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Stern Pinball is one of the biggest believers in pinball, and it has been making the machines for decades. When I went to the CES trade show in Las Vegas, I always met with CEO Gary Stern to talk about the latest machines that the company was working on.

I didn’t make it this year, but I was able to catch up with George Gomez, chief creative officer at Stern, to talk about the new Insider Connected feature that aims to keep players engaged with each other. The feature connects the machine to your smartphone and the internet, and it lets you upload your high score. And that makes pinball more social by letting you compete with your friends.

Insider Connected works in both home and commercial environments, and it also presents professional operators of the pinball machines with tools to drive location play, build player loyalty, analyze performance, make adjustments remotely and maintain the machines.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

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George Gomez is chief creative officer at Stern Pinball.

GamesBeat: I’m happy to be here. This is the first interview I’ve done in a while that probably doesn’t have anything to do with NFTs or cryptocurrency.

George Gomez: Really? Hard to believe!

GamesBeat: Unless you have something to tell me about pinball machines of the future.

Gomez: Pinball NFTs! Pinball NFTs are the future (that’s a joke). We’re watching the space. But the place to start is with Insider Connected. Insider Connected is our initiative to connect the universe of Stern Pinball machines. You have to ask yourself–it’s 2022. Pinball has to be the last that’s not connected. Everything else is connected. Your microwave is connected.

The reality is, the first connected pinball machine was back in 1999. I worked on a game called Revenge from Mars at Bally, Williams Electronics. The Pinball 2000 platform, you could take an Ethernet cable, plug it into the machine, and the machine would report out whether it was up and running. It would report mostly health stuff. Shortly after that I went on to run an Xbox and PlayStation dev team at Midway Games. While I was executive producer of that team, it was essentially the birth of Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

Fast forward to 2022, or actually 2020, probably 2019 is when we started this effort. I have to focus on connecting our pinball machines, the universe of our pinball machines. Clearly I’m referencing my experience with the birth of Xbox Live and PSN. The vision of what those have become, from what they were back in those days. I was very influenced by that experience with Insider Connected.

Insider Connected, think of it as Xbox Live for pinball. That’s a shortcut way of thinking about it. It allows, for the first time ever in the history of pinball, using a QR code, which is in an app on your phone–you scan that into the pinball machine, and the pinball machine knows that it’s you specifically playing it. Insider Connected has a QR reader on what we call the bottom arch, the apron on the pinball machine. What’s very cool is that all of a sudden, your avatar, your initials and son, they show up. I was just playing this Rush game. You can see Stern George up there along with my score.

Stern Pinball's Insider Connect.
Stern Pinball’s Insider Connected.

What this does, the ability of the system to recognize who you are, it allows us to gamify everything about pinball, just like the rest of the world. Not only do we have the functional features–an operator can tell if your machine is working, when his busy times are, trends in the performance of games. He can look at the health of the machine. The machine can report that it’s broken and this what it thinks is broken. But from a player standpoint, whether you’re at home or at a location, a barcade, a bowling alley, you scan in and the game has tracked your progress. It’s awarding achievements. It’s awarding prizes.

It gives us the opportunity to do promotions. From an operator’s perspective it gives them the ability to create quests and build loyalty. For Stern Pinball, that gives us the ability to highlight a specific game. Whether it’s a game we’re introducing and we issue quests–find this game on location, play it three days this week, play it on Saturday night, whatever. We’ll give you this reward. It’s a very cool thing that brings pinball into the current environment, where it extends how we interact with the game, both at the machine and off the machine. You can go back, open up your Insider Connected account on a portal, and see what you’ve got. Check out your achievements. Exchange stuff with your friends.

We introduced this in September of 2021. It’s fairly new. We’re going to be rolling it out, the full scope of the features, over the course of 2022. There’s going to be features hitting the system constantly, both functional features and interactive player engagement features. It’s about creating player engagement in a modern way with a very old-school device, a pinball machine. It’s transformational for pinball. Having the QR reader on the game also gives us tons of opportunities for things like partner promotions. You can do a deal with a sandwich company, a beer company. Put a QR code on the beer can, scan the can for free plays. It’s an ecosystem. It was built that way.

It’s been shipping standard on every pinball machine since Godzilla, which we launched in September. We also make a retrofit kit. For $199.99 you can retrofit your existing Stern Pinball machine, because we want everyone to participate in the universe of existing pinball machines, back to 2015, the Stern Pinball, what we call the Spike 2 system. Any LCD screen Stern Pinball game can be connected.

That’s the spiel on Insider Connected. It’s a new way to engage with pinball machines, both as an operator and as a player. There are three levels. There’s a free level of Insider Connected. Anyone can sign up for an account. You get a unique QR code that belongs to you. You can change them. You can walk up to any connected pinball machine anywhere in the world and the game’s going to recognize you. It’s going to track your progress, give you rewards, allow you to participate in promotions and so on.

I leveraged our two existing loyalty programs, which were prior to the Connected. They were Insider and All Access. All Access was a paid program. Think of it as Xbox Live and Xbox Live Gold. Those existed prior to Insider Connected. All I did was add Connected to it, so I wouldn’t have to create two new entities and get people to understand two new entities. I just took Stern Insider, and that is now Insider Connected. All Access is All Access Connected. Then I created a third portal, which is Insider Connected Pro, the professional portal. That’s for operators of pinball machines.

To me, this is a transformational event relative to pinball. It brings pinball into the current time. It allows us to extend and interact, all the things that connectivity gives us, just like it has for every other product we interact with that’s connected.

You can upload your high scores to the internet with Stern Pinball’s latest machines.

The other thing that’s cool here that we would have been talking about on the floor of CES, we would have had our new Rush game. We would have announced it at CES on the floor. There would have been Rush machines on the floor. What’s cool and interesting about the Rush machine, clearly it addresses the fanbase of one of the most popular bands in the history of the game. But both Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee were participants in the creation of the pinball machine. We got them in the studio. They did a lot of the speech calls. They had a lot to say about what we were doing with the machine.

The machine has 16 Rush songs from 1974 to roughly 2012. It has live concert footage. It’s like being at a Rush concert. It riffs on all of the Rush themes from that generation of albums. It’s a very cool machine. The concert footage and standing in front of a machine that’s playing their music, it’s an experience. Especially when you hear Alex and Geddy commenting on the things you’re doing in the machine, guiding you through the machine. It’s very cool. Our focus on the floor of CES this year would have been Insider Connected and the Rush machine.

GamesBeat: What are people latching onto with Insider Connected?

Gomez: Achievements, which have been around in video games forever, really lend themselves to pinball. It’s like another rule set, an extension of the rule set of the pinball machine. It creates a new series of goals that you’re trying to go for. I had some very interesting conversations with families that have the machines at home. It appears that young kids, little kids, are not playing for score. They’re playing for achievements. They want to see the achievement icons. They want to show that off to their friends on their phones. It’s totally consistent with the world they come from, right? They’re very used to this in their video game world. It seems like a natural. Dad’s telling me he’s worried about the score, how to optimize his score, his progression path through the game to optimize the score. His kids don’t care about that. They just want to get achievements. That’s been interesting.

Leaderboards have been huge. We’re about to roll out an entire suite of stuff related to leader boards. We’ve shown off leaderboards to some of the trade shows, enthusiast shows we’ve gone to, and they seem to be a big deal. Everybody seems excited about leaderboards. We have both score leaderboards and feature leaderboards coming. In the Deadpool game there may be a chimichanga leaderboard in addition to the score leaderboard. Characters defeated. People are writing in all these suggestions for the things they want to see.

There are special modes that you’ll be able to play, like head to head. That’s a very cool thing. It’s probably going to happen in 2022. There’s a wealth of stuff here. Just tracking your score and your performance, eventually we’re going to a place where you’re going to have performance analysis tools in the portal, so you essentially deconstruct your game to try to optimize your play and learn how to play better. We have forums coming.

We have a feature we’ll be rolling out where, for example, we have the ability for both Stern Pinball and operators to create quests. Quests can drive you to something. We could do a thing where you have to play Godzilla X number of times, anywhere in the world, and we’ll award you that city that the Godzilla was in. Godzilla destroys Chicago. Godzilla destroys San Francisco. Godzilla destroys Tokyo. Godzilla destroys Berlin. You had to play Godzilla three times in Berlin in order to get that badge, the only way you can get it. You know there’s going to be some guy who’ll have to have all the cities. Right now it’s difficult because of the pandemic, but eventually that’ll be a thing.

Stern Pinball's new Rush machine.
Stern Pinball’s new Rush machine.

GamesBeat: How do you remain careful about things gamers may not want? “I don’t want a lot of microtransactions, or I don’t want advertisements, especially those that aren’t relevant to pinball.

Gomez: We’re big on licensed properties. Everything has been done with the approval of our licensing partners. We’ve also spent a lot of time with lawyers to understand all of the different laws and jurisdictions all over the world, understanding what we can and can’t do. Machines automatically know. “I’m set up in Belgium, so these are the restrictions.”

Just like anything else, the social aspects that are going to be there–there’s a full complement of user-controlled privacy stuff when you sign up for your account. You can lock it down so that nobody sees anything. Or you can open it up. Maybe people can tell where you play, see what you’re doing. But that’s your choice. You get to decide what that does. We’ve partnered with Super Awesome. They have technology for under-13 players to get approval to participate in the system. They need parental approval. There’s functionality when you sign up if you’re under 13 to get parental approval. It’s been a comprehensive effort. It’s also been a lot of work.

GamesBeat: When it comes to communicating back to the system, how does that work?

Gomez: You do all that on the portal or on the app. You don’t do any of that at the machine. At the machine you’re playing the machine. The machine has the capacity–it understands that it’s you. It has the capacity to notify you that you’ve gotten promotions, to interact with you relative to what you’re doing. When we do have head to head play, it’s similar to joining a chat room. You’ll be connected to your buddy and you’ll have some head to head interaction.

It’s cool watching a group of people play. It’s a new way to play in that people come off their ball, and while someone else is on their ball, they’re checking their phone to see how they did. It’s really transformed the way that we interact with them.

GamesBeat: How popular do you think this part is going to be, based on what you know so far?

Gomez: I think it’s transformational. Every other device in our world is connected. You can imagine–we don’t have to teach people about the different things that you can do with this. We have to teach them the specifics of the system, but everybody gets it, because everything else in our world is already connected, and to some extent interactive. We said that it had to be interactive in a way that’s appropriate to what the product is. It’s still a ball and flipper game. The game is under the glass. That’s never going to go away. This is a method of extending how we play with it.

We have an incredibly active and robust community. Our community is collecting the games, modding the games, seeking out the games. They’re participating in tournaments. They’re in forums. It’s about bringing some modern interactive features to a community that’s passionate about the product, and also hopefully grow it into a new community of users. Anyone can be in a location, scan one of the QR codes on the game. It’ll take you to the signup. You can sign up for free, get a free account and instantly deal with it. Down the road you’ll also be able to load a wallet and walk up to any pinball machine, anywhere in the world, and have your currency converted into game value. That’s coming. It’s not there yet.

Will you play connected pinball?

GamesBeat: What else does this do for the operator?

Gomez: The machines have a fairly robust set of diagnostics built into them. They’ve had that for years. An operator can query a machine when he’s standing in front of it. He’s been able to tell a lot about the health of the machine if he goes into the menus. He can now do this remotely, and beyond that, he can set up notifications as easily or as tightly as he wants. If he wants to be notified at any moment that the machine is down or thinks something is broken, he can get that notification. Up until now he hasn’t been able to do that. He has to be in the location physically to find out the performance of the machine.

He’s also going to have trend analysis tools in his package to understand when his machines are being used and how they’re being used. That allows him to be very specific about how he runs his promotions, what day is busy, what day is not. Two o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday the machine’s getting plays.

The universe of places, locations that use these things, is really diverse. You might find one in a bowling alley. Clearly you find them in barcades. You might find them in a laundromat or a 7-11. There’s a lot of different places where operators have routes. In some cases an operator might drive 30 miles to service a machine or collect a machine. There’s a classic scenario where the machine went down on Friday night, but the machine is not the responsibility of the location. The bartender never calls. Someone tells him the machine’s not working and he turns it off. The operator collects the machine the following Tuesday. He doesn’t know what happened until Tuesday. He missed a very high earnings period from Friday to Tuesday. He wasn’t even aware that the machine was down, because it’s not the bartender’s responsibility to call him and say, “Hey, the machine’s not working.”

Now the machine can report this and the operator can make an intelligent decision. Am I driving 30 miles to service a machine, or am I going out tomorrow? But more important, the machine can help him understand what’s wrong. The machine can say, “I think a pop bumper isn’t working.” He can put those parts in the toolbox and have them when he gets there.

GamesBeat: As far as the kind of people who play pinball these days, what are you finding out about your customers?

Gomez: It’s a really diverse community. I can tell you our marketing studies say that the fastest-growing segment of the community is 20-somethings. You also have some of the old-timers, people that have been around it for a long time. One of the most exciting things to me, watching on social media, I see families that own pinball machines, and I see little kids interacting with them. These kids–it’s really the first generation of kids that will have grown up with these things in the home.

Our market shifted from a strictly commercial market to almost half and half, where more than 50 percent of the pinball machines bought today are going into the home. They’re commercial machines, but they’re being brought into personal collections. This is a thing that, to me, assures the future of pinball. People typically discovered it in college, in a bar. Now there’s a generation of kids that have grown up with it in their house. To them, it’s as normal an entertainment as anything else in their world. That’s the future. A kid that’s five years old today growing up with a pinball machine in his house, it’s not a strange thing. When he grows up he’s going to say, “When am I getting my pinball machine?”

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