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January 14, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

But to make pinball a mainstream pastime, Guarnieri must appeal to two more-skeptical constituencies: kids with dollar bills and game operators who want to separate those kids from their dollar bills. (Yes, dollar bills — while operators can set the price to 50 cents if they want, it's now typical to spend $1 for a three-ball game.)

No amount of entrepreneurial enthusiasm or technological sophistication can change the fact that pinball faces the same problems that instigated its post-'70s tailspin. In the age of Doodle Jump and streaming videos of keyboard-playing cats, entertainment options are plentiful and cheap. And compared with most anything else a bar manager, multiplex owner or arcade operator might choose to plug into the wall, pinball machines tend to earn less money, require more maintenance and break down more quickly.

This is one thing Gary Stern and Jack Guarnieri can agree on: Pinball will cease to exist as soon as it stops earning money on location. To demonstrate the challenge of keeping pinball commercially viable in 2013, Guarnieri takes me to iPlay America, a 115,000-square-foot amusement center where he's contracted to service the games. This is the ultimate Darwinian arcade environment. There's a go-kart track, a laser-tag arena, a whole bunch of rides, and — in addition to the compulsory fighting and shooting games — skill cranes that dispense iPods and iPads to a lucky few. In the days before the beta version of Wizard of Oz hits the floor, there are just two pinball games on display here: Monopoly and Grand Prix, both Stern titles from the 2000s. Neither one looks like it's been glanced at, let alone played, since before the go-kart-riding kids were born.

The Wizard of Oz, with its big, bright LCD screen and toy-festooned playfield, will certainly draw more eyeballs than an older pinball machine like Grand Prix. But that's not all that relevant when you're battling for the affections of today's overstimulated, under-flippered youth. "Stern is not our competitor," Guarnieri says. "Any other game that goes into an amusement center is our competitor."

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