Internet Connected Pinball Machines – The Future Is (Almost) Here!

The future has caught up with pinball. No longer will this pop culture mechanical icon operate in the old world ways. The online reckoning is here!

The time for real pinball machines to be online has come. The current crop of pinball manufacturers like Stern Pinball and Jersey Jack Pinball are surely tinkering away to have their machines internet ready and connected in the not too distant future. Actually, Jersey Jack Pinball have been beta testing hardware dongles to allow some of their back catalogue machines to connect to the internet via WiFi, but this is still fiddling around the edges of the true potential of pinball machines being online. Companies like Multimorphic have shown the big boys of the pinball world how it’s done by announcing head to head play on their P3 machines, as part of their #PinballEvolved campaign, so the precedent has been set.

image source: Multimorphic via Twitter

We published a speculative feature a few years ago regarding pinball innovation, specifically around the implementation and use of technologies, like utilising telemetry via IoT (Internet of Things), however, this particular editorial explores the possibilities of internet and online pinball and its applications and services manufacturers could potentially use to deliver their online capabilities for the player, collector and operator.

When it comes to online services, there are really two main options, free or paid subscriptions. No one likes to pay for an online subscription, but the precedent has already been set by Microsoft and Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) with their respective XBox Live and PlayStation Network (PSN) subscription platforms. These platforms have a decade plus head start and provide a myriad of services for their subscribers, so the value proposition of having an annually paid membership is enticing. Pinball has a lot to learn and catch up on in this regard, so careful consideration must be given when creating an online service, ensuring it provides everything pinball players have been craving for, and more importantly, what players have been complaining about. Studying the two video game online service platforms from Microsoft and SIE will definitely give pinball manufacturers the edge in delivering an online platform rich with options and services for their subscribers straight off the bat, thus giving them value for money. But, things are never clear cut or that simple!

image source: pinballandmore

Pinball manufacturers implementing a paid subscription for their online service must tread carefully. When users pay for an online service, their expectations (of what is offered), must come close to being met, otherwise there will be a backlash which will be difficult to recover from. Meeting users’ expectations of an online service is no small feat and is quite unrealistic. If an online service is priced reasonably and competitively, then expectations will be tapered down, but users will still want to see value for money.

The flip side to the paid subscription is offering the online service for free. One thing we have all learned over the years is that nothing truly is for free. If pinball manufacturers (the providers) offer their online pinball services for free, then rest assured that you will be bombarded with online ads and the the data collected (by the provider) will be sold to interested parties to recoup their costs in keeping the lights on and ensuring the service keeps running as expected – pretty much what Google does when you create an account to use their services, like Gmail. If you don’t like ads popping up while using an online service, then you are out of luck. Free (or freemium) services still cost money to run, so the provider will do what is required to ensure their services can keep running and investment being made for new and improved services.

Enough talk of free and paid online subscriptions, we want to throw around some ideas of what applications and services could potentially be offered by pinball manufacturers to home collectors, players and operators in connecting their silverball playing beasts to their online services.

We gazed into our crystal ball and came up with a few applications, but you be the judge if these will be of value to you when choosing to subscribe to an online pinball service (free or otherwise) to connect your pinball machine:

Underpinning all of this online connectivity is security, from secure login to ensuring users do not cheat or circumvent online services. How these online pinball service providers ensure that your data will be secure in transit and at rest? How will they ensure someone isn’t cheating in tournaments? This is fundamental to any online offering, as the implementation of the security construct needs to be at the heart of the online service and its many applications. A good start would be to use multi-factor authentication or one-time pin (OTP) services like LastPass’ Authenticator. As for ensuring a level playing field (pardon the pun) for tournament play, service providers could ‘push’ tournament settings with a checksum to ensure all participants are playing to the rules –  levelling the machine is another variable here, perhaps a digital level display on-screen could be used, ensuring everyone participating sets their level per the tournament rules, otherwise they will not be allowed to compete.

The one thing we do not want to see with an online pinball service is the enforcement of downloading the latest software code and updating your machine before you are able to play it – that would be the fastest way to lose subscribers and put the fan base offside. The online pinball service should allow freedom in how it is to be used and it’s interaction with the machine. A fine balance that should be tweaked and set right from the start.

There is precedent already set by video game providers in how and what to offer to their players when it comes to an online gaming service, so pinball manufacturers can learn from these providers to ensure they strike a good balance of offering services, be it free or otherwise. In an ideal world, an online pinball service would offer all users to register for free and provide a number of basic services free of charge, including software / code updates and social media integrations as a minimum. A paid or premium level service should be compelling and provide value to the target users, otherwise, they would not be worth pursuing.

The time has come for pinball to enter the 21st century and join the internet age. Pinball is in a unique position where it can definitely be fun in its current format or provide the means for its users and players to go online and unlock new ways of playing and interacting with their machine and others around the world. The future of internal pinball connectivity is now, so the silverball is in the pinball manufacturers court – make it happen!


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