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Pinball Wizardry Tilts Connected Machines in Players’ Favor

In the old days, “upgrading” a pinball machine meant lifting the glass lid, blowing the dust out of the gears and flippers and, er, washing the balls. Today the upgrade process includes another step: Inserting a memory card.

Yes, they look, buzz, ring, vibrate and tilt the same as they did last century, but today’s computer-assisted pinball machines now offer colorful video screens and high-fidelity music and can alert owners over the Internet if they tilt and can’t get back up running. Now they’ve taking connectivity a step further—to your smartphone.

Stern Pinball, purveyors of pinball prowess since the 1970s, recently added Stern Insider, a service which lets players log into pinball machines and take their scores and progress with them. By downloading a free smartphone app and scanning a personal QR code at the machine, players can participate in online events and challenge distant colleagues.

“It’s about player engagement, said George Gomez, Stern’s executive vice president and chief creative officer during a post-CES 2022 virtual press event organized by ShowStoppers. “Pinball machines were very late to the [online] party.”

Stern, based in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, Ill., offers sophisticated pinball machines featuring licensed music, voice-overs and imagery from famous bands and movie franchises like The Beatles and Avengers: Infinity Quest. Earlier this year Stern added the band Rush to its lineup of Wi-Fi and Ethernet-connected machines.

Gomez said the design of the Rush machine, meant to evoke the feel of a Rush concert, received “a lot of participation from the guys in the band” thanks to the timely assistance of a friend of the band: Ed Robertson, lead singer of Barenaked Ladies.

Stern’s connected pinball machines allow owners to offer specials and promotions and track machine usage, said Gomez, who noted that many older Stern pinball machines can be upgraded to Stern Insider for about $200 a unit.

“If it has an LCD [screen] in the back box, it’s compatible,” he said.

When asked the Covid-19 pandemic had affected sales, Gomez said the results were mixed. He said the pandemic seemed to cause more individuals to bring pinball machines into their homes, so much so that the company was having trouble filling the orders. “We’re facing the same manufacturing challenges the rest of the world is facing,” he said.

The basic Stern Insider plan, which lets players track scores and achievements, compete for prizes and participate in online forums is free, but an all-access plan, which adds access to limited-edition merchandise, behind-the-scenes content and other features, is $40 a year.

My tech tips appear regularly in Sree's Sunday Note.

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