Game Face

3 minute read
Bill Barol/Las Vegas

Gary Stern talks like somebody stuck a quarter in him, which is appropriate since he’s the last manufacturer of commercial pinball machines in the world. But don’t make the mistake of calling him that. “We say only,” he explains. “We don’t like to say last because it sounds like maybe we’re not gonna be around. We are. Pinball is an American icon. It has to survive. We need to continue to have pinball.”

His monologue barely makes a splash in the sea of bells, buzzers and whistles at the annual trade show of the amusement-machine business, which covers everything from video arcade games to kiddie rides and coin-operated pool tables. But Stern is an ardent voice of optimism in a field that has not been all fun and games lately. Hurt by growing competition for the entertainment dollar, revenues for the industry have flattened: $6 billion in 2001, an uptick from $5.8 billion the year before but off from $7.1 billion in 1991, according to trade journal Vending Times. Arcade games took the hardest hit, dropping 15% in dollar volume in 2001. “When video games started to boom in the mid to late ’70s, a manufacturer might sell as many as 80,000 to 90,000 units of a given game,” says Michael Rudowicz, president of the American Amusement Machine Association, which represents manufacturers. “Today, if he has a fantastic product, he might sell 5,000 to 6,000.”

Granted, the Las Vegas Convention Center doesn’t look like a graveyard–or sound like it. With 800 exhibitors showing the latest in game and music machines (and attendees encouraged to bring the kids as new-product testers), it’s loud. At Sega, guys in suits sit at a huge bank of monitors playing Quake Arena. Over at Global VR, conventioneers wearing huge, teardrop-shaped, bright yellow virtual-reality helmets blast away at enemy soldiers in the immersive war game Beach Head 2002. At Triotech Amusement, Tom Revolinsky, vice president of operations for Cleveland Coin Machine Exchange, a national arcade operator, unfolds himself from Ballistics, a high-speed outer-space racing game with realistic seat-rattling technology. “It was a fun game,” he says a little woozily, sweat dotting his forehead. “I imagine the younger folks have a little easier time playing it.”

A crowd three deep is gathered around a friendlier game, the Acme Crane Company, made by Benchmark Games of Hypoluxo, Fla. It’s one of those old-fashioned grab-a-prize machines, updated with a hydraulic system that raises the platform holding the prizes. Improbably, it’s one of the hot games at a show that is a mix of high-tech gimmickry and homey touches like corn dogs and inflatable scarecrows to attract spectators.

This is the sort of atmosphere in which a retro enthusiast like Stern might seem to thrive. But it’s not easy to uphold the pinball tradition in a video-game world. A decade ago, a thriving pinball company could ship 5,000 to 10,000 machines a year; this year, Stern Pinball is shipping “significantly less.” Still, says Stern, “it’s been a growing year. We’re very happy with it. There’s room for one company.” His biggest hit this year was a new machine called Roller Coaster Tycoon, though the fact that it is based on a computer game probably helped. Sleeping with the enemy may be what it takes to survive as the last guy standing in a field once ruled by names like Gottlieb, Williams and Bally.

Is he really the last, I ask once more at the end of the long, noisy day. Shelley Sax, Stern’s assistant, corrects me gently. “Only,” she says. “We say only.”

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