By Steve Winter, president, Brotman | Winter | Fried, who is attending the International CES Conference in Las Vegas.
Pinball is back!
While many of us over 40 fondly remember “banging those pleasure machines” at the arcade, on the Boardwalk or in our local watering hole, the industry nearly went the way of the dinosaur just two short decades ago.
Fortunately, silver ball enthusiast and nostalgia buff Gary Stern kept the dream, and perhaps even the entire industry, alive. In continuous operation since the 1930s, Stern Pinball weathered “the dark years” and essentially owned the industry, until the recent arrival of new competitor Jersey Jack. Now driven by a viable rival, Stern Pinball has raised its game substantially, and they demonstrated the next generation of this once-iconic device at the International CES in Vegas.
“The future of pinball is great because we make games that are still fun to play,” said Stern. “It’s an American product that appeals to a global audience which – thanks to three rejuvenated industry market segments – is once again growing.” Those markets, Stern said include game operators in “barcades,” bowling alleys, English pubs and french cafes; collectors and nostalgia enthusiasts; and rec-room buyers who remember playing the game as a kid and now want to have one of their own at home. But as Stern is quick to point out, today’s games are truly an era removed from their predecessors.
“Our newest product, the WWE Wrestlemania, is the most sophisticated machine of its kind,” he said. “Our Spike System is a major upgrade over the blunt switches and systems we used for years.” Where previous tables operated on a custom micro-controller, Wrestlemania — and all future versions of Stern tables — run on Linux with a small CPU soundboard CAT5 cabling and LED lights. His system also includes several improvements on old features; including a USB port which allows for faster system updates, and short-circuit and static protection refined across the full spectrum of the table’s components.
But while the bells, whistles and internal components appear to appeal most to visitors to Stern’s booth at CES, he clearly owes his success – past, present and future – to the power of licensing and branding.
“While the mechanics make today’s pinball machines great fun to play, it’s the branding that attracts the user in the first place,” Stern said. By spanning several generations of each machine’s genre, Stern connects with fans of all ages. WWE, for example, includes not just The Rock and John Cena, but also Triple H, a legend from years gone by. Stern’s Star Trek game pays homage to virtually every incarnation of the popular series, from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine to the recent reboot of The Original Series.
While Stern is showcasing four products this year at CES – WWE, Star Trek, The Walking Dead and Mustang – the company’s legacy spans virtually every genre from comic books and sports to movies, TV shows, theme parks and rock bands. Already noticing an uptick in sales, it’s the licensing, Stern said, that will likely drive both the collector market and the rec-room buyer for years to come.
“After all, nothing makes a statement quite like a pinball machine.”