In The World Of Pinball, An Underdog Takes On The Giant

Dec 22, 2013
Originally published on December 22, 2013 4:53 pm

For more than a decade, Stern Pinball was the only manufacturer of pinball machines. The Chicago-based company's last rival closed down in 1999.

But Stern's pinball monopoly may be drawing to an end. In 2011, the startup manufacturer Jersey Jack Pinball opened for business, and it's working hard to grab a slice of the industry.

"You know, it would be a boring world, I guess, if there was only one company making shoes or handbags or anything," says Jack Guarnieri, the New Jersey company's owner. "So, I think more competition and more product in the marketplace raises the awareness of pinball."

Jersey Jack Pinball's debut game is based on The Wizard of Oz film. They plan to release a second game, The Hobbit, in the spring of 2014.

Breaking Stern's monopoly and squeezing into this industry will be a challenge, mainly because demand just isn't what it used to be. Between 1955 and 1970, the games made more money than the entire American movie industry. Thirty years ago, there were nearly a dozen pinball manufacturers in the U.S.

Now, it's a very different story.

"Back in the day, they used to sell 5- to 10,000 of each pinball machine — now they're lucky if they hit 1,000 to 1,500," says Tim Arnold, owner of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. "So it's exactly like the movies — if you get a hit movie, everything is great. But if you have one or two dud movies in a row, you're in deep trouble financially."

Arnold says Jersey Jack needs to do two basic things to succeed: create an incredible product and bring it to the masses.

Jersey Jack seems to be on track with that first goal. Arnold compares The Wizard of Oz game to going from black-and-white to color television.

The game has a multicolor LED screen that plays animation and clips from the movie. Special flipper settings and lights transform the board according to each mode of play.

"If you're going for the Emerald City, all the lights turn green," says Arnold. "If you're battling flying monkeys, it all turns red. It's really a spectacular visual presentation."

There's only one problem: The Wizard of Oz is hard to find. Even two years after its initial release, the game is unlikely to be in your local arcade. Many of the units have gone to homes of private collectors.

Molly Atkinson, one of the few who has played it, had to go to a collector's home to do so. She's a collector herself and runs a public-access arcade called Pins and Needles in Los Angeles.

"It's a real fancy game, Wizard of Oz," she says. "It has a lot of neat features on it. And for some reason, it's really grown on me."

Atkinson doubts it will join her collection any time soon. The machine costs about $8,000. "No new games are affordable! When it was a public play thing, games never cost this much," Atkinson says.

She only charges 25 cents per play at her arcade, but even if she charged double, it would take 16,000 games for her to recoup that cost.

Atkinson had hoped that if the pinball monopoly was broken, the machines would become more affordable.

"We finally do have someone else who's entered the market," says Atkinson. "But their games are maybe even more expensive. So it's just very unattainable for someone like me to get one."

Still, Atkinson says the arrival of a new game-maker is a good thing. She hopes that competition between the two companies will breathe fresh life into the industry.

Jersey Jack owner Guarnieri, a veteran arcade executive, says that's the whole point. "That's really what you want to hear," he says. "That's success."

With Jersey Jack's second game due out in the spring, Guarnieri says a third machine, with an all-original design and story, is already in production.

Stern Pinball did not respond to press inquiries for this story. A banner on the company's website declares it it is "the only maker of REAL pinball games on the planet!!"

Guarnieri says they probably just haven't updated the site yet.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Now to the world of pinball. Okay, it's not a very big world. In fact, today, there's really only one company that still makes pinball tables. But one man is trying to smash the pinball monopoly. NPR's Francesca Fenzi has the story.

FRANCESCA FENZI, BYLINE: Meet Jack Guarnieri. He runs an unusual business.

JACK GUARNIERI: We have a company that builds pinball machines in New Jersey, and it's called Jersey Jack Pinball.

FENZI: Jersey Jack is the first pinball manufacturer to emerge in almost 30 years. For the past decade, if you wanted to own one of the tabletop arcade games, you had to buy it from one company, Stern Pinball.

GUARNIERI: You know, it would be a boring world, I guess, if there was only one company making shoes or handbags or anything. So I think more competition and more product in the marketplace raises the awareness of pinball.

FENZI: Something else to know about pinball: between 1955 and 1970, the games made more money than the entire American movie industry. They were big bucks. And 30 years ago, there were nearly a dozen pinball makers in the U.S. Now, there's only Stern. Tim Arnold owns the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, and he explains that Jersey Jack's real challenge won't be breaking Stern's monopoly, but squeezing into the market at all.

TIM ARNOLD: Back in the day, they used to sell five to 10,000 of each pinball machine. Now they're lucky if they hit a 1,000 to 1,500. So it's exactly like the movies. If you get a hit movie, everything's great. But if you have one or two dud movies in a row, you're in deep trouble financially.

FENZI: According to Arnold, Jersey Jack needs to do two things to succeed: Create an incredible product and bring it to the masses. In other words, Jersey Jack needs a magic slingshot or maybe just a wizard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

FENZI: The company's debut game, based on "The Wizard of Oz" movie, certainly qualifies as incredible. Arnold compares it to going from black and white to color TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

GARLAND: (as Dorothy) Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

FENZI: It has a multicolor LED screen that plays animations and movie clips during the game, plus special flipper settings and lights that transform the board according to each new mission.

ARNOLD: If you're going for the Emerald City, all the lights turn green. If you're battling flying monkeys, it all turns red. It's really a spectacular visual presentation.

FENZI: There's only one problem - the "Wizard of Oz" is hard to find. Even two years after its initial release, you're not likely to see the game in a local arcade. Many of the units have gone to homes of private collectors. Molly Atkinson is one of the few who has played it. And she had to go to a collector's home to do so. That's because she's a collector herself. She runs a public access arcade called Pins and Needles in Los Angeles.

MOLLY ATKINSON: It's a real fancy game, Wizard of Oz. It has a lot of neat features on it. And, I don't know, for some reason, it's really grown on me.

FENZI: But Atkinson doubts it will join her collection anytime soon. The machine cost about $8,000. She only charges 25 cents per play. But even if she charged double, it would take 16,000 games for her to recoup that cost.

ATKINSON: No new games are affordable. When it was a public plaything, games never cost this much. And then the arcade thing kind of died out, and there was only the one manufacturer remaining. So they were kind of controlling all the costs, and they went up and up and up. So we finally do have someone else who's entered the market, but their games are maybe even more expensive. So it's just very unattainable for someone like me to get one.

FENZI: Still, Atkinson says the arrival of a new game maker is a good thing. She hopes that competition between the two companies will generate more exciting games and breathe fresh life into the industry. For Jack Guarnieri, renewed excitement in pinball is the whole point.

That's really what you want to hear. That's success.

He plans to release Jersey Jack's second game, "The Hobbit," this spring and says that a third machine with an all-original design and story is already in production. Stern didn't respond to press inquiries for this story, but a banner on the company's website declares it the only maker of real pinball games on the planet. Guarnieri says they probably just haven't updated the site yet. Francesca Fenzi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINBALL WIZARD")

THE WHO: (Singing) Ever since I was a young boy I 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.