The economy of pinball machines in the field…

Cyclone Pre-Maintenance

Even those who have never played pinball, remember seeing a machine or two in a random bar, restaurant, airport, movie theater or some other random location. The profile of a pinball machine — from front or side — is unmistakable.

Now, anyone who has played some random pinball machine more than once has run into a machine that is in less than perfect condition. The flippers might be extremely weak. Or maybe a switch or two (or ten) doesn’t register the ball’s passing. Commonly, some random rubber ring somewhere is broken and bits of it are floating about the playfield. Maybe a ball is stuck somewhere or some random solenoid just doesn’t work any more.

Anyone with any mechanical sense will immediately ask, “How the hell can someone leave a machine in this condition out on location?”

The answer is one of conflicting economic goals and the general cluelessness of your average pinball consumer.

Brief bit of vocabulary: On location refers to a pinball machine that it is in a bar, restaurant, etc… and is powered up and awaiting quarters. An operator is the person that owns the pinball machines on location as the location owner is typically not the machine owner. A route refers to the locations maintained by a particular operator. The take is the amount of money dropped into the machine. Typically, the take is figured on and collected on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Rotating the machines refers to the practice of putting a clean machine on location and removing the old machine to be shopped. Shopping a machine involves taking it back to the shop and cleaning and repairing it from top to bottom, or so the theory goes.

Have a look at the picture at right. It is a close up of the entrance to the upper right ramp when I purchased Cyclone. As you can imagine, having a big hunk of rubber hanging out on the playfield makes hitting that ramp just a little bit more difficult than it really should be.

It isn’t uncommon to see that level of obvious brokeness in machines on location. Why would that be tolerated? Because, as long as the lights flash, the machine makes noises and the flippers mostly appear to move when the player hits the buttons, the machine’s take will be about 80% to 90% of what it might in perfect condition.

So there isn’t a huge amount of economic incentive for the route operators to fix the machines. Actually, there is a significant dis-incentive to expend effort on fixing the machine.

Cyclone Pre-Maintenance

Now, take a close look at the picture on the left. It is different view of the same broken rubber ring. Notice how the rubber ring disappears under some of the various playfield toys? I’d suggest having a look at the large image to fully appreciate the magnitude of the issue.

So, to fix that rubber ring is going to require completely removing several major playfield components and/or loosening a number of others. Invariably, doing so will reveal any of a number of other problems that probably should be fixed.

Now, imagine doing that level of maintenance work in some stinky bar somewhere. I used to do that quite a bit as I maintained the pinball machine in the Village Idiot in New York City for a few years (Unfortunately, closed — stupid yuppie invasion. Head down to The Patriot instead). It was a challenge and I was lucky that the machine was out in the open and not shoved away in a corner somewhere.

Busted Launcher Tip

It will easily take me a couple of hours, maybe more, to fix that one problem on Cyclone. If I rush-jobbed it and had lots of experience ripping this one machine apart and putting it back together, I could likely bring that done to a bit over an hour.

Now, if I were a route operator and this were my machine out in the field, I would probably be paying one of the route drivers — the guys who drive around the route, picking up quarters and maintaining the machines — $15 to $25 an hour + driving expenses (gas, van, etc..). So, I’m looking at somewhere around $50 to fix that rubber ring if the guy does it in the field. And for what purpose? If the machine’s take is only $40 to $80 a week — a very optimistic range, many machines make much less — and fixing that ring is going to bump the take up by $10/week — again, extremely hugely optimistic — it is going to take 5 weeks to pay off that one fix.

That is not good business.

Broken Flipper Rubber

So, the machines stay on location and rot. More and more things go wrong until something catastrophic breaks and the customers no longer drop $$ into the machine. What can be spot repaired will be. The picture at the left is pretty typical. That flipper rubber used to be rotated such that the part almost worn through was at the tip of the flipper. Instead of replacing it, the rubber was rotated such that the rip was on the backside of the flipper. On the right is another common failure, though not often considered catastrophic (though the metal tip can damage the ball and indirectly cause playfield damage).

Once the machine is rotated out, it be restored back to as whole as condition as possible back at the operator’s shop. Better lighting. Proper tools. In an environment where there is plenty of space to work on the machine.

Given that the whole goal is to clean up the machine and get it location ready as quickly and cheaply as possible, there are often some… ummm… “interesting” fixes employed. That will be the subject of another post.

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5 Responses to “The economy of pinball machines in the field…”

  1. bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » Last Pinball Factory Around says:

    […] entirely surprised to learn that most pinball machines are sold individuals and placed in homes. The economy of route operated — corner store / pub — pinball machines was always based o… that was quite easily resolved by simply replacing all the machines with video games. Lower […]

  2. Eric J says:

    Here’s something that bugs me – I bet many many underutilized video games and pinball machines, especially in places like restaurants, could actually make more money if they just dropped the price back down to $.25. There’s a big psychological barrier between dropping a single quarter into a machine and dropping multiple quarters at once.

    I’m much more likely to give my kids a quarter to play a machine than fifty cents, or a dollar, especially given how hard the games are today and how short the game is likely to be.

  3. Zac says:

    Nice article! From 1982-90 I worked for one of the big parts supply houses in the industry (Great Amusement Emporium), and a huge benefit to the job was attending the annual trade show [AMOA] in Chicago every year. It was great fun to play all the new pinball games before the public had a shot at them. I was never much of a video game fan, although one of my favorite arcade games was Atari’s Paperboy. At the end of each day, having spent 10-plus hours down in the bowels of the Hyatt on East Wacker Drive, my ears would ring for hours after the show closed from all the noise generated by video games, pinball machines, kiddie rides, etc.

  4. Ben Heller says:

    First, this is a great article. It makes a lot of sense and explains the incentive as to why i only see poorly maintained machines.

    As for Eric J’s comment regarding pricing the games at a quarter… i think exactly the opposite. I think machines should remove the quarter slot entirely. The price point is too low. These machines are expensive to own and expensive to maintain. Approximately $5000 per machine… then add on maintenance… add it up and the result is that pinball machines are going to disappear because they are not a good source of profitability at this point. The mindset of the consumer has to change and getting rid of the quarter slot should help change their mentality and change expectations. Games should charge $1 and the machines should only accept $1 and $5 bills.

    I also live in NYC (and had been to the Village Idiot – miss that bar too) so i am use to higher price points for everything… $10 per game for bowling… $25 for 100 golf balls at the driving range. I understand that some people will be turned off by the higher price point… but the machines will still be used at $1 per game. People who grew up with Pinball now have jobs and can afford to pay $1 to play. Regardless, I don’t see how the game survives without profitability. I do not think home collections can sustain Stern.

  5. The Rise and Fall of Pinball « My Name Is Legion says:

    […] want to understand the economics of having a pinball machine in the back of a grimy pub, you should read this and then this. And then you can shed a tear as you read about the final pinball […]

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