Why do all Stern pinball machines have licenced themes?
Wrestlemania, The Walking Dead, Mustang, Star Trek, Avengers, X-Men – well you get the idea. The company is bringing out two or three titles a year, and it is seemingly sold on the idea that none is complete without a tie-in to a film, a band, something that’s on telly, or perhaps a car or even large men wrestling each other senseless, in the case of Wrestlemania.
To find out why, and whether that’s likely to change, Pavlov Pinball got together with Jody Dankberg, Stern’s director of marketing and licensing.
For the forseeable future, it seems that it’s going to be licences with every new title at Stern.
That’s because Stern is already thinking ahead, and Dankberg says that the next six Stern titles have been planned and licences for them locked down.
On any given day he talks to half a dozen or so licensors – either current, past or pending ones – he says, and he is always working on the next one. “The list of potential licenses fluctuates. There could be as many as twenty,” he says.
So would Stern ever release an unlicensed game? “You never know,” he says. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility, perhaps if one of our designers came up with something unique and different.”
In any case the company is going to be making and distributing “boutique label” Whizzbang Pinball’s Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons game this spring, Dankberg points out. “I think that this is as close to an original title as we have done in a long time,” he says.
Whoa Nellie! is a bit of a departure for Stern, so the obvious question is whether it will be priced significantly differently to Stern’s normal licensed machines?
Dankberg expects not – perhaps in part because the production of Whoa Nellie! does involve the payment of a license fee to the machine’s creators, Greg Freres and Dennis Nordman.
“We are assuming that the price will be close to our Pro level machines,” he says. He adds that there will be one version with regular pinball legs, as well as a collector’s edition with the fruit crate base like in the original design.
Why? why? why?
But back to the topic in hand. Why does Stern favour the licenced model so heavily in all its current offerings?
“We try to make our games have the broadest appeal, and so we try to pick a title that’s well known throughout North America, but also Europe, Asia, Australia and South America,” explains Dankberg. “Often that’s a licenced title.”
But there’s another good reason that Dankberg gives too, and it’s to do with tapping in to extra creativity.
Here’s how the reasoning goes: Stern has some of the very best, most creative pinball designers working for it, but pinball is a pretty small creative microcosm. And there are plenty of other creative geniuses in the world, many of them working in more mainstream areas of the entertainment industry such as film and television. “So licencing gives us an opportunity to work outside of our “ivory tower” with some other cool creative people,” Dankberg explains.
What’s the connection?
If you look at the last five titles Stern has released (Wrestlemania, The Walking Dead, Mustang, Star Trek, and Avengers) you have say it’s a pretty eclectic mix. There’s those large men, zombies, a fancy car, interstellar voyagers and various green and non-green superheroes. There doesn’t seem to be much in common. So what does Dankberg look for in a licence?
“We try to pick licences that have some sort of a battle – good versus evil, or one person against another, so a strong story line that people are familiar with,” Dankberg explains.
“It’s different with say AC/DC or Metallica. There there’s no story line, so it’s closer to an original title. But licences like AC/DC or Metallica have great assets, and even if you are not a fan you know the name, and at least some of their music – they are a big part of pop culture.”
When it comes to pinball buyers there are various types, and they all have to be accommodated in licencing plans, Dankberg continues. People buying a single machine to go with their pool table in their basement tend to want family friendly titles, operators know bars want more edgy, adult titles (like The Walking Dead), arcade owners need family friendly ones, and collectors don’t mind or could have a preference for either type.
“So we consciously think about the balance,” he says. “You can’t have all rock and roll games with ladies on the backglass. And you can’t have all superheroes – that would get mundane. We have to have a variety of titles.”
That balance is reflected in the six licences that are already locked down and waiting to be put into production, he confirms.
Mustang seems to be the odd one out here. How does that fit in with the licencing aims? “Certain titles are very strategic to raise awareness of pinball,” Dankberg explains. Mustang is one of those titles, and thanks to its Ford connection it has appeared at countless auto shows. “Literally millions of people have been exposed to pinball at these shows,” he points out.
One thing that is missing is a sports title, but Dankberg highlights the the problem of finding a license that’s well known throughout the world. “Baseball is not big outside the States. Basketball and American football too. So it is difficult to do,” he concludes.
Stern Cricket Xtreme? It seems unlikely.
One for the ladies?
There’s no denying that Stern’s titles come in a wide variety. But it’s also notable that the vast majority of pinball fans are men – you can see that in at pinball shows, in competitions, and just by looking at who’s playing on location.
So are there any plans to target licences that may specifically appeal to women to draw the other 50% of the population in? “We get approached all the time for licences geared to women,” Dankberg says. “But as the bulk of our customers are male we try to focus on that core.”
He doesn’t specifically rule out the possibility of a title aimed at women at some point, though. “We are cognisant of female wants and needs – especially as more women are getting into pinball: there are female competitions and female operators,” he says. “We want to be as inclusive as possible but as of now we are not targeting licences specifically at women. Not yet.”
OK, so let’s just pause here and think about this for a second. Pinball licences that are geared to women. What on earth could these be? What’s an example of one of the female friendly licences that Stern has been approached about?
“Hello Kitty would love to make a pinball machine,” Dankberg tells us.
Somehow we can’t see it sitting between Wrestlemania on one side and The Walking Dead on the other.