Over a month ago, it was announced that FarSight Studios, the team behind the popular The Pinball Arcade game, would be losing the licenses to all their Williams and Bally tables on June 30th. The news, first reported in May, was a massive shock to pinball fans and aficionados alike.
“We were all very disappointed,” said Mike Lindsey, the community manager of FarSight Studios. “We had the license with WMS/Scientific Games for over a decade and were extremely surprised when they gave us the news that they were going in a different direction.”
WMS Industries, formerly Williams, is the original license owner of the solid-state pinball tables since the 1990s. WMS acquired Bally in 1998 before closing its pinball operations in 2000 due to sagging sales. In 2013, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Scientific Games, an American company that provides gambling machines, such as electronic lottery systems, iGaming, and electronic casino games.
Scientific Games also has acquired several popular brand names through manufacture licensing deals—such as James Bond, Animal House, and Monopoly—to use their likenesses for their gaming machines in multiple casinos. Leasing a license to another company is a fairly common practice in the world of business. Concrete numbers are hard to come by, but depending on the industry and the legal wording of the lease, licenses make up a part of the total cost of ownership of an intellectual property.
It is of course more complicated than this, as manufacturing licensing deals often require several licenses to recreate a faithful table.
“We’ve had the manufacture licenses which gave us the right to recreate the rules and gameplay without any hiccups,” said Lindsey. “The ancillary licenses [are] where we run into challenges. They usually consist of music, brand logos, or likenesses that were licensed separately at the time the original table was created.”
This is a normal practice when dealing with manufacturing, especially when a product is based on an established intellectual property. The Addams Family pinball table, for example, would need to license the actor’s likenesses, the music, the movie and Midway logos, and even the cabinet’s art design and inner workings.
This means to recreate a faithful digital version of a physical pinball table, often several licenses need to be acquired, either by paying royalties or by purchasing the license itself. This tangled web often leads to even some tables in Pinball Arcade getting alterations. Some known examples include the likeness of Christopher Lloyd of The Addams Family being altered, to even changing the name of the World Cup Soccer table to World Champion Soccer.
“Sometimes they want to work with us and sometimes they don’t,” admits Lindsey. “Price is also a factor, [so] we’ve even decided to de-license a table completely in order to get the game out there.”
This puts FarSight in a very specific position in regards to their handling of these pinball IPs, as they cannot technically recreate a table based off a Williams or Bally property. Although Lindsey doesn’t rule out the possibility. “It’s possible that we will create some original tables in the future but basing them off of the software from WMS will probably not be an option. We will most likely stick to digitizing pinball tables that exist in the real world.“
The licenses to the Williams and Bally machines have been in flux since the late 1990s after a massive downturn of physical pinball machines lead to the closure of most operators and manufacturers, including Gottlieb, Capcom, and Alvin G. By 1999, only Williams and Sega Pinball were still in operation. By the time Williams bowed out of the industry in 2000, Sega had sold their rights to Stern, who have remained the only manufacturer of original pinball machines until 2013.
FarSight will be focusing its efforts on Stern Pinball machines for the time being, promising The Pinball Arcade and Stern Pinball Arcade will still be updated with more content.
The loss of both Williams and Bally tables is still a major blow, however, to the original intent of The Pinball Arcade, a catalog of famous pinball machines in a digital age. Previous titles by FarSight, the Williams and Gottlieb collections, were created for this purpose to preserve some of the most popular tables ever created.
“Our goal from the beginning was to create a digital museum of pinball for those that can't find them any longer or have never seen them before,” said Lindsey. Until this announcement, Pinball Arcade boasted 95 tables spanning from the late 1960s to 2016. Many of these tables had very successful sales in their hay-day, but those sales would be around 3-6,000 units. The best-selling pinball machine of all time is The Addams Family at 20,000 units, paling in comparison to the million-plus sales of a standard video game.
Maintenance of machines is also a concern, especially in a hobby that prides on authenticity of the games mechanics. Original parts, backboards, art, and more are slowly disappearing, and many machines have already stopped working at full capacity due to the scarcity of parts. Games like The Pinball Arcade offer an opportunity for aficionados in the pinball world a chance to at least play the closest version of a real-life pinball machine.
Pinball games, however, are beginning to make a comeback. In 2013, a new company, Jersey Jack Pinball, released The Wizard of Oz, the first non-Stern pinball machine made in the United States. Costing over $2 million in production costs, with each machine individually around $9,000 to make, The Wizard of Oz has tapped into the hardcore pinball market, leading to Jersey Jack Pinball acquiring The Hobbit movie license for their second game, followed by a custom table, Dialed In. Today, Jersey Jack Pinball is planning their 4th game based on The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Jersey Jack Pinball has become a growing competitor in the independent pinball scene that is still struggling to get a footing. International companies such as British-owned Heighway or the Netherlands Dutch Pinball have attempted to fill the the void for worldwide distributions of physical cabinets, but have been faced with financial troubles and lawsuits that have hindered their progress. Smaller companies, such as Spooky Pinball, are also attempting to fill in that void with limited print releases of customized or trademarked machines. One example is their latest production, Alice Cooper's Nightmare Castle, which currently has a manufacturing run of 500 machines priced at $6,450. Other's have turned to remake previously licensed machines. Chicago Gaming, for example, has produced remakes of classic pinball machines such as Medieval Madness and Attack From Mars for the public.
Games like The Pinball Arcade have also spearheaded more public recognition for pinball games beyond the hardcore market. The demand for pinball tables, old and new, has been steadily growing for the past decade, despite the massive commercial setbacks of the industry.
It is possible that WMS and Scientific Games will allow another license deal in the future, however. “We can always hope that one day, we can bring those amazing tables back to the game,” said Lindsey. For now, The Pinball Arcade will have to carry on without some of the most popular machines for the time being. Of the 95 tables available, only 33 will of them will remain in the game after June 30th.
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Note: Thanks to a readers tip, sections of this article have been updated to clarify information regarding Pinball companies here and abroad.