NOTE: This column first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger
For many of us boomers, it was our first real exposure to technology.
But we never really saw — or cared about — the relays, switches and other electronics inside the ornately-painted box on four steel legs. We were too focused on keeping that perfectly polished silver ball from mercilessly slipping between the flippers.
Pinball was the game elevated to royalty by rock ‘n’ roll and played by millions who plunked down countless quarters in a quest to capture the merciless machine’s top score.
In its heyday, several pinball manufacturers — many based in the Chicago area — built the complex and ornate machines for the world. But as video games became big in the 80s, and gaming moved into our living rooms in the 90s, the glamour and business of pinball faded into history.
But inside a nondescript building nestled in a Melrose Park industrial park, Gary Stern is keeping the legacy of pinball alive. His company, Stern Pinball, is the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world.
Stern, who has been in the pinball business for the majority of his 66 years, talks about the game with the energy of a player who just took the high score on a Fireball game.
“My father started in the game manufacturing business when I was two,” Stern said. In the 1940s, his father bought the Williams Pinball Company in Chicago. In the late 80s, it was sold to the Japanese game company Sega. In 1999, Stern bought the company back from Sega.
The pinball machines Stern makes are more technologically advanced than their predecessors, but he noted the core of the game hasn’t changed since it was developed in the 1930s.
“It’s still a bat and ballgame,” he said.
However, the game play experience has been improved with the help of technology. For example, computer chip memory allows the game to remember where a player left off during a play. Digital electronics provides animation during play. Even the bells and chimes have been replaced with digital audio recordings. Stern notes the “Rolling Stones” game, for example, features the music of the iconic rock band, and the “Family Guy” game has more than two hours of dialogue recorded by the show’s creator, Seth McFarlane.
More so, he notes, technology has made the machines more reliable, providing the ability to “self diagnose” problems and fix issues ranging from circuitry issues to a lost pinball.
“The electronics have changed so much over the years and it’s given us a lot more capabilities,” he said.
Even making a game has gone high-tech. Stern said game playing fields that were once designed on drafting tables are now done on computer screens with 2D CAD software. Once the game is designed, the parts are then completed using a 3-D design software, which has made the entire process more efficient.
“They can actually see how the parts will fit together, if the ball will fit through, what the ball’s is going to do,” Stern said. “And when its all done, they push a button and print out an assembly drawing with a whole bill of material.”
Stern’s Marketing Director Jody Dankberg said the company’s next step is to expand the pinball experience through new technologies. For example, the new Transformers game released this year features a number of QR codes that players can use to tap into information about the game, company, or even get some codes to speed up play.
Dankberg said the next step is to bring in a social aspect for players, connecting them to Wi-Fi and using online networks to play against each other.
“Pinball used to be very social, guys would go to a bar to play,” he said. “Now you might have a couple of guys with games in their home. Maybe with a webcam, they can talk to each other and play against each other. There are lots of things to do with an online database.”
Stern sells the games globally and about 55 percent of the inventory is exported, he said. Their customer base is threefold: operators and distributors who place the games in entertainment venues such as arcades and movie theaters; pinball enthusiasts and collectors; and the home entertainment market.
Stern said the home entertainment market is fairly new as boomers who grew up with pinball buy the machines for the family. But with prices upward to $6,000, it’s still a high-end device that shares itself with items such as pool tables and home theaters. In fact, Stern pinball games are primarily sold to consumers through high-end home entertainment stores, although they can also be found online through retail sites like Amazon.com and Bestbuy.com.
But it’s that very market, Stern adds, that’s creating a new generation of pinball wizards.
“One thing about having these games in the home is that teenagers are playing them, and that’s our next audience,” he said.
It’s also why Stern is focused on developing current and new games based on pop culture icons. Creating a game based on the “Transformers” movies, for example, gains appeal from young people, while the older generation appreciates the gaming experience.
As the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world, Stern and his employees take an exceptional pride in the work they do and the torch they carry for a game that has its roots in Chicago and an appeal worldwide.
“The world will continue to exist without pinball,” Stern said. “But we feel a bit of that fabric of life would be gone.”
And while technology, advances in design and links to pop culture have helped expand and deepen the pinball playing experience, Stern insists the key to a successful pinball game lies in a simple core fundamental.
“It’s got to be fun!”
For more information, go to http://www.sternpinball.com.