When it comes to what genre in the entertainment universe deserves the phoenix award — recognition for being near death to suddenly rising in popularity once again — there’s only one clear winner: pinball.
And the catalyst that set pinball on its upward trajectory can be blamed, at least partially, on a New Jersey coin-op distributor and operator turned pinball manufacturer, known as “Jersey Jack” to those in the know. To those that aren’t, his name is Jack Guarnieri.
You see, pinball spent the latter half of the ’00s in a state of living death. Stern Pinball, then the only pinball company left, had put out some solid machines before 2005 (Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons Pinball Party), but it soon found itself having to cut costs to survive. The company eventually had to compromise on the quality of the games it was shipping and wound up axing significant top talent to make ends meet. This was a time where every Stern Pinball release felt like it could’ve been the pinball world’s last.
Then Jersey Jack announced that he was getting out of the coin-op distribution and operating business, and was going to pursue pinball manufacturing. And the pinball industry exploded.
Jersey Jack Pinball promised that it was going to create a game the likes we’d never seen before. It would be based off of the Wizard of Oz, and would feature a high-definition LCD screen in the back box, replacing the antiquated dot-matrix display pinball had been using for almost three decades. The game would also feature color changing LEDs instead of cheaper general illumination bulbs. Showing he was serious, Guarnieri snagged famous rules designer, coder, and ex-Stern Pinball employee: Keith Johnson (The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons Pinball Party).
This kicked off an arms race between Stern and Jersey Jack, seeing Stern Pinball pulling together funding and locking up top development talent, some they had previously dumped, such as the “King of Pinball” Steve Ritchie (Terminator 2, High Speed, AC/DC), John Trudeau (Hollywood Heat, Gold Wings, Wrestlemania), John Borg (Jurassic Park, Guns n’ Roses, Tron), and putting George Gomez (Monster Bash, Johnny Mneumonic, Lord of the Rings) as head of creative. The company also leveled up their hardware as well, redesigning their PCB layout, operating system, and adopting colored LEDs.
Jersey Jack Pinball also wound up inspiring smaller, wannabe garage developers to try their hand at pinball development. There’s an entire article waiting to be written on the successes and failures that happened with these groups, which is still ongoing for some. The point being, Jersey Jack Pinball’s Wizard of Oz project was the needle that injected some much-needed competition into pinball’s veins.
I got a chance to talk with “Jersey Jack” Guarnieri about the industry, where he thinks pinball is heading, and the trials and tribulations of producing his second game: The Hobbit.
GamesBeat: For those reading who don’t know about Jersey Jack Pinball, can you give a little history on the company?
Jack Guarnieri: I started to repair electro-mechanical pinball machines in 1975. I fell in love with pinball and started to revenue-share commercial locations, develop game rooms, and amusement centers — and started PinballSales.com in late 1999 to sell commercial arcade games to the consumer market.
GamesBeat: Are you still running a coin-op product distribution business as well as being a pinball manufacturer?
Guarnieri: No. I have no distribution business; it is all Jersey Jack Pinball. When we started Jersey Jack Pinball, we stopped selling Stern Pinball [products].
GamesBeat: Pinball is in a weird place right now. Seven years ago, the only major pinball developer and manufacturer left in the world was Stern Pinball.
Then a few years later, Jersey Jack Pinball announced they were entering the production side of the market. That announcement, combined with the explosion of crowdfunding, which saw all these ’boutique’ and small garage operations saying, “Hey! Me, too! I want in as well. We can create a pinball machine as well!”
Guarnieri: We started Jersey Jack Pinball on January 1st, 2011 — the people who first believed in me and then our team created the company. They funded the company and we rewarded them with an amazing first game [Wizard of Oz].
GamesBeat: For the record, I put in work as a freelance artist with one of those operations — Skit-B — on an unannounced project. Obviously, because of the legal mess surrounding Predator, that project likely isn’t happening anymore.
Maybe I am preaching to the choir more so than asking a question here, but it seems like a lot of these operations entered the business with a mobile phone game philosophy. LIke, they can easily handle coding a game and putting together an art package … maybe even put together a real-world prototype, but it seems like a lot of them hiccup on the manufacturing part. Like, they aren’t acknowledging that at the end of the production cycle, they have to actually build a fleet of big, heavy cabinets with complex wiring and assembly. This isn’t just tossing a file up on the Apple iOS store.
How huge of an undertaking was it for Jersey Jack Pinball to face the issue of manufacturing? It had to be an expensive infrastructure to put in place.
Guarnieri: You can visit us and see millions of dollars in parts and all that it takes to build a commercial arcade pinball machine at the level that we design and build at. It’s a big undertaking and while most anyone can build one game, not many can build thousands of games as we have.
GamesBeat: I remember hearing about some of the smaller pinball developers working out a deal to use your facility to manufacture their games. That seems like a smart way to get the facility to recoup some of its cost and keeping the assembly line from sitting idle waiting for the next Jersey Jack product. How has that worked out so far?
Guarnieri: We have not worked with anyone that could get us a game that was ready for production. I see us being very busy for a long time to come.
GamesBeat: Since the boutique developer explosion in pinball, there have been a lot of shady things happening. There was a point where Predator’s licensing dirty launrdy got exposed, which even I didn’t know how bad it was being a semi-insider, and Popaduik’s delays, and then there were questions about the Big Lebowski project from Dutch Pinball being legitimate, and honestly — Jersey Jack Pinball was having some Wizard of Oz issues and delays with development on The Hobbit.
There was this window of time where all of this was hitting, and I’d just sit there thinking, “You know, what the hell is going on here?! It feels like amateur hour and no one can deliver anything they’re promising!”
Do you feel that all of these missteps, from so many sources, have hurt your capability to move product and gain customer trust?
Guarnieri: I can not speak to anything you mention as I have no first hand information. We designed and built an amazing game with Wizard of Oz. We did the same with The Hobbit.
As people who do not know everything involved to do anything, we can only guess. How much effort goes into becoming a Heart Surgeon? Nobody knows unless they do it themselves.
A high profile customer working in technology told me, “Jack, it’s OK to wait for great things.”
When he received his Wizard of Oz last year, and he is now waiting for his The Hobbit.
We open our doors to everyone that wants to visit. We have not hidden or avoided phone calls. We are transparent to get information to our customers so they know what we are doing. I just came back from Pinball Expo and that was great.
GamesBeat: Speaking of customers, from my perspective, you’re working to appease three groups in pinball: the operator, who has to put the machine out on public location and hope to earn money from the quarters people throw into the game; the high-end collector, who will pay insane prices to get a game new-in-box to put in their basement of garage; and the player, who has to enjoy the game enough to keep coming back and dropping cash into the machine — or possibly graduate to collector status.
How do you prioritize who you market a Jersey Jack Pinball game to? And perhaps you can go over how, as well? To me, these three customer types seem to have very different wants and needs.
Guarnieri: What you say is true, but the common denominator is the game must be fun. It must be challenging, but not too difficult, and have a deep ruleset, while not being frustrating.
There is a delicate balance and we put a lot of time and effort into this formula. We are not salespeople first, we are played and lovers of pinball, and technicians, and operators.
We believe we know what makes great pinball and that’s what we want to build.
GamesBeat: Let’s talk a little bit about what Jersey Jack Pinball has brought to the table, as far as innovation. I’ve been saying for at least a decade, that pinball needs a LCD screen in the backglass. You guys finally made that happen with Wizard of Oz. What made you finally say, “Yes. We absolutely have to be the ones to do this!” Was the LCD screen difficult to implement?
Guarnieri: The LCD is a piece of hardware. That’s the small cost. The big cost is what content it displays and how the content is integreated into game play, and how it entertains onlookers, and informs players.
We have spent a lot of time and effort to get this right. The screen interface on Wizard of Oz works very well, and for The Hobbit it is different, and works for that theme game. They are both beautiful, and attract players, and keep them in the game.
GamesBeat: I know pinball people can be a bit … cantankerous … when moving from one style of display to another. Have you received much backlash from people who still have a thing for dot matrix displays?
Guarnieri: Not really. The game was designed to welcome veteran players as well as introduce pinball to new players, especially women and young people.
It does very well as we have seen by the huge collections on the games in commercial locations. The young people who never played pinball naturally absorb the whole game, video and ball play. They just don’t stare at a rolling silver ball. With all of the technology they are exposed to at a young age, they adapt pretty fast to our games.
For the veteran pinball players who look at the ball, the screen has become something to entertain … amuse and attract onlookers, and get people into what’s happening on the playfield.
GamesBeat: You guys also did some amazing work with colored LED lighting, which the rest of the industry followed up with their own solutions. Wizard of Oz in partiular is an insane game to look at just for the light show. How was the process of seeing that come about?
Guarnieri: Like other innovations, it was costly and difficult ,,, but obviously worth it.
We have improved in The Hobbit as technology changed, so did we in our design and implementations. Wizard of Oz broke so many barriers in what it did. People walk up to it and stare at it amazed.
It’s the first game to have all clear inserts in the playfield. There is a long list of firsts.
[Stephen’s pinball fun fact: The inserts that Jack is talking about here, are clear plastic windows on the playfield. These are often colored. So a regular white bulb sitting under the playfield will shine through, say, a green insert, producing a green light. With LED bulbs that can change color, there is no need for the inserts to be anything but clear. Since the color of the light is now determined by the bulb itself.]
GamesBeat: One thing everyone kept asking during Wizard of Oz’s development was … why that license for a pinball theme?
Guarnieri: Why not? It’s good vs. evil. And it has a rich, well-known story with amazing characters and visuals. It lends itself to be a pinball machine. It already had several best-selling top slot machine titles too.
GamesBeat: The Hobbit makes a lot more sense, to me, as a modern pinball theme. If I remember correctly, this game was being developed in conjunction with the movie. Was it difficult working with The Hobbit license holders while the movie was in production?
Guarnieri: The difficulty was getting assets that were secret to the world. We did not have images of Smaug until close to the release of the third movie. We have implemented so much art into this game that it is another classic in the making. We are very proud of this game as it breaks other barriers in design and innovation, as well as being stunning playable artwork.
GamesBeat: I also remember that The Hobbit was supposed to be released before the third movie, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, hit theaters on December 2014. What were some of the issues that held up The Hobbit pinball from reaching that deadline?
Guarnieri: Ideally, we wanted to release it with the third movie. The game we showed at Pinball Expo in 2014 was redesigned, and that took a lot more time and effort. I suppose we could have built that game, but then, we want to give our players, and loyal customers, the very best game we can give them and not whatever we settle for.
GamesBeat: Did missing the deadline hurt some of your sales? I imagine operators would’ve really liked to put that machine into theaters while one of The Hobbit movies was playing.
Guarnieri: There is some belief that putting a The Hobbit game in a theater when The Hobbit movie is playing, will make the game operator a fortune. That would be great, but so many pinball machines have come out that are movie theme, and they did not time release to a movie, they missed.
The Hobbit is like Wizard of Oz, it’s a new timeless trilogy of movies, and millions of The Hobbit fans all over the world will enjoy our game for many years to come.
Wizard of Oz was 73 years old when we started to build the game, that did not hurt sales.
GamesBeat: Any word on what the next Jersey Jack Pinball project is going to be?
Guarnieri: This is in the works and it is an original theme design from Pat Lawlor [who lead creation of two of the greatest pinball machines in the 1990s — The Addam’s Family and Twilight Zone]. The release will be spring 2016, and we expect to have a second game release for the end of 2016.
GamesBeat: Finally, where do you see pinball heading in the next two to three years?
Guarnieri: More pinball, especially on commercial locations. We have been working on “Pindemption,” which is part of our patented, “Pinball machine and redemption system.”
We just released software that is activated by changing a dongle in Wizard of Oz games that enables the game to be set for time play, rather than ball play, as well as a different rule set. There are easily achievable objectives and collapsed rules. And in testing this software for more than either months on location, Wizard of Oz games saw a 192 percent increase in earning and game play!
We will be at the IAAPA show in Orlando next month, teaching commercial game operators about these developments, and how our games make money on location.
Jersey Jack Pinball will bring experience to pinball players that could never be done before, and all of it is protected by our recently granted patent. We want to continue to innovate and not imitate. We want to do more things that have not been done in pinball.