I love pinball. I love IoT. They recently got mashed together with the launch of the Insider Connected™ Platform by Stern Pinball.
So, what’s the deal? A pinball machine is a machine. It lives inside the home or at an arcade or, more likely these days, a taproom. The machine takes people’s money in exchange for gameplay. It’s a wonderful thing. If the machine goes down, the revenue stops. Disappointment sets in. But, when the machine is working, everything is great. Everyone wins. People are happy to play while enjoying beverages and food, the operator is making back their investment on the machines, and the establishment gets faithful customers. When I start working on the Internet of Things (IoT) back in 2007, I used to make the same talking points about appliances, industrial equipment, and heating/cooling systems. IoT has a role in embedded software updates, predictive maintenance, customer retention, and interconnecting services that benefit operators, owners, and customers. With the release of the Stern Pinball Insider Connected Platform, they appear to be thinking about what’s next for their pinball games by building a platform that leverages a lot of the value and impact that IoT brings to the table, so to speak.
My Experience With the Stern Pinball Insider Connected Platform
Since Stern’s announcement, I have been excited to try it out for myself. The first pinball game that includes the hardware that allows a pinball machine to connect to the internet and to the platform is Godzilla! Using a retrofit kit, some older pinball machines by Stern Pinball will be able to be upgraded and leverage the platform. I used Pinball Map to find a location that has the Godzilla machine and headed out into the real world. I found Godzilla at The Double Bull Taphouse and Grill in Peabody, MA (Peabody is one of the fun Massachusetts town names that separate the locals from the tourists). I got to play Godzilla for about an hour before a line started forming behind me. This was enough time to try out the platform, check into the machine, take a selfie without feeling self-conscious, and learn some of the rules of the Godzilla pinball game.
You start by signing up for an Insider Connected account at Stern Pinball. Select LOGIN in the top-right corner of the homepage, and then select, “Create a free account.” These steps will kick off the sign-up process.
What you are doing is setting up a profile for you as a player of Stern’s games. This is your player identity where you can set preferences, track your high scores, see achievements, and access your QR code. This QR code is how you will check into a pinball machine that you play. Right now, the only way to get access to your QR code is via the website. I imagine that native mobile apps are coming, but I am only guessing.
The game actually has a QR code scanner. You put your QR code on your phone’s screen and hold it above the scanner. I found this to be pretty easy and connects quickly. Your player initials show up on the machine and you can use the flipper buttons to log out or arrange the players.
I played Godzilla 15 times with a high score of 103,305,640 points. I accurately know this data since the website tracks the gameplay. The website also keeps track of where I played, achievements that I have unlocked, and people that I have connected with. I thought my score was good until I watched some get over 650,000,000 points on their fourth try. This set the grand champion score on the machine and colored me impressed. I learned a few tricks watching them play.
Everything worked as advertised. It is brand new and will soon offer more features for players, operators, and the locations that host the machines. I can only imagine what is coming next.
“Insider Connected will transform how players interact with pinball machines, and operators will benefit greatly from new tools.”Gary Stern, Chairman and CEO of Stern Pinball, Inc.
Inspired by over a decade of IoT development for hundreds of customers and millions of products, I have some ideas on where this can go. I am sure Stern Pinball is thinking about some of these but is trying things out slowly and make sure that they get the experience right. I always think of the Internet of Things like the Internet of Nouns. In this case: players, operators, and locations.
- Players: Players will be able to metagame. This is the game outside of the game. They will be able to play against remote players and join tournaments at other locations. Players will be able to tweak parts of the game, maybe set rules that make the game easier or more challenging based on their preference.
- Operators: Operators will be able to make sure that the machine is running the latest code and running in operating condition. WIth the right sensors reporting data to the internet, you could do predictive maintaince and always have the machine running in tip-top shape during operating hours. Replacement parts could be on the ready for planned downtime.
- Locations: Once everything is connected, locations will be able to offer their products as prizes and incentives to keep playing. How about a free appetizer or drink if you get 20 loops on Gidzilla? Pinball machines have screens with ample ad space potential while their not being played.
I do recommend that Stern opens up access to the platform with an API and turns the player profiles into identities. Over time, everybody is going to try their hand at making a connected platform and it will leave players, operators, and locations in a lurch. They will have to support multiple platforms and will have to choose. Stern could have a first-mover advantage and if they open up their player identity management system could win. This is a lesson learned from what I experienced with consumer IoT products. In the beginning, there were many consumer IoT platforms, but it only really took off when a few started interoperating. APIs have the advantage of helping a community build integrations that are totally unexpected. If it was me, I would be allowing my subs on Twitch to control the light show or my flipper strength while I play for charity. If music licensing gets worked out, a pinball machine could double as a jukebox while it’s not in play.
Again, borrowing from my IoT experience, I have some words of caution. Although I have an optimistic feeling of what is coming for gaming, pinball, and IoT, I suggest going slow and make sure Stern solves problems that operators and locations may have while giving value to the players.
Managing updates is a nightmare. Think about your mobile phone. You have apps and operating system software. Something is probably out of date and you hold it in your hand every day. It doesn’t scale very nicely. Games will have versions, out-of-date code, different models, and then you will have many games to manage. Operators will manage many locations so it is easy to get things mixed up.
Things connected to the internet have inherent risks. Imagine a pinball machine bitcoin mining in the background without anything knowing about it. That is not even the worst thinning that I can imagine. Have a focus on security. Don’t spread yourself thin. The surface area becomes cyber attack vectors.
Plan for scale. This is going to be popular. As games get sold into homes using the new home edition model, people are going to use a connected platform in many interesting ways. Downtime will not be great. Leverage web services and cloud infrastructure that scale.
The future is here and it continually unfolds. I am excited to see what’s going to happen with pinball and IoT. It has been a fun time to be into pinball. The games are exciting, deeper, and throwbacks to older games. If you are old like me, I wouldn’t dismiss these new ideas too early. Let it breathe and let’s enjoy the ride together.