Tracking the Evolution of SternPinball.com from 2000-Today
As we were researching and creating our list of the top 20 pinball machines from the 2000s (or rather the aughts, as a helpful Redditor pointed out), one of the bits I had the most fun with was digging into the history of Stern's corporate website, SternPinball.com.
Before launching Kineticist, I spent a long time in business and marketing consulting positions where analyzing client and competitor websites was a big part of the job. It’s often surprising how much you can learn about a company simply by looking at its website. You start to understand the priorities of the business, what they know (or think they know) about their target customer, how sophisticated their marketing programs are, and even sometimes hints at some of the underlying corporate politics.
It’s why it’s always so fascinating (to me, at least) to look at early website screenshots of now-famous startups like Netflix or AirBnB. These are usually raw, unpolished artifacts of business creation and change. Often, they look quite dated, evocative of a point in time that no longer exists, like returning to a retro arcade game after years of playing only the newest titles. Other times you see the kernels of greatness that the company would later be known for and, just as often, the chinks in the armor.
Every website, particularly when analyzed with the benefits of time, tells a unique story. For SternPinball.com and the Stern Pinball organization from 2000 through today, you can see the transition from a fledgling manufacturer of relics for a dying pastime to the much larger and far more successful gaming lifestyle brand we know and appreciate today. You see the evolution of the Internet of trends in marketing, business, and design.
Thanks to Archive.org, we have a very robust record of just about every iteration of SternPinball.com, going all the way back to the year 2000. Since then, Stern Pinball has undergone roughly six major iterations of its website, with a typical gap of 3-5 years between redesigns. Given Stern last updated its website in 2019, it means they are likely due for a refresh any year now (perfect timing with a new CEO, too).
Hop inside our 1998 Volkswagen Beetle, and let’s ride through time.
🎵 In The Year 2000 🎵
“The World’s One and Only Manufacturer of Pinball Machines”
SternPinball.com was registered back in September 1999, so this iteration of the site was very likely the first. And for the year 2000 it ain’t half bad. An almost proto-apple-skeuomorphic vibe, if we’re being generous. The spacing of the playfield elements feels a touch problematic, but they weren’t exactly working with much-advanced technology.
From a business standpoint, you can see that Stern is focused on their latest games, like Austin Powers, High Roller Casino, and Sharkey’s Shootout. Of note is a small focus on a couple of redemption games - Wack-A-Doodle-Doo and Titanic - that were likely acquired when Stern purchased Sega’s pinball division in 1999. Though they’ve dabbled, Stern is decidedly not a manufacturer of redemption games, which we see as a reflection of Stern’s precarious market position at the time.
Key navigational links include pages for Stern’s distributors, technical support & parts, related pinball links, a company directory, articles, and other corporate miscellanea.
And look at that sparkle!
“Stern’s Riding High with RollerCoaster Tycoon!”
In 2002 SternPinball.com would undergo its first light redesign. More of a reskin, a vault edition, if you will. The space theme gives way to a blue sky theme for reasons. Perhaps it had something to do with the launch of RollerCoaster Tycoon.
The featured games have all changed and have been joined by a couple of new graphic callouts for the recently launched ToPS Tournament Pinball system and Stern’s first digital foray into lifestyle brand territory with its line of branded tees.
In 2003, Stern would again feature a redemption game (Monopoly), but other than the regular churn of new titles, the site would largely remain the same until 2005.
“Stern Pinball, Inc. is the only coin-op pinball manufacturer on the planet!”
Stern’s website gets a pretty major visual shakeup in 2005, featuring an extensive Flash section, which we can sadly no longer see the contents of.
From an information standpoint, though, the content is just a slight iteration of what came prior, with the notable additions of primary navigation links for a factory tour video, and information about pinball tournaments.
“The only maker of REAL pinball games on the planet!!”
Stern would undergo a more substantial structural overhaul in the next redesign cycle, this one coming in the middle of 2010, which happened to coincide with the launch of their Iron Man machine that same year.
Here we see Stern lean into their status as the last major pinball manufacturer standing with their tagline, plus introduce a whole slew of new marketing, content, and community channels. SternPinball.com got a blog, a video feed, e-commerce, a forum, an events calendar, and prized home page social media links (it’s commonplace now, but I can’t tell you how hard I had to push some of my clients in these years to prominently feature their social media accounts in this way).
You can see Stern adapting to the times and starting to use its digital presence to drive long-term community engagement and growth.
Two years prior, in 2008, Gary Stern was interviewed by the New York Times and noted that over half of their games were already going out to home buyers rather than business buyers like arcades, bars, or independent operators.
I would argue that we see this trend developing from day one of the website, where there’s an emphasis on “owning your own game.” This is not the type of language used to entice a business buyer, where a pinball machine is more revenue-producing machinery than a cool toy to collect. That idea gets further cemented here, where almost all the marketing language and content is oriented around the home buyer. This is most visibly represented by the call-to-action of the Iron Man promo - win a new game for your game room! In fact, the biggest nod operators seem to receive in terms of prime-real-estate marketing territory was the ToPS rollout in the early aughts.
These are the years when the modern Stern takes shape.
Stern Goes Parallax
Stern jumps onto the parallax web design trend in 2014, which saw the home page turn into a visual representation of a game of pinball, where users could scroll down the page and follow a pinball as it bounced through different sections of the site.
I was surprised by how long Stern stayed with this design. It’s only 5 years on the timeline, but there’s a lot about the world of the Internet and user behavior that evolved pretty dramatically during this period, and a parallax style is not one that many companies stuck with for very long.
“Long Live Pinball”
In 2019, Stern ditched the parallax design for a more modern website style, coinciding with the launch of their new game, The Munsters. With this redesign, there’s a much heavier focus on Stern as a lifestyle brand, with more screen real estate devoted to Stern branded merch, the Stern Insider program, Stern Pro Circuit series, events, and social channels.
A link for Stern Army would join the primary navigation around 2020.
This design is more-or-less what they have today, and we’d imagine it serves them well. However, judging by the historical pattern and knowing that website redesigns tend to go in several-year cycles, Stern is probably due for another major redesign in the next few years. What changes will that bring? Perhaps even more of a focus on their growing Insider Connected program and perhaps a dusting off of the community playbook as they introduce more social-network-esque features (Stern’s old forum section could be considered a prototype of sorts).