Story dated 18th September 2002, new pictures 26th September 2002.

As we reported back in April, Stern Pinball Inc have been working on a single-site tournament system and now it is about to be rolled out.

Yes, it's called ToPS (note the capitalisation) and it works as we described before. It's not a networked system and it works on a single machine. Prizes and the levels they are awarded are set by the site operator through new entries in the Portal menu system.

ToPS can be fitted to Playboy and RollerCoaster Tycoon games (and later) by the addition of a game-top multicolour LED display, a controller board and a tournament start button on the lockdown bar (those blanking plugs on Playboy finally come into their own).

This isn't Stern's first attempt at a tournament system. The company (or Sega as it was at the time) tried the idea with Kelly Packard's Golden Cue but that was using Incredible Technologies' network of interconnected game and the licensing costs were prohibitive leading to the abandonment of the idea.

Now it looks as if the need to have a phone line connection has been done away with and it's single game tournaments through ToPS.

So what can we expect to win?

That depends entirely on the game operator. You could win prizes, tickets or cash - either fixed value or incremental - but that's all set in the game menus. What is not yet clear is exactly how the prizes are awarded. Games don't currently have any way to pay out prizes and the installation kit doesn't provide one, so is ToPS only suitable for managed sites?

Whatever, the deciding factor for the success of tournament play has to be the cost of the ToPS system. As yet no firm pricing information is available (reports put it around $500) but the software is already included in the game, so the major costs are the display and the controller board. The system has to bring in enough additional earnings to pay for itself (like all amusement devices in commercial use) . To achieve that, the operator may have to experiment with different reward systems and the prizes have to be sufficient to encourage players to opt for the tournament game rather than regular play.

It's way to early to know whether ToPS will be a success but credit is due to Stern and the system's designers (Messrs. Blackwell, Ropp and Sullivan) for their work and let's hope that the system helps revive pinball in the eyes of arcade owners and that the extra price doesn't prove to be prohibitive.

Anyway, here's Stern's official press release:

Stern Pinball is excited to announce the release of its Tournament Pinball System (ToPS™). ToPS™ is a flexible, operator adjustable tournament system. Running a tournament with ToPS™ is easy; the pinball machine's computer does all the work and computations for the operator and location. Tournament pinball games earn more money.

Stern's Tournament Pinball System is an in-house tournament system. ToPS™ uses no phone lines, no servers, and gives full location privacy. Stern developed the ToPS™ system with these things in mind after consulting with many operators and location owners throughout the United States.

During its development, ToPS™ equipped games significantly increased in earnings, both from tournament play and practice play. Testing and development of ToPS™ has been shepherded at Stern over the last year by Lonnie Ropp, Director of Software, Joe Blackwell, Tech Service Director, and Dwight Sullivan, game software designer.

Locations recognized the increased earnings and value to customers of ToPS™ equipped games. "When we moved an older experimental tournament model to replace it with a non-tournament Monopoly™, the bar and its customers insisted on having its tournament game back," Joe Blackwell explained of the tests. "When we moved a tournament game from a bowling alley where it tested great to a nearby bar, some bowling customers started going to the bar."

There are three types of tournament modes. The first is Progressive Cash Prizes, where the payout grows with each play. The second is Fixed Cash Prizes, where the total payout amount is pre-set by the game operator. The third is Non-Cash Prizes, where points, tickets, merchandise, or other items of the game operator's choosing are awarded.

Tournaments can be crafted to fit the needs of the operators' business and the location type. ToPS™ adds numerous operator choices to Stern's Portals™ software for easy operator tournament set-up. Besides the type of tournament to run and when it starts and ends, adjustments include: cost of tournament play, number of winner places awarded prizes, adjustment of prize incrementing, and much more. The Portals™ accounting functions are augmented with many additions to provide complete tournament information to the operator. Players can also enter a PIN number for security.

The Tournament Pinball System can be installed in fifteen minutes or less. The ToPS™ contents include:
" Dot matrix multi-color display to be installed on top of game backbox
" Remote control, power supply for the display
" Wired 'Tournament Start' button for the game's lock-down bar
" Connecting cable
" Tournament board that is to be installed inside the backbox
" Detailed manual
" Location promotional material
Playboy and RollerCoaster Tycoon™ are pre-wired for ToPS™ installation, as will be future Stern pinball machines. An operator need only take out a few plastic plugs, mount the Tournament Start button in its existing hole, screw on the pcb and display, and plug in the cables.

The Tournament Pinball System can be moved from one pinball machine to another with great ease. Playboy, RollerCoaster Tycoon™, and future Stern pinball machines are 'tournament ready' and can have ToPS™ affixed to them. The game operator can use his own dollar bill validator.

ToPS™ has custom text messaging. Using the remote control that is provided with the tournament display, the game operator can program food and drink specials, upcoming events, and any other information they would like to convey.

Courts have held that pinball is a game of skill. Nonetheless, Stern advises operators to check local laws, as they should for any tournament game.

There is a patent pending covering ToPS™.

Gary Stern says, "This is a great advance in pinball. Tournament is foremost in the minds of operators and players. Our experience and our earnings with tournament pinball showed us why everyone wants tournaments. ToPS™ earnings plus pinball resale value make pinball a great investment for operators."


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