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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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  • I hate to say it.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ZosX (517789) <zosxavius AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:45PM (#12159912) Homepage
    But the Stern machines are not nearly as nice or as well designed as the old Bally/Williams machines. Pinball is a dying form of entertainment (along with the arcades) and while its great to see one lone survivor still out there, it would be even better if they were up to the quality of late Williams machines. Attack from Mars, Addams Family (BRUTAL!), and Medieval Madness all come to mind. Revenge from Mars was gimmicky along with Episode 1, and as a result I see very few of those machines still around. While Stern makes competetent machines, the Simpsons cannot hold a candle to the sheer genius that Attack From Mars was.

    Oh FP btw!
  • Competition? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dshaw858 (828072) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:45PM (#12159913) Homepage Journal
    [...] which is the last remaining pinball manufacturer in the world.

    You'd think that with a lot of arcades around the world using pinball machines, some other companies would want to compete with these guys... or perhaps there's such a huge monopoly that everyone else just gives up. Makes you wonder about monopoly laws, though...

    - dshaw
  • by jkeegan (35099) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:46PM (#12159918) Homepage Journal
    Man, I hope they keep making machines. Pinball was a large part of how I proposed to my wife (indirectly):

    The Birthday/Proposal Story [keegan.org]

    Of course, Theatre of Magic is a Bally machine, amd they're already gone. :(

  • Lord of the Rings (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:48PM (#12159943)
    The Simpsons and Sopranos games are OK, but the best new pinball game of the last several years in my mind is definitely Lord of the Rings [pinballnews.com]. I hated that movie (I only saw the first one... boring!) but even without really knowing the story, the game is just amazing.

    Get to an arcade and play it! Highly reccomended!
  • by LordOfYourPants (145342) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:52PM (#12159979)
    The price went up to $0.50 to play and I stopped there. Cold. Actually, I stopped going to the arcades in general at that point.

    Once every couple of years I'll go to play a pinball game and reconfirm why I stopped: the game never seems to work properly. A flipper will be half dead, the ball will get stuck in some bizarre part of the board, or the game itself will be dead. I'm sure it's because the games don't get a lot of play and therefore see less maintenance, but it's a vicious cycle that, for me, started with the game costing $0.50.

    Nowadays I see machines set to $1 to play. I'm not going to risk $1 on a machine that, these days, seems to have a 90% chance of being broken.

    It's a shame to see that there's only one pinball machine manufacturer left, but I'm unwilling to pay $1 each time to help them out.
  • Addams Family (Score:4, Interesting)

    by frankthechicken (607647) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:52PM (#12159985) Journal
    Without doubt one of my favorite machines made.

    Pat Lawlor's finest creation in my opinion. That man was so damn prolific, and passionate about his machines. One of the defining quotes of his, which sort of sums him up:-

    "Anyone in this business who designs something looks at that product like it is one of their children. You take a year to create this thing, put your own personality into it, and heaven forbid something should happen when you release it because it's like your child is misbehaving. You become attached to the games and they are important to you."

    A true craftsman.
  • Re:Competition? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by temojen (678985) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:54PM (#12160000) Journal
    Or it could be that pinball machines are so well made and timeless that few customers are buying new ones rather than repairing or buying used.
  • Memories... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Huxley_Dunsany (659554) <huckdunsany@NOSpaM.mac.com> on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @06:59PM (#12160047)
    When I was a kid (late '80s, early '90s), for a couple years my family lived just a couple blocks away from "The Pinball Place", an old warehouse in Berkeley, CA, which had been converted to a repair shop / museum / arcade for pinball machines and memorabilia. I was young enough that my memories are a little hazy, but I recall that on a certain Saturday or Sunday of every month, the management would throw open the doors to the local kids and let everyone play for free on any of the dozens (hundreds?) of machines that were currently functional. I have so many fond memories of playing tons of antique pinball games - "The World's Largest Pinball Machine" ("Hercules"?) seemed to my child-eyes to use chrome bowling-balls, and required one person on each side to push the dinner-plate sized buttons. I also clearly remember playing a pinball machine based on the original Star Trek series...

    Anyway, enough wallowing in nostalgia for me - I'm still an avid pinball fan, and look forward to the day when I can own my own machine. It's nice to see such dedication to a wonderful form of electro-mechanical art.

    Huxley

  • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:03PM (#12160086)
    Reminds me of a story my freshmen physics professor told.

    When he was young, he got a big magnet from an old radar that had been scrapped. He snuck it into the arcade in his backpack with the intention of manuevering the ball through the extra life gate with it. Unfortunately, when he moved it over the ball, the ball jumped up and smacked the glass with enough force to break it. He had to refine his technique a little bit and pick a different arcade, but it eventually worked.
  • Gone with arcades (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Telastyn (206146) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:05PM (#12160094)
    The problem with pinball machines is they were tied to the old style arcades. Arcades would have a guy come out every 3 months or so and bring them new games in exchange for old ones.

    Since pinball machines break down [damned mechanical beasties] pretty often, the guy would often spruce them up, and/or replace the little broken bits here and there.

    With arcades moving to smaller, less dedicated areas [in movie theatres for example] they don't replace the machines as often. If the machine breaks a little after 2 months, suddenly it's less desirable for maybe 4 months rather than 1.

    Futher the larger, less complex video games meant the video game guy turned into more of a mover rather than a mechanic. Pinball machines stay broken longer, or aren't fixed as well. They make less money.

    A shame. Pat Lawlor should be as famous as Sid Meier or Will Wright or Chris Sawyer.
  • by antdude (79039) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:10PM (#12160135) Homepage Journal
    I know it is not like the real thing with the physical units, but it is better than losing all of pinballs!

    PinballSim.com [pinballsim.com]

    Visual PinMame Guide [mameworld.net]

    VPForums [vpforums.com]

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:13PM (#12160166) Homepage Journal
    For as long as I can recall, it was a pretty good bet that pinball machines would not work quite correctly. Even when they were just competing against space invaders and galaga, the pinball machines always took a back seat to the video games. Not that a there were a lot of arcades that were particularly concerned with keeping their video games working correctly either.

    These days I'd just as soon spend my money on a playstation game and not have to deal with the poorly kept up games and the lack of creativity of the current generation of arcade games. They can all go out of business for all I care. I do miss the pinball though...

  • by mwa (26272) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:21PM (#12160236)
    I find pinball games too hard, and the apparant need to rely on luck is just tedious. I'm sure there are good players out there, but I guess not enough to make it worthwhile producing new tables.

    Actually, I think you've got it backwards. My friends and I used to play at lunch every day. The more you play, luck becomes less and less of a factor. Which means the more good players there are out there, the less $$ the tables produce. For about $1, 3 or 4 of us got a good hour or more entertainment.

    It's frustrating as hell when the game isn't working right though, and that's the state of most machines these days. I think it's half "too much maintenance required" and half "if it works, people start beating it."

  • by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:23PM (#12160249) Homepage Journal
    Five ball multiplay. The paddles were so powerful, you could actually launch balls over the walls and onto the next layer up. The paddles at the base were close enough together that you could catch anything if you were good enough. There was a bug in the software that allowed you infinite lives.


    Ah, now those were the days.

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

    by CmdrTostado (653672) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:23PM (#12160250) Journal
    Yes, a small company, perhaps. 5000 a year with about 250 working days a year is 20 units per day or 2.5 units per hour @ about $4000.00 per unit equals $400,000 gross per week ($2,000,000.00 a year) Build this number (1/2 his volume) with 1/2 the employees (he has 56) and you have 28 full time employees and 75 temps. It seems to work out OK, if you can survive the startup expenses. I would assume this product would be low liability. Perhaps the mechanical arcade games will outlast the digital ones, because you just can't reproduce the whole pinball experience on a video screen.
  • by Cthefuture (665326) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:32PM (#12160320)
    vpinball [vpforums.com] has a pretty good physics model. Coupled with VpinMAME and you get something close to the real machine.

    However, last I heard vpinball is no longer being developed and is a closed-source Windows-only application. Ah well...

    I occasionally fire it up on my home-built arcade machine that has pinball flipper buttons on the sides of the machine.

    Nothing beats the real thing though. There is just so much "stuff" in a pinball machine. The real ones are much easier to see what's going on. A 2D pinball game can't replicated the complexity of the real machines and a 3D model is difficult to see.
  • by immovable_object (569797) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:50PM (#12160511)
    I beg to differ. I purchased the Lord of the Rings pinball last year, and I am VERY impressed by the play. The construction feels solid, and I am never tired of the game. I highly recommend the game.

    After all, hearing Gimli say "Extra Ball!" and Frodo "We go through Moria!" is really fun.
  • by Luigi30 (656867) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @07:53PM (#12160538)
    If you think five balls is enough, try Apollo 13. 13-ball multiball in that one. Yes, you read 13 correctly.
  • by IronChef (164482) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @08:45PM (#12160980) Homepage
    I love pinball. The funny thing is that until a couple of years ago, I never played it. Well, I played it when I was a little kid. But now I am 33 and I am way into it.

    Pretty much every time I see a place that might have pinball, I stop and take a look. I have never seen one set to $1/play. Factory settings these days are $0.50/play, and there are often deals like 3 plays for $1 or 5 plays for $2. Of course you can price it however you want, but I've never seen $1/play.

    That aside -- yes, they are all frickin' broken. As another poster correctly pointed out, they require some maintenance, and the operators, spoiled by no-maintenance video games, don't take the time to do it. Lazy, stupid, inbred operators helped kill this fine industry! Finding a game that works well enough to really enjoy is rare.

    So what do I do? I buy my own games. :) It's a greay hobby that I have really enjoyed for the last couple of years.

    - Playing is fun, and well suits my short attention span. I can't stand a Final Fantasy RPG, but a game of pinball--that suits me fine.
    - Keeping the machines running and looking good is fun in its own right, like tinkering with a classic car.
    - They are a neat piece of American history (FINE, they were invented in France, but the modern form with flippers is an American innovation.)
    - When you get tired of a game, it's usually easy to flip it to another collector and make your money back. I currently have about $7500 worth of games, and if I wanted I could recover all that cost in a month.

    A pinball is kinetic art with lots of blinkenlights. There are simulators, sure, but the only way to really experience pinball is to play a real game. Emulated pac-man, on the other hand, is still pac-man.

    Pinball as an industry is nigh dead and I don't expect it to return. But it makes a great hobby anyway.

    All you video-game snobs... try to find a good, working pinball game and play it. I think you will be surprised at how much fun it really is if you give it a chance. Plus, it's more retro-cool than any old Nintendo!

    Oh, for the curious: you can get a failry modern game for around $1200 if you get lucky, but the A-list games are usually $2k and up, with some stable around $3500, and a couple of super-popular games at $5-6k. I'm talking used Bally/Williams classics here.

    A new-in-box Stern game can be had from a distrubutor for about $3700 if you look around. Lot of people pan Stern, and it is true they have many duds, but they have a couple of really solid recent games like Simpsons and Lord of the Rings. Stern's current best stand up quite well to the best of the classics, IMHO.

    Shipping is about $250 for any kind of pinball, so the best way to buy is from a private collector (no tax) within driving distance (no shipping and you can fully evaluate before you buy).

    Anyone who buys a $5k Stern from Sharper Image needs to be punched for extreme silliness.

    Anyone in Seattle who wants to play my games is welcome to come by. :)
  • by kneel (17810) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @09:03PM (#12161109) Homepage
    Wrong! The best pinball game ever is Whirlwind. [ipdb.org] It had a fucking cool fan that blew on you, and these awesome magnetic things that blew your pinball around. ingenious!
  • by nolife (233813) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @10:59PM (#12162126) Homepage Journal
    you need like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 points to get a free game these days?

    Na..
    All it normally takes is one multiball session and 1 or 2 trips up the ramps during the multiball.

    I do miss pinball. I know of several places that still have them but I am getting bored playing the same machines over and over again, even more so when one of the flippers is weak and I know they will never get it fixed.

    I remember in the early/mid 90's I used to go to a local gameroom the game room several times a week and play pinball, they had at least 20 different machines. It got to the point where my wife thought something fishy was going on.
    I actually "flipped" the score playing Rollerball, It gave me another credit for exceeding the free game score a second time but it did not register as a high score when I was done playing. I had 137 million and the previous high score was 40 million. It was very frustrating to beat the previous 1st place score by just under 100 million and only get to leave my initial under second place.
  • by bigman2003 (671309) on Wednesday April 06, 2005 @11:31PM (#12162372) Homepage
    There are tons of other games out there, but for me the 'golden age' of pinball ended in the '90's.

    High Speed
    Guns N Roses
    and my all-time favorite:
    Theatre of Magic

    I've owned a few pinball machines, and loved them literally to death. That's the problem with these things, they break too easily. I love to find an arcade that has a few machines- they don't even have to be good- as long as the flippers are strong, and the targets all work.

  • by Mister Transistor (259842) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:56AM (#12163383) Journal
    This may or may not have been true.

    I worked for Stern back in the 1980's, and I can tell you that pinballs are chrome plated copper! Non-magnetic, and for a reason - the parent tells exactly why.

    However, there were a FEW games that used ferrous core balls for "Magna-Save" or other effects (Black Knight, Circus Voltaire, for example). However, those games are multi-level and the glass is waaaay up above the ball, to far for any reasonable-sized magnet to influence.

    But those were made in later days, back in the olden days, they used the copper based balls almost exclusively to prevent fraud via magnets.
  • Re:Ripped off Bally (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mister Transistor (259842) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @03:24AM (#12163462) Journal
    Ummm... They were licenced rip-offs. Don't you think if you figured it out that Bally wouldn't have too? That's why they didn't obscure it. FYI, I used to analyze / repair production failures of those MPU , SDA, and LDA boards for a living at Stern in the 1980's...
  • by Zhe Mappel (607548) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @04:09AM (#12163601)
    Bless Mr. Stern, but what an irony! In all the years of blowing my paper route money back in the 70s, his would have been the last company I'd have expected to still be standing. Gottlieb had the precision tables, Bally and Williams the style and speed. The Data East-Sega-Stern corner--machines unimaginatively designed that felt clunky--was easy to ignore. Go figure. But here we are, on the very last ball, and I wish Stern all the luck in the world.

    Sorry to learn, though, that all his machines now are tie-ins to movies and TV shows. Half the beauty of pinball in its heyday was its aesthetic, which ranged voraciously across Americana as each table assembled a kind of comic book on glass and wood: you got legends and history and fantasy, blue collar pasttimes, pool and racing and cards, techno festishism, social trends, anatomically impossible chicks, and just plain weird and self-referential stuff about pinball. The backglass and table designs were a unique form not without their masterpieces (look up the artist Jerry Kelly--the form's Picasso--on the delightful Internet Pinball Machine Database [ipdb.org]).

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