Over the past few years, pinball has rallied as an industry. It wasn’t that long ago that Stern was the lone manufacturer and the forecast looked grim for them and for pinball as a whole. With the steady growth of new collectors and a return to location pinball, the industry has rebounded to a state where we have multiple manufacturers, games coming out with big feature sets, and a secondary market that is filled with high quality and HUO only machines. With this revival, we’ve seen two things spike: prices for both new and used games and fanboyism.
A fanboy goes beyond the realm of a person that can be considered a passionate supporter, and they’re hardly unique to pinball. Willfully ignoring faults in the products they choose to support while magnifying flaws in any products that can be viewed as competition to their preferred product, the fanboy works tirelessly to mold conversation to their liking.
There’s nothing wrong with a little passion. In fact, passion is actually great for the hobby. Where problems arise is when people start abandoning reason and objectivity to blindly support a company or product.
Even with pinball’s recent growth, the community is still pretty small. Individual voices carry weight in pinball more than they do in many other industries and hobbies. Opinions, both based on objectivity and subjectivity, are valuable to pinball designers, manufacturers, and accessory (mods) makers. Positive feedback drives a maintaining of the status quo, while negative opinions create change. This is true of many industries, but in pinball where the success of each title is so incredibly important, opinions are mined much more deeply than in other industries.
When fanboys take over the narrative over a certain game, feedback becomes very unreliable. Faults are minimized and passed off as no big deal and nice features are aggrandized to be the pinnacle of innovation and ingenuity in pinball. When haters grab hold of conversation, minor faults become the worst thing ever in a game, while actual innovations become dismissed as gimmicks or too weird to risk spending money on. People throwing out these overblown accolades or magnified nitpicks can actually do more to harm their cause than help it. Here’s how.
When a game is launched, pinball manufacturers look for feedback from three places: operators, distributors, and feedback from collectors. Operator feedback is usually based on how well a game earns and how well it holds up to large amounts of play. Distributor feedback is based on how well a game sells and on warranty claims for service. The collector gives feedback on a fuzzy metric: is the game fun, and how well does it hold up in regards to longevity in a collection (which typically goes a long way towards determining value)?
Since the operator and distributor are concerned most about their bottom line, their feedback is going to be mostly objective. They won’t quibble over art packages or code unless it is so bad that it affects their profits. With the majority of their feedback being objective, Stern, Spooky, JJP, Heighway, and the other pinball makers look to the collector to find out what is working and what’s a dud in playfield design.
If fanboys are driving discussion around a game, we get skewed perspectives. Let’s take an example. Say I’m a diehard Stern fanboy and I blindly support anything they put out. Let’s say that I’m intent to troll and hate on anything other manufacturers are putting out. Let’s say that I’m not alone in this practice. Now, let’s say that Stern releases Fraggle Rock and Jersey Jack Pinball releases The Muppets, roughly at the same time. Both games look good, and both games have their strengths and faults.
Oh, but I’m a fanboy, so I hide the fact that Fraggle Rock has a problematic mech that often gets stuck balls. My fellow fanboys run noise against people who complain about the mech. We paint them as whiners and deny that we’re seeing the same issues. Over time, we’re able to shift the narrative around the mech from being a “definite problem” to “something that just needs some tweaking.” Well, rather than offering a fix, Stern decides things aren’t that bad and advises that people adjust their games for optimal play. On top of that, that mech might get used again in another game in another way. An opportunity to help Stern improve got lost because of me and my fellow fanboys.
To continue this, imagine that JJP’s The Muppets has a really cool mech that hasn’t been seen before. Let’s say the Animal toy picks the ball up and throws it 3/4 the way across the playield and it lands on a ramp, feeding to a flipper. It’s the ultimate evolution of Thing Flips, of sorts. Now, say it works 99% of the time, but me and my group of Stern fanboys raise noise and claim that the problem is way bigger than 1% of the time. The narrative shifts from JJP having created one of pinball’s coolest new toys to a controversial one that is prone to failing and messing up your game. Since I don’t care about JJP, this shouldn’t be bad for me, right? Well, not exactly.
Pinball designers are notorious for borrowing ideas and concepts from one another. Maybe a Stern designer doesn’t rip that Animal mech off whole cloth, but maybe they might use it as inspiration to do something very similar, and a different version of that toy might be in the next game I’m planning to buy. Well, that would be nice, except for that me and my friends crushed it on the JJP game, and Stern deemed it to risky to iterate on. A great innovation dies before it can be carried forward, improved, and implemented in new ways.
If you don’t like something in pinball, express it. If you like something in pinball, say so. The key is to give reasons why that go beyond “because I like manufacturer X or designer Y.” In the end, properly expressing why we enjoy or dislike a certain experience in pinball helps designers make their next game better. It helps designers to know what they should eliminate from their own designs, and it keys them into what things they should look closer at from other designs to learn from.
One of the best things I’ve seen in regard to positive feedback recently is the community’s reaction to Game of Thrones. Aside from a few adamant premium and LE owners, most people have been very fair in their criticism of the game. The orbit issue is a major problem, and the upper playfield is confusing and really slows down the game. As a result of fair criticism, the pro model has become the favored model of Game of Thrones. Stern and Steve Ritchie will learn from the feedback and certainly try to avoid repeating those mistakes in the next game.
I understand that when you pay $5000-$8500 for something that your natural inclination is to defend your decision. You don’t want to feel like you made a bad decision or you don’t want to feel like you are now stuck with a dud of a game. But in the long run, if you’re just honest with yourself and others with your praises and criticisms, ultimately your collection and future titles will be better for it. Fair criticism could have prevented the Iron Man shortage, and it could also drive hidden gems to earn the praise they deserve.
Let’s resolve to be better and more fair in our shared opinions. If a game has a problem, explain WHY it’s a problem. If a game is a lot of fun, explain the WHY of it. That’s all it really takes.