Why pinball disappeared, and why it’s not coming back (sigh)

When was the last time you played pinball?

If you’re a normal person — i.e. you don’t make pilgrimages to arcade “museums”, like I do — I’d guess a decade or more. Where would you even find one to play? The only place I know of in D.C. that has pinball is the Black Cat (Attack From Mars and Spider-Man, I believe).

I thought about pinball’s physical disappearance as I watched Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball the other night. The 2006 documentary charts the inexorable decline of Williams’ pinball division, as the pre-eminent pinball maker of the ’80s and ’90s tried to “reinvent” pinball at the turn of the millennium.

While Tilt studiously avoids positing a direct cause for Williams’ demise, its subtext is pinball’s cultural disappearance. After all, Williams wouldn’t have needed to make pinball relevant again if it were still part of the culture. But it’s hard for something to stay culturally relevant when people rarely encounter it.

Pinball didn’t reach the brink of extinction — Stern is the only manufacturer left — because people lost interest, but because people forgot pinball even existed. And for this we can’t blame Williams’ doomed-from-the-start Pinball 2000 initiative, Jar-Jar Binks (who played a role in said doomed initiative), or simple disinterest and flipper fatigue. Rather, pinball disappeared from the American cultural map because the one place where most people encountered pinball — the arcade — disappeared, rendered irrelevant by the home-video-game boom heralded by the first Playstation.

Tilt charts Williams’ slow downfall from mega-success in the early ’90s — including the best and best-selling pinball game of all time, The Addam’s Family — to a mere sideshow to the company’s slot machine business. Rather than accept the smaller profits of an ultra-niche business to complement the slot racket, the company’s leaders decided to make one last push to make pinball relevant again. The result was the predictably awful Pinball 2000 project of 1999.

Pinball 2000 machines took everything unique about classic and latter-day pinball — the tactile Rube Goldberg aesthetics; the kitschy pre-bobblehead “artifacts”; the ingenious mechanical engineering; the personality inherent to physical craftsmanship — and replaced it with the dull crappiness of digitized, pre-polygon video game graphics. As far as I can tell, instead of intricate ramps, tunnels, and bumpers, the back of the playfield featured a screen (the reflection of a screen, actually) that displayed video and graphics. Instead of trying to shoot a ball up a corkscrew ramp, you had to shoot the ball toward aliens on the screen. Whee. (To be fair, the film is much more charitable toward the first Pinball 2000 game, Revenge From Mars, which I’ve never played.)

Revenge From Mars did okay, selling 7,000 units. The follow-up was supposed to be a blockbuster — Star Wars: Episode 1 — but sold only 5,000 units; Williams closed the pinball division soon after. (See, Jar-Jar ruined pinball as well as Star Wars.)

Pinball 2000 was clearly a misguided idea, and you have to feel for the Williams designers — the best pinball crew there ever was — who gave it their best shot in spite of their misgivings. But there was probably no way for the company to match its early ’90s profits. Pinball’s success was directly tied to that of arcades, and by that point arcades were pretty much history.

Williams should have been able to figure this out. Indeed, the big profits the company remembered so fondly weren’t just a result of a stellar run of machines  — including Funhouse, Terminator 2, Twilight Zone, White Water, Fish Tales, and Theatre of Magic, in addition to Addam’s Family — but of an arcade boom strong enough to support the pinball auteurs’ creations. (Even in the best of times, pinball was a niche business: Addam’s Family set a record with some 20,000 machines sold.)

Arcades enjoyed a brief renaissance in the early to mid ’90s, capitalizing on video games’ growing prominence in American culture — thanks to Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis — and a new generation of arcade games that seemed far more advanced than the home systems.

Three overlapping waves of games powered this renaissance. First came beat-em-up games that featured what seemed at the time like cartoon-quality graphics, and allowed four to six players to go at it at the same time. The first of these mega-hits was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990, followed by The Simpsons in ’91 and X-Men in ’92. Then came a wave of 1-on-1 fighting games, led by Street Fighter II in ’91 and Mortal Kombat in ’92. Completing the trinity of cross-genre blockbusters was NBA Jam in 1993.

Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam to a lesser extent, became genuine cultural phenomena, and this wave of games was enough to sustain arcades through the middle of the decade. TMNT begat TMNT: Turtles in Time. SFII begat SFII: Champion Edition and SFII: Hyper Fighting. Mortal Kombat begat Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3. NBA Jam begat NBA Jam: Tournament Edition.

By the second half of the decade, a glut of increasingly complex arcade games (better than a glut of crappy arcade games, I guess) and the arrival of the Playstation proved to be bad news for arcades. Anyone could mash buttons in TMNT, turn on the big-head cheat code in NBA Jam, or even learn to throw a Ryu fireball in Street Fighter II. But the Street Fighter sequels/spinoffs/knockoffs (Super Street Fighter II, X-Men: Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street FighterMarvel vs. Capcom, Marvel vs. Capcom 2; the Samurai Showdown, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, and Darkstalkers series), and next-generation fighting games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter increasingly catered to hardcore fighting fans willing to put in the time to learn hundreds of complicated moves.

Meanwhile, the Playstation’s U.S. launch in 1995 represented a technical leap that brought home video games much closer to arcade quality than any before. The Playstation version of, say, Street Fighter Alpha was basically identical to the arcade version. And games like Final Fantasy XII, Resident Evil, and the entire sports lineup offered much deeper experiences, if not always better graphics, than arcade games. The Playstation 2 (2000) and Xbox (2001) delivered even richer gaming experiences, with polygon-based graphics that could rival the most powerful arcade games.

The only way arcades could even hope to compete was with elaborate-seeming multiplayer sit-down racing games, increasingly ridiculous peripheral-based games (hello Brave Firefighters), and combinations of the two (say hey to Jambo Safari). The only arcades that could afford more than one or two of these games were the mall-based likes of Dave & Buster’s, Jillian’s, and GameWorks. And while these chains — plus a bowling alley and bar here, a rest stop and airport lounge there — represent a pinball market, it’s one far smaller than what Williams envisioned when it pinned its future on Pinball 2000. (I’m not sure how long even these chains can hang on, given how much more advanced Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games are than current arcade games.)

Most game-makers weren’t terribly hurt by arcades’ near-death; Capcom, Konami, Sega, and other arcade manufacturers simply continued to focus on the growing home-game market. But Williams’ pinball division didn’t have a home-game equivalent to fall back on.

That makes the loss of Williams’ legacy even harder to take for pinball fans.  Video games from the ’80s and ’90s continue to influence today’s games; today’s games will influence new generations of games, and so on for decades to come.

Not so for pinball. The best part of Tilt is seeing and hearing from the people responsible for the best pinball machines ever made. The hardest part is knowing there won’t be another pinball generation to improve on their greatness.

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16 responses to “Why pinball disappeared, and why it’s not coming back (sigh)

  1. Great article. Sadly, I haven’t yet seen Tilt, but your synopsis on pinball’s disappearance is mostly complete except for one point:

    Pinball, unlike most recent arcade games, wasn’t really confined to arcades. It was something you’d find in odd places. Since it was easy to pick up and play, much like the examples you put forward (NBA Jam, SF2, and MK), it didn’t quite fall into the arcade pigeonhole – and likewise as games became more complex and thus were relegated to the hardcore fans, so were the pins to the arcades as well.

    Think back. It doesn’t even have to be too far back – a few years will do it. Pinball machines were often found in cafeterias on college campuses, in bowling alleys, in eateries, and especially in bars. Seeing a pin in a bar – granted, maybe this would be a beaten up old table – was once almost as common as the billiards table or the dartboard or (now, anyway) the Megatouch. When in college, I’d often visit a friend in New Paltz to see various bands play at a venue. His campus had a Medieval Madness, a local pizza joint had a Monster Bash. My own campus had a Judge Dredd, also found in a nearby pet store. Ok, admittedly that last one was a bit odd.

    In any case, pinball had an impressive cultural impact. From The Who’s Tommy (Pinball Wizard) to more recent music (Rancid’s line in “Olympia, WA.” – “where we played a lonely pinball machine”), to Ralph Bakshi’s animations, to Sesame Street’s counting song, pinball was everywhere. To think it’d just up and vanish after decades of such popularity is strange.

    Yet what happened is exactly as you said: “people forgot pinball even existed.” The gamers out there aside, many of pinball’s fans were people who might never have set foot into an arcade – it was a game they would simply find in the places they normally went. To them, pinball was what they’d do in the bowling alley when they couldn’t afford to rent the lane for another game, or what they’d play while waiting for pizza, or while having a beer with a friend. When the machines broke and nobody fixed them, they were quickly removed from these locations and only missed as an afterthought.

    Remove the casual players’ contact with pinball, and a game that might have endured a bit longer was tied to the arcades’ decline. It was no surprise that no game sold as well as Addams Family, but that they sold far less than expected caused Williams to exit the market. Furthermore, it left us with the current state of things, where some areas simply have no pinball at all.

    The current business model Stern seems to be working on, often making games mainly for home collectors, might have worked perfectly for getting these games into the non-arcade spots they once had. The saddest part about this is that as mentioned by someone from PinMaineia at PAPA 12 (sorry I forgot your name!), pinball is one of those games that can’t properly be done at home without a table – it’s exactly the type of game that arcades should have relied on rather than shunned. The physics are never quite right, nudging becomes unrealistic (at best), and it removes the entire social aspect.

    This last one is a huge factor – if anyone doubts this, just look at the amount of pinball machines that hysterically announce your skill (MULTIBALLLLLLLLL!) or broadcast the free game you won throughout the entire room with a loud “THWACK!”

  2. Thanks for the great comment! That definitely is another part of pinball’s decline.

    I was thinking of a sort of middle group between the casual players/places you describe and arcade junkies — casual arcaders, let’s call them. These are the people who powered the arcade boom (which in turn powered the brief pinball renaissance), but who weren’t hardcore enough to care about the latter ’90s fighting games. When they stopped frequenting arcades, that pretty much sealed pinball’s fate.

    The unfortunate thing is not just that bowling alleys, restaurants, etc. didn’t replace their one or two pinball machines once they broke. It’s that even if those places kept buying pinball machines, it might not have been enough to sustain the industry. Piecemeal sales to such places probably were secondary to more frequent (and higher volume) sales to arcades. (If that’s not the case, I may boycott any bowling alley that doesn’t have a pinball machine.)

    Also, I want to go to the Judge Dredd pet shop.

    • Your point about these places and their piecemeal sales is certainly true – the fact that arcades were no longer around to buy pinball in the first place is obviously a huge factor in it. It’s just very surprising to me that the tables weren’t drawing in people/money in the arcades while they were working.

      Well, let me clarify a bit on that statement. When I say I’m surprised they weren’t making any money in arcades, I’m not talking about the 80’s or early 90’s style dark-and-musty rooms we all spent far too many hours in; rather, I am shocked at the lack of money they made in all of the “family fun center” types of arcades. Parents would go bowling and take the kids to the arcade for an outing in such places, which were springing up all over (at least, they were here) and were the predecessors to Jillians/D&B.

      Given that these establishments had a somewhat captive audience here (parents supervising their children pumping tokens into redemption games or cheesy indoor carnival rides and whatnot), it doesn’t seem to follow that a pinball table wouldn’t at least hold some promise for them of a cheap trip down memory lane. Which was somewhat what I was getting at in my previous reply – with no pinball around, it’s hard to get someone particularly nostalgic (especially about a particular pin they may never have seen elsewhere).

      You don’t often see ski-ball or any of the various basketball games lacking players. While it could be argued that these are redemption games, they also have a very nostalgic appeal to adults who have played them for years. It’s my thought that pinball once had that appeal and lost it as new generations had never had a frequent connection with the game.

      I mention this because I recall a local amusement park having a great arcade with an entire room of pinball tables when I was young. The arcade was often full of younger kids, resting their stomachs for the next round of greasy food and “toss-and-puke” rides, but the pinball room was always packed with their parents. Half the time, you couldn’t even hope to get a chance to play one without a long wait. Granted, that was the late 80’s, just before the arcade boom, so it was a bit different from what most of us fondly look back on as the “arcade crowd”.

      Another example would be in the early 90’s, at one of the first family amusement places in my area. The arcade was hugely popular thanks to the arcades’ resurgence. They kept it stocked with the latest fighting games – SF2, MK/MK2, KI/KI2, etc. – and they had a full row of pinball (likely 15-20 machines) which often were occupied. This was where I first played Addams Family, Data East’s Star Wars (as opposed to the later Sega SW Trilogy table), Back to the Future, Black Knight 2K, and many other notable tables of the time. Again, these games were usually packed.

      A few years later (mid-late 1990’s), when the former arcade had gone into disrepair and the latter was gone entirely, another similar family spot opened up with an ice rink, a bowling alley, a bar, and a huge, well-stocked arcade. In this one we had 2 or 3 pins at a time – Attack From Mars, Medieval Madness, and No Good Gofers were some of the high points. Somehow, at this point I rarely (if ever) needed to wait to play them, despite that the place was just as crowded as the previous two examples.

      I suppose it could have been that these weren’t licensed properties like Addams Family (which had been huge when the table was released), but I’d expect it had something to do with the generation of parents with young children at that time being less familiar with pinball in general – which goes back to my point. Had these games been present in those other locations and the tables made a bit more money, pinball as an industry might have held on a little bit longer…at least until those arcades gave way to the bar/arcade fusions we see today, and as mentioned, these places would then have had a cheaper alternative to the expensive cabinets we see in them now.

      Sadly, the pet store no longer has a Judge Dredd. I checked a few weeks ago to see if my high score still stood (it had been there well over a year – not because it was a great score, but because the flippers were in such disrepair it was barely playable at that point). The table and MVS that had long stood next to it were gone, replaced by a bare spot on a wall.

  3. I wonder if the complexity of latter-day pinball games has something to do with it. Between all the ramps, bumpers, spinners, loops, flashing lights, and spastic plastic figurines in the playfield, and the increasingly elaborate “graphics” on the scoreboard, late-’90s pinball games can be an ADD-inducing nightmare.

    For instance, my wife has been a saint in not only supporting my wishes to visit Disney Quest, Musee Mechanique, and Funspot, but in coming along each time. She knows pinball is one of the main reasons I’ve wanted to go to those arcades, and she’ll play the first couple of rounds. But she doesn’t really find the game fun, I don’t think. There’s just too much going on; it’s too hard to track the screen without losing track of the ball, or to understand what you’re supposed to be doing.

    And I don’t blame her — unless I know the game really well, I barely know what the heck I’m supposed to do! I still find it fun, but definitely understand why the non-obsessed wouldn’t.

    So while us pinball lovers think of the game as much simpler than, say, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, I’m not sure if it comes across that way to newbies.

  4. Scott Campbell

    As a long time pinball enthusiast, I’m loving this thread. I have my own theories about why pinball games have almost completely disappeared.

    First I suspect there was a lot of hate from the arcade owners and game suppliers. With all of the moveable parts, pinball machines needed constant maintenance, while video games rarely broke down, since the only moving parts they had were a couple buttons and a joystick. Also, most video games take up less space, so you can cram more video games in than you can with pinball machines.

    From the players’ side, it seemed like enthusiasm started dissipating when arcades starting only giving 3 balls per game. Then when they started charging 50 cents (or more) for those three balls, things really went downhill. Also, I agree with you Josh that the more complicated the games got, the less fun they became. Also, another pet peeve of mine seemed to become more prevalent in pinball’s twilight years: the operators’ practice of jacking up the machines so high that the balls would drain almost right away.

    One other note: I never played Pinball 2000, but I did play Revenge From Mars a few times and thought it was a blast. And coming from someone who hates video games, that’s saying something.

  5. Wow, what a great article… I had to watch Tilt again after reading this! (and the ‘King of Kong’ for reassurance) From an operator’s perspective (well, a pimply faced teenage kid back in the day working at an ‘Aladdin’s Castle’, but I digress) I fully agree that the Sony Playstation was the nail in the proverbial coffin. I remember as the graphics power increased with the home consoles, more kids with ‘Funcoland’ purchases in their hands would spend less and less time at the arcade and even remark to me that are games were “old”. Of course, the more and more this happened, the less and less we purchased newer games as they became unaffordable, knowing that we would never recoup our original investment.
    The pinball machines rarely had a customer using them, even when they were in excellent shape! Just a few regular customers would try to keep their initials on the board or occasionally, a dad would waste a few tokens on one while waiting for junior to get stomped on a Street Fighter machine by a local teenager with a bad attitude and a gloating disposition. Quite frankly, I always thought that pinball machines should have been turned into redemption/ ticket dispensers as no matter how crappy those games were, they always had an audience. (anything for a $.10 rubber ball or bite sized piece of candy, I guess…) Even if this wouldn’t help the adults play, kids would always come up to me and ask where the tickets come out on the pinballs. Of course, when I explained to them that these didn’t give out tickets, they moved on to a machine that did. (I always wanted to answer with “bend over and I’ll show ya”, but I realize that would be the wrong thing to do and I would have either been beat up by an annoyed parent, arrested, fired or a combination of all) In those days, I couldn’t even see the value in those old pinballs and wondered why / who would play those old relics. Now, I have a personal collection of 8 pristine pinball machines and look to continue to build my nostalgic home arcade. What’s funny to me now, is watching our senior generation ‘playing’ the newest slot machines by IDT and WMS Gaming like it is fun or something. They all have this glazed over look on their faces and seem to hate life in general. The odds of them winning anything are remote at best and they appear to be having no fun at all in the process. My question is: is the modern day casino the new 70’s / 80’s arcade? Maybe if we truly turned the pinball games into gambling devices (much like was thought of them in the 1970’s) they would still have a large following as people could actually enjoy losing their money on a fun game, rather than lose their money on a ‘game’ that provides no entertainment value whatsoever. Well, back to polishing my playfields. (and no, that’s not code for anything)

  6. @Scott – Good thoughts on maintenance factor, 3 balls (that made me so mad when I didn’t get 5!) and 50 cents or dollar plays. As far as complexity goes, I personally like the latter-day complex games (even though I have no idea what I’m supposed to do when I play them). But pinball newbies probably don’t.

    @Uncle Deej – That’s a terrific point about tickets/gambling. For all the money Williams spent on Pinball 2000, they probably would have been much better off by simply slapping in a ticket dispenser and giving out tickets for high scores rather than free games.

    I suspect a few things held back this change: One is, as you mention, the lingering stereotypes about pinball being a gambling machine. Though with all the other ticket dispensing “games” in arcades, I don’t think anyone would have made a fuss at that point if pinball got tickets.

    Relatedly, I bet pinball’s own makers would have resisted that — because they rightly viewed pinball as a skill game and pinball-making as a craft. Adding tickets would make it seem little different from Skee Ball and the claw “game.” Still, it probably would have been worth it to suck it up and try.

    And boy, I’m right with you on this:

    “Maybe if we truly turned the pinball games into gambling devices (much like was thought of them in the 1970’s) they would still have a large following as people could actually enjoy losing their money on a fun game, rather than lose their money on a ‘game’ that provides no entertainment value whatsoever.”

    I’ve only been to casinos a couple of times, but it’s beyond me why people would rather plug quarters into a slot machine when they could be plugging the quarters into pinball machines. Like you said, I’d rather lose my money while playing a fun game rather than lose my money repeatedly pressing a button to start a random number generator.

  7. Pinball is very much alive here

  8. well i know redemption games are very popular,i thought pinball had ticket dispensers as well,kids only want to play games that spit out tickets,if video games issued tickets in arcades they would be very very popular,i dont know why they havent done this?

  9. Looks like you were wrong.

  10. There should be a follow up to this article, I know that in Oregon and Washington at least five dedicated arcades have opened up in the last year alone.

  11. Great write up.

    A few other factors to consider.

    Arcade games were still a full generation ahead of consoles like the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Talking specifically about Sega Model 2 and 3 arcade systems.

    Driving games like Daytona and light gun shooters like House of the Dead and Time Crisis 2 were huge hits in the mid 90s. But Sega started charging outrageous prices for their machines. IIRC two player racers cost somewhere close to 30,000$ dollars or more. This lead to operators charging more (.75$ to 1.00$). This turned people away.

    Also there is another factor that almost nobody talks about. This is what I observed; a conservative shift in the culture that was anti-teen/young people.

    In this time I was around 13-15 years of age. I remember how everyone used to crowd malls every weekend. Then malls started cracking down. Mall Security was born. I remember cars used to circle the mall blasting music. It was like, the thing to do haha. All that disappeared. All of it. And malls stopped being cool places to hang out. This had to of been a contributing factor.

    Pinball machines used to be at Seven Elevens. I feel like there was a crackdown on any place that youth congregated. Our highschool got really conservative too, I remember they started a dress code when I got to 9th grade. This was columbine related, but maybe a factor. I mean, think about it.

    Regardless of the undocumented circumstances. It’s crazy. I remember pinball and arcade games at places like airports. Hotels. Restaurants. Seven Elevens. Truck Stops. Mini Golf Courses. Go-kart tracks. Rollerskating Rinks. Department stores…I first aged Theatre of Magic and Arabian Nights at a Gabriel Bros. I first played Simpsons at Ames/Hills and first played Street Fighter 2 at Walmart.

    It’s crazy how that all disappeared. And so sad. Subsequently I watched a popular Roller Rink close, Bowling Alley close, and pinball disappear from every place I just mentioned. Whether its my theory of a consevative cultural shift or what have you, something happened and its not just home video game consoles.

    Sure they were a factor, but there’s way more to the story. Well probably never know for sure, because I don’t think adults cared enough to pay attention and observe/analyze what was happening. And those of us that do care were too young and naive at the time to catch on either. It’s only now as an adult that I can sort of connect the dots using foggy memories.

    My final thoughts are. If it existed and worked before, it can make a comeback. It would be up to brave entrepreneurs that have the passion and brains to come up with a business model that would work today, alongside game designers who can create the hit game to go along with it. Dave and Busters exists. Bars in my area still have Pinball. I admit it would take close to a miracle to get it back but hey, crazier things have happened.

  12. I, myself have been a pinball enthusiast since I worked at the local amusement park in 1986 & 1987. Back then the park had a room filled with pinball machines. At this time the video game industry was striking me as getting bland. Already there were too many fighting games and too many driving games. Very rare a good video came out. So I changed interests and walked into the pinball room. Pinbot was the game that drew my attention the most. In 1986 the game was new and I very rarely got a chance to play it, but a year later I played it often. Other games in the room were Firepower II, High Speed, Space Shuttle, Comet…basically your typical Williams 80’s lineup. I eventually played most of them.

    The pinball machine room obviously changed the lineup of machines over the years, but I know I would always count on the amusement park to have a good selection of machines and that was well through the 90’s.

    But as many have pointed out, it was a different story for arcades and even local places. Arcades pretty much bit the dust by the 90’s with even the last hold outs in the mall beginning to close down. By this time the pinball machine was already extict. To find ONE or perhaps if you are lucky TWO machines at a venue you would have to go to a bar, a laundromat, a bowling alley, or the local Chuck E Cheese. The latter was impossible for a single guy in his 20’s to get into alone.

    Enter the millenium and the pinball machines continued to disappear. A few weeks ago I took my twin sons to the local amusement park and was shocked to see that all the pinball machines were GONE! The room which they were in were loaded with skill cranes and they had more seats for the restaurant in the next room.

    But having children does have the advantage for me now in which I DO go to Chuck E. Cheese with them. Surprisingly, it seems the CEC’s around me (5 in total) generally still have at least one pinball machine.

    Just before my kids were born I became very interested in Pinball machines and even bought one for my basement. The game was Pinbot of course, the very game that got me interested in pinball. While I owned the game, I found getting parts for it very frustrating and when a ramp or special plastic broke it took a long time to track the part down and/or it cost an arm and a leg. Needless to say, I grew weary of the very machine I loved so much back in my amusement park days.

    It is through that experience as well as recent experiences with pinball machines that kind of sums up their demise. In that retrospect, I agree with what Josh Korr said.

    Originally pinball machines were electro mechanical (all solenoids and relays) and they only had two flippers and various scoring devices on a flat – sloped playfield. The ball moved fairly slowly across the playfield. Over the years, pinball went electronic and offered more features to keep people interested in them. After all, the video boom of the early 80’s took many of the coins away from pinballs. So pinballs had to do something to get people back. Enter the ramps, the multi-levels, the multiple flipper…and lest not forget… MULTIBALL! All these features also resulted in higher power flippers which allowed the playfield to be tilted up more and that resulted in much faster play.

    All these extra features, and higher ball speeds increases the wear and tear on the machine considerably. Vending machine companies that had pinball machines were being CONSTANTLY called out to repair the machines. Where as the average video game had minor problems in comparison. So it became a profit issue. Video games made more of a profit for the average vending machine company because they broke down less. To add insult to injury, when new pinball machines came out, the company stopped making the parts for the older ones. This made the prices skyrocket on the parts. Becoming fed up with people breaking ramp x on game y and ramp x costs $200 to replace, many vendors decide to dump the pinballs from their game roster.

    Those that still had pinball machines out there in the late 90’s and early 00’s just let parts break or let the machines get dirty. Dirty playfields increases the wear on them. In the end the machines barely played because venders were having them repaired/cleaned less often. Eventually the owners of the venue probably got fed up with having to give people their money back when the machines didn’t work right and had them removed.

    Given that labor rates go up over the years, it became an expensive proposition to send someone out to fix a pinball machine, when the average video game machine usually only got a coin jam or had a blown capacitor on the monitor…both easy and fast fixes. So eventually the venders dumped the pinballs as well.

    The newer machines also turned off non-enthusiasts because of the deep ruleset. A newbie coming up to a Twilight Zone would probably not have a clue how to play the game right off the bat. That would turn off some people when they didn’t get far in the game and lost their coins very fast.

    Years ago, in the electro-mechanical days the machines had very easy rulesets and a simple reading of the instruction sheet, any player knew what they had to do.

    Today, even I, as a pinball enthusiast, if I get a machine again it would be an older one that has a FLAT playfield with only one set of flippers. Flippers, bumpers, drop targets, spinners…these are parts that can still be had or are still made…and they will not cost $300 to replace.

    I think if pinball went back to it’s roots and games were made simple, but interesting and parts were readily available, then perhaps pinball would still have a future.

    In conclusion, pinball really killed itself by becoming a complex machine that only enthusiasts would play and a special skilled few could fix. So I think that is what caused it’s demise.

    Geo