Pinball Ambassador 2016

What’s that sound?  It’s a long overdue article about our Pinball Ambassador for 2016!

In December 2016, we held a poll to nominate and then elect a ‘Pinball Ambassador’ for 2016 – our little way to combat some of the negativity in the hobby.  We had an outstanding response and complied a long list of wonderful folks as nominees for the title.  Ultimately, the winner, BY A LANDSLIDE, was Nicholas (pin)Baldridge of For Amusement Only – The E.M. & Bingo Pinball Podcast.

(Photo courtesy of someone.  Found during a Google image search.)

WHY WAS NICK NOMINATED/ELECTED?  Well, that’s why I’m writing to you all today.  It’s time to shovel accolades on the most humble genius in the hobby.  Nick is a young-ish dude with a very old soul.  Most of us like pinball not only for what is now, but for the nostalgia and fun we derived from playing in our childhood or younger years.  What makes Nick unique is that he THRIVES on games that existed BEFORE HE DID.  Nick is one of the leading authorities on EM Pinball and coin-op machines, sure, but he’s REALLY a leading authority on electromechanical bingo machines.  Most pinball people have never even seen a working bingo machine, nevertheless played one.  They were commercially successful for decades, but the bingo industry completely died off in the 70’s.  I don’t mean in the way pinball died off in the 90’s and only 1-2 games a year came out… I mean NO MORE BINGOS (though I think some bingo game came out ‘recently’, more on that later.)  That means Nick became an authority on a subject he wasn’t even alive to experience firsthand when it was a viable industry.  He’s like those dudes on Pawn Stars that are 32 years old and get called in when someone finds a sword from the 1400’s, because they’re experts in their field.

Nick is like DaVinci.  He sleeps 20 minutes a day and never stops moving.  He’s brought many games back to life, and maintained even more to keep them running and entertaining people for years to come.  I only recently met Nick in person (less than a month ago), but we’ve been friends on Facebook for several years.  Nick doesn’t just return some messages when I’ve had issues with EM games, he’s literally talked me through some issues on the phone in the middle of the night.  He’s just a swell guy, and he’s honestly interested in keeping these games alive, even long-distance.

(Nick in 2D by Ryan Claytor.  Also courtesy of Google Image Search)

Nick has hosted a couple podcasts, but is most well know for his show For Amusement Only – The E.M. & Bingo Pinball Podcast, a show that EXCLUSIVELY discusses electromechanical games.  In fact, Nick was a guest on our podcast (Episode 63 – possibly my personal favorite episode) and he was excited to talk about NOT EM GAMES.  Not only does he still release an episode every two weeks, he also released an episode EVERY DAY for a year straight!  That’s right, his first 365 episodes were released daily, in order.  And they’re still available.  I’ve often mentioned that his show is a great resource.  If there is an issue you’re having, odds are that Nick did an episode about it.  He also did a lot of great interviews with gaming luminaries (*cough* like Don and Jeff *cough*), and did many shows that focused on individual machines.  Much like the This Old Pinball/Pinball Ninja archives that many of us ran into during out early days in the hobby, Nick has built a resource that should keep games running and keep bringing new gamers going with technical support.

Not only all of that *whew* but Nick also designed and invented the Multi-bingo Machine!  He created a virtual/physical hybrid bingo machine that emulates dozens of rare bingo games from yesteryear, in one cabinet!  Read all about it here on Pinside.  It’s a modern marvel and a TON OF WORK.  And if that’s not enough, he and his artistic sidekick Ryan Claytor of are working on a brand new electromechanical game!  Read all about ROBO-FRENZY here.

Seriously, the dude sleeps 20 minutes a day.

(Yeah, yeah, yeah…there was a typo and I misspelled nic-H-olas on his trophy.  I FEEL SHAME.)

Kudos to Nick for his tireless enthusiasm and the wave of positivity he brings to our hobby.  He’s a soft-spoken gentleman and a knowledgable tutor.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the drama in our hobby (for whatever reason), but it’s also easy to overlook the brilliant innovators that keep our hobby always moving forward as it’s woven itself into the ‘fabric of life’.  Without guys like Nick, AND SPECIFICALLY NICHOLAS BALDRIDGE HIMSELF, we’d have a lot more games collecting dust in our garages/landfills, and a lot less folks smiling when they score that hard-earned ‘Special’ or as they watch their children roll a game over for the first time.

Thank you, Nick,


Don (and Jeff and the rest of the pinball community)

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.