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Casual Pinball
by Rob Lockhart on 01/06/14 10:59:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm Rob Lockhart, Creative Director of Important Little Games.  We're working on a game called Codemancer.  If you followed me on twitter, I'd be grateful.


As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the genre of electromechanical games known as Pinball.  I got a chance to spend some time with the Twilight Zone machine over at Emporium Arcade Bar recently, and I want to share some thoughts about pinball design which might apply more broadly to game design experiences.

Twilight Zone Playfield

Over time, it seems, pinball rules have become more and more obscure.  In tournaments where precise control of the ball is the skill most tested, it makes sense to have long chains of events which result in increasing point values.  But in casual play, the rules often seem overcomplicated.  Here is the rule sheet for the Twilight Zone machine I was playing.  Check out this video where the rules of Bally's 'Frontier' machine are explained.

I've come to the conclusion that most pinball players care about three things:

  1. Length of play
  2. Toys
  3. Play Modes

Length of play is an obvious way that a casual pinball player can feel good about a session.  The longer you play, the more chance you feel have of activating something special, and you can't help but accrue points just by hitting things randomly.  Conversely, when the ball goes down the drain and out of play, that's a very punishing feeling.

Toys are the interesting things sticking out of the playfield.  Sometimes they flash or jiggle or make noises, or all three!  When a toy is activated, it's very rewarding, regardless of the point bonus they often represent.  Sometimes they have interesting gameplay consequences, as in one of my favorite machines of all time, Jurassic Park.

The dinosaur head on the left picks up your ball and swallows it!

Probably the most rewarding thing -- and what people care about the most -- is activating different modes of play.  It's accepted that shooting the ball up the field with the plunger and flippers is the standard mode of play, but breaking up the fun with different kinds of experience is a core gameplay principle.  Think about the power-pellets in Pac-Man, which switches the player from the hunted to the hunter, or the special contraptions in Jetpack Joyride which change up the input.  The problem in pinball is, outside of expert play, these things are far too rare.  Getting a multiball or a mini-playfield often requires unlocking that experience by performing a sequence of difficult actions.

You can even think about a pinball machine as just one part of a larger game, which is getting the most enjoyment out of the pinball available to you.  If points are to have any value in that context, they need to be standardized across machines, otherwise the question will always be "is 540,000 points good?"  Outside of competitive play, everything is made up and the points don't matter.

I don't like to point out a problem without offering some solutions, so here they are:

  1. I DON'T think that points should be eliminated, and I'm skeptical that they'll ever be standardized across games.  I do think they should be clear consequences of specific actions, pointed out with something other than a playfield light, which are so easy to ignore amongst all the other flashing whatsits.  It would be great if points could be displayed over the place where the points were awarded, perhaps by projecting onto the playfield glass?
  2. Activating toys and modes should be more straightforward, though not necessarily less difficult.  For example, getting the ball up a narrow ramp can be very difficult, especially if there are drop targets in front of it.  Drop targets (panels which drop below the playfield when hit by the ball) are a very intuitive, straightforward way of barring progress.  It can be difficult, as long as the player understands the steps needed to trigger a special event WITHOUT READING.
  3. Extend the average playtime, if possible.  I know this is the arcade business, and that the margins on pinball are the worst they've ever been, but when the Donkey Kong machine right next door gives the player more playtime, that's where they'll put their quarter.
  4. Make it quality time.  People need to feel powerful and competent right away, and there are some pinball games that already do this.  Bride of Pin-Bot, I've noticed, makes some ramps and moving targets really accessible to new players, and saves others for the advanced (or lucky) ones.  Just the fact that you can hit a ramp reliably feels like a huge accomplishment.  Other games (such as a favorite of mine for other reasons, Black Hole) make the player feel stupid.  If there is a big empty area in the center of the playfield, or a lot of stationary targets that just bounce the ball up into the glass, they're gonna have a bad time.

I'm really excited about what's happening in pinball right now, and I hope that this article will cause pinball designers to spend a little more time thinking about this segment of players -- the casual barroom or arcade player, who plays pinball because it's there, not because he loves the flippers the way we do.

That goes for other game experiences, too.  I wish that hardcore games of all types would consider the players that might wander in looking for a few minutes amusement.  Being a hardcore gamer should not be a prerequisite for playing COD, but playing COD should make me want to become a hardcore gamer.  And maybe that's OK.  Maybe high-profile videogames can afford to turn away users by the millions because there are still millions more.  Pinball, however, definitely does not have that privilege.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Trajectory markers and Slow Motion. Everything is made easier with them.

Rob Lockhart
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Peggle pinball. Good idea. Hard to implement in the physical machines, though I did think about varying the playfield angle to speed up or slow down the game.

Javier Degirolmo
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I would imagine that varying the playfield angle can make it really confusing. I would try other things first (weak magnets under the table?).

Luis Guimaraes
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"Hard to implement in the physical machines"

Ops a design challenge! :D I never turn one down (what game designer does?). Challenge Accepted!

And it seems my trajectory solution is already being used ($%&#!):

Now for the slowmotion thing, perfection at any affordable cost would be impossible :Z

But the alredy mentioned ideas are pretty good.

a) Varying the angles would twist the trajectories which we don't want, so it could only be used at the flappers to make it slower to roll the ball through them in order to aim a shot, and nowhere else. Cheap and focused on what matters most. But not everything yet.

a.1) The table can change it's inclination? That gives it the option to smothly switch the "speed" on and off, but it'd change trajectory of throws by chaning how momentum is countered by gravity.

b) Eletric magnet fabric in the whole table to increase friction like an on-off velcro would affect the momentum of throws.

c) water? doesn't work with an inclined table unless it fills the entirety of it and the game in all submerse, then it still wouldn't be switchable and waves would affect the trajectory.

d) Javier's idea is the best so far: hack a printer and ad a magnet to it, then create the software that could smoothly slow and increase time and react to player actions. Damn that would be an amazingly cool Pinball table to play! *-*

I stumbled upon this thing too...

Kenneth Blaney
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Edit: Author beat me to the point.

Michael Eilers
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An interesting idea! I am a huge, life-long pinball fan; obviously, a lot of this article is total sacrilege to me, and you are indeed critiquing the very elements of the game that I love best. The counterpoint argument would be "well yes, this shot is very hard, but the satisfaction you gain from making it cancels out the weeks of frustration and many, many quarters," or some variation on the "buck up and get some skills, n00b" abuse. However, at the core you are right - pinball evolved to meet its shrinking, hardcore audience, and as a result vanished into its own navel a bit, becoming really obscure and difficult because that was what was expected.

The problem here is of course physics. Atari experimented in the early '80s with extra-wide tables; this makes the ball seem a bit slower, and gives it more travel time from feature to feature, thus giving you a better chance of reacting in time. Certainly many table designers played with the slope of the table (there is no standard slope, and many variations in degree) as a way of making a table easier, but this also plays total havoc with the geometry of the table - you can't change the angle of a table once this is "baked" into the design, it becomes unplayable as key shots are now impossible to make.

If you preserve the physics (and thus the speed of the ball) then the other alternatives are much as you suggested here, such as making the actual layout and targets easier and more clear to understand, making modes easier to unlock and more obvious in terms of "storytelling" and instructions on how to play, and perhaps making ramp entrances wider, flippers stronger, etc.

There is actually a company right now that is doing just that:

These guys are making pinball machines with integrated LCD monitors that play full-motion video and graphics, as well as using larger balls, wide playfields and other features. I have yet to play one of their tables in person, but they have several legendary designers on staff or on consult, so I have a lot of hope for their products. Unfortunately, they are just as expensive as they look.

Kale Menges
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I've been a pinball fanatic for a long time, and while I might not hold Wizard status on any particular table (though I play a mean Black Hole and can show off a little on Theater of Magic), I'm inclined to disagree with a few points mentioned here. I'm personally not a fan of "toys" on a table. I feel like they disrupt the flow and pacing and, for the most part, tend to be more for "attraction" than interactivity. Length of play is definitely a top priority for me (a sort of ROI, if you will), but it should always be balanced with a table's feedback loops like scoring, shot risks, number of balls or specials, etc. I've played more than a few tables whose scoring feels unbalanced or inadequate in comparison to the length of time it takes to actually feel a sense of accomplishment from accumulating points, making the table's gameplay feel like a chore or some kind of war of attrition. I've also played the opposite, tables who just spew absurd score quantities at the player for pulling the plunger and other no-brainer actions, but then fail to provide proportionally up-scaled rewards for actually performing difficult shots or completing objectives, etc., diminishing the meaningfulness of the table's gameplay altogether. I certainly agree, though, that "points" are the point in pinball and should continue to be so, but should always be meaningful and balanced and never feel arbitrary.

The biggest flaw I can readily identify in pinball design in general, is the poor communication of objectives on the majority of tables. Very few tables do a good job of informing players (especially new players) of in-game "rules" or "systems". Sometimes this might be intentional, providing a sense of discovery or exploration to enhance replay value, but most of the time it simply feels like designers make the assumption that only experienced pinball fanatics play pinball, gambling that the player knows to assume the existence of certain goals or tasks simply because of their assumed previous experiences in playing other tables (certainly sounds like a "No Twinkie" condition, am I right?). A simple solution to this is to simply turn back the clock a decade or three and look at early EM tables, before the existence of toys or LED displays or obnoxious staticky MIDI music, when tables had only a few, well-focused and easily identified objectives. Sometimes less is more. Imagine starting back from these simpler, less noisy table designs and then slowly and methodically adding some modernizations to them with things like audio feedback, vocal instructions, animated displays, etc. to help convey those well-defined objectives, yet being careful not to overshadow, over complicate or disastrously convolute the table's actual game design.

Also, I kind of disagree with the point about "big open spaces in the middle of the playfield". Tables that use a large open playfield tend to actually be more forgiving for less experienced players, allowing them to experiment with shots, learning the nuances of timing and flipper positioning with less worry of abrupt ricochets off of too closely placed bumpers or rails or whatnot. A cramped playfield can almost seem claustrophobic or approach some kind of sensory overload for inexperienced players, not to mention that simply having too many targets on a table goes back to what I was mentioning earlier about confusing or poorly communicated objectives.

Eric Kantor
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The games from the 50s – 70s were intuitive to learn how to play. Newer pinball games from the 80’ through 2014 can have deep rule sets. Good idea of having a new game where you can win some extra games. More fun that way.