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Tucked away in a far-flung corner of New Jersey, out past the infamous Pine Barrens, “Jersey” Jack Guarnieri is preaching from the pulpit of pinball. His church is a 40,000 sq. ft. facility that can churn out up to 30 new pinball machines per day if hard pressed.
“It’s a helluva thing building and selling something that nobody really needs,” Guarnieri jests, with a quixotic gleam in his eyes.
Whatever your thoughts on pinball machines are—that they are outdated relics of a forgotten age or entertaining pieces of collectable gaming/engineering wizardry—you have to admire the unmitigated balls it takes to be one of the very last pinball manufacturers in the world (Stern Pinball in Chicago is the other).
After two decades of steady, almost industry-killing decline, the last five years have seen a return to form for the pinball industry, and pinball has none other than “Jersey” Jack to thank for that. After decades in the coin-op business as a repairman, distributor, salesman (he started PinballSales.com in 1999) and operator, Guarnieri decided to take another route and pursue manufacturing and development of actual pinball machines.
And that decision was a flashpoint of sorts that woke the slumbering giant of pinball, which in the ‘90s held close to 50% of sales (and space) in arcades and amusement centers. Fortunately or unfortunately (for Jack), that choice also awoke the competitive spark in Stern, who almost immediately upped its game in terms of licensing, technology/hardware and staffing, hiring a who’s who of pinball design illuminati.
Undaunted, “Jersey” Jack showed he’s committed to this fight by acquiring his own big name licenses (The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit) and talent (Pat Lawlor, who co-designed the highest selling pinball machine of all time, 1992’s The Addams Family, is designing JJP’s yet untitled third game). His efforts over the past few years have even inspired “mom and pop” developers around the world to try their hands at making their own pinball games, but as of now the only two dogs with any real shot in this scrap for pinball dominance are Gary Stern and “Jersey” Jack Guarnieri.
Guarnieri’s enthusiasm is apparent the instant we meet as almost immediately, he leads me though his office and out to his factory floor, where the real pinball wizardry occurs. Things happened so quickly, and Jack relayed so much information, that I forgot to turn on my recorder and snap any pictures on my first tour through the impressive workshop.
Luckily, I was able to sit Jersey Jack down in his office (which is decked out with JJP’s own Wizard of Oz machine and an old-school Pong arcade cabinet) for a few minutes after the whirlwind tour to repeat a good amount of what he told me while we were touring the shop.
PLAYBOY: You obviously have a great love for pinball. Is that the driving force behind the creation of Jersey Jack Pinball?
JACK Guarnieri: Absolutely. Look, I believe that you have to love what you do. When people wind up doing things they don’t love, they may make some money to live their lives, but they’re not really happy. So, I’m really blessed that over the last 40 years I’ve gotten to do something I really love.
You just really need to love what you do. Take a chef that really loves cooking. What he makes is going to be so much better than some guy who’s forced to make school lunches or something like that.
If you don’t love what you do, you’re going to get a terrible end product. If you do, you put some pride in every element that goes about the door.
Absolutely. Other companies, I believe, are only building games to make money. We’re trying to make great games. That’s our focus: build great games. Period.
What ultimately about “The Wizard of Oz” lead you to believe that it would make a good license for your first game?
I knew what was out there for a long time and there was a lot of testosterone-based properties out there with buxom women featured in the artwork to attract teenage boys. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but as you grow up that stuff grows old. So, when I had this crazy idea to start my own pinball company, I wanted a theme for the first game to be something that was special to a lot of people. And “Wizard of Oz” was the highest-earning slot machine series, so it’s clearly still popular. I also wanted something that would appeal to older people and younger people…that would be ageless and timeless and, for lack of a better word, transcendent. So, that’s why I chose it.
Day in and day out, what are the biggest challenges you face in building these machines?
The easy answer is: making sure we have all the parts we need to build the games. But that’s a tall order because it starts with engineering, designing different parts for different games, then you need to purchase different articles from different vendors, verifying those articles, and then have those made and introduced. While the factory can build more than 30 games a day, it can’t build anything if you don’t have enough parts.
My famous line is: “If we had a restaurant and we ran out of something, the customer doesn’t even know. We’d just take it off the menu, but if we run out of a bracket, we may not be able to pack games!”
Another big challenge we faced was getting the company re-capitalized in the last few months. We’ve had some amazing people come into the company as equity partners that are pinball people first and financial people second. They not only brought money to the company, they also brought relationships and that’s a real great benefit for the company. It’s gives people, vendors, customers and employees, confidence. It lets them know that Jersey Jack Pinball is here to stay.
What about your “Wizard of Oz” machine and your upcoming “Hobbit” machine are cutting edge tech? What do these machines have that pinball machines made 5-10 years ago didn’t have?
A lot! [laughing] We kept a lot of things that are great about pinball. I wanted mechanical action and, of course, the metal ball. And there are five of them (balls) in “The Wizard of Oz.” But the striking thing you’ll notice as soon as you see the game is the huge 27-inch LCD monitor, and that draws you right into the game.
There are no light bulbs used in the game. So, before “Wizard of Oz” a playfield would have red, blue and green plastic inserts and you would have white light bulbs under there and it would show the colors. “Wizard of Oz” has RGB LEDs and those are LEDs that have the capability of being billions of different colors through programming, so we removed that limitation.
The game also has an audio system that is beyond compare: 3.1 surround, plus something that is very cool and you won’t find anywhere else: an audio jack for personal headphones. The game has the capability to go online for leaderboards and online competition; you also can connect your mobile device to the game to tweet high scores and the like. There’s also a Jersey Jack app that can run diagnostics if the machine goes out of order and it can also download software upgrades and updates.
On top of all that, we have our patented “Pindemption” technology which is essentially a redemption center in the cloud, so no more tickets or any of that. You can connect your mobile device to our game and instead of physical tickets coming out of the game, you will get virtual tickets which will be tallied by the app which you can redeem at an Amazon-like site, so no more spider rings or Dracula teeth!
We didn’t put the kitchen sink into this game, we put the whole plumbing department! It’s really bordering on sensory overload when somebody walks up to the game for the first time.
Say if something like the Oculus Rift could be implemented into a pinball game, would you do it?
If anybody is going to do that, we would be the ones to do it. I would never put impediments in front of any of the 50 or so people that work for this company because I think when you put fences around people you get sheep. Anything we can do to innovate and make the games fun, I think we’ll be right there.
What is the biggest thrill for you in making pinball machines in year 2015? Is it just the “doing” of it, doing something that almost no one else is doing? Or is it watching someone play your game for the first time? Or is a combination of those things?
I still love to go to pinball shows and watch people playing. I love to get the emails and see the pictures of all the excited people playing our game. That never, ever grows old. Where you have to go to “wow” someone today is a much different place than it used to be, and I’m very glad I can take people there, that I can still “wow” them.
There’s really an amazing appreciation for this crazy thing we are doing. Yeah, we’re not really curing cancer, but these games mean a lot to people and that’s a powerful, powerful thing.
Jersey Jack Pinball’s “Wizard of Oz” game was released in April 2013 and it currently holds the second position (with a bullet!) on the current pinball sales charts. JJP’s “Hobbit” machine is currently in production and is slated to be released late in 2015. If you’d like to know more, check out http://www.jerseyjackpinball.com/ or you can follow Jersey Jack Pinball on Twitter @JJPinball.
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