations have finished what Atari started almost 30 years ago--flipping pinball into obscurity.

The rows of blinking, clanging and silver-ball-bumping games in arcades and local bars largely have disappeared. A generation of gamers thinks the Pinball Wizard is a character from a Harry Potter novel.

Yet in Chicago, once the capital of a thriving international pinball business, the game is hanging on.

"I enjoy pinball, whenever there's one in a bar," said Chicago resident Christina Mann, after playing at Champs Sports Bar and Grill in Morton Grove.

Finding a machine is the tricky part.

Two or three new games a year are produced in the Chicago area, which is a far cry from the heyday, when two new games a week would hit the streets.

Stern Pinball of Melrose Park is the lone maker of new pinball machines, producing 8,000 to 10,000 tables per year since President Gary Stern, a second-generation pinball devotee, bought the company back from Sega in 1999.

Stern runs his business on modest--and profitable--expectations.

"The pinball business world-wide is not as large as 10 years ago. It's maybe 10 percent," he said. "There's a market for that, enough business for that, and we have restructured ourselves to operate well and profitably and at a significantly lower level."

The majority of the games produced by Stern since its rebirth have been well-known licensed names, from the Simpsons to Harley-Davidson and even a computer game, RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Stern's approach is faring better than the Pinball2000 concept that WMS Industries Inc., the one-time giant of Chicago pinball when it was known as Williams Electronics Games Inc., introduced in the late 1990s before getting out of the business in 1999.

Pinball2000 used a floating-projection screen to show high-resolution graphics to players without drawing their eyes from the table. But players weren't excited by this blend of technology, and Williams exited the market entirely after making just a few Pinball2000 games.

"Our goal was to breathe new life into pinball and try to fuse these two elements--video and pinball--together as one," said Dave Mueller, a Midway Games employee who worked as a 3-D artist on Pinball2000. He said that the small market didn't provide many opportunities to make the new concept succeed.

"I don't think we were ever given a chance to prove ourselves over the long haul."

Mann said modern pinball games discourage fans by overemphasising gimmicks at the expense of gameplay.

"You don't get a lot of play time," she said.

Another reason why it has become increasingly difficult to find a place to play is that a growing number of machines go straight to private residences and basement playrooms. Pinball has become too expensive for many bars and arcades to offer.

"A pinball game is a service-intense piece of equipment," said Steve White, Wilmette-based editor of RePlay, an amusement industry trade magazine. He said that rather than send out trained service technicians, it is easier for the leasing companies that operated most pinball machines to replace them with lower-maintenance games.

Marco Rossignoli, author of the book "Pinball Memories--Forty Years of Fun 1958-1998," said that poorly maintained pinball machines have done as much damage to the market as video games.

"Kids or adults who have an initial interest in pinball, or perhaps are playing a game for the first time, get ripped off ... with a pinball game that is not working properly and don't ever play again," Rossignoli said.

One of the biggest problems for pinball is that it simply cannot find a home.

Its traditional floor space in taverns is being taken up by smaller, lower-maintenance competitors, such as the popular video golf game Golden Tee.

Arlington Heights resident Jen Webber, who spent more than 45 minutes playing Golden Tee at Champs, with an empty pinball game next to her, credits the golf game with dousing her fire for pinball.

"I used to love pinball, but there are no good games anymore. Golf, you need a little more thought for," she said.

"We really are one of the reasons for the decline of pinball," said Gary Colabuono, director of marketing for Arlington Heights-based Incredible Technologies Inc., makers of Golden Tee. "We took the real estate that was allocated for the pinball machine."

Although rumours that Incredible might make pinball games swirled after the company hired acclaimed pinball designer Mark Ritchie, Colabuono said there is no story there. "We hired him because he's a great game designer."

What space Golden Tee hasn't eaten has been widely cut away by touchscreen games, such as trivia or solitaire, which are small, cheaply made and can sit on the bar itself. Unlike pinball or even a classic arcade game, touchscreen machines offer diversionary
entertainment rather than a test of reflex and skill. The other great haven of pinball, the arcade, has itself become endangered.

"Arcades of the '80s were so popular with teens because they could get an experience that they could not get at home. Now, that's entirely opposite," Colabuono said. "PlayStations and X-boxes, they're powerful, powerful machines, and they give you more than you can get with a coin-op experience. If it weren't for the bar market, we'd have no place to put games."

Gene Cunningham, president of Bloomington-based Illinois Pinball Co. does see some potential for growth.

The company is a distributor and manufacturer of pinball parts and has grown rapidly through acquisition, buying up the parts stocks of three manufacturers that shut down in the '90s, including Williams. But Cunningham also bought the rights to build Capcom pinball games and said he is in negotiations to acquire Williams' mothballed designs as well.

He foresees re-releasing classic titles, saying that the market has proven it will buy the best sellers. "Some of the machines built seven or eight years ago are bringing more now than when they were new."

Meanwhile, pinball fans are keeping the faith.

In October, Rosemont will host the 19th annual Pinball Expo, which brings together industry figures of the past and present with players from around the world. Expo chairman Robert Berk said that collectors and fans have done a good job of introducing their children to the game, which keeps a steady flow of younger attendees coming to the event.

And players like Glen Morhlein of Skokie, who plays pinball twice a week, are waiting for more.

"Hang in there, because there are people out there who want to play," he said.

Nostalgic for a game of pinball? Here's a few places where you can play:

ESPN Zone, 43 E. Ohio, Chicago
Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport Ave., Chicago
Champs Sports Bar and Grill, 9001 Waukegan Rd., Morton Grove
Season Tickets, 50 N. Barrington Rd., Streamwood


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