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Sam Stern

Playmeter Magazine:

Coinman of the month

Sam Stern

Oldies But Goodies

Playmeter Homepage

Reprinted with permission from Playmeter Magazine: September 15, 1978.

Sam Stern, this month's Coinman, has quite a bit of experience in the coin machine amusement industry - about 47 years worth of experience to be exact. And within that time he has had the Opportunity to view the industry f om the vantage point of an operator, a distributor, and, most notably, a manufacturer.

He started in the business in 1931 when he was talked into buying five coin-operated amusement machines. At the time he was working in the men's clothing business, but the coin machine business offered him more promise; so he was quickly absorbed by this new undertaking.

Things happened quickly for him. By 1939 he had developed quite a route and expanded his services by taking on a Rock-Ola distributorship in Philadelphia. Seven years later he was ready to make another step, this time into the manufacturing business. He bought 49 percent of Williams Manufacturing Company and two years later sold his route. Then in 1959 he saw the opportunity and purchased the rest of Williams Manufacturing. He kept the company until 1964 when he sold it for stock to Seeburg Corp. He remained on until 1969 as president at Williams. When his contract was up, he went over to Bally and served in the capacity of executive vice president for one year. But he was back the next year at Seeburg, as president; and there he remained until December, 1976 when he learned that Chicago Coin had defaulted on a loan. Jumping at the chance, he and his son, Gary, moved in, took over the company, and formed Stern Electronics.

In the short time since that acquisition, Stern has become a pinball manufacturer to be reckoned with. With such solid state games as Pinball, Stingray, Stars, and now Lectronamo, the Chicago-based company has served notice that it is here to stay.

Sam has two sons who have also done well for themselves. His son Gary is, of course, president of Stern Electronics (Sam is vice president); and his other son, David, is now a successful surgeon.

A member of the Jewish United Fund and the Weisman Institute, Sam Stern is 66 years old. By his own admission, his 47 years in the business has given him a "fair knowledge" of the industry— which he says is healthier than ever, as well as a similar knowledge of his favorite pasttime, pinball.

PLAY METER: What is the most important consideration when you set out to manufacture a flipper game?

STERN: I've always likened a pinball machine to a movie. You've got to have action in it. So the first thing you want is good action, and the second thing is a good theme. And then you try to put those two together. That's what "play appeal" is. It's a combination of action and theme. Stars had it. Mata Hari and Eight Ball from Bally had it, and so did Gottlieb's Sinbad.

PLAY METER: To what extend does play appeal determine the success or failure of a particular game?

STERN: I think play appeal is the most important thing in the game. Without play appeal you don't have a game. To get a good game you have to have play appeal, which is the action of the game. If you don't you just sit with that game.

PLAY METER: What qualities make for a well-designed game?

STERN: There have to be good action shots for certain areas to build up the score or the free play value. And there have to be places that need good shots, areas in the game where you shoot for certain things to increase the scoring or the features for the free play.

PLAY METER: Do you do any designing yourself?

STERN: Yes, recently, for instance, I had a lot to do with Memory Lane. Stars was only partly mine, but Pinball and Starfire were all mine.

PLAY METER: How long does it take as far as the designing process?

STERN: It takes anywhere from five to eight months. You start off by making a layout on paper first. After that, you put it on a playing board we call a whitewood, then you experiment with it and make any necessary changes. Then if you're satisfied with the action, YOU put in the features and tie them in with the action. But first you shoot, not for the features, but rather to see if the action is good. Of course, when you make your initial drawing, you put your features in with it, but you always have to change some of them, according to whether or not they can be made. Sometimes when you first lay it out, you have features that you can't even make, or maybe you have features that make the game too easy. So you have to go back and make adjustments.

PLAY METER: When you start off designing a game, is there a certain theme or play characteristic you want to get into the game?

STERN: Yes, in Memory Lane, for example, we wanted to get memory, and we wanted to get the bowling theme with the rollover buttons. So we had to figure out a way to get the bonus. The bonus was 1,000 for each rollover that was made. And then you had the strike so that when you got all ten down, or you got ten down some other way, you got 10,000 points. So the idea there was to try and get a bowling theme that played well and still gave the player an opportunity to make strikes.

PLAY METER: As far as your own company is concerned, do you design pinball machines for a high skill level or for a low skill level?

STERN: We design them for the good player. But then we percentage it for the bad player as well. So it's a combination of the good and the bad player that we design our games for.

PLAY METER: We often hear the comment that pinball is about seventy percent skill and about thirty percent luck. As a designer, would you agree with that assessment about the games you make?

STERN: No, I see a little more skill in them than that. Even now I think there's about an eighty or ninety percent skill level in pinball, and about ten to twenty percent of the game is luck.

PLAY METER: What qualities do you think are necessary for a good game designer?

STERN: Good ideas. Different ideas. You have to have ideas that are a little different, that make a playfield look a little different from your competitors. And you must have an ability to put those in and get good shots at them.

PLAY METER: Who do you feel are among the top pinball designers in the country today?

STERN: Harry Williams is one of the best. Then there's Norman Clark at Bally, and Gottlieb has a good man in Wayne Neyen. Also, Williams has a couple of new fellows who seem to be very good.

PLAY METER: Do you foresee some innovations in the future, such things as multi-level playfield which a guest editorialist in PLAY METER recently suggested?

STERN: Multi-level playfields? I doubt it. The cost is a big disadvantage for something like that. And besides, it's very hard to get a multi-level playfield. I worked on one some time ago, but I found that they just don't work right. It's too hard to get the ball to roll correctly.

PLAY METER: Are there any new features which we can look forward to seeing in the games in the near future?

STERN: There will be new features coming out. Electronics has given us the ability to do many things that we weren't able to do before with electro-mechanical games. That's the advantage of electronic games. But I can't see something like a multi-level pinball machine. I think you'll find the new features will appear on conventional-sized pinball machines. Now, there's still a lot we have to do to improve the games mechanically, to make them work better so that the operators have less trouble with them. Other than that, though, I think you'll find that because of solid state there's a lot of things we'll be able to do with pinball machines, featurewise, memorywise, that we couldn't do before with electro-mechanical machines. That's because the electro-mechanicals took too much equipment. We'll be able to do more things with targets, for instance. In fact, in our next game, we'll be doing something new with targets. And with solid state you can do many more things with the scoring devices and with your playfield that you couldn't do before.

PLAY METER: Who first conceived the idea of drop targets?

STERN: That was my idea way back with a single drop target. Then Gottlieb put them in a bank. But, to answer your question, I first conceived the single drop target. By the way, I was also the first one to come out with the long flippers. But that was an accident on my part. We designed a game where the stretch rubber was too long; so I said let's put a longer flipper there, and we did. Then we went to long flippers all the way through.

PLAY METER: Would you say that with the advent of solid state we can expect to see more new playfield gimmicks, gimmicks that will be as popular as the drop targets are today?

STERN: There are going to be some more playfield gimmicks coming out. I don't know who's going to come out with them first, but someone is going to come out with some new gimmicks, and they'll be similar to the spinning gates and the drop targets.

PLAY METER: What playfield features, in your opinion, just don't seem to work out on pinball games?

STERN: We tried one where there was a little hole right at the tip of the flipper where the ball rested before it was flipped, but the trouble was the ball would rest in there and wouldn't flip out. And then - way, way back - we had curved flippers that acted like slingshots and hooked the ball when it threw it up. Now, I see where one of our competitors is coming out with curved flippers again; but I don't think it's anything that will last or that you'll have to have in your design of games.

PLAY METER: Besides the flipper, is there any feature which you feel is absolutely essential to a pinball machine?

STERN: I don't think there's anything that's as important to the game as the flipper is. I don't think there is anything else that's essential. A game can have a good theme without all the popular gimmicks. There is nothing else which is absolutely necessary. Drop targets, spinning-targets, and pop bumpers are all very popular, but that doesn't mean that they have to be on a game to make it a good game. But I've got to have the flippers.

PLAY METER: What is your feeling about multi-flippers at the bottom of the game?

STERN: I hate them. I think they get in the way of each other. There have been a lot of successful games with them. Sinbad happened to be one of them, but I don't like four flippers along the bottom. Now, it's not too bad if you have two at the bottom and then maybe some flippers near the top of the playfield, but even then sometimes you'll flip into those flippers.

PLAY METER: Have operators in your opinion, successfully made the jump from electro-mechanical to solid state?

STERN: I think they have. I don't think operators today would operate anything other than electronic games. Yes, they're keeping pace with my expectations. True, the manufacturers may be pushing the games out too fast for the operators to absorb them, but I think the operators are keeping pace with the technology. Manufacturers, I think have helped them in this regard. I think everyone is trying to help the operators as far as mechanical information is concerned.

PLAY METER: Now that we are into solid state, do you think this will weed out the weaker operators?

STERN: I don't think so. I think the operators need more help, but I don't think that their numbers are going to disappear. Now, there may be some manufacturers who are starting up who aren't going to stay with it long. But as for the distributors and operators, I think they'll weather the storm.

PLAY METER: Would you say that the electromechanical pingame is gone forever?

STERN: I doubt if you'll ever see it again. That's because the electronic game has much more play appeal. Eventually it's going to be easier for the operator to handle.

PLAY METER: Can we look for more tools or devices to enable servicemen to repair solid state games more rapidly?

STERN: Yes, everybody is working on more test equipment and ways to tell the operator what's wrong with the game so that they can repair them easier. I think everyone's doing that, every manufacturer. They're trying to do whatever they can to help the operator fix these things.

PLAY METER: You mentioned that some manufacturers that are just now starting up are not going to be able to stick with it. In other words, you don't see solid state technology as a springboard that will enable other companies to get into marketing pingames?

STERN: Well, it could be a springboard, but the problem is that I don't think their games will have the play appeal, the action, or the acceptance. It comes down to everything you look at in a pinball game, plus the name of the company. A new company won't have the experience; and, again, they must be accepted in the field. But without that experience, they won't be accepted in the field.

PLAY METER: Do you think that with solid state there will eventually be a levelling off of prices?

STERN: I hope the prices go down. That was our feeling when we first got into it. But so far we've been wrong on it. Among the reasons prices stay high is that we can't mass-produce these things like you can hand calculators. And then, again, we can't get the materials fast enough; so we have to pay a premium for them.

PLAY METER: What can be done to improve the quality of workmanship that goes into the games?

STERN: Workmanship I don't think will ever be improved. I don't think the American workman has the desire and interest that he once had. But the workmanship is not the fault of any manufacturer. It's the situation that everybody is in today, whether he's making pinball games or TV sets. Now, we still have some improvements to make on the games. There's going to come a time when we get farther down the road with solid state that you're going to find we're making improvements on the manufacture of the games.

PLAY METER: How do you assess the public's attitude toward pinball today?

STERN: I think they're accepting it more than they ever have before. It's just been a matter of time. It was just a matter of time before people got to the point where they would rather spend time on pinball machines instead of on a more expensive entertainment. And pinball is a cheap form of entertainment. In addition, there are a lot of home games built by Brunswick and Bally and a bunch of other companies, and that I think has created a demand for the game. The people want to play the game at home. They want it for their children, and they want it for themselves. They just love to play the game.

PLAY METER: Then you feel that the home market has created more of a demand to play the game on the commercial market?

STERN: No question about it. When I was a distributor in Philadelphia, for instance, there was a little cafeteria where a top executive would have a pinball machine reserved for himself at lunchtime. He would come in at about 11:30, and no one could get near that machine. He said it relaxed him, and I think that's why the game is popular today. It's a relaxing form of entertainment.

PLAY METER: Do you foresee Stern at a later date getting into home games?

STERN: I doubt that very much.

PLAY METER: You mentioned earlier that manufacturers are pushing out games too fast for operators to absorb them. Do you think this overproduction will continue?

STERN: I think everybody, including all the manufacturers, recognizes the fact that there are only so many machines that can be sold. The operator, first of all, will always need variety. He can't make it buying all one manufacturer's games, nor can he buy all one game. He's going to need variety; so he's going to have to buy different types of games from different manufacturers. Now, manufacturers have to recognize that we can't continue to produce machines as quickly as we've been doing and expect to sell them. Every pinball manufacturer produces four, five, or six models a year; so you're talking about 25 or 30 new models a year. I think you'll find a trend starting where the production runs for pinball machines will come down and average out at around seven or eight thousand per model because right now there are too many being produced. There was a reason for the overproduction. When solid state first came out, the manufacturers had to fill the pipeline. There was a void that had to be filled. But now that solid state is in, you have to get down to the point where you're realistic, get down to the production figures you used to have with the electro-mechanicals.

PLAY METER: Is there any play incentive, other than add-a-ball and free play, that we can expect to see coming out?

STERN: No, but I think you'll find that the add-a-ball-type game will begin to disappear. I think the free play will be recognized as a legal item across the world. What I don't understand is that you can take two fellows and, though they went to the same colleges and had the same teachers, when they come out judges, one will say one thing and the other will say the opposite. One will say a free play is legal, and the other will say a free play is not legal. One of them will say that it is not a thing of value, and the other one will say that it is. But I think eventually you'll find that free play will be legalized nationwide. I think the only way games will be built in the future will be on straight free play games. Novelty and add-a-ball games will disappear because there's no question that a free play game takes in more money than an add-a-ball game. People like to win free plays. They like to play again for free.

PLAY METER: As someone who has devoted a lifetime to pinball, give us your observations as to where you think the game is headed.

STERN: I think the amusement business is getting stronger and stronger. The games with the best play appeal will always be the ones that do the most business. I see the industry as growing continually, not the way it did when solid state first came in, but I think it will have a continual growth pattern for a long time. As for the operators, I think they should keep their routes up to date with the newest equipment, the latest equipment. That way they'll have their top earnings all the time. After all, there's no question but that when you put a new game on location, your earnings go up. So I think operators should replace a certain percentage of their games every time a new game comes out, and in that way they can keep their routes up to date, and they'll get their top earnings.

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