One week ago, after an extended build-up, a fledging pinball manufacturer announced plans for their first release via a crowd-funding campaign. What must have been an exciting time for Vonnie D Pinball quickly spiralled into a public relations disaster and near total alienation from their core customers…all in one short week.
The Vonnie D Pinball Kickstarter campaign for their first release, Pinball Gremlins, went live nearly one week ago, and has since been met with both questions and scorn. As of writing, the campaign has only managed to secure 30 backers who have promised a total of $8,218USD. The project will only be considered “funded” if $100,000USD is raised. The majority of that $8,218USD comes from a single backer who has pledged $7,000USD for the chance to own a Limited Edition Pinball Gremlins machine. You read right, only one machine, thus far, has been spoken for. When crunching the numbers, success doesn’t seem that much of a challenge: Vonnie D need only find fifteen people to step forward and pledge to “pre-order”, with full payment, the standard version of their machine at $6,500USD to reach their goal. However, finding fifteen people willing to shell out without seeing a flipping prototype or sample game is a different challenge.
If you want to find a seething crowd of pinball enthusiasts, many of which are gun-shy to the idea of pre-orders due to past disappointments, look no further than Pinside. The original thread that first announced the arrival of the Pinball Gremlins on Kickstarter had its share of users taking proverbial whacks at the beehive, however many serious and well written concerns were also raised. Jersey Jack Pinball’s delay in shipping their Wizard of Oz machines has made folks extremely careful with their pinball money, for fear that they will be waiting three years to actually receive a game. The idea of the pre-order has also been maligned with Stern Pinball’s past inability to update game code in a timely fashion after the initial release–-Metallica and X-Men owners suffered for about a year before code finally made their games whole. However, nearly all of the boutique manufacturers base their production on pre-order schemes. Almost all of them operate in the same way: they require a refundable deposit, always less than fifty percent of the purchase price, to sign up and secure your spot on the list. While not technically a “pre-order”, Vonnie D’s Kickstarter program requires a 100% outright purchase of the machine if you wish to participate, and no mention of refunds either. After a deposit has been taken, most boutique manufacturers, Skit-B for example with their Predator machine, will give the customer much, much more to work with after the refundable deposit is in so that the customer can make the determination of whether or not they are willing to buy the game. Skit-B has provided their customers with, amongst other things, technical details, photos of whitewood prototypes, completed art packages, toys, special features/modes, gameplay video and even a chance to play the actual machine. Only then did they ask for full payment. Vonnie D Pinball has given nearly none of what has been mentioned. What they have provided amounts to some sketch drawings and a 3D rendering of the playfield. They did announce that long-time Williams designer Barry Oursler was “working with” the company, but the extent of his participation was unclear from the Kickstarter information. Vonnie D Pinball claims a whitewood prototype does exist. In my opinion, they absolutely needed to release photos (or a video) of this prototype if they had their heart set on offering the machines through Kickstarter, even if the whitewood was in the early test stages. It wouldn’t have guaranteed backers, but it would be a start. Post after post on that original Pinside announcement thread raised concerns from a community already feeling the squeeze on their wallet (and patience) from pinball manufactures jockeying for position (and cash) within a crowded market. Asking for full payment from members of this community with nothing more offered than a good idea for a theme and a video with two talking heads was interpreted as a bold slap in the face.
Then things got downright out of hand. Pinside user “VonnieD”, presumably Pinball Gremlins designer Von Davis himself, posted this message to Pinside:
“First just so it is clear we do have Barry Oursler already on board helping with his knowledge of pinball and designing game modes.
Second, the items necessary for our prototype have been completely purchased and we have all the parts we have been waiting on suppliers like the cabinet, prototype metal pieces and currently the playfield. We have went through 3 of them getting it perfect to be populated. I am personally cutting the playfield by hand to make sure everything is where I want it before I start hiring or purchasing a CNC machine to run my G-code. The game was designed quickly in future pinball just to get ideas of shots, the real machine is designed in SolidWorks 2014.
Thirdly, I understand the pre-order issue you do not have to pre-order to help us out. We thought we would go to the pinball community to help get an efficient production line up and going, so we could avoid many of the delays you commonly see with boutique pinball makers. Even purchasing a T-shirt, a poster, or whatever you are financially able and willing to, will help the project. If necessary, we have interested backers, however we do not want to lose the flexibility of designing to a venture capitalist or drive prices up to meet an investors profit demand. We have other pinball themes and layouts ready at lower costs, however Kickstarter rules require we fund a specific project (so we choose Pinball Gremlins) and our first pin has many additional costs that future ones won’t as a result of being the first to use our custom boards, lights, etc.”
Thus, according to Mr. Davis, everything was just a big misunderstanding. Vonnie D Pinball doesn’t want pre-orders. They just wanted a way to involve the community in their excitement and passion for their new pinball project. Unfortunately, that was not the way it was interpreted by anyone in the community. A goal of $100,000USD, and stretch goals of $200K and $300K, are not reached by people kicking in ten bucks for a keychain or fifty bucks for a tee-shirt. These goals are reached by people committing to BUYING MACHINES. If you didn’t need the money, why was a Kickstarter created? Just give away tee-shirts or stickers or keychains to get your name out there and get people excited about your product. Regardless, when this thread appeared, many who had offered constructive criticism in the previous thread continued to ask questions in this one, hoping for an answer from Mr. Davis himself. Many who took potshots, well, continued to take potshots. Some claimed laziness, others claimed outright lies. The thread slowly adopted a mob mentality as user “VonnieD” remained quiet and did not bother to respond to the issues that were raised. It took 52 hours from when the thread was first created for a response to appear from the manufacturer: in the form of Pinball Gremlins “producer”, Wes Upchurch. Upchurch joined the discussion and did address some issues, but it was too far gone to salvage by this point. There were too many questions being bandied about, and far too many comments that sent reasonable thinking right off the rails. The credibility of the company was now being called into question–using everything from Vonnie D Pinball’s use of hand puppets to promote the Kickstarter campaign to Upchurch’s prior business ventures and financial solvency. I interjected early, urging Vonnie D to respond as it seemed that he wanted to take on the role of a “public designer” (like Ben Heckendorn or Charlie Emery), but in hindsight, perhaps it is best he didn’t. The positive buzz the company wanted to mold, like it or not, through a series of indiscretions, had been ripped from the hands of its creators and placed in the hands of the masses who have now surrounded it with an aura of negativity. Damage had been done. It is impossible to find fault or lay blame in this situation anymore, it is everyone and no one all at once.
It has been suggested by many that Vonnie D Pinball step back and re-evaluate their place within the current pinball landscape. Upchurch promised a working, flipping whitewood at the Chicago Pinball Expo this fall. Perhaps the company should lay low until then–keeping their eyes on the prize, and not on Pinside threads or Kickstarter funding. Only ask for money once something tangible has been built. There is a potential to create something special with this theme. If well designed and well executed, there will be buyers.
If nothing else, this whole fiasco has brought Vonnie D Pinball some good advice. Ben Heckendorn, designer of the Spooky Pinball release America’s Most Haunted, added his two cents to the Pinside thread:
“Unless you’re John Popadiuk, an unlicensed theme is like an uphill battle with no bullets and both of your legs crippled.
Here’s what Vonnie D should have done (from my Pinside/Kickstarter/Pin-building experience)
1) Build a cool whitewood that shoots great and has some cool features.
2) Get a quote for the cost of a pin/geek friendly license (Army of Darkness, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens) Have it ready to go pending down payment.
3) Kickstart the license cost like Farsight (Pinball Arcade) has done, successfully, several times. This would be around 50-60k, HALF of what they’re looking for now. (They’d probably have to pay a % on each game too, but that can come out the back end)
4) Have MANY reward tiers, all of which can be taken against the cost of buying the full game down the road. But have nothing higher than a 50% down payment.
5) Make it a $6000 standard body.
6) Don’t spend your whole video explaining what pinball is – explain what the GAME is. Non-pinball people don’t give a damn and will be on the latest Hipster Skinny Jeans RFID-Blocking Wallet page, not yours.
Once the Kickstarter succeeds and you secure your license, then start taking deposits to fund the game.”
I don’t often agree with what the man named Heck has to say, but it is some great advice for anyone looking to start a pinball company, and advice I’m sure Mr. Heckendorn would have given to Vonnie D Pinball if they would have just asked him before any of this had occurred.
What I have attempted to chronicle here is how an approach selected by a first-time pinball manufacturer went horribly wrong. They say any publicity is good publicity…well, at least a legion of pinball aficionados now know the name “Vonnie D”, but maybe for the wrong reasons. It ultimately went awry because the tightly-knit pinball community judged it to be the wrong way to go about asking for money. Like it or not, these are the people you have to satisfy. One week before Vonnie D’s Kickstarter went live, Circus Maximus Games quietly announced their Pinball Circus project at the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo. They showed some whitewood samples, stated their basic intentions and asked for absolutely no money. Two different approaches to announcing pinball projects–one has created anticipation and positive buzz while the other has an uphill battle to climb to regain the support of their target audience. I have no doubts that Vonnie D Pinball will have a version of Pinball Gremlins for display at Expo, but the way in which they choose to get there, through both public relations and private creativity, will ultimately spell success or failure for this freshman manufacturer.
Vonnie D Pinball – Homepage
Pinside – Vonnie D Pinball—-Now Live With Videos…Kickstarter LE?
Pinside – Vonnie D Pinball Update