Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tron LE security issues

Visited the local Stern importer yesterday as I needed to buy some parts.
Just wanted to quickly retrieve them, but as always staid too long talking about everything.
He had some interesting information about the Tron LE and parallel imports.
(all this I have just been told, haven't seen/checked/confirmed it myself, but it's a reliable source so I don't think any of this is incorrect information)

UPDATE: not a rumour - Stern does ship USB keys with updates.

Seems Stern is doing more and more to try to prevent grey import.

Not that Stern is completely successful, as in Europe there are USA Sterns being sold that are switched from 50/60Hz.
The cpu will detect if it's in the wrong continent (Europe or USA) and give an error message. So you can't just buy a Stern pinball machine in the USA, export it to Europe, plug it in (after converting to 220v) and expect the game to work.
Some dealers hack the cpu power board to bypass this detection, so they can sell USA games to Europe.

Problem is, this voids your warranty. If you buy a Stern pinball machine from one of these dealers because it's cheaper, if you ever have a problem with the cpu, you'll pay much more.. (unless the seller will back it up and replace it for you, which may be for the first months, but don't expect replacement warranty after a year or more..)

You can't go trough official channels to have the cpu repaired. Can't send it in Europe for repair as the serial number isn't registered for being sold in Europe.. You'll have to send it back to the dealer in Canada where it came from, but he can't send it back to Stern as they'll detect the 50/60Hz hack and will not repair the board.
So your warranty is only as good as the repair skills and goodwill of the dealer where you bought the game from.

Now this hasn't stopped people from buying these games. After all, big cpu problems don't often happen.
But when it would ever happen, the only way to get your game working is to buy a new European cpu board, which will cost you a lot more than what you saved by buying not from an official dealer.

It seems Stern has added some extra security steps with Tron LE.
Not just to prevent parallel import, but also to make the difference between the Pro and LE version bigger.

The LE games have a different cpu. Haven't seen one myself, but there should be a physical difference.

An LE cpu can only work in an LE game and accept LE rom updates.

Do not expect like with Shrek/Family Guy that you can upload any rom update and the game will accept this and work.

Only the Pro version rom will be available at Sterns website. This will not work on an LE model (and you wouldn't want this to work anyway as it would not do anything with the extra hardware you get on an LE and which is why you paid more for the game).

The LE rom image will not be available for download at all on Sterns website.
New versions will be distributed on USB sticks, one for each game. These sticks are sent to the dealers that bought the games, which in turn have to send them to their customers.
It seems the usb stick can only be used once and the pinball machine will delete the rom image on the stick once it's been updated.

OK as an IT guy I have my doubts about this security - files on usb sticks are easy to copy, don't know how hard the security will be for the pinball cpu to detect the correct stick is used and to use a similar cpu stick. But at least you need access to one original usb stick before you can try to copy them..

But anyway, suppose Stern is successful with this usb copy protection - it can be a huge problem for parallel import dealers.

If you ever want to upgrade the rom version of your LE game (and you probably will, given Sterns history), you cannot do this yourself anymore.
You have to hope that the dealer you bought it from, got enough usb sticks from his source, and provide one (for free ?) to you, and hope it works on your hacked cpu board. That's a lot of risk to take.
Your other option; keep the game forever on the rom it shipped with and be frustrated that people who spend a few $100 more get official upgrades with more rules, bugfixes, sound effects, animations, and whatever else that is possible with new rom versions..


  1. Every attempt to stop USA imports will fail, there are always 10ways+ to crack a nut but only one nut. The problem of parts in grey machines is already known, just more prevalent now simply because of time moves forward, more imports are made, at some point one or more of those will need parts due to failures, fact of life.

    I don't know yet for sure as I've not see a LE Tron but the Atmel USB device on the SAM board (U49) is well and truely dead, last time buys have gone so you'll likely see a new revision of SAM in due course for all machines so perhaps this is just the start of new boards.

    You worry to much, life is short, Stern is small and weak, they've no time to spend on menial tasks that don't bring in coin.

  2. Copy protection, in general = a waste of time when the mfgr. could be investing in other features for the game, etc.

  3. It is not the CPU board, but the power driverboard which is being converted in a way to make it work.

    It is known that here in Europe that the machines through the official distributors are way too expensive when you keep an eye on the dollar/euro rates.....
    No wonder people look for other ways to get them cheaper.

    Even if the cpu board failed, for the price difference you can go ahead and buy two or three spare cpu boards (which you will not need).
    The only time that a problem occurred with two cpu boards that i know of was with Iron Man, with which they had a batch of faulty ROM chips.
    And even that was repaired through the unofficial channels without a problem.
    There are currently two channels i know about and i would not hesitate to buy from them.
    Only when the official dealers are going to lower to the same price, only then i will think of buying from them, but i doubt that that will ever happen.

    I would buy a Tron LE without any hesitation.
    If there is a difference in the sam boards, then it is only a short matter of time to work around it.
    If there would ever come an update for it (which i highly doubt), it should not be much trouble to have this arranged through the channels.
    And one time use is so expensive that i doubt that stern is even thinking about looking into that.
    They have other concerns to deal with at the moment and i think it is a hoax from the official dealer(s) to scare people off and have the people buy from them instead in the end. (which is not going to happen due to their outrageous prices)

    But let's keep the balls rolling and just enjoy the games.

  4. Interesting comments, thanks guys !

    I had some other people also sending me questions about this; here is some more info about the pricing in Europe.
    My reaction is split up in 3 parts as it was too long :(

    Prices between official Stern dealers are very different between European countries.. I've heard of price differences between 500 euro to 1000 euro, between official dealers in different countries. As an individual, in some countries it may be much more interesting to try and import a USA game yourself (or buy from abroad or grey import dealers), than it is in other countries.

    Every person I speak to tells everything from his point of view. One had people come to him to ask if he could fix something under warranty, because they didn't want to drive 200km back to exchange the part at the dealer they bought the game from.. Doh.. So no he doesn't do that, he only provides warranty on games that are sold by him. So when you buy abroad because it's cheaper, be prepared to drive back when something is wrong.. and some dealers that suddenly pop up selling cheap games, may disappear again in a few months or years, and when you then have a warranty issue you can't go back to them anymore.

    What's another advantage of buying local ? You can inspect the game when I pick it up.
    With Sterns 'quality issues' of NIB games, this may be something collectors do not mind paying extra for. I've heard of collectors for whom the official dealer opened up 3 NIB games so they could pick the one they liked most - as all of these 3 NIB Stern games had small quality issues (like scratches, ..).
    Order a game from abroad and have it delivered to your house, and you have to like what you get in that box...

  5. What some grey import dealers probably do is cheat with VAT. That's where their price difference comes from. Their machines are sold without an official invoice, you cannot recuperate VAT when you buy from them.

    A dealer I spoke to said he actually is cheaper when a company buys a game from him, as they can recuperate VAT on it.
    A private person has to pay VAT. For an individual it's about 500 to 600 euro cheaper to buy from one of these grey import dealers.

    OK I don't work as an accountant, I'm not a tax or import/export specialist. But selling NIB games without VAT - seems not legally possible to me ?

    What can happen is that they don't do business as a company. Buy the games in the USA as a private person, pay the duties/vat, and resell them here with profit. No company, vat or invoices are involved at all ?

    If they act as a company, but don't sell with a correct invoice, they commit fraud ?
    This can be by importing the games using fake invoices with lower declared values. Or by cheating when selling the games: by declaring to have exported the goods to a foreign company and recuperating VAT themselves. Or by selling the NIB games off as used games.
    Maybe there are other ways, but these are what I can think off right now.

    OK I'm a Belgian, there's a saying here that evading taxes is a national sport. Everyone and every company will do some cheating once in a while.
    But evading VAT doesn't seem to be like a valid business model that can last a long time to me.. It only takes one complaint from a competitor to get you investigated by tax authorities..

    Anyway these grey import dealers want to make a profit too, and it seems their margins aren't that much different from some official dealers.
    As a private person it is cheaper to buy from them, but you don't save thousands of euros.. so everyone has to decide for himself if it's worth the risk.

    Please make no mistake - I am NOT saying *every* grey import dealer commits fraud !!
    I am aware that because of the USD/Euro currency exchange you can be cheaper off and do things completely legally. But then the machines are also sold with an invoice, with recuperable VAT.

    It's only those dealers that sell without VAT invoices, that I have my doubts about.
    And maybe they dif find a legal way to sell games without vat. Then I want to hear about it :-)

  6. When you see the price in USD what a pinball machine sells for in the USA, prices seem sooo good for us Europeans.. you really want to cry when you see what we pay here.

    I read on RGP that Tron Pro sells for $4700. That's about 3250 euro. Excellent price! I would buy a NIB pinball machine for that price!

    Problem is VAT, paperwork and shipping. Add about 250 to maximum 500 euro euro to get it shipped to you and get all paperwork done. Say 250 euro. 3500 euro + 21 VAT = 4235 euro. That's around the official price of a Stern game here, without VAT. So you save about 20 percent importing the game yourself (but no warranty and 50/60Hz conversion to do). Still, as an individual if you want one game for yourself, this is the cheapest route.

    A dealer in Europe that orders half a container will get better prices. He'll pay a few $100 lower than the $4700. Shipping will be much lower, on a full or half a container, it'll be only around $100 to $150 for each game. Even with VAT added he can still sell at a competitive price and make a decent profit. Especially in countries with expensive official Stern dealers..

    For the Americans who are interested to know what we pay here in Europe for a Stern game: Best I found online (very quick search) for a Tron Pro is 3800 euro + VAT. Shipping is additional to this.
    I guess it'll be around 4800 euro in total, which is almost $7000 !! And I do not want to find what the most expensive official dealer in Europe would ask, guess it'll be around $8000..

  7. Update: seems The Rolling Stones LE also has this protection ? it's impossible to use the backup rom function to copy the software back to a usk stick (which was possible in previous games - you could always backup the version running in the game to the usb stick, and upgrade the game from a usb stick).

  8. Hi,
    Is the information about protected USB sticks still valid? If I go to this link:
    I can download the SW image and load it on a USB stick.

  9. no seems they only sent usb sticks once and then made later versions available on their site.. but don't know as I don't follow it in detail anymore and don't have any Sterns myself..