Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Legends of pinball, vol. 2 (unedited)

There are a few places in the Twin Cities that have a decent selection of pinball machines. One of them is run by Lloyd.

Lloyd's business, SS Billiards, is a fixture in Hopkins, Minn. It has been in the same generic little strip mall for nearly four decades. From what I've learned, Lloyd's family has long been in the arcade business, and Lloyd took over SS many years ago.

Lloyd survives in an era when most arcades can't for a few simple reasons.

One, he has no employees. He's there all day, every day, running the business. The guy doesn't take a day off, with the exception of a few holidays during the year. It's not demanding work most of the time, but it demands a lot of his time in order to make a buck or two at the end of the month.

Two, he has pool tables. Video games were huge in the early 1980s, but many arcades closed by the late 1980s, as home video game systems were already taking a bite out of the coin-operated industry, and this was long before today's highly sophisticated games were even imagined. There are still video games being manufactured for arcades, but arcades aren't the same. There are fewer of them, and nobody wants to play a game of Pac-Man for 15 minutes. Now you sit in a race car or on a motorcycle and race against five other people simultaneously. Or you're trying to hit the green with a 9 iron or shoot a buck. There are still video game experiences you can't replicate in the home, but there are plenty of home video game experiences you can't get at an arcade. In the 1980s, video games trumped anything you could play at home. The improvements and affordability of sophisticated game systems killed the video game industry.

The point of all that is that Lloyd has always had pool tables. Many people own pool tables, but plenty more don't, and those who like to play pool can play all sorts of video versions of it, but none of them replace the real thing. SS doesn't have pool leagues, just a few tables and hourly rates, but billiards is a game that has survived evolutions in entertainment, and likely provided a consistent source of customers for Lloyd.

Three, he has been committed to pinball. There was a time when SS had Foosball tables, and there are a couple of video machines inside his building at this moment, but Lloyd has long been committed to providing an outlet for pinball. Pinball enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1990s, but has again fallen on hard times. The machines are more complex than their predecessors, and video simulations will never replicate the experience of guiding a silver ball up ramps and at targets. The economy is making it tough on the pinball industry -- only one manufacturer remains -- but it's a pastime that lacks a viable substitute in your home. (More about this forthcoming in vol. 3.)

Pinball is quickly becoming an old man's game. Sure, young kids who enjoy video games are likely to be fascinated by the sophisticated game play of the new Iron Man pinball machine that came out this spring, but with fewer outlets for pinball, what are the odds an 8-year-old child is ever going to see an Iron Man machine? Unless they happen to have one at Chuck E. Cheese's or Dave & Buster's (I have no idea if either of those businesses have pinball machines), a kid is never going to even know Iron Man pinball exists. As Tim, the proprietor of the pinball museum likes to say, his patrons are primarily old farts.

The lack of machines and outlets for today's youth is bad news for a business like Lloyd's, but despite the odds against a business that isn't going to collect much more than a few dollars per hour from the pockets of each customer that walks through the door, he's keeping a dying industry alive in 2010.

No surprise, information about SS Billiards is available online.

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