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.
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:
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.
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:
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.