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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

FEATURE: Code-Breaker, the Rise of #WHERESTHECODE

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The story of Stern Pinball Inc. shipping their games with incomplete code has become a generally accepted practice in our hobby. Nobody is surprised when a new Stern game hits the streets with an incomplete set of modes, not much to shoot for, and “random” awards giving out the same point value over and over and over again. The practice is so accepted, it has become a tolerable joke: for example, “I’ll sell you my restored Fathom when Stern releases a game with complete code!”  A recent movement on Pinside asked collectors to take a pledge: resist buying New-In-Box Stern games until code is complete, in hopes of sending a message to the company by hurting their bottom line. It worked to a certain extent. In a totally non-scientific study, just from reading Pinside, there has been a lot more “I like the theme but I’m not buying ‘til I see code” talk than there was in years prior. Pinside user “Flashinstinct” of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada took it a step further, planting the hashtag “#wheresthecode” into the pinball collectors’ lexicon, hoping to promote change and accountability.

Flashinstinct (that’s how he wants to be identified in this article) was tired of the disorganization and rhetoric associated with Stern code discussions. He took to Pinside and called for a day of action, January 31, 2015, for pinball enthusiasts to bombard Stern’s social media and other contact outlets demanding that games like Star Trek, Avengers, and The Walking Dead receive a code update they sorely needed in order to make the games whole. Here’s what Flashinstinct had to say in the first post of the “@wheresthecode” Pinside thread (which has been heavily edited since its first appearance a month ago):

“Ok folks….. I’ve had enough of the where’s the code, when is Stern going to release new code…..can we do something about this code….Can we fix this code…. all these threads achieve nothing but getting a lot of people on pinside annoyed, others get mad, other bash each other and in the long run nothing gets done. So as of today…..Mark your calendars and do something productive….on January 31st I vow to post on Sterns facebook page and twitter feeds with something about finishing the code. And I encourage everyone to do the same. Mine will read something to the effect of:

“You keep releasing games but not finishing the code? What gives?? If you can create a new platform and 3 new games a year why can’t you polish the code?”

I don’t hold a particular hatred for Stern as I wait until the code is polished before buying there games but I’ll jump on board with everyone to make Stern a bit more accountable. If everyone that is pissed off is willing to get banned from Stern’s facebook page for a while I encourage you to do this and get it over with. This will keep the folks at Stern busy for a while and it will get the message across.  In turn, this will reduce the amount of bitching, whining and hatred on this forum and will clear space for more productive posts.

SO MARK YOUR CALENDARS AND POST ON JAN 31!!!”

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An early meme from the campaign.

 

Facebook was the main target to get the code complaints out to the public. It was known from the start that Stern’s social media team would simply delete posts and ban users that raised questions and concerns that ran contrary to the image they wanted to portray on their page. Heck, if you haven’t been banned from Stern’s Facebook page at least once for sarcastic or questioning posts, you can’t call yourself a real pinball collector (I got the ban hammer for the first time shortly before Credit Dot existed).

January 31st fell on a Saturday, which may have been either poor or genius planning on Flashinstinct’s part. Leading up the kickoff, there were a multitude of attitudes toward the project. Some thought it wasn’t worth their time because it wouldn’t change a damn thing. Others thought Flashinstinct should get off Stern’s back because the company is, singlehandedly, keeping pinball alive by releasing new games, regardless of how incomplete the code is. Others still, were just as fed up as Flashinstinct and wanted to do as much as they could to support the project hoping to inspire change. Below are some reactions to the project itself:

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I talked to Flashinstinct about a couple of issues in the past week, and the divided reception was one topic we covered:

“You’ll always have people on both sides of the fence and that’s fine. Some people will fight tooth and nail for something they believe in, one way or the other. Some people think I am doing this for fame, some to stir up the pot, others are totally for it and some people just flat out hate me. All I can say is that I wanted to create something for the little guy, the consumer and pinball enthusiasts that are tired of not being heard. I’m not against Stern, I do believe that they make good pinball machines. I just wanted them to be more accountable to the home market and try to make code a priority. It almost feels like they have put code files on the shelves and revisit them when they feel like it.”

Things ended up kicking off before the weekend of January 31st. Flashinstinct called for help to identify existing Stern code idiosyncrasies and bugs. Catchy, well-designed, “meme-like” images were created to support the cause. Re-reading the thread, it is plain to see that none of this was created with a mean spirit or sneaky ulterior motives–it was simply a grassroots campaign to try and push a company toward code responsibility. Since Stern’s Facebook page was going to be on lockdown, a “Where’s The Code” Facebook page was created so that pinball fans could have a voice. A minor “win” came early: it seemed that Stern’s social media team blacklisted the “#wheresourcode” hashtag on Facebook, proving that they were aware of the campaign and had preemptively battened down the hatches for a bumpy weekend ride. An insightful supporter tweaked his hashtag so that it wouldn’t be auto-blocked on Facebook and became one of the first to officially kick off the campaign:

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This post was, of course, removed within minutes of being submitted. Stern also completely removed the comment feature from their page to prepare for the barrage of code-related concerns raised by owners and enthusiasts. The night before January 31st, it was business as usual for Stern, sharing a picture of their new Wrestlemania Pro being filmed for a promotional video.  To try and keep the campaign as clean and fair as possible, Flashinstinct took the high road and also added praise for Stern games that were completely coded:

“I added the positive memes because I didn’t want to make it solely about code problems, but also Stern’s code successes. Obviously Stern as made phenomenal games…Tron, Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, to name a few. You have to look at both sides of the coin.

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00-codes11The January 31st date came and went, and obviously, no code was released. There was a promise that Star Trek code was on its way from designer Steve Ritchie himself, but really, that’s been rumoured to be in the works for quite some time. I guess Stern got the message, but this isn’t an issue where indicators of change can be immediately be pinpointed. However, in all honesty, I don’t think much is going to change. Stern will keep selling games, operators and collectors will keep buying, and the cogs in the machine will keep turning. If Gary Stern thought lack of code was hindering sales, I think it would be addressed immediately.  However, it is hard for the company to draw cause and effect between code dissatisfaction and poor performance on the balance sheet. It is much easier to blame a bland theme or a poorly designed game for lagging sales. Most of these code complaints are coming from the collector market–the very same market that Gary Stern has said, time and time again, is not the company’s bread and butter. He has made the assertion that operators are Stern’s most important source of revenue. Up until quite recently, I’ve found Mr. Stern’s attitude towards the home enthusiast very dismissive, which has always been troublesome for me to reconcile. I don’t think an operator cares if the “Zombie Horde” mode is not functional or not on the Walking Dead Pro he’s running at the local arcade, so in essence, why should Gary Stern? For the most part, Flashinstinct agreed with this in our brief correspondence:

“You can’t expect the home market to wait forever for these updates. People feel deceived and tricked when code never gets revised and the machine is not working as intended.  Stern sends out statements that they are “working on code”. You can’t have a more open ended statement than that. I would counter and ask: where is the proof? If they have time to release three games in one year, setup an assembly line for the Medieval Madness Remake, accommodate time to create a new operating platform, and plan the logistics of moving their facilities to a new location, then they should have made time to address code issues and fixes. I don’t really think Stern takes the home market seriously.”

Anyhow, the campaign chugged along with regular updates. More smartly designed memes followed, but with no apparent movement or acknowledgement from Stern on the issue.  It made for little to talk about. Flashinstinct again highlighted the soft-handed approach of the campaign, tagging each picture with the phrase “Make a smart pinball purchase…wait until code is finished before buying”, echoing the sentiments of the previous Pinside pledge campaign.  The campaign, from my perspective had slowed to a crawl. For those that like forshadowing, Flashinstinct posted this message on page 12 of his thread:

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The “Offending” logo.

A t-shirt campaign with the “Where’s the Code, Stern?” logo on it (based on Stern’s current logo) was made available via a tiltsourcing-style model. All of the profits were to go to charity. Regular followers of the thread will know where this is headed; those with any knowledge of trademark law will as well. It now seemed Stern wasn’t standing pat on the whole issue–they were instead drawing up a cease and desist order to send to Pinside, requesting the offending image be removed and as well as all links to the sale of the shirts with the logo on it. It seems the parody image of their logo was too close to the real thing for their liking. Flashinstinct removed what he thought necessary, but then tried to respond with a different logo that, again, was too similar to the Stern logo. In the end, moderators banned him from posting in his very own thread. The Pinside moderators did respond forthwith, as did Pinside founder Robin himself, stating that the ban didn’t have anything to do with expressing free speech or opinion, but due to Flashinstinct’s refusal to abide by Pinside’s copyright rules after doling out a warning about the order they had received. Here is moderator Xerico’s explanation of the action taken:

“We told the [original poster] that Stern had raised a copyright infringement notification to Pinside.  In accordance with Pinside rules, once the copyright infringement was properly submitted, Robin considered the request and then decided to remove the links to the t-shirts and logo.  The [original poster] was notified about the reason, which was the logo. He then continued to create different logos that were not much different.  He was then directly told by the Mod Team to stop.  He did not listen, and continued anyway. So he was ejected from his own thread.  He was not ejected for free speech issues. He was ejected because he ignored a directive from the mod staff.  We have been discussing the issue with him, and he will be returning to his own thread.  But when the Mod Staff makes a request regarding a post, please follow it. If you disagree, please feel free to start a moderator feedback thread and we’ll be happy to discuss our decision.  We work as a Moderator Staff. There are no lone wolves. We discuss these issues and then we reach an agreement and then act as a team.  I hope this clears the air a bit.”

And an excerpt from Pinside boss Robin’s response:

“We have made a very clear decision here, which is to follow the legal requests to take down (links to) copyright infringing stuff that was being offered for sale.  Note that we have not closed this thread because protest and fee speech is pretty important for a discussion forum. But this is also a privately owned website and I simply cannot allow people breaking the law and putting the site (and me personally) at risk.  Please try and be respectful to Pinside staff and try to understand that Pinside is not pirate country.”

Many were quick to assume that Pinside bowed to the request in an attempt to not rock the boat with Stern, or not biting the hand that feeds. Stern is a big player and Pinside maintains a pretty close relationship with the company (I believe Mr. Stern visited Pinside’s official arcade, the Koog, the last time he was in the Netherlands). From my point of view, it doesn’t look like Pinside is carrying a political agenda here, its just another instance of a pinball company protecting their trademark (and rightly so, I guess) and a third party trying to protect their interest from violations. Robin goes on:

“Look, I’ve talked to a lot of the people at Stern and trust me, I’ve been pretty critical in those talks about a lot of things. I’ve told them how I hate the LE model and that I am worried about the unfinished code situation. I’ve told them I disliked the new power button location. Etc. Etc. They were very interested in my criticism and we had great discussions.  In response to the takedown request for the infringing t-shirt design I have had a back and forth with some folks at Stern and I’ve pressed them that freedom of speech (and the right to protest) is very important, especially in a forum.  Me personally, I think this protest has gotten to a point where it might start to be doing more harm than good. The message has come across, maybe we need to give it some time now. However, if you feel differently, then please know that I have no intent whatsoever to close this thread down IF -and only if- it is kept respectful and not looking to find the boundaries of the law or putting Pinside in a position where it simply does not want to be in.”

00-codes12I’m not sure I would agree with this project doing more harm than good. It is being rolled out in a far more respectful manner than much of the other static about code on Pinside. Any Stern customer, which, for the record I am not, has the right to kick up a fuss if they are dissatisfied, just as they should sing praise when they are satisfied.  We have been assured that Stern has heard the masses loud and clear.  But how do we know that?  There has been little to no acknowledgement from the Stern camp to verify that change is coming.  The “wait and see” approach doesn’t work: just ask an Avengers or Star Trek owner.  Regardless, the #wheresthecode logo has been changed to one that carries a generic, off-the-shelf font, and looks as if it is going to continue unfettered, if not a little gun shy.

I don’t think the last chapter has been written here. The C&D order has only called attention to the #wheresthecode movement. It probably would have kept moving in a quiet corner of Pinside, continuing to release funny memes for the collector’s enjoyment with little fanfare (to the delight of those that doomed the project from the start). Now it has kind of grown into a bigger animal, and one that is much more difficult to control as it spins out of control, wrongly citing issues of censorship as a way to squash code talk. Maybe Stern should stick to selling to operators, as they really don’t know how to interact with the collector market. As I stated at the outset, there was an already shifting tide in amongst the community about buying games with unfinished code prior to this campaign’s appearance. I think the next year and a half will be very telling for Stern Pinball: to see if the message was received, and to see if home buyers refraining from buying machines with incomplete code can hurt the company’s bottom line. I’ll leave you with a final quote from Flashinstinct that I obtained earlier today:

“My original intention remains the same: not to give Stern Pinball Inc. a bad name, but to make them more accountable to their existing clients that are waiting on promised features and code updates, in some instances for more than two years. Potential clients have a right to know what they are getting into.”

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The “Redesigned” Logo.

 

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