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Why are pinball machines so expensive?

An exciting pinball game could be called legendary, what with the flashing lights and music and sound of that silver ball bouncing this way and that. Pinball machines are also a man cave essential. There is something both nostalgic and mesmerizing about these games, and that’s a characteristic that can’t be replicated by modern day VR.

But you’ve probably heard that pinball machines are pricey. Is the cost of collecting pinball machines for your man cave worthwhile? Why are pinball machines so expensive, anyway?

We’re going to answer those questions right now and offer up some advice on whether you should buy a pinball machine for your man cave. Let’s get started.

How Much Do Pinball Machines Cost?

Just like novelty t-shirts, gaming consoles, and smartphones, the price of a pinball machine is based on multiple factors. A collectible pinball machine is going to cost more than a mass produced model, for example. Vintage pinball machines may also cost more than a brand new game, depending on its popularity.

If you purchase an older pinball machine that has not been well maintained, you may only pay a couple hundred. Once the game has been properly restored, though, it would have cost you thousands. So, you might think about purchasing something brand new, but then you see a price tag of $5,000 and get sticker shock.

That is why most people begin furnishing their man caves with used but playable machines within the $1,000-$3,000 range.

Reasons Why Are Pinball Machines So Expensive

Okay, you know that pinball machines are a couple thousand dollars or more. But why? They’re not as technical as a computer or a PlayStation, and yet the cost doesn’t even compare. What’s going on?

Well, we’ve got a couple of reasons:

1. Pinball Machines Cost Time and Money to Build

A pinball machine is not just a single piece of hardware. It’s a collection of artwork, lighting, wires, machinery, music, and technology. A single pinball might take hundreds of employees to operate properly, because every individual part requires a professional touch. Then, you need the designers, marketers, and engineers to make sure the game looks good and works well.

Think about how much it costs to hire an electrician for your home. Or how much a website costs. Now, imagine those same people working on something like a pinball machine. Electrical engineers are often employed by pinball machine manufacturers to work on the circuitry and wiring beneath the table.

It’s demanding. Even one faulty wire could cause the entire system to crash.

Designers are needed to make sure the table is playable. You would never spend time with a boring pinball machine, right? So designers and artists make the artwork that summons you to play, and they make the elements that keep the game interesting, such as the colors, shapes, and more.

In the past, pinball machines were painted with stencils. These days, most use vinyl wrapping or decals.

All Those Parts Come With Labor

The people involved in making a single machine are not the only ones who need to be paid. There are those who test the pinball machine for defects. This also takes a long while, considering that some pinball machines have over 3,000 pieces and moving parts.

New technologies haven’t made pinball machines cost any less, either. For instance, incandescent bulbs are being swapped out with LED lights, increasing the initial cost. The advantage to this is the longevity of those lights. Think about the cost of other upgrades, too. The HD screens for keeping scores and animations will raise the price.

Looking At How Pinball Machines Are Made

Aside from everything that goes into a pinball machine, making one can be a time-consuming process. Before the materials for a pinball machine are even gathered, companies choose an idea. From there, they need to reach out to brands or other organizations to see if they can use pop culture elements in their theme. If that brand, franchise, or individual declines, then it is back to the drawing board.

Once the theme has been finalized, the designers begin discussing the concept with the engineers and programmers. Prototype parts for the machine are made, reviewed, and revamped, if necessary. Meanwhile, artists begin rendering the playfield and backglass sketches.

When the artists are finished with those renderings, they send the images to the licensing agency for approval. With a thumbs up from the agency, those images are then sent to a separate company for screen printing.

At the same time, the electrical engineers are drafting up circuitry maps. Using the sketches from both the artists and the electrical engineers, the mechanical designers come up with a complete layout for the entire machine. To save time, most companies will have pre-made templates that their engineers and designers can follow.

Artists also work on the designers for specific targets or characters on the playfield. Prototypes of the drop targets, special ramps, and bumpers are sent out to another company for mass production.

Since most designers working on the pinball project have a narrative in mind, they will often utilize elements focused on said storyline. This may also include musical elements. Since the average pinball game is meant to last around 3 minutes, the layout is then tweaked to make the game more or less of a challenge for the player. For example, the designers may decide to move lanes away from a drain or rearrange the layout of bumpers.

As the programmers, artists, and engineers are working on the actual product, other things are happening. For instance, there may be animators using the artistic drawings to come up with videos and text. Writers are scribbling out manuals and making technical documents. Accountants are keeping the project on budget or dealing with the licensing agency. Then, there are salespeople and marketers creating the advertisements for the newest pinball machine.

Making a Prototype

Eventually, the company will be ready to produce a prototype, known as a “whitewood.” The playfield is laid out with glued on elements that sample how the machine will operate. After the entire whitewood—including the wires and lights—has been successfully arranged, the actual mechanical pieces are ordered.

Since the machinery is outsourced, it is tested rigorously to eliminate any faulty pieces.

2. Licenses Are Involved

It’s all always the hours it takes to fabricate the ultimate pinball machine, either. Sure, those raw materials can cost hundreds to procure and piece together. But most of the time, it is because a pinball machine won’t sell if people don’t understand the theme. As you may have seen among popular vintage pinball games, the most sought after machines are the ones related to trends, movies, shows, and events that people get hyped up about.

Since arcade game companies want to be relevant, they are often in competition with one another for the most valued titles. Imagine how much a pinball company would pay for a Marvel or DC license. Those titles are never cheap, and because of the competition, the price keeps going up and up.

Back in 1976, a pinball whiz named Roger Sharpe stated that companies account for the licensing before anything else. The royalties the brands and franchises require for those titles could render a pinball design utterly unprofitable. And if there is one thing a company does want, it’s not making money.

These days, royalties can cost upwards of $200 per pinball game sold.

3. Limited Collectibles

Another reason pinball machines are expensive is collectors. Sometimes, the demand for a specific machine will cause the value to inflate.

Most manufacturers make 300 units at a time. Collector editions are even less. This means that, when people start grabbing up a certain theme, there isn’t enough to go around. The price rises. And if the machine being sold is in good condition, the price will be even higher than average.

4. Quality Control

The other thing you want to consider: the length of quality control. Most pinball manufacturers do all of the quality control prior to mass production. Every single piece that is going to be mass produced will be inspected and certified.

Then 10-20 prototypes are given to quality testers who look at the machines. Some may consider the playability of the game, safety, durability during shipping (drop testing), and field testing. Another prototype may be taken for marketing purposes.

A manufacturer may bring in 50-100 gamers, too. They will see how satisfied these testers are with the game before signing off on mass production.

Wrapping Up

Pinball machines can cost thousands of dollars, whether they are brand new or if they have been beaten up in a bar for several years. But the reason for this price tag usually comes down to a couple of things: the cost of materials, technology, and production; licensing of the thematic elements; and supply vs demand. If you want the most amazing looking machines, you should be prepared to make an investment!


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Are they though? How much does a pinball machine cost in reality?

What is the average cost of a pinball machine?

These are all questions we’re answering in this upcoming article helping you decide on whether a pinball machine is going to be the next addition to your Man Cave.

Pinball machines could be classed as a man cave essential – symbolising a time gone by where a metal ball bouncing around a fit inducing array of lights was the height of gaming skill.

There’s something not only nostalgic, but altogether more REAL about the skill involved with acing the pinball machine – something that simply CANNOT be replicated even with today’s most realistic VR Games.

Watch this space as we uncover pinball machine costs. We’ll look at the cost of new pinball machines, as well as the cost of antique pinball games for that extra retro feel in your Man Cave!

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