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Virtual Pinball Vs. Real Pinball: What Is The Difference?

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The game of pinball is an arcade classic that has been going through some major changes as of late. More specifically, it’s a game that is quickly dropping its complicated machinery in favor of virtual gaming. But, is this really the best route for the game to go? 

What are the differences between virtual pinball and real pinball? There are a lot of subtle differences that can change the way the pinball game is played, including:

  • The Actual Build Of The Game
  • The Price Of The Game
  • Convenience
  • Physical Gameplay Experience
  • Visual and Audio Stimulation

The transition to visual pinball is one that has a massive impact on the game itself. To fully understand what it means for traditional gamers, it’s a good idea to look at each aspect individually. 

I will go into that down below.

Before I do it is important to note that virtual pinball machines are constantly evolving as well. The more advanced virtual machines will have buttons, analog plungers, switches, shakers, haptic feedback, and many other upgrades that will look and feel like a real pinball machine. However, the big difference comes when you are looking at the playfields.

Real pinball tables are able to be viewed in 3-D while a virtual pinball cabinet just displays graphics on a monitor under the playfield glass.

Visual pinball tables are great and many people claim that these future pinball machines are just like the real deal. However, most pinball enthusiasts will disagree and will only play if they can get the authentic pinball experience with real metal balls, a plunger where they can feel the thwack, pinball knockers, and a high-quality experience.

And not just a souped-up PC game.

So, let’s dive into the differences between these two types of pinball machines so you can decide if you want to fork out thousands of dollars to have your own real pinball arcade or if you are just fine playing a pinball simulation instead.

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If you have a game room (or want one) you have to check out this classic arcade game console that attaches directly to your TV.

This machine has classic arcade controls but hooks directly up to your big-screen TV so you can easily move it (even if you don’t have a dedicated game room).

Oh, and did I mention that it has 5,000 games built in that you can play anytime you like?!?!

What Are the Differences Between Virtual Pinball and Real Pinball?

Most of the game’s big differences boil down to the differences between playing a game on hardware and software. Since virtual pinball is a video game, a lot of the gameplay tends to feel a little dull. However, virtual pinball also has perks when it comes to pricing and convenience.

Let’s take a look at how each element of the game is altered through virtual play, shall we?

1. Game Build And Design

With traditional pinball machines, designing a game was an extremely involved and complex endeavor. Early machines required dozens of wires, magnets, and circuits to run. By the time the modern pinball era came about, it wasn’t unusual to see extreme machinery involved in the making of the game. 

Virtual pinball is an entirely different animal and doesn’t involve any real physical parts aside from a screen and controller. Everything is programmed, which means that seeing complex moving machine parts just won’t happen.

Overall, making a virtual pinball game is easier and cheaper than creating a mechanical machine.

This also means that you can have many additional pinball games accessible through the menus rather than just playing one like a traditional pinball machine. And going to the menu system and choosing from a ton of different games is nothing short of amazing!

What Does This Mean For Upkeep Costs?

Old-school pinball machines had tons of moving parts and triggers. Over time, they were prone to wear and tear. This means that pinball machine owners regularly had to perform upkeep on them and call mechanics to repair them when they broke. 

Virtual machines don’t really have upkeep. As long as the software and screen are running, you’re good to go. This leads to a far lower upkeep cost than a traditional machine would require. 

What Does This Mean For Pinball Game Designers?

Due to the high level of skill and the high price of individual moving parts, traditional pinball machine manufacturers have almost gone out of business entirely. The only company that still makes classic pinball games is Stern, and their production levels have dropped significantly over the years. 

On the other hand, virtual machine makers and software developers have started to see a boom in business. Making virtual games is cheaper, requires less overhead, and also has a higher demand. 

2. Price

When it comes to investing in a pinball machine, price is a serious issue. A traditional machine can easily cost several thousand dollars.

A virtual pinball machine with everything included can often run $3,000-$5,000 as well but you can have tons of different games (Star Wars, Medieval Madness, etc.) that you can play versus just one for the normal pinball machine. 

Why Is Traditional Pinball More Expensive Than Virtual Pinball?

Traditional pinball machines are expensive because of the price, labor, and rarity of the machines. However, at the most basic of levels, it’s a matter of the parts and labor.

Parts are the real killer. A typical pinball machine will have hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of parts alone. Each game also has to be individually engineered and has unique parts that need to be made. These parts are difficult to come by, which makes replacing them a nightmare.

Labor, too, is a factor. Along with pricing each machine to pay the people who engineered the game, the prices also reflect the labor it takes to make every machine. Many pinball games are handmade, which means that skilled labor will also need to be taken into account.

How Much Does Playing Virtual Pinball Cost?

It all depends on what kind of machine or software you’re using to play the game. If you download a free pinball game to your phone or choose to play a free pinball game on your computer, then it won’t cost a dime. 

On the other hand, if you want to get a gaming machine that is solely dedicated to pinball and has the look of a classic pinball machine, things can get pricey. You might have to spend up to $5,000 for a new virtual machine.

3. Convenience

Most people do not have the extra money to splurge on a classic pinball machine for their home. In order to play the old-school game, most gamers would have to go to a local arcade or find a venue that has a machine. This isn’t always easy to do, especially in rural areas. 

Virtual pinball, on the other hand, is extremely convenient and tends to be a cheaper hobby. You can even download pinball apps to your phone for free. The majority of pinball games that are currently being played are now online.

4. Physical Gameplay Experience

The biggest difference between traditional and virtual pinball games is the overall experience you have on a physical level. Here’s a quick run-through of how the two differ:

  • Physics. Even the best programmers can’t make a game that offers up physics that are perfectly realistic. The unpredictability of classic pinball is what made the game great, and truthfully, all the subtle movements in the game can’t be captured with coding. As a result, virtual games are less realistic in their moves.
  • Physical sensation. In a traditional pinball game, players can feel the ball moving and also get a thrill from the “pops” of a bumper. Virtual machines don’t have that physical sensation.
  • Control Command. With a physical pinball machine, gamers are able to physically control the launch spring and choose how much force the flippers exert on their balls. Though there is some control in virtual pinball, it’s nowhere near the levels of a machine game.

Overall, it’s safe to say that virtual machines have a slightly muted physical experience at best.

5. Visual And Audio Stimulation

Among a lot of gamers, a pinball game’s visual and auditory stimulation can be a “make or break” concept. Unfortunately, most virtual pinball machines tend to fall short on this level as well. Here’s why:

  • Gaming consoles don’t always have the best sound. Traditional pinball machines had great speakers that would blast out music, make pops, and also chime when balls hit the bumpers. If you’re playing pinball on your computer, cellphone, or a virtual machine the stereo sound quality likely won’t be as good.
  • Virtual machines might not have the same type of mechanical-style displays. Most (but not all) virtual pinball games are relatively simple and don’t have many drastic moves in terms of moving parts. Traditional games, on the other hand, might have spinning centerpieces, cool visual effects that happen during a major milestone, and similar perks.
  • However, virtual machines also have a greater propensity for striking graphics. Though traditional pinball machines can have visually stunning artwork, they can’t suddenly pause the game to show a cool five-second movie on the game table. You need a screen for that. If you love movie-style interludes, virtual machines are great.
  • You can also control the volume on a virtual machine. Not everyone likes the loudness of a traditional machine. Some people find it to be overstimulating or distracting. One of the perks of virtual gaming is that controlling sound levels is way easier, which can make the game more accessible. Some of the traditional machines have volume controls on them but not all of them. 

Visual Vs Traditional Pinball Machine Side By Side Comparison

Want to see what a real machine looks like while being played vs a virtual machine? Check out this video of side-by-side gameplay below.

Do Arcades Buy Virtual Pinball Machines Too?

While classic “silver ball” machines are still the most popular type of pinball for arcades to buy, more companies than ever before are looking into virtual pinball machines. It’s understandable, considering the high costs and maintenance required for traditional machinery. 


There are obviously quite a few differences between a traditional pinball machine and a virtual one. Many people prefer the look and feel of a physical one (myself included) while others like the variety that a virtual pinball machine has to offer. 

Virtual pinball machines are less expensive than a brand-new pinball machines but you can get used pinball machines for considerably less than you can purchase a virtual machine for. One main issue with traditional pinball machines is the cost and time to repair things that break. With virtual pinball machines, there are very few moving parts so they are much less likely to break down or need maintenance. 

Ultimately everyone will have their own personal opinions about virtual machines but hopefully, this article has helped you learn what the differences are so you can better decide which machine is for you.