Andy Beresford established Home Leisure Direct in 2007 in the midst of a gaming world that seemed engrossed in digital play. He has managed to grow the business against the odds into the UK’s premier games room company – here he shares his insights.

Pinball is back in style and the craze is spreading fast. And we’re talking real pinball, not the virtual version, complete with all the garish graphics, the pop iconography, the flippers, levers, buttons, bells and silvers balls that you’d expect.

According to UK and US manufacturers sales have been soaring in the last few years. People are buying the latest models for their homes, and pinball machines are finding their place again in trendy bars and pubs. Plus there’s a new UK phenomenon – the uber cool pinball boutiques that are springing up in our cities, a far cry from the tacky, sweaty games arcades of yore. So, given the roller coaster bio of this magnificent game, we thought it was high time we shined a little light on the story so far.

British weather prompts the birth of indoor games

When 17th century gamers wanted to bring their beloved outdoor lawn games indoors during the long, dreary winter months they created a number of miniature, boxed in versions. Games involving balls or stones for rolling or throwing, sticks for hitting, and obstacles to manoeuvre around such as croquet and bowls were the precursors to pool, table tennis, billiards, and shuffleboard. These table top pastimes were early versions of modern pinball.

Springing into action

Bagatelle was created in France in the 1700s. The use of targets made of pins embedded in the table, with holes to aim for, proved very popular, especially when Montague Redgrave, its British inventor based in Ohio, added a coiled spring and plunger so that balls could be launched up the sloping playfield. He patented these gameplay innovations in the late 19th century and marked the birth of modern pinball.

A game for the common people

It was the Great Depression in America and people needed cheering up. But they wanted their fun to come cheap. David Gottlieb’s Baffle Ball hit the spot and was an instant success. For a mere penny a player would get up to seven balls, and drugstores and bars quickly made back their initial $17.50 investment for a machine. Gottlieb got rich and became the first and biggest US pinball manufacturer and thus began the era of coin operated games machines. The second major pinball manufacturer was founded by Ray Maloney who invented the game Ballyhoo, based on a popular magazine. His company Bally lived a long a fruitful life, only recently hanging up the towel, in 1995.

In just two years pinball had been developing fast and furious on a kinetic trajectory that echoed its fast paced design. By 1933 a game called ‘Contact’ arrived on the scene and debuted an electrically powered solenoid. Players were thrilled with the way this allowed the ball to pop back out of the bonus hole and cause a bell to ring. By the 1940s more than 150 pinball manufacturers were thriving, and most of them were based in Chicago. But by the start of the Second World War only 14 remained and pinball began its steep, but temporary, decline.

Going underground

After the outbreak of World War II pinball production was forcibly stopped and machines were banned in most US states because of new gambling laws. Pinball was believed by the authorities to be a mob-run racket that required no skill and was associated with lowlifes and their iniquitous venues. It was, in fact, outlawed for more than three decades in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other major cities where police squads descended on gaming halls and gambling dens and confiscated thousands of machines in a string of Prohibition-style raids.
So pinball went underground. It continued to survive in back street joints in Harlem and the Village, and across the US a number of pinball fanatics secreted machines away in workshops, backrooms and garages and lovingly maintained them. Without the efforts of these dedicated enthusiasts and renegade venue owners who fought for pinball to be legalised, the game may not exist today.

Not thriving but surviving

Despite its prohibition in many states across the US, pinball still managed to cling on and continued to morph and develop after the war. In the late 1940s Harry Mabs came up with a small but significant design development that has shaped the game we play today: Flippers. David Silverman, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore recognises flippers as a defining moment in the pinball story:

“It really was revolutionary, and pretty much everyone else followed suit, and it’s stayed the standard for 60 years.”

When direct current was added to the flippers the dynamics of the game really came into their own and meant that accuracy and skill were increasingly possible, and important.

A lead role in popular culture

Pinball was finally legalised in America in the 1970s and by then had become established as an all American icon. It was a ubiquitous sight in bars, pubs and venues across the US and UK and a gaming arcade would be considered sub-standard without a decent selection of machines. Pinball machines appear in a plethora of movies, either as a feature or in the background, a testament to their place in popular culture. The obvious contenders are Tommy and The Accused (remember that famous and disturbing scene with Jodie Foster – the pinball machine as a kind of sacrificial plinth) but look out for their more subtle presence in a long list of other feature films including The Gay Falcon, Alfie, Boogie Nights, Diner, Easy Money, Goodfellas, The Grifters and Live and Let Die.

Electric dreams and death by video

Solid-state electronics and digital displays were introduced via the inclusion of microprocessors in the mid 1970s. Micro Games’ Spirit of 76 and Williams’ Hot Tip were the first models on the scene and heralded more complex rules, digital sound effects and speech.

The 1980s video game boom signalled the end of pinball’s sovereignty. In the gaming arcades of the Golden Age pinball machines were usurped by video games like space invaders and Pac Man. Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb continued to make pinball machines, but they also profited from the zeitgeist by manufacturing video games which they sold in much higher numbers. The digital revolution delivered a final kick in the teeth for pinball as arcade gamers retreated to the privacy of their bedrooms and home gaming dens and abandoned pinball altogether.

However this period of dormancy was certainly not a time of stagnation. Many pinball designers made the most of the hiatus and went to work making pinball design even better. Influenced by the new solid state technology, design creatives invented breakthrough features that enlivened the game and still exist today, such as ramps for the ball to travel around as seen in Space Shuttle, blinking chase lights as seen on Xenon, plus multi-ball, multi-player and multi-level games.

The future of pinball

Ironically pinball’s recent popularity could be due in part to the fact that many digital natives brought up on the digital version discovered the real thing and loved its more physical and tangible pleasures. It’s a bonus that the skills they learned at the screen are fully transferable to real pinball’s play field and design.

What we are seeing now could be just the tip of the iceberg, as multiple organisations and communities of pinball lovers, both young and old spring up and grow in numbers and strength across the UK and US. Achingly fashionable Shoreditch in London is the location for The Pipeline Bar, a busy drinks and games venue that runs regular pinball events. Popular retro gaming organisations such as North East Retro Gaming provide old school gamers with video games and pinball. The UK Pinball League and the London Pinball League are seeing membership numbers climb steadily. While the new boutique pinball bar and its close cousin ‘the Barcade’ across the pond reflect the enduring appeal of this thrilling and compelling game.

I’d say the future of pinball is secure, at least for another few decades!