CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Stern Walks with the Dead, Pictures of the Walking Dead

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Well, they did it! They listened! Stern didn’t clutter up the playfield of their next release, the Walking Dead (correction AMC’s Walking Dead), with photoshopped pictures of the cast! The community spoke, and Stern listened. The Gameroom Junkies got the jump on everyone, including Stern themselves, and served up photos of the game’s final form for the hungry pinball masses earlier today. The photos showed a standard “Pro” version, and a fancier, thus more expensive, version. Fans hoping for art from the Walking Dead comic won’t be getting what they want, but they’ll get the next best thing: a playfield that doesn’t feature the floating heads of the Walking Dead cast.

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The top of the playfield takes on that grainy, unwashed burlap colour, reminiscent of an aged photograph or a chamomile tea stain on a white tablecloth. Of course, there is the requisite blood spattering here and there to “brighten up” the design. As your eyes make their way to the bottom of the playfield, you are met with a horde of zombies, shadowed in blue, “crowding” the player around the flippers. Placed on top of this art, white and red inserts with bold lettering really pop against the earthy tones. A series of weapons are on inserts between the flippers (items to collect, possibly), while provisions and numbers that look to represent allies are on others.

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Lifting ramp with zombie head on the money edition.

The pictures present what looks to be another modified fan layout, crammed tight with shots. The “busy” nature of the machine reminds me of many of designer John Borg’s other designs: think X-Men and Tron. Each orbit and ramp shot represents an important location in the Walking Dead series: the Center for Disease Control, the Tunnel, the Arena and the Barn. A fifth, of the same insert design, reads “Riot” beside the barn toy. An insert with the text “Welcome to Woodbury” also lies near the right kicker. It looks as if the game is going to remain very true to the show. Ramp shots head through the backboard, a la Party Zone and Black Rose, which widens the space the ball can travel, not limiting it to the constraints of the playfield.  We also get ROLLOVERS, they appear beside the barn!  Toys are present: a barn with doors that open to reveal a zombie head inside and a water-bloated zombie from the bottom of the well mid-playfield (reminiscent of an undead Wolverine) that leans back to reveal some sort of scoop. The more expensive model of the game looks to feature a firing crossbow that emerges from the apron, a lifting ramp with a zombie head underneath and even more Zombie heads in a Governor-style fish tank on the back board.

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Characters are relegated to the side art on the Pro edition. I performed my own little fist pump when I saw that Carl, the annoying-cum-brooding son on main character Rick, was not featured prominently anywhere. The bigger dollar version has a boarded-up crate-look, an approach similar to the Metallica pinball’s road case design. Neither version features main characters on the backglass, instead, they feature zombies. Kudos to someone at Stern or AMC for putting the zombies front and centre. One of the first comments after the photos hit Pinside inquired about the harshness of the AMC logo on the backglass and cabinet art. AMC, being a cable David versus the network Goliaths, have always marketed themselves with a heavy hand. It isn’t just Mad Men or the Walking Dead, its AMC’s Mad Men and AMC’s the Walking Dead. Getting name recognition for a cable station that only six years ago moved away from showing a steady diet of classic films pulled out of moth balls is pretty important to them. They have certainly done it on this piece of merchandise.

I’m not sure if I’m the first to notice this, but the game is a bit of a throwback to some of the features found on Williams’ Fire! Both feature earthy browns and yellows in the artwork, a lifting ramp, miniature buildings, and, the one that struck me first, “huddled masses” artwork shadowed in blue that lie between the flippers. I’m not arguing plagiarism, but as a Fire! owner, those were the similarities that popped out at me.  Besides, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot post without a Fire! reference.

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Blue shadowed masses of Fire!, much like the zombie crowd on Sterns TWD.

In commentary that should shock no one, it is my opinion that this playfield, looking at the playfield art alone, looks head and shoulders above the art on Jersey Jack Pinball’s Hobbit. Those looking to put their money on style over substance, the definition of a pinball pre-order, would be hard pressed to choose the Hobbit over the Walking Dead. I like that Stern’s art team went the minimalist route again, much like they did on Star Trek, letting the inserts, and thus the light show, become the “art”.

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Those that were on “Stern Strike” until games were released with more complete code, or those that pledged not to buy another Stern game until they played it first, will find themselves frantically calling their distributor on photographs alone for this one. Already, many local collectors in my area have been freeing up money by selling games, in anticipation, after laying eyes on this series of visuals. Having John Borg designing and Lyman Sheats coding should also give potential buyers some faith.

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More money = more dismembered zombie heads.

The macabre theme really speaks to arcade and pinball aficionados for some reason. The Walking Dead stands to be a game that plays horror seriously, for probably the first time since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other machines of the macabre have went the campy route and added humour to soften the terror: Scared Stiff and Tales from the Crypt come to mind. Will the theme be too much of a gore-fest to appear in a family gameroom? If Funhouse’s Rudy had the power to scare children, perhaps dismembered zombie heads will, too. Stern has really buttered their bread on the adult side with this one, which is a bit of a departure for them as of late. Is it just me, or does anyone else remember Gary Stern pledging that there would be “no zombies” from Stern, as it was counter to the company’s overall stance that they make pinball machines for everyone?

Anyhow, Mr. Borg HAS been quoted on record as saying this is his best design ever, and it will only be a few short months before these games hit private collections and basements across North America so we can judge for ourselves.

 

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Walking Dead Photos

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PEOPLE: Kristin from MEZELMODS

Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t a hotbed of pinball by any stretch of the imagination. However, pinball is alive and well in the ABQ. The local group of enthusiasts, Duke City Pinball, is enjoying record numbers and the city can boast that it is home to both Don of the Pinball Podcast and the good people at Mezelmods. In less than one year Tim Mezel and Kristen Browning-Mezel (pronounced like the spotty disease) have been creating, making and selling pinball modifications that can be classified as “MUST HAVES” for the machines they are manufactured for. You probably know them best for their Metallica snake fangs and the “Donut Heaven” mod for High Speed II: The Getaway. I got a chance to ask the Mezel’s better half, Kristin, a few questions about how the company began, the mod creation process and Pinball Podcast Don’s frequent visits.

Tim and Kristin

Credit Dot: Can you give me an idea who makes up the Mezel Mods team?

Kristin Browning-Mezel: Our team is small but efficient. Tim is the entrepreneur and the founder of Mezelmods. He doesn’t rest until his latest mod idea is up and running. I’m the business operations person which includes everything from marketing, sales, customer service, inventory management and manufacturing. Don Walton [of Pinball Podcast fame] works in what I call Mezelmods West. He lives right around the corner and pours hours of his time into the electrical work behind most our mods. He’s also the brains behind the mods we’ve produced for Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz.

CD: How long have you been in business?

KBM: A whopping seven months! When I joined Tim in December he had just hit it big with the Metallica snake fangs. He was drowning in orders. Ever since, we’ve had consistently growing revenue.

CD: The “Donut Heaven” mod for The Getaway: High Speed 2 was another mod that helped put you on the map. Can you give me some insight as to what inspired the original build, and how it morphed into what it is today?

KBM: Tim got interested in pinball mods after purchasing the Getaway. He found the metal bracket above the ball launch distracting and ugly. After combing Pinside, he found others that felt the same way, and also the plans for a Donut Heaven café which was rumored to have been part of the original design for the game. His first effort to build Donut Heaven was less than sufficient. The materials available at the hobby shop just didn’t cut it. So, he decided to buy a 3D printer (technology he had coveted for some time) to build the mod. The feedback from Pinsiders was overwhelming and the rest, as they say, is history.

CD: Was the success of Donut Heaven that moment when you said to yourself “I can make a living from this!”?

KBM: I’m not sure we are convinced that we can make a living off of this yet! That being said, after Donut Heaven, Tim began to see many opportunities to mod Metallica. Those mods continue to be widely successful. As a result, we frequently talk about the possibility of growing the business into other aspects of pinball, and beyond into other niche hobby markets.

CD: How do you decide what mods get made?

KBM: We’ve had a few knock down drag outs over what to make, and what not to make. I want to make more for WOZ, whereas Tim says we are done. But in all honesty, Tim is the entrepreneur. He looks at the machine for places where something is missing or could use improvement. My involvement starts once a concept has been formulated and we are ready to start refining the idea.

CD: Tron and AC/DC top the list of Pinball’s Most Modded, having more mods available than any other game. Collectors really seem to love to mod their Stern games right out of the box: the mods you offer reflect this. Why does this trend exist?

KBM: The Stern business model lends itself to adding mods. The three tiered approach to releasing machines–Pro, Premium and Limited Edition models–means the lower two tiers quite often have lots of space for mods. Additionally, Stern seems to focus on what they are best at: building a great game around a popular theme. They have one or two centerpiece playfield ‘toys’ that are accentuated by colors and graphics. This leaves tons of room for modders to make interesting additions.

CD: After a mod is first made, how long, if at all, is it play tested in the machine it is made for?

KBM: Test time varies by mod. Some mods, drop targets for example, have to go through extensive testing, up to a month on multiple machines, prior to launch. Others simply need to be tried out for a few weeks.

CD: Quite a few of your products are dependent on 3D Printing technology. Can you give us some insight into what equipment you use?

KBM: We currently utilize a consumer grade printer by Makerbot and are in discussions to partner with a firm with more high-end, business printers. We want to be able to develop mods using technology that our Makerbot is not capable of producing.

CD: How many mods are too many mods in a pinball machine? Is there such thing as “over-modding”?

KBM: To mod or not to mod; that is the question. Some keep their machines pristine. Others come close to creating their own little version of pinball hoarding with trinkets everywhere. Modding is a matter of personal preference. We believe that the best mods are those that could have been included pre-market. They are obvious gaps: a snake without fangs, a dark area in the playfield, a trinket that was planned but cut from the final design. Those types of mods sell like crazy. While we sell trinkets or add-ons to the game, personally, we don’t like to over do it.

CD: What are your thoughts about Stern’s announcement of the “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” of Metallica? This is basically a “modded” machine straight from the factory! Is it worth the enormous price tag for what you get?

KBM: There are pinball fanatics who are also music fanatics who will no doubt pick up this game. Collectors may also be interested in this game because Metallica is likely going to end up on the majority of collectors’ top ten lists. It is a great game. Combine that with custom artwork and it is likely worth it to the right person. While it is a hefty price tag, the custom painting looks fantastic. Bottom line, this is a niche machine for a very specific audience.

CD: A game such as Funhouse has very little available, mod-wise. It stands out because it was a high production game with a theme that lends itself to adding “theme park” augmentations. What makes a game like Funhouse “immune” to modding?

KBM: Our biggest limiter to modding new machines such as Funhouse is accessibility to the machine. Tim’s creative genius comes from hours of play and staring at the playfield. While having Don’s machines just down the street has helped, nothing replaces having the pin at home. Maybe we will open an arcade so we have access to more machines!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak on what new products do you have on the horizon?

KBM: The Wizard of Oz State Fair mod is just about to be released thanks to Don’s hard work. We are also working on a pretty cool backbox addition for AC/DC. One of our customers is testing a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Idol mod which is just about ready for prime time, too. Our next machine to work with is World Cup Soccer ‘94! Expecting great things from that one!

CD: How active are you in the social aspect of the hobby?

KBM: We are very active…social butterflies in social media, as it were! Pinside is our go-to place to get feedback on new mods and to find out what customers might want to see next. We are slowly, but steadily, growing our fan base on Facebook and Twitter. Come check us out! Like our page! Follow us! [Ed. note: links can be found at the conclusion of the interview.]

CD: What is your best selling mod to date?

KBM: Hands down our Metallica snake fangs. They have sold like gangbusters. This is likely due to what I mentioned previously about the best types of mods. If we had the chance, we would have loved to have manufactured these for Stern pre-market. Virtually everyone agrees: the Metallica snake needs its fangs!

CD: What games are in the Mezel gameroom currently?

KBM: We currently have eight games occupying a good bit of our front room and garage. The three games in the front room are primarily being modded–Metallica, AC/DC and High Speed 2. In the garage we have Johnny Mnemonic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Wars, Revenge From Mars and a currently non-functional World Cup Soccer ‘94. Have we mentioned the cobbler has no shoes? My WCS94 has been down since the business started!

CD: What is the pinball scene like in Albuquerque?

KBM: Small. And we’d love to change that. One of our business ideas is an arcade/restaurant in the 505’s downtown area. We know there are folks out there who play, we just don’t have a ‘go-to’ place here in town. We do have a group of enthusiasts organized under the Duke City Pinball banner.

CD: With Don from the Pinball Podcast being a neighbour, I imagine he comes over to “borrow a cup of sugar” quite a bit and ends up in your gameroom…

KBM: Pre-Mezelmods, Don and Tim did quite a bit of pinball visiting. Now that we are running full tilt (no pun intended) most of our get-togethers are business related. We talk about the best gauge of wire, what kind of Molex connectors we need, and the best type of LEDs. OK…we maybe talk a little pinball in between, but we hardly have a chance to play together!

CD: Any closing thoughts for the modest group of readers out there?

KBM: We love getting ideas from fellow players. If you have an idea for one of your machines please get in touch with us. We love partnering with customers on a new mod!

You can visit Mezelmods at http://www.mezelmods.com. The Mezel’s run a blog, and can be found on Facebook and can be found on Twitter by following @MezelMods.

 


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NEWS: The Stern Facebook Conspiracy (or is it?)



(Ed. Note: I wrote this up over the last couple of days about Stern’s Facebook exploits. And then, last night into this morning, we got three more cryptic posts to drive collectors even more batty. A text only reference to “Blood Majik” (since deleted), a close up of “Coming Soon” art which highlights an animated bum, and a blurry picture of a Comic-Con International logo. A new release is on the horizon, and methinks we are being toyed with…)

The desk jockey that runs Stern’s Facebook page shares a lot of links and images on Stern’s Facebook wall. Many of them relate to recent Stern releases. For example, a link to an Easter-themed Mustang Hot Wheels car was posted over the Easter holiday after the initial release of the Mustang pinball, and multiple links directing readers to information about Metallica’s “Through the Never” concert film were shared in support of their successful Metallica pin. Easy to see why these items are posted–the themes are part of the Stern family and it makes for good brand integration.

However, the pinball conspiracy theorists have a field day when the social media department posts links to stories and photos from franchises that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with pinball. Is it just a total coincidence that all of the subjects of the shared media would make decent pinball themes? Probably not. Recently, visitors were met with a story about the new Planet of the Apes film and a trailer to the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. More titillating is when they post media related to an already rumoured pinball theme: a zombie playing a Metallica pinball machine (Feb8) or the Muppet version of one of those dreadful “Which Character Are You?” quizzes (Jan16). The zombie reference is an interesting one, as it follows a post that dates back to 2012 with an open-ended question on August 6 of that year: “Who are your favourite zombies?” These open-ended questions are another favourite of the social media team, and February 12, 2013 saw two appear back-to-back–“Who is your favourite Justice League character?” and “What is your favourite Angry Birds game?”

So, do these seemingly “random” posts serve as a crystal ball to foreshadow future themes? If you read nearly any pinball message board, they certainly do. Each Facebook share is met shortly thereafter with the obligatory “(FACEBOOK POST SUBJECT) IS THE NEXT STERN!!!” post. These threads are only second in absurdity to the ones that state: “I have a friend who has a friend who owns an amusement shop in Tulsa and he says the next Stern theme will be (INSERT THEME CASUALLY REFERENCED IN A FACEBOOK SHARE HERE)”. Sometimes you won’t even get “owns amusement shop in Tulsa,” it will be replaced with “close to an industry insider”. (Most times, this “insider” is the guy who wipes up the spilled beer from atop the pinball machines at the local barcade.)

Stern plays it pretty close to the chest in their theme development for the most part, and all of the posts, thus far, have turned out to be random shares of cool links that may interest Stern’s key demographic. Perhaps the PR department just likes adding fuel to the rumour fire. If history tells us anything, it is that Stern did not openly reference any of their last few themes with an allusion to them in the form of a Facebook post. They did not post pictures of classic cars or share links to the Chicago Auto Show before Mustang’s release–only after the announcement did we got a flood of Ford propaganda. Before prior releases, there was no close-up detail from the cover of “……And Justice For All”, no “Which AC/DC album are you?”–no teaser hints ever seem to be given. I mined the Stern Facebook page for a reference to Star Trek before the announcement of the machine, and I was stymied there, too.

The pinball community is full of professional speculators, especially when trying to guess what Stern Pinball will do next. They are a company that, up until about two years ago, was horribly inefficient at sharing information with their customers and fans. Heck, they still refuse to share production numbers, which shows how secretive they are about their business. Secrets in the arcade world are historically ill-kept–thus we have Premier’s Monte Carlo and Williams’ Millionaire, both with roulette wheels, released in the same month in 1987, as well as Pinball Magic and Theatre of Magic hitting the marker almost concurrently in the 1990s. I don’t think there is much need for cloak and dagger anymore, with Stern being the undisputed king of the hill in the pinball business, but old habits die hard. And it feels like the social media team is having fun with red herrings.

Each link to an ALF episode guide or Anchorman 2 movie trailer immediately becomes fodder for a new pinball rumour. All this blind speculation must be good for Stern’s business, too. It gets people talking about the company—a company that, almost overnight, has some stiff competition to contend with in the pinball market. Spooky Pinball and Skit-B are boutique companies that don’t have to show they have indy-cool credibility, it is built-in. Maybe Stern is going out of their way to mine some sort of pop culture credibility. Sure a few people will be disappointed that a Muppets or Walking Dead pinball machine won’t be hitting the market anytime soon, but those are people who probably wouldn’t be happy with the layout, or art package, or code, or colour of the post rubbers if the theme somehow did get produced. With the inevitable community buzz about potential themes in Facebook comments and on message boards, you have an automatic focus group (albeit a very unfocussed focus group) containing the sort of people that keep you in business—folks who buy and/or play pinball machines. Of course you can’t please everyone, but you can get a general feeling of what will work, and what will be met with utter distain.

Credit Dot isn’t going to join the professional speculators. I’m no industry insider, and I don’t know anyone who owns an amusement company in small town America. We can, however, assume that the next theme will return to its “roots” after throwing us a curve ball with Mustang: the smart money is on a music or comic theme that hasn’t been referenced on their Facebook wall. However, they have NOT made reference to a lot of themes on Facebook, so the guessing remains wide open for the masses: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ZZ Top, The Big Bang Theory and scrambled eggs. It is best not to join the speculators, as I’ll end up looking like a fool (well, more so) when the theme doesn’t pan out. But part of me wants to go directly to Pinside and post that I know for a fact that scrambled eggs will the theme of Stern’s next pinball machine…

(Another Ed. Note: Okay, f you want some wild speculation, I do have some. I referenced the Zombie/Justice League open-ended questions posted on August 6th 2012 in the above article, which I researched last week. When I went back to take a screengrab of the two questions back-to-back on their wall, Stern has apparently deleted the reference to Justice League between the time I saw it last week and today. The Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy posts were also scrubbed clean from their wall. Something is afoot…)

Further Reading:

Facebook – Stern Pinball Official Facebook Page


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NEWS: Stern’s “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” Metallica

I thought the idea of double dipping was outrageous when a studio revisited the DVD release of one of their films I had already purchased, and re-released it in an “Ultimate Edition” DVD package, jammed with new extra features, commentaries and bonus materials. And then Blu-Rays came along and then I had to buy them all a third time. I guess that’s a triple dip, technically. Regardless, this sort of double dipping is now a trend in pinball. That five grand pinball machine you bought two years ago? Yeah, if you are any sort of fan you are going to have to buy this spruced up edition with new art or different coloured trim. Or in the case of Stern’s Metallica, a set of custom painted plastic playfield toys…and not much else.

The announcement rolled out today on Stern’s Facebook page that there would be a “limited number” of what Stern calls a “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition”. From the mock-up, it looks like the buyer will get a signed Donny Premium translite, along with a series of hand-painted, hand-signed playfield plastic toys: the snake, the crosses, the hammer, and, of course, the Sparky bobblehead. I suppose this was a logical move–folks have been custom paining their Sparky toys since the release of the game and some even “contracted” Donny to do the painting. This follows a much larger trend started by Jersey Jack Pinball who announced the release of a Ruby Red Wizard of Oz machine, a year or so after the initial release of the game but not before all of the original orders for the game were fulfilled. Stern followed this trend with the “success” of the Luci edition of AC/DC, which reignited interest in the game by removing photos of old dudes and adding a drawing of devil woman with big “horns”. If there is any surprise here, it is that the Metallica translite and side art remains unchanged from the regular run of premium editions. You’d think Stern/Donny would go the extra mile to make this game stand apart from all the rest by changing up the art package a bit (I think a reason does exist for not changing the art, and I’ll discuss it below). I’ll admit, when I first got wind of the announcement, my focus was immediately on the backglass and cabinet art…to see if a cartoon woman with enormous breasts was added.

Early reports of price have the MSRP north of $8000USD. Yikes. Seeing as you could potentially sniff out a new in box Premium for around $6500USD, and probably a bit less on the HUO secondary market, I’m not seeing $1500+ of value added material in this special edition machine. Sure it’s cool and one-of-a-kind, but $8000+ is a bit rich for some painted toys.

Stern is inheriting virtually no extra cost or licencing anxiety here: as stated above there is no commitment or cost to producing/printing a new cabinet art package, and their relationship with Donny is on very good terms (the Facebook page showed Donny and Uncle Gary out for a power lunch or something a few months back, and Donny has also designed Stern swag that they sell in their online store). Even if they only sell twenty of these editions, its not like they have sunk any money into it. Worst case scenario: they ship twenty sets of toys to Donny, he paints them and signs them, ships them back and they slap them onto a Premium sitting in their warehouse and write “Custom Dirty Donny” on the outside of the box and ship it to the poor sap who just had to have the deluxe version.

I’m no business dude, but in my humble opinion, it would have been in Stern’s best financial interest to individually sell custom painted Donny figures and market them as the “ultimate customization mods”…instead of selling them as a part of an entire machine. Metallica owners would eat them up by the spoonful and demand more. Especially if you were shipped a random Donny customization–each piece with its own unique colour and detail–it would drive collectors nutty and I guarantee they would buy not only one of each custom painted toy but MULTIPLES of the SAME toy. Further, it would also inspire trading of these pieces within the community. Sort of like Dunny Bunnies or Simpsons Lego for pinball machines. You could have ultra-rare “chase” paintjobs, or hell, don’t make it random at all and just charge more money for the most popular or rarest designs. And owners of ALL Metallica machines, Pros, Premiums and Limited Editions, could participate and mod out their machine with a unique piece of Donny designed memorabilia. I’m not sure how busy of a guy Donny is, but it seems like this idea is right up his alley. Think of how much money they could charge for each piece of custom painted plastic. Compare that to the limited number of Custom Donny machines Stern thinks they are going to sell.  It may be an idea that opens up a disastrous financial wormhole for the future of pinball, but its yours for free Stern. Use it wisely.

Will there be buyers for this Custom Donny edition? Sure. There are always people that absolutely must have the scarce, limited or hard to come by. Will there be a mass dumping of regular edition Pros and Premiums by collectors in order to upgrade to this custom edition? Probably not. But be on the lookout for more of this Jersey Jack model of “revisiting games” late into production in the near future…I wonder what the Special Edition Premium version of Star Trek is going to look like…?