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How the last major pinball company handcrafts its machines

Ghostbusters, Metallica, Medieval Madness, Kiss — Stern hand-assembles them all right here

Stern Pinball turns 30 this year, and the last of the major pinball creators in the world decided to celebrate with a blowout party this month.

The pinball creator is hosting an anniversary party at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire, Illinois, this Friday. The event will include appearances by Barenaked Ladies frontman and pinball player Ed Robertson; Chicago musician Aly Jaydos; sword swallower Sally Marvel; Magic Randy; Mindy the Monkey; Ghostbusters' Ernie Hudson; and Batman's Adam West.

I had a chance to swing by the relatively new offices of Stern, a dozen miles or so away from Chicago O'Hare airport, to chat with them about the process of making machines and to get a tour.

All of Stern's machines are designed and prototyped in-house. Once approved, the creations are broken down and the designs for each sent out for manufacturing. With that single exception, everything else is done inside this single office and assembly plant.


Stern's office

The office takes up a small part of Stern's new location, through the back, where the carpet turns to concrete, the cubicles are replaced by rows of assembly stations, nests of wire, tables, toys and lots of workers.

I arrive an hour early, thanks to the time difference and my inability to use Google Calendars. Someone walks me back to the assembly plant. The massive, open room echoes with the thumps of pinball kickers, flippers and the occasional jangle of a pinball working its way through a cluster of bumpers.

Along one wall is Stern's employee "arcade." It includes a wide selection of nearly every machine Stern has ever manufactured, all set to free play. Among the titles buzzing and bumping away is Lazer Lord — Stern's first — a game designed not around the space wars and science fiction, but laser tag.

About 20 minutes and an embarrassing number of low scores later, Jody Dankberg, Stern's director of marketing and licensing, comes by to walk me through the assembly process.

Dankberg and I marvel at the process of turning reels of fine wires into the wiring harnesses that bring pinball machines to life.


Stern's waiting room

"We can't really automate this stuff," he said. "It has to be done by people.

"The amount of detail, the amount of parts, the amount of logistics. To be able to have all of the inventory to do this and have the people to do this, it gets a little out of control."

We walk by one room that I'm not allowed in. It's the automated testing area. While the machines are all tested by hand, they also test machines using robots.

(I can't help but imagine, when I'm told this, a T-1000 standing shoulder-to-shoulder with C-3PO grinding against the machine to pop a ball out of the center lane and into a flipper. Unfortunately, I could neither prove nor disprove this vision.)

Dankberg and the folks I run into during my tour all seem exceedingly proud of their work and the machines Stern puts out each year.

"Each machine takes about 30 hours, or about four working days, by about 200 people to assemble," Dankberg said. "Now designing and building a machine, that's about a year and a million dollars."


"We make three cornerstone titles a year," Dankberg said. "Our business depends on those three cornerstone titles doing relatively well to help us do other projects and grow the company, so we have to be really calculated in how we pick."

The process of deciding what to turn a table into, more often than not, is tied to a license.

The license has to be something that's global, can make for a good game and that the license holder is willing to provide significant support.

Dankberg says getting the license for, say, Ghostbusters — and if Sony only allowed Stern to use the name and font — wouldn't be very good. It has to include Slimer, the song and some of the original cast, or fans won't like it.

Once a title is selected, it has to be paired up with a designer. Stern has three design teams, including legendary designer, and "master of flow" Steve Ritchie.

Each team has two leads: the designer and a programmer. The duo work together, brainstorming ideas of what a table should be.

"The take these concepts like what would make a fun toy, what would be a fun interactive thing or what would make it pinball," Dankberg said.

Once the concept is roughed out, it goes to the designer who works on the layout and geometry of the board. Each designer has their own process.

Pinballs at Chicago's Logan Arcade Brian Crecente/Polygon

Pinball machines at Logan Arcade

"Steve Ritchie is the king of flow," Dankberg said. "He's there with a ruler measuring angles, making sure everything fits. Some people like to build it out and see how it plays first."

The initial board designs are build on a whitewood, or an unpainted wood playfield.

"We'll cut a table, make some prototype parts," Dankberg said. "Then they'll test it.

"The whitewood stage could be really short or really iterative. If they hit a homerun at first, how great is that? But a lot of times they like to change things. It's like a first draft."

Once the board design is roughed out, it's hooked up to a CPU and the designer starts to build out the game.

"They might turn on the lights first," Dankberg said, "then add some Rube Goldberg action, then decide what type of game it is; is it about scoring or spelling something out? How many different scenarios will there be when the ball is wild?"

Once the two leads finish their work, the game branches out to the rest of the design team, including junior programmers, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers — and then it's tested by robots. (Nope, they still wouldn't let me in.)

Finally, they have a design that can be sent out for manufacturing.


There was a time, back in the early '90s — the golden age of pinball — that Stern was assembly 300 machines a day. But that time is long gone and with it, the notion of a pinball industry.

While Stern isn't the only pinball company in the world anymore, it almost might as well be.

"There are others trying to make pinball machines," Dankberg said. "I think it would be fantastic if someone else came along and was really successful at it. Because that would make an industry."

Among the others are Jersey Jack, which made The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit tables; Spooky, which made Rob Zombie's Spookshow International; Dutch Pinball, which made a Big Lebowski machine; and Heighway Pinball, which made Full Throttle and is working on an Alien table.

Jersey Jack's The Hobbit Jersey Jack

The Hobbit

But even the biggest of them, Jersey Jack, has only designed two games in the past six or so years. Stern created 20 in the same time frame.

Dankberg says they're not successful enough yet to be considered competition, something he hopes will eventually happen.

"I want someone to be successful," he said. "We probably do 99.9 percent of the games shipped. That's not an industry, it's a monopoly.

"I come from the music industry business where there are dozens of guitar companies and guitar amplifier companies and it creates competition, it creates variety. My goal as a marketing guy is that I want all of them to get big. I want everyone to know about pinball. I want the conversation to go from, 'Oh, pinball, I didn't know they still made that," to "Oh, pinball, I just placed AC/DC it was great. I think there needs to be more of us to have that happen.

"I wish all of them well because I want there to be a successful pinball industry."