Pinball Wizard: How I built a games room business in a digitally fixated consumer market

11 min read

13 April 2015

Andy Beresford established Home Leisure Direct in 2007 in the midst of a gaming world that seemed engrossed in digital play. He has managed to grow the business against the odds into the UK’s premier games room company – here he shares his insights.

The British are a nation of gamers. With the increasing availability of game-playing devices and faster internet more people are now able to play digitally. Recent Gaming Revolution research has shown that 33.5m (69 per cent) of the GB online audience have joined the digital gaming world in the last six months and they are spending at least six hours gaming a week.

In 2007, when I set up Home Leisure Direct, the market was dominated as much as it is now by digital games. But I wasn’t deterred. What it revealed to me is that we are a nation who love games, and that’s not restricted just to virtual games.

Long before the days of digital gaming the Victorian’s were happily engrossed in their parlours playing ‘Are you there Moriarty?’ and ‘The minister’s cat’. Mastery, excitement and fair play have been underpinned by a fiercely competitive character for generations of British gamers. After all, the Brits invented so many of the world’s greatest competitive sports and games including cricket, rugby, badminton (originally known as Battledore and Shuttlecock), football, rounders, tennis, table tennis, snooker and more. The online and digital gaming revolution is just a babe in arms compared to the seasoned history of non-digital game playing in this country.

The iconic and classic games room and bar games of the 50s, 60s and 70s were as much a part of popular culture as digital games are now. It’s little wonder these games have endured. Games like pinball, pool, table football and table tennis offer intrinsic rewards that are intensely motivating. The physical and tangible qualities of classic games like these are hugely compelling and something that digital versions will never be able to compete with. And although HLD products are not all strictly ‘non-digital’ (games since the 80s/90s have computer code driving them and many modern pinball machines have digital elements like dot matrix displays and LCD screens and animations) they are a big step away from the virtual world of computer simulation.

Great products market themselves

Even before I set up HLD I was a passionate gamer, from Golden Ages arcade games like Donkey Kong to the delights of the flipper and the metal ball bearing on a pinball playfield. I had set up a family gaming room at home, so I knew all about the wholesome pleasures of home entertainment and which machines and games manufacturers to look out for. Starting a business in this sector felt like a very organic step forward.

Ensuring we sell the best quality products is hugely important to the team at HLD, who are all knowledgeable and passionate gamers. We have to be confident in the products’ design, the materials and components used, as well as providing good value for money for our customers.

We research, trial, source and ultimately only invest in products that we know from experience are excellent. We look for good craftsmanship, design, style and durability. We stock products that are from reputable manufacturers, many of them established and well known producers. Our acid test is pretty simple – if we wouldn’t have the product in-house we won’t sell it. 

I closely analyse each potential suppliers offering and see how the products have been designed. Particularly for pool tables and pinball machines, appearance is critical, as our customers are buying for their homes. I visit the manufacturer to see their products and how they are made. And throughout our relationship we monitor the quality of the products and get feedback from our customers. If the service back-up is poor or if there are any problems we will simply cease to range that product.

It’s not just about quality either, we know the market and we know what people are looking for. We aim to give our customers what they want. For example the appeal of licensed themes on machines is huge, like Marvel characters such as Iron Man, Spiderman, X-Men, Avengers and films and TV programmes such as Star Trek, The Walking Dead, WWE Wrestling and bands and artists such as Metallica, AC-DC, Elvis, Dolly Parton – all popular with enthusiasts.

The perks of a home game

With the exponential increases on prices of food, alcohol, petrol and utilities as a result of the financial crisis, and the simultaneous slow wage growth, many people are looking at where and how they can make savings.

Horizons, the food service consultants, found that the average price of a three-course meal in a pub had risen 7.4 per cent from £17.38 to £18.67 during the past year and the price of a pint of lager has gone up 20-fold, or by 1,948 per cent, since 1973.

Read on to find out how he does this “old school revival”…

My customers tell me that they don’t want the hassle of trek to a busy pub for their fun only to find worn out or broken tables and exorbitant prices, especially if they can play in the comfort of their homes on quality equipment.

I’ve witnessed a dramatic increase recently in the number of games room games being purchased for home use. In 2014 pool tables were our biggest seller, especially pool dining tables. Pinball machine sales have also increased dramatically year on year, up over 800 per cent, and again, the number of people buying for the home is on the rise. UK Games manufacturers and businesses are seeing a definite resurgence in the market and demand for both new and used machines, which are selling not just to the UK but as far afield as New Zealand, Europe and the USA.

And it isn’t just collectors anymore, families are buying their first machine and their children, many of who have never even seen one, are loving them.

Digital damage limitation

Screen dependency is a growing concern amongst parents and rightly so.
A number of recent studies reveal that the amount of time children are spending on media devices is worryingly high, as the findings of a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation reveal:

“In just five years, media use has increased from 6 ½ to nearly 7 ½ hours a day in children between the ages of eight and 18.”

Top of form

Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist and expert on screen addiction, believes that these levels of ‘media saturation’ are extremely harmful to brain development and explores how extended recreational screen time can affect cognitive skills, attention, mental health and academic achievement in children.

Many of our customers tell me they are keen to drag their kids and families away from laptops and consoles to engage in some face to face family time. But kids bought up on digital are not going to be tempted away by a Rich Tea biscuit and a Monopoly board. An iconic, stylish vintage pinball machine in the corner of a room with its silver bells and balls, coloured lights and LCD screens is a tempting distraction away from the virtual world.

Old school revival

A whole generation of digital gamers, hipsters, and the older dads who never got over the Golden Age of arcade, are returning to more tangible, physical pre-digital products. Communities of arcade gamers and pinball enthusiasts are organising events and tournaments that celebrate these games both here and internationally.

The UK Pinball League and the London Pinball League were both set up in the 21st century and are seeing membership numbers climb steadily. And the new boutique pinball bars that are becoming fashionable in UK cities, are a close cousin of the ‘Barcade’ across the pond, whose popularity confirms the enduring appeal of vintage style venues with retro games on offer.

Vinyl is hip again, students are buying manual typewriters, Polaroids are making a comeback, old school games are all the rage and pinball is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. The lure of the tangible cannot be underestimate, and though the virtual world is now firmly part of our everyday lives, there is a definite swing back to the age old pleasures of things we can see, feel and understand.

Andy Beresford is the founder of Home Leisure Direct.