Pinball: The Game of the Future

In the past, I have proven myself a sort of trend scout. I don’t want to say trendsetter, because that would imply that my involvement was part of what created the trend. Frankly, I’m not that cool. But… I have a knack for seeing something cool and realizing its potential before it becomes “the next big thing.” Now mind you, I’m not 100% on these predictions, but historically I have done well.

All that being said, I’m doing something bold. I am publically going to make a prediction on something I think is going to be a trend within 5-10 years:

Pinball machines.

I know some of you are thinking “Pinball? Isn’t that a played out fad from the ’70s that died with Elton John’s ability to record a real rock album?” To that, I say “Your mom is a played out fad from the ’70s.”

But seriously, pinball was super popular all the way up to the ’90s. It was then that a combination of things forced the major pinball producers out of the industry. Ironically, one of the largest reasons was that pinball machines from this era were just too good. Designers had kind of worked themselves out of a job. Many of the tables that were sold in 1990 were still being played in 1993, and demand for new tables were dwindling. On top of that, the home video game console was destroying the local arcade. Unfortunately, there was no real way for pinball manufacturers to capitalize on this shift away from public arcades. These factors, and more, all contributed to the decline of the pinball market.

Today, there is only one major producer of pinball machines left: Stern. Stern’s production of pinball tables has slowed down to only a few new tables a year, but they have found a balance of small production runs and lower production costs that allows them to stay in business while industry giants like Williams jumped ship to produce slot machines. This year, Stern released both a Metallica and Star Trek table. The latter I got to play recently during a trip in Columbus, and let me say, it was a lot of fun.

(adding a break because the rest of this post has multiple youtube videos that can affect page loads on slower systems and mobile devices)

(A video of not me playing Star Trek)

But Stern isn’t alone. The private collecting of pinball machines is growing as public tables become less available. We’re seeing smaller boutique companies producing limited runs of original and recreated classic tables. The industry is actually doing so well that a second company called Jersey Jack is being started up by some well regarded pinball producers from decades past. From early impressions, it looks like Jersey Jack will be producing content at the same level of Stern, and arguably at a higher level of quality. This means that for the first time in decades we’re going to have a competitive market for pinball. Jersey Jack actually obtained the licensing rights to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” film-adaptations and most recently released their “Wizard of Oz” themed table. While this new Oz table is more expensive than your typical Stern table, it is raising the bar and adding some interesting features to modern pinballs.

On top of all these new productions, we’re seeing a lot of engineers and game designers building their own tables as personal projects. Legendary video game modder Ben Heck has produced a couple tables himself, which has actually led to the production of his own pinball table with well known pinball designer John Popadiek.

Now I know I’m spouting off a lot of stuff that only illustrates an upward trend in an otherwise content deprived market. No big deal right? Well… there’s a little more to my prediction than that.

Young adults aged 18-35 are super social. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr… Everyone is looking to connect and keep up with friends. Technology has made it easier than ever, but it has also kind of made it harder for people to connect on a very personal level. As a result, we’re seeing a lot young adults get into activities that are more built around being social. Board games, Dungeons and Dragons, Card Games. Heck, you can’t even play a video game at home without a bunch of notifications that your friends are playing and want you to join them. As a culture, we’re starving for true social contact.

We now have a generation or two of people that want to get out of their house, meet up with friends, have fun, and not spend much money doing it. One response to this is a surge in popularity of vintage arcade games. Those that live in the Columbus, Ohio area may be familiar with a new place called 16-Bit Bar. Basically, it’s a nice bar that is packed with old arcade games and fully embraces nostalgia. Bars like these are popping up all over the country as well.

I think the next logical step is pinball. Arcade games are great, but pinball machines are way more social. Think about it for a moment. You can get up to four of your friends crowding around this blinking and clanking machine. Taking turns playing a highly competitive game of skill. Unlike many video games, while one person is playing, the rest of you are free to talk, drink, and socialize. It really might be one of the best options of entertainment for this aforementioned group of adults.

So keep your eyes out. I have a feeling it will start slow. A pinball machine here or there. Then another… then a section of them dedicated at your favor little craft beer bar. Then soon we’ll see a revival of the old school pinball parlor. Mark my words.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot…

Someone is making a Big Lebowski Pinball Machine. Need more reason to buy in on the pinball hypetrain?

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  1. […] thing I failed to mention in my previous post about pinball is that there is a competative aspect to it. There is a tour of tournaments that all lead up to the […]

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