It’s All About Connection
Stern Pinball Takes Player Engagement to the Next Level
Along with Operator Tools to Increase Play
This month, Stern Pinball is launching their anxiously awaited connectivity initiative, called Insider Connected. For players, the system brings new ways to interact with the factory’s pinball machines across a variety of environments with new entertainment and engagement features. For operators, Stern says it’s got a robust toolset designed to drive location play and manage every aspect of the machine operation.
Insider Connected goes live starting this month; the full scope of features will be rolled out over the next year. From September on, the system will be standard on all games that roll off Stern’s production lines, including new manufacture of those using their Spike 2 control system (which includes all of Stern’s LCD pinballs). Older Spike 2 pins can join the world of Insider Connected with a simple retrofit kit that will be sold through the companies dealer network and online through the Stern Store.
RePlay recently got the inside scoop on what the new program can do from Stern Chief Creative Officer George Gomez, who is leading this massive effort.
RePlay: When we first heard that you guys were working on this, we thought it would be more of a maintenance-focused operator toolset for tasks like downloading code. It sounds like it’s a lot more.
Gomez: You’re right and “a lot more” doesn’t even begin to tell the tale. Yes, Insider Connected will allow operators to download code but that’s probably the least interesting thing it will do. Of course, if you choose not to connect your games, everything works as it does now, but you’ll be missing out on a lot of really cool stuff.
How did this project come about?
Connecting games has always fascinated me. I was issued a patent for the very first locally connected pinball machine back in ’96, when I linked two NBA Fastbreaks together so players could compete head-to-head. A few years later, during the infancy of the internet, we connected Pinball 2000 games to the web via ethernet, although that effort was strictly focused on maintenance features.
Looking back, it was my experience as the executive producer of an XBOX and PlayStation development team, back when Microsoft and Sony were launching XBOX Live and PSN, that influenced my thinking. Connecting those games transformed the way we play and interact. When I started thinking about connecting pinball machines, the direction was clear to me.
The magic of making a system like this work is knowing precisely who is playing the game. That was my first challenge, given that it’s a pinball machine and the player doesn’t typically “log in.” Knowing who the player is allows the system to track their specific progress in a game and reward them in a variety of ways. It also opens the door for methods that can create events, driving people to engage with the games in new ways.
We now have a whole suite of tools that allows us to create new games within the system to focus attention on a particular title. And, of course, operators get very similar tools they can use to drive loyalty at their locations, mine the data in their games, analyze trends, adjust the pinballs and help maintain them.
That sounds great, but how does it work?
It starts with a player using his phone to scan a QR code printed on a game. This will take them right to the sign-up page where they create a free Insider Connected account. They can also sign up on the Stern Pinball website using an email address and a password. Once they have an account, they can log in from anywhere and access a unique QR code that identifies them.
This QR code can be accessed via the Insider Connected web app or it can be printed on a card. Players can also carry an image of it around on their phones for even quicker access. The code can be used at any connected Stern pinball game anywhere in the world whether that’s at the local arcade bar, movie theater lobby arcade, pizza parlor, friend’s house…anywhere.
The pinball machines each have a QR reader built into the bottom arch and a Wi-Fi dongle. Once the game reads the Insider Connected code, it recognizes that player instantly. After that, all sorts of magic can happen. Here’s what I mean…
All of the connected pinball machines have several achievement systems built in, the first being a game-specific process that awards badges based on the player’s progression within each title. Think of these “achievements” as a new rule set layered on top of the existing one. The cool thing is that because the achievements are game-specific, they are carefully woven into the existing sets of rules for each game.
An example of this is adding time goals to defeating a particular foe or completing a series of game objectives in a certain way. To spice things up, if a player completes these play goals at a pinball on location, they earn a “verified” version of the achievement. This is because doing so means the player did it on a pinball machine with the glass on!
There are also Profile Badges earned by completing a set of non-game-specific goals. This might reward repeat play on a particular game or across several titles or a variety of other objectives. Insider Connected can also recognize calendar events or new challenge quests. Because it’s very dynamic, it allows us to invent new objectives and associated rewards very easily.
This is all reflected within the player’s account online?
Yes. When Insider Connected players go to their profile page, not only will they see what they’ve done in the way of achievements, score and game progression, but they will also have access to an entirely new set of game forums and other social interactions. It’s all available via any device that they currently use –– their phone, a tablet, a laptop –– wherever they are.
The forums will provide players with game-specific discussion environments and closer direct access to the world of Stern Pinball, including its game designers, developers and engineers.
How else can players engage with the games?
We will have special awards, which are random drops of cool stuff. These might be physical things like a t-shirt, collectible action figures or other goodies from our universe. Down the road, we will have giveaways like discounts at the Stern Store or tickets to drawings for all kinds of things, even pinball machines.
And of course, we’ve done lots of work to make sure that what we’re doing is legal in the myriad places around the world where our games are played. This includes free entry options that are available as required. As you know, there are many locations, such as Western Europe, where giving away things of value is restricted.
How do operators use Insider Connected to drive location play?
The operator version of the system is called Insider Connected Pro and it will have a distinctly different user interface and naturally, it will focus on pro tools for operating pinball machines. It allows operators to address their customers directly and present them with incentives to engage with the games and the location. For example, an operator can issue “Challenge Quests” to the community. If a player chooses to take on those challenges and complete them, the operator can reward the player directly.
For example, an operator can issue a Challenge Quest that says: “Play four consecutive nights on any two connected machines at these locations and get “X” reward.” It could be a signed translite, free plays, popcorn or cheeseburgers… whatever they can legally give as rewards.
This allows the operator to create quests focused on their locations. Stern can also use a similar toolset to draw attention to a specific title or create an event around a group of games anywhere in the world. Obviously, what this does is drive traffic and revenue, increasing the operator’s value to the location.
Sounds like you guys have been busy! Is it available right away?
Well to be clear, at launch, the feature set is limited. We will continue to roll stuff out over the course of the year. This month, only seven titles can be connected, but every month thereafter, we will add more features and titles to the universe of Insider Connected. By year-end, we expect to have 17 different games connected to the program.
Our existing Insider All-Access player loyalty program also joins the system. All-Access Connected is a subscription version of the experience, focused on providing additional player features along with behind-the-scenes development stuff, early access, special events and quests. In the future, we intend to create exclusive game extensions, such as special access to new modes or new rules and features to increase the All-Access Connected value.
Given the focus on the QR codes, we would imagine that they can be used for much more down the road. Is that where you guys are headed?
Yes, it opens the door to partner promotions as I mentioned earlier. Since codes can be redeemed for play directly at the games, we can partner with brands with whom we share customers in ways that bring value to these brands, the operator and the player. An operator can also partner with the locations to create promotions unique to his business.
Insider Connected has been in development for several years, and we imagine that no matter how much thought we’ve put into it, we will have to adjust and refine as players and operators begin to interact with it. We are committed to making it a useful tool to drive location play and provide players with an ever-evolving set of new game features and mini-games for the pinball machines.
And, there is even more stuff coming later. I can’t wait to get it out there!