A better approach to pro, premium, and LE models in pinball

Many pinball manufacturers split their offerings into a base and varying numbers of upgraded models. The base is usually the machine more aimed at operators or budget-minded buyers and the collector’s edition, premium, or LE model is more for the discerning home buyer. At times the differences between versions is minor, while at other times it’s pretty large. Stern Pinball has settled on a three model approach (pro, premium, LE) that looks to address buyer needs (choice) as well as the manufacturer’s needs (maximum margin and larger market share). Jersey Jack Pinball also offers different models in their games, but they typically offer two levels; standard and limited. The big difference between how Jersey Jack and Stern handle their model differences is that Stern offers differences in gameplay between models while JJP keeps differences to be purely cosmetic or in presentation. I feel like in a perfect world everybody would just make one game, but that’s probably never going to happen again in pinball. If we’re going to live with split offerings, I wish the three model approach could be tweaked in ways that are better for both the buyer and the seller; and I do believe that’s possible.

The three model per game approach wouldn’t be problematic if there wasn’t a difference in gameplay and code, but there is. It’s problematic for the buyer, and it’s a problem for the manufacturer as well. The differences should be in trim, non-interactive toys, art, and quantity limitations. Here’s only a handful of reasons why:

By having a difference in gameplay, it splits the code base. This is bad for everyone involved. On Stern’s end, it makes more work for each code update, because they have to account for differences in features between model. Those differences might also affect scoring balance (can’t do too much with the right ramp shot on GB, for example, because it returns to the left flipper on the LE/premium and would be abused; so you’re left keeping it lower value which harms the pro). Code also takes longer to develop, because you aren’t just making one set of code, you’re making two. But the worst effect is that less attention is put towards unique features, simply because it’s an element that affects only a portion of the overall owner base. If every GB had Ecto Goggles, I’m sure more creativity would have been put into using those, but it automatically falls to a lower priority due to the split base. This harms the premium/LE.

By having differences in gameplay, it forces the designer to make concessions to their design in some way. They’re either pulling out something they originally designed for a game, or they’re adding something in just for the sake of doing so. Whatever direction it goes, it’s not the original vision for the game. Game of Thrones is worse on the premium/LE level for that crammed in upper playfield while AC/DC loses a lot dropping to pro. We would simply get a designer’s best design if they weren’t forced to add or subtract for sake of a salesman’s bullet point.

On top of code and design, it affects manufacturing negatively. Rather than a single playfield, you get two variations. This slows down production at the playfield manufacturer and during assembly as they’re essentially treated as different games on the production line. Each version must be tested differently. Each version needs to be engineered differently. Playfields have to be created in waves rather than all at once. You end up with multiple cutting templates at the manufacturer, different wiring harnesses, different press template…it’s just not efficient overall as it could be.

Multiple playfield variations slows down order fulfillment. Pros and premiums/LEs have to be scheduled in different runs due to the physical differences. While there was a big backlog in orders on Game of Thrones Pro this year, premiums were on the line and people were left waiting. If the playfields were the same, it would be simple to alter the final steps in assembly to ship pros to satisfy outstanding demand rather than a powering through a possibly missed forecast.

I think having three versions is fine, but we’re simply not doing it in the best way right now. I would actually prefer having two (standard and collector’s edition), but even with identical playfields there is probably still enough that can be differentiated in add-on features to justify pro/premium/LE splits. Here’s a reasonable starting point, I feel:

Pro – No shaker, standard side rails, standard sound package, basic playfield toys, playfield pegs, basic plastics/molds

Premium – Shaker added, slide rails, armor added, alternate translite (plus the pro), upgraded toys (moving Recognizer in Tron), upgraded sound, headphone jack, upgraded playfield plastics/molds (library and containment unit on GB)

LE – Shaker, limited quantities, exclusive armor color, alternate translite (plus the other two), upgraded toys, premium sound, signed playfields, topper, exclusive LE art package (different cab, different plastics), slide rails, upgraded apron, headphone jack

Stern could easily reduce production cost, keep their margins (and probably improve them), and still give buyers a choice without forcing disparity between home and location play. Currently, everything being done with the three different versions is ignoring the increased benefits of higher levels of standardization. Hopefully we can see a day return to pinball when each game has one version of gameplay.