Date: 19th March, 2020

This year, as in previous years, Pinball News was invited to contribute an article for the Texas Pinball Festival’s show guide. After much head-scratching and with Pinball News celebrating its first twenty years of reporting, we decided to look back at the last twenty years in the pinball industry and hobby.

We examined how much had changed in those two decades, the companies around then compared to now, who was working in the business, the issues facing the collector community, the various games being produced, and predictions for the future.

Of course, since we wrote it a new game-changer has emerged which nobody could have predicted.

We haven’t seen the true impact of the Coronavirus on pinball manufacturing, or what happens to pinball prices when vendors, collectors and their machines are all on lockdown.

But an early casualty of the virus in the USA was the Texas Pinball Festival, which was cancelled two weeks before it was due to open its doors to the public. (You can help support the organisers by buying some of their show swag bags of unique branded merchandise or some of their bespoke show posters.)

So, with the TPF show guide no longer being produced, we decided to publish our article here as a look back to simpler, happier times – be they twenty years ago, or a mere twenty days.

We look back to how pinball was twenty years ago
We look back to how pinball was twenty years ago

The year 2020 marks twenty years of Pinball News and nearly twenty (OK, nineteen, but work with me here) years since the first ‘Pinarama’ – which would go on to become the Texas Pinball Festival – was held.

With the number twenty at the forefront of our thoughts, we thought it would be fun to look back twenty years to see how the pinball landscape looked then, what issues were facing the pinball community, and how various predictions about the future of pinball turned out.

In early 2000, the pinball world was still reacting to the recent closure of Williams’ pinball division and the first releases from the only remaining manufacturer, a new company called Stern Pinball.

Of course, Stern Pinball wasn’t really a new company as it was the continuation of Sega Pinball under new ownership, but by the start of 2000 Harley Davidson and Striker Xtreme represented the current state of pinball design, art and manufacturing.

Who knew where it would go from there?

Even the best informed could only speculate. At the time Gary Stern told the Philadelphia Enquirer, “It’s a grind business. We grind it out. We are never going back to the level where there are two of us [making pinball machines] again.

What transformed the business in the next twenty years was the huge expansion of home sales driven by a demand for higher-quality, fully-featured games. Operators weren’t making money operating pinball, but home collectors didn’t care what a game earned as long as they enjoyed playing it.

In 2000, new pinballs were mostly sold through distributors to operators. What commercial home sales there were largely came from operators selling off their used stock. Dedicated enthusiasts could sometimes buy new-in-box for their home gameroom, but that avenue wasn’t open to most casual recreational buyers.

Stern Pinball focused on those operator sales which were in steady decline, leaving the market open to anyone who could fancied trying their luck selling direct to home buyers.

There were plenty of naysayers.

On the popular Rec.Games.Pinball newsgroup comments such as, “I love pinball but I feel the fat lady is ready to sing”, “Although I love pinball, I have to be honest – I think it’s doomed” and “Some people seem to think that a modern pinball manufacturer could succeed by catering directly to the home market. I don’t think so”, abounded. There were a couple of more hopeful and insightful comments, including, “I think it will come back again. Pinball is inherently awesome.”

Come back it did. In came Jack Guarnieri, overcoming the seemingly-insurmountable barriers to entry by employing designers, artists, modellers, sound designers, electrical engineers, software engineers and setting up a new factory for his company Jersey Jack Pinball.

Suddenly those barriers didn’t seem quite so high once it had been shown home buyers were happy to pay a premium price for a premium game.

Other companies sprang up, buoyed by the sales possibilities and the way technologies such as the P-ROC from Multimorphic provided newly-accessible control system options for home-brew re-themes and smaller-scale commercial manufacturers.

All that, though, seemed a long way off in the highly-uncertain future back in 2000, when the availability of spares was also a major concern.

Replacement Powerballs for Twilight Zone were like gold dust, commanding prices over $100 each IF you could find them. Compare that to messages in the run-up to this year’s Texas Pinball Festival where a fellow Flip Out London pinball club founder asked if someone could bring him back a four-pack of Powerballs from the show.

It would be churlish to hark on too much about how the prices of new and used pinball machines have rocketed in the past two decades. Anyone who has been in pinball for any length of time will be able to recount ‘war stories’ of how they bought a certain game for next-to-nothing or how they turned down offers to buy today’s most popular titles for pennies-on-the-dollar of what they sell for today.

Inflation and production costs means the materials and staff costs to build new machines increase. Rampant buyer demand drives up prices, and manufacturers, naturally, try to maximise their profits.

In 2000 we had one pinball company with new machine street prices around $3,000. Now we have a dozen or more manufacturers and prices average around twice that. Competition – and the choice it brings – is certainly welcomed by buyers, but the realities of building a modern pinball make a return to 2000 prices all-but-impossible. Indeed, the fragmentation of the market means smaller runs of individual titles which result in higher bespoke component costs.

Instead, today’s players get a much more comprehensive and immersive experience than they could have hoped for in 2000, with HD graphics and full-motion video, multi-channel sound and RGB LED lighting throughout. The bar has been raised, meaning even the faithful remakes of classic twenty-plus-years old Bally/Williams titles get to enjoy a technological upgrade under the hood.

Other questions being posed on Rec.Games.Pinball in 2000 asked if there was any possibility a certain Steve Ritchie could be brought back to pinball design, and a message from a young university student called Josh Sharpe asking if anyone could let him have Gary Stern’s e-mail address?

The rest, as they say, is history.

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One Comment

  1. Jim Burrill

    23rd March, 2020 at 9:54pm

    Recall in 2007 Pat Lawlor’s interview about the increase in cost of raw materials like copper. And that he CORRECTLY said that the pinball business would be done in 5 years – IF it continued as it had been. Jack Guarnieri and Gerry Stellenberg invested their LIVELIHOODS to swerve the course of pinball. And Dave Peterson brought in the investment needed to combine the new courses with the Stern manufacturing infrastructure and expertise to produce the best decade of pinball ever.
    As for the high cost: i think it is the function of a perfect storm. Never has the collector market and the operator market been so large AT THE SAME TIME.
    People used to say home entertainment was killing pinball. Social media, though, has sprouted pinball.
    And now I’m a collector-operator, one of many. Thanks, Dave Fix and Craig Hassell, who each shared their expertise with me.
    I started 2020 by playing Stranger Things at Trappers Pizza in Syracuse, NY. Now we’re experiencing some stranger things.

    Reply

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