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How Players Can Help the Pinball Business Stay Viable

There has been considerable grumbling within the coin-op amusement business about the decline of pinball. Blame is flying in several directions, but it's clear that neglecting maintenance hurts pinball worse than some other kinds of coin-op games. In industry surveys, operators are more likely to complain about pinball revenues than they are about other high-maintenance pieces, such as pool tables or whack-the-funny-animal redemption games. (Unsure about when to say "operators", "locations", or "distributors"? Check the glossary at the bottom.) Operators are buying fewer pinballs, and some are dropping pinballs from their route entirely if they can. This in turn puts the squeeze on manufacturers, who can't sustain the big investments in game design.
Nevertheless, some operators do well with pinball. These operators accept the fact that pinball has a higher maintenance burden than some other game types, and they may find that they can get some locations because they supply a broader line. In surveys, they may say that they have an edge over other operators because they know how to make pinball earn well. The best ones enjoy playing, or at least have employees (or children) who tell them which games are good. When a location asks for a pinball game, they take the request with confidence, rather than grudgingly see it as a burden.

As a pinball fan, you can keep the game alive by contributing to an upward spiral for the good operators that will counteract the downward spiral that is a current gloomy theme in the industry. If you know of good places to play, publicize them! Give the good operators a boost! Even if an operator is weak on maintenance but often puts in brand-new games, they are trying to provide a good playing experience and they're buying new games, which is what really helps the remaining manufacturers stay the course. Praise the operator, the repair technicians, the location, and anyone with a good attitude about pinball. Support the idea that they do have an edge because they provide better pinball than the competition.

Since you're here on The Net, consider publicizing good spots to play through the World Pinball Directory. Follow the links and you'll see how many territories are covered by Web sites reporting on pinball spots. You could also send a tip to content-masters of Web sites that cover tourism or nightlife in your region. Post an article to rec.games.pinball if the spot is worth a visit by a traveling player. If it's a street location and it's a "cool" place, Multiball magazine would be interested in a paragraph for their Sporting Houses feature. If all of this leads to the pinball machines making even more money for the good operator, you've supported what you like in true free-market style. In addition to getting a buzz in general media, the good spots and operators can bring positive words to coin-op distributors and state operator associations.

And what about the bad spots? Negative feedback should be quiet and directed at the person who can resolve the issue. I recognize that the Internet is a powerful force for consumerism, but widespread negative publicity just gives the operator reinforcement for their idea that pinball is a hassle and they should avoid it. If you don't know the current attitudes of the operator and location owner, be helpful rather than confrontational and assume that they would like to get a piece of the high pinball revenues that they hear others brag about. The operator is especially important, because the machines are their primary source of income. Tell the location you choose one spot (be it a bar, laundromat, or whatever) over another by whether you can play a good pinball game. The location might be willing to change operators if the current operator has a bad attitude, and the location can take primary responsibility for leveling and exterior cleaning. If the operator's service phone is given on a sticker on the game, feel free to call in service problems. If you can, scale your repair expectations to the operator: make sure they know what good flipper action looks like before you get on their case about a decimal point in the credits display.

Overall, we need visibility on the good side: operators who put in the effort can make good money on pinball, locations who "get it" can share that wealth and get good publicity among a desirable demographic group, the pinball fans. Other operators and locations who see this happening may want to join the coolest and best by trying harder, or trying again instead of giving up. The manufacturers can work on maintainability and appealing designs, but they are not well positioned to endorse individual locations. When it comes to rescuing the pinball business, there are some tactics that you, the dedicated player, can do best of all!

Terminology of the Pinball Business

The business is generally described as having five distinct layers with each layer much larger than the layer above it. The layers are Manufacturer, Distributor, Operator, Location, and Player.

The operator buys games from the distributor, who is a regional representative of the manufacturer. The operator places games in locations, where the public can come in as players. (The operator and distributor sell older games to players for use at home.) In an "arcade" situation, the operator is also the owner of the location. The term "Street location" is generally used to refer to any business that has another primary purpose and has separate ownership. An operator is said to have a "route" of street locations or a "chain" of (self-owned) game rooms.

An operator places games in street locations and typically pays the location owner a share of the revenues, though other fiscal arrangements are possible. (For example, one party could pay a flat lease fee to the other and then take 100% of the cash-box revenue, or there could be a minimum amount that the operator must get before splitting the rest, etc.)

Updated Sep 15, 2005 Written by David Marston
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