The highest-selling pinball machine, Bally's Addams Family, sold 20,000 units in 1992. Today, Stern's biggest sellers like Game of Thrones and Ghostbusters move only half as many games, with others selling considerably fewer. Creating just one single game requires designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, programmers, artists, and costs upwards of $1 million, with a production window as long as 15 months.

In other words, you need to make a game people are going to buy.

"It's like a movie studio," says Jody Dankberg, Stern's director of marketing and licensing. "Everyone is coming together to make sure it's this cohesive, entertainment experience that all hangs together."

Designing the USS Enterprise for Stern's 2013 game Star Trek.

Step 2: Designing the Game

Once Stern books a license, the lead designer and programmer dream up every aspect of the game inside a single office. First, the layout of the playing field and geometry of the shots are drafted on computer using an in-house emulator.

"Initial meetings are really blue sky thinking, pure creative brainstorming," says George Gomez, Stern's vice president of game development. "We'll think of what would be cool, but then we have to deal with how it affects the gameplay."

A successful mockup could mean a lot of things depending on the type of game you're trying to make. Do the ramps and angle of the shots flow into each other organically? Is it a game about simply scoring points, or is it about a more complex story? The Addams Family's tremendous success was partially credited to having the film's actors record dialogue just for the game and building in an entirely new story.

"Initial meetings are really blue sky thinking, pure creative brainstorming."

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But at some point, the game needs to move from the virtual to the physical.

"We have to actually see how it works, so we do a mockup and we adjust the mechanisms over and over again until the shots are nice and smooth," Gomez says. "Games are about feedback, so everything needs to have a cause and effect. We need to make sure it feels like you're progressing, that you're making the field react in some way, and we need to make sure there aren't any places the ball is just going to land and get stuck."

Once the designers are sure, the playfield is fabricated and silk screened with graphics onsite. Because a playfield will be responsible for anchoring so many various parts, they need to be made from durable wood. Stern uses a tight grain Finland plywood, something like a Russian birch, before a maple veneer is added to the top and bottom for extra hardness.

Stern employees assembling the new Aerosmith pinball game.

Step 3: Sub-Assembly

With nearly 3,500 parts, two dozen cables, and half-a-mile of wiring per game, building a working playfield is a time-consuming process that can take as long as two weeks to a month per game, depending on the build's specifications.