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December 26, 2004
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shivaSite - a huge pinball resource and information site.

Pinball News

Mr. Pinball - has a good classifieds section for buying and selling

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The Pinball Owners Association

Visual Pinball - a pinball editor available for the pc, which allows you to build your own pinball machines from scratch, or translate your favorite arcade pinball machines.

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With all the cutting-edge home game systems out there, pinball has long been dead.

Or has it?

In this ScienCentral News video report, we talk to one kid who can’t get enough pinball, and then we get a behind-the-scenes look at the Stern Pinball factory to see the latest game, Monopoly.

What’s old is new

While pinball manufacturers have stayed with the solenoid as the tried and true hardware powering these machines, pinball design has changed significantly over the years. Recently, however, in order to revive a floundering industry, pinball designers have done a U-turn to what has worked for them in the past.

"We try and do something innovative in everything we do, but that innovation may be something as simple as what’s old is new again," says Pat Lawlor, renowned game designer and founder of Pat Lawlor Design, which created Monopoly for Stern Pinball. "Pinball’s in a state right now where we’re recovering from a grand depression. And that depression was caused by a lot of different things. It was caused by selling an awful lot of equipment in the 1990’s, games that made a lot of money for an awful lot of operators and who then had no reason to buy new games. Those old games from ten years ago are finally being moved off location, and we’re able to take our product and sell it as a new piece again."

But it seems that another reason pinball has suffered is that with the "Pinball 2000" line of games, designers went in a direction they shouldn’t have: the realm of video games.

Created by Williams Electronics Games, which subsequently quit the pinball business, Pinball 2000 games were slightly smaller than your average machine and projected video game-like graphics over the pinball playfield.

"Pinball 2000 was a last gasp attempt by Williams to keep their pinball division alive," says Lawlor. "It was an attempt by a group of engineers to take pinball machines and move them to the next logical step of their development—to take what we knew about video, put that into a pinball machine, and to bring younger players into the game. We were trying to outdo what we’d done, show you some other neat form of entertainment. But at some point you run out of technology and you run out of steam and the ability to do that."

This didn’t work in two essential ways. First was that players (old and new) simply didn’t seem to take to the new games the way Williams had hoped. The second was that Pinball 2000 games were significantly more expensive to manufacture. The typical "game team" for a traditional pinball machine, like Monopoly, consists of six full-time engineers and takes approximately nine months to design and produce. But Lawlor says that Pinball 2000 games instantly double or triple that core group of people.

"As a result of doubling and tripling that amount of manpower, you have to sell the game for that much more in order to recoup what you’re spending," he says. "We like to tell people, that from the day I start, until the day it gets ready to go on the assembly line, a standard game like [Monopoly] costs one million dollars. That’s money that sombody’s betting the farm on before they’ve even sold one game; they’re hoping that I guessed right and that you’re all having fun. A Pinball 2000 game raises that ante incredibly. And you just can’t afford to bet that kind of money in this market. "

So what did they change for Monopoly?

After Pinball 2000, Williams (which also made games under the Bally name) quit the business, leaving Stern Pinball as the world’s sole pinball manufacturer. Stern decided to take pinball away from video and back into the realm of "mechanical action," utilizing what pinball people call "toys" on the playfield.

"It’s all about when you hit something you want to see it spin, you want to see a door open, you want to see a dummy talk to you, you want to see toys happen," says Lawlor. "When Americans go to the mall at Christmas, the first thing they stop by are mechanical things that are moving. They watch little things that are bobbing and weaving, and they love standing there and watching this stuff. And this game is no different. What it does is it gives you the opportunity to interact with real, three-dimensional mechanical devices. That you can’t do in a video game."

One of the toys in Monopoly is a constantly rotating mini-flipper that can catch and knock the ball around. "That is actaully a device that was invented by a great pinball designer named Harry Williams, who Williams pinball was named after," says Lawlor. "He did it on a game named Hot Hand. And so, when I went to design [Monopoly]—what’s old is new again. You look for very simple things that you can re-introduce that people haven’t seen in decades."

Monopoly also has "physical ball locks," which means there’s a visible place where balls are stored and getting ready to come back out onto the playfield when "multiball" (three or four balls going at once) starts. Lawlor says this is important because it’s a visible reward showing the player that he or she is doing well.

"You know, it’s just like in life: You go out and you say, ’I did better today, I can do it again.’ Same thing in pinball. When you play pinball you want to see that you’re getting better. And so what we do is we show you you’re getting better. Here’s a physical ball lock, here’s another ball lock. See, I’m close I’m close, I’m close! And the third ball drains and you go, ’I think I better put more money in this game ’cause I can get better next time.’"

This is the crux for Lawlor and Stern. How to get people to keep playing, keep putting quarters in machines. As the years go on pinball is competing with more and more types of entertainment: video games, home game consoles, video gambling devices in bars, and even the Internet. Their job is to keep their form of entertainment unique.

"Pinball is all about what you do on the playfield, and you’re playing with a ball, and how that ball rolls around," says Lawlor. "At its base level, a pinball machine is nothing more than a steel ball bearing rolling around on a piece of wood. And what we do is we put all this magic in there that makes you believe you’re in a special little world. There’s all this stuff in there."

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