How Do Pinball Machines Work?


How Do Pinball Machines Work?

*This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

It only takes one good pinball game to get a player hooked. The zoom, boom, and bright colors of a pinball machine are mesmerizing in their own right. No matter how you look at it, a pinball machine is a serious work of engineering and art. 

How do pinball machines work? Though older pinball machines were made of wood and used gravity paired with a heavy metal ball to make, most of the action happen. As they evolved, modern pinball machines started to use magnets and electronic devices to make the games more exciting. 

Understanding the intricate mechanics of a pinball machine isn’t easy. This guide will help you understand each element you may find in a modern pinball machine and how it evolved from the games of yesteryear. 

If you want to see some current pinball machines or other retro arcade machines just click here.

How Do Pinball Machines Work?

As it turns out, there’s a lot of work surrounding the silver ball, ranging from gravity to electronic sensors. Each aspect of the pinball machine will play a unique factor in how your game works and how your features will impact your score. 

The Very Basics Of Pinball: Back In The Day

Before pinball was the game we know today, there was another game called bagatelle. Much like pinball, bagatelle used a large marble and was played using gravity as a way to make balls bounce off pegs. 

In 1876, the game of pinball was invented as an upgrade on bagatelle. The game’s tweaks were simple: 

  • A Smaller Ball
  • A Gradual Slope
  • A Coiled Spring

Let’s see how each element works, shall we?

A Smaller Ball

Initially, pinball was played with marbles. A smaller marble meant that the force from the flippers will make a larger impact and increase the speed of the game. That being said, marbles were quickly replaced with silver balls after balls began to break due to heavy-hitting. 

Pinballs are amazing little inventions, in and of themselves. Take into consideration these fun facts about them:

  • Pinballs are standardized in size and weight. A pinball is 1 1/16th inch in diameter and weighs a total of 2.8 ounces.
  • They are designed to go fast. On a standard, unwaxed table, a pinball can reach speeds up to 90 miles per hour!
  • There are also Powerballs. Powerballs are built to be faster and are therefore lighter at only 2.28 ounces. Many are also made of a tough ceramic instead of metal, making them immune to magnet traps.

How Slope Impacts Your Pinball Game

Every pinball game is played on a slope, and there’s a good reason for that. Playing on an even base would lead to the pinball getting stuck idle in action and would make it difficult to move the game along. Without a slope, your ball won’t get directed to the drain.

Are Pinball Slopes Uniform?

Though they weren’t originally uniform in nature, modern pinball slopes are fairly identical. Most modern machines have a 6 to 7-degree decline towards the player. 

How The Coiled Spring Launch Works

Who hasn’t enjoyed the fun of pulling the launch spring on a pinball machine? The spring’s force makes the launcher hit the ball, which propels it into the game zone. 

Notice Something Missing? 

So far, mentions of flippers and lights haven’t come up. This is because the original pinball machines that were made didn’t involve them. Prior to the middle of the last century, pinball was not really a game of skill. Rather, it was more of a game of pure chance. 

At one point, pinball machines even would “cash-out” when a player won. Because of the gambling style of pinball’s original gameplay, the game was banned in multiple states for decades. This started to change as the machine’s design evolved. 

Automation In The 1930s Through 1950s

The original pinball machine (and many of its later versions) weren’t automatic, but that started to change by the 1930s. At this point, pinball machines began to become coin-operated–much like most other arcade games of the day. 

However, being activated by coins wasn’t the only new thing that was added to the pinball machine design. Some of the other mid-century improvements on the game’s design added to the intricacy, including these below:

  • Flippers
  • Lights
  • Bumpers
  • Scorekeeping
  • Tilt!
  • Game Overs

How Flippers In Your Pinball Machine Work

It’s hard to imagine a pinball game without flippers, but that’s exactly what the game was like prior to 1947. It was only then that pinball games started to involve flippers, which turned a game of chance into a game of skill. 

Flippers are actually one element of pinball that has stayed relatively stable throughout the years. Flippers work by pressing a button that tightens and releases springs. When the springs are tightened, the flippers turn upward. 

When the flippers turn upward, the ball (hopefully) gets hit and keeps itself away from the drain for a little while longer. This small tweak added a new element of skill and excitement to the game and gave it grounds to be considered entertainment rather than gambling. 

Lights

Lightbulbs were not new at this point, but it still took some time for the trend of light-up machines to fully take hold. Lights made it easier for players to see the game in dimly-lit bars, but also acted as a way to advertise the game. 

Lights varied when it came to their use. Here’s how many of the lights worked to enhance the game:

  • Backlighting/Advertising. A brightly lit game is a popular game!
  • Lights Highlighting Trick Shots. Later on, lights would be used to highlight trick shots open to the player. These were triggered by the same sensors that would open up the mechanics for the shot.
  • Scorekeeping. LED scoreboards quickly became popular.
  • Distraction. Some lights are literally just there to distract players who are killing it at the game. It’s a way to add a challenge to an already-challenging game.

Bumpers

To a point, bumpers were always a part of the pinball game, but it took decades to get to the point where bumpers would actually make a ball ricochet. These bumpers are called “pop” bumpers and involve several major moving parts. 

Near the bottom of the bumper is a ring that activates a switch when a ball hits it. The top of the bumper has a solenoid that is powered by electricity. When the switch is engaged, the solenoid clamps down and pushes a cone down near the ball. This “kicks” the ball away quickly, giving it a classic ricochet. 

Scorekeeping

By the 1950s and 1960s, most pinball machines had electricity and were no longer just gravity games. This gave birth to electric scorekeeping. This is one of the more heavily-evolved aspects of pinball design, and how it works all depends on the model and simplicity. 

The Old Scorecard Machines

The most rudimentary form of scorekeeping would involve switches that would get pressed whenever a bumper was hit or when a piece of machinery was moved by the pinball. With every switch, an electric signal would make number cards that kept score flip, increasing the score. 

New Computerized Machines

As technology evolved, people began to get more reliant on computerization. By the 1970s, it was not surprising to see pinball machines that had fully programmed circuit boards that would keep score on an LED panel. 

By the 1980s, microprocessors started to get incorporated into pinball design, making each machine a unique computer in and of itself. 

How Does The Tilt Feature Work?

In the earlier part of the century, pinball was still mostly a game based on chance. This meant that people were quick to try to tilt the machine in order to make the ball turn favorably and gain an advantage in the game.

In 1933, Gottlieb Games created a fix: the “Tilt!” feature. In the classic game setup, a ball would lean on a ledge behind the game. When the ball was tilted too much in one direction, the ball would fall and ring a bell that signaled the end of the game. 

How Modern Tilt Functions Work

Much like other features, this quickly became an electronic part of pinball game programming. Modern tilt functions now operate using sensors that alert the system when a gamer decides to get too aggressive with the game. 

Upon alert, the tilt system will trigger a “kill switch” that turns off all functions of the game, leaving the ball to sink into the gutter. Most kill switches also come with mechanisms that turn off the flippers until the next round, making any form of play impossible. 

Can Tilt Functions Save A Machine?

Though this was originally a function made to prevent cheating, it’s important to realize that pinball machines are very delicate. Tilting and jostling a machine too aggressively can easily break the items inside the game. 

A broken game looks bad on the maker and the owners. Knowing this, game makers decided to continue using the tilt function long after pinball stopped becoming a gambling game. It became a protective measure for the increasingly complex machinery inside the pinball machine. After all, there is no better way to make people treat things more carefully than to threaten their game!

Understanding How Pinball Machines Would Keep Track Of Balls

“Game Overs” are a necessary part of the pinball sport, and they’re mostly controlled by sensors these days. Prior to modern design, you were given three pinballs, and once all three went down into the drain, your game was done and the machine would reset.

The more modern game uses solenoid sensors to count how many balls have been used. Once the count gets to the maximum number of balls per game, your game is finished, and the machine resets. If you get an extra ball, the machine sends a signal to subtract one ball from the total number of balls used. 

What About Multiball Play?

In pinball machines that have multiball play, the same solenoid that is attached to the parts of the machine that stores used balls is attached to the multiball trigger. Balls that are used or otherwise ready for play are stored at a different point in the game that’s blocked by a bar.

The bar is actually a small level that’s controlled by the solenoid’s circuit. Upon getting a trigger signal from the circuit, the solenoid lifts the lever containing the balls, spilling them out onto the game board. 

How Did Pinball’s Evolution Change Its Legality?

For decades, pinball was illegal in major cities like New York as a result of its gambling-happy past. Adding flippers and other gaming features helped soften the public image the game had, which made it possible for pinball to move away from its stigmatized past. 

Many pinball engineers made a point of adding gameplay to soften its reputation. Even so, it took a “Babe Ruth” moment to legalize pinball in the 1970s. Many towns and localities still have laws barring pinball as a result of its gambling associations.

When Was The First Computerized Pinball Machine Made?

All pinball games that were created prior to 1977 had no form of programming or electronic gatekeeping. The first pinball machine to have a Solid State element was Hot Tip, and it didn’t take long for other games to follow suit. 

Why Is Computerization Important To Pinball Machine Design?

Prior to the 70s, all pinball machines behaved similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. There were levers, magnets, pulleys, and more–all just to make a game work. This put them prone to machine failure and caused them to require regular repair. 

Does Computerization Affect Machine Price?

It’s hard to tell, honestly. Some people love the old school games, but the truth is that older games have a lot of drawbacks. Along with being “plainer,” they also require more repairs due to and can be difficult to keep up. 

It could be age, it could be the parts, it could be the features computers bring to the table, but whatever it is, most computerized machines are pricier. 

1970s And Beyond: Modern Tricks And Treats

Obviously, pinball machines didn’t stay basic for too long. As the game progressed, game makers started to incorporate different goals, features and traps to make each machine more challenging than the last. This section will talk about the following features:

  • Flip Cards. These are small cards that are designed to be hit by the pinball for added points. They flip over but don’t sink into the machine.
  • Dip Cards. These are cards that, when hit, sink into the machine.
  • Magnet Traps. Ever have a pinball machine that would trap a ball in a certain location? This is a magnet trap.
  • Secret Passageways. Passageways are meant to hide the ball and spit it out elsewhere.  These features sometimes only open up when a certain score is reached or when certain factors are met.
  • Missions. When you’re told to hit certain targets to get a bonus, that’s a mission.
  • Path Locking. When you notice that certain paths in the game get covered by shields, you’re seeing path locking at play.
  • Dot-Matrix Displays. These are the LED light matrices that hold scores for pinball machines that are made in later years.

How Do Flip Cards Work?

Flip cards are one of the most rudimentary new features on the pinball market. They are simply signs that are connected to wiring. When a pinball hits the sign and flips it, the wiring near the card sends an impulse to increase a score and/or light up a new feature. 

How Do Dip Cards Work?

Dip cards are a little more involved. When hit, these cards trigger a sensor that pulls a magnet. The magnet pulls the dip card down into the machine, where it remains until another sensor tells it to release its magnetic hold. 

The sensor that is connected to the dip card also will trigger score increases and other similar bonuses, depending on the machine. In most modern machines, dropping dip cards tends to be a part of simple missions. 

How Do Magnet Traps Work?

Magnet traps used electromagnetism and computerized circuits to trap balls. When a magnet trap was triggered by the game’s play, an electromagnet would get turned on. The electromagnet would be powerful enough to pull the ball into a small dip on the field and hold it there. 

When the trap would be triggered to release the ball, the electromagnet would be shut off. With no magnetism to hold the ball in place, the ball would quickly leave the trap on its own accord and make its way down the field. 

How Do Secret Passageways Work In Pinball?

This all depends on the machine, the passageway style, and if you have to unlock anything in order to take the passage. Here’s a quick run-through of how each type works:

  • Hidden passageways without any moving parts are often just built into the machines as part of the board. It’s a classic trick, even in retro machines!
  • Machines that have moving passageways often use mechanically propelled magnets to make the ball travel. When triggered, magnets are charged up and send the ball flying in unpredictable directions. Some passageways also may have motorized parts that move them when triggered by a signal.
  • Passageways that are mission rewards might involve motors to lift them into the game after a signal is triggered. This is how you get the passages that “lift” out of the ground.
  • Others are simply blocked by a bar that can be triggered to raise. If you have to hit targets to lift a bar at the passageway’s entrance, you might have magnets or levers to thank. Many machines have levers attached to wires that lift upon trigger.

How Do Missions Work In Pinball? 

Missions and mini-games are relatively new and are typically computerized. As we’ve already discussed, scores are counted by electric impulses that are counted by the machine’s system. With more advanced machines, each type of score can be individually counted alongside the overall score. 

Wondering how this works in programming? It’s simple:

  1. A mission is programmed by the pinball machine maker. Missions can be anything from hitting five targets to using a specific entryway several times.
  2. Each step in the mission is assigned a value. Most of the time, it’s a number value.
  3. You play and trigger a mission. Some missions are built into the game, others have to be unlocked.
  4. Every time you trigger a score that deals with the mission, the value increases. So, if you have to hit five targets and hit one, your value is now 1. The next will be 2 and so on.
  5. When you trigger the total value of the mission’s elements or specific values, the program will trigger a new function. This function usually involves score bonuses, blinking lights, and similar treats. Each step in the function has to be individually programmed as well.
  6. If the mission triggers a different mission to start, then that next mission gets unlocked. And then you get to go onto the next pinball adventure, just like that!

How Does Path Locking Work?

Path locking happens when impulses the player triggers tell the machine’s program to block a passageway. This is usually done by pulling a lever that lowers a bar to an entrance that is typically open. To lift it, you have to unlock the path. 

How Do Dot-Matrixes Work?

If you’ve played modern games, you’ve seen pinball displays in the form of a dot-matrix. These are boards of LED lights that are programmed using a simple microprocessor. The microprocessor is programmed to have certain displays, usually numbers. 

With dot-matrix, the program tells each individual LED dot to light up in order to make animations, show scores, or release messages to the player. It’s a lot like pixel art. Wild, right?

Dot-matrixes were a very powerful way to advertise modern pinballs. The programming also would make a point of playing animations when the machine was not in use. It’s like the machine is literally begging you to play!

Dot-Matrixes And Sound

When it comes to modern pinball displays, the visuals and the audio programming tends to be done in tandem. This is why the speakers on new pinball machines are so close to the matrix, and why certain sounds play with certain displays. 

Programmers make a point to trigger both the animations and the sounds together  to give you a better experience. 

How Does Modern Pinball Machine Design Work?

For the most part, not many games are made anymore. Only one manufacturer exists, but they tend to have a specific modus operandi when it comes to creating new games:

  • They are themed. Most modern pinball machines are collectors’ items that are part of licensed merchandise for movies and bands.
  • They are ultra-high-tech. Each game seems to be in a competition to make the most flashy game possible. Expect more features with every year that passes, and expect each machine to be more complicated than before.
  • They are mostly computerized. Though motors and magnets still play a huge role, it is the programming that makes all the difference in new machines.
  • They are also made to be sturdy. Most pinball buyers are either collectors or businesses that want a source of income. Neither group wants to pay for maintenance and repairs, which is why modern machines are a little more sturdy than older ones.

How Video Game Pinball Machines Work

The advent of video games was not kind to the silver ball. Pinball quickly fell out of favor, and soon, most manufacturers shuttered their doors. Today, there’s only one pinball machine manufacturer left. 

That said, pinball is not dead. 

Pinball is seeing a huge shift in play methods. The vast majority of people who enjoy pinball now play it online or via a virtual machine. These are games that are programmed in the exact same way as every other modern game, with developers and graphic designers. 

Is Video Game Pinball Really Like Old School Pinball?

Try as they might, developers can’t fully replicate a lot of the aspects of classic pinball machines. Programming only goes so far. Some of the drawbacks to the virtual machine include:

  • Unrealistic physics. The physics of a real pinball game is as realistic as you can get. With video gaming, even the most accurate controllers can glitch, and the actual physics of the ball itself won’t have as many subtleties.
  • Less physical interaction. Anyone who’s ever played a game of real pinball can tell you that part of the game’s appeal is feeling the ball rolling through the game’s board. With a video game, you really can’t get that sensation.
  • Less stimulation. Old school pinball machines have lights, sounds, vibrations, and more that contribute to their gameplay. Video games might have animations, but it’s nowhere near the same type of experience.

Why Are Video Pinball Games Gaining Popularity?

Well, we live in a digital society. Video games are plentiful, convenient, and above all, cheap. Pinball video game stands are extremely affordable when compared to their mechanical counterparts, which makes them very popular among budget-hungry gamers. 

A typical pinball video game machine will cost anywhere from $300 to $500 brand new. A modern pinball machine with mechanical parts can cost upwards of $4,000 for a cheap model–not including upkeep prices.

Conclusion

There are many different intricacies to the way that a pinball machine works. Each game is a little different, which is what helps make it interesting. For most people it is worth the extra expense or effort to get an older pinball machine and experience the sights and sounds of it vs getting a video game one. 

What pinball machine is best for you is a discussion for another day. 

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

Recent Posts