Do they still make pinball machines? They do, in a huge new factory near Chicago -- with most selling to the 1%

Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

“People did ask if we needed a new pinball company,” Gary said, “and the truth is, I needed a job. There weren’t a lot of jobs for pinball company presidents, so I made one.”

Data East sold to Sega in 1994, which sold the company back to Gary in 1999. He moved into a pair of Melrose Park factories, but by 2008, the business was imploding. Guarnieri, of Jersey Jack, was one of Stern’s largest distributors for a time: “We were selling like 1,500 machines a year, but by 2010, no kidding, we were selling 50 a year.”

The future, in a sense, is gentrification.

Home machines for the cost of a new motorcycle, always with recognizable names or titles. Other than a stray Elton John and KISS game, older machines stuck to broad themes, like pirates or poker. Gary Stern, now the executive chairman of Stern, said: “Today, if I tell you I’m doing a new zombie game, you go ‘Oh.’ But if I tell you I’m making a new ‘Walking Dead’ pinball — licensing does a lot of things.”

So before a game even reaches the factory floor now, there are considerations older generations of designers never imagined. Keith Elwin, Stern’s senior designer (and one of the highest-ranked pinball players in the world), made Stern’s games based on “Jaws” and Godzilla. “There are always sensitivities,” he smiled. No studio wants a gun in a game if its properties are attached. Approvals of every image, video and sound are typical. The “Jaws” machine has the likenesses of Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, but not the movie’s lead, Roy Scheider, who died in 2008; his estate wouldn’t OK his image for a pinball machine.

George Gomez, Stern’s chief creative officer, said, “You would think someone like Marvel would offer you images to use on these machines, but no, they want us to generate it, and that quality has to be awesome.” Like many Stern employees, he’s been around this Chicago industry for decades. “I started at Williams, worked at Bally, now I have a house full of games. And honestly, I’m bored with a lot of those old games. They hold a place in my heart, but it is not the same thing we are making these days.”


At last, the factory floor. The space chews up most of the building’s 160,000 square feet. It appears to dwarf Home Depot. Most of the company’s 500 employees are here, in production. Echos of high-pitched whirring. Echos of hollow knocks against wood. Between those sounds, silence. The previous building, employees say, was bursting at the seams; this one has elbow room and air conditioning.

Along the north end of the building, a striking scene: rows of circuit boards, alongside spools of wiring, stacked in oranges, yellows, purples and blacks. The workers here move quietly, threading out fresh wires and crossing, crisscrossing, criss-crisscrossing, curling and securing, until each circuit board sort of resembles one of those evidence boards that conspiracy nuts assemble in their basements. A quarter mile of wiring goes into the board alone, Davis told me, and while it looks like a kind of madness, “and though it does take a while (for the floor workers) to learn how to do it, some can eventually memorize it.”

Each colored wire ties to the right termination point. Then the board goes to a team that checks each connection by hand. Here sit large piles of colored wires that look like every Christmas decorator’s vision of hell, a cascade of wiring so dense it’d get untangled in time for Memorial Day. Yet, the closer you get, you realize it’s not tangled.

Just beyond, cabinets are assembled, slicked and squeegeed with decals.


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