Pinball Wizard

Creature pin

I love pinball machines and that’s partly because they remind me of those halcyon days of my youth – inexorably linked to car culture – of carefree days (and nights) cruising to games arcades, milk bars and making a play for pinball wizardry.

Apart from the nostalgia trip, they’re also works of engineering, design and art crammed into a wooden cabinet.  If you don’t know what I mean, get a load of one some day and take note of the artwork, the design, the colour, the screen-printing (yes, screen-printing; heard of that?), the lights, the sounds, the themes and of course the design of the game play.  Way more character than a PlayStation, but I digress.

Most of all though, I simply love the challenge of playing them because no two games are ever the same (ever).  That got me thinking about the insight to be drawn from pinball, applied to marketing and business planning (particularly in the context of a more strategic, longer run view).

The thought was drawn out clearer when I played a couple of games recently on my own machine.  First score was phenomenal and the game was smooth (and I’m too humble to brag any further), but the second game was as abysmal a game as I’ve ever played.  And this was all despite the basic conditions being exactly the same.

Consider this:

  1. The main aim of the game is to achieve a high score.  Paraphrase that as maximising outcomes or results.  Consider too that when players compete on a single machine, each faces elements of a perfect competition scenario.  That is, the opportunities and available assets are completely level, all other things being equal.
  2. Sounds, flashing lights, colour and movement, while incredibly important to the experience and central to the appeal, can distract you from the core goal.  Focusing too much on the easy distractions (insert wasteful tactic here) adds less value than getting the customer experience, service design and efficiencies right that will return the best outcomes.
  3. Many machines offer more than one way to launch a ball into play.  Usually you can at least drop the ball into some shortcut with a half stroke of the shooter or fire a full stroke shot around the orbit.  Bit of lingo there, so think of the half stroke as a soft launch and the full-stroke orbit (right around back of the cabinet and playfield) as a hard launch.  Both are valid but have different purposes and process outcomes, and it’s an important decision to make in a strategic context.
  4. There are multiple ways of scoring.  Most machines have a central game that’s achieved via a sequential process (a big scorer).  All have mini games that are either played during that process or are separate scoring opportunities (smaller scores but the aggregate can be huge).  With things happening pretty quickly, decisions become an exercise in sacrifice and focus around the opportunity cost of playing a certain game or not.  That is, what action will net the best balance between short and longer run gain?
  5. Also, many of the mini games will start as an unintended consequence of playing other games, so the opportunity cost decision of whether to pursue it or not often comes up unexpectedly.  Same as in business, where interruptions, distractions or competitor actions can either conspire to take you away from your main goals or present a leverage opportunity to enhance it (and the leverage ratio offered by many games with a single, well-aimed shot can often have the effect of multiplying your results beyond what you thought possible).
  6. The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray and so is the case in pinball as in business.  Mis-queued shots, shots that miss the target, low-scoring or non-scoring executions, while not so clear to start with are everywhere and present great opportunities to de-value your strategy and introduce waste.
  7. Thankfully though, along with those bad shots come many opportunities to recover, regroup, re-gain control and get back on track.  While that’s a good thing, the chances are limited and the consequences of missing them often damaging, so you must maximise each opportunity to right the strategy when given.
  8. Different machines play in widely varied ways and there are hundreds (maybe thousands).  The basic foundations are the same, however some are relatively simple with just a few games while others are more complex with ramps going everywhere, traps, multiple levels and games.  Once you get to know a game though (what games score what, the angles needed to hit the targets, what games to play when, etc) you’ll start to see better results.  Think of each different machine as a different market or market segment.  It’s rare to walk right on up to a game for the first time and succeed (though it can happen).  Generally, you need to understand the dynamics of the market first.
  9. If you’re in a multi-player game, you’re in competition with other players and the best score wins.  Simple enough, but there are 2 aspects to success.  With the available assets (which, remember, are the same as are available to your competition) you must not only play for maximum effect, you also need to maximise efficiency.  That means eliminating waste and getting the most value out of every play, game or ball and when the opportunity to gain extra inputs (like an extra ball) comes up then you must take it.  Think of your score as profit or ROI, with each ball as a unit of leveraged asset, and you’ll start to see my illustration.
  10. Just as in business and marketing, there’s often a perceived level of bad luck i.e. things you think are out of your control (like a ball draining down the valley between the flippers or the sides, with no possibility of reaching them).  Usually though, it’s the unintended consequence of a previous action that could be controlled (such as a ball struck slightly off target and bumping away).  This can happen and as I’ve said already, most of the time there’s a recovery opportunity but when there isn’t?  Well maybe there was something wrong with your strategy, tactic or execution a few steps back.
  11. If you ever get the chance to look under the playfield or in the backbox of a pinball, you’ll realise how well the infrastructure, connections, switches and organisation comes together to deliver the experience to you.  Just like your brand, your customers’ positive experiences (what they see, hear, feel and engage with) are the result of a well-thought out and executed effort in a framework of supreme organisation.  If not, the game falters and so does your brand.
  12. Eventually the game ends when the balls run out and the current cycle is leveraged to its fullest.  In the context of strategy or a business that can be viewed as the life-cycle running its course.  Time to chart a new strategy or find a way to harvest your investment and move on.

I reckon there’s probably more, maybe the reward of an extra ball for reaching a certain game milestones or scores (investment as a result of positive outcomes) but by now I’ve got a feeling that you get the analogy.

At first glance and to the un-initiated, a pinball may be viewed as random, aimless shots (tactics) and hoping for a good score (sales, marketing or business result).  Once you realise that approaching the game (your market) with clear goals and a strategy for taking advantage of the dynamics and maximising outcomes, the parallels make sense and hopefully also provide some inspiration from the fact that insight can be gained from the most unlikely sources and times.


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