The once-mighty pinball industry is dying. Can China save it?
Author Blythe Copeland
IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT IN BEIJING, and the arcade is teeming with young people. A half-dozen players hone their hoops skills at a row of pop-a-shots, while others gather around two players battling it out at the wildly popular King of Fighters game. It’s a lively scene straight out of 1980s America, only it’s happening on the top floor
of a shining high-rise mall in China. It’s happening all over China, in fact. And while the sudden popularity of arcades in the emerging economic powerhouse—about 10,000 are currently open, with another 10,000 or so on the way—is a sign of China’s growing prosperity, for a small group of enthusiasts in the U.S., the boom represents something even more significant: the last hope for the fast- fading American pastime of pinball.
Since the game was invented in Ohio in 1871, pinball has had its share of tilts and jackpots. For decades, it was banned in many cities as a form of gambling. Then a 26-year-old pinball phenom named Roger Sharpe landed one nearly impossible shot in front of a room full of New York City councilmen to prove that pinball relied on skill, not chance. After that, it was game on. By 1980, the coin-operated game industry was worth $6 billion a year—more than the film industry— with pinball accounting for around 85 percent of the revenue. As the decade progressed, pinball survived the video game invasion and went on to peak in the early ’90s, when a handful of companies worldwide produced a combined 100,000 units each year.
Two decades later, the industry has, well, tilted. Manufacturers have abandoned the classic game for more lucrative pursuits like video arcade games and casino games like video slot machines. Pinball production has dropped by 95 percent since its peak, with only about 5,000 machines produced annually and all by one company: Stern Pinball in Chicago. “Back in the nineties, pinball was still used in bars and restaurants,” says Jody Dankberg, Stern’s director of marketing. “It used to be you’d go to the pizza place and play pinball while you were waiting. Now you play Angry Birds or check Facebook or post on Twitter.”
These days, Stern’s machines, which retail between $3,700 and $6,000, sell mostly to collectors. “The collecting core is still out there,” says Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements, an in- home video game and pinball retailer in Pennsylvania, “but the game may be a dying art.” Tuckey usually sells 30 to 40 pinball games during the month of December alone; during the 2010 holiday season he sold zero. “Unless people really push and pinball gets to be popular again,” he says, “it’s going to slip right off the radar.”
Enter China. Though America has lost its zeal for pinball, Stern is hoping to stoke a passion for the game among members of China’s growing middle class. But translating the company’s passion for pinball—its 150 or so employees are required, per orders from CEO Gary Stern, to play the game for 30 minutes per day—will be a major challenge. For one thing, the competition is intense. Chinese arcades are big, clean, well-lit affairs, holding upward of 600 games each, making them about three times the size of your local Dave & Busters. These places often contain rows of as many as 30 of the same game, making it tough for a new product to stake out a large enough footprint to grab attention. For another, Stern needs to find themes that appeal to the overseas players. The usual pop culture–focused games, like Avatar and Iron Man, aren’t sure winners. “We might love Batman over here, but I don’t know how big Batman is in China,” says Dankberg.
Perhaps most critically, pinball is more complicated than most coin- operated video games. It takes a lot more practice and it’s harder to master. Stern had this in mind as it shipped its first batch of games to China in December: 300 NBA pinball machines with a familiar theme and uncomplicated gameplay. “For someone just getting to know pinball, the NBA game is nice and simple,” says Dankberg. “Everyone can understand that concept.”
Time will tell whether the Chinese embrace pinball the way Americans did back in the day, but Sharpe, who made the shot that legalized pinball in 1976 and is now part of the International Flipper Pinball Association, believes that even the simplest pinball machine is well equipped to compete with modern systems. “There’s so much said about the level of interactivity you have with the Wii and the Kinect. With pinball, you have a completely tactile, interactive environment,” says Sharpe. “For the Chinese, I have to believe that discovering something like this is really going to be a phenomenon. I think the Chinese are going to be mesmerized by it.”
Freelance writer BLYTHE COPELAND
wonders what the training regimen is for a We Dancing Online competition.
Pinball may be new to the Chinese market, but video games are booming. George Petro, founder of Illinois-based developer Play Mechanix, does 22 percent of his business in China, up from zero percent in 2007. So what games are the Chinese playing?
WANGAN MIDNIGHT MAXIMUM TUNE 3 DX A driving game that allows players to compete against the computer, or each other, on 14 different courses, including a metropolitan expressway near Tokyo and the high-speed hills of Nagoya City.
WE DANCING ONLINE Similar to America’s über-popular Dance Dance Revolution, only here players use their hands instead of their feet to execute dance moves. It’s popular enough that a national We Dancing Online competition was held in China last summer.
FISH SEASON While Chinese arcadegoers haven’t warmed to the stateside smash Big Buck Hunter, they are drawn to Fish Season, in which players shoot nets into a simulated ocean to try to catch fish. This would seem to require some kind of skill, but, says Petro, “As far as I have been able to tell, catching is completely random.”