Date: 28th May 2010

Pictures courtesy of Mike Ostradick

In a move designed to the more budget-conscious home pinball buyer, Stern have produced a small number of cost-reduced Batman games for sale through Costco in the US.

The new Batman in Costco
The new Batman in Costco

While looking identical to its full-featured sibling from the outside, the 'Lite' version contains a number of changes both on the playfield and in the software designed to cut the bill of materials and prevent operators buying it instead of the full-price model.

The exterior looks almost identical to the full version
The exterior looks almost identical to the full version

The first difference for US buyers is the presence of just one coin slot.  Although common in Europe where multi-coin mechanisms are the norm, US models traditionally sport two individual quarter slots.

The coin door
The coin door

One surprise is the inclusion of full-size side rails with the flipper button plate to protect the surrounding artwork.  This could suggest the cabinets are old stock, produced before the new cheaper side rails were made standard equipment.

It is on the playfield where the greatest changes have taken place, with the most expensive mechanisms removed and replaced by cheaper alternatives.

The new Batman playfield
The new Batman playfield

The three spotlights mounted on the top of the slingshots have been dispensed with.

Original Batman
Original Batman

Batman Lite
'Batman Lite'

The greatest changes take place further up the playfield with the Joker, the ramp, the mini-playfield and the teeter-totter all suffering their share of the cuts.

The Joker reveal mechanism has gone completely, replaced by a static Joker toy

.The original Joker reveal toy
The original Joker reveal toy

The newly revealed Joker
The newly revealed Joker

The drop target in front of the Joker has been replaced by a rectangular insert although the rest of the mechanism appears to operate in the same way as previously.

In contrast, the ramp shot has changed radically.  Rather than head over to the back right corner of the playfield where a diverter could send the ball to either the Batgadget mini playfield or across the back to the teeter-totter device on the left, the ramp now simply sends the ball behind the Joker and down the left side into the left inlane.

The new left ramp
The new left ramp

The Hot Wheels toy Batmobile is now mounted on a circular plastic at the back corner instead of rolling under the teeter-totter and the whole ramp is now a single piece of plastic.

The left ramp return
The left ramp return

Previously the teeter-totter would stop the ball ahead of a sound and light show as the device tilted and sent the ball back to the left inlane.

Now the ball has a flat return back to the left flipper.

The ramp has been decorated with indicator signs which seem to advance various features each time the ball is shot up the ramp.

The original Batman - The Dark Knight recently received a new release of software to fill in the missing rules and enhance some existing ones, so it would be no surprise if those advancements made it into this game too.

Although the Batmobile under the final indicator signs looks real, we believe it is in fact just an image printed on the under-ramp plastic.

So what has become of the original Batgadget mini-playfield.  In a word - 'Gone!'

There it isn't
There it isn't

There is no feed from the ramp to the right side of the playfield and the Scarecrow upkicker now feeds a short wireform to send the ball into the right inlane.

The only major toy which appears to have escaped unscathed is the crane which looks as though it works exactly as before.

There have been 48 of the new Batman machines manufactured and sent in batches of 3 to 16 selected Costco stores to gauge reaction and sales. They are:

  • California (Carlsbad, Rancho Cucamonga, Simi Valley, and North Fresno)
  • Georgia (Alpharetta)
  • Florida (Pembroke Pines)
  • Kansas (Overland Park)
  • New York (Melville)
  • Nevada (Reno)
  • Ohio (Deerfield Township)
  • Oregon (Tigard)
  • Texas (San Antonio and Houston)
  • Utah (St. George)
  • Virginia (Chantilly)
  • Washington (Issaquah)

The selling price is $3299.99+tax compared to the company's standard price for Stern machines such as Wheel of Fortune or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. of $3999.99+tax.

So why would operators buy a Stern Pinball machine from a Stern distributor when they can save around $700 buying the Costco version?

Stern have thought of that.  The new layout requires new software and Stern have factory set the game to free play (although that can be changed).  While that is helpful to the home buyer, it's not enough to deter an operator, so they have apparently gone further and removed all the game pricing options, leaving a single fixed price of five credits per coin.

In cases like this, you can see why Stern would not want to make their game code open source as some have suggested.

What other changes have been made under the playfield or in the backbox to keep the price down we don't yet know but there's not a lot more you can strip out of a game and keep it solid, safe and playable.

In essence, this is a 're-imagining' of the original George Gomez design to bring it in-line with Stern's current ethos of a single unique toy (the crane) and a more open playfield layout.  If Stern were building George's Batman today for the first time, this is what it would look like.

It remains to be seen whether the $700+tax difference is enough to sway a purchasing decision but many potential buyers will be unaware the game is a feature-lite version which could lead to future disappointment and confusion when the time comes to sell it.  Certainly the wording on the point-of-sale documentation - phrases such as "authentic arcade unit" and "official Dark Knight game" - could lead purchasers to believe this is the same machine found in arcades.

Stern say their intention is to test public reaction (i.e. sales) to this cheaper build of the game and, if it is deemed to be successful, produce more cut-down versions of their designs with even more taken out. They suggest a less-robust cabinet and the removal of the dot matrix display as options for future models.

They stress how these "collector" games will run alongside their coin-op machines and be targeted at specific markets. Previously, their "collector" models have been enhanced versions of the coin-op game, with improved trim and mirrored backglasses

Here's Stern's press release about their Batman 'Lite':

Stern Pinball Inc. is conducting a limited market test exclusively in 16 select Costco stores in 12 states. The test includes a total of 48 reduced feature, lower cost, custom designed Batman pinball machines with less complex playfields. Participating Costco stores have three games each.

Stern is conducting this test to study products best suited for various segments of its market. These games are shipped from the factory set on free play and have only one fixed coin setting of five credits per one coin.

Stern plans to sell no more of this test Batman in this configuration in the U.S. If the test is successful, Stern will further simplify the game design for tested market segments, such redesign including a much more simplified cabinet, replacement of the current dot-matrix score display, and other features. Stern will continue to build its full line of traditional coin-op pinball games as well as collector models.

Costco store test locations are in: California (Carlsbad, Rancho Cucamonga, Simi Valley, and North Fresno), Nevada (Reno), Oregon (Tigard), Washington (Issaquah), Utah (St. George), Texas (San Antonio and Houston), Kansas (Overland Park), Ohio (Deerfield Township), Virginia (Chantilly), Georgia (Alpharetta), Florida (Pembroke Pines), and New York (Melville).

You can view larger versions of Mike's pictures at his gallery page here.

We asked for your thoughts about the new Batman game and here are the comments we received:

I think they'll sell, but I don't see this being the savior to the company/industry. I disagree with the 'collector' term being used, since I don't see we diehard pinheads wanting 'lite' versions of games. I found NBA to be a very well-done game, and really enjoyed playing it repeatedly, whereas Big Buck Hunter lost it's appeal after I played it twice, and Iron Man looks like Ball 2 might start to drag.

Games like this, given a decent presentation and the right license, will appeal to Batman fans and the type of person who would actually walk into a Costco and spend $3,300 on an impulse buy. But if they're going after the collectors, they need games that are fun and non-repetitive like NBA... but cut some cost by losing the licensing already. Seriously. Just do a test run like with these, take a little extra time and don't rush the design/sound/dots, and see how that goes over. Lose all of the coin slots and all that wiring along with the coin box... that could probably cut $100 alone.

Jay B:
Does anyone remember when Bally made 'home versions' of their machines like Fireball and sold them in Sears stores? There were a couple of others as well I do believe.

This is yet another poor judgement call for Stern. If they are trying to target the 'home' market, then I guess they haven't figured out that almost half of their machines are purchased for home use NOW!!

I wouldn't want to buy that 'shaved' down version!! And they would cut back future machines, taking out the display? WOW, I bet the next thing to cut out would be the flippers! RIDICULOUS!!!

All this to save $700 doesn't sound very good to me. No thanks!

As an avid collector, I certainly don't like the cheapening of the games. But alas, Stern in business is better than Stern out of business. I just hope they don't knock on my door, coming to strip down my TSPP and LOTR - two glorious games that are way too complicated by Stern's new standards. On a positive side, I am happy for the BDK owners that finally got a code update.

I agree, that this isn't much of a savings, if one is already spending $3300, why not opt for the full version. Now if it was like $1500, then I could see how it would makes sense.

I bought the full version of Batman from costco for home use and we love it. I've been looking to buy another but the newer offerings don't look appealing, what with all the cost cutting they are doing. I hope Stern stays in business but its not looking good.

Mr Tobias:
I think this version of Batman looks poor. I'm dismayed to think that someone at Stern actually spent time and effort diluting BDK to produce this Lite offering. What the company should be doing is designing the next generation of pinball machines, which is what I, and I suspect many others, hoped would be the result of new investors getting involved in the business. Instead it seems the bean counters are now running the show, and they are now looking to produce games to sell to people who don't know any better. I cannot see 'collectors' buying this version of the game, and I imagine its resale value will be very low indeed.

The problem is Stern's reputation is suffering as a result of all of this, and similar cost cutting, minimalist strategies were tried by Bally when that company was failing in the mid eighties. Ultimately it didn't work and Bally was swallowed up by Williams.

Major Tom:
Seriously? I am broken-hearted every day because of this crap. I was in the game biz for almost 20 years, and am now in a lame vending repair job- because of decisions like this one.

Do you remember when all the technology was in the arcades first - then in the home market? They co-existed and were both very profitable. Do you remember when pinballs were well designed and loaded - and profitable? The last game company I worked for had a SWE1 that took in over $15,000 before we sold it for more than we paid for it. Uncle Willy took the easy money, and left tradition behind.

It looks like Stern thinks they can B.S. enough people to stay in business. Please stop! Stern has gone from the last company standing to ruining the concept of pinball for all future generations by themselves. I'm bitter. I get it, Gary and the new investors obviously do not.

Jonathan Joosten:
While we look at this model as collectors, it probably is a way of getting rid of parts that were still laying around and would else have no future. Plus it kept the factory running for a day or so. If they sell the games, they made some profit. If they don't they games may end up being pretty collectible after all with such a small run.
I think Stern should of been doing this for some time. I do think there is a fine trade off between too much and too little. I am not sure he needs to completely strip games down though. The Bally models in the late 70's did turn out to be "Da BOMB". Everyone was thrilled be actually be able to buy a game in a store.
Stern does not fully understand you have to spend money to make money!!!

Phil Docker:
With only 48 of these games made it would of been more expensive for them NOT to put a coin door in. Would of meant new decal design - and also - how do you get the lock down bar off without opening the door - so it would of meant loads more new parts being manufacturered and also prototyped.

I think they had a load of cabs knocking about and decided to use them.

I would image all the hardware in the backbox will be the same, they will probably used the same wiring loom if they had them ready made. You can bet tour life the wiring for the coin mech is there if no coinmech is installed.

Getting new plastics for only 48 games, and rewriting software would of took a big cost - I can see this being a 'learning curve' for Stern.

We may see worldwide normal and LITE versions of each game.

Not sure I think the saving is worth it - however I would buy one for collectivity. Less of these are around than BBB!

Also funny Stern have used the big side rails as well, when its not on Big Buck Hunter?

Like I said - this is a tester!

I heard rumours that Stern were going to build HOME games in 'Stern' cabinets (about 5 years ago) - and when a new game comes out, you get new software, new playfield and new translite.... much the same idea Williams had with Pinball 2000....

I see this as a slap in any pinball collectors face.

Maybe I am too serious about Pinball Machines but to sell "lite" versions of a Pinball machine and have a more "complete" game that is also manufactured by the same company that being Stern is a total slap in my face.

I want to buy an original thought up and developed piece and not one that is cheapened by less moving parts. And if I were to buy this pinball machine I would want the "complete" pinball machine and not the "lite" version.

So basically we have to do our research now before buying pinball machines from Stern as we could be getting the "lite" versions and not know it until it was to late?

And $700 is not really much of a price drop as the machine is still in the $3200 range.

I'd rather buy the $4000 one thank you. :|

Doug R:
I admire Stern for digging in and continuing the manufacture of the Pinball machine in these hard times, and particularly for producing some very good looking and playing machines of late. However, I dont think this is a good move from Stern. Pinball machines need to look, play and sound good. They have to 'feel' solid and well built, just like their main-stream predecessors were. If you then begin to fit cheaper looking items to get home-use people buying them [who are a fair proportion of his customer base anyway] then the appearance of such 'lite' machines could actually harm the concept of a 'real' pinball machine.

No, Stern, keep the machines looking good, playing well with good rules, and keep them coming. Once all the cabinets and major parts that have been produced have been used for this idea, revert back to the real thing. If people really want a proper machine, they will buy one!

Not enough of a discount off of the "full version" of Batman to promote sales in the retail arena. Question: Costco operates a bunch of stores in and around Chicago, IL (including one in a suburb 5 miles away from STERN headquarters). Why did they skip shipping a few of these to any IL stores? Hmmmmmm.

First of all, it's Costco, and they have a clientele which skews to the high end. They are a smart store, and know their market. Costco's customers are people with $'s who don't know jack about pinball or pinball collecting or any of what the readers of Pinball News care about.

DMD's are nice. But, they take programming skills and art skills and extra music. Molded plastic models are great, but they are custom and they cost $'s. Functional gadgets are cool, but BREAK DOWN for a home user. And cause warranty worries, etc.

Us Pinheads love the gadgets and the flow and all that stuff. But, the more casual buyer doesn't care. If anything, all the complexity of today's games scares them off.

As it is, without this article, I wouldn't have known the difference. Save for the silly looking coin door.

So, I say go for it, Stern. And, I can't think of anyone better to partner with than Costco for the attempt.

VC Geezer:
After reading this article on the 'Lite' Batman, I went to the Reno Nevada Costco to see for myself what it looked like. This is what I initially saw:
1. It was not turned on.
2. It was not clean (covered with dirt and fingerprints)
3. There was no price posted nor any other sales information, such as fliers.
4. Hardly anyone seemed to notice that it was there, in spite of the store being quite busy, probably due to it being turned off.

However, I can see where this would make for a nice entry level machine for a first time buyer. Now if only the price were a bit less and get rid of the coin ejector all together they might have something...

Stern is an absolute joke. I almost wish they would close their doors for good because it would seemingly "force" someone else to come along and save the pinball industry! Selling a "lite" version of a pinball? Are you kidding me?! Why, on earth, would you want a reduced version of something that is so expensive. "I just spent three THOUSAND two hundred dollars... and it still isn't even the full effect, yet alone it isn't even nice! I spent three THOUSAND dollars on a piece of junk!" I get it... Stern has no money, and I get it, they are trying to be creative... but this would have been a bad idea had they reduced the price to 1800 from 4000. But at 3300 this is a TERRIBLE idea. I am disgusted with Stern, and extremely sad my hobby will never be the same as it was from 1990-1998...

I played this at Costco and kept scratching my head trying to figure out why it was so crappy. After i read this article I realized why! it's the light version. Nothing moves around in this and you don't feel very immersed in the pinball experience.

Well if I'm going to drop $3,300 on a pinball machine why not pay $700 for the real deal. 10-15 years ago I was playing better pinball machines than now... remember twilight zone, or Indiana Jones, those were real pinball machines!

pinball god:
You get what you pay for. For me, gimme that real deal and don't short change a good game.

DG Pinball:
This comment is reguarding the 30 mil. cash injection. Stern does have to do something about sales. Pinball cash box earnings continue to drop; I don't feel blaming anyone will help.

I believe the market has changed; this generation just has new ways of social interaction, and pinball is not part of it. It is a shame to be sure.

I talked with Gary and asked about market share. Europe & Australia account for 45% of a production run, North America 50%, other 5%. Ask yourself, where are the real growth economies of the world, they are all in Asia, whith some hot spots in South America. Where is the largest popluation per square mile in the world, again Asia. Where is the largest, fastest growing middle class in the world going to be in the next 2 decades, China, & India. I asked Gary what percentage of sales did Asia represent on a annual bases, answer 1%.

Stern needs to fund, and open a seperate operating division in China & India. They need buildings in Shanghai, Hong Kong, & Beijing. They need men on the ground securing locations, and in the repair shop. Stern USA runs 4-5 new titles with huge production runs of 8000- 10,000 units each. The newly funded Asian operating company purchases 75% of each run, providing Stern USA with huge profit.

Now the idea / capital Risk. These pins need street locations, which I'm sure they will find. They all need large toll free number adds on the dot matrix reading "Purchase this machine for yourself, make big fast profit". The emerging middle class Asian entrepreneur will be all over this new phenomenon. Stern will become profitable, in a huge new growth market. The operating division could be sold off in 5-10 years time.

Of course Stern Pinballs will be made in China, and shipped to the USA, but that will bring the cost way down. I believe this is already in the works.


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