Parties, Pints, and Triple Plays at Pinballz

"More is better" at Austin arcade

Photo by Mark Fagan

When it comes to running a gaming arcade, Pinballz founder Darren Spohn has learned one lesson: Like high scores, "More is better."

Darren and his wife Mikki opened Austin's original Pinballz Arcade in 2010 for one very good reason: Darren's personal collection of pinball games was taking over the house. There were other arcades, but they were either sports bars with a few games, or micro-sized hangouts specializing in imported rarities for a hardened gaming clientele. By contrast, the Spohns were breaking every business rule, with 250 machines in 13,000 square feet of converted office space on a highway frontage road.

It had every reason to fail, said Darren: "People had a negative connotation of the word 'arcade.' They were thinking of the classics in the mall, seedy, the teen hangout, kind of gangster-ish." Mikki agreed: "When we first opened, we didn't know how we'd do. Everybody thought, 'You guys are crazy.' But we opened that place and it really took off, and we went, 'Oh, people really like this.'"

With one site open, the Spohns decided to go for a multi-ball challenge. Darren said, "The key thing we learned is, you can never have enough games or rooms .... That's when we decided, let's get something bigger."

So four years later they found themselves at the old Dorsett 221 Truck Stop and Cafe in Buda. It had fallen into disrepair, but the couple saw the potential. "It looked like a castle, so we played off the theme," said Mikki.

Now it's reinvigorated as Pinballz Kingdom, but it's not just about dropping tokens in slots. Once players walk under the wings of Diablo, the giant red dragon perched over the door, there's outdoor tactical laser tag, a beer garden, and a live music stage. Darren said, "We've had weddings there." "And a carnival," added Mikki.

Now the Spohns have moved on to their biggest venture to date. At first they needed a new home for their original site, "But," Darren said, "we decided, why move? Why not open something a little farther north in town?" So now there's Pinballz Lake Creek: a 33,000-square-foot former Stein Mart converted with a 100-foot bar, full kitchen, conference rooms for local businesses looking for an off-site event, and of course, hundreds of games to slap, shoot, outwit, and conquer. Darren said, "This is always what we wanted for the party size that we couldn't do at the original arcade."

With each new arcade, the Spohns change the equation. The original has the classic BYOB arcade feel, nurturing a new generation of cabinet-game obsessives. The Kingdom is a day-out destination. As for Lake Creek, that's the Spohns' definition of family-friendly: that there's something for everyone, both separately and as a unit. The massive floor space is broken up into zones, like a classic Eighties section packed with iconic titles like Galaga, sitting alongside communal activities like mini-bowling and Bazooka Ball (which Darren described as "Nerf balls on steroids"). Darren said, "You see families come in, and maybe the parents go back to the classic area, the kids go to the ticket games, the teens go to the high-end video games, and they come back together and have some food and have some drinks, and then they go off and play again."

Even with three locations, the Spohns are still hands-on: charting how many times games are played, what the payout is on tickets, checking food quality, attending trade shows to check out new releases like the Game of Thrones pinball or the Star Wars Battle Pod. For Darren, it's all to answer one question: "What's the most fun stuff for people to play together?"

Pinballz Arcade, 8940 Research #100. Pinballz Kingdom, 15201 S. I-35, Buda. Pinballz Lake Creek, 13729 Research #1350.

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