The game peaked in the early 1990s, when pinball machines filled dark arcades and backrooms of bowling alleys. Since then three of the four pinball manufacturers in the U.S. have gone out of business, and revenue today -- $219 million in 2011 -- is a quarter of what it was in 2001. The remaining 63,000 commercial machines take in about $67 a week each -- an amount operators say makes keeping pinball around difficult to justify. The devices are still mostly made by hand, and servicing can range from $200 to $2,000 a year. Josh Sharpe, president of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), says pinball's problem is simple: Times have changed. "It used to be you'd have dinner at home and go out for entertainment," he says. "Now you do entertainment at home and go out for dinner."
The industry may be down, but it's not game over -- not yet. Pinball is mounting a comeback: The IFPA's rolls of registered pinballers hit a record 14,000 last year (it's growing 30% annually); Stern -- until recently the one remaining manufacturer -- has tripled sales since 2009 and has launched "Pin," a lighter, cheaper game designed for home use. And, suddenly, there's new play in town: A handful of fledgling pinball companies, from Chicago to Spain, are developing new machines. The most serious contender is a startup called Jersey Jack Pinball.
Founded by industry vet Jack Guarnieri in 2011, the company has spent $2 million in an effort to make "the best pinball machine ever built." The highly anticipated game, which has a Wizard of Oz theme -- among other touches, there's a ball-stealing flying monkey and ruby-red slipper flippers -- and all the bells and whistles that would fit, costs $7,000 and will start shipping next month (it's also on-site, in testing mode, at select locations). Despite a $2,000 premium for the machines, Jersey Jack has already rung up 1,400 preorders.
Given that the American arcade is practically extinct, where is all this enthusiasm for pinball going? Overseas: 50% of Stern's machines are exported. And stateside? In man caves: 70% of Stern's machines go to hobbyists and collectors.
Guarnieri is hoping to score new audiences -- young people, women -- with his Wizard of Oz game. (The company also has a Hobbit-themed game in the works for 2014.)
"It's timeless. The game is a work of playable art," he says. "It's fun -- and it makes money."
Sony's vastly improved PlayStation 4 game system is set to launch later this year. The company hopes it can help it regain lost momentum.