[In this postmortem, Neil Sorens, creative director at Zen Studios, looks back on the two year-long development of October 2010 downloadable title Pinball FX2, the studio's "most successful game to date."]
Pinball FX2 was originally conceived as a title update to Pinball FX, our successful if unrefined debut title on Xbox 360's Live Arcade service. We had several features we wanted to add to the game, and Microsoft was eager for us to support its "NXE" Dashboard update in any way possible.
After much discussion, we agreed to create a full sequel, rather than trying to cram a sequel's worth of features into a very size-limited title update.
As time went by, the feature set grew and the release date was pushed back. Normally, the next thing you'd read here would be, "...and that's when the wheels really started falling off the wagon."
However, as in the case of Toys for Bob spending an extra six months to add the features that made Star Control II a masterpiece, the extra time gave us the opportunity to put in some additions that made a big difference in how the game was received.
After almost two years of planning and development, Pinball FX2 was released in October of 2010, and it's been our most successful game to date.
Although good news for us, it does mean that we don't have all that much on the "what went wrong" side of things, which is always the more instructive/juicy of the two. In contrast to much of our previous work, Pinball FX 2 was based on a proven game, had an experienced team behind it, and used mostly existing tech -- all signs of a low-risk project. And despite a months-long delay, that's really what it turned out to be.
1. We Picked the Right Business Model
Since many potential customers have only a passing interest in pinball games, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to experience the game and all of its content.
To that end, we allowed players to download the game for free, to play trial versions of each table (rather than just a single table, as in Pinball FX), and to purchase content à la carte. We also priced content at impulse-buy levels, with a single table costing $2.50 (in the USA) -- a relative bargain given the complexity of each table and the fact that a single table takes a team (designer, artists, and code support) about six months to produce.
However, some of those players decided that they liked pinball and wanted more content -- which, of course, we are happy to provide. Our large and ever-growing library of content also lifts the traditional business model's cap on per-user revenue -- although production of that content is certainly more difficult and expensive than cheat/unlock codes or the infamous horse armor.
Although it is certainly not applicable to many types of games, a DLC-based business model is perfect for this one.
2. We Kept the Pinball FX Community Intact
During early discussions with Microsoft, we agreed that if we did make a sequel, we had to do so in a way that did not alienate our existing customers. We did not want a situation where, for example, Pinball FX owners could not enjoy a new table because it was only available for Pinball FX2, or where one player was still playing FX1 while a friend had moved on to FX2. Not only would a fragmented community be bad for table sales, but a sequel perceived as a money-grab would also damage our reputation as a consumer-friendly developer.
In order to encourage Pinball FX players to make the jump (and ensure new players started with FX2), we had to make sure that there was no downside for them to the release of a sequel. To do so, we planned several key features:
Implementation of these goals turned out to be quite complex, both for us and for Microsoft, as there had to be dozens of different items on the Marketplace to allow for trials and imports of all nine FX1 tables. In fact, the most notable item in "what went wrong" deals with the problems we experienced as a result.