Last week, I posted a story about Stern Pinball and the company’s thoughts on digital pinball. It was pulled from a much larger conversation I had with Stern’s director of marketing, Jody Dankberg. Today I’ve got the rest of that interview, where we take a deeper dive on pinball as a whole. We cover topics including the process of designing and troubleshooting new tables; what makes a great game from a bar-owner's perspective; and why bands are so eager to get involved in pinball.

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like pinball, but I have met lots of people who say, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know they still made those,’ or ‘Where do you get one? Where do you play one?’” Dankberg says. “That’s exciting to me because it’s something where people always get a big smile on their face and most people have a fond memory of it, so it’s a really neat opportunity not only to promote something fun, but we get to work with all sorts of cool licensed properties – anywhere from rock bands to big sci-fi movies to big brand names like Ford Mustang, that we’re working on now.”

Band Recognition

Dankberg comes from the musical-instrument industry, working with guitars and amps, while also maintaining artist relationships. It seems like a natural transition to his current role at Stern, considering the frequency that the company works with bands including Metallica and AC/DC. I asked about the relationship between musicians and pinball, as well as the role of licenses as a whole within the company.

“Music and pinball go really, really well together,” Dankberg says. “I have a lot of relationships in the music business, and it’s really hard to find a band who doesn’t want their own pinball machine. Most members of these bigger bands, the iconic bands, are of the age where they probably grew up with pinball. All of these guys are super rich, so they’re not doing it for the dollars, they’re doing it for the trophy of having a pinball machine. Oftentimes, people look at it as a halo or a vanity project, because [the results are] a cool pinball machine. J.J. Abrams, when we made Star Trek, said, ‘You know when you have your own pinball machine, you’ve really made it.’”

Working with bands also gives pinball designers creative freedom that they might not otherwise get working with other license holders. Players have expectations going into a game based on the latest Star Trek movie, for example, such as missions and thematic elements that evoke the film’s basic plot. Bands bring their own unique style and music to the table, so to speak, but they also let designers’ imaginations run wild.

“That’s what’s really cool about doing a rock band, because there is no good guy or bad guy – there is no lore or missions and stuff,” Dankberg says. “Doing these rock bands, they’re kind of like original titles in that the gameplay is all up in the air. There’s no specific storyline to stick to, and that’s another cool thing about doing the music games. Like Metallica; what do you do? You take some iconic stuff from Metallica, and you make your own world. The same with AC/DC. That is the closest that we get to an original title as far as gameplay goes. … In the case of Metallica, we got to work with the band, they did custom speech on the game, they had a lot of input about what went in the game. They’re big pinball fans, and we got to work with an artist they recommended, a guy named Dirty Donnie, who did all this hand-drawn artwork for the game, which was something that we hadn’t done in a long time.”