MPF Road Map, Vision & Future

To set the stage for our vision for the future of MPF, we’d like to start by saying that we love “traditional” pinball where you hit knock a physical ball into real targets.

While there’s lots of talk about alternate concepts like Pinball 2000 and the Multimorphic P^3 (which replaces the bottom 2/3rds of the playfield with an LCD), our vision is focused on traditional-style pinball machines.

That said, we believe there is quite a bit of room for innovation even within the boundaries of classic pinball. For example:

Internet-connected pinball machines that report their own outages & problems

One of the problems with pinball on location today is that the machines often break. Unfortunately since most of these machines are owned by route operators, if a pinball machine in a bar breaks then the bartender just turns it off and the route operator has no idea that it’s not earning. So if the operator is stopping by once a week to check on a machine, it might break an hour after he leaves and then be dark (and not earning) for the next 6 1/2 days until he comes back again.

We believe that pinball machines should be able to use the internet to report their current status. The operator should be able to log into a web portal to see all his machines and to view the current status. He should get text messages or iOS alerts with details of the “credit dot.”

Furthermore, the ultimate indicator of whether a machine is working or not is whether it’s earning. If a pinball machine only earns $20 a week, it’s literally not worth an operator’s time to drive to the location to check on it. So if he can see a report that the machine is earning as expected, he wouldn’t have to waste his time and gas driving around to all his locations to check on his machines.

We can also be proactive when machines are turned off. The operator ought to be able to configure a schedule which basically says, “This machine should be powered on from noon until 2am every day,” so if the cloud service ever loses connectivity with a machine during those hours, it can notify the operator (and maybe the location owner) that the machine is offline when it should be on, and the operator can make a phone call to see if the machine is ok before heading out. (And, if the machine is not ok, the operator can know that he’s going out to the location for a reason.)

Of course their are plenty of times when a machine is powered on with no credit dot, but where the machine might still not be playable. (Maybe there’s a stuck ball or a broken rubber.) In those cases we can go back to the earnings reports. If a machine is typically earning 5 dollars per day but half a day goes by without any money inserted, the machine can alert the operator that there’s a problem.

Dynamic Pricing

Another cool thing about an internet-connected pinball machine is that operator settings can be centrally “pushed” to the machine. If a bar is rented out for a private party, the bar tender ought to be able to fire up an app on his or her smart phone to instantly set all the machines to free play. Or maybe there’s an automatic schedule. “Wednesday night is free pinball,” or “All pinball is free from 4-7pm.” The operator ought to be able to set up a schedule and the machines should be able to change their pricing automatically based on the time of day.

We could even imagine “demand pricing,” where the price is automatically adjusted up or down based on demand for a particular machine.

Player “Log in” for notification of high scores being beat

We love the idea of players being able to “log in” to a machine, most likely by “tapping in” to the machine with their Bluetooth or NFC-enabled smart phone. (This idea is not new of course. Pyprocgame creator Adam Preble blogged about this in 2014, and Dutch Pinball’s Bride of Pin*Bot 2.0 and Big Lebowski have “Player Profiles” features.)

Regardless of how it’s implemented, we love the idea of a particular player being able to login to a machine, since there are several cool things this could enable, including:

  • Notification of high scores being beat. How cool would it be if you could get a text message or iOS notification when you lost your high score spot on your favorite machine?
  • Accomplishments tracking. I would love to know what my high score was on different machines, or for a mobile app to tell me, “That’s the most combos you’ve ever completed in Attack from Mars.”
  • Player preference settings. Most pinball machine settings are geared towards operators (number of balls per game, difficulty, etc.), but modern machines have plenty of options that don’t matter to operators that hard core players are very passionate about. A pinball machine’s app should allow players to set their own white balance for RGB LEDs (cool versus warm white), or the overall brightness of the LEDs, or even whether the LEDs “pop” on-and-off instantly or gently fade up and down like traditional incandescent bulbs. Players should be able set these preferences on their own or save their to their profile which they can have applied to whatever machine they walk up to.

All of this could be done on a per-player basis, with the machine taking on a different look and feel as each player steps up. Players could even set their color preferences with RGB LEDs in the apron lighting to indicate which player is up.

Mobile phone companion apps

We’ve already demonstrated a feature of the Mission Pinball Framework where we use an iPhone app as a “second screen” for a pinball machine. We can imagine players being able to customize their iOS app to show whatever data they want—score, ball, shots lit, etc.—which they can then set on the glass near the flippers. The machine could also send all DMD information and animations to that device and the player wouldn’t have to take their eyes off the flipper area.

The mobile app could have a “helper” mode where it knows exactly what’s going on in the game and can tell you want to shoot for—kind of like if you had a world-class player standing over your shoulder and telling you want to do.

The mobile app could also let you know when it’s your turn (in case you walked away from the machine), or when a certain machine you’re waiting in line for is free. (Maybe you even pay for and “reserve” your place in line from your phone?)

It could also let you see all sorts of statistics for your game when while another player is playing (balls locks, goals remaining, etc.).

You’d also be able to collect very detailed metrics and analytics about your games. (Average time to hit a hurry-up, average ball time, number of shots, etc.) That could also be shared in a web-based dashboard and player ranking system.

Mobile phone audio integration

One of the things that stinks about playing pinball in a loud bar is that you can’t hear the machines. Some machines have headphone jacks, but that’s a separate piece of hardware.

What if you could pair your phone to the machine, and then the machine could stream its audio to your phone which you could listen to via headphones? You could even allow multiple people standing around to connect their audio to the same machine?

Another option is if you pair your phone with a machine, you could play a playlist from your phone instead of the machine’s music. The pinball machine could still add the voice call outs and sound effects, but just with your music. (This could be done via headphones or even through the pinball machine’s speakers.)

The machine could even have a mobile app which lists all the various music cues (waiting to plunge, base mode background, wizard mode background, etc.) and you could map those to individual tracks from your phone. Then whenever you walk up to a machine, you get your own custom music! (This could integrate with a cloud-based music service like Spotify or Apple Music and be configurable via the web so you get your own music any time you play that machine.)

Mobile phone “waiting player” actions

Traditional multi-player pinball machines alternate between players, with the non-playing players just watching the current player that’s up. The games themselves are very much about the “player versus the machine” more so than the “player versus player.”

But what if the waiting player could use their phone to mess with the current player who’s up? Maybe they have buttons that could temporarily shut off the flippers, or pop up drop targets which block shots, or release extra balls into play, or turn off all the lights…

These could be things that are granted to each player (you get one of each per game), or they could be earned by players for accomplishing certain achievements during the game.

Social media integration

Like it or not, people love posting random stupid things to social media, and their latest accomplishments on some pinball machine in a bar fit nicely into that. We can imagine a pinball machine tweeting high scores and jackpots made, perhaps even with a tiny camera in the top of the backbox which sends photos winning (and losing) moments to the players.

Most locations that have pinball machines also have social media accounts, and they struggle with ways to get their customers to “connect” with them. An internet-connected pinball machine could be part of that. Maybe they give players a free game (which they can redeem by tapping in with their phone) if the player lets the pinball machine tweet a photo of them winning.

“Offline” goals

An internet and social media connected pinball machine can also keep the relationship with the player going even when they’re not at the machine. Maybe a player has to play a Facebook game or engage with a brand to “unlock” certain features of the game. Or maybe that’s reversed, where people who play massive online games have to seek out a real world pinball machine to unlock certain goals in their online game.

Promos & advertising

We briefly mentioned the concept that locations could change their machines’ pricing around special events and for happy hours. But why stop there? What if an advertiser, desperate to reach the 18-to-35 year old male, could buy their potential customers a free round of pinball? Imagine that tied to location services with the pinball players’ app. You walk by a bar and your phone buzzes and it says “Lexus would like to buy you a free pinball game if you walk into this bar in the next 10 minutes.” (Of course this is something that the bar could do too. Come in now and get a free game of pinball with every pint you buy.)

We could also imagine in-game advertising, maybe between balls or even integrated within the game. (Maybe a game has multiple pricing tiers, with the 25-cent game add supported while the 75-cent game remains “pure.”)

Pinball only costs 75 cents or a dollar to play, and there are many types of advertising today where the advertisers pay far more than a dollar per impression. A pinball ad network could charge the advertiser one dollar per game, and the location and operator would make the same money they always did, the ad network could take their cut, and there would still be enough left over to increase the revenue a pinball machine could generate overall.

In-app purchases for game credits and power-ups

Even in 2014, we notice a lot of our friends saying, “I don’t have any quarters,” as an excuse not to play pinball. What if you could buy credits via an in-app purchase? There could be options for credits that expire, credits that are only good for one machine or one bar, bulk pricing discounts, and even credits that never expire. You could even structure it like a public transit card where a player’s credits are automatically topped up when the balance gets low.

This could be used for much more than just credits. Players could buy options like extra balls, longer ball saves, tilt forgiveness, and other in-game goals all from their phones. The machines could keep track of which games used which options (important for keeping fair high scores), and the additional revenue could be shared with the location and operators.

Buh-bye four-button service menus!

It probably goes without saying that the four-button tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-enter-tap-tap-tap service menu is going to be history. Every pinball machine moving forward should have a mobile app for operators that lets them configure settings and few reports and audits in an easy-to-use interface on the mobile device.

Even if they’re not sitting at their machine, operators should be able to connect to a website to see all their machines, view Google Analytics-style earnings reports, remotely update software, push out configuration settings, and manage all aspects of the machine. Leaning down behind a coin door to configure things is almost laughable for a new machine in today’s world!

Advanced tournament options

One of the problems with tournaments today is that if a machine malfunctions, it can break the current game in progress which isn’t really fair to the current players.

What if the machine could maintain a sort of “transaction log” of everything that happened, so if a machine malfunctions, the tournament operator could hit a button to pause the machine, reset the ball or fix the problem, roll back the errant entries, and resume the game?

You’d also be able to integrate the actual machine scores and players with the tournament system. Super Selfie Leagues could automatically post scores and notify players when their scores have been beat or when they move down on the leaderboard.

Accelerometer integration

Modern machines with accelerometers can use them to track g-forces as well as to know the precise angle (in 3 axes) of the machine.

This means that the machine could notify the operator if the machine was not level. And when you were leveling the machine, it should show you that level on the display, or even read it out with text-to-speech as you were underneath the machine adjusting the legs.

The machine could also record the playfield angle for high scores (especially those posted online, maybe along with tilt sensitivity and outlane settings) to start to get a more universal baseline to high scores. (Though it still wouldn’t be perfect due to wear, playfield wax, etc.)

The machine would also know if someone was lifting up the front of the machine (even slightly), which could make for some funny callouts. Maybe the points start draining until the player sets the machine down again.

You could even have a machine that can apply scoring multipliers based on the angle. (And maybe even have a machine where you can set the angle and scoring on your own?) Imagine “My high score on Ghostbusters is 200M at 6.5 degrees, but only 25M at 7 degrees.”

More ideas from Jon Norris

Since we first wrote down our vision, someone let us know that pinball designer Jon Norris wrote about a bunch of ideas for innovation in classic pinball too. You can see his ideas at norrispinball.com. (Some are in the blog and some are in the “Re-Inventing” section of his site.)

Lots of cool stuff there too!

The future is bright!

One of the things we love most about pinball is that it’s a real, physical thing. Traditional arcade games have lost much of their earnings power because everyone has a PS4 and 60” tv at home. But most people don’t have pinball machines at home. And even though there are pinball apps for every device out there (which we LOVE, by the way), it just doesn’t compare to actually banging a metal ball around with some mechanical levers.

Maybe it goes without saying, but we consider everything on this page to be our “to do” list for the Mission Pinball Framework.

The best part is that the Mission Pinball Framework is highly modular, so if you think some (or all) of these ideas are stupid, that’s fine with us! You can pick-and-choose the parts of MPF that you like and throw out the rest.

Finally, we understand that a lot (ok, everything) we talked about here only applies to new pinball machines moving forward. But what about the hundreds of thousands of existing machines which are already in the world based on 20-year old technology? We have some ideas for them too… stay tuned!

Happy pinballing!

Late 2016 Update

We originally wrote this vision when we started MPF back in 2014 (though it’s been updated since then). In late 2016, Jersey Jack Pinball announced Dialed In!, a machine that has some of the features we wrote about in our vision. At Expo, someone asked us if we were upset that Jersey Jack “ripped us off”. Our answer is quite the opposite. We’re thrilled! We love these ideas and love that they’re making their way into pinball. (And frankly we hope that Stern and everyone else does these too.)

Everything about Mission Pinball is open and available for sharing, use, and ripping off. Take our ideas. Take our code. Copy our docs. We love it all!