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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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  • by dameron (307970) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:48PM (#12159940) Homepage
    The first thing I though of when I heard about physics processing units [anandtech.com] was that you might be able to make a realistic pinball simulation on the pc.

    The 3d effects and models have been around for a while, but what makes most computerized pinball games lame to me is their arbitrary and clunky "feel" when the ball interacts with the environment.

    Physics processing units might add that extra kick of realism and make it easier to stomach the dwindling population of real pinball machines. Lot of room for force feedback pinbabll controllers here.

    -dameron
  • by tcd004 (134130) * on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:49PM (#12159948) Homepage
    Theatre of Magic

    AMAZING!!!
  • by havaloc (50551) * on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:56PM (#12160016) Homepage
    You can download various tables and emulate most pinball games, including many favorite Williams tables, such as Indiana Jones, and Star Trek the Next Generation, and Addams Family. These were classics, and the emulation is very good.

    You need Vpinmame [vpinmame.com] and Visual Pinball [randydavis.com] working together. It's a little complicated to get setup, but it works well. You then need to download table files.

    There are some good sites on how to make them work together, but I don't want to slashdot them.
  • Re:Competition? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yotto (590067) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:56PM (#12160017) Homepage
    The problem isn't that they're quashing competition, it's that the worldwide demand for pinball machines is 10,000.
    Think about it. Would you want to devote all the time, money, and resources into building a company that will only produce 5,000 units a year?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @05:57PM (#12160021)
    The problem I've had with most electronic pinball game is the perspective. You either have a top-down view, which makes all of the targets and artwork very small, or a 3/4 perspective where you can't see the entire table at once and constanly lose your ball down the drain because the screen doesn't scroll quickly enough.
  • by johndierks (784521) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:08PM (#12160118)
    It's sad to see such a great pasttime die out. With the advent of super slick console gaming systems [playstation.com] the industry has really fallen apart. It doesn't help that the best pinball manufacturers [ballygaming.com] make a lot more money developing slot machines than pinball machines.
  • by MrPerfekt (414248) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:53PM (#12160532) Homepage Journal
    It's truly amusing to see this come up on slashdot. Being both a computer and pinball aficionado, it's interesting to see that the slashdot crowd knows very little about pinball.

    Lets clear up some misconceptions that I've seen in some posts thus far:

    1) Why isn't there another manufacturer to compete with Stern? Monopolies are evil. Well, the problem with that is that the pinball market is very small. 10,000 units is pretty small for a global market. The article mentions that it takes about 6,500 to 7,000 units for Stern to just breakeven. Said another way, the 7,001st machine is where they start to make profit. This is because...

    2) Pinballs are very expensive. Expensive to design, expensive to make and difficult to sell a decent quantity of. All told, a new-in-box machine goes for about $4,000. Damn near impossible to sell to a consumer and getting harder to sell to operators in the waning coin-op market. I suppose that there may be some ways for them to cut corners and churn out a slightly cheaper machine but if anyone has seen a Bally/Williams machine from the 90s and compared it with a current Stern product, the difference in quality is noticable. That is because...

    3) In the heyday of Williams/Bally, the market was much bigger. Then it wasn't unusual to pump out 30,000 machines of the same model instead of the under 10,000 of current models. More sales equal more profit equals more development funds. The more money available general leads to better development of "toys" and new technologies (optical switches, new hardware platforms, etc). Most Williams machines have several unique "toys" in each model and added a great amount of excitement. Stern usually only puts one "toy" in a machine and isn't exceptionally exciting. That just comes from having to shave back the cost of each machine to try and make a profit easier. It's simple business math and I can't really blame them since the slack between profit and loss is very thin.

    All-in-all, hopefully Stern will keep pinball alive for many many years to come. On most "pinhead's" wishlists though is for Stern to be a little bit more innovative and make machines that are a bit more complex like old Williams/Bally machines. But undoubtedly, we'll continue to keep cheering Stern on regardless because he's keeping the dream alive.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @10:28PM (#12162349)
    Doesn't mean crap until Mr Aussie has a game in a showroom taking quarters. Want to place bets on when that will happen?

    Gary's stupidity may ruin his company, as you say, but that stupidity has let him outlast all the other manufacturer implosions in the past decade. He also has the only people left in the world with a clue how to make these things.
  • by voss (52565) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @11:01PM (#12162587)
    "You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best g--damn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? "

    The point is Pinball machines are the horse and buggy of the gaming era.

  • by Zathras26 (763537) <pianodwarf@gm a i l . c om> on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @11:34PM (#12162814)

    I've been a huge pinball fan for many years but hardly play anymore because it's become so difficult to find machines. There are still places here in the DC area that have them, but you often have to go out of your way (then deal with the depression of seeing one forlorn pin off in the corner in the midst of swarms of video games). Also, you often find that the machines aren't being properly maintained (as others have commented). It's a real shame. Once, just a couple of weeks ago, I even had to walk away from a machine because all the balls were captured, then didn't release for the multiball, and I couldn't find anyone in the arcade to help.

    There have been a lot of great games over the years... two of my favorites were Scared Stiff and Demolition Man. Terminator 2 was a real turkey, though.

    I dream of the day when I can buy one or two machines for my own home and maintain them myself. No more hunting for machines, no more having to deal with lousy maintenance, and no more fretting about what I'll do if and when Stern closes up shop, since it's unlikely they'd ever be replaced. Pinball, I think, is going the way of the nickelodeon... it's been on its way out for many years, and I don't see the trend reversing. The best we can probably hope for is that the trend will bottom out and stop, but I don't see pinball ever becoming popular again.

  • by evilviper (135110) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:21AM (#12163277) Journal
    I'm not too surprised the demand for pinball machines is low... The demand has dropped-off, and the machines already in-use can be kept going with a little bit of maintenance.

    I know my neighborhood arcade had one single pinball machine going for over FIFTY YEARS, with very little downtime. The machine was retired about 10 years ago, for fear it might be seriously damaged or stolen. Now a collectable.

    I moved away years ago, and shortly after, all the pinball machines were removed. Coincidence, or was I single-handedly keeping those machines profitable? ;-)

    It's really a shame too. MAME can keep all the old arcade games alive, and though I do admit to enjoying a couple different pinball videogames, it really can't replace a real pinball machine. At about $4,000 new, it would be completely worth it, if I could try a few out, and find one I would be sure to enjoy playing, and not some junky gimmicky box.

"In the face of entropy and nothingness, you kind of have to pretend it's not there if you want to keep writing good code." -- Karl Lehenbauer

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