At San Diego Comic-Con 2023, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Zach Sharpe, the Head of Marketing at Stern Pinball, an iconic name in the world of pinball machines. Stern Pinball continues to captivate enthusiasts and collectors alike with a rich history of producing high-quality machines based on licensed themes. In this interview, Sharpe shares insights into their latest creation, the Venom pinball machine. From its revolutionary Insider Connected technology to its unique gameplay features and designs, Sharpe reveals how they continue to push the boundaries and deliver immersive experiences that keep players engaged for years.
BUT WHY THO: Stern Pinball has a long history of producing high-quality pinball machines with licensed themes of every franchise you can think of. How does the new Venom pinball machine continue this tradition, and what unique gameplay features or designs can players expect?
Zach Sharpe: As you said, we work with the biggest IPs and properties on the planet, and with Marvel, we have such a good working relationship with them. We’ve done Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and now with Venom. For me personally, he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. He just looks so iconic.
From a gameplay perspective, what sets Venom apart, and it’s the first time that’s ever been done in pinball history, is with Insider Connected, it now can save your game progress. So, to take a step back, Insider Connected is kind of like Xbox Live but for pinball. So, once you log in on the bottom apron by the flippers, it recognizes you. It keeps your stats, you got your high scores, how many times you played, and you earn achievements, but with Venom saves your game progress, which has never been done.
Normally when you play a pinball machine, you play three balls, the game’s over, next time you start, you’re back to level one or level zero. Now, it remembers what level you are, so you could be six years old, play a hundred games, and you can get to the end wizard mode; it’s a good way to just keep the progression going and really explore and unlock what’s inside the machine.
BUT WHY THO: When selecting these characters, I know you said Venom was one of your favorites, but what led to choosing Venom to be the next big face of this revolutionary technology?
Zach Sharpe: Working with Marvel, it just came to be. Whenever we work with any of our big licensing partners, we want people who are passionate about the design of the machine. Because if the game team isn’t passionate about the characters that they want to work with, the end product’s not going to be as good. So, collaborating with Marvel and discussing, you know, what would be a good character outside of what we’ve already done, Venom was such a natural progression and availability in their universe.
Brian Eddy, the lead game designer, and Dwight Sullivan, the lead game developer, jumped at the bit. We love Venom. We grew up on the comics. We can make this into an incredible pinball experience, so it was just a perfect mind meld of a happy licensor getting their IP out in the world, and then for us, it’s a creative outlet to create a pinball experience, highlighting Venom.
BUT WHY THO: How do you think that you’re able to kind of capture that essence of Venom chaos in a pinball machine while still having that experience of this isn’t just chaos, I’m doing better, I’m getting better at the game, and it’s not just luck that I’m getting these high scores?
Zach Sharpe: For Brian Eddy, his design philosophy, especially with this game, is he really wanted to keep you on your toes. With Venom, as you’re changing hosts, you’re always in this state of unease a little bit because it’s so fluid how you’re bouncing against battles and fighting the bad guys. He implemented this brand new fast lock technology, so on each side, you have this fast lock. Where a ball could be going up a ramp, but before it even gets down to where you think the ball would travel around, a ball is already getting kicked out to your flipper.
So it’s this weird, the first time you ever play this, even for me, I’ve been playing pinball my whole life, that first time where a ball is still traveling, but by the flipper, another ball kicks out, and I have to be ready to flip. It, like, shocks your system because you have to be on your toes, you don’t know where the ball is coming, and you feel like you’re battling, which, with Venom, that’s the perfect synergy of that experience.
BUT WHY THO: You talked about selecting hosts. I don’t think that’s something that happens very often in pinball games that you get to pick who you want to play. Can you talk about the process of picking your symbiote and kind of what that means for the player?
Zach Sharpe: It’s kind of cool right from the jump. Not only are you picking different hosts, Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker, Agent Venom, and Eddie Brock, but each of those hosts also has different attributes, and on the premium model, what’s really cool is not only does it change the attributes, it changes the physical layout of the machine.
So a ramp will move up in a certain position if you’re Eddie Brock, but if you pick Gwen Stacy, it’s going to move down, and it changes the ball path. So it really feels like you’re playing a different pinball machine altogether. And the music’s different too, so when you’re Gwen Stacy, and it’s like pop, funky, fresh versus Eddie Brock, a little heavier metal, again, it transports you into this different experience. It feels completely unique.
I’ll add, with Insider Connected, not only are you saving progress, but when you defeat Null, you will actually unlock three additional hosts. So you can actually become Venomized Wolverine, Venomized Hulk, and Venomized Captain America as hosts, which incentivizes you to play more.
BUT WHY THO: When I was playing, I unlocked Toxin, my ally in the game. Can you talk about the team-up aspect of the game and how that impacts player experience?
Zach Sharpe: The team-ups go hand in hand with leveling up, where the more you play, you get that kind of assistance when you’re battling Riot, Lasher, or any of the bad people in the machine. It’s to help people who are maybe casual players, where if you’re playing it the first time, it might take 10 shots to beat Riot. But if you level up and give a team up, maybe it’s only 5 shots. So it makes it a little easier.
BUT WHY THO: Pinball has a pretty strong community of enthusiasts and collectors. How does Stern engage with that community during the development of a project like this? What kind of updates and support can players expect to make sure that their game feels fresh, even 10 years from now?
Zach Sharpe: The one beautiful thing about pinball machines nowadays versus in the past is with Insider Connected, games can automatically update. You don’t have to download the code and take out the backglass and insert a USB stick. Now it’s all done through a WiFi connection, so that makes it one step easier for games to get updated on location or in people’s homes.
The other thing is our community is so connected and strong that we release a game, and we listen to feedback. We watch people play out in public, and we might see something, or a designer or programmer might see something that’s like, “Yeah, I don’t like that they’re not shooting for this.” They will change the code in a future update to help fix it, and I don’t even want to say fix but iterate and make the experience more fun.
In the end, we try to make the best product possible because not only do we produce these machines, but we’re also purchasers. We put these in our own basement. We want to make the best product possible because we’re buying it.
BUT WHY THO: You said there are a couple of different versions of the machine. Do you kind of break down what those look like and what the differences are?
Zach Sharpe: The pro model is what you would typically see out in the street, so at a bar, arcade, or family entertainment center. That is $7,000. You’ve got your premium model, which is $9,600. That has more mechanical bells and whistles. And then the limited edition, which is only 1,000 made globally. That’s $13,000 with the same premium bells and whistles with a few extra add-ons, just for that high-end collector.
BUT WHY THO: Can you talk a bit about the music, the sound design that went into Venom pinball, and how it complements the narrative and just the overarching experience?
Zach Sharpe: What’s really unique and sets Venom apart from a lot of different songs is we had Mark Tremonti from Alder Bridge and Creed Fame, the Grammy-winning artist. It’s awesome. I always say everyone loves pinball, they might not know it yet, and Mark Tremonti is a humongous pinball fan. He owns over 20 machines, and it’s so cool to connect with famous athletes famous musicians. And when you share that common bond of pinball, it’s just magic. For him to be able to collaborate with us and do over 12 tracks in the machine, I mean, that’s pretty cool.
BUT WHY THO: On the other side, can you talk a little bit about the art that went into Venom because it’s a comic book Venom pinball machine?
Zach Sharpe: Jeremy Packer, AKA Zombie Yeti, was the artist on this, and he is incredible. I know he’s his own toughest critic, but he’s done a lot of art, a lot of Marvel games in the past, so he’s got a wide range of what he’s drawn. His comic book style is just unmatched, and I don’t even want to say in the industry because that just minimizes his impact. He’s so good that even when he drew Deadpool years ago, the creator of Deadpool publicly gave him kudos for how incredible his artwork is. So when you have the creator giving you kudos for the artwork that you’re doing for a Marvel property, that speaks for itself and what he’s able to accomplish.
BUT WHY THO: If this talk wasn’t enough to get someone to go out to their local arcade to find Venom, what would you say to someone who hasn’t played pinball in a long time and needs to experience this new era of pinball?
Zach Sharpe: Get out and play. Honestly, it’s that simple. I mean, you can create an Insider Connected account for free, and there’s a pinball locator. So wherever you’re located, when you open up, you can see games that are right near you. As I say, if you can’t afford a purchase one, guess what? It’s a dollar to play on location. I think everyone can afford to play one game of pinball.
If you’re looking for an adrenaline-packed pinball adventure that combines chaotic action with skillful gameplay, the Venom pinball machine is an absolute must-try. With a passion for excellence and a keen eye for innovation, Stern Pinball delivers an immersive experience that will keep you coming back for more. Whether you’re a seasoned pinball enthusiast or someone who hasn’t played in years, the Venom pinball machine is sure to rekindle your love for this timeless arcade classic.