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Stern Pinball’s Chief Creative Officer, George Gomez, discusses creating pinball machines for some of the world’s biggest brands.
George, thanks for making time. To kick us off, what first set you on the path to a career in design?
I’m the kid that grew up drawing and making things, customising my bikes and kit bashing my plastic models. So, looking back, I think that I’ve always really been a designer; the university just certified it when I got my Industrial Design degree!
I’ve been very fortunate that throughout my entire career I’ve been able to design entertainment products. I designed coin operated video games right out of school in the late 70s, I was a toy inventor at a consulting firm that licensed the concepts to the major toy companies, I’ve designed novelty games and even Xbox and PlayStation console games. I was drawn to pinball because I saw it as a giant toy with lots of possibility for invention and fun.
“When we make a machine, we want it to look and feel like the machine was made by the brand.”
What does the start of the design process look like at Stern Pinball? Is there a template that helps kick things off, or is it a blank canvas each time you create a machine?
It’s a blank canvas with the exception that you have certain functional parameters. Like any mass-produced product, it has cost constraints, it has to be durable, it has to be serviceable, you have to be able to make hundreds every day and it has to fit the business timelines of the company… But the most challenging parameter is that it has to be fun and compelling. If it’s not fun, it doesn’t matter that you made it easy to make or durable, because everything revolves around people wanting it because it’s fun.
So you have a theme, you have those parameters, and then you’re off?
Well, in the beginning of the process, the teams gets together and try to invent pinball specific elements that reflect the theme. Think of pinball as a medium no different than an artist working in oils or watercolour. What the team is doing is manipulating and creating within the medium of pinball to create something that is totally consistent with the theme of the game.
The idea being that as you walk up to it and then begin playing it, you are immersed and transported into the world of the theme. Everything you feel, see, hear and effect via your play is now happening in this world. Your progression through the game is your experience in the fiction of the theme.
Speaking of themes, you’ve given everything from blockbuster movies to rock bands the pinball treatment. What does a brand need to have in order to successfully translate into this space?
We work with brands that are aspirational to our audience. Typically, the players recognise and relate to the brand in some way. Although, my greatest measure of success is when someone who doesn’t know or care about the brand comes off the game and says: “Wow, I don’t know anything about this theme but that game is so much fun!” Then I know we’ve really nailed it.
Absolutely. One of your recent launches that caught the eye was Stern Pinball’s new James Bond machines. What was the process like in determining which core moments from the franchise you wanted to bring into a machine?
I selected the Sean Connery films because he was the James Bond that amazed me when I was 10 years old. It just so happened that he was also amazing the whole world, defining the entire genre and influencing the franchise forever!
The machines look incredible. Talk us through some of the key features.
The game is all about making the player feel like he is Bond and recreating the tension and excitement of the films. I selected elements that I could build toys and play features around in the context of a pinball game. So you’ll see the Bird 1 rocket base in the volcano from You Only Live Twice and the iconic Aston Martin DB5 complete with a pinball ejection device. I added the Dragon tank from Dr.No because it seemed like an easy construct for a target.
There is an underwater battle scene with sculpts of Bond and a SPECTRE diver fighting under the playfield which was inspired by Thunderball and the amazing Frank McCarthy illustration used in the movie posters.
I also couldn’t pass up doing something with the jetpack from Thunderball; a sculpted Bond figure appears to fly over the playfield and he can pick up the pinball and drop it in strategic locations relative to what is going on in the game rules.
Every film is represented with villains, henchmen, Bond women, gadgets and SPECTRE weapons. In addition, the game contains video clips from all of the films; appropriately choreographed to the events in the game. And to really take you right into the feeling of the films the game’s soundtrack is filled with iconic John Barry tracks.
What was the biggest challenge in designing the Bond machines?
Bond is an incredible brand and the biggest challenge was in being true to the elements of the franchise within the medium of pinball.
Well, I think it’s a challenge you very much overcame! Away from Bond, you’ve also launched pinball machines for huge brands like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Marvel, Led Zeppelin, Godzilla… The list goes on! What’s the key to ensuring your designs authentically encapsulate an IP?
When we make a machine, we want it to look and feel like the machine was made by the brand. It has to be completely consistent with the brand and yet it has to be a Stern Pinball; the most fun pinball machines on the planet. This is what we do best and we’ve done it for every brand we’ve touched. That’s why our portfolio of relationships is filled with blue chip brands.
Great answer. Last question! How do you fuel your creativity? What helps you have ideas?
For me, it’s about always being in learning mode. Every experience is a thing that may one day inform a solution, but you have to make that experience memorable so that your subconscious will present it to you when you need to come up with something. Over time I’ve trained myself to really see what I look at. You can’t just will a new thing into being.
George, this has been great. Huge thanks again for taking the time.
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