I love pinball machines because they take me back to my youth. I remember a time when I could find them in arcades all over the city. My friends and I would spend all day competing for the highest score and only need to spend a few coins. There were collectors even then. I believe they either knew one day these machines would go way up in value, or they were simply enchanted by the machines.
You may be wondering if pinball machines were as expensive back then as they are now. After all, a new machine currently starts at $5,000. The price goes up if the game is a limited or special edition. Pinball machines were a little cheaper in my day, but there are good reasons why the hobby has become so expensive.
Some interesting user thoughts on pinside.com:
The Surviving Manufacturers
One of the main reasons for the expense of a pinball machine is only a few of the manufacturers survived. As time passed, they weren’t as popular anymore. When I add the expense of the design, production, technology and the cost of licensing the machine, I understand why the price increased so much. The expense of the older machines is due to their collectability and rareness.
What I find incredible is making one pinball machine requires over 300 employees. The cost of the designers, electrical and mechanical engineers, artists and programmers are around a million dollars. You also have to consider how risky it is to make the machines when so many of the manufacturers have already gone out of business. Everything began during the 1970s.
This was when pinball machines were the newest electronic achievement available. I know I was impressed by the electromechanical relays, microprocessors and sound effects. You might have been too. I remember when games including Asteroids, Pac-Man and Space Invaders came out towards the end of the 70s. The beginning of video games meant the popularity of pinball was coming to an end.
I read a report saying Space Invaders was so popular in Japan, certain arcades were devoted to just this game. Anyway, as the store owners realized how popular video games had become, they decided there was a better way to make money. Video games didn’t need to be maintained, which made them more reliable. As time went by, a lot of the players weren’t interested in pinball machines anymore.
During this time, the arcade racing games reached their height of popularity. The interest of the players was in Daytona USA or Mortal Combat. I admit I was never interested in games involving brutal fatalities. As the 20th century came to a close, I watched the three biggest manufacturers of pinball machines go out of business. These were Bally, Williams and Gottlieb.
You need to understand they were giants who had been spent decades making pinball machines. In April 2018, Heighway Pinball had no choice other than laying off their employees and closing their doors. The last I heard, this British company was in the process of liquidation. If you really want to know why pinball machines are so expensive, only six manufactures on the globe have survived.
The Pinball Manufacturers Currently in Existence
The most recent manufacturing company is American Pinball near Chicago. The company first started in 2016. Their first machine was released in 2017. The theme was based on Houdini, one of my favorite magicians. In 2011, Jack Guarnieri was the industry veteran responsible for the creation of Jersey Jack Pinball. The 2013 release of the Wizard of OZ was their first pinball machine.
I was excited when remakes for the old pinball machines were released in 2001 by Chicago Gaming Company. I enjoyed watching Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness make a comeback. Koen Heltzel and Barry Driessen created Dutch Pinball in the Netherlands once they came up with a new twist for the Bride of Pinbot. The Big Lebowski was their inspiration for the machine they released in 2013.
In 2013, Charlie Emery created Spooky Pinball LLC. When he couldn’t locate a pinball machine for his daughter, he decided to start his own company. American’s Most Haunted was the first machine to hit the market. He bases his products on horror, building sexy, scary and funny games. I appreciated it when he said his games better not suck.
The largest and oldest manufacturer and designer of pinball machines left is Stern Pinball Inc. You can trace their lineage all the back to the 1930s. Many of their products are based on films, television shows and bands. My favorite is the AC/DC pinball machine.
Improvements in Technology
Modern pinball machines are much more complicated. This makes them even more expensive. George Gomez is the head of game development for Stern. He finds improved technology exciting. I read a BBC article about him. He basically said the computing power and improved technology enable pinball machines to create a story so players can react intelligently. I am sad to say this was not possible in the past.
Wired Stern was the focus of another article. Their new Transformers machine gives the players the choice of being Decepticons or AutoBots. I am fascinated by the choice of different modes providing different targets, achievements and bonuses depending on which side the player is on. Unfortunately, technology has an expensive price tag.
Jersey Jack opened the door to numerous firsts for the industry when The Wizard of Oz was released. This includes a hand-drawn playfield and LCD HD quality audio and monitor. The four mechanical toys are outstanding. You will recognize the witch’s castle, melting witch, Dorothy’s house and flying monkey from the movie.
Dialed In was also created by the company. This was the first machine offering extra playing capabilities such as a camera and Bluetooth connectivity by using a smartphone.
Video: interview with George Gomez.
You already know the goal of playing pinball is to shoot metal balls at the targets to score points. What you may not realize is designing pinball machines is expensive. You most likely remember the excitement of launching your ball so you could start playing. You control the flippers by pressing the buttons on each side of the machine. This sends the ball all over the playing field so you can hit your objectives.
Each pinball machine is unique because of its playfields. Engineering is necessary to make sure the gameplay is smooth, but it must also be a reflection of the theme. The testing process is expensive, but this is the only way to ensure the game is functioning correctly. The best way to see how everything works is to make a mock-up of the game. This way the mechanisms can be adjusted as many times as it takes to have the shot run smoothly.
In some cases, the theme of the playfield is connected to a popular license. The job of the designer is to make sure the way the theme is worked into the game includes the gameplay, artwork and mechanical contraptions. Once again, this takes money to pay the designer.
Video: about designing modern pinball.
It is expensive to make a pinball machine. The labor, assembly and parts cost millions. You may be interested in knowing the pinball capital of the world is often referred to as Chicago. Some of the greatest manufacturers were based out of Chicago or in the surrounding areas. This includes Bally, Gottlieb, Williams and Stern. ABC7 news featured an article about George Gomez, the Vice President of Stern Pinball.
He said building one of these machines is complicated. Each machine has more than 3000 parts including enough wire to stretch out over half a mile. Depending on which model, it takes approximately 250 employees to construct a maximum of just sixty machines each day. The director of licensing and marketing for the company is Jody Dankberg. The director explained the jobs require years of specialized education because they are extremely detailed and technical.
The company has spent the last thirty years building some of the best pinball machines I have ever seen. A lot of the machines are mostly handmade. Local manufacturers provide the necessary parts. To ensure quality control, every part must be inspected the tested numerous times prior to being installed. You may be surprised what is included in the parts such as rubber bands, screws and everything in between.
The Kiss pinball machine even required a figurehead of Gene Simmons for one of the themed attachments. The software for the machines has to be developed and tested. This involves paying a team of electrical and mechanical engineers, sound designers and animators who work together. The team makes certain the functionality of the rules and the progression of the story is intact.
The cabinets for the machines are generally subcontracted from one of the other manufacturers. The game is advertised by the licensed artwork you see on the cabinets. The cabinets made during the 1980s generally screened the artwork right onto the wood or used metal stencils. The more modern cabinets either use decals or screen onto wood covered in vinyl.
I am a fan of Roger Sharp because he is responsible for saving pinball. He is also an expert regarding pinball licensing. He granted an interview with Pavol to discuss the expense of obtaining one of the more popular licenses. He said prior to even considering purchasing a license, the costs such as royalties, asset acquisition and legal approvals must all be considered.
Instant recognition may be assured by the license, but the game will not become successful unless it’s good. He was also concerned the new companies might be paying more than they should to secure popular licensing rights. This further increases the cost of the machine. He said he heard certain companies were spending more than $100 for each machine or triple digits for a license when it wasn’t necessary.
This means the company may be spending enough to put them out of business. The next time negotiations take place, the agency or studio is going to expect what they received the last time. Licenses for popular television shows, films and bands have helped ensure the relevance of pinball machines. Stern Pinball has released The Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead and Iron Maiden.
If you think you can save money by purchasing one of the older models, it will depend on the popularity and condition of the machine. Used pinball machines are still fairly expensive. When the production is limited, supply is often outweighed by demand. There are a lot of collectors willing to pay high prices for specific games. If the company that made the machine went out of business, you will most likely see the value increase.
A good example are Williams/Bally games. During the past decade, their games have kept increasing in value. The most popular games made by companies no longer in existence are extremely expensive. Bally produced the Addam’s Family which was released during 1992. If you remember Thing, he grabbed and moved the ball. This is still the best-selling game ever. More than 20,000 units have been sold.
To help you understand the value of this machine, after 26 years the special collector’s edition was recently advertised for a whopping $10,000. Despite the current prices, I am not the only fan who has a nostalgic place in my heart for pinball machines. The reason pinball machines require such a high investment is that only six manufacturers have survived the decline in popularity.
There are a lot of costs associated with the design and construction of the machines. Licensing rights and technology are also expensive. The expense of the older machines is because of their collectibility and rarity.
Video: TOP-10 most expensive pinball machines in the world.
The Bottom Line
Did you enjoy reading my article? I like to think you did. Everything I have discussed is important to me because I truly love pinball machines, always have. If you are a collector or are planning to start a collection, you will find this information important. After all, the best way to learn about something is to understand the history and origins. I would appreciate it if you left a comment. I am interested in your opinion. If you really enjoyed my article, please share it.