But compared to slot machines and digital video games, pinball machines are simply too expensive to make: a typical machine has about 3,500 parts including 1,200 screws, 115 light bulbs, 72 switches and over half a mile of wiring. And assembling one requires more labour man-hours than a car. By the end of the century the great pinball makers like Gottleib, Bally and Williams had all left the business. Today, only one manufacturer, Stern Pinball, regularly produces a limited number of new machines every year out of its factory in the Chicago suburbs.
George Gomez, a veteran pinball designer for Bally and Williams, and who is now responsible for game development at Stern, admits that little has changed in the last 20 years in terms of the technology built in to machines. "The games we make are still stuck back in the '90s," he says. Pinball machines, on the face of it, are trapped in a kind of technology time warp.
Hand of mod
Which is where pinball modders come in: finding ever-more complex ways to supercharge their machines, and meeting at pinball expos and creating websites to show off their work, share tips and tricks, and offer their services.
For instance, Chris Williams, an aircraft service engineer from North Wales, but known to fellow pinheads as Poibug, replaced the rather innocent storybook-style artwork from an old Gottleib Genie machine made in 1979 with a theme inspired by the American punk band The Ramones – with the sound to match. "I thought about integrating a set of Ramones sounds with the machine, so that when the ball rolled over a given switch it would play a sound," says Williams. But instead he opted to fit a 50W guitar amp to the inside of the machine, which blasts out a selection of Ramones songs stored on a memory stick. He says his latest plan is to fit a 6-inch (15-centimetre) video screen into the back of the machine so that it can play Ramones videos as well.
Other forms of modding add new hardware features to an old machine. Some were built into a manufacturer's prototype before it was put in to production, like targets that drop beneath the playfield when hit, but then left out to keep manufacturing costs down, according to Stan Simpson. Some go beyond restoring original features, adding new ones, such as lighting or installing LEDs – especially in the eyes of figures on the playfield – or designing "toppers" – decorative fittings that sit on top of a machine's backbox. "On one Twilight Zone machine I have even installed a 2-inch (5cm) television screen connected to a DVD player that showed episodes of the Twilight Zone TV show while you play," says Simpson.
Not all pinheads approve of people modding their machines in this manner. "Many people like it, but some people think it is sacrilege,” says Simpson. “They think that if you change a machine from its original spec then that's wrong, machines shouldn't be changed from how they emerged from the factory."
However, what’s a modder to do when faced with a great looking game that is, quite simply, dull? Koen Heltzel says his boss had such a pin, called The Machine: Bride of Pinbot, at work. "We played the machine in every break, but it actually got very boring very fast. You just have to play one shot over and over again," Heltzel explains.
So Heltzel hacked the machine by rewriting the game's software, introducing new and more challenging rules requiring players to do a far more wide variety of shots. He also got a graphic designer to create completely new graphics and animations which explain the story of the game more fully, and which are played on a dot matrix display (DMD) screen that Heltzel retrofitted to the machine's backbox.