A Stern Conversation: The State Of Modern Pinball

by Ben Reeves on Feb 13, 2014 at 05:00 AM

Pinball isn’t as popular as it was during its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but digital tables from companies like Zen Studios have helped keep the spirit of the sport alive. Not many companies still makes physical pinball machines, but Stern Pinball is currently the largest manufacturer of real pinball tables in the U.S.. The company puts together its machines by hand in a factory in Chicago’s suburbs. We sat down to chat with director of marketing Jody Dankberg about Stern’s production line and the state of modern pinball.

Can you start with the history of Stern Pinball?
The company traces its lineage back to the 1930s in Philadelphia when Sam Stern entered the business of operating pinball games. Sam subsequently became part owner and president of Williams Manufacturing, a pioneer in the pinball industry, and passed his lifelong enthusiasm for the game and the business of pinball on to his son, Gary, who founded Stern Pinball.

It seems like the pinball market was much more popular a few decades ago. Why do you think enthusiasm for pinball diminished?
Entertainment changed. Video game consoles got better. The Internet was born. The coin-op business in general has seen a sharp decline. Smart phone and tablets provide a great deal of entertainment. It became harder to find pinball on location, which lead to the growing collector community in the early 2000s.

Do you think we’re having a Pinball resurgence?
Yes, the resurgence is very strong. Stern has quadrupled sales from 2009 to 2013. 2014 looks to have another 20-percent increase. Pinball is now back on location. Tournament play is huge, with over 20,000 ranked players all over the world. The high-end collector market is rapidly growing as well.

How many people are actually making pinball tables these days? And do you know how that compares to previous years? When was pinball at the height of its popularity?
Stern is the only company making pinball tables for a living. We employ over 250 people and build our machines in Chicago. Our resurgence has sparked start-ups to get involved in making pinball machines, but Stern is the only true manufacturer left with a full line of products and four design teams.

How do you begin designing a table? What do you start with and what limits you?
We start with a theme and a basic layout. Working with the licensors and our design team, we create a world under glass that best represents the license. The sky is the limit when coming up with ideas. Timeframes and bill of materials determine what can or can't be done. Stern releases two to three titles a year. A pinball machine takes 9-12 months to design and engineer and will cost over a million dollars to get into production.

How many people does it take to make a Pinball machine?
Stern has over 250 workers. A design team will consist of a lead designer, mechanical and electrical engineers, a software programming team and a whole lot of people seeing the project through the system. Once games are complete the game is rigorously tested multiple times before it ships.

Who makes up the pinball market these days? Is it mostly individuals who want one at home? How many systems do businesses buy?
We have three customer bases. The commercial side of the business is, and has always been, the biggest. These games are sold to operators who place machines on location. The collector community is rapidly rising and we make specific models geared for this market, including our premium and limited edition machines. The other customer base is the general rec-room buyer who probably has a pool table and other game room-type items. These customers tend to become collectors.

What do you think of the digital pinball scene and what developers like Zen Studios are doing?
Digital pinball is fantastic for pinball awareness. You will soon see current models featured in digital forms for game consoles and smartphones.

For more one digital pinball, check out our review of Zen Studios' Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force.