The future of pinball depends on New Jersey
"Is this the place?"
Located a couple hours outside of New York City is the New Jersey-based business Jersey Jack. It's nondescript, only recognizable by a small sign near the road. The 42,000-square-foot blank canvas ware-house space has been converted into a pinball factory.
Jersey Jack's new pinball machine is based on the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz. The pinball machine, scheduled to ship later this year, will be the first new pinball machine not made by Stern Pinball since 2001.
The Wizard of Oz pinball machine is bold, innovative and expensive, a shot across Stern's bow. With its major license and many electronic gizmos, it could attract a whole new audience to pinball.
But Jack Guarnieri, the man who lends his name to the sign out front, tries to act humbly about the endeavor. He just set out to make a pinball machine and stabilize a family business that was in trouble.
When we meet Jack Guarnieri, the founder of Jersey Jack, it's Christmas 2012. He invites us to crash a holiday party for his friends, family and fans. The party doubles as a reveal of sorts for the upcoming pin-ball machine.
Fellow visitors appear to range from age eight to 80 and hover about the company's waiting room, munching on Doritos and slicing apart an astonishingly long sub sandwich. In the space, which is roughly the size and shape of a kindergarten classroom, hangs a visual history of this pinball machine's creation.
The machine's blueprints are pinned to the walls like butterflies in a glass case. Dorothy and her cohorts are carefully placed throughout the design, alongside the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys. The flippers are ruby red slippers.
After a few minutes of snacks, Jack's daughter Jen Guarnieri, a 20-something with long brown hair and a permanent smile, bustles in. She immediately swoops from one person to the next, using her left hand to greet visitors and her right to operate a portable credit card swiper. With a smile and a twist of her head, she directs us from the entry space into the actual warehouse.
"Don't you want to see the game?"
How Jack came to Jersey
Does anyone plan to make pinball machines?
In 1975, a bell-bottomed boy from Brooklyn named Jack Guarnieri took what he thought would be a temporary job repairing electromechanical pinball machines. Already a lover of pinball, the young man thought he'd work on pinball machines for a few months before attending college for electronic engineering.
Instead, he made a life of pinball. Guarnieri wore hats in nearly every sector of the industry, from repairing machines and operating arcades to developing amusement centers and running a large distributor.
In 1999, he saw an opportunity in the internet boom and opened pinballsales.com. Online retailing was a method for selling directly to home consumers and other operators across the country. Guarnieri got in early on the technology and it paid off.
By 2007, pinballsales.com hit its peak sales of $4 million, having served roughly 12,000 customers. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Guarnieri says, "we would do a million dollars' worth of business in three weeks. I would be running credit cards all day long."
And then 2008 happened — which may as well be journalistic shorthand for "things went to shit." By the fourth quarter of 2008, the economy had collapsed. Sales continued to dip over the following years.
Guarnieri looked at the numbers and came to a conclusion.
"I felt [the slump in sales] was not because of the economy," he says. "[It was] because pinballsales.com sells everything nobody needs, right? So nobody really needed a $4,000 game in their house. They wanted it."
"Around that time," says Guarnieri, "I felt that if we could build a game that was full-featured, had a lot of mechanical toys on it and also was brought up-to-date with electronics in the 21st century, that we would be successful in designing and manufacturing a pinball machine."
If Guarnieri wanted to sell more pinball machines, he needed a new machine, one people really wanted — one they practically needed. The problem was no one really made new, extravagant, luxurious and progressive pinball machines anymore.
The pinball factory
The Jersey Jack space is cavernous.
Along one side of the floor wait a half dozen freshly made Wizard of Oz pinball machines. Across from them is a lengthy, serpentine assembly line, segmented for the easy addition of each part of the complex machines. Taking up the far back half is box after box of pinball machines.
A number of the visitors at the Christmas Party — and many more not in attendance — invested in Guarnieri's plan to make a new pinball machine when it was little more than an idea. Guarnieri priced placeholder deposits at $250. The first day, he received 124 reservations. The second day, 131 more pinball machines were reserved. By August 2011, Jersey Jack had sold out of the initial 1,000 limited edition run.
For many of the investors, this is their first time seeing the Wizard of Oz pinball machine in person.
The guests' interest skews fetishistic. One woman walks a few circles around a machine, kicking its legs like a car. Another man uses a handheld video camera to capture some pornographic close-ups of the bumpers and gears.
More than once I hear an emotional, "It's really real!"
Guarnieri says, "[I have business friends that say], 'Jack, you've sold how many millions of dollars worth of product that didn't exist and nobody's played, how does that happen?' You know, it's pinball, this is how it happens."
To this date, Jersey Jack has sold the initial 1,000 run at $6,500 apiece, along with an additional 500 regular edition Wizard of Oz pinball machines at $7,000. Once all tables have shipped and payments have been paid, the pinball machines will have produced $10 million in sales.
Guarnieri credits at least 100 pinball machine sales to fellow operators he's met over the years.
"[They] believe in me," says Guarnieri. "They said, 'You know what, this guy's not a salesperson. He's not somebody that's just interested in the money of it. He's going to build something we hope that works and is fun to play and is going to make money commercially. And we're not going to let him down.'"
Much of the money goes into the pinball machines, according to Guarnieri. He's sticking adamantly to a "Say Yes" policy that allows the designers creative freedom. Guarnieri hired Joe Balcer (The Simpsons Pinball Party, South Park Pinball) to design the table and Keith Johnson (The Simpsons Pinball Party, Revenge from Mars) to program it.
At one of the pinball machines, Guarnieri points to the dozens of miniature LED lights, the high-resolution screen and zaftig frame as expensive but important inclusions. Then he shakes the machine wildly, terrifying the young girl next to him. It's gotta be sturdy, he tells me, because people like to get physical.
Later that day, I see what he means when a burly 30-something man — the very same person who was previously filming it like a fragile work of art — takes full advantage of the forgiving tilt settings, beating the pinball machine like a rug.
"You have to have a real belief in what you're doing," says Guarnieri. "I didn't know what the bill of materials was going to be on this game because I didn't know what we'd design. So there was no way to say, 'Well, we have X amount of money in the budget to do this' […] What will make this game sell is, does it work and is it fun to play, so it will make money commercially […] That’s what's going to, at the end of the day, power the company to the sales and that's where you're going to make your money."
A history lesson from a historian
"For many years pinball was at the top of its game," says Stan Fox. A Coney Island historian, the older gentleman wears a Christmas tie, a Cyclones baseball cap and an ever-so-slight local swagger.
Fox's family started in the arcade business when penny arcades dominated the Coney Island boardwalk in 1939. He's run arcades himself and remembers installing a pinball machine in 1976, when the hobby was legalized by the city council.
"But of course, like all things, it suffered a slump," Fox continues. "Kids got into the video games and the home video. Pinball was relegated mainly to the bars for the older people, like myself, who remembered it. And for many years it just languished."
Since 2001, Stern Pinball has been the sole creator of new pinball machines, many of which are beloved by pinball fans. But the hobby has stalled. Pinball machine sales are down by thousands from the 1990s, and innovation is measured by the inch.
"For many years pinball was at the top of its game, then kids got into the video games"
Guarnieri gives the example of a recent AC/DC themed pinball machine. "If you didn't know any better, you might think it was built ten years ago. There's nothing about it that says it was built yesterday."
"When you only have one company making something," says Fox, "there's no incentive to really do the best you can. Even though they do probably try, but when there's competition, that's what makes things better for everyone, the consumer and even the manufacturer, because it gives you that incentive to really dig down deep and go all the way."
You wouldn't know things had been so grim from Fox's enthusiasm. In the midst of the Jersey Jack party, flanked by Wizard of Oz pinball machines, the man can't stop beaming. "I think this is going to be the start of a real renaissance for pinball."
Behold, the Wizard of Oz in pinball form
Butch Peel, a middle-aged man with a sturdy frame and an intense handshake, volunteers to give me a tour. Peel's been a civil servant for the U.S. Army for 28 years, and for the last half of 2012, he's been taking monthly visits to the Jersey Jack warehouse across the country from his Texas home.
Peel met Jack Guarnieri via the Jersey Jack web forum. Guarnieri needed a company slogan. Peel came up with "Jack of All Trades, Master of Fun." Guarnieri loved it and licensed it, and from there, Peel became more involved with the company.
Now, Peel lends his experience in electrical engineering and is also writing the manual. When the game comes out, he'll travel to teach operators and owners how to play and maintain the machine.
Sacrificing time off to travel across the country to work in a factory requires a certain enthusiasm, one that's abundantly obvious as Peel lays his hand on one of the Oz pinball machines.
The machine is wide-bodied, he says, his eyebrows raising to assure me that's a big deal. Wide-bodied, I learn, is industry jargon for a pinball machine that stretches horizontally to contain a bevy of wacky gadgets, toys and machines.
Peel jabs an index finger at a row of lights. Unlike the single-color lights of most pinball machines, these are RGB LEDs. There are 100-some LEDs in all, and they can produce 32 million unique colors.
Characters and settings from The Wizard of Oz have been recreated as toys and automatons. A witch hovers on a broomstick. A Kansas cottage spins like a top. There's a tornado that twists the ball and a flying monkey that carries it away.
To an outsider, the dual screens are most expensive and impressive looking additions to the pinball machine. Under the glass is a miniature crystal ball that displays video, almost like a hologram, and atop the pinball machine is a large high-definition monitor. "A lot of people standing around can watch the game from a different perspective," says Peel, "and see things going on while you are playing."
He paints a verbal picture: the game lights up in an amusement center or family restaurant. The bright colors, the familiar characters, the sharp display work together to attract passers-by like moths to a 32-million-color flame.
On the screen, we watch the Wicked Witch of the West ride her broom through their air. It looks like original footage from the film, except the witch sky writes Game Over in thick, black smoke. Sure enough, two young boys and their tween-age sister skitter over, forming a semi-circle around the glowing machine.
Peel is quick to cushion what he's just told me. "But in terms of hardware and all it's just wires connecting to wires again under the play field. Nothing earth-shatteringly different."
Jack Guarnieri is more bold: "This is what other people have told me — like Steve Epstein, people that are really into it forever — this is like what happened when [pinball] went electronic from electromechanical. This is like what happened when they put flippers on Humpty Dumpty and everything else was dated. And that's what they've told me. So I'm going to believe that."
If you build it …
Judging from the layout of the warehouse, I should be able to surmise how the pinball machines are made. But I can't. Something's missing. The factory line reminds me of a familiar meme:
Step 1.) Design pinball machine Step 2.) Build production line Step 3.) ??? Step 4.) Profit!
Every few feet on the line hangs an example of the pinball machine, slightly modified from the spot before it. First is a wood slab, then a wood slab with some plastic, then a wood slab with some plastic and some wires. This process continues, weaving out and in and out and in through the factory, until near the end waits something that resembles a pinball machine. With a product so mechanical and complex, I guess I'd imagined something more like a giant robot that just … did it?
In reality, Guarnieri has hired a group of locals to assemble Wizard of Oz machines, piecing together the various parts the company has ordered from across the country. Some of these people are pinball lovers like Peel, but many of them learned to like pinball through the job.
"If you can't have fun working in a pinball factory, you can't have fun anywhere"
The employees range in age from old to young. Jen Guarnieri's uncle works on parts, as does her cousin's husband. This month, Jack Guarnieri's recently graduated son (also named Jack) will start at the company.
What about Jack's wife, Jen's mother? Was she a giant pinball fan, too? Jen Guarnieri tilts her head back and laughs. "No, and she still isn't really. She's so supportive, of course, but she probably won't work here ever. I can't see that happening, but …"
Maybe it's the giant sub sandwich, plastic bowls full of candy and kitschy holiday decorations, but the factory exudes hominess.
"I don't really have this pyramid where I'm at the top [of the company]," says Jack Guarnieri. "I'll go throw the garbage out, I'll go do whatever I have to do. The company's flat. So everybody should take ownership of it. I want to lift other people up so that we could all go be in this together and share it. That's what it is."
He takes a breath then adds, "If you can't have fun working in a pinball factory, you can't have fun anywhere."
Guarnieri hopes to pass his business down to his kids, though he says that wasn't always the case. Jen, for example, went to school for marketing.
"I never thought I would work for him," says Jen Guarnieri. "I went to college and everything and I just kind of fell into it. I love it." So she took a job in pinball, and now it's become her life. Sounds familiar.
"Well, of course I grew up with [pinball]," says Jen Guarnieri. "Jack is my dad." During the holidays, she says, the Guarnieri clan would make their way to the basement, where the patriarch kept a few pinball machines at any time. For birthday parties, the kids would take over one of Jack's arcades.
Today, most of Jen Guarnieri's role falls in line with traditional marketing responsibilities — fielding emails, organizing promotions, checking the forums — but her father dotingly notes her contribution to the pinball machine.
"My daughter had the idea to put the ruby red slippers on the flippers," Jack Guarnieri explains.
"We actually got ruby slipper salt and pepper shakers from Warner Bros.," says Jen Guarnieri, "and they were on my desk, and I said, 'How cool would these be as the flippers?' When they first came out not everyone loved them, people were like, 'Ah, it's too girly.' But it's the Wizard of Oz, they're the slippers, the whole movie's about them."
"It fits perfectly," says Jack Guarnieri. "You have to give your customer what they don't even know they want yet."
Guarnieri and his company have a few more things to finish before they can ship Wizard of Oz. At the top of that list is actually programming the rules of the game, presented via the screen, directing the player where to shoot, tallying combos and scores.
When the company finally ships the game, Guarnieri imagines he'll be doing cartwheels down the driveway. Once he's finished with some minor acrobatics, he has plans. For one, Jersey Jack must fill the additional orders of Wizard of Oz pinball machines, along with possible second and third runs.
The company has also agreed to make a pinball machine inspired by The Hobbit. In the office corridor just off the factory floor, you'll find a few works of Lord of the Rings-inspired artwork. A map of Middle-earth is framed across the hall from a caricature of Jack Guarnieri as a munchkin.
The movie-themed artwork is the latest addition to the wall. Walking down the hallway, lined with photos and industry magazine covers, is like moving backwards through time, watching Jersey Jack become Normal Jack. The pinball maker becomes the pinball seller becomes the pinball operator.
"If I proverbially got hit by the giant pinball in the sky tomorrow," says Guarnieri, "I have no doubt that the company's going to continue, that they're going to build games ... that's going to go on. Jen could probably run the company tomorrow. She's got a brain in the head and she's got a business sense. She knows the customers and she deals with them and she gets it."
Jen Guarnieri is skeptical.
"My dad has a joke that he wants to buy a coconut stand in Hawaii one day," she says. "So I guess when that happens I'll be here. But that will never happen. He'll never retire, he'll be here forever."