Movie theaters endured financial hardships during the pandemic’s lockdowns, but imagine what arcades, which were already on the brink of extinction due to home consoles, had to endure. To entice pinball players back to their local haunts, Stern is rolling out a pinball machine upgrade for recognizing individual players, tracking their play, and rewarding their achievements.
The new Insider Connected feature won’t be available for every Stern Pinball machine ever released, because some of the company’s machines are decades old and lack the modern hardware needed to facilitate the stat-tracking and player interactivity. As a result, Insider Connected will only be available on Stern’s more modern Spike 2 LCD games, which already feature a large color screen that can be used to display player profiles and other information.
Starting this month, seven pinball machines in the Spike 2 LCD lineup will start shipping with the Insider Connected hardware upgrades already installed, while existing machines can be modified using an upgrade kit that includes a QR scanner and a wireless internet dongle. By the end of the year, all 17 tables in the Spike 2 LCD line will be ready for the new online features. Through a web app that should work on nearly any connected mobile device with a web browser, players will be able to create a free profile that generates a QR code that can be physically scanned by an upgraded pinball machine so that it knows who exactly is currently playing. Through the added internet connectivity, the specific player’s new stats can then be attributed to their account through the cloud.
The Insider Connected service will allow truly devoted pinball players to keep tabs on what machines they’ve played, their high scores on each table, and even how much of their lives have been spent banging a metal ball around an interactive obstacle course.
Of course, convincing pinball fans to return to arcades is relatively easy. It’s growing the fandom of pinball and gaining new players that’s the bigger challenge, especially given many pinball arcades still require players to wear masks and responsibly physically distance themselves from others. To that end, the Insider Connected service will introduce unlockable achievements, badges, and challenges that test a player’s skills by requiring them to reach certain scores, play for a set amount of time, or trigger a specific series of events on a given table’s obstacles. And based on where a game is played—at home where a pinball machine’s glass can be removed to facilitate cheating, or in a public venue where that’s not possible—certain achievements will be verified and carry more weight than others.
The Insider Connected service will also introduce in-game reward currencies: Stern’s Gold Coins, which can be exchanged for merchandise, gameplay discounts, or in-game power-ups from the company directly, and Tokens that local operators can opt into and define the worth of, allowing players to exchange them for rewards like free plays or even free food from the arcade’s concessions. It’s a loyalty program that operators with a large collection of Stern pinball machines don’t have to set up and operate themselves, but can still leverage to help bring in new players and customers.
Given the challenges even large electronic makers are having with getting product to consumers, it may be a few months before the the Insider Connected service is available at your local pinball joint, but it’s another clever move by Stern that will help keep pinball machines relevant and popular, even as video game arcade cabinets continue to die off.