You may not know Gary Stern by face, or even by name, directly, but if you have every played pinball, then you definitely know his machines.
Stern, who is aptly called, “The Godfather of Pinball,” has been in the industry for 70 of his 72 years. Sterns father worked as a game operator, then a game distributor for Williams Pinball, getting the younger Stern to begin in the stock room and work his way up through manufacturing.
“Pinball is amazing, we love it,” said Stern, the founder and CEO of Stern Pinball.
Along with bringing their latest games of Batman ’66, Aerosmith and Star Wars (A New Hope), all with LCD display screens that includes video footage of the various properties, the game still remains under the glass. Stern Pinball build three different models of game, the premium, a limited edition and a pro, with pro being the most common one.
“They are all a challenge but licensors know we’re doing something special and they like pinball machines. I remember when we did The Simpson’s, we went to the 300th episode party and Matt Groening said, ‘Thank God somebody’s keeping pinball alive.’ To The (Rolling) Stones we were a vanity project, to Disney a halo project. They really have to want to do pinball,” said Stern.
The process in developing a game is directly linked to the the licensed property, unlike the old days where a game was designed first then a logo was slapped on to it. The new games have a lot more depth in what goes into them. It costs a $1 million to create a game and the designers really need to know the property that is being licensed as well has have a deep affinity for pinball.
What keeps Stern in love with pinball itself was the game. According to his mentor Harry Williams, the ball was wild. It’s not like a video game where it’s pre-programmed; with pinball, you have to keep your eye on the ball like tennis, baseball or any other game of the sort.
Stern Pinball has a 110,000 sqft. factory just outside of Chicago, Il in Elk Grove Village. Stern went to the assembly floor before heading out to San Diego Comic-Con and they were just starting to make Star Wars, which is professes is his favorite game, if asked a few months prior, he would have said Aerosmith. It appears that Stern loves the evolution of pinball as much as he enjoys the games themselves as he treats them as his own children.
“My games are in the factory, I typically take a game home just to learn it a little better because I am not a good enough player, but we have an arcade full of games in the factory and we typically have 100-to-200 games on the floor ready to ship,” grinned Stern, while standing at his pinball booth located at #501 A in the main hall of the San Diego Convention Center.
It’s not all pinball with Stern, as music has been an intricate part of the process and with Director of Marketing and Licensing, Jody Dankberg comes in. Dankberg made a connection with one of the biggest Metal music record labels and the cross promotion has been nothing short of entertaining.
“Nuclear Blast does a lot of cool cross over between music and pinball allowing us to have a lot of fun with these guys. We’ve known them for a long time. The owner of Nuclear Blast records happens to be a big fan of Gary’s and a pinball fanatic himself. It’s a good synergy and with a lot of young people getting into pinball, 20-to-30-somethings with the barcade trend, music and pinball go hand-in-hand,” said Dankberg.
Stern is a watcher of pinball, he pays attention to what the fans want and he give it to them and with a 70-year career in the industry we can only image what the next 30 years of Stern will look like following it’s first 30 years in business.
You can find Stern Pinball and Nuclear Blast Records at the Comic-Con Booth #501 A in the main hall and their pop-up arcade at the Marriott Marquis Thursday through Saturday of Comic-Con weekend.