What a Rush: Stern Pinball scores big in Elk Grove with rock star's help on new machine line
George Gomez has been making coin-operated games in the Chicago area for decades, and he's spent the last few years ushering in a "renaissance in pinball" in Elk Grove Village.
"We're the largest manufacturer of pinball machines in the world, and on any given day, we probably own 90% of the world market for pinball," Gomez, the chief creative officer at Stern Pinball, said during a February factory tour for members of the media.
"Right now, the games are in such high demand that we are hard-pressed to keep games for ourselves," he said, pointing to the area of the factory floor that used to be the arcade where everyone in the building "had to play every day."
Those occupants include assembly line workers, game designers, sound designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, 2-D illustrators, model makers and, on some days, Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson.
"I think the fun thing about pinball is that it looks like checkers, but it's actually chess," said Robertson, taking a break from touring the world with his guitar to talk about the new Stern table that he helped bring to life. "The more you learn the game, the more it opens itself up to you."
Robertson's been collecting machines since the late 1990s and jumped at the chance to help a fellow Canadian rock legend: Rush frontman Geddy Lee emailed Robertson for advice when presented with the possibility of a pinball game featuring the band. Robertson, alongside lead designer John Borg and lead programmer Tim Sexton, would ensure the game be "Closer To The Heart" for Rush fans, and not a "Fly By Night" cash-in.
The result made its debut this year in arcades, beercades, bars and microbreweries, the kinds of businesses looking to attract customers and generate excitement as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic taper off.
Stern didn't feel those effects, though -- at least, not the negative ones.
An evolving business
"Our business really exploded during COVID," said Gomez, who revealed that over 50% of their products are now going into consumers' homes.
"The strongest driver of growth in the business has been the home market," said Seth Davis, the company's president. He joined Stern last October after 13 years at Disney, where he worked on video games, augmented reality applications and the Disney+ streaming platform.
Disney's brands have long been featured in Stern's products, with licensed games featuring characters from the Marvel and "Star Wars" universes. Joining Rush on the assembly line these days is a table based on "The Mandalorian," complete with a Grogu ("Baby Yoda") figure looming over the playfield.
Davis said Stern aims for "maximum appeal" with its licensed games, and Rush joins a roster of Stern titles based on rock bands that includes Metallica, AC/DC and Iron Maiden -- names that bring energy to a homeowner's basement or garage that became an all-purpose entertainment center during the worst days of the pandemic.
How much of an investment are we talking about? The Rush game is available in three models ranging in price from $6,899 to $11,099.
Robertson used a car analogy to explain the difference: "Stern is ... BMW, and they are Toyota, and they are Ford."
The Pro models on the low end are most often sold to operators placing the games in businesses, he said. Premium models with extra functionality are for home users. The top-tier Limited editions are tricked-out, signed and numbered for the most dedicated collectors. (So, guys like him.)
Stern debuted a fourth model type, Home Edition, in 2019. These $4,599 machines based on "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park" are, according to Gomez, simpler to play, smaller and lighter than their arcade counterparts. "Yet it is made with genuine Stern Pinball parts, and has a lot of the same functionality," he said.
With more games going into people's homes, Stern's business approach must evolve.
"We're learning how to be more customer-facing, because we have to be," Gomez said. "The flipper and the ball are sacred, and they will always be here. I think that everything else is sort of up for discussion and evolution."
A big part of that is Stern's new phone app, Insider Connected, which uses QR codes to allow players to track scores and unlock extra content.
"For the very first time in the history of pinball, the game recognizes who you are," said Gomez, who compares the app's impact on the consumer to Xbox Live with its system of gameplay achievements.
Insider Connected also creates new opportunities for business owners, who can use it to see a machine's performance data and get alerts about needed maintenance.
"An operator can build location loyalty: 'Play at my location ... to get these rewards in turn,'" Gomez said as an example.
A suburban staple
The engine that makes all this happen has been running in Elk Grove Village since 2015, when Chairman and CEO Gary Stern moved the company there from Melrose Park. A pinball machine has 3,500 individual parts, and making those machines takes an even greater number of mechanics, so to speak.
"We employ about 300 people here," Gomez said, "but the extended enterprise of people that we employ is probably (12,000) to 15,000 people."
That includes buying raw materials and fabricated parts, then bringing it all together in the factory.
The company's suburban location gives Stern an edge.
"Elk Grove is very well-oriented for the types of suppliers we use," Davis said. "We have supply chain issues like everybody else right now, but we've been in a much better position than some other types of companies because we're not solely relying on Asian production. Most of our suppliers are close by."
The ultimate goal is to do as much in-house as possible.
"Our philosophy here is, we need to vertically integrate things that put us at risk," Gomez said. "I can get steel lots of places, I can get plastic lots of places. ... I can't get pinball playfields lots of places."
Gomez, 66, has been designing those playfields for years, and his career in the business of fun began when he was just 22. Not exclusively a pinball designer, his fingerprints are also on classic video games like "TRON" and "Spy Hunter."
Hanging along the back wall of the factory are 70-plus flags from every country where Stern has shipped its games, making Gomez an entertainer on a global scale -- just like his rock-star buddy Robertson.
"I'm very fortunate," Gomez said. "I've spent all this time making stuff that nobody needs but everybody wants."