Layoffs at Stern this week

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Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby jsharrard on Thu Oct 30, 2008 10:38 am

Bad news emerging about Stern.

Keith Johnson announced yesterday on Rec.Games.Pinball that he and many others had been laid off from Stern Pinball this week.

Keith was involved with the design of many of Sterns later era games (TSPP, Lord of the Rings, etc).

Design staff being laid off is a bad sign. Similar to what preceeded final closure at Williams, Gottlieb, etc

This could be the begiining of the end at Stern. :(

John
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby replay on Thu Oct 30, 2008 12:36 pm

fuck.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby autofire on Thu Oct 30, 2008 1:09 pm

Dangit! maybe the goverment will bail them out!
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby jsharrard on Fri Oct 31, 2008 9:57 am

More information about Stern layoffs as excerpted from RGP Posting
from John Wart Jr who exchanged emails with Dennis Nordman (WW,POTC,etc)


*********Begin excerpt *************

(From Dennis Nordman)


Thanks for the nice words. This is my 3rd layoff in the pinball business so
I think I've probably designed my last game. I am thankful that I had the
opportunity to design two more games with Stern. I'm proud of POTC with
over 6,000 games. I'm sad that I won't get to finish the game I was
currently working on. As usual, it was going to be my best. ;-) I also
had two new redemption games coming out that we expected to do very well. I
always get so involved with the design process that I never see layoffs
coming. This one, of course was a surprise to me.

I'd like to thank all the people on RGP, and at the expos, who commented on
how much they enjoyed my games. The comments made all the hard work and
hours worthwhile.

It's my understanding that ALL the designers were let go, including the ones
under contract. That's what I was told by management. It's just my
personal opinion, but the future of new pingames doesn't look bright to me.

I have two woodrails that I'd like to sell asap. A Continental Café and an
ESCO Contact. Both need some tlc. Playfields are nice on both and I have a
NOS playfield for the Continental Café. The CC glass is nice but cracked.
The Contact glass is nice with some very slight cracks in the art on the
upper left. They've been sitting in my office at Stern for a couple years,
and I don't have the time or the inclination to fix them now. $500 for both
and that's less than I paid. Pick 'em up at my house.


*************** END EXCERPT ***************************

Bummer, You gotta figure that there will be no new games coming from Stern.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby Dropshot on Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:30 am

what am i gonna do now? My mother was always afraid i would turn to drugs and violence
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby ROM on Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:46 am

Dang.

I wish they'd at least give the guys a chance to finish the games they were working on. Now there's going to be all these unreleased, unfinished mystery games that we'll hear all kinds of rumors about.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby bounceback on Fri Oct 31, 2008 2:25 pm

what the fuck. seriously?

so look-- now we have to get serious about repair skills, and sourcing parts. it would not be a bad idea at all to start to buy some shit up. it would be pretty fucking awesome if we could start to think about some games that we want to preserve, as a gang, and start to learn about what to do with them. i bet with enough dedication and fund-raising we could come up with a way to buy a few of our absolute favorite machines. we need to figure out what we'd need to keep them running for another hundred years.

meanwhile, with all our skills-- can we find out, in a realistic way, what it takes to build games? i mean, writing software and all that kind of stuff? i don't know anything about code for anything. i don't know what kind of computer or operating system pinball games run on-- but it seems like the ROMS must be things people could look at and get some ideas about. i would imagine that they're not as complex as software for even old nintendo games and things-- we know people who do woodworking, wiring, and painting. learning about shaping wireforms for ramps and vacuum molding plastic, even inserts for art and things like that, aren't as intimidating to me as learning how to run it all together off a motherboard. just thinking toward the future, if we really do want to preserve pinball culture, we might be able to figure out a way to at least keep some games alive.

fuck, for that matter-- dudes: look at the opportunity we have here in portland. even if no other city on earth continues to care about pinball enough to support it, the market for pins right now mostly consists of collectors, and portland as a city demands its games. if people are already willing to pay $7-10k for a MM, i would expect that there will continue to be people who would pay $10k for a new, handmade, custom game. these people from stern are going to be at least willing to talk about some of this, assuming that stern is going to shut down. if we could find a person that would be willing to share some of their knowledge about these things, maybe there's an opportunity here for us to do something big for ourselves and for pinball. i mean we already have a staff of 30 members that all have some kind of skills that they could use to promote things, are do some step in the process of making a game.

i mean, i know most people are going to think this isn't realistic; but if stern sells maybe 4000 games a year, currently, for about $4k each, don't you think there will continue to be a market of people, say 500 people that would buy a new game for $10k, as collectors? for a limited run like that? look how much cactus canyon and big bang bar are worth, since they're super rare. if we, as a group, could actually figure out how to design and build a run of 500 games, for even half of that, that's 2.5 million dollars. sure, pipe dream you say. and it can't be easy, or else many more people would've done it. i heard that the guy who released big bang bar took pre-orders from 100 people for those machines, at $4k each, and it took him four years to build them, and he ultimately lost almost $1000 per machine. mr. pinball in australia sure hasn't figured out how to get it done, with a redesign of the software from the ground up, and who knows if they'll ever release anything.

but if there's any place in the world that we might actually be able to get this done, it could just be portland. we have the advantage of not only having an excited base of players that would care, and a strong market for games, but both a world-class high-tech sector (intel, microsoft, tons of graphic designers and ex-dot com people,) and a sound small-business based industrial sector (many still functional machine shops, distributors, parts-manufacturers of all kinds.) assuming we could, seriously, figure out how to tie the pieces together, we could come up with an opportunity to keep pinball alive, in some way. if we could get a plan and proposal together, it might be possible to get some of what we need together from some bigger investors (such as the owners of the Pinburgh machines, and the Pinball museum in vegas, for example?)

this whole process could be easier if we don't start from scratch. ignoring, for a moment, the legal issues, we could probably give ourselves a huge jumpstart if we began by modifying software from an existing system, from games in the past. as i understand it, all the stern games, as did previous bally/williams games, and so on, run off a basic software platform. revisions to this platform seem to take a lot of time, and allow new leaps forward, usually in graphics and sound. but what if we sacrifice that stuff, and go back a few generations in display, in exchange for being able to get something working? say we start from williams system 11, start to understand it, and learn what it takes to engineer things from there?

please don't tell me this is impossible. i've been impressed over and over by the abilities, talents, and resources of CFF, to say nothing of our collective passion, which surpasses all else. can we, seriously, start to talk about this? who has friends that know about computer shit that we can start to ask about what's involved in pinball software?

please let's not lose hope just yet. (even as i say this i have this gut-wrenching feeling that the world is ending...)
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby bounceback on Mon Nov 03, 2008 12:40 pm

somebody please reply to this-- i'm giving it more and more thought, in seriousness. i mean, why not, really? i would guess, if stern shuts its doors, that at least some of those employees would be interested in continuing to work on pinball--

so what if it were possible to start a new company, without some changes to the whole company structure? namely, what if we started a new pinball company as a worker-owned collective, where profit is shared equally among the workers, and some outside investors? this could attract people with experience and give them incentive to help with whatever they can, to innovate and make it happen, rather than just collecting a paycheck and working on an assembly line.

does anyone with any business management experience have thoughts on how this could be implemented?
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby autofire on Mon Nov 03, 2008 7:56 pm

I could ask my brother he might know about something like this.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby jsharrard on Tue Nov 04, 2008 1:27 am

OK, I did not want to put a damper on the enthusiasm about this, But...

The proposition of opening a new pinball company has been discussed quite a few times in the rec.games.pinball newsgroup since Williams closed its doors in 1999. You can search the newsgroup archives through Google if you want all the details.
In general, the opinion over the last few years (with several industry folks participating in them) put forth is that the traditional coin-op business model that has supported pinball (and other arcade interests) has become broken. There is no longer a big enough market that can make enough money to support the industry. There is too much competition for the entertainment dollar and not enough locations to put arcade equipment on location (Note Portland is a real anomaly in this regard). Not sure about this premise?. Just look at how many arcade equipment manufacturers (CapCOM, Gottlieb, Williams,Game Plan, Midway,etc) have gone out of business in the last 15 years. The industry trade shows held in Las Vegas have shrunken by 80% just in the last 7 years and the vendors that do show are predominately redemption game vendors. The arcade industry as a whole is in the tank.

Pinball is actually a pretty complex financial picture though.
Historically, bad economic periods (The Depression, the 1970’s, etc) have actually been among the best growth times for pinball. The theory being that people are looking for cheap, escapist, entertainment. This was true under the traditional pinball business model where virtually all revenue generation for pinball occurred as coins dropped in the slot of each game. Pinballs now have a lot of disadvantages for generating coin-drop revenue for route operators. The cost to play a game of pinball as not kept pace with the cost of manufacturing or buying a game. A brand new game in 1976 cost $700-900 to purchase and cost $.25 to play with very little competition. Games in those days could often pay for themselves in 3-5 months in a decent location. In the 90’s a new Williams’s pinball was around $3000 to purchase and cost $.25-.50 to play and too often, never recouped the purchase price. A new Stern today cost $3700-4000 and they just recently upped the price to $.75 a play. They take a lot of physical space as compared to a typical video arcade machine. Many locations don’t want to give up physical space to a pinball when they could fit two video machines in the same space (Again Portland is an anomaly in this regard). The other BIG issue is that pinballs take A LOT of maintenance as compared to a video game (Talk to the Anthony at Ground Kontrol  )

But, nowadays pinball revenue includes two other important sources

#1 There is a considerable collector market for pinball machines (I have 37 pinballs myself) Resale values for pinball machines stays remarkable high and in some cases exceeds the original cost of the machine. This is particularly true of Williams 90’s era dot matrix games. Some sought after games (like Twilight Zone, Medieval Madness, Cactus Canyon,etc) can pull in 2-3 times what they originally cost. Even the bad games Williams produced in the 1990’s will pull in 80%-100% of the games original cost. That’s a remarkable rate of return for an operator of an arcade route and it’s the very reason why pinball has any life at all. A game operator will take on the relative low earning power of a pinball machine if they can have the promise that they’ll be able to sell a pinball machine for a substantial portion of the original cost. Video arcade pieces (except in a few rare cases) do not have anywhere near the resale value of a pinball. The bad news is that the number of route operators has dropped drastically in the last 10 years.

#2 The market for pinballs in the home environment has grown. This has been the one thing that has kept Stern afloat during the last few years. Steve Ritchie (Black Night, High Speed, Elvis, etc) confirmed that approximately 50% of Sterns production of games over the last few years goes straight into people’s homes.

Consider #1 and #2 in today’s economy, You can see now that significant portion of today’s pinball revenue comes from people purchasing either new or used machines at a cost of $1000-$8000 per machine. People (like me) are not spending much disposable income right now. Sure, I’ll drop a few bucks a week on a game on location, but I’m not dropping substantial $$ beyond that. It’s no wonder Stern is in a bit of a panic.

Designing a pinball machine was not cheap under Williams’s business model. Each new model cost 1-2 Million ($) in development cost before it even got to manufacturing (listen to designer interviews on Topcast http://marvin3m.com/topcast/past.php ). It’s quite clear that Stern had been getting by on less development cost per game, but it’s still a substantial cost

Consider that the recent effort by Gene Cunningham (IPB) to reproduce 100 of CapCom’s “Big Bang Bar” pinball machines cost him $750,000 out of his pocket. That was a game already completely designed and software completed. AND he had complete NOS circuit board sets in his parts inventory. That was also using a substantial portion of volunteer labor to assemble the games. Gene charged $4-5 thousand for the games he produced, so you can see he ate $250,000 out of his pocket (listen to Gene Cunningham interviews on Topcast). Gene is now trying to get interest and commitments to reproduce CapCom’s “KingPin”, but he needs 150 orders at $8000 each to get it underway.

Another wrinkle in the Pinball manufacturing business is the issue of patents. Many of the gadgets (like pop-bumpers) and rules on a software pinball machine have applicable patents that are a pain in the ass to get around. For instance, Williams owns the term “MultiBall”. For much of the 80’s and 90’s, DataEast, Sega, etc could not use the term in their pinball machines. Stern could only start using the term “MultiBall” when they sued Williams over a patent that Stern held on some other arcane feature. The agreed court settlement was that Williams could use Stern’s patent if Stern could use the term “Multiball”
Williams no longer makes pinball machines, but they still own the patents and either they or their designated licensees (IPB or the Australian company Mr. Pinball/Bally) have been enforcing them since the pinball division was closed at Williams. Understand that CapCom and Gottlieb still have active licensees that can enforce their particular patent as well.

So is all hope lost ?
I think the old business model is a dead duck (Portland excepted). I firmly believe that Gary Stern has run as “lean and mean” a manufacturing concern as possible today in the USA (I’ve been to his lectures and toured the plant). He really has trimmed the manufacturing process down and is legendary in his ability to keep the bill-of-materials cost down. The majority of the workers are temporary staff who only work when a game is being manufactured. He only builds machines that he has orders “in-hand” for (this was a big problem at Williams and contributed to their collapse) . You could likely get more affordable manufacturing in Asia, but that sucks on many levels.

I do think there is room for some sort of roll for a “boutique” pinball manufacturing concern. If you could get around the patent issues, you could get the basic components manufactured. You would have to design a new logic and power/driver board system or backward design a clone of an existing system (this has been done for 90's Williams’s games). The software systems generally use a proprietary development environment specific to each manufacturer, and to my knowledge have not been usefully decompiled to any degree yet (except in the case of the Williams Pinball 2000 platform). There are folks/ business that have successfully reproduced components for pinball machines. A good example to look at is (http://www.classicplayfields.com/ ) who have solved the very difficult task (think of the custom playfield inserts) of playfield reproductions that could contribute.

In any case, I’d love to see something get going on some level, but it could be a real uphill battle. You might have more fun/success if you kept the effort low-level and under the radar.

As I mentioned earlier, there has been several years of on-line discussion among collectors and industry folks about such an effort that you’re interested in. I’d be happy to point you in the right direction to find and review some of that stuff if you want more detail. Probably more than you wan tto know .

I can brain dump on this stuff to excess if you ply me with a beer. I’ve been a pinball player since the mid 70’s. I also was a pinball route operator in the mid-late 1980’s, and a collector since the mid 1980’s. I’ve been to quite a few industry trade shows and can connect you up with some further contacts if you want.

Regards
John Sharrard
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby revtest on Tue Nov 04, 2008 11:08 am

Wow, this is good information John, thank you for taking the time to share it with us. I think there is a group of us that may want to sit down and hear more from you about all this including myself. I'd also be interested in your know how of route operation and servicing and keeping the ones we DO have going for as long as possible. Maybe a more realistic place to start is gathering as many machines and parts as we can to keep the ones that already exist in playing condition and create more places like Ground Kontrol to keep the interested and motivated ballers happy.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby Kickback on Tue Nov 04, 2008 1:28 pm

I think that there is enough machines left without Stern making more to keep us occupied for a while. However, I talk a lot about wanting to make better machines. I think many of us agree that Stern was missing the boat on worthy machines anyhow. Too many whips and bangs to attract new players. My theory is totally different. Fuck those who don't get it. It's almost like a popularity contest where you are cool without having to say it or advertise it. Pinball is blowing up in PDX undoubtedly due to the cool kids leading the way and the sheep following. This trend could spread to other cities if the people are led in such a fashion. Collectors are always gonna be out there as well. Big Bang Bar is worth $20, 000 mostly because of the short production run. If games are put together by the players instead of the guy with his finger on the pulse of pop culture (Family Guy, POTC, Shrek, Wheel of Fortune, World Poker Tour, whatever) we would see pinball flourish again. Stern ran everyone else out of business out of greed and dominance, seems without competition, they had no innovation. I have a friend in NW Indiana with a shop big enough to build machines. They have all the fabrication and employees to build a machine. All they need is specs. oh, and it's not free. The Crazy Flipper Fingers have single handedly resurrected pinball in Portland, anyone with half a brain and an interest in seeing pinball made in the future, should probably employ us. We have obviously been doing it right, by example.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby Dropshot on Tue Nov 04, 2008 1:35 pm

its a start but i talked to a software programmer the other day and he was going to look into the language and everything needed to know,he may already know it or he could learn it pretty quickly, my guess its just in C:// and is a bunch of "if" statements. Last night I also talked to a/the guy who made the iphone, he seemed interested, he is always looking for ways to invest his $$$. He also mentioned that it takes a lot of equipment and money to right software for a motherboard. A few of us thought for a while and may have come up with a way around this though. A lot more work to be done!
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby bounceback on Tue Nov 04, 2008 1:57 pm

definitely, thanks for the info and perspective. this is the kind of stuff that we need to look at, without a doubt.

i agree that the business model for pins and their routes in most places that are not portland seems flawed if not done-busted. however, it seems like one major reason for this has been the assumption on the part of many that the model wouldn't need to adapt, and that there isn't a possibility of making a new version of things work. most of us are fully aware of the difficulty in terms of time and cost of maintaining a pin, and can understand the reason that a lot of operators have historically let them fall apart. i've spoken with several former operators who have argued for a long time that it's impossible to keep up with maintenance, pay anyone the labor to do so full-time, and make a profit. it seems like most try to do as little maintenance as possible to keep that cost down, which in most places results in broken pins, which results in less play, thus less profit. but more importantly for the long-term picture, i believe that poor maintenance has contributed a lot to the decline of players. when someone shows interest and a machine is broken, they leave discouraged don't bother again-- they can never get hooked. a dirty, broken game, isn't going to lure anyone with its fascinating art and mechanical beauty. obviously there is more to resurrecting pinball than keeping games well-maintained, but it's a very important step. rather than saying "we can't make a profit and maintain games," it seems operators need to say "we're having a problem making a profit-- what else can we do?"

any good business owner isn't lazy by any means, and i can't speak from the experience of having a coin-op machine route, so i would love to hear more from people who have run this type of business about the mindset, what's involved day to day, what the appeal of running that type of business is, and how they got into it. i can easily see why few coin-op routes are capable of providing a living-wage income from gameplay alone if pinball is the cornerstone of that route and maintenance is a major issue. but from my experiences all my life, it has seemed that operators are often almost totally anonymous. i've seen ads in the paper in the past about coin-op routes or vending machine routes for sale, advertising it as basically easy money-- go around, collect quarters for nothing, keep your machines stocked, and do a minimum of real labor on keeping machines up and running. while pins break their promise of generating good revenue for little effort, it seems that many operators have continued to treat them like a cigarette machine or video poker, let them break down, and then removed them when they don't earn. in many places i've travelled in the past two years, employees at places that DO have pins are totally unaware of who they're even supposed to talk to about game issues, there aren't operator stickers or cards on the games so users can notify operators about maintenance issues, and frequently games look like they haven't been so much as cleaned in years.

it seems that it's far too rare for operators to ask themselves what attracted them to pinball in the first place. it seems that one key for generating new players might lie in the re-telling of that story on a regular basis. i for one always found pins beautiful, mysterious, and so difficult when i would occasionally play them that i was somewhat awe-struck when i'd watch a good player or compare my scores to the massive high scores on the backglass. i knew from that alone that it was nearly impossible to get those kind of scores by chance, and the idea of pinball being a physical skill game is what got me hooked. modern games are so deep that they reward every effort, at whatever level, if they're working well. i went from working on basic reflexes and trying to keep the ball alive, putting some effort into using single flippers, to tentatively trying to learn to stall and being satisfied every time i got a multiball, to appreciating the humor and rewarding new sounds and lights as the game progressed, to being totally sucked into the story each particular game tells as you play-- even the same machine, with the same end goal, is a different journey each time, and they're difficult enough that milestone great games are rare accomplishments. everything changes, including your personal standards of what a good game is. i think this is what keeps people playing skill games like pool, darts, and bowling. pinball adds an element of controlled chaos that more pronounced than in those other games, making it the only real physical skill game i can think of that's as rewarding to play alone as head to head. i don't think enough operators or even manufacturers have worked to connect players to this basic idea.

i guess i'm talking about all of this because there are a lot of questions involved with the viability of a new pinball company-- i want to hear as much more as possible (even if it makes my head spin a bit,) about the actual details of designing and building a game. i was aware that the big bang bar production run was at a significant loss, but i don't fully understand why. i know that parts alone are a significant cost on new games, but have never priced a bill of materials for one game, top to bottom, assuming wholesale prices on components. the input on the legal difficulties and patent issues is useful-- i wasn't aware of those problems, and hadn't considered needing to get around them. that explains some things. i would love to have a better breakdown of the million+ dollar development cost on games. i know that figure involves a lot of people, but i'm not sure if that number can be brought down based on a different type of business model (i.e. profit sharing rather than an up-front fee for design services, etc.) it's frustrating to hear that in some regards pinball companies have shot themselves in the foot by bickering over minutiae of patents and so on that aren't being used by them anymore whatsoever, as though they'd rather see the entire existence of pins go extinct since they themselves have failed.

speaking hypothetically from the idea that maybe there's a way to make the cost of producing a game viable, through ingenuity, good luck, and the anomaly or perfect storm that is the conditions of portland oregon, it seems that there are a lot of other ideas that can be pursued to help promote pinball playership. but it takes a different mindset than has been shown by operators historically.

for one thing, a stronger interface should exist between players and operators. the relationship would benefit by being more personalized-- people associate with other people, and will happily become repeat customers of all kinds of bars, coffee shops, bakeries, stores, service centers and institutions, if they feel a connection with it. operators are often an anonymous boogeyman when a machine isn't working-- players might complain to the location that their machine is "broken," the staff says their pinball guy never does anything about the game, and the random player ends up with a bad taste in their mouth about the game and the negligent, invisible "pinball guy." with the internet now, operators could do a lot more to promote themselves-- having more visible cards or stickers with information about their company pointing players toward a website, where they could post a map of locations of their other games, offer more in-depth rules, suggestions, and tips for players of their games, run contests, provide a place for players and staff on location to give them feedback about game conditions, and generally cultivate the sense that they are a real and interesting, personal business that players can get to know and look out for. that goes a long way toward building community among players, reinforcing the idea that they're a part of something. it's obvious to anyone who spends time in bars that there is a certain pride and identity among community of game players-- those who play pool, darts, etc., on any level from totally casually to professionally begin to sense a kind of roadhouse camaraderie that's very attractive. i've rarely seen notes posted next to machines, but have always thought that would contribute to play as well-- something personalized from the operator with any number of pieces of information-- tips that aren't printed on the little rule cards on the games, some basic pinball pointers for newbies, information on how to report a problem, even some words of greeting and encouragement or a statement about "who we are" or some pinball history. if you create a narrative for people about their whole pinball "experience" they will treat it as less of a one time thing. someone who's uninclined to drop money in a pin might just give it a try. people casually playing with a friend might have their minds changed, or at least think of pinball more often, if they've read something more about what they're doing while waiting their turn.

i don't really agree that the footprint of a pin is as big an issue as a lot of people have made it out to be. pins are definitely smaller than pool tables, and you can fit 5 pins side by side in the space needed for players to get around a pool table and play. pinball games often go faster, and more people can play at once in the same space. plus pins draw attention to themselves and look dynamic and interesting even from a distance. there's a big attraction factor to a working game. in places that have chosen to highlight pinball, they create a cool atmosphere when you walk in, and even people who've never played become more aware of them. almost all businesses that have multiple machines have all those machines doing better than places that just have one machine tucked in a corner that no one ever sees. people are a lot more likely to drop a minimum of $1.50 on games, just to try all three, if there are three games and they have a poor game on one. the redemption games that are popular now are huge, often bigger than pins, and they're going to have no resale value when they're no longer novel. pins offer a long-term reward if they're just kept functional. big buck hunter is widely popular at the moment, along with golden tee and superstrike bowling and so on-- you see big buck and even huge racing games in arcades and truck stops all over the country, but when you add the player to the depth and width of those large machines, they're taking up as much room as a pin. because pins are fairly narrow they can actually be fit into spaces in a lot of locations that are kind of useless for most other things.

since redemption games ARE so popular, it makes sense to adapt pinball as a redemption game in some ways, at least as an option. that seems like it would be relatively simple to build in as an option. i can't understand at all why that hasn't already been implemented, and pins reintroduced to arcades doing a lot of redemption games. it seems like the tournament play options on the new stern games have potential merit, but i have RARELY seen clear explanation of the way the tournament modes work and i attribute that to the lack of play in tournament mode. the payout concept should be a big incentive for people, but there needs to be additional signage about how the tournament runs, and when specifically the next payout will be for winners. if the tournament modes were paid out on a weekly basis, and this was clearly posted, that could draw more regular players. if operators ran little mini-incentive games, that might also increase play-- i.e., operators could have agreements with bars that they would buy a player a beer if they can get a high score on the board. that's a simple and small investment, the bar doesn't lose anything, and since the scores are progressively harder to get, players will spend more time and money working to eclipse themselves, thus more money into the machine. a guy just sitting around at the bar doing nothing could be told that they could win a beer with a good game on the pin, and surely some players would be inclined to play who otherwise don't give it a second thought.

sure all these things are a lot of work, but that's one of the things that need to change. operators need to take a more active role in the success of their business if they want it to be profitable. and even if coin-op entertainment is in trouble across the board, operators should be doing these things now-- if pinball becomes extinct, those who ARE making an ok profit some way or another are going to lose that business. i've spoken to a lot of operators that point fingers in many directions as to why it's not worth their while to work creatively to grow their own businesses. no wonder it continues to go down the tubes. if routes are too big and spread out for games to be maintained, it makes sense that operators should have less games, and focus on only servicing what they can handle and keep running with a moderate investment of regular maintenance. this means more operators should be involved, and for more of them it should be a supplemental rather than a primary income. there are of course ways to make it work on a more full-time basis, but people shouldn't expect it to be handed to them. if more operators existed, and they had only 20 games, that would leave them with a lot more freedom to keep those machines in top shape and do other things to grow that business slowly, and promote the community in general.

other ideas that i've tossed out before in other places, but which i haven't heard taken up: it seems to me that there could be a great possibility for promoting a new generation of pinball players by partnering with schools for a very educational pinball in the schools program. many schools are hurting for extra-curricular activities and clubs, funds in general, and options that kids can tap into for better science and art options and so on. i've discussed with several people the idea of negotiating a profit sharing arrangement with schools for a pinball machine that could create a term or year-long educational experience, by allowing them to pay for their machine progressively through game-play revenue. say a number of high schools in a town are given a machine, for perhaps a small initial fee with profits eventually paying for the rest. students use the game as a focus for a business club, wherein they discuss in groups how to place and market the machine-- they collectively decide on a location for the game, a way to promote it, and create flyers and so forth to direct people's attention to their machine. they learn to do routine maintenance and repairs themselves, giving them technical and analytical skills and independence. they could organize a tournament for the end of the year, create a name for their operating business, study the physics and math involved in both the mechanics of the game and the game accounting. the greatest benefit is that this gives a lot of kids a personal connection to and investment in pinball, which could make them lifelong players, all while giving them real-world skills that are entertaining and not cheesy. eventually schools could have a decent route of their own going in their community, and the community would be very likely to get behind and commonly play games that were operated by their kids and treated on some level as a fundraiser. in a lot of communities across the country where pinball has died out, this combination of factors could revive interest and positive feelings and nostalgia about pinball that has dwindled.

on that same note, there should be incentive for individual collectors and game owners to put their machines on location. pinball can't be enjoyed and a new player base created if the games aren't even out there. buyers should be able to offset the cost of purchasing a game by a profit sharing arrangement. there are plenty of dangers to this, of course, but if the right protections were in place to make sure that the games were paid off through play, that would make a big difference in getting machines on-site. a new pinball company should be directly involved in training owners on game maintenance and repair, and should also make it a great priority to work with operators and even individual owners to negotiate with sites to place games.

there is SO much that the industry could learn from the ways that the rest of the national culture has changed around it. while stern's been cranking out titles like roller coaster tycoon, nascar, WPT, and wheel of fortune, and people consider portland an anomaly in many ways, it seems that few people have been asking themselves how to recreate the portland anomaly and make it work elsewhere! pinball is so successful here for a lot of reasons having to do with the overall culture of portland. and savvy operators should take note of those cultural conditions and tap into the things about portland that have national appeal, especially with a younger generation of players. many games in the last 10 years have been directed at a target audience that young people with disposable income who tend to hang out in bars and traditional pinball locations have little interest in. meanwhile that youth culture has trumpeted and elevated all things vintage, retro, and independent to new heights, making the companies that have responded to this very profitable. look at shoes, just as one example-- every major shoe company has released more and more retro models and vintage reissues in recent years, and the overlap between formerly fragmented youth cultures is creating a really unique climate in which just the right blend of the old and new can get a lot of people behind it. classic bands are hugely popular, re-issued, distressed t-shirts are everywhere and new designs emulate them, neon is back and hand-in-hand with dirty jeans, dead brands from the 80s such as transformers, GI Joe, and all sorts of others have been revived, remade, and re-introduced. simultaneously, "rocker" and "biker" "skater" and "tattoo" culture are bigger than i can remember them ever being as well. look at the tony hawk franchise, and the recent highly successful marketing of everything from shopping mall harley davidson gear to ed hardy to west coast choppers. christian teen suburbanites sport AC/DC shirts, and kids walking the mall with their moms are wearing spandex fake tattoo sleeves as fashion accessories. with the right approach, pinball definitely fits right in with the level of appreciation this generation has for the enduring and non-modern. speaking as a member of this younger generation, a generation that includes a lot of people that really can't afford to buy a pinball machine, or a house to keep one in, there are many, many people our age out there that have been through the video game boom and still treat pinball as an altogether different and appealing beast. the longevity and hands-on nature of pinball, its classic cool, would draw players if it were promoted properly, and available to people. the very problem is that it has been moved indoors. where pinball has always been a roadhouse game with a certain seediness associated with it, it's now primarily a collectors' accessory. the cultural factors involved in the changing gaming industry have to be accounted for, but it seems like the old guard, from collectors and operators through designers and manufacturers, have failed to show an interest in adapting to these changes.

a new pinball company that was actively in-touch with better ways to present and promote pinball could find a lot of success-- we should've learned by now from independent bands' use of street teams to promote new releases in exchange for concert tickets or free merch. it's simple and effective. quite frankly there should be clubs and groups like CFF in practically every city in the country, and stern should've done a lot to support and develop that. instead what we have are a handful of local "leagues" with arcane D&D-style point and ranking systems, all operating behind closed-doors in private homes. many require that new members own at least one home machine to join. the VRPA, for example, has those kinds of rules, and an active website and message board that's only open to members of their club. in the face of the decline of machines, operators, techs, and manufacturers, we are STILL seeing an increase in competitive pinball participation, the creation of more and more pinball websites and fansites, and the inauguration of more and more pinball clubs who are LOOKING for help from folks like stern and the IFPA on how to expand their interest. true pinball fans/fanatics are going to spread the word, the love, generate interest, and ultimately the profitability of pinball, and the continued success of those efforts is completely dependent on the responsiveness of operators and pin companies.

i know this all glosses over the actual business model discussion for a new pinball business. but this is the stuff that really seems important to me right now-- at least for starters. it's always been true that where there's a will there's a way; in most of my conversations with current/former pinball operators and workers, i've largely met cynicism and pessimism about the direction of pinball since its heyday, which many would argue occurred within the past 10 years! yes a lot has changed very quickly, but for pinball to survive we need enthusiasm, dreams, and some radical new ideas about how to go about things. pinball can't continue to be a clandestine hobby for nerds-- in all seriousness. the very first thing that pinball, on the whole, needs, is visibility. there is a desire for it, a market for it, and a readiness for pinball to be reintroduced as a lasting thing. but it is SERIOUSLY in danger, and it needs an injection of effort from everyone that's still passionately involved in it right now. when it comes to the business side of things, there are lots of ways for creative people to come up with new solutions for how to approach a pin company successfully. but it's going to have to go far beyond volunteer assembly labor. a worker-owned co-op is one starting place that seems like it would be a necessary foundation to get things off the ground. there are ways to make this happen without following the traditional notions that the business needs to collect a lot of investors beforehand and so on, but we also have to pave the way, and take action in that regard NOW--

i hope that this discussion continues, i am really seriously interested in having this conversation, and i'm also fully willing to be awakened to the realities of the costs and obstacles that we're going to have to face. i welcome all rebuttals, advice, and ideas. also, if any of you are active on r.g.p or other pinball community sites, please feel free to post this there, direct people here, or create other crossover discussion. we could use it.

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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby ROM on Tue Nov 04, 2008 2:53 pm

John, Thanks for a lot for the big reply. I was going to leave a "check RGP because I bet this has been discussed a whole lot" reply, but yours is a definitely more constructive. RGP is the largest and longest pinball community on the web, and I'm surprised that more of us aren't reading it regularly.

bounceback, I'd say check those radio shows that John links to - put them on your ipod and play them at work!

And john has all kinds of trade magazines, videos, and whatnot, and I'm sure he'd lend 'em if you really wanted (John is the man/hero who spent six months with me working on my Paragon machine).
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby jsharrard on Tue Nov 04, 2008 4:14 pm

Lot’s of excellent ideas in the discussion here. I’ll throw out a few more opinions and things to consider.

Opinions:
For a new pinball company to prosper, I think it would really need a more modern business model than the current one that has been in place since the late 1920’s. Clearly many of the comments made in this discussion are headed that way. New thinking is needed desperately.
The current design of pinball machines has not changed much from when they first went digital in the 1970’s. Something has to be done to make maintenance easier. As a former operator (part time) it was really hard to do a proper job maintaining a machine while on site. Common tasks (changing rubber, rebuilding flippers, etc took entirely too much time on-site to do because of poor design. Example: Complete flipper assemblies should be in some sort of cartridge form factor that would allow an operator to merely unplug the flipper bat above the playfield, unplug the flipper wiring from a connector (rather than de-solder), disconnect the solenoid “cartridge” assembly from the underside of the playfield and throw it in your toolbox to be rebuilt back in your shop when you have time. Grab a new new/rebuilt flipper “cartridge” from your portable maintenance supply and insert it back into the playfield receiver, replug in the wiring harness and insert a new flipper bat. Good to go in 2 minutes or less. Another example: Design all rubber rings to be replaced without having to do any significant disassembly of playfield parts. Same rule applies to lights (switch to LED’s also). One more: Seal all switches and features that generate carbon dust (that’s what makes pinball machines get dirty) so that it can’t leak out into the playfield area. OK my last thought: Get rid of as much electronic heat as you can out of the system (LED’s would really help here). Use external heat sinks to dissapate the powersupply heat (Note to Stern: ever heard of a “fan”). All right, just one more: An effective, detailed diagnostic system that remotely (via telephone, wireless network, etc) notifies an operator that something is wrong with a machine on location.
Don’t forget that your new pinball company will need a good customer support department and a good way to supply parts to your customers.

Things to investigate and consider:

Tim Arnold is the proprietor /curator of the Pinball “Hall of Fame” in Las Vegas. Tim has incredible past experience as an operator (He basically is retired off the money he made from pinball and Pac Man back in the 1980’s). Tim knows a tremendous amount about the history of pinball. He knows why the pinball companies have been in and out of trouble during the last 60-70 years. He’s also quite a financial whiz and an interesting character to boot. Check out his two lengthy interviews on Topcast and then get yourselves to Las Vegas to talk with him. At the very least you would have fun playing the 200 machines set up in the museum.

Several years ago, I considered developing a pinball education “kit” that could be used by passionate people in a variety of education forums to promote and educate people about pinball. The idea came to me when I saw that the Portland Parks and Recreation department community education catalog was offering a once a week class on “Backpacking with Llamas and Alpaca’s” that was being offered for an 8 week session at a local community center. I figured that if you could get enough people to fill a class about “Backpacking with Llamas and Alpacas” You should be able to get enough people interested in a weekly class about pinball. As ROM alluded to, I’ve got quite a collection of pinball related books,video’s, etc that could be used to build course material. I was thinking that such a class would mix classroom instruction along with meeting at various pinball spots around town. Maybe a “fieldtrip” to Shorty’s or out to Dodge City in Longbeach .The idea never went any further, my life is plenty busy as it is. I do have a very rough draft outline (in Powerpoint format) that I put together to show some pinball friends if anyones interested.

And lastly, If people are interested in learning basic pinball troubleshooting and repair, I’d be happy to host a session out at the “farm” near Canby. I’m in the middle of a new construction project in the shop building right now, so all my pinballs are under tarps so it would have to wait until after February before I can set the games back up (I should have FishTales and Black Rose back from loan by then too). ROM’s Paragon was a particularly tough rapair in that he had several major issues that were tough to track down, but we found them and ROM did the fixes.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby revtest on Tue Nov 04, 2008 6:53 pm

all very cool stuff fellas, I dig the passion I am hearing in all of this. A service seminar sounds awsome, and did you say BLACK ROSE! A trip to the farm sounds great can't wait. good luck with the building project. look forword to more on this!
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby sauce on Wed Nov 05, 2008 2:17 am

Howdy, Ben Sauce here I met some of you guys at the Alleyway tournament and have the initials BJA. I would love to see some machines get produced in Portland. I recently have been getting into embedded electronics and micro-controllers. I have been playing with the Arduino platform which is very cheap and powerful, and have been toying with the idea of controlling a pinball machine with it.

I also am a co-owner in collectively operated business and could have some insight on that as well. I just wanted to say that I think all of this talk is very interesting. I am gonna try to make it to some more meetings on sundays.

check out http://www.arduino.cc
and http://www.freeduino.org for a list of projects people are making with the arduino. With the right parts I dont think it would be difficult to make a pinball machine. However, making a good pinball machine will probably take some creativity.
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Re: Layoffs at Stern this week

Postby bounceback on Thu Nov 06, 2008 1:33 pm

thanks to everyone for the continued input and discussion on this. i'm going to start checking out those resources. this kind of sharing of information and skills is exactly what we need to be able to put something together, in reality. i'm very interested in everything from a maintenance clinic, to software ideas, to others' experience with co-op/collective business structures.

i whole-heartedly agree that ease of maintenance should be a top priority on new games. i wasn't aware that the new stern stuff has been overlooking heat-sinks and fans. especially for games that sit there, turned on all day, it seems mandatory. a "plug & play" coil assembly would be a huge improvement and i'm surprised they haven't done it, given the number of connectors used everywhere else.i've actually wondered about all the molex connectors used in modern games-- it seems they could be improved to something better quality, since, at least in guitar amps (which is where i have more familiarity,) the connectors themselves can often have shorts that are hard to track down, and although they're on the surface easy to assemble and plug together, the vibration that's inherent to the game (and to an amp on top of a vibrating cabinet,) can easily cause small shorts that aren't easy to detect by eye. with all those tiny wires running in bundles inside pins, finding problems seems it can be a huge pain. a few extra cents spent on really top quality connectors might help this, but better still would be a careful rethinking of what should use connectors for ease of replacement, and what should be hard-soldered, even point to point, for reliability and straight-forwardness of maintenance.

the idea of an automatic diagnostic that notifies operators of burned out lamps, coil misfires, and so on, would be really awesome. that's the kind of thinking only an operator with some experience can suggest, it's really useful. i've appreciated the pinballnews.com reviews' efforts to point out potential maintenance issues with new stern games, like where it's hard to take an assembly apart just to replace a light, and so on. another benefit of something like this would be that automatic daily audits could be sent to operators-- they could know, remotely how they were doing, what days and times brought the most play, and could build some of their strategy around that. also, with automatic remote audits, there could be more trust given to bar staff-- a key could be kept on site without as much fear that some employee was going to rob the machine. that way the bar owner could free stuck balls and such without the operator trekking all the way down just to do something simple, and you could always have proof of the game earnings, so if there were discrepancies when you counted out, there would be no question about who was right.

what are your thoughts on how switches could be sealed against carbon dust emissions and still function normally? is there an example in a modern game of such devices that aren't being used throughout? i'm having a hard time thinking of how to seal a lot of switches that rely on metal-metal contact to fire (i.e. slingshots) that would still let them work easily.

here's one quick thought, and i don't know much about this at all, so i guess it's more of a question: what if a lot of the sensors in a pin were changed from mechanical switches that tend to get bent, broken, and emit all this dust, to optos? that is, what if more parts of a game could be read and registered by the software and some basic sensors that didn't have as much chance of mechanical breakdown? this would cause designers to think carefully about what they would be losing that people love about pinball (it would probably mean using less drop-targets and standups, for one thing,) but if they could be electronically simulated and the game still had plenty of fun shots (ramps, loops, some fun bumpers, and select, key targets,) we might gain more than we lose. for example, what if that one whole wall of BATMAN standups was just a long decal strip, with a series of opto sensors in line above and below where each letter would be? that's six switches emitting dust that could be eliminated, plus six sensors that are less likely to break-- that's if i'm understanding it correctly. the potential to cut down on maintenance issues from broken and bent sensors would be pretty big over an entire game, while it would mean that proper cleaning was an even more important part of routine maintenance.

a couple of perhaps more radical ideas: using different type of balls, like the powerball in TZ-- if the weight of the ball was less necessary to trip mechanical switches and things, but you could adjust the strength of the flippers so that the *feel* was similar to normal pins, while using a ball that weighed even 1/3 less, and looked cool, you could cut down on wear-and-tear quite a bit. it's no wonder pins are so easily damaged when you actually feel how heavy the balls are and how much force is generated flipping it around and smashing it into everything.

also, a change that addresses both cost and space concerns: smaller tables. now could be a decent time to revisit concepts like the sit-down cocktail-style machines from the 70s/80s (like kickback's Roy Clark, and Eros,) and also something like a 3/4 size standup machine. i'm not talking necessarily like stewie-pinball only (though that might be a cool idea that could sit even at one end of a bar, take up little space, and be pretty fun if it were somewhat more complex,) but a somewhat simplified game that just reduces the proportions while keeping most of the major features we enjoy. basically like the equivalent in playfield change smaller, that a widebody machine is bigger. it would be a small sacrifice to make if the features were there, production costs came down, and more locations felt they could fit something like that.

other modifications might include using carbon fiber as a sub-base under a plastic playfield rather than plywood, even for the box as a whole-- this would bring the weight of machines down immensely, while reducing their potential to warp, potentially make them cheaper to build, and offer the added plus of making recycled materials an option for more components. lighter tables might be bad for players used to a particular weight, but it would be nice to try it-- it would be a lot easier to convince a lot of bar owners to consider a pinball machine if they didn't see it as a hulking mass that was difficult to move when they wanted to rearrange things.

i don't know where to start with reverse-engineering a platform, but if anyone knows where we might be able to start with that, it would be really awesome and save a lot of work on designing something from scratch, which obviously the new games from mr. pinball are being held up by.

let me know what you think of these ideas, and let's all keep talking!

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