WHILE THE WHO’S “Pinball Wizard” still stands up after four decades of radio play, the designers of the pinball machines that made Tommy so good have become an endangered species.
Only one company in the world, Illinois’ Stern Pinball, still designs and produces these electro-mechanical marvels, the lone holdout since industry behemoth Williams Electronics shuttered its pinball division in 1999. It may be a dying art, but the creative minds at Stern are nonetheless continuously creating new machines that can keep their industry moving forward and give them one more replay.
The backbone of their game design process for the past few decades has been licensing; Guns and Roses machines rocked the ’80s, The Simpsons mocked low scores in the ’90s, and the Transformers reflect the high-tech machines of today. Each new pinball machine starts with a bit of creative brainstorming, where the designers translate the theme of a movie, band, or other pop-culture property into a game.
However, these themes aren’t just skins, they’re key drivers of the game’s design. The designers draw inspiration from their licenses and create homages to them in the form of mechanical contraptions. Spinning disks on the playfield fit into the Tron mythos and the giant magnetic bell in the AC/DC cabinet is a perfect example of how tech and art bounce off each other to create a compelling experience.
Stern still produces three or four new games per year, usually with a team of five (lead designer, mechanical engineer, software engineer, graphic artist, and an animator) working together for 9-15 months.
The design process is iterative and bounces back and forth between physical and virtual modeling. Stern marketing director Jody Dankberg says, “The new innovations in CAD and 3D modeling allow us to move more quickly through the prototype phase of our product development process. We can see how parts fit together and how things will look in real life. But in an electro-mechanical device, there still is no substitute for building a physical model.”
The well-appointed workshop at Stern HQ allows designers to quickly fabricate prototype games, called “white woods,” to work out the major game mechanics. Simultaneously, software engineers start working out rule sets, point systems, and visual effects to complete the experience.
Pinball is inherently physical, but the designers are starting to tilt into the world of video games. In Stern’s homage to the Transformers franchise, players can choose to play as AutoBots or Decepticons, each mode having different targets, bonuses, and achievements. In the X-Men game, players unlock story elements by making special shots and enjoy different gameplay flows depending on the way they play.
The games have become so deep that Dankberg says “We have been using QR codes to lead players to instructional videos.”
Stern produces pro, special edition, and limited edition versions of each game. Each is differentiated by how many bells and whistles, literally in this case, are on the board. They sell a few thousand units of each game with prices starting at $4,599.
The games are assembled in Stern’s cavernous Chicago warehouse, which affords the designers an ability to see how their baroque designs translate into finished goods. The close proximity of design and manufacturing allow the creators to push the state of the art while ensuring their vision is manufacturable.
The technology behind pinball has changed dramatically, but the audience is largely the same. Most games are sold to bars, arcades, and other public places. However, there are some hard-core collectors who buy the machines, clearly vying for “coolest house on the block” status. Dankberg protects the sanctity of their limited edition machines, explaining “We never re-run LE models. LE games are all numbered and signed like many other collectibles.”
Pinball machines rarely win design awards and they’ve seen better days commercially. At their peak, 80% of coin operated machine revenue came from pinball machines. Today, they’re mostly seen in high school productions of Tommy or hipster bars. Fortunately, for the truly obsessed, Stern Pinball is keeping the last ball in play.
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