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Postmortem: Zen Studios' Pinball FX2
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Postmortem: Zen Studios' Pinball FX2


August 25, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

3. Budget and Schedule Busting

As mentioned previously, we ended up extending project development by about nine months. Naturally, this long delay cost a lot of money beyond what was budgeted and delayed an expected source of revenue.

In addition to implementing the features Microsoft had suggested, we needed to redesign (again, with feedback from Microsoft) and rewrite the entire UI to support those features, as the basic system we had in place -- something we had figured would be good enough to get the job done at the start of the project -- was not capable of doing so.

Although this kind of delay was definitely a risk, and such cost and schedule overruns might represent a hardship for some studios, the new features represented the kind of opportunity that a private, self-funded developer like Zen can pursue without the worry of angry shareholders or a trigger-happy publisher. As such, this issue was more of a footnote for us than a major concern.

4. Updates for Individual DLC are Cost-Prohibitive

Bugs and balance issues are a small but recurring problem for us, and they are difficult for us to deal with efficiently. Because our pinball tables are enormously complex, and because it is impossible to test every possible event sequence and bounce of the ball, we, like pretty much every other developer in the world, sometimes unknowingly ship product with bugs.

What makes our situation especially problematic is that each table we release is essentially a self-contained game, more prone to bugs than most types of downloadable content. Although the tables tend to sell reasonably well, it is still prohibitively expensive to have a patch for a single table tested and certified by Microsoft, since the cost of testing/certification is very high relative to the revenue from a single piece of DLC, and we already paid it once the first time around. Thus, we must let some bugs live on until we can release an update that addresses multiple tables at once.

The upside of that approach is that all the numbers add up in a way where it still makes sense for us to produce this content at current prices. The downside is that players often have to wait for quite a while after a table's release before problems are fixed.

5. It's Pinball

Although PR generally went well, there were a few notable failures. IGN didn't even bother to post a review of the game at all, a symptom of a more widespread issue: many outlets simply weren't interested in writing about pinball. Other games that were released during the Game Feast promotion (and indeed, most high-quality XBLA games released during any time frame) have much more numerous reviews on Metacritic:

  • Pinball FX2 -- 24 reviews (88 score)
  • Comic Jumper -- 45 (74)
  • Super Meat Boy -- 50 (90)
  • Hydrophobia -- 58 (59)

We saw a similar trend in our review scores. One of the biggest complaints we saw in reviews of the game (and in reviews of subsequent content releases) was "It's pinball."

This type of complaint -- and the lower review scores and reduced coverage -- is understandable, given that only a fairly small percentage of gamers have any interest in the genre. Pinball games are never going to be huge blockbuster hits. It is quite common for trailers of our Marvel-themed tables to receive more dislikes than likes on Youtube, with comments generally along the lines of "Pinball? WTF is this? How come this character isn't in MvC3?"

The other side of this coin is that because pinball has been an underserved market, our efforts to revitalize the genre with inexpensive, high-quality, and feature-rich content has attracted a core of very enthusiastic and supportive fans who buy every table we release (thanks!)

Conclusion

Pinball FX2 represents a high water mark for the company in terms of game quality and depth, review scores, positive customer feedback, and sales.

A variety of factors contributed to this success: experience with two previous pinball games, a good working relationship with Microsoft, our partnership with Marvel, an extensive pre-launch PR effort, good feedback from our players, a willingness to take risks when appropriate, and correct identification of the most important attributes of the game.

Despite the delays, hiccups, and assorted problems, we're proud of what we've achieved and hoep to build on our success with a raft of new content and features over the coming year.

I'd also like to give a shout out to Ryan Peterson, our biz-dev representative, who was the guy behind the scenes making all the right decisions and partnerships happen.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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