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. \n\n\n\nHow 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. \n\n\n\nUnderstanding the intricate mechanics of a pinball machine isn\u2019t 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.\u00a0\n\n\n\nIf you want to see some current pinball machines or other retro arcade machines just click here.\n\n\n\nHow Do Pinball Machines Work?\n\n\n\nAs it turns out, there\u2019s 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. \n\n\n\nThe Very Basics Of Pinball: Back In The Day\n\n\n\nBefore 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. \n\n\n\nIn 1876, the game of pinball was invented as an upgrade on bagatelle. The game\u2019s tweaks were simple: \n\n\n\nA Smaller Ball \tA Gradual Slope \tA Coiled Spring\n\n\n\nLet\u2019s see how each element works, shall we?\n\n\n\nA Smaller Ball\n\n\n\nInitially, 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. \n\n\n\nPinballs are amazing little inventions, in and of themselves. Take into consideration these fun facts about them:\n\n\n\nPinballs are standardized in size and weight. A pinball is 1 1\/16th inch in diameter and weighs a total of 2.8 ounces. \tThey are designed to go fast. On a standard, unwaxed table, a pinball can reach speeds up to 90 miles per hour! \tThere \tare 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. \n\n\n\nHow Slope Impacts Your Pinball Game\n\n\n\nEvery pinball game is played on a slope, and there\u2019s 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\u2019t get directed to the drain.\n\n\n\nAre Pinball Slopes Uniform?\n\n\n\nThough they weren\u2019t originally uniform in nature, modern pinball slopes are fairly identical. Most modern machines have a 6 to 7-degree decline towards the player. \n\n\n\nHow The Coiled Spring Launch Works\n\n\n\nWho hasn\u2019t enjoyed the fun of pulling the launch spring on a pinball machine? The spring\u2019s force makes the launcher hit the ball, which propels it into the game zone. \n\n\n\nNotice Something Missing? \n\n\n\nSo far, mentions of flippers and lights haven\u2019t come up. This is because the original pinball machines that were made didn\u2019t 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. \n\n\n\nAt one point, pinball machines even would \u201ccash-out\u201d when a player won. Because of the gambling style of pinball\u2019s original gameplay, the game was banned in multiple states for decades. This started to change as the machine\u2019s design evolved. \n\n\n\nAutomation In The 1930s Through 1950s\n\n\n\nThe original pinball machine (and many of its later versions) weren\u2019t 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. \n\n\n\nHowever, being activated by coins wasn\u2019t the only new thing that was added to the pinball machine design. Some of the other mid-century improvements on the game\u2019s design added to the intricacy, including these below:\n\n\n\nFlippers \tLights \tBumpers \tScorekeeping \tTilt! \tGame \tOvers\n\n\n\nHow Flippers In Your Pinball Machine Work\n\n\n\nIt\u2019s hard to imagine a pinball game without flippers, but that\u2019s 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. \n\n\n\nFlippers 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. \n\n\n\nWhen 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. \n\n\n\nLights\n\n\n\nLightbulbs 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. \n\n\n\nLights varied when it came to their use. Here\u2019s how many of the lights worked to enhance the game:\n\n\n\nBacklighting\/Advertising. \tA brightly lit game is a popular game! \tLights 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 \tthe mechanics for the shot. \tScorekeeping. LED scoreboards quickly became popular. \tDistraction. Some lights are literally just there to distract players who are killing \tit at the game. It\u2019s a way to add a challenge to an already-challenging game. \n\n\n\nBumpers\n\n\n\nTo 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 \u201cpop\u201d bumpers and involve several major moving parts. \n\n\n\nNear 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 \u201ckicks\u201d the ball away quickly, giving it a classic ricochet. \n\n\n\nScorekeeping\n\n\n\nBy 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. \n\n\n\nThe Old Scorecard Machines\n\n\n\nThe 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. \n\n\n\nNew Computerized Machines\n\n\n\nAs 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. \n\n\n\nBy the 1980s, microprocessors started to get incorporated into pinball design, making each machine a unique computer in and of itself. \n\n\n\nHow Does The Tilt Feature Work?\n\n\n\nIn 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.\n\n\n\nIn 1933, Gottlieb Games created a fix: the \u201cTilt!\u201d 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. \n\n\n\nHow Modern Tilt Functions Work\n\n\n\nMuch 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. \n\n\n\nUpon alert, the tilt system will trigger a \u201ckill switch\u201d 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. \n\n\n\nCan Tilt Functions Save A Machine?\n\n\n\nThough this was originally a function made to prevent cheating, it\u2019s important to realize that pinball machines are very delicate. Tilting and jostling a machine too aggressively can easily break the items inside the game. \n\n\n\nA 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!\n\n\n\nUnderstanding How Pinball Machines Would Keep Track Of Balls\n\n\n\n\u201cGame Overs\u201d are a necessary part of the pinball sport, and they\u2019re 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.\n\n\n\nThe 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. \n\n\n\nWhat About Multiball Play?\n\n\n\nIn 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\u2019s blocked by a bar.\n\n\n\nThe bar is actually a small level that\u2019s controlled by the solenoid\u2019s circuit. Upon getting a trigger signal from the circuit, the solenoid lifts the lever containing the balls, spilling them out onto the game board. \n\n\n\nHow Did Pinball\u2019s Evolution Change Its Legality?\n\n\n\nFor 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. \n\n\n\nMany pinball engineers made a point of adding gameplay to soften its reputation. Even so, it took a \u201cBabe Ruth\u201d moment to legalize pinball in the 1970s. Many towns and localities still have laws barring pinball as a result of its gambling associations.\n\n\n\nWhen Was The First Computerized Pinball Machine Made?\n\n\n\nAll 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. \n\n\n\nWhy Is Computerization Important To Pinball Machine Design?\n\n\n\nPrior 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. \n\n\n\nDoes Computerization Affect Machine Price?\n\n\n\nIt\u2019s 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 \u201cplainer,\u201d they also require more repairs due to and can be difficult to keep up. \n\n\n\nIt 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. \n\n\n\n1970s And Beyond: Modern Tricks And Treats\n\n\n\nObviously, pinball machines didn\u2019t 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:\n\n\n\nFlip Cards. These \tare small cards that are designed to be hit by the pinball for added points. They flip over but don\u2019t sink into the machine. \tDip Cards. These \tare cards that, when hit, sink into the machine. \tMagnet Traps. Ever have a pinball machine that would trap a ball in a certain location? \tThis is a magnet trap. \tSecret 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 \twhen certain factors are met. \tMissions. When you\u2019re told to hit certain targets to get a bonus, that\u2019s a \tmission. \tPath Locking. When \tyou notice that certain paths in the game get covered by shields, \tyou\u2019re seeing path locking at play. \tDot-Matrix Displays. These \tare the LED light matrices that hold scores for pinball machines that are made in later years. \n\n\n\nHow Do Flip Cards Work?\n\n\n\nFlip 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. \n\n\n\nHow Do Dip Cards Work?\n\n\n\nDip 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. \n\n\n\nThe 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. \n\n\n\nHow Do Magnet Traps Work?\n\n\n\nMagnet traps used electromagnetism and computerized circuits to trap balls. When a magnet trap was triggered by the game\u2019s 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. \n\n\n\nWhen 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. \n\n\n\nHow Do Secret Passageways Work In Pinball?\n\n\n\nThis all depends on the machine, the passageway style, and if you have to unlock anything in order to take the passage. Here\u2019s a quick run-through of how each type works:\n\n\n\nHidden passageways without any moving parts are often just built into the \tmachines as part of the board. It\u2019s \ta classic trick, even in retro machines! \tMachines that have moving passageways often use mechanically propelled \tmagnets 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 \tparts that move them when triggered by a signal. \tPassageways that are mission rewards might involve motors to lift them into the \tgame after a signal is triggered. This is how you get the passages that \u201clift\u201d out of the ground. \tOthers 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\u2019s entrance, you might have magnets or levers to thank. Many machines have levers attached to wires that lift upon trigger. \n\n\n\nHow Do Missions Work In Pinball? \n\n\n\nMissions and mini-games are relatively new and are typically computerized. As we\u2019ve already discussed, scores are counted by electric impulses that are counted by the machine\u2019s system. With more advanced machines, each type of score can be individually counted alongside the overall score. \n\n\n\nWondering how this works in programming? It\u2019s simple:\n\n\n\nA mission is programmed by the pinball machine maker. Missions can be anything from hitting five targets to using a specific entryway several times. \tEach step in the mission is assigned a value. Most of the time, it\u2019s a number value. \tYou play and trigger a mission. Some missions are built into the game, others have to be unlocked. \tEvery time you trigger a score that deals with the mission, the value \tincreases. So, if you have to hit five targets and hit one, your value is now 1. The next will be 2 and so on. \tWhen \tyou trigger the total value of the mission\u2019s elements or specific \tvalues, the program will trigger a new function. This function usually involves score bonuses, blinking lights, and \tsimilar treats. Each step in the function has to be individually programmed as well. \tIf the mission triggers a different mission to start, then that next \tmission gets unlocked. And then you get to go onto the next pinball adventure, just like that!\n\n\n\nHow Does Path Locking Work?\n\n\n\nPath locking happens when impulses the player triggers tell the machine\u2019s 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. \n\n\n\nHow Do Dot-Matrixes Work?\n\n\n\nIf you\u2019ve played modern games, you\u2019ve 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. \n\n\n\nWith 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\u2019s a lot like pixel art. Wild, right?\n\n\n\nDot-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\u2019s like the machine is literally begging you to play!\n\n\n\nDot-Matrixes And Sound\n\n\n\nWhen 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. \n\n\n\nProgrammers make a point to trigger both the animations and the sounds together to give you a better experience. \n\n\n\nHow Does Modern Pinball Machine Design Work?\n\n\n\nFor 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:\n\n\n\nThey are themed. Most modern pinball machines are collectors\u2019 items that are part of \tlicensed merchandise for movies and bands. \tThey 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. \tThey are mostly computerized. Though motors and magnets still play a huge role, it is the programming that makes all the difference in new machines. \tThey 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. \n\n\n\nHow Video Game Pinball Machines Work\n\n\n\nThe 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\u2019s only one pinball machine manufacturer left. \n\n\n\nThat said, pinball is not dead. \n\n\n\nPinball 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. \n\n\n\nIs Video Game Pinball Really Like Old School Pinball?\n\n\n\nTry as they might, developers can\u2019t 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:\n\n\n\nUnrealistic 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\u2019t have as many subtleties. \tLess physical interaction. Anyone \twho\u2019s ever played a game of real pinball can tell you that part of the game\u2019s appeal is feeling the ball rolling through the game\u2019s board. With a video game, you really can\u2019t get that sensation. \tLess stimulation. Old school pinball machines have lights, sounds, vibrations, and more that contribute to their gameplay. Video games might have \tanimations, but it\u2019s nowhere near the same type of experience. \n\n\n\nWhy Are Video Pinball Games Gaining Popularity?\n\n\n\nWell, 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. \n\n\n\nA 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.\n\n\n\nConclusion\n\n\n\nThere 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. \n\n\n\nWhat pinball machine is best for you is a discussion for another day.