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Jessica Murphy/MEDILL

Stern Pinball Inc. in Melrose Park is riding a wave of renewed popularity in the classic, coin-operated game.

Flipping out over pinball - the game is back

by Jessica Murphy
Mar 5, 2013

Here is something you may not have known about Chicago: It’s the pinball capital of the country – maybe even the planet. At least according to Gary Stern, CEO of Stern Pinball Inc. in Melrose Park.

“We are the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world,” Stern said. “We stick with it.”

And it’s a good thing they do. Pinball is roaring back and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing it down.

“We’re making money,” Stern said. “We had a significant increase [in sales] from 2011 to 2012 and we anticipate another 20-30 percent increase this year.”

So how exactly does a coin-operated, manual game regain popularity in a world saturated by digitized media, touch screens and Wi-Fi?

Stern credits the success to ramped up promotion and efforts to expand the consumer base. But he also is thankful for the popularity of barcades, essentially bars with arcade games. Barcades sprouting up around Chicago have become a haven for hipsters and pinball connoisseurs looking to relive the captivating simplicity of coin-op games past.

Even though Stern insists he is not an expert player, his passion for the game is palpable.

“I love pinball,” said the white-haired 67-year-old with the giddy grin of a kid. “I love it.”

Stern has been around pinball since he was 2 years old. His father was president of Williams Manufacturing Co. in Chicago, a trailblazer in the burgeoning pinball business.

In 1986, after the death of his father and during the heyday of coin-operated video games, Stern founded Data East Pinball. The company was bought by Sega in 1994 and became Sega Pinball. In 1999 Stern bought the business back and renamed it Stern Pinball Inc.

The company now employs nearly 200 people in its 40,000-square-foot factory.

Stern Pinball makes three new games a year. In 2012 it was AC/DC, X-Men and the Avengers. For 2013, Stern is not giving any clues about upcoming releases. A Stern pinball machine costs anywhere between $5,000 and $8,000.

The production floor at Stern Pinball is filled with rows of gutted machines, heaping piles of colorful, jumbled wires and blinking lights. The space echoes with constant sound of pinball flippers. It looks and sounds complicated but it’s not brain surgery. “It all begins with selecting a game concept,” according to George Gomez, vice president of game design.

Almost all of the games Stern Pinball makes are licensed games. This means it purchases the rights to a theme from a band, movie company, etc. to use on its machines. That way the company can leverage the recognition of the brands that it works with, Gomez says. So when a movie company spends big bucks on advertising a film such as “The Avengers,” Stern Pinball’s licensed, Avengers-themed machine benefits as well.

After a concept is set, a team of designers, engineers and artists works out the aesthetics, rules and programming of the game. It can take up to a year of tweaking and testing before the machine is ready to be mass produced.

“It’s not unlike making a film or any other creative, collaborative effort,” Gomez said. “You have this vision and you’re driving toward the vision.”

Once the design is ready, the various parts come in, get inspected and are allocated to different workstations. The games then go down the assembly line, get tested, put into boxes and finally, are shipped to all corners of the earth.

To be the world’s sole pinball maker does not mean the company has no competition. Not even close, according to Stern. Pinball is stacked up against video games, redemption games, which give players tickets that are redeemed for prizes, not to mention the vast scope of entertainment available on the Internet and mobile devices.

“As far as games, every young person has a game machine in their pocket today so we compete with that,” Stern said.

But society’s dependence on digital media might just be the driving force behind pinball’s comeback.

“We’re in a bit of a renaissance,” Gomez said. “We’re very comfortable with virtual things now and I think pinball has a visceral physical component that other devices do not have. We have an inch and a sixteenth steel sphere and we have gravity. That’s a natural randomizer. In a video game, randomness is a scripted component.”

Pinball’s popularity will only continue to go up, Stern predicts. Company revenue approached $50 million in 2012, up 33 percent from 2011, according to a Stern official.

In fact, the company’s revenues have tripled since teaming up in 2009 with investment firm Hagerty Peterson & Co. LLC, according to Stern. The partnership has allowed the company to expand its consumer base to include more individual buyers who might want a machine in their rec room and “pinball enthusiasts” who are avid collectors.

This past year Stern Pinball, along with Hasbro Inc., introduced the Pin, a more affordable, lighter version of its machines, exclusively designed for the home. The Transformers-themed Pin is available now on Amazon for $2,700.

Although pinball machines have evolved with technology, Gomez said the first rule of pinball – keeping the ball in play – is a constant.

“I tell my design teams, everything is up for discussion, except for the ball and the flippers,” Gomez said. “Those are key elements that will never go away, at least not on my watch.”