2000 - 2020 : 20 years of pinball
2020 is the year that I'm 20 years in the hobby of pinball machines. A lot has changed over this period of time.
Here's my look back. It's not an overview or list of all changes in the whole period of time,
just what is different between now and then.
As always, these are my own experiences, and may be different from someone elses. Reality is more grey than the black/white comparision I make here..
2000: The biggest change probably is the number of manufacturers. Back in 2000, Williams had just closed the doors of its pinball division.
People were still shocked and didn't know what the future would bring.
Stern was the only company left that produced pinballs. And lets not lie about it, they were not so good pinball machines.. Striker Xtreme, Sharkeys Shootout ? That was the future of pinball ?? A lot of people thought pinball had just died.. forever.
2020: Wow, pinball survived ? And not only barely survived, but 20 years later it made a rather strong comeback. There's more than one company that makes pinball machines. Stern became the biggest company and produces more games than ever before, and there are smaller companies, boutique manufacturers, and even home-brew games for sale. So much choice for someone who wants to buy a new pinball machine.
2000: There was always one run of one specific model at the time. That was for sale. Nothing else. Some distributors had a small stock left (usually of less popular games) but that was it. Re-runs didn't exist, that wasn't the business model of the factory. When demand for the model stopped, it was taken out of production (never to return anymore) and a new model was introduced. If you wanted a specific model that wasn't in production now, too bad, you didn't have another chance. You bought what was available at that time.
2020: Not only can you now choose between manufacturers, most companies even offer different models for sale at the same time. Companies have multiple production lines or can quickly convert them and have a run of a specific model for a few weeks. There are also reruns, vault editions, .. when demand for an out of production model is high enough, it may get a new production run as long as the license permits. As a pinball machine buyer you can chose between a dozen of titles that you can buy brand new. This choice is amazing !
2000: Not only was there only one theme in production at a time, there was also only one version of it, with all features included. You wanted a Striker Xtreme ? You could buy 'a' Striker Xtreme.
2020: Nowadays companies make several versions. They have a tiered model (Pro / Premium / Limited Edition - or Standard / Limited Edition / Collectors Edition) : some versions have more options than the other. Not only are there options (color trim, decals, ..) that are different but the playfield features and game rules are different too. For operators there's the base (cheapest) version, but if you want the full version with all playfield options then you need to spend more. And for the collectors there's a limited, numbered edition.. This is done to create more hype, introduce FOMO, charge more money.
Original or customised
2000: Most collectors kept their game original. Machines in players condition (they played well but had cosmetic flaws or wear), were for playing pinball.. you wouldn't spend money upgrading machines in that condition. People who had machines in mint collectors condition, realised the rarity and preferred to keep then original. Only a few people added some mods to their games, there also weren't many mods available.
2020: A mint game in home use only condition isn't rare anymore. It's what everyone else has. People are now into customising their machines.
Once it's taken out of the box, the additions start. Toppers, additional toys, powdercoated metal in all colors of the rainbow, speaker kits, led kits, ..
It looks like it became a must to change your brand new machine as much as you can..
A whole new industry has appeared. You don't have to invent mods, search toy stores for things that are suitable. Others do that for you: for every game dozens of additions are created and can easily be bought and are almost expected to have on every game.
2000: With Williams getting out of the pinball business, the Pinball2000 concept had died. That was a major change in how the pinball cabinet looked physically, it used video assets to make it look more like a video game. What was announced as a revolution had ended with only 2 titles produced. Stern kept on making pinball machines that looked traditional - same type of cabinet, and an orange dmd screen to display information.
2020: It took another 15 years and new manufacturers were first, but the dmd is replaced with an lcd screen. That's probably the biggest difference someone who's not into pinball will notice when you put a 2000 next to a 2020 pinball machine.
2000: Pinball was a niche hobby. The number of people in the hobby was much smaller.
2020: The number of people who are really in the hobby, own multiple machines, are interested in the industry, new games, parts, .. has grown a lot. Where there were 10 people with a dozen of pinball machines, there are maybe now 100 collectors with a dozen machines. This growth has a lot of impact. There's more demand for parts and machines, websites, podcasts, .. all reach more people. From being a dying, almost obsolete business, pinball has grown into a multimillion dollar business.
Pinball on location
2000: Back in 2000, location pinball was as good as dead. There were still some pubs with a pinball machine but you had to search for them. Demand for pinball was low and pinball became even less popular in the years right after 2000.
2020: Pinball is back ! OK it's not like in the 1980ies or early 1990 where almost every pub had at least one machine, but in absolute numbers there are much more pins on location. The locations are different - in the USA there are barcades that have a lot of machines. In Europe this concept doesn't really exist. There are again more pubs that have one pinball machine.. A lot of countries have at least one pinball museum where there are dozens of pinball machines together available to play.
2000: There were competitions, but it was on a smaller scale. There were only a few international competitions. Some countries had a yearly national competition, most of these also attracted a few good players from neighbouring countries. Regional competitions were usually not formally organised, but more a get together by a couple of friends.
2020: Competitive pinball became much more popular and global. If you are a serious competitions player, you can probably go play somewhere every weekend. There are tournaments in cities, regions, countries, .. National events attract hundreds of people, dozens of people fly international just to go play in a pinball competition. It's all formalised, ther are international rankings, rules,..
New versus used machines
2000: Almost every collector bought used games. A lot of operators still had Bally / Williams machines for sale.
These were also the games to 'have'. Prices for used pinball machines were still reasonable.
Most older games were in the $500 - $1000 range. A new pinball machine cost around $3500. The newer machine wasn't more fun.
So why spend so much to receive less ?
If you wanted to play the latest games, you went out and played it on location. Buying a brand new pinball machine was something that was an exception for a private person. It was almost unheard of, only something that a few eccentric rich people or real die-hard pinball collectors could afford.
This started to change with Lord of the Rings. Finally a great Stern machine. By then collectors grew tired of the WPC games and wanted something new.. While TSPP was a large improvement in gameplay, from what I remember LOTR was the first Stern in which many home owners became interested in buying new.
2020: Nowadays there's a large group of collectors that buy brand new machines. Buying a new machine has become the new normal. The old 90ies machines are more difficult to find or in lesser condition. Buying a new machine is easier. Every few months there's a new model available, something new to look for and learn.
2000: While the supply of used machines started to slow down (you didn't easily find operators with full warehouses anymore), there were
enough used machines for sale from collectors.
A lot of used games were in the $500 - $1000 range. A new game cost $3500. Prices were also stable.
You could buy a used game, play it for a while, clean it, and sell it for what you had in it. If you didn't overpay when buying and didn't require expensive repairs, pinball was a rather inexpensive hobby, apart from the initial investment. If you could fix games yourself, you could start with a cheap game, fix it, sell it for a profit, and work your way up towards owning the more expensive models.
2020: Prices have increased a lot, both for used and new machines. New machines have on average doubled in price.
Most are now between $6000 and $9000, depending on the brand and type.
Used machines have increased even more, the $500-$1000 WPC games now are between $3000 and $5000 ?
Even machines that are broken or have missing parts, that you could buy for $50 or $100 each in the past,
sometimes go for almost crazy prices.
The price for entering this hobby has become much higher. You can still enjoy owning used games. But when you want a more recent or popular machine, it becomes more expensive. It's not a difference of $200 - $500 between the titles, but $500 - $2000. And when you see everyone buying brand new machines, you may also get the urge to buy one.. suddenly spending many thousands on one machine feels normaling, whilst 20 years ago you could buy a whole collection for that amount of money.
So, what happened over the years ? Several things. In my opinion most important is that prices of new machines increases. Prices of new machines were stable for a long time, but the last decennium they kept on increasing, model after model, year after year. This had influence on the price of new and used machines. The reference price is raised.
I'm sure that many people entered the hobby recently think you can't lose any money when buying a pinball machine, even when buying new. In the past you (or an operator) would buy a new machine for $3500 and sell it for say $2000 - $2500. Then he'd buy a new machine again for around $3500. This expectation of losing money isn't valid anymore. By the time you want to sell a machine, prices of new games have increased so much that your used machine went up in price.
Say you bought a game new for $4000. By the time you want to sell it, the price for new games has increased to $5000. Maybe that specific model is still in production for that price. People don't compare anymore with your old price, but with the current price. So you can sell your used machine for $4000. For the buyer it looks like a good deal ($1000 off current price) but as a seller it's an even better deal as you gets your initial money back.
Some limited edition games even increased a lot in price and are still in demand. Sell it today, and people don't compare its price with its original price (say $6500) but compare against the price of current LE games ($9500). What you originally pays matters less, the price of alternatives (current new machines) matters more in setting the price.
There are always exceptions, some models just aren't popular, their price did drop.
The price increase of new games made used games also increase in price. When demand for pinball increases so much that people want to spend $5000 on an 'average' playing new game, the A-list WPC games suddenly seem too cheap at half the price.. so these increased also quickly, and the rest of pinball machines followed.
Of course it's not just the manufacturers fault that prices increase - it's also because demand for pinball machines has grown so much. Used machines also increased in price because new people entered the hobby and had money to spend. A $600 title would sometimes sell for $1200 because someone wanted a game now and didn't mind overpaying. And after a few of these exceptions, the new price for older games suddenly had doubled. Collectors who were used on old pricing found it unbelieve that these prices were being paid - but new collectors weren't used to the 'old' pricing and had their own value of what a pinball machine was worth for them.
The market of restorated machines also increased the price. When there were enough used games in average condition for sale, prices were stable. Machines that needed a lot of new parts weren't restored, because you couldn't sell them and recuperate your investment. With a smaller supply, and new collectors looking for pristine restored games, there is a market for games that have +$2000 worth of replacement parts. A $2000 game in good condition sells for $4000 in restored condition ? The better than average games suddenly aren't $2000 but increase also towards that $4000 figure. Or people who are not into pinball just see a title sell for $4000 and think that their game in bad condition is also worth that much and their asking price increases..
Anyway, as you can see there are lots of reasons. The end result is the same, pinball is expensive.
2000: Williams had closed their doors and the whole pinball inventory was sold to Gene Cunningham. He didn't know well what he had,
it was difficult to impossible to order parts from him.
Suzo and Happ created their own generic replacement parts, but this was a limited amount of wear parts. There were some parts dealers who still had some stock.. And that was about it. There were (unofficial) reproductions of some parts (decals, plastics).
If something specific broke on your game, you had a problem. Games got parted out because important parts broke and were impossible to find or too expensive compared to the games worth.
2020: The reproduction market has grown enormous. Almost every part of a pinball machine, even 30 year old machines, is being reproduced (legally) again. It's possible to create almost a whole new machine from scratch. Or if you have a worn out machine, buy enough new parts for it so it'll look like almost new.
2000: rec.games.pinball was the place for discussion. There were also some websites talking about repairs, but not too much.
2020: RGP still exists, most people are now on pinside. There are also many podcasts, it seems some people like to talk more than actually play.
The Addams Family
2000: The Addams Family is the most popular pinball machine ever produced. It's the one game that everyone who's not into pinball remembers. If someone is looking to buy one pinball machine for their home, it's this. Nothing else. Everyone who is not into pinball wants an Addams Family. It's the pinball machine with the largest production run of the 1990ies, and demand was still higher than supply.
2020: This is crazy: nothing changed 20 years later (except the price). People still love Addams Family. Some operators even still have an Addams Family on location and it still earns money, for almost 30 years ! It has such enormous staying power. It truly is a classic. After all these years, it still has attraction, people enjoy playing it. Most important: The Addams Family is still the one pinball machine that people remember and look for as the first pinball machine to buy.
Back in 2000, as a pinball collector, Medieval Madness was the most prestigious game you could have in your collection. MM was considered by many as the best game ever made. Almost everyone loved it, beginners and experienced players, pinball collectors and regular people. Demand for this machine was much larger than supply. MM was difficult to find and expensive. Most operators didn't want to sell it as it still earned well on location. Most other used pinball machines could be had for less than half of their new price, MM on average hadn't dropped in price and a nice used one sold for almost the same as a new one. If you had one in your collection, especially in good condition, it meant you were serious about pinball and people envied you.
20 years later, believe it or not, you can buy a brand new Medieval Madness machine. It is back in production. No need to search for it, import it from another country or restore it. Just order and unbox it. It's even improved with color graphics. A bit of the magic surrounding it is gone, as you can order one, although there are also limited editions being made. And some of Sterns LE editions are also high in demand, so there are more titles that people can envoy you for if you have them.. All this doesn't mean that MM isn't still a great game. Compared to more recent titles its rules are maybe too easy and repetivive. Which doesn't matter, its still one of the best games from the 90ies and belongs in every pinball collection.
2000: When someone asked what machine had the most deep and complex rules, there used to be only one answer: Twilight Zone. TZ was the game for advanced pinball players to have: a challenge with complex rules.
2020: Twilight Zone seems to have lost a lot of its popularity. I'm not sure why. It's still a great game, became more expensive and difficult to find. Maybe it's because newer pinball enthousiasts don't know it well enough ? Despite its large production run, people who have a TZ don't sell it, so new people don't get the chance to know it ? Or just that so many new games have more complex rules ? It's just something I notice - when the question gets asked about what's the deepest game, TZ almost never gets mentioned. The oldest machine will be The Simpsons Pinball Party (from 2003, 10 years younger than TZ) and a range of newer machines like AC/DC, The Walking Dead, World Poker Tour, JJPOTC, .. but no Twilight Zone.. it's like everyone forgot about TZ.
More complex rules
2000: Most games had simple rules. Twilight Zone was an exception, but most rulesheets could be simplified to: shoot everything enough times to start a mode. That was it. Shoot enough ramps and something starts. Shoot enough targets and something else starts. Complete everything for a wizard mode.
2020: Rulesheets have become more complex than ever. Extra memory and cpu power give programmers much more options to add complicated rules. There are wizard modes and extra wizard modes and intermediary modes. Instead of five modes you'll now have a dozen. Or two dozen. There are layers, one part will be dependent on another, the order can change, .. Some games are more complex than others, but on average the amount of objectives in a game has increased a lot.
Light bulbs and rubbers
2000: Light bulbs on the playfield were the same incandencent light bulbs that where used for the last 50 years..
In rubber rings you had two choices: white or black. White was praised as it had more bounce. Black rubber was seen as bad: it didn't bounce as well and was only installled on new pinball machines half way the 90ies to please operators, as black didn't wear as fast as white or show dirt.
2020: A technical revolution has happened. People started to install leds. First as a modification, to highlight certain parts.
Then leds were specially created for pinball machines to replace the regular incandescent lamps. Leds not only exist now in different colors
but in dozens of different variations, simple, bright, extra bright, super bright, flexible, double, triple, and so on.
The last years manufacturers also switched and now install leds by default. RGB leds are now also used. This offers more possibilities for their rules, one insert can suddenly have a different meaning depending on its color.
The real unnoticed revolution in my opinion happened with pinball rubber rings. The compound of the black rubber changed so it became softer, like white rubber. The old story that white rubber was better, suddenly wasn't true anymore. Since then many more variations are available, not only are there different colors, there's choice in hardness and new compounds (rubber, silicone, ..). Some types of rubber rings have more bounce, others are more sticky - which really affects and changes the way pinball plays..
2000: Players loved the flipper mechanisms of WPC games. Data East (and Sega and Stern) flippers weren't appreciated as much. There were technical differences (different end of stroke, hold circuit and timing, also their angle and path of travel). Keywords to describe the differences are that WPC games are smooth, subtle, allow more control and Stern are more snappy, clunky, powerful.
2020: It looks like the average opinion has completely turned around. Stern has in the meantime improved its flipper mechanisms, there's a big difference how flippers on new Sterns feel compared to those used before 2005. Nowadays many prefer the feel of Stern flipper best and find that JJP flippers (who use WPC flipper mechs) feel off and not strong enough. I guess it's just a matter of what you're used to most..
2000: It was difficult to find games in collector condition. Williams/Bally cabinets faded, especially the red color. All yellow/orange/red faded in the sun until it became plain white.. If you had a machine in unfaded condition, you tried to keep it like this by keeping it out of direct sunlight. Stern cabinets also had issues, paint would quickly wear off, especially near the flipper buttons.
2020: Printing technology has improved. Paint is now UV resistent, cabinets almost don't fade anymore. Flipper button wear is prevented by the 'lollypop' style of siderails, which covers the area around the flipper buttons with metal.
2000: Bad cpu damage or other electronics that were severely damaged (burnt driver boards, broken displays), usually meant the game could only be parted out. New replacement boards just weren't available, or parts were too expensive.
2020: For most common manufacturers there are several reproduction boards available. Leaked battery ? Just buy a new board. The know-how of people in the hobby has increased, some electronic engineers make their own boards if they need something.
2000: Leaked batteries happened. On WPC games you didn't encounter it too much, these were still relatively new. Collectors were advised to install remote battery packs. Older games (first generation of Bally/Stern and Gottlieb) often had a lot of damage if you found a project somewhere, or if the owner wasn't into pinball and contacted you because their game had stopped working..
2020: New games don't have batteries anymore, so for the future they will hopefully last longer.
For existing games NV-ram ram is now an option, you can remove the batteries completely. Unfortunately the amount of WPC games with battery damage has increased a lot. Home owners who aren't into pinball only find out their machines have batteries when it's too late and the game doesn't work correct anymore..
Home brew pinball
2000: Some people customised their games or tried to make their own. Full home made games were almost not existing. Most projects were re-themes : people put on new artwork on an existing (usually older) machine.
2020: Making your own machine from scratch is more popular and there's a lot of support for it. P-Roc or Fast, boards based on a Raspberry Pi, .. there are several off the shelf hardware solutions. Even for most older and rare (european) machines there are plug in replacement boards.