Adjust your pinball machine so it plays better

When you bought a pinball machine and it's set up at your house, there are some things you can adjust that have an influence on how the game plays and make your game more fun / easy / hard / ..
Making the correct adjustments can make or break a game. A boring game can be made more fun.. and otherwise, the greatest machine ever made can be no fun to play at all if it was set up incorrect.
You have to experiment a bit with this yourself, see what you like and what's most fun, and how important every change is.

If you have a certain type of pinball game and can play this model somewhere else too, then do this. Only by playing different pinball machines of the same model you'll be able to feel and understand the differences that can exist.


Level your game

leg levelers pinball

There are leg levelers underneath each leg of your pinball machine. You should level the machine left-right.
Do this for the front pair of legs and at the back of the machine. If your game tilts to one side, it will play different and may cause more drains. Some games are more sensitive to this than others.

Especially if you play the game and get the impression it is not 'fair', you need to look at this. For example if a ball is returned from a ramp or from a scoop and often drains.
A quick test to check if the playfield is level is to put a pinball at the top of the playfield and let it roll.. it should roll down over the middle of the playfield and drain between the flippers. If it doesn't, it's time to take your level..

For more information, check this article about how to level your pinball machine.


Change the playfield angle

bubble level

This is probably the most important change you can make to a pinball machine !
Set a game too flat and it will play very slow and be no fun at all.
Older games that play too slow can be set up at a steeper level and the 'action' will come back in the game. Don't increase it too much, as the flippers need to have enough power to let the pinball make the long (ramp) shots too.

There is no fixed rule how steep a playfield must be. In general modern games should be set up at 6,5 degrees, but some people like to set them much steeper. Most of these games have a small bubble-leveler at the right side, and the ideal degree is sometimes marked with a thick line.
By raising or lowering the levelers on the back of your game, you can change the playfield angle.
Some people like to make their game more easy (slower, boring) and make it less steep. If you find your game is too slow, increase the angle of the playfield. Just try a few settings until you have one you like.

Don't forget to check the machine is balanced left to right after making any changes ! (see previous topic)


Clean and wax your playfield

waxed playfield

A clean and well waxed playfield will play much faster than a dirty playfield. It also prevents wear. So keep your game clean and waxed !

Especially on non-diamondplated playfields (everything made before 1992) this will make a huge difference. I have seen 30 year old games come alive again ! Colors become more bright, gameplay suddenly is much faster. A boring old game can really become a lot of fun to play.


Put new rubber on your game

pinball rubbers

New pinball machines came from the factory with black rubber. This is because it's easier for operators, you don't see dirt on it. However black rubber gives off black dust, so your playfield will become dirty much faster then using with rubber.
Another disadvantage of black rubber is that it's harder than white. It kills a lot of your gameplay, the pinball bounces less around. Especially at the popbumpers you can notice this difference very well.

Almost every game was designed to have white rubber (even when it was sold with black). White plays better, your playfield will stay longer clean, so in home use there is no excuse not to change to white rubber rings (and red flipper rubbers). It does make a big difference !

The color of flipper rubber makes even a bigger difference to gameplay. With very soft rubbers (yellow or red) it can be difficult for a player to control a pinball. Hard, black flipper rubber is nice if you want to learn to catch a pinball and other tricks. Even fast balls can be controlled and laid still so you can aim every shot.

If your game has old rubber rings on it, replace them. Unless it's been replaced very recently.. As a rule of thumb I replace everything older than 5 years. On a 10 year old game, new rubber will still give the game some extra action, even though the rings may still look good.

And if you have an electro-mechanical game, a waxed playfield and new rubber will bring the game back alive ! Especially on these old games new rubber will make a large influence as it matters a lot to gameplay.
Only some recent games may play better with black rubber, as it makes it more easy to control the pinball.


Adjust outlanes

outlane posts

On almost every pin the width of the left and right outlane can be adjusted. Make the gap smaller and less drains should occur (or at least it's easier to nudge and save the ball). Most EM games had 3 holes pre-drilled, for liberal, normal and difficult setting. Recent pins use a 'sliding' post, which can be adjusted in several positions. This is an simple way to make the game harder or more easy.


Adjust the flippers themselves

rebuild flipper

The flippers connect the player to the game and allow control of the pinball. It's very important they work well. A correct adjustment is required to have a good game. The position of the flippers in rest can make a difference how good you can make certain shots. And even how sloppy the flipper mechanism is changes how a player 'feels' the flippers.


Adjust end-of-stroke switches of flippers

End-of-stroke switches are important. Incorrectly adjusted, a flipper coil may not be powerful enough. You can adjust them yourself (make sure the power is switched off !!). It's not very difficult, it's a leaf switch you bend carefully. You want the switch to open (or close, depends on the system you have) as late as possible. This way your flippers have maximum power as long as possible. If EOS switches closes (or opens) already when the flipper is only halfway up, it will loose some of its power and steep ramps may be difficult to make.
Note: make sure the EOS switch does get made ! If flipper coils become too hot after playing for a while, you may have to adjust the gap so it closes a bit sooner.
Check your game-specific manual to see if the game uses normally open or normally closed eos-switches. In general older games (pre-1990) machines use normalle closed switches (and the switch will open when the flipper is in the up position), with WPC games Williams reversed this and EOS switches became normally open, and the switch closes when the flipperbat is in the up position.

Check the strength of your pinball coils. Adjusting the eos-switch will make the coil as powerful as possible. But if replacement coils were installed, these may be too strong. So it may be necessary to install less powerful coils so the game plays more controlled.
Click here to read how to adjust switches.
Also check if the position of the flippers is good. Williams/Bally games have a small hole in the playfield underneath each flipper, put something like a toothpick in it. The bare flipper bat (without rubber) should touch this. If the flipper is too low or too high, the game will play very different (bad) and you won't be able to make certain shots because your flippers shoot the ball at a different angle. Although this can also be adjusted to how you like it.. some people prefer to have their flipper on the same line as the outlane plastic.

In home use you may want to replace flipper coils with less strong types. On a game that's kept clean, waxed regulary, the default coils may be too strong.


Adjust bumper and slingshot switches

While you are busy adjusting switches, also adjust leaf switches used in pop bumpers and slingshots. Slingshot leaf switches should be (very) sensitive. However don't make the gap too small, or when it fires it might trigger itself over and over because the rubber bounces/vibrates a bit. You want the slingshot to fire as sensitive possible without triggering itself.

Pop bumpers have a plastic pin which comes from the bumper skirt and goes down through the playfield. This pin touches a 'spoon' to which a switch is attached. Gently bend this switch so the blades almost touch. This way a ball even barely touching a bumper skirt, will activate the bumper. Good powerful bumpers are a lot of fun !

Click here for more information about adjusting switches.


Software adjustments

Every solid state pinball machine has some adjustments. On early games these settings were simple and often done using dip-switches on the main board. Settings were 3 or 5 balls play, from what score a replay is given, sometimes even what kind of music you want to hear (chimes or electronic sounds). As electronic pinball machines became more powerful and got more rules, they allow more and more changes and adjustments to these rules. Most pins have default settings for 3 and 5 ball play, on top of this have settings for extra easy/easy/normal/hard/extra hard. Each of the options this affects can be changed manually. Do you want to hit a target 3 times before it gives an extra ball ? Or any other number ? Recent pins allow almost everything to be changed, and you can set the game as easy or as difficult as you want. So if you get a new game you can put it to easy, until you learn the rules, and switch it to normal, and if you still get to the wizard mode too often, set it to extra hard..


Change how kickouts behave

Kickouts and upkickers are not intended to eject the ball straight through the middle. The ball should end on one of your flippers, or should at least be able to be captured with one of the flippers. If you find your game is too unfair when it kicks the ball out and you cannot catch it, you can modify this behavior. First check if your game is leveled correctly. This should most of the time solve your problem. If not, inspect the kickout assembly. Some vertical upkickers (i.e. the slot machine assembly on Twilight Zone) break their welds because the ball is ejected with a lot of force. You may have to repair this. If it doesn't need welding, it may be bend a bit. It's also possible the screws at the bottom i.e. are loose or it needs alignment. Sometimes taking the assembly off the playfield, cleaning it and putting it back is all it needs to change the behavior. If this doesn't help, try adding washers on the screws which secure it on the playfield.

On some games there is not enough room to align the assembly. One example of this is Whitewater. The Lost Mine kickout on the left is supposed to kickout the pinball onto the right flipper. Raise this flipper to catch and control the pinball, or leave it down to have the pinball bounce off onto the left flipper. Many games are misaligned and the ball exits too much to the right, bounces against the metal lane guide right of the flipper, flies over the left slingshots and drains in the left outlane.
To correct this behavior, replace the coil in the Lost Mine kickout with a weaker one such as a AE-26-1200 or AE-27-1200.


Adjust the tilt on your game

tilt weight

Maybe you don't use a lot of body language, but visitors may.. there are players who will play for hours and save about every ball when the tilt is not sensitive or missing at all.
So don't forget to adjust the tilt on your game. In almost every game it is located on the left side inside the cabinet. Just set the weight a bit higher to make the tilt more sensitive, and lower to allow for more nudging.
Don't set it too sensitive ! You should not get tilt warnings when you're playing a multiball and don't move the cabinet.
In the software settings on most solid state pinball machines you can adjust the number of tilt warnings too. This means how many times the player will be warned he's going too far before the game will actually tilt and he'll loose the pinball.


Adjust how the plunger hits the pinball in the shooterlane

pinball plunger
Manual pinball plunger.

Sometimes you have to adjust where the plunger hits the pinball in the shooterlane. It doesn't happen often, usually when the pinball machine is level and the playfield is in the correct position, the plunger will hit the pinball right in the middle.
But sometimes it's off, resulting in a very weak plunger.

adjust plunger adjust plunger
The plunger tip on the left doesn't align in the middle with the hole on the playfield arch. This causes that the ball will not launch straight in the shooter lane but instead hit some posts at the ramp entrance and lose most of its speed. Most of the time the pinball isn't able to make the ramp shot correct, which makes you lose your skill shot. This makes for a frustrating gameplay and is easily solved.

Start with checking all leg levelers, see if the cabinet is levelled at the front and the back. If one of the legs isn't levelled correct, the whole cabinet will bend a bit out of shape and the playfield will not fall straight into the cabinet. Indications that the cabinet isn't level are when the playfield hooks doesn't lower correctly into the receiver below the lockdown bar, or when the playfield glass doesn't slide in and out without an effort.

Only when you're sure the cabinet is level and the plunger still doesn't hit the ball in the middle, you should adjust the plunger. Lift the playfield, and on the right picture you can see the plunger is held onto the cabinet with 3 screws. Loosen these a bit and you can move the plunger assembly around a bit. Don't forget to install a new rubber shooter tip..


Add toppers or playfield toys

Medieval Madness topper
A dragon statue as topper on Medieval Madness

Some games came from the factory with a topper. Usually it was just a plastic on top to attract people towards the game (i.e. Hook, WWF, Guns'n Roses, Jurassic Park, Tommy, Addams Family, ..). Whitewater has a dome with lights and flashers, other toppers even have moving parts (Fish Tales, Dr Who) Owning games with and without a topper gave some people the idea to put a topper on all of their games.You can do what you want, but make sure it's secured and not too heavy.. you don't want it to fall and smash your playfield glass ! Try to make every change reversible, so if you don't want it anymore you can restore the machine in original condition (don't start drilling holes everywhere !)

People also do playfield-additions to certain games. Some of these 'toys' were intended to be on the game by the designer but left out for production (Twilight Zones door flashers, Scared Stiff skull leds, Theatre of Magic spinning saw). Other modifications are only the result of someones enthusiasm or creative mind (Twilight Zone McDonalds piano or Robby the robot figure, flashers in Creatures pop bumpers).
These modifications don't add anything to the gameplay, they don't change how the ball rolls, and exist only for cosmetic reasons. You can go very far with this, but if you have a nice machine, please don't to any changes which can't be undone. You may like your modification, but the next owner of your machine may hate it..


Light bulbs and leds

An easy modification is to replace regular white light bulbs with colored bulbs, or to replace bulb covers with different colors.
It mostly depends on the game if this will have a nice effect or not. You just have to experiment to see if it makes a difference and looks better.
An example of this is to change the red bulb covers on Whitewater with blue ones, and replace some regular light bulbs with blue ones. The reds don't match the theme too much while the blue light bulbs look so much better, and give the whole playfield a blue tint.
People also install leds to light up certain parts of the playfield. Leds are preferred to light bulbs as they're much smaller and draw less current, so they're easier to install in a small corner than a light bulbs. Led modifications are sometimes functional: the clock boards of the Twilight Zone pinball machine usually get damaged because of the heat of the light buls. People upgrade these boards to leds (which hardly give off any heat) to prevent further damage.

Stern Simpsons Pinball Party pinball machine Stern Simpsons Pinball Party pinball machine
  Left the default setup, right TSPP machine is 'modded' with blue and orange lights in the back.
Left picture by Pascal Van Wonterghem, right by George Bulte.

Small neon tubes are also sometimes installed. Most car accessory shops sell 12 volt neons in all kinds of colors.
And finally some games have plastics which aren't lit, or have dark parts where a lightbulb would be suited. Sometimes a bulb was not installed because of cost reasons, so you can always add a light bulb where you feel it's needed. A popular example of this is underneath the 'catapult' plastic on Medieval Madness.


Replace infrared leds

Addams Family with white leds in bookcase
Picture by Kevin Densham.

One way of customising your machine is to replace invisible infrared leds with regular leds. Colored or white leds are possible. This is a way to add extra light to dark parts of the playfield without adding extra strain on the system. On Williams/Bally machines however the black IR receiver will not work, these have to be replaced with clear type of receiver that detects visible light.


Repaint parts of the playfield

Picture by Keller Pinball Restoration.

Some restorers of pinball machines even go a lot further. Parts or even complete playfields can be repainted like the customer wants. The whole theme can be made different, or only small details changed.
In the picture for example the bathing suit of the woman has been removed. Click here to see the original playfield.

More information about customising your pinball machines can be found at TxPinball and TreasureCove (look under playfield and backboard decals).

I have now also successfully reproduced plastic objects using a silicone mold so I could paint and customize them without damaging my original parts.