Date: 8th April, 2019

Once again this year, Pinball News’s Editor, Martin Ayub, was asked to write an article to be published in the Texas Pinball Festival’s show guide. As before, he was happy to oblige.

With so many topics from which to pick, after much deliberation the subject of the article was chosen in the form of the question you see above. It is one which, if feedback received at the show is any guide, readers of the guide enjoyed considering. We thought you might like to read it too.

Here’s the article in full…

These are exciting times for pinball.

The number of pinball makers far exceeds our wildest dreams from back in 2000 when only Stern Pinball remained. Modern bars and arcades are springing up all over the world allowing younger players to discover the huge fun and excitement of the game for the first time. These millennials are streaming their gameplay online, tweeting their high scores to their friends and followers, and seeing the very real possibility of buying their own games to play at home.

Pinball has a real future, so obviously, pinball manufacturers are falling over themselves to capitalize on fresh, modern and relevant themes designed to appeal to this new generation of players and buyers, right?
Well…. actually, no!
At the time of writing, the theme of the biggest pinball maker’s current title is based on a 53-year-old black-and-white TV series, while their previous release was themed on a band which dissolved 49 years ago.

Well then, if not them, what about the other manufacturers?

One began their business with a (now) 80-year-old movie as their launch game, and is widely expected to announce their next game as being based on a 48-year-old flick. Meanwhile a start-up pinball maker in Texas is believed to be working on a 33-year-old movie-themed game, another based in China launched with a mid-’60s puppet show title, while two European pinball companies which ran into severe (and possibly terminal) financial problems were building games based on 40-year old and 21-year-old movies.

It’s not all old movies though. In Wisconsin the latest release from there is a band which peaked 46 years ago, while one of the failed European makers was about to announce their next title featuring a group from the exact same ‘70s era.

Why is pinball so fixated on the past when looking for themes for the future?

Recent titles used for modern pinball machines
Recent titles used for modern pinball machines

There are two key alliterative factors here – proven popularity and available assets.

Building any new pinball is a big gamble. It takes typically a million dollars or more to create a new title, from coming up with the playfield and mechanical design, to the creation of the artwork, music speech and sound effects, to the development of the rules, the display and lighting effects, the design and manufacture of any custom toys and moulds, paying for the licence – or increasingly, multiple licences – needed for various actors’ likenesses, voices and songs, recruiting, scripting and recording the voice talent, and then actually building, marketing and selling the finished product.

Get it wrong, and you have a flop with six zeros on the end and only tumbleweed rolling down the production line.

While most manufacturers can rely on their design and production teams to create a solid product, the continued popularity of any theme can be a volatile factor. The next sure-fire hit movie can tank at the box office, while the king or queen of the download charts can be caught up in a damaging scandal or badly mis-judge their audience’s sensitivities.

No matter how great your game design is, wrap a toxic theme around it and you’re looking at a stock room full of boat anchors.

With so much at stake, it makes sense to stick with a theme which has proven itself to be popular in many countries after many years, and which remains resilient to short-term knocks. That means taking risks by trying to predict the next breakthrough act or drinking the Kool-Aid of pre-launch marketing hype.

But it didn’t used to be that way.

Pinball back in the days of woodrails and wedgeheads was far more responsive to popular culture, capturing the public mood and allowing both manufacturers and operators to cash in before the fickle mood of the players moved on to the next fad.

Space flight, shopping, TV series, celebrities, Broadway shows, royalty, sports teams and even world wars were all fair game, and this was before licensing became a major part of pinball development. You could allude to a famous star, band or TV show without actually using their exact name.

The key point here though was the speed with which a contemporary-themed pinball machine could be brought to market and have it appear on the street. With the subject only loosely – if at all – influencing the design of the game, once a theme was chosen it could be just a matter of weeks before the backglass and playfield art were completed, installed on a selected game design and the finished product was shipping from the factory.

Identifying suitable popular subjects would have been easier in those days too. With limited entertainment outlets and finite, controlled access to them, a hot theme was easily spotted.

Today we have such ready online access we can consume our media from a huge range of sources covering a massively diverse mix of genres on countless different devices. Spotting one which gels with the global pinball playing and buying audience is a much tougher job.

If proven popularity is a difficult call to make, the need for available assets almost guarantees no new-kids-on-the-block (as opposed to New Kids on the Block) are going to be appearing on a pinball near you soon.

As the electronics within pinball games have become more sophisticated, so their voracious appetite for consuming digital assets has grown.

Before dot-matrix displays were widespread, it was a combination of artwork and sound samples which tied a game to a theme or licence. You knew Bally’s Kiss, Evel Knievel and Dolly Parton were based on the band, stunt bike rider and singer almost entirely from the backglass and playfield artwork. You might press the start button and get a few notes from a Kiss or Dolly song, but that was just the icing on a licence-rich cake.

Sound quality improved – even if some operators would turn it down or off – and it wasn’t too long before recognisable and relevant speech and music clips were being synced-up with gameplay as the licence became more integrated.

Then DMDs arrived and a little monochromatic movie magic could be added, initially mostly with still images but later with simplistic video clips.

Increased memory and faster processors meant slightly more shades and higher frame-rates could be achieved, but it was the introduction of the video monitor in pinball which brought with it a constant need to show ‘something’ on the display. Simply displaying the score wouldn’t cut it any longer, nor would static images. Today, we now expect and demand continuous high-quality animation throughout our gameplay, even if players end up missing most of it.

Most licences give access to a range of graphical assets – logo designs, static and animated clips or renderings of popular characters, villains and weapons – along with a world where these all exist. Developers also get storylines, scripts and dialogue with smart one-liners, plus a lengthy style guide showing what you can and can’t do with these assets.

Not that getting a licence means it’s all plain sailing.

These days pretty much any given theme is made up from numerous sub-licences. You might buy the rights to make a movie-themed pinball, but if you want to use any of the movie’s music, that might be a different licence. If the movie’s soundtrack contains songs by different artists, those probably all require licensing separately. Want the lead actors’ likenesses in the artwork? That’s more licences – maybe one for each actor. It’s the same with their voices. Meanwhile you are going to need some custom speech for pinball-related call-outs such as “Jackpot”, “Extra Ball”, “Shoot Again” and so on. If you’re lucky you might be able to pay one of the movie’s actors to record these for you, otherwise you either use an authorised sound-alike or go with a more generic, non-themed voice and accept the opprobrium of players and critics alike.

Then you have the seemingly never-ending approval process; referring everything you make back to the licensor and the performers to make sure you are on-message and presenting their brand in a positive light.

Despite these struggles, pinball manufacturers have largely found it preferable to use a licenced theme for their games rather than developing with one from scratch and then having to explain the whole concept and get emotional buy-in in just three minutes of gameplay.

So, where can we look for the next generation of pinball licences? What about contemporary movies? As we have seen, pinball often looks to popular movies for inspiration. Might they bring some of those fresh, contemporary subjects we spoke about at the start of this article?

Of the top movies of 2018, four were Disney-owned Marvel X-Men franchises, the fifth was a different Disney cartoon, another was a DC Comics theme. Then there was the latest in the Jurassic Park series, another Mission: Impossible, with the Queen-based Bohemian Raphsody movie wrapping up the selection.

Notice anything there? Yes, Hollywood has just the same obsession as pinball with rebooting older characters, shows and themes. The X-Men characters were originated in comic book form decades ago, Mission:Impossible was from the ‘60s, Queen from the ‘70s. Even Jurassic Park began some 26 years ago. These movies are made because they still resonate with a section of the public and create excitement even before their opening weekend. The original outings for the characters or concepts were successful and, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.

The same holds true for pinball, with the most obvious example being the ‘remake’ series of classic Williams/Bally games from Chicago Gaming.

But are we running out of those ‘classic’ licences? Have all the ‘good’ bands been done, all the ‘great’ movie series covered? Are we way beyond the A-list titles, and deep into the B- or C-lists?

From some recent releases it’s certainly starting to feel like it.

To try to squeeze more life out of a licence pinball has developed a recent tendency to create indirect remakes – new games with the same theme as an existing pinball.

Stern made Indiana Jones when Williams had already employed that title. Jersey Jack Pinball brought out a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball when Stern had released one twelve years earlier, and are rumoured to be reimagining Data East’s Guns N’ Roses pinball for release later this year. That’s not even counting the numerous Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman and Spider-Man variants, with the potential for more to come.

The movie tie-in has led to a downward spiralling where the incestuous gene pool of suitable licences gets smaller and smaller.

Pinball needs to break out of this spiral and start looking elsewhere for themes which appeal to a younger audience.

The film industry is no longer where the money is. Movies are dwarfed in terms of revenue by video games. In fact, video games now make more money than the whole movie and music industries combined.

So, will we be seeing Fortnite, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Minecraft or Resident Evil pinballs any time soon? Why not?

They all provide ready-made and proven-popular worlds, characters and storylines, and boast tons of developers producing video and audio assets ideal for use in a pinball. With CGI characters you need never worry about your star doing something embarrassing or awkward like being arrested or dying unexpectedly, and you can get them to voice any number of pinball-related call outs.

Video games also bring an existing worldwide hardcore fan-base skewed strongly towards younger players – just the type of free-spenders pinball needs to appeal to in bar/arcades and similar street locations. Video games are globally popular and could help pinball break into geographic markets it has yet to penetrate.

Just as important, with movie licensing becoming more long-winded, complicated and expensive process, working closely with game studios could bring a much shorter development cycle, allowing new pinball to be released while the theme is still relevant, not some fifty years later.

If pinball is indeed to have a bright future, maybe it should stop looking for inspiration in the dim-and-distant past.

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  1. Nedi

    9th April, 2019 at 12:42pm

    SO – more Pac Mans needed!


  2. Whiskydrinker

    9th April, 2019 at 6:19pm

    I’d still like to see a pinball based on a more recent animated series like Spongebob that is popular with kids and adults. And a musical pinball based on music that’s not by some band on their fourth retirement tour. Hip Hop done with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor for example. Or something based on electronic dance music what would open up completely new ways about how the game interacts with the music. (Think about the video game Rez as a pinball.)


  3. Russell Speak

    11th April, 2019 at 12:38pm

    Interesting and very accurate observations Martin.

    Another change in the hobby in recent years is the popularity of home ownership. Pinball games were originally designed to take quarters in a bar, bowling alley or arcade. Very few people actually owned a pinball machine back in the early days. Now the vast majority of pinball machines sold are for home ownership. This is obviously because the little kids of the 70s and 80s are now middle aged and earning good money.

    As as you said, video games are HUGE today, and the industry is growing and improving much faster than any other form of entertainment. And the kids today are not playing pinball and so won’t feel nostalgic for pinball when they reach middle age; they’ll be nostalgic for the PlayStation and Xbox.

    Nostalgia sells by the bucket load and if pinball is going to survive into the future it needs to start looking at current video game trends.

    I’m a pinball game creator and have been for 10 years and there’s a whole community of people who passionately design and create their own virtual pinball games using either Future Pinball or Visual Pinball game editors. So pinball games based on video games have already been created – Mortal Kombat, Diablo III, Sonic the Hedgehog are some examples.

    My own projects have included Jaws, Bladerunner, Superman, Star Wars, Halloween, Back to the Future…but I’m a massive movie fan. But I’m also a massive video game fan so to bridge the gap between pinball and the video game industry really isn’t that hard to do. You just need to find someone who’s equally passionate about both, which is why Zen Pinball are so popular.


  4. Russell Speak

    11th April, 2019 at 12:39pm

    But we can’t move away from original ideas either. To any game designer, creating a new game with your own ideas and creativity is more rewarded and challenging then designing a game based on someone else’s idea. Working on big licenses is a lot of fun, but deep down we all want a Black Knight or Medieval Madness of our own.


  5. Keith Brooks

    14th April, 2019 at 4:53pm

    I agree that Hollywood, like the Pinball manufacturers have dried up their original ideas.
    While I would love a Being John Malkovich machine, I have other topics I want to look into creating.
    The belief right now seems to be no one will build what is not known, I think, they are wrong, and missing things right in front of them.
    Time will tell what works better but the quest for money seems to outweigh the quest for uniqueness.
    As a business with shareholders blowing $2 million or more on the prototype and a few units to no sales would be daunting, but every pin is wanted in one form or another.


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