The Short of It
The team behind DFW’s Free Play Arcade is going to open a pinball bar in a new development / rehab in Dallas proper. The facility will have 40+ pinball machines, 8-12 select arcades, and an insanely good bar. The bar concept is straight out of Uptown New Orleans – with cold beer, cheap shots, and great service. The bar will be ages 21-and-up for ~95% of its open hours and charge no cover. The game concept is about celebrating the best pinball machines of all time while exploring the various pinball generations. We will combine Free Play’s industry leading technical knowledge, proprietary technology, and legendary service to build the greatest pinball bar ever. The concept will be entirely unique of Free Play and will operate on coin play rather than a free-to-play model with a cover.
The Long of It
Fair warning, you are about to read the document that the President of Free Play used to convince himself as to the appropriateness and necessity of this project. It’s boring, nerdy, overly-analytical, and ultimately just gets to the points covered in the preceding section. It is a long-winded screed about the current state of commercial pinball in America, the general arcade scene, and predictions for the future. You have been warned…
Free Play Background
Though arcade bars and free-to-play cover arcades existed before Free Play opened, in 2015, Free Play was the first to combine the free-to-play cover model with alcohol and food. Free Play manages, operates, and curates what has been called the largest retro arcade and part collection in the world. Free Play’s insistence on using real, authentic, original arcade components has been called “near-maniacal” by the press. Free Play has been recognized for having the highest level of game uptime in the history of arcades while still running authentic, awesome 30+ year old games.
Free Play believes that every person in the world not only deserves to have access to an awesome arcade – but deserves to play the best games, in the best condition, free of emulation or cheap re-releases. Free Play extends its passion for curation to all corners of its business – having been recognized as having one of the best beer lists in DFW, having an award-winning and evolving food menu, and creating an atmosphere that has been called the “best arcade party” in history.
Free Play has also invested heavily in its “Labs” division, which makes its industry-leading quality, uptime, and authenticity possible. Free Play Labs has developed technology and techniques that will greatly increase the chance that classic arcade games will survive for generations to come. This same division has generated the research, information, and background on pinball arcades, pinball machines, and pinball bars that are found in this paper.
“M-Curves” or “Maintenance Curve Charts” are rather notorious in the pinball operator community, assuming there are still any operators who remember them. An M-Curve chart combines the play and maintenance data of dozens-to-hundreds of machines to track plays (or credits) against the amount of maintenance (or repair time) the pinball machine(s) required. Manufacturers from the early 70s until the late 90s collected a ton of data from the thousands of operators and distributors to build these charts that they then kept mostly secret (much to the operators chagrin). Obviously, there is a ton of predictive data in these charts and they have significant value to operators.
Nowadays, if you know the right people (and pay enough money) you can have access to most of the charts that were maintained by the larger manufacturers or operators. Below you can see a sample of one of these charts, which takes data from 62 Addams Family pinball machines operated in movie theaters from new until 150,000 plays. On this chart, the time used to collect the money earned was included in the cumulative maintenance axis.
As you can see, things were quite good for the first 75,000 plays. Based on what we know about movie theater play numbers, the 75,000 plays likely represents slightly more than two years of time on the floor. Subtracting time taken to collect funds, it’s fair to assume the operator averaged only 30 minutes per week of maintenance on the machine through the 75,000 plays. (And in this time, the machine earned ~$40,000 in revenue.) Not too bad.
Things then get much worse for the next 75,000 plays when the average machine in the chart above required 3-4x maintenance time over. By the end of the chart, the operator is practically clawing each play out of the machine, working dozens of maintenance hours for each 5,000 plays. It’s not surprising then that most charts end around (or before) 150,000 plays as it became extremely difficult and unprofitable to keep the machines out and available to the public.
And the Addams Family chart reads basically the same as every other M-Curve chart. While some pinball machines ramped up the required maintenance earlier, and some slightly later, between 75k and 125k plays, all pinball machines become increasingly more difficult to keep on the floor. Based on our own data for our new machines, and based on conversations with high level techs and other employees of modern pinball manufacturers, we know that the M-Curve has not changed. In fact, it seems to be worse as most pinball machines are now made for primarily home buyers rather than operators.
So what’s the point of going over M-Curves?
Free Play’s Pinball Machines Receive 100,000 Plays Each Every Year
Free Play lives, breathes, and thrives in the terrible parts of the M-Curve chart. Even our new pinball machines hit those bad parts of the M-Curve within a year of putting the game on the floor. We have the best techs in the industry (and proprietary techniques and technology) that keep our pinball machines running better than most, but we still spend more than 80 hours per week maintaining and repairing the 20 tables we have that are available to the public at our two current arcades. This does not include the time spent prepping new pinball tables for release (or maintaining, repairing, and preparing the hundreds of Free Play arcade games.) And because our standards are the highest that have ever existed, we constantly feel like we should be doing even more for our pinball machines. It’s a constant struggle.
But our commitment to Free Play pinball is unwavering. All great arcades had a killer pinball row that spanned the decades and it is an extremely important part of the Free Play environment. But massively expanding our pinball lineup to create an awesome, authentic pinball bar is unfeasible under the current Free Play model. So we need a new model…
Historic Pinball Bars
In the 80s, nearly all bars had a pinball table or two. In the early 90s, in many larger metropolitan areas, true pinball bars starting popping up. The first pinball bars combined inexperienced owners and expensive drinks with bad service and 15-25 mostly broken pinball tables. Though a few of the better pinball bars survived for a decade or more, most of these dedicated pinball bars crashed and burned or quickly transitioned into something else. The most common reason for closing or changing concepts? A perceived impossibility of keeping the pinball machines in acceptable condition.
And as is still the case, once a patron goes into one pinball establishment and has a bad (or even mediocre time), they are significantly less likely to give the next pinball business a try. So once early attempts failed, the concept was largely abandoned. (Not to mention the arcade industry as a whole was crashing and burning.)
Current Pinball and the Issues with Free-to-Play
There has been a wave of fresh businesses attempting to combine pinball, alcohol, and good times. Given the tight-knit industry, I will refrain from naming names or speaking ill of the eventual dead, but many in the new wave have already run into the exact same issues the pinball bars of yesteryear ran into – difficult maintenance work, expensive parts, and maintaining any semblance of consistent quality in a busy environment. Not including Free Play Arcade locations, we are aware of 19 locations that run the free-to-play (with a cover) model and feature pinball in the United States. Of the 19, twelve have already switched their pinball machines to coin play due to maintenance issues. While there is no danger of Free Play ever doing this, it is not surprising these changes are being implemented.
Some free-to-play pinball arcades have attempted to avoid the issue by focusing on bringing in primarily new pinball machines. Given the volume of new pinball machines that have been made in the past decade (almost entirely by Stern), you can easily find 15-25 new pinball (still boxed) tables and immediately have a well-functioning pinball bar with minimal tech time required. But what we know about M-Curves shows us that this “grace period” is fleeting. Any popular free-to-play arcade is going to run into maintenance hell in year 2 to 3. And while there are 3-7 new pinball machines being released every year, and while the economics might support buying every new pinball machine that comes out, this hypothetical arcade loses its ability to curate entirely, is capped at the number of pinball machines it can operate, and relies substantially on the continued survival of upstart pinball entities. This hypothetical bar then also has to run the same exact same pinball machines that are found at kiddycades, bowling alleys, movie theatres, and just about every other place you might find a pinball machine – because all of those businesses are going to focus on easy-to-maintain games. And that’s lame.
And we want to put a ton of curated pinball on the floor. And all of our knowledge, expertise, and experience shows us that the free-to-play model is not really the way to accomplish this goal.
The Dallas Pinball Project
So for more than a year, we’ve been acquiring dozens (and dozens) of carefully selected pinball machines and working on a new concept. If you read the first paragraph, you know what’s coming: 40+ pinball machines, a handful of awesome arcades that don’t work particularly well at Free Play, and a bar style that I take no shame in admitting is ripping off the great Uptown New Orleans bars. Having spent my early twenties in Uptown New Orleans going to law school, this is the kind of bar I miss and a style that hasn’t quite made its mark in Dallas. It’s a risky venture that, but with our proprietary tech and knowledge, nobody has ever been better positioned to pull it off, and I’d hate myself if we didn’t take the chance to build Dallas the best pinball bar in the world.
We have many, many more details coming but, for this build, we’re going to be keep things a little close to the vest given our experience building Free Play Arlington.
We expect to open in 2018.