There has been a revolution in the world of pinball in recent years. The reason is the emergence of a new generation of individual designers who are creating unique machines for themselves and close friends. And what might be seen as a hobby has actually resulted in a number of these “home brew” wizards transitioning their careers into becoming full time pinball designers, programmers, artists and engineers at the major manufacturers across the globe.
Among the highlights of this year’s Pinball Expo 2021 will be a record breaking number of enthusiasts showing off their personally created games. The handmade games, the vast majority of them built from scratch, have been gaining steady prominence at the annual show over the past several years. At present, show organizers expect more than 20 hobbyists displaying their handiwork.
“What has been coined “home brew” games have been gaining in popularity every year,” said Rob Berk, Pinball Expo’s founder. “I believe it has to do with the overall increased interest in pinball but also the availability of some new technologies which provide tools for actually programming the games. There is plenty of romance surrounding the older games and these hobbyists are trying to capture some of that for themselves.“
The games, as Berk pointed out, are not as difficult to fabricate as might be imagined. Old time electro-mechanical pinballs included an enormous amount of wiring and circuitry to control playfield targets and scoring. Today, not only has the circuitry been much reduced but a thriving after market for the industry includes a full range of flippers, drop targets, ramps, and other playfield components.
Aaron Davis, a home brew pin enthusiast from Seattle, sees the trend as an offshoot of the maker and maker space community. “I started getting into it around 2013, but it’s been steadily growing since then,” Davis explained. “It’s a diverse community, but you have guys who designed systems to land the Rover on Mars and build rides for Disney getting into it. The desire to build and create things is strong in so many of us.”
As Davis explained, the themes of the home brew pins range from something called “fan pins“ paying homage to such classic video game themes as Sonic the Hedgehog, to movies like the Nightmare Before Christmas, and even more personal themes. The pins, which can take a year or more to complete, are unique in that they require multiple disciplines, including electronics, coding, art, music, wood working, and basic mechanical engineering knowledge.
Davis has also turned the hobby into a cottage industry, founding the company Fast Pinball. Together with his partner, Dave Beecher, he designed and markets a brand of circuit boards for the hobbyist market. “Anything you see on the playfield, our products can control it,” he said.
As Davis also noted, an offshoot of the home brew systems is a small group of players who rebuild machines with better play features. Some of the popular games from the past were rushed to market, fell short in terms of rules or gameplay, or simply require a modernization. And we are seeing the results of these efforts in increasing numbers.
For enthusiasts attending Pinball Expo, the home brew games represents a value added bonus. Although there are more pinball companies today than at any time in the recent history, the hobbyists games offer a look into a niche that is not often on display outside of a family rec room or website.