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What happened to pinball?

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Pinball machine "game over" sign

It's not quite this bad for pinball fans, but it's pretty close. (© iStockphoto.com/steinphoto)

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I spent a lot of time in arcades and skating rinks. And I love pinball. Unfortunately, virtually all of the giant game manufacturers — at least, the ones still in operation — have discontinued the game. As far as I know, Stern Pinball is the only company in the United States still making machines.

Anyhow, last night I was listening to Marketplace on American Public Radio and I heard an interview with Jeff Ely, an economics professor at Northwestern University, who wrote about the economics of pinball for his blog Cheap Talk.

This isn’t an economics blog, so I’ll spare you the grisly details, but I had wondered what happened to all the pinball machines. After all, it’s fun. There are tons of computer pinball games. I still see them every once in a while in a hotel amusement room or at mall arcades (tucked way, way in the back, though). So someone must be playing them. Are people so thrilled with electronic graphics that they’ve become bored with mechanical games?

Ely actually met a pinball designer by chance at a party. In fact, the designer had created some of Ely’s favorite games, notably Black Knight and High Speed. So he figured he’d ask some questions. And as it turned out, both of those machines had a part to play in the near-demise of pinball as an arcade staple.

Black Knight, released in 1980, was among the first machines that incorporated digital displays, ramps and multi-ball play, according to Ely. And then came High Speed. Before this machine was produced, factory settings determined how a player could earn a free game. It was set, and that was that. But High Speed, Ely said, was the first to use a computer algorithm to adjust the free-game reward on a sliding scale based on the scores of those playing. Apparently, Ely said, the idea was to make sure that a certain subgroup of people, say the top 5 percent of all scorers, automatically got a free game. In time, the algorithms were adjusted for scenarios in which pinball masters couldn’t take advantage of free games from machines played primarily by inexperienced players, who, naturally, would get lower scores.

Here’s a video of a High Speed machine on YouTube, if you’d like to see what it looks like when it’s on:

And then there’s the match draw. If you’ve played newer pinball machines, this is where, after your game is finished, you see a two-digit number (a multiple of 10) pop up. The machine then randomly generates a second. If the two match, woohoo! Free game! If not, you’re gonna have to pay for another game. But the computer algorithm can also be adjusted here, too. Ely said if the machine sits unplayed for a few minutes, you’re more likely to get a match. If you keep pumping quarters (or tokens) in, it assumes you’re going to be playing anyway, and if you’re willing to pay to play…

Ely said that pinball players’ skills transfer well from machine to machine. This is a problem for designers — they had to keep throwing more bells and whistles into the machines to keep the fanatics pumping money into the machines. By the time High Speed came out, pinball games were competing squarely with video games, which could get progressively harder. Pinball, physical medium that it is, can’t.

So designers made the machines harder to keep wizards from scoring free game after free game. And new players couldn’t get into the games because they were so difficult. That cut down on the numbers of people playing pinball. Which brought in less money. And there you have it.

Are you a pinball fan? Do you miss the games?

If you’re interested in more about games, take a look at these related articles on HowStuffWorks.com:

How Pinball Machines Work
How to Build Your Own Arcade Machine from an Old Computer
Video — How It’s Made: Pinball Machines

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