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Portrait of The Last Remaining Pinball Wizard 296

Posted by timothy
from the sole-proprietorship dept.
Ant writes "Shacknews posted BusinessWeek's Pinball's Last Remaining Wizard article that is a portrait piece on Gary Stern, president and owner of Stern Pinball, which is the last remaining pinball manufacturer in the world. Yearly, his company produces 10,000 hand-built machines and designs about 3-4 different models. A few of their most recent releases used licensed rights of the Sopranos and The Simpsons."
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Portrait of The Last Remaining Pinball Wizard

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  • Re:Competition? (Score:5, Informative)

    by swv3752 (187722) <swv3752.hotmail@com> on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:54PM (#12160002) Homepage Journal
    They only make 10,000 machines a year. Their break even is 65%-75% of that and if you read between the lines, they are struggling to sell all those machines. It seems that there is just not a big market.
  • Note to moderators: (Score:0, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:55PM (#12160007)
    Pinball Wizard by the Who.

    Ever since I was a young boy
    I've played the silver ball
    From Soho down to Brighton
    I must have played them all
    But I ain't seen nothing like him
    In any amusement hall
    That deaf, dumb and blind kid
    Sure plays a mean pinball

    He stands like a statue
    Becomes part of the machine
    Feeling all the bumpers
    Always playing clean
    He plays by intuition
    The digit counters fall
    That deaf, dumb and blind kid
    Sure plays a mean pinball

    He's a pinball wizard
    There's got to be a twist
    A pinball wizard
    He's got such a supple wrist

    How do you think he does it?
    (I don't know)
    What makes him so good?

    He ain't got no distractions
    Can't hear those buzzers and bells
    Don't see lights a flashin'
    Plays by sense of smell
    Always gets a replay
    Never tilts at all
    That deaf, dumb and blind kid
    Sure plays a mean pinball

    I thought I was
    The Bally table king
    But I just handed
    My pinball crown to him

    Even on my usual table
    He can beat my best
    His disciples lead him in
    And he just does the rest
    He's got crazy flipper fingers
    Never seen him fall
    That deaf, dumb and blind kid
    Sure plays a mean pinball
  • Re:Competition? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Fizzog (600837) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:57PM (#12160026)
    "some other companies would want to compete with these guys"

    As a matter of fact just a few days ago an Australian company bought the rights to the Bally name and to reproduce most of Williams' parts.

    They are also developing their first pinball machine which should be out later this year.

    There's life in the silver ball yet!

    (and for you RGP'ers out there: TZ, CFTBL, Farfalla, Firepower, Gameshow, Zac Circus)
  • by RayDude (798709) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:40PM (#12160405)
    I worked for Atari Games in the 90s. They were ultimately bought by Williams at about the same time Williams started seriously considering killing their Pin Ball development.

    The big problem with Pin Ball and Video Games is supporting the hardware. Kids are brutal with the hardware and it breaks down a lot. That support costs a lot of money and the arcade owners don't want to pay for it. Pin Ball is much more brutal than Video Games, maintenance wise and that's why Williams stopped producing more than a few models of the things per year while I worked for them.

    They thought the future was in Video Games, and they were right, what they didn't know is that the video games would be in the home, not at the arcade.

    Coin op video game hardware was out paced by the home computer and eventually the home video game. Coin op volumes and gross margins were so low, that not much could be spent on research and that removed the graphic advantage that coin op had originally used to bring in kids.

    They could still make better interfaces (steering wheels, joysticks, track balls etc) but kids were dumbed down by their Nintendo controllers, they didn't need the fancy / different controllers anymore and maybe they didn't want them either.

    Pin still exists because its a physical challenge with real physics, a real ball and real flippers. Its simply fun no matter how its put together and you don't have to spend six million dollars to model people and cars, etc like 3D video games, so the development overhead is controllable.

    I imagine maintenance is still high, but Stern is the only game left in town, so he can charge the right amount and the remaining operators have to pay it, they have no choice.

    I didn't know he still made new pins (that's how long its been since I went to an arcade) and I think its awesome he's still going.

    Raydude

  • Re:Competition? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:43PM (#12160434)
    There's life in the silver ball yet!
    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned these guys [pinballnews.com] yet.

    Rumor has it the guy in Australia may move production of cabinets and associated hardware to China & surrounding areas. This should result in massive savings since putting a cabinet together is extremely hand-labor intensive, since it's made of tons of components.

    But moving to video takes care of the tremendous maintenance required after purchase, which affects both operators (guys who have to run around constantly maintaining the machine) and players (who won't play a game that breaks down).

    It's shaping up to be an interesting time for pinball.
  • Re:Cost? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:45PM (#12160457)
    "Anyone have a ballpark figure about what ones of these babies cost new?"

    A new Stern pinball is typically around the $4000 mark. Retailers charge a lot more (like $5.5k) but if you shop around you can get them for $3700 - $4000.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:01PM (#12160611)
    A real one. One where they take extremely GOOD care of all the machines, including the 6 Pinball machines there. They allow smoking inside but they keep the cigarette burns off the machines. We have nice, metal, padded stools to sit on, if you like and tables between all the machines to put your food and beer on. Yes, the sell beer. The place is very well ran. The pinball machines are all Stern machines but, since thats all there are these days, thats all the owner can buy. There are no redemption machines here, its not part of a bowling alley, this is just a new version of the old-school arcade and it works! The owner had made money on the place since they opened and plans to be around for a long, long time.

    .A loyal Rockys Customer
  • by siobHan (26220) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:09PM (#12160685)
    The reigning pinball champion is Lyman Sheats, winner of the PAPA 7 World Pinball Championships in September 2004. The next championships are August 11-14, 2005, same location.

    http://www.papa.org/papa8/ [papa.org]

    Lyman works at Stern, incidentally - many of the former Bally/Williams designers and programmers either work at Stern or do contract work for them. Quality has improved considerably as a result.

    K
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:17PM (#12160752)
    You are mistaken. Gary Stern bought the business back from them. Interesting to note that the old Stern Pinball was sold to Data East, which was then sold to Sega which then sold it back to Gary Stern. This happened over a period of years.

    Ah, the great cirlce of (pinball) life.

    -The Anonymous Bastard
  • Pinball Mods (Score:3, Informative)

    by xkenny13 (309849) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:22PM (#12160793) Homepage
    the Simpsons cannot hold a candle to the sheer genius that Attack From Mars was.

    If you like Attack from Mars, you should see the cool LED mod kit [ufopinball.com] someone put together for it.
  • Re:Competition? (Score:3, Informative)

    by joew (16307) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:38PM (#12160926)
    the First news post on the subjecthttp://www.pinballnews.com/news/bally.html [pinballnews.com]

    Followed by Gary Stern's Reply http://www.pinballnews.com/news/bally2.html [pinballnews.com]


    As well as some pictures http://http//www.pinballnews.com/news/australia6.h tml [http] of the whitewood Wayne is working on
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:59AM (#12163198)
    Lyric correction:

    "Even on my FAVORITE table"
  • by MilenCent (219397) * <johnwh@gmailLION.com minus cat> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:55AM (#12163564) Homepage
    Here's the details about the ceramic pinball found in most Twilight Zone machines.

    First thing, it doesn't have to have one. The operator can adjust the game so that it doesn't require one. This is good because the ceramic pinball has become a rather expensive part, going, I've been told, for over a hundred dollars on eBay. It's bad because many of the game's features rely upon this ball, and turning it off in settings will disable one or two of its special features, and result in arbitrary metal balls being labeled the Powerball for purposes of Powerball Mania.

    The primary physical effects of the ball upon the game are:
    * It's lighter than a standard pinball, and thus tends to be shot around a bit faster and is thus a little more difficult to react to, and is more likely to go down the outlanes.
    * It's very slightly larger than a standard pinball, and thus it's a tiny bit more difficult to make some shots with it, including the Slot Machine.
    * Most importantly, since it's not made of metal, magnets do not affect it, and the game can use its different electromagnetic characteristics to detect when it's in one of the holes on the board, and thus it knows when it's in play or when a certain shot (Piano) has been made with it.

    The magnets thing is important because Twilight Zone, like Addams Family, has magnets beneath the table that turn on at special times in order to influence the ball. But while the magnets in Addams Family are there to mess up the player during multiball ("Feeeeeel the power!"), all the magnets in Twilight Zone help the player. The magnets in the orbits stop the ball when the Camera is lit or a Piano shot is ready, allowing the ball to slowly fall down over an upper flipper, greatly increasing the chances of making those difficult shots. They also turn on during multiball, where these shots are of even greater importance. And since orbit shots are the ones that get stopped, the ball is rarely sent blasting around and down towards the lower flippers at full speed, resulting in fewer drains on an otherwise drain-happy table. (Also, the ceramic ball is useless on the mini playfield, with the magnetic flippers, so the game will try to keep it out of there.)

    The ceramic pinball, also known as the "Powerball," is subject to none of these effects. Because of this, left orbit shots are worth extra points, and a shot to the right orbit loads it into the gumball machine, starting "Powerball Mania," one of the more lucretive modes in the game. Powerball Mania takes one ball out of the gumball machine (guarenteed not to be the powerball since it just went in) and two out of the trough and challenges players to win the mini playfield *during* multiball.

    More interestingly, it's possible to lock the Powerball for multiball, and start it too. If a jackpot is made with the powerball (rather difficult because the player doesn't get the benefit of the magnet setting him up for a Piano shot), the game "knows" it, and doubles the jackpot award for doing so!

    But from a design stance, the most interesting thing about the Powerball is that it's a special pinball that the game can identify. At the start of a game it can either be in the gumball machine, in the trough, or even up in the lock. It's one more non-deterministic element for the game, one more aspect that carries over from game to game, like progressive jackpots. These features are part of what gives pinball its enduring charm, the idea that games are part of a larger continuity instead of starting completely over from an unvarying initial state each time.

    The ceramic pinball, it should be said, isn't hollow like a teacup but solid, and is not at all fragile. It can take about as much punishment as the metal balls in the table.

    That's about it. Any questions?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 07, 2005 @07:25AM (#12164220)
    At least some of the pinballs are magnetic since machines like the classic Twilight Zone have magnets as part of the play.

    See:
    ahref=http://www.ipdb.org/glossary.php%23Playfield %20Magnets [slashdot.org]http://www.ipdb.org/glossary.php%23Playf ield%20Magnets> ahref=http://pinside.com/archive.details.general.a sp?machineid=515 [slashdot.org]http://pinside.com/archive.details .general.asp?machineid=515>

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