Tilting toward consumer

By HermineBloom

After slipping quarters into the slot, the player is welcomed by flashing lights, chiming bells and an arcade voice reminiscent of the ’80s. A tiny, silver sphere emerges onto the playfield. With a simple push of a button, the ball is sent flying over ramps, under bumpers, missing targets and falling into holes and saucers. The player acquires points by manipulating the ball’s course in the hopes of keeping it alive. This was the amusing, old-fashioned arcade game as older generations knew it, existing in dusty bars and bowling alleys.

Now roughtly 150 years old, pinball has maintained extensive interest among longtime collectors and competitors in pinball tournaments—both internationally and nationally. This type of specialized interest hasn’t waned. But engineers and developers who work for the only manufacturing company presently making pinball games in the world, Stern Pinball, 2020 Janice Ave., Melrose Park, Ill., are finding ways to reinterpret and redesign the iconic arcade game for a new era.

“Different forms of entertainment have come out to compete with pinball machines in bars, arcades and bowling alleys,” said Marketing Director of Stern Pinball Jody Dankberg. “Whether it be video or touch screen—things [are] a lot easier to maintain for the operators who run these places. We found a lot of these pinball machines end up in someone’s house—whether it’s their basement, rec[reational] room or game room. We do a lot of business in Europe. The coin-op market is still pretty strong there, but in the states we’re finding a lot of these [machines] are in the home.”

Dankberg, who has worked for Stern Pinball for a year, was the director of marketing in artist relations for Washburn Guitars and Randall Amplifiers before joining the staff at Stern Pinball.

“I was brought onboard to drive a consumer-driven market for pinball, which has never really done before because it’s mainly been a coin-op industry,” Dankberg said.

Popular marketing is proving the arcade game born in a bygone era is still desirable and, perhaps, could benefit from being more accessible in price and amount of skill required.

“Lately, in a lot of marketing media, people have been using pinball from Pepsi to Alka-Seltzer—even an intro to ‘The Simpsons’ was pinball-themed,” Dankberg said. “We find that it’s an American icon, and it’s still in the consciousness of a lot of people.”

In order to make a hefty $4,000 game more accessible, Dankberg said he’s conducted surveys and talked to developers to find out what people want in a pinball machine as a consumer product. Casual gamers, he said, prefer simpler features, levels and lower price points while collectors are willing to spend a lot of money and want to be consistently challenged.

Stern Pinball designer John Borg has worked on and off for the company from 1990 — 2000 and came back to work in 2007.

Borg began designing for a pinball manufacturing company called Premier Gottlieb, founded in the ’30s, and then at Data East Pinball, which Japanese gaming distribution company Sega owned 10 percent of at the time, he said. Sam Stern bought Sega’s pinball division in 1999.

Borg said designing for Stern Pinball has evolved since he began working for the company in that they’re accommodating consumers who are more casual gamers by designing less expensive, extravagant machines. Traditionally, Stern Pinball has always produced a standard model. Recently, Borg and his fellow designers are working to create what they call a classic model.

“We’re trying to market to box stores like Best Buy and selling to places like Amazon.com,” Borg said. “It’s a game like our regular game but has a few less mechanical components on it, a lower cost and something that’s being more directed toward home use. It’s not coin-operated. It’ll have a door on the front but it won’t have coin slots. You’re buying it just for your home.”

These machines cost approximately $3,300 for distribution while standard models cost $4,500, he said.

Premium models, in addition to standard and classic models, are now being produced as well, which serve the exact opposite niche, the collectors market.

“More bells, whistles, lights on this game,” Borg said. “The trim that’s on the outside of the game is generally black-painted materials, and we’re doing brass or chrome plating and powder colors to make the game look like a collectors edition—it’s like we’re making a Cadillac.”

Rooted in nostalgia and generation-crossing tradition, collectors and those who compete in tournaments are still important to Stern Pinball.

Self-proclaimed pinball enthusiast Josh Sharpe, president of International Flipper Pinball Association since 2006, said he owns 17 pinball machines, all of which are in his basement. They liven up every house party he throws.

Sharpe’s father founded an organization in the ’70s, he said, in which he ran competitive pinball tournaments. In 1993, Sharpe began competing, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he and his brother developed the International Flipper Pinball Association, which he likens to NASCAR’s Nextel Cup.

“We have a point system where players can compete all over the world, even though we’re not in the same place,” Sharpe said. The system is made possible by using an online database of statistics.

The actual tournaments Sharpe conducts occur about once every month, he said, but there are something like 200 tournaments a year worldwide so there isn’t a weekend the IFPA isn’t overseeing a competition online.

For Sharpe, the thrill of playing pinball boils down to a sense of control.

“The phrase in pinball for the past 100 years is ‘The ball is wild,’” Sharpe said. “You’re battling for that ball control constantly, and the fear of that game controlling you is that battle; it never stops. It’s a lot of stress emotionally and physically while you’re battling.”

Sharpe has played pinball games in various capacities for 16 years, though Dankberg realizes many new customers don’t share the same strong familiarity.

“A lot of people are rediscovering pinball with the advent of iPhone apps and recent pinball video games that younger generations are getting into it,” Dankberg said. “They’re experiencing it for the first time.”

For more information on Stern Pinball, visit SternPinball.com.