Stern Pinball scores a big hit in Elk Grove with help from a rock star on a new line of machines
George Gomez has been making coin-operated games in the Chicago area for decades, and he’s spent the last few years ushering in a “pinball renaissance” in Elk Grove Village.
“We’re the biggest pinball manufacturer in the world, and every day we probably have 90% of the global pinball market,” said Gomez, chief creative officer at Stern Pinball, during a factory tour in February. for members of the media.
“Right now games are in such demand that we’re having a hard time keeping the games to ourselves,” he said, pointing to the factory area that used to be the arcade where everyone in the building “had to play every day.”
These occupants include assembly line workers, game designers, sound designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, 2D illustrators, model makers and, on some days, Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson.
“I think the fun thing about pinball is that it looks like checkers, but it’s actually chess,” Robertson said, taking a break from his guitar world tour to talk about the new Stern table he helped bring to life. “The more you learn the game, the more it opens up to you.”
Robertson has been collecting machines since the late 1990s and jumped at the chance to help out another Canadian rock legend: Rush frontman Geddy Lee emailed Robertson for advice when presented him with the possibility of a pinball game featuring the band. Robertson, alongside lead designer John Borg and lead programmer Tim Sexton, would ensure the game was “Closer To The Heart” for Rush fans, not a “Fly By Night” cash-in.
The result debuted this year in arcades, beer halls, bars and microbreweries, the kind of businesses looking to attract customers and generate excitement as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are fading.
Stern, however, did not feel these effects – at least not the negative ones.
A growing business
“Our business has really exploded during COVID,” said Gomez, who revealed that more than 50% of their products are now entering consumers’ homes.
“The main driver of growth for the company has been the domestic market,” said Seth Davis, president of the company. He joined Stern last October after 13 years at Disney, where he worked on video games, augmented reality apps and the Disney+ streaming platform.
Disney brands have long featured in Stern’s products, with licensed games featuring characters from the Marvel and “Star Wars” universes. Joining Rush on the assembly line these days is a tabletop based on “The Mandalorian,” with a Grogu (“Baby Yoda”) minifigure hovering over the playfield.
Davis said Stern aims for “maximum appeal” with its licensed games, and Rush joins a list of Stern titles based on rock bands that includes Metallica, AC/DC and Iron Maiden – names that bring energy in a homeowner’s basement or garage that has become a multipurpose entertainment center during the worst days of the pandemic.
How much investment are we talking about? The Rush game is available in three models ranging in price from $6,899 to $11,099.
Robertson used a car analogy to explain the difference: “Stern is…BMW, and they’re Toyota, and they’re Ford.”
Lower-end Pro models are most often sold to carriers placing the games in businesses, he said. Premium models with additional features are intended for home users. Premium limited editions are faked, signed and numbered for the most dedicated collectors. (So guys like him.)
Stern launched a fourth type of model, Home Edition, in 2019. These $4,599 machines based on “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” are, according to Gomez, easier to play, smaller and lighter than their counterparts of arcade. “Yet it’s made with genuine Stern Pinball parts and has a lot of the same features,” he said.
With more games entering people’s homes, Stern’s business approach must evolve.
“We’re learning to be more customer-centric, because we have to be,” Gomez said. “Pinball and the ball are sacred, and they will always be there. I think everything else is kind of up for discussion and evolution.”
A big part of that is Stern’s new phone app, Insider Connected, which uses QR codes to let players track scores and unlock additional content.
“For the first time ever in pinball history, the game recognizes who you are,” said Gomez, who compares the app’s consumer impact to Xbox Live with its gameplay achievement system.
Insider Connected is also creating new opportunities for business owners, who can use it to see machine performance data and receive alerts about needed maintenance.
“An operator can loyalty their location: ‘Play my location…to get those rewards in turn,'” Gomez said as an example.
A must in the suburbs
The engine that makes it all possible has been running in Elk Grove Village since 2015, when President and CEO Gary Stern moved the company there from Melrose Park. A pinball machine has 3,500 individual parts, and making these machines requires even more mechanics, so to speak.
“We employ about 300 people here,” Gomez said, “but the extended enterprise of the people we employ is probably (12,000) to 15,000 people.”
This includes purchasing raw materials and manufactured parts, then assembling everything in the factory.
The company’s suburban location gives Stern an advantage.
“Elk Grove is very well geared for the types of vendors we use,” Davis said. “We have supply chain issues like everyone else at the moment, but we’re in a much better position than some other types of businesses because we don’t rely solely on Asian production. Most of our suppliers are near.”
The ultimate goal is to do as much as possible internally.
“Our philosophy here is that we have to vertically integrate the things that put us at risk,” Gomez said. “I can have steel in a lot of places, I can have plastic in a lot of places. … I can’t have pinball playgrounds in a lot of places.”
Gomez, 66, has been designing these playgrounds for years, and his career in the fun business began when he was just 22. Not exclusively a pinball designer, his fingerprints are also on classic video games like “TRON” and “Spy Hunter.” “
More than 70 flags from every country Stern has shipped his games to hang along the back wall of the factory, making Gomez a performer on a global scale, just like his rock star pal Robertson.
“I’m very lucky,” Gomez said. “I spent all this time doing things that nobody needs but everyone wants.”