The State of Connected Pinball: An Arcade Operator Weighs In on Stern Insider Connected and Scorbit

The State of Connected Pinball: An Arcade Operator Weighs In on Stern Insider Connected and Scorbit
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The State of Connected Pinball: An Arcade Operator Weighs In on Stern Insider Connected and Scorbit
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The State of Connected Pinball: An Arcade Operator Weighs In on Stern Insider Connected and Scorbit
Published on
June 26, 2023
Updated on
June 26, 2023
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Note: This is a guest contribution from Matt Snow, one of the owners of the recently opened Hometown Arcade in Norwood, MA.

Connected Pinball, currently offered primarily by Scorbit and Stern Insider Connected (IC), is one of the best developments for the game of pinball since color LCD screens. Pinball enthusiasts and novices alike all love seeing their high scores posted at the arcade, and the extra gamification offered via points and achievements helps keep them engaged with pinball in new ways. Bringing these traditionally unconnected devices online allows pinball players to quickly find venues and pins near them, track their scores, and hopefully much more in the future.

For operators, these services also offer a lot of potential, which I’ll get into below, but in my opinion, at least, the potential still hasn’t been fully realized. Frustratingly, for every step forward in connected pinball, the industry takes two steps back (for example, Jersey Jack’s recent termination of their Scorbit partnership).  

hometown arcade norwood ma

Connected Pinball could be so much more than it is today, but from this operator’s perspective, to take steps forward, the two main players in connected pinball (Stern & Scorbit) need to work together for the betterment of the game for all relevant stakeholders; from manufacturers to operators to players and venues.

Stern’s Insider Connected: Promise and Pitfalls

I love Insider Connected, but it also drives me nuts. I have a background in computer software before becoming an Arcade operator, and based on firsthand experience with IC, I would still consider it to be in Beta or even Alpha stage. It was clearly rushed to market for reasons I have theories on but won’t speculate on in this write-up. The tool is often unavailable, slow, or unstable. These issues typically pop up when it’s most important from an operating perspective — weekends when there are lots of customers looking to track their scores and/or right before a tournament. I don’t know the root cause of these issues, but they are extremely frustrating. 

Error message from IC when trying to launch the leaderboard 

In addition, there are other annoyances, like landscape mode for high-score leaderboards, which shows up essentially the same as portrait mode on our high-score TVs. Also, Stern’s massive back catalog of pins (basically anything before the Spike 2 board system) is not supported by IC, and kits to add IC to recent machines [at the Pro trim level] that launched just before IC was released are out of stock and have been for months even on Stern’s website (probably due to the ongoing chip shortage issue). 

I know Stern is focused on getting newer games to market and probably doesn’t want to cannibalize sales by upgrading older machines, but I think this is a mistake. From my operator's viewpoint, there are some fairly obvious ways to use a platform like IC to create additional revenue streams that would benefit both Stern and the operator. By working to integrate IC with their entire catalog, it would serve to bring even more players into the ecosystem and help keep operators happy and invested in pinball.  

It would also be great for operators to be able to see player activity across all pinball machines in the US and abroad. This could help an operator in so many ways. The information is collected for all venues already but isn’t shared between venues or aggregated at the country, state, or city level. For operators who own their machines and for operators who lease them, the macro-level play information could be a huge asset in terms of identifying revenue per machine, popular vs least popular machines, and regional popularity. As machines depreciate, this type of data could also be utilized to help determine which games could be potentially sold off by a venue in favor of newer machines.  

Utilizing IC for tracking all maintenance and issues and sharing this data across all venues could also be tremendously helpful. Machines that are maintained well, typically have less downtime, and sharing maintenance, downtime, and other issue data across machines and venues would be tremendously beneficial to operators. Ideally, this data could also be shared in terms of both new and older machines.

hometown arcade stern insider connected leaderboard display

Insider Connected could also be utilized to help determine depreciation on machines and help an operator decide which games could be sold off in favor of newer machines. Though machines typically hold their value and often increase in value, depreciation is important to operators in terms of taxes, insurance on games, etc. 

I also don’t understand why the Stern website sort of buries machines that are more than ten years old. In addition, sorting games from oldest to newest seems to freeze the site, even on super-fast connections. I get that Stern is looking to market and sell new games, but I think they need to show their back catalog more love. Maybe grouping the games by years, categories (with actual categories, not just the current one called “Games”), and/or system type could help make their back catalog of games more accessible. Anyway, website issues aside, Stern could monetize their back catalog of games in various ways using connected pinball that we will discuss later. Similar to musicians, record labels, movie studios, and streaming services, Stern needs to not solely focus on marketing new stuff.

The Scorbit Platform: A Mostly Great Alternative

Meanwhile, Scorbit has developed both hardware and software to connect older and newer games and has developed the technology in a way that is designed to scale to support spikes (no pun intended) in usage. The founders of Scorbit are skilled software developers and executives with lots of experience bringing software to market. They also love pinball and, from my experience, are focused on growing the user base, increasing sales of new pins for manufacturers, and improving the experience of playing older machines by bringing them online.  

In addition, the technology has been built in a way that allows for many more advancements in the future, including the ability to pay to play pins via the Scorbit app for customers instead of fumbling for quarters or tokens. Scorbit also has an open API that would even allow high-score tracking of non-Stern machines via someone's Insider Connected account. They’ve also done little things to help improve the user experience like providing very clear documentation on setup both in written and video form and Scorbit is available via the web and mobile app.  Meanwhile, IC is web-only and the first time I tried to set up Stern's Insider Connected, I had to access a YouTube video from a different source than Stern because the Stern videos and documentation were missing some key steps in the setup process.  

Scorbit isn’t perfect, though; the high price tag for the hardware and the monthly subscription fees has scared off a lot of operators and probably contributed to Jersey Jack’s exiting their Scorbit partnership. Also, the barcode readers on IC are a much easier approach for operators compared to the Scorbit approach for barcodes. IC lets a player create a QR code and store that in the Apple or Samsung Wallet on their smartphone. In contrast, Scorbit requires operators to put individual QR codes on each pinball machine at a venue allowing players to scan the barcodes for each game from within the Scorbit app. This subtle difference in approach isn’t a huge dealbreaker, but it’s a bit annoying to print QR codes and put them on pins. At the same time, this approach avoids costly updates to adding barcode readers to older games. Scorbit devices, while designed for many future enhancements, are largely over-engineered and, as a result, cost roughly $300. However, lower-priced units are in the works, according to conversations with people in the know.  

Dreaming of Partnerships

At the end of the day, neither platform is totally perfect, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. However, I believe that were Stern Pinball and Scorbit to partner in some fashion; everyone would benefit. 

What I think Stern doesn’t realize they have through IC is an unlimited CRM tool with some of the most targeted consumer and venue data available.

Partnering with Scorbit, they could further tap into this customer data to see who is playing what, when, where, how, and why. This data could be utilized in many different ways like marketing campaigns, very targeted advertising within venues and elsewhere, tournament management, preventative maintenance, up-sells and cross-sells, messaging, and more. I can imagine a world where when a new topper is released for a game, Stern sends out messaging to venues that own the game and players who have played that title recently. Or sending users push notifications when a new title shows up at a local arcade. Operators and venues could even make use of a feature like Scorbit’s API to push connected pinball data to social media platforms, encouraging more folks to visit their location and by encouraging existing or new potential customers to come to the venue to try and beat existing high scores.

Even using the technology to proactively send push notifications to operators for issues like bad switches, burnt-out light bulbs, flipper kits, etc., would be a massive step forward for pinball and operators. For venues with ten or more pins, using the technology to address issues proactively would be huge.  

Finally, we see some potential future use cases for connected pinball:

  • Further promoting pinball and tapping into passive income opportunities by broadcasting games on Twitch (a camera and/or cameras are also needed). In addition, since Twitch is Amazon-owned and utilizes the Amazon advertising platform, partnering with Amazon to share user data collected through connected pinball platforms could also be a huge opportunity, including the potential of utilizing Amazon ads on pinball machines and high score leaderboards.  
  • Using connected pinball to display high scores on arcade websites. Many venue websites have a high score page but these are often very outdated and/or updated manually.  
  • The pinball mod market is so hot right now and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  While Stern does make toppers and other mods for new games, mods for older games are all done via third parties. If Scorbit were available in older games, Stern could tap into the mod market for their older games by having a better understanding of what games are being played and working with these third parties on revenue shares by marketing and selling new mod kits for older games and/or manufacturing or licensing mod kits. In addition, they could offer toppers for older games where they see a demand based on Scorbit player data. Mod kits for older games could be a huge revenue stream for Stern and other manufacturers. Having a comprehensive list of all mods available from the Stern website for older games could be a large new revenue stream for a company with already razor thin margins. For example, this is one of my favorite mods for a classic Stern pin.
  • Supporting old and new arcade games to capture high scores utilizing Scorbit technology and potentially growing the pinball community by tapping into arcade players.
  • Forming partnerships with the likes of tools like used to run and track high scores for arcade game tournaments (e.g Super Smash Bros) and share high scores and user data between the platforms to further cross-promote between these similar audiences.  
  • Working with governing pinball organizations like the IFPA to improve the management of pinball tournaments, especially in the earlier rounds, using connected pinball technologies.

Pinball enthusiasts are still a sort-of cult-like group, and even though the group is growing, people who truly love pinball and play it regularly in the US are probably around a quarter of a million people. However, it’s only a matter of time before the likes of Dave and Busters jumps on the pinball bandwagon, further expanding the user base and bringing pinball more mainstream. Newer machines need far less maintenance than older ones and can be major revenue makers for venues. Connected Pinball offers the potential to further help nurture and grow the game but in order to do that, the two biggest players in Connected Pinball need to work out their differences and just make it happen already.