Stern Insider Connected

This is rather old news by this point, but I’ve seen a fair bit of online confusion regarding exactly how this works, so I figured trying to summarize all the information I know about this platform in one place would be a worthwhile endeavor. For the most part, I’m pulling from Stern’s official sources - the official website, this press release, George Gomez’s video explanation, and the Insider Podcast episode on the subject (only available to members, though a transcript can be found here) - as well as a few others that I link throughout.
I’m trying to stick to the facts as much as possible, mostly diverging only when official statements seem to contradict each other. Also, this will likely be a pretty long post between the text and images - please bare with me.

Edit log Updated on 9/8 to incorporate some information from a source I had overlooked - RePlay Magazine's interview with Gomez. Thanks to @kdeangelo for bringing it up in the thread! Updated again on 9/14 to incorporate some information from the full reveal of Godzilla, including an estimated price mentioned in Gary Stern's message to distributors (reprinted publicly by Pinball Magazine). 9/16 update: I learned that Stern appears to have launched the Insider Connected website early. There's not much to it at the moment, and it doesn't seem like it's possible to create an account just yet, but there's a little bit of new information that I've added here. (Later in the day, I corrected part of the pricing section based on information from @kdeangelo.)

Introduction

Stern Insider Connected is a platform for all of Stern’s Spike 2 games with LCD screens (essentially, most of their games since Batman '66 in 2016). In a sentence, it adds Internet connectivity that allows players with dedicated accounts to experience additional features (achievements, challenges, etc.) and socialize (competing with friends for high scores, accessing official forums, and so on). For operators, it gives a number of tools to help maintain and analyze their games, in addition to opening up methods of promoting them elsewhere.

It’s also important to explain that there are effectively three different versions:

  • Insider Connected: The basic version, available at no extra cost to players. This will absorb Stern’s current Insider loyalty program when it launches.
  • Insider All-Access Connected: Sometimes referred to as “Insider Connected All-Access” – there’s some conflict between sources there. At any rate, it will absorb Stern’s paid Insider All-Access program, requiring a paid subscription (still $40/year). In return, according to RePlay Magazine’s interview with Gomez, users will initially get “additional player features along with behind-the-scenes development stuff, early access, special events and quests. In the future, [Stern intends] to create exclusive game extensions, such as special access to new modes or new rules and features to increase the All-Access Connected value.” (Stern’s website lists this separately from Insider Connected Pro, so I figure that this is meant more for players than operators. I’m still not completely clear how they will handle the “special access to new modes or new rules”, but I suppose time will tell.)
  • Insider Connected Pro: Made specifically for operators with features specially tailored to them.

The Basics

Once it’s fully up and running, registration will be free on Stern’s website. There’ll be a QR code linking to the relevant page located on new Stern games as well.


Once you sign up, you’ll get a unique QR code that allows you to log into a Stern game by placing it near its code scanner (around the apron area). You don’t necessarily need to pull it up on your phone to do this – Gomez specifically mentions the possibility of printing it out and bringing it with you as an alternative.

(As a side note, the generic bottom panel art seen here is basically a placeholder. On two separate occasions, Zombie Yeti has confirmed that each game will get new artwork there, custom-made by their original artist. If Godzilla is any indication, the Pro model will retain the standard red “use your QR code” insert while the code reader area gets new art, while the Premium and LE will have artwork for the entire area. Gary Stern’s letter to distributors mentions that alternate art will be available to cover up the scanner if an operator so desires.)

Once registered, every user will have their own profile page and avatar. The former displays information about the games you’ve played (such as high scores and total number of games played on a particular title – differentiated between Pro and Premium/LE models). You can choose to make it partially or completely private if you’d like.

The platform will also provide all users with news about Stern games, along with pages for each of their titles (“with all kinds of game-specific stuff”, according to the podcast). In addition, there’ll be official forums, both general and specific to a game – Gomez states that developers, engineers, and other staff will interact with users there to answer questions and clear up issues. All of this can be accessed on any device with Internet capabilities.

Player-Oriented Features

Achievements

Players who log in with Insider Connected will be able to acquire achievements specific to the game they’re playing. (Examples given by Gomez on the podcast include beating Juggernaut within a certain time in Deadpool and training turtles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) These are all designed by the team who made the original game.

Earning an achievement awards XP to your account. Doing this on a game in a commercial location will mark it as “verified”, which will award the full value. Otherwise, they’re merely “completed” and only give partial XP. This is how Stern’s addressing the issue of cheating by taking the glass off.

Achievements show up as badges on your profile page – Gomez says that there will be “really cool, unique, new art for all [of them]” on the podcast, though both the promotional video and the examples shown on the official website show icons that appear to have been pulled from the original game’s art package or display animations.


In addition, there’s also a separate, non-game-specific system of “Profile Badges” (as Gomez calls them in the RePlay Magazine interview) that track milestones made across all Insider Connected games. These include the number of games you’ve played, the number of days you’ve played (both in total and consecutively), and so on. Interestingly, there are also badges tied to specific events (the video illustrates this with some badges related to Pinball Expo 2021).

Challenge Quests

If you’ve used Pinquest before, this will probably seem familiar. Challenge Quests are issued by either an operator or Stern itself; interested users must achieve a specific goal within a set amount of time to complete it. Once they do so, they’ll earn a reward – ranging from free games on connected machines to an autographed T-shirt to a free burger or popcorn (if the location in question serves food).

Also, the Quests may be individual or “team-based.”

Treasure Chests

Treasure Chests are awarded at complete random to users, their exact contents hidden until the player checks the app.

The rewards they bestow include goods (either physical or virtual) and store discounts. I assume this refers to Stern’s store, based on the accompanying pictures in the promotional video and website:


tchotchkes

The latter also shows an example of the virtual rewards Stern plans to offer. Gomez elaborates a little more on how exactly they’ll work on the podcast:

…we want collections to happen and we have plans on helping you build collections and then eventually giving you the power to trade some of that stuff […] I got two little Deadpools. I only need one. I can trade that.

Promotions

Gomez mentions that some promotions are akin to a punch card (getting something free after buying several of them over time), as seen on the website. If this is any indication, some of these may have different prizes depending on whether you subscribe to the paid All-Access version of Insider Connected.
pro promotions

Others are random drawings, as shown in the video. (I’m not 100% sure whether you need to do something special to qualify for the drawings or if you simply need to enter them while having an account.)

(Another side note: this interview with Gomez by Ausretrogamer notes that the availability of quests and rewards outside of the United States will be “dependent on each country’s laws.”)

Operator-Oriented Features

These features will take a bit of time to roll out after the platform launches.

Analytics

The platform will inform operators of statistics about both their location in general and specific games they have on-site. The latter includes their revenue, their maintenance status, “when they’re being played, [and] when they’re not being played. Eventually we’re going to give them […] some of the same trending tools that we’re developing to allow us to analyze our audits of the machine, which we’ve always used to tune the games.” (This quote comes from the podcast.)
pro analytics

Gomez also mentions that they are also aiming to allow people to “create [their] own specific analytics portal to help you if you want,” explaining “how [they] play [their] games” and helping them “deconstruct strategies and games.” (I’m admittedly not completely sure if this is limited to operators; since he mentioned this in a section devoted to operator features, however, I’m assuming it may be.)

Stern’s Analytics

Still quoting from the podcast: Gomez noted that Stern themselves would also be analyzing the data obtained from Insider Connected machines.

[There will be a] huge data mining effort that’s going to be happening post-launch on our end. It’s happening outside of my studio with the real data-mining company, I should say, a real data analytics company…

This appears to be an extension of the previous section, since they use these new analytical tools in-house and pass “a lot of [them]” to operators via Insider Connected.

Remote Access

Quoting directly from the website:

Monitor your machines from anywhere. Check machine status and health, change settings, collect audit data, analyze performance trends and update your games.

Gomez notes on the podcast that the machine will notify operators when something malfunctions, specifically noting what exactly is broken.

Local Promotions

I’m not completely sure this is more conjectural than definite, but Gomez mentions on the podcast that operators could create special QR codes that would give free plays to customers and distribute them in various fashions. His example is an operator who’s sold pinball machines to a bar giving the bartender some of these codes and asking “Give me your best customers.”

Once again, the official website explains a bit more about this (among other operator-specific features):

Updating Code

Finally, games with Insider Connected will be able to download code updates themselves (even automatically, if the operator so desires).

Launch Details

Insider Connected will launch between September and October of this year, starting with the first run of Godzilla Pro machines. (While most sources only say September, the Ausretrogamer interview quotes Gomez as claiming that “the kits are expected to begin shipping around October 1”, and the Stern Insider podcast has him mention “the September-October timeframe” as a launch period.) Once it does, it will become standard for every Stern Spike 2 game with an LCD display produced from then on – including new runs of older titles.

The plan is to support 7 games at launch before rolling the platform out to all 17 Stern Spike 2 LCD games by the end of the year. Oddly, while Gomez declines to mention the specific launch titles in the Ausretrogamer interview “because we are still balancing features,” he explicitly names them in an official Stern video:

  1. Deadpool
  2. Jurassic Park
  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  4. Avengers: Infinity Quest
  5. Led Zeppelin
  6. The Mandalorian
  7. Godzilla (the first game to come with Insider Connected integrated from the get go, and which was left unnamed at the time the video was made)

Those with older LCD Sterns can upgrade their games through a retrofit kit (available from distributors, dealers, and Stern’s own online shop). All versions of the kit feature a WiFi dongle, but they differ when it comes to the QR code reader: the Pro version provides a replacement for the entire bottom arch, while the Premium/LE version simply provides a replacement for the bottom arch’s corner plastic that integrates the QR code reader.


Games with nonstandard bottom arches (Batman '66, Star Wars, and Elvira’s House of Horrors) will get specialized kits. Finally, Gomez claims there will be a “super-duper WiFi antenna rig for challenging locations where WiFi may be a problem” on the podcast – though he also recommends simply running an Ethernet cable into the cabinet, as that provides the best connection.

Stern plans to launch with a “tiny little slice” of features (primarily focused on players) and then regularly drop updates with new features and code throughout the year and into 2022. Both Gomez and Zombie Yeti have noted that there are many more aspects of Insider Connected than have been announced. The former has also indicated a few examples of upcoming content, including several tournament-related tools (including “event features, leader boards, [and] challenge ladders”) set for release in 2022 and “other features that are actual extensions of the game” (a rather nebulous description, I must say).

Pricing

  • Gary Stern has mentioned that the retrofit kit will cost around $200 wholesale, though there will be a 6-month discount price for them.
    • Prior to this announcement, Gomez was insistent that it won’t be excessively expensive, noting on the podcast that “I jumped up and down and said, ‘I want people to adopt this. I don’t want the connectivity kits to be a profit center.’ […] The point is that we want everybody to connect, and there’s so much cool stuff tied to this, and I’ve just scratched the surface on what we’ve talked about.” Make of that what you will.
  • Games shipped between the system’s launch and January 1st, 2022 will also increase in wholesale price, since they come with Insider Connected already installed. The specifics vary between sources: Gary’s letter says it will be $200 more (just like the kit), while Stern’s website implies the increase will actually be $300.
  • Games shipped after January 1st, 2022 will see a substantial hike in price, owing to both Insider Connected’s extra costs and ongoing manufacturing issues (parts shortages, labor shortages, and a spike in freight costs). This is where things get a bit confusing.
    • Gary Stern explicitly states that “we must raise Godzilla wholesale price $600 for Pro’s and $500 for Premium/LE,” and that “all commercial LCD games shipped after January 1, 2022 will increase to the Godzilla wholesale price” (emphasis added).
    • However, the MSRP of Godzilla in comparison to previous games is a different story. While the Pro price disparity is relatively close ($700), the other two are significantly more expensive than the wholesale price Gary states. I have created the table below to illustrate this, using Stern’s previous game (The Mandalorian) for pre-2022 pricing:
Model Old MSRP New MSRP Increase
Pro $6,199 $6,899 $700
Premium $7,799 $8,999 $1,200
Limited $9,199 $10,499 $1,300

I know that wholesale prices and MSRP are different beasts, but I’m not sure what to make of this potential contradiction. At any rate, Gary also says:

A new UMRP, MAP and MSRP list will be sent to USA customers shortly. On the list Godzilla will be increased more than the wholesale increase, as will the MSRP for other games.

Other Tidbits

  • Gomez, when asked whether Insider Connected would be an open platform by Ausretrogamer, answered in the negative: “Interaction with other systems is possible only in tournament environments where the Insider Connected server would provide an API for integration of services.”
  • According to the podcast, Gomez chose to use a QR code-based login system for a few reasons:
    • Because it was the most convenient method available – typing would take too long, while Bluetooth and NFC have issues working properly (he specifically cites the experience of trying to pay a cab fee with the latter technology as an example).
    • Because it doesn’t require a phone, as mentioned before.
    • Because it opens the door to the possibility of partner promotions – Gomez’s hypothetical example is Stern making a deal with McDonald’s where they place QR codes on wrappers that would give free plays at a connected pinball machine.
  • For whatever it’s worth, Zombie Yeti responded to a Pinside user who was worried that Stern might use the platform to nickel and dime their customers with the following:

    I get all of people’s concerns here - but temper them. I know George was focused on creating added value for buyers first and foremost - not added costs. I’ve never seen or heard of ‘always online’ check ins, activation fees or gas-station advertising :wink:

Conclusion & Personal Thoughts

I apologize if this is burying the lead here, but I was curious about what you all thought about this. I, for one, am cautiously optimistic about it. It looks like a neat idea that could be very successful if Stern plays their cards right, but I have to admit the possibility that they’ll use it as an avenue for DLC down the line is worrying, if only because they could easily fall into price-gouging. This is to say nothing of the notion of data-mining users, which is both interesting (they’ll probably be able to tailor newer games towards players based on their findings) and a little unnerving (now pinball machines are collecting information about me).

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kudos putting all this together, very helpful!

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Its great to see more online activity in this industry - but just need to think about what it takes to go online. Using folks data requires permission in some parts of the US and across all of Europe and exporting that data has challenges also. Then there is the security of the platform and making sure its robust and at 22:30 in some bar running and event if it goes down all the right operations folks are there to fix it etc.

Also it would be good to see this support Scorbit given the number of scorbit games appearing across the planet a open backend to enable API’s is crucial in a platform like this.

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I’d like to think that Stern’s thought of this already. In the Ausretrogamer interview, Gomez mentions that the platform’s been in development since 2018, which is certainly enough time to work out the logistics of legally collecting and utilizing user data - especially since that was the year the GDPR took effect in the EU. Obviously, I can’t be sure that they have, but it sure seems like they should’ve have ample opportunity to get everything situated before launch.

Unfortunately, I have serious doubts that this will happen. Stern seems intent on keeping their games in a proprietary ecosystem, and since they’re planning on introducing tournament-related features next year, I suspect they want to supplant Scorbit with an in-house alternative.

I sure hope this is affordable for operators. It makes little sense to give away a significant percentage of my earnings for the relatively few hardcore players who will adopt this tech.

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Is the TOPs tournament software still there on Spike games? Would be nice if that was still there for games not connected to internet.

I bought the TOPs Whitestar kit for $400 and it definitely increased my earnings. That could be moved from game to game.

Yes, although it seems like some options and audits available in the past have been removed, and it’s poorly documented. If you have a US-spec machine you only need to buy the Tournament Start button.

Let’s hope they have!

So having their own stuff for Stern events and game options is cool.

But I’ve never been to a tournament that only had spike 2 games. The closest was FlipExpo but that had SAM games at it. Tournaments run games from all eras - Spooky, JJP, CGC (and I think American) are all supporting Scorbit along with Scorbit’s epic work to make legacy games work - having my Meteor, Quicksilver and Nineball another 40 odd games is driving new excitement, new rivalries and new competitions and capturing some epic scores for the world to see is just amazing - a friend got over a million on HGT which in my view is an amazing achievement! Our club was not enthusiastic about Scorbit initially but now we are putting them on lots of games.

I’m battling it out with Manu for top spot on Mando right now and we can do that on just about any game at where in the world.

I don’t really want to make a Scorbit vs Stern sort of post as I strongly believe both can exist and they will get the best out of each other if they work together.

Neil

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LOL, Gomez, jumped up and down “I don’t want this to be a profit center”. riiiiiiight.

$400 for the hardware but at least you get to use of it. If I want to participate in this, I need a bunch of hardware that ultimately could cost me as much as another game. On top of that, I will have a monthly or yearly subscription cost associated with it and I will have to dedicate time to manage it for the players. So will my earnings go up enough to cover my costs for the hardware, the (likely) fu software sub fees and my time? Or should I just buy another game to put out, that won’t depreciate (hopefully).

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Regarding the concerns about price elsewhere in this thread: there’s been rumors/reports of Stern recently upping their prices once again, this time by quite a bit (I’d heard figures along the lines of $600 more for Pros and $1000 more for Premiums and LEs). Since they’ve confirmed that Insider Connected will be built into every game they make starting with the next one, people have naturally wondered if the new technology is the cause of it. I can’t say for sure either way at the moment, since other companies have increased prices with no stated justification, but it seems like it checks out.

Then, of course, there’s the obvious question of what people with no interest in the new technology will do with their new games. Gomez concludes his explanation video by saying that

If you choose not to join Insider Connected, your Stern pinball machines will continue to work the way they always have - but you’ll be missing out on all this cool stuff.

Assuming that the platform is causing the price to go up, though, this doesn’t address the fact that these people will have to pay more for features they have no intent of using. If nothing else, it does line up with hearsay that the company is pushing this technology hard, apparently trying to build up some stock on their next game to ship it out faster and possibly ordering more LEs than usual.

(Speaking of which, that next game will apparently be revealed to Stern Army members via a webinar on the 14th - it was set for today but got pushed back a week, from what I’ve heard. I imagine the public reveal will come that day or the 15th.)

For Mando, the distro meeting and public release came the day before the stern army webinar.

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Assuming the full product is displayed above, there’s no way the BOM was more than $200. Estimating very generously that’s a $20 usb wifi adapter, a $90 bottom arch, and a $50 rs485 barcode scanner. I’d hope the final product isn’t more than $300, given it sounds like there will still be a monthly subscription required to make it useful.

If it’s $300 that’s months of revenue I’m giving back to Stern, per game, while I’m still spending hours maintaining it, so that just makes no business sense at all to me.

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For what it’s worth, Gomez has claimed that the basic system requires no payment beyond either buying the game or the retrofit kit. The source of the subscription claim (the Ausretrogamer interview) ends with this statement from him:

Insider Connected will remain free. Insider Connected All Access will be a subscription based service just like the existing All Access loyalty program has been. Insider Connected All Access will have specific premium features on top of everything that has been described above.

I feel this has been glossed over in general in regards to the system, from Replay Magazine:

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.

DLC for paid subscribers

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Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention! I’ve never seen this article before, but it’s a critical piece of information.

I’ve updated the OP to mention it.

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Yeah, that does seem pretty clear. Not sure if I’ve seen that article yet.

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I’m not following this closely because it won’t affect me for a while, but I did see something about the software distinguishing between home and location games. Could the extra DLC be free to operators and $ for home buyers?

It’s hard enough to get ops to do timely updates. Asking them to pay more to get more updates doesn’t seem like it would fly.

@JamOn wonderful write-up, thank you very much.

I have to look again but I haven’t found a place where the retrofit kit (QR Reader Upgrade Kit) is available. Anyone that finds it could you kindly post it here?

Also, it would be cool if Stern allows you to associate current high scores on a machine with an Insider Connected account, though I can see concerns around authenticity.

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