“Ever since I was a young boy I’ve played the silver ball. From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all. But I ain’t seen nothing like him in any amusement hall.”
The Who’s classic, Pinball Wizard, famously immortalized the love and lore of pinball long before my first quarter dropped in the 1980s. And since the 1930s, Chicago has been the epicenter of these electronic, coin-operated magic boxes. There is no more celebrated, or unsinkable, game made in Chicago than the pinball machine.
Today the game is on the rise all over the world thanks in a big part to the Chicago-based wizards keeping the ball in play, Stern Pinball. Offering a full-range of collector and arcade quality pinball games, merchandise, parts and accessories, Stern is the oldest, largest and last-standing commercial pinball manufacturer in the world.
Releasing three new cornerstone titles every year—largely from licensing agreements with film, TV, music or sports properties—Stern ships an average of 55 games everyday, all over the world. Some recent highlights include: Ghostbusters, Spider-Man, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Kiss, Metallica, and WWE. And with each title, Stern typically produces a Pro, Premium, and Limited Edition version.
For Stern, pinball is a family affair tracing its lineage to the beginnings of modern pinball. Chairman and CEO, Gary Stern, founded the company in 1986. His father, Sam, was a former owner and President of Williams Electronics, and along with Bally and Gottlieb, helped form the very foundation on which the game and industry were built. Now home to Hall-of-Fame game designers, engineers and programmers, for the last 30 years, Stern Pinball has continued this legacy by leading the industry in innovation and design.
Like the game itself, the demand for pinball has also been growing in a big way. Arcades and barcades (arcades plus booze, minus kids) have been springing up in city centers and suburbs all across the country. The Chicago-area alone is home to nearly a dozen barcades, and in addition to classic arcade games, many of these venues offer gourmet food, high-end beers and craft cocktails. The lights, sounds and smells are returning gamers to a more analogue playing experience. Barcades are also creating a retro game culture celebrating 70s, 80s and 90s nostalgia, while introducing these games to new generations of players.
Although the current pinball resurgence is a welcomed boom, throughout its 30 years in business, Stern Pinball has stared into the abyss and faced the threat of obsolescence on more than one occasion. They deserve a lot of credit—not just for producing new games—but for keeping the entire pinball industry in-play by adhering to a simple strategy: ALWAYS CREATE FUN. The secret to their success is the reason we play; and thanks to Gary Stern and his team at Stern Pinball, more pinball wizards from around the globe are discovering the magic and allure of the silver ball.
In this episode of 12 For 12, Adam heads to Stern Pinball and Logan Arcade, to do some serious coining, and to find out how they’ve kept the magic alive by manufacturing FUN.