Date: March 2016

In late February 2016, Pinball News was asked if we would be able to contribute an article for the Texas Pinball Festival's show guide. With not much time to spare and only a single page to use, it would be a real challenge to produce something both thought-inspiring and entertaining.

Pretty soon it became clear one page wouldn't be enough to achieve what we wanted to do, so we managed to get two pages. But even then, it would need quick replies from all the people we wanted to feature.

Thanks to their punctuality and entertaining responses, we hit the March 1st deadline (just), and the article made it into the show guide.

So if you went to the show you may already have seen this, but for everyone else, here's why making pinball is hard.

Over the past eighty years, more than seven hundred different companies have produced pinball machines of various kinds, from the earliest flipperless models to the latest high-tech marvels you see on the floor of pinball shows.

These days we are fortunate enough to have a variety of companies building and shipping games to eager customers all around the world. But getting to the stage where games are actually rolling off the production line takes huge resources of self-belief, dedication, support, hard work and, yes, money.

Stern Pinball has been designing and manufacturing pinballs for 30 years, first under the name of Data East Pinball, then Sega Pinball. But even with all that experience under their belt, there are still plenty of bumps in the road to designing and manufacturing the next game.

Jody Dankberg
Jody Dankberg

Their head of Marketing and Licensing, Jody Dankberg told us, “Even after 30 years of making great games, making new games does not get easier. Designing games with compelling themes and fun game play along with durability is a difficult task."

"Sourcing materials and keeping a proper bill of materials ensures the success of our manufacturing business. Building pinball machines takes a symphony of different people from different disciplines coming together as one unit.

Jody also said using licensed themes brings its own challenges. “Having made hundreds of games we typically know what to expect but each new license presents its own ups and downs. Each licensor is unique in the way they handle creative projects and approvals.

When Jack Guarnieri set-up Jersey Jack Pinball in 2010 his avowed aim was to build the kind of full-featured games his customers demanded but which simply weren’t available.

He knew it wouldn’t be plain sailing, but a lifetime in the coin-op business meant he understood both what would appeal to potential purchasers and would earn on location, such as his The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit games.

He said anyone who gets into the pinball business purely to make money without putting their heart and soul into it is most likely doomed to failure.

Passion for what you are doing and creating a product at the highest level is difficult in any industry”, he told us.

Pinball has seen its ups and downs but it will always be a challenge to build great pinball machines and JJP is proud to be part of that effort.”

Jack Guarnieri
Jack Guarnieri

By contrast, Spooky Pinball’s Charlie Emery, who is about to build his Rob Zombie’s Spookshow International game, is quite blasé and insists it’s not at all difficult to make pinballs.

In fact, he provided this simple five-step guide to starting your own pinball-making business.

Charlie Emery
Charlie Emery

1. Quit your day job to put as much pressure on yourself to NOT FAIL as humanly possible.

2. Make friends with people MUCH smarter than you.

3. Take every dime you've ever made, and throw it out the window. You need a lot more than that anyway.

4. DON'T take full advance game payments from your customers. The gnawing hunger pains and lack of heat will make you work that much harder.

5. Ship games. Turns out that's REALLY important.

Wait, come to think of it”, he says, “pinball IS hard. Really... really HARD!

Heighway Pinball’s second title, Alien, is moving ever closer to production, so company head Andrew Heighway is well-placed to explain the problems facing any pinball start-up.

I believe the aspect of building games that is underestimated the most is the sheer scale of the task involved. To build a top-class game, you need top class people working on every aspect of the machine: the game designer, the design engineer, the animator, the programmers, the sound programmers, the rules testers ... and the list goes on.

But designing the game is only half the task, Andrew says. Once you have a design, you still have to bring everything together so you can build it.

Andrew Heighway
Andrew Heighway

Managing suppliers, quality control, production schedules and the sheer number of different parts needed to make even a single game - it's impossible to predict how difficult this task is until you get there. Just one missing or faulty part and it can set your production back weeks and cost the company tens of thousands of dollars in overheads.

Two companies poised to build their first full games are Multimorphic and Dutch Pinball. They have worked closely together, with both using Multimorphic’s P3-ROC pinball control system in their designs. However, they have produced two very different games.

Dutch Pinball’s The Big Lebowski was first revealed in September 2014, and even back then their highly-impressive prototype model looked near production-ready.

Jaap Nauta
Jaap Nauta

But as Jaap Nauta told us, in typical ‘The Dude’ style, there’s more to making the game than meets the eye.

Building a pinball machine is a complicated case, man.. A lotta ins, a lotta outs, you know? Sometimes you have problems mit deine Kables. Sometimes other shit comes to light. So yeah... If you want to build a pinball you have to be darn flexible, I guess..."

"Wait, what... what day is this?

Multimorphic’s P3 platform has been around even longer, with a proof-of-concept of their ground-breaking design first shown in 2012.

Using an LCD panel below the playfield to create interactive artwork and new shots maps through ball-tracking technology, the game turned into a modular platform on which multiple different games designs could be built.

Company founder and head Gerry Stellenberg told us how despite the huge advancements their technology brought, their biggest challenge wasn’t technical, it was overcoming how people have traditionally though about pinball.

Nothing about developing a pinball machine is technically difficult”, he told us.

Our biggest challenge by far has been introducing new ideas to an industry that's been relatively unchanged for decades. It takes a strong belief one's vision and a stubborn willingness to see it through, especially in the face of resistance to change.

Gerry Stellenberg
Gerry Stellenberg

Maybe, like they say about books, there’s one good idea for a pinball machine inside each of us.

Just remember though, it takes a lot more to actually build it than you might think.

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