Pinball and Rules: Rough Divisions of Real-Time Gameplay

Aug 11, 2011

It almost sounds a bit silly at first to suggest that there are specific “moves” and techniques to practice for playing pinball – after all, pinball is just two flipper buttons and a steel ball, right? It’s not as though we need to learn to throw a Hadouken, perform a spinning pile driver, or pull off a 99-hit combo. However in practice there are techniques that empower a player to have better control over the ball’s speed, location, and movement, and the right move to employ for each of those purposes varies by the ball’s incoming speed, angle, and relative position. It’s not at all obvious at first, but makes sense: stopping a ball or passing it to the other flipper requires a different action depending upon whether the pinball is coming down quickly from a sharp angle, rolling in from the outlane, or just bounced across laterally off the opposite flipper.

Throughout this entry, when I use the word ‘game’ I’m fairly narrowly referring to both pinball and real-time arcade-style twitch gameplay. I make no claim to these concepts surviving extension into card games, board games, or other more general uses of the term game.

Moves in Pinball

Besides the type of moves that use a flipper to control one ball, skills also exist that are specific to managing multi-ball successfully (stopping them, separating them, trapping one), as well as nudge/slap/shake skills to bounce the ball from the opening of an outlane, extend how long the pinball gets juggled between bumpers, correct for a missed skill shot, adjust the exit angle from an orbit or failed ramp climb, or save the ball from falling nearly straight down the middle (one flipper held up, yanking the machine sideways to tap the falling ball across with that flipper’s tip).

The bang back or death save, among the few maneuvers besides removing the glass that is universally against tournament rules, can even recover the ball after it falls down an outlane, by violently bouncing it up onto an opposite flipper right before it rolls into the drain.

Even a fundamental move like the cradle – trapping the ball to a stop at the base of an upheld flipper – a move so basic that first-time players instinctively do it, has non-obvious uses and implications. By removing the ball’s incoming speed, direction, and spin as factors, firing from a just released cradle consistently matches the time waited between flipping and releasing the cradle to a given position on the flipper and (due to resetting/controlling incoming spin and vector) the angle and origin point from which the ball travels up the table.

(For more details and examples of techniques, I have a bonus section at the end of this entry.)

Connection to Videogames

If you’re feeling displeased because you don’t read my blog looking for pinball lessons, hang in there. We’re about to bring this back over to videogame design. Doing so from this angle will enable us to highlight a few layers and aspects of gameplay design that are otherwise difficult to recognize or explain.

Part of Gameplay, Not Part of a Game

The ball control techniques described above were developed and refined to keep the ball in play longer, get it between specific targets faster, and improve the ability of players to unambiguously discuss, think about, and criticize play. None of these maneuvers were added to pinball by any engineer/designer – these moves were not programmed, machined, nor were these intentional inventions for the player. Instead these moves were created by players, and formed in direct complement to the layouts, mechanical parts, and natural physics at work within pinball.

This is much like rocket jumping in Quake, in which players fired a rocket down into the ground during a running jump to propel themselves high into the air. This maneuver was not intended by the original design, but enables players to perform shortcuts and take unexpected angles of attack. This works because the damage done at the edge of the explosive radius was minor enough and the force exerted at the edge of the explosive radius was high enough that rocket jumping became a fundamental gameplay skill in deathmatch play. This move became especially useful in mods like the original Team Fortress, where it enabled the Soldier class to instantly and directly confront rooftop snipers, leading into a (at one time) more weakly defended alternative entry point into the enemy’s base in 2Fort and other popular maps.

Granted, once players created and named moves like these, their effects could then be accounted for in future design. In the case of pinball machine design, particular techniques were occasionally spoiled or emphasized by specific layouts or features. Examples of this include adding low guard rails under the flippers to prevent or complicate bang backs, and adjusting the position and angle of slingshots (the triangles above each flipper that divide the flippers from the inlanes) to make post passes easier and more consistent.

Returning to rocket jumping and Quake, it’s clear that by Quake 3 the designers recognized and understood what players were doing with the game’s physics and rockets. Even the computer controlled AI opponents sometimes rocket jump! This recognition enabled maps to be designed with specific elevated areas, shortcuts, or hard-to-reach items where a player skilled in rocket jumping could exploit the maneuver to their advantage – and likewise allowed level designers to recognize where a rocket jump could mess up or trivialize the intended flow within their space, which they could then close off or otherwise obstruct.

Problems in Virtual Pinball

Aside from pinball’s artistic appeals to imagination and the joys of light and noise spectacle, and beyond just knocking the ball around to see what happens, playing pinball successfully hinges partly on the types of skilled moves mentioned earlier. The moves are valuable because a real pinball is difficult to stop without them, they are difficult because spin, friction, and incoming vector makes pinball unpredictable, and they feel fundamentally satisfying when executed correctly due to this mixture of usefulness and difficulty.

Moreover, most of these techniques translate, even if sometimes needing a bit of adaptation, between many different pinball tables. For example not all tables have slingshots, but many do, and on those that do a post pass may be more or less difficult to execute than on another table. In general though, someone that knows how to perform a post pass in one game can quickly figure out how to do it in another, and decide based on the outcome whether it’s consistent enough to count on for a given table instead of some other passing technique. The reason the skill transfers between tables is that in addition to featuring the same basic mechanical elements, they are also all existing in the same ‘engine’ (that being physical reality), such that the fundamental workings of friction, gravity, momentum, spin, force, and so on are universal between all real pinball tables.

Recall again the Quake rocket jump. Clearly, taking a running jump over the explosion of a rocket in an effort to gain altitude is never a sound combat skill in real life. A soldier attempting this would be unlikely to gain much height, be full of shrapnel, possibly set on fire, and probably not wind up all in one piece. It would be positively horrible. The deeper and most fundamental workings of how the Quake universe works, having to do with how damage dissipates from an explosive epicenter to a given radius, how the player character’s momentum is affected by pseudo-physics force calculations, the inability of players to be disadvantaged by partial injury (i.e. someone with 1 hit point remaining still runs and jumps just fine), the height at which a running jump can reach at its peak, the ease of aiming a rocket launcher quickly and precisely, and so on, are all very different from how similar factors play out in real life.

The same is true, if somewhat less dramatically or obviously, for videogames that attempt to recreate real pinball tables and action. Just as the rocket jump skill does not work (producing a completely different and useless result) when the fundamental physical mechanics are different, many of the basic ball handling maneuvers mentioned earlier – the core gameplay actions in real pinball – tend to break down completely in virtual pinball.

A virtual remake of a real pinball table can look exactly right, sound exactly right, be laid out the same, score the same way, but still play differently, resulting in a different type of gameplay experience (generally not quite as deep) and wildly different scores.

Layers of Different Kinds of ‘Rules’

To be more precise about exactly what it is about virtual pinball that causes the techniques from real pinball to fail, we’ll need to dissect the aspects of pinball gameplay design into discrete layers. My other reason for taking this approach is that it will also enable me to pinpoint a more exact and useful connection to non-pinball videogame design (relevant in particular to real-time arcade-style twitch/skill gameplay).

I’ll slice pinball gameplay here into eight layers, any of which we might refer to as ‘rules’* by some slightly different use of the word. These layers mostly apply to both real pinball and virtual (videogame) pinball. Depending on any given videogame’s genre and fundamental structure, these may or may not extend partly or wholly onto other types of videogames.

(* To avoid rehashing some of my past arguments here, within the scope of this entry I am using ‘rules’ in reference to pinball in the way that the term is often casually applied to videogames. Please ignore for now, if possible, that I believe this usage to be fundamentally different in nature than what we refer to as rules in board games, sports, and pinball/videogame tournaments. Briefly from 40,000 ft.: like videogame ‘rules’, in pinball the player does not need to learn the rules to simply play, nor is there an element of imperfect human enforcement, allowing the pinball to be enjoyed in an ordinary and intended fashion with the player focusing only on attention and reactions.)

1: Visualization – This is in reference not to the artwork, but to how the player views the game – a combination of how eyesight works, how light works (transparency, reflection, obstruction), and how visibility of the table’s parts are affected by in-field elements obscuring other areas, reflection off the back glass, etc. There isn’t much variation at this phase in real pinball, we just see from our eyes and view the table from where our head is when we stand in position to play, however in digital pinball there is much variation in visualization, ranging from flat overhead views, to cameras that follow the ball in various ways, to cameras attempting to mimic the perspective taken while playing a real table. It’s even possible for ‘light’ to work fundamentally differently within a videogame pinball game, as in the pinball emulators that support wireframe play, removing the effect of larger parts blocking the view of other parts or areas.

Despite having some of the most accurate ball/flipper physics and digitized remakes of historical tables the console game Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection winds up playing a bit differently than the real tables because visibility is crystal clear. My scores on the digital version of the Funhouse table in Pinball Hall of Fame are consistently around 3-5 times higher (!) than my scores on the real table, partly because there’s no difficulty in seeing exactly what’s going on. The tables are well lit, the reflection of the back glass is barely noticeable, and the ball is strikingly brighter than anything around it (as it’s made of reflective steel, a pinball tends to be the exact same brightness as everything else around it). The visualization aspect is further made easier by everything taking place within the TV screen, either having the camera track the ball (making it impossible to lose track of) or with a full fixed view of the table taking up only a foot or so of real space. With mechanical pinball, the table is several feet long and a couple feet wide, and by virtue of being right under the player’s face a relatively broad angle of vision is taken up by the field, making part of the difficulty in real pinball tracking (catching up to) the ball visually when it’s moving quickly. Anticipation, conditioned by practice firing the ball and learning where to expect certain types of hits to deliver certain types of incoming velocity, plays a role in this, since if the eye expects the ball to be someplace it isn’t the time needed to correct the visual tracking is sometimes enough to lose the ball to an otherwise defendable event.

One of the key features of this table is a bright white light
in the middle of the playfield that flashes moments before the
ball is kicked toward the flippers at high speed (a Jagov Kicker). The
sound of the collision is physically startling. By the time I find the
ball it’s rolling into the drain. Due to the limits set on brightness
and loudness on a TV or computer monitor, this sensation and gameplay
effect would be very difficult to faithfully reproduce on screen.

In this month’s Intermediate entry I referred to the toilet and Mini-
Me parts of this table. Can you see where those parts are? This photo is
taken from eye-level, and I’ve made no changes to the contrast or reflection.
Seeing everything requires a little head movement. Since pinball tables are
often in dark game rooms, this effect of back glass reflection on visibility
is surprisingly common. In practice this becomes a small but non-negligable
part of the challenge, since brief glimpses to the back of the table only
offer incomplete views that must be mentally completed. This contributes to
the constant challenge of knowing where the ball is and where it is headed.

2: Fictional Affordance/Cohesion – Old pinball games like Major League (1934) or Play-Boy (1932, nothing to do with scantily clad women) used narrative themes of baseball and card games to give the player some context of what to do. Several other early games turned to pool for established scoring metaphors.

As the gameplay became more complex with time, so did the fictions created to support the goals. In Tilt, George Gomez discussed the need to adhere to the original designer’s fiction from Attack from Mars (1995) for their Pinball 2000 sequel Revenge from Mars.

Pat Lawlor, also in an interview in Tilt, emphasized pinball games especially shifted toward story-supported affordances after 1986. “Pinball from approximately 1986… had the ability to tell a story. I peg it as being the game High Speed. For anybody that’s not familiar with High Speed, High Speed is a game designed by a truly great pinball designer named Steve Ritchie, and he had a software guy that I ended up working with named Larry DeMar. Together they created this game, and everybody in the world instantly knew what they were supposed to do when they walked up to it. It was really simple: change a stoplight from green to red, and then run the light and get away from the police. The game told a story. It was a simple story, but it was a story. The game was an enormous success… [changing pinball into becoming more about] ‘why am I here’, ‘what am I doing’, ‘what story is the game telling me’…”

The story-elements, beyond representing fiction for the sake of pure conceptual appeal, are also present to help the player understand why certain targets must be hit in sequence, and to suggest meaningful context for player achievement.

The Champion Pub features a large boxer hidden behind a half
punching bag. After a series of training-themed targets are hit,
the punching bag rotates, and the fighter starts swinging.
At that point the player is challenged to strike him high
and low for head and body shots. Champion Pub is also an
illustration of how theme can help suggest new parts and
features: in the back left is a metal ‘jump rope’ that the
pinball can ‘hop’ in using the flipper to trigger a solenoid
under the ball. When the player misses the pinball gets
knocked off by the metal ‘jump rope’. One of our friends
gravitated to this machine for most of a visit, because
thanks to its theme, “it’s just so obvious what to do.”

3: Spectacle – The role of this aspect is covered fairly well in the entry this month about parallel appeals. Additionally, the spectacle elements serve functional roles as well, such as hinting to the player which target(s) to hit next to score the most points, or warning the player that the ball is about to be kicked back out onto the field from where it was temporarily held. Much like anything else about a pinball game besides its visualization and physics ‘engine’ (both, again, just being reality), though it doesn’t get as much specific player focus the spectacle elements are an area of design and technical challenge brought to life differently for each table by deliberate decisions and considerable work.

4: Mission Rules – These are about how the game responds to repeated or sequential ramp, bumper, saucer, spinner, rollovers, etc. leading to reward events in the form of multiball, points, multipliers, animated dot-matrix sequences, brief light shows, and various on-table changes (ex. diverting a habitrail, opening a gate…). This level of rules involves state changes and counters. Complex tables from the 80’s and 90’s included a ton of these interconnected ‘missions’, which novice players often trigger partly by accident but otherwise don’t notice. More than any other aspect of pinball, these are the probably the most widely referred to as “rules” in the game, as in, “learn the rules of that table if you want to know how to get a higher score.”

5: Layout – The most recognizable difference in gameplay between one table and another is how the parts are arranged in the play field. Where are the ramps, where are the drop targets, where are the bumpers placed, etc. Though the layout is unlikely to be thought of as ‘rules’, clearly significant (and sometimes even subtle) variations in layouts can have a huge affect on how a game plays.

George Gomez, discussing the table layout of Revenge From Mars in the documentary Tilt: “These three… jet bumpers… give the player some pause to consider where the ball is coming from…”

6: Triggers – These are about the instantaneous cause-effect relationships that occur at the intersection of mechanical action and electrical events. For example, hitting a certain target may award some number of points when lit, striking the last drop target in a bank will cause them to all reset, going over the rollover adds a letter toward spelling some word, etc. These consequences may be conditional, but otherwise are about functionality mostly-isolated from what else is happening on the table.

A pinball table properly set up with functionality of this type but no Mission Rules would seem like any normal pinball table at first, but soon being to feel flat from lack of dynamic play field change.

7: Kinetics – This has to do with the finer points of implementation in terms of exactly how and when the Triggers take effect, or the tuning of what happens when they do. The term “Kinetics” is borrowed from Pat Lawlor, presented in Tilt in the context of George Gomez’s discussing what it means to refer to the ‘feel’ of a pinball game:

Pat Lawlor: “Pinball is about a sort of satisfying feeling when you’re playing the game, when you’re flipping it up, flipping at the ball.”

George Gomez: “People would say, ‘this shot feels bad.’ Well now think about this: how does it feel bad? What feels bad about it? You’re standing in front of a wooden box, your connection to this wooden box are your hands touching buttons… where’s the ‘feel’ come in? It’s a combination of audio and visual things that in turn make the player feel that the shot is a good shot. When [should the hardware] sense that the ball is on the ramp, and therefore trigger an event? How much time does it take the ball to go up that ramp and come back around to the player?”

Pat Lawlor: “All of those things are called the Kinetics of a game. The Kinetics of a game are largely responsible for how you perceive what’s going on inside the game while you’re flipping at it.”

For real pinball, Kinetics is something available for the designers to customize, in an effort to get a certain feel to their game. Although the designers cannot affect gravity, they could certainly adjust the inclination of the table (most don’t; pinball tables are almost universally 6.5 degrees, except in Spain where they’re set up steeper). Designers cannot affect how momentum nor magnetism work, but they could make the ball from a different material (in addition to a normal set of steel balls, Twilight Zone includes a Powerball which is made of ceramic – it’s lighter and unaffected by magnets used in the gameplay).

Likewise angles can be adjusted, and the sensitivity or power of slingshots and bumpers can be tweaked, or the type of rubber used on the flippers can be made different (soft, high-friction red compared to stiff, lower-friction black). However the structure of space and time within which angles, sensitivity, power, and friction take place simply has to be accepted as a given when it comes to real pinball.

8: Physical Mechanics – these are the underlying moment-to-moment properties and forces that a designer of a real pinball table could not possibly modify. It’s not just a number for gravity, it’s fundamentally how gravity works in terms of acceleration, potential energy, etc. Physical Mechanics is not just about setting the frictional coefficient, it’s how friction works. For nudging, bumping, and slapping, it’s how the machine can be moved and what continuous but brief response both the table and ball obey (in many digital pinball games, continuous forward bumping can crawl the ball all the way up the field; though this can’t be done without setting off the Tilt sensor and freezing the flippers, it’s an absurd capability unrelated to how real nudging affects a ball and table). Angular momentum, friction, collision – the very existence of these aspects is a part of Physical Mechanics, as well as their inner workings.

Because these underlying behaviors in pinball cannot be modified in reality – they can only ever be exactly as they are in reality in general – this layer rarely gets discussed in the design of real pinball tables. Though decisions may be made to account for this knowledge (about, for example, what effect a given ramp’s incline will have on the momentum of a ball), in real pinball there are no decisions to be made about how else these fundamental forces and continuous interactions might work.

In virtual pinball, the Physical Mechanics must be entirely recreated, and consequently the these vary in virtual pinball considerably between implementations, as well as varying between any given virtual implementation and reality. Physical Mechanics, in this sense, includes the fundamental connectivity or structure of space and the progression of time. This may sound needlessly abstract, but in very tangible implementation details, the logic-step nature of software programs and physics-engine calculations have a very real impact on how realistically the finer details of a pinball’s movement can be accounted for. Although newer virtual pinball engines use improved physics calculations to perform continuous collision detection to avoid tunneling, the risk of a pinball going through a thin edge caused many older virtual pinball implementations to enforce an unnaturally low maximum speed on the ball.

As another hint of subtly incorrect physical calculations, while playing a real pinball table the ball will occasionally hop briefly off the table. Sometimes this is due to hitting a slightly loose part, other times from catching a higher friction surface in the table while rolling with significant spin, and occasionally catching the lip of a saucer wrong will cause it to bounce upward. Once or twice on older tables where the glass is closer to the play field (where less overhead room is needed for large toys or elevated areas), I’ve been startled by the ball banging into the glass. I have yet to see or hear the ball leave the play field surface in any virtual pinball game that I can find. This in itself isn’t a big deal – unlike fancy trick pool shots that involve lobbing one ball over another, to my knowledge there are no major gameplay implications to occasional pinball jumping – but it’s indicative of a fundamentally inaccurate handling of ball spin, part collision, friction, momentum, etc.

Techniques and Feel

The last four distinct layers above encapsulate conceptually different sources of gameplay (i.e. non-visual, non-narrative) “feel”:

Layout – The presence of absence of certain features, how crowded or open a space is, and the particular angles/locations of the elements can make the difference between the game feeling smooth, fast, complicated, focused, etc. 

In videogame terms, layout refers to level design.

Triggers – The reactions that form the interface between movements and Mission Rules by translating collision into other events on the field play an important part in the table feeling dynamic and alive. Playing a pinball game where power was disconnected from every part except for the flippers and lights would be gameplay with no triggers – it would consist of nothing more than rolling the ball around ramps and banging it against static parts.

In videogames, triggers are the indirect consequences of discrete events or actions – enemies spawning when a camera spots the player, a door opening when a button is stepped on, or a treasure chest appearing when the player lights all the torches in a room. (This term didn’t require much imagination – I of course borrowed the term Triggers from videogame development, where it’s a common feature of engines to facilitate patterns of scripting-type behaviors with the level editor.)

Kinetics – Kinetics are partly about the tuning of Triggers, but generally more local and granular. However Kinetics are less granular than Physical Mechanics – they are still fundamentally about events, not continuous functions, but it’s about the how and why of events in what they communicate to the player.

For videogames, Kinetics are the tiny but discrete design decisions. Whether a headshot does a different amount of damage than a shot anywhere else (it didn’t in Quake, but it did in most if not all Unreal games) can be thought of as Kinetics – it’s a decision more granular than a trigger, and a property of an independent part rather than a relationship between multiple parts, but it’s not a continuous function with potential for novel consequences to be inferred.

When guards in GoldenEye 007 on N64 die, they immediately drop their gun, making it obvious to the player that they’re permanently defeated. This might otherwise be unclear, since several of the death animations are fairly drawn out, and there are also various hurt animations for an enemy shot that isn’t yet killed. This dropping of the gun isn’t really a trigger, but the matter of how the gun actually falls is within the domain of Physical Mechanics. Because it falls between those two layers of abstraction, the action of dropping the gun in response to dying is a matter of Kinetics.

Physical Mechanics – The easiest way to remember what distinguishes Physical Mechanics from the higher levels of abstraction is that in reality – for pinball or any other purpose – these operations are entirely inflexible and outside the decision space available to designers. In virtual worlds, these continuous interactions need to be specifically rebuilt by the programmers, or adopted as a pre-built implementation through an existing engine/library, and always involve a massive list of either assumptions or exceptions about the way things in the game world will work.

Steve Swink’s extensive study of Mario’s jump operations in his book Game Feel are an example of Physical Mechanics, as are the deliberately floaty physical movements that I tuned for Topple on iPhone (beginning from the Box2D physics engine, and with some key help from John Nesky). In old platforming games where the player’s character lost horizontal speed in mid-air upon taking damage, that’s also a matter of Physical Mechanics, although closer than these other examples to Kinetics.

The main reason that basic player maneuvers that work in real pinball break down for many virtual pinball games is a difference of Physical Mechanics. When flipper forces are implemented differently, spin and friction aren’t treated accurately, collisions are overly idealized, and so on, the set of basic skills available to the player – as well as their relatively difficulty to execute and significance to play – gets scrambled. When the ball is easy to stop because it looses most of its speed rolling up or falling onto a raised flipper, the more advanced ball stopping techniques become unnecessary (what’s more, they’re often not possible in virtual form anyway due to differences in the fundamental behavior of flipper momentum, ball spin, etc.). When the angle a ball takes coming off a flipper is purely a function of its location along the top that the ball hits, without regard for incoming velocity, gameplay becomes more predictable and there’s less reason to need to stop the ball in order to maintain control.

For more specifics about how core gameplay changes based on differences in Physical Mechanics, check out the section at the end of this entry. This relationship between Physical Mechanics and basic moves is an example to what I mean when referring to important gameplay implementation and design decisions that relatively few developers or players would refer to as ‘rules’, despite differences in them generally determining the core gameplay techniques that emerge.

Tying These Together

The emergent techniques possible in a game are a function of Physical Mechanics.

The game successfully communicating the results of actions while they’re happening, in a manner that’s clear and responsive, is a matter of Kinetics.

Strategy is changed based on Layout.

Layout is given life in time and consequence through a mixture of patterned and one-off Triggers.

Videogame Examples

The terms above were mined from studying pinball and comparing the mechanical game to virtual reproductions of it, and consequently the terms do not always fit nicely into general real-time gameplay. There are however many subtle effects that implementation details have on player maneuvers that have previously been difficult to discuss – I’ll try on a few, to see how they fit. There’s plenty of room for further refinement to what I’m attempting here, but it’s a start.

In many Mario games, Mario can hop off heads of opponents, making successive combos possible for extra points and lives. In those same games, thrown turtle shells tend to plow right through enemies, to achieve the same purpose. If Mario powered clean through enemies when landing on them, or if the turtle shells bounced off enemies that they hit, these core maneuvers would be missing. These are best seen as Physical Mechanics, since their implication on gameplay tactics is not directly programmed but an emergent effect (carrying turtle shells until a line of enemies appears, or timing jumps to maximize serial hits).

Likewise, a fireball thrown by Mario with the flower power-up bounces high enough to clear goombas, making Mario’s lateral distance from a goomba important to whether the fireball will hit the enemy; since this is also an effect emergent between continuous functions and dimensions, this also fits better under Physical Mechanics.

On the other hand, when a goomba smashes instantly upon Mario landing on its head, or Mario bounces up then falls off the screen when killed, those are examples of Kinetics.

In Al Alcorn’s original Pong in 1972, the paddles can’t reach the top of the playing field. This was not put in by design, but it was kept by design, and its implication is that the game can’t last indefinitely since skilled players can battle over getting the ball through the other person’s unreachable gap. Players aware of this ‘feature’ shift their attention from just trying to get it past the other player to either getting it past the other player or through that gap. This affects player technique since it creates a specific target to aim for, rather than just an anti-target to aim away from. This is also Physical Mechanics at work.

In Joust there’s another example of an unintended but deliberately kept ‘feature’, which no one can describe better than the game’s creator, John Newcomer:

The bellyflop movement falls under Physical Mechanics, though the action of slipping through between platforms of different heights is a product of Layout.


The purpose of differentiating virtual pinball and mechanical pinball here is not out of an interest in seeing better virtual pinball games that are designed to accommodate more of the techniques that work in real pinball (although I wouldn’t mind; iOS could really use a good pinball game). It was instead to call attention to the notion of Physical Mechanics, and the effect that they have on which player techniques possible, practical, and necessary.

The moves that emerge from Physical Mechanics are not specifically implemented, but now that the techniques are known it can be a conscious decision whether to support or foil them. The programmer of a good virtual pinball game does not add special functionality to make a post pass happen, it instead should arise because of how collision, ball movement, and flipper action are implemented.

Physical Mechanics indirectly shape one of ways of answering the important question in gameplay design, “What does the player do?”

Answer #1 (Narrative Metaphor and Art Theme): The player is attempting to destroy a castle by ramming against the gate, rescue a fair maiden by battling a dragon, rousing the peasant revolt the assisting them with the catapult, jousting for honor, defeating trolls… (from Medieval Madness)

Answer #2 (Triggers, Layout, feedback from Kinetics): The player is trying to hit the ball against that surface, roll all the way around that ramp on the right, fall into that kick out on the left, glide through the back orbit and pass through the bumpers, bang against those targets… (same game)

Answer #3 (Physical Mechanics, depending partly upon Layout): The player is trying to use cradles, bounce passes, drop catches, tip passes, live catches, rolling tap passes, etc. to keep the ball under control and efficiently shoot it at specific targets. (common to nearly any pinball game)

Videogame developers often get away with ignoring that third level of abstraction by simply trying to clone someone else’s game until it feels similar. Not only does this work, it’s the foundation of most pinball – if every game tried to reinvent the core maneuvers, players wouldn’t be able to transfer their hard earned skills between games. However like the issues between real and virtual pinball, if the aim is to recreate the feel of a different game within a new theme and layout, it’s important to not just mimic the parts at a conceptual level, but to pay close attention to preserving the core gameplay that worked in the genre in question (or if straying from it, doing so deliberately and with particular purpose, then testing to heck out of it to ensure there’s still depth in player skill space).

What would Answer #3 look like, i.e. at that same level of abstraction, for older, less sophisticated virtual/software pinball games? Bash the flipper buttons any time the ball gets close to them, and fire the ball when it touches a certain part of the paddle for a consistent angle regardless its incoming velocity or spin… otherwise there’s little depth since the other techniques are either unsupported or unnecessary. It looks like pinball, it sounds like pinball, it has the same “rules” as pinball (in the sense of Mission Rules), but it plays and feels wrong because Physical Mechanics and Kinetics didn’t get the kind of attention they deserve.

Trying to mimic reality is the right move for virtual pinball, since that’s the set of Physical Mechanics within which the various features and strengths of pinball evolved over the decades. The rest of the table design took shape to complement the play techniques available, which derived from reality’s Physical Mechanics. However since pinball is a real-life activity, it has next to zero flexibility in Visualization and Physical Mechanics. These same areas of exploration have to be remade within each and every videogame, and in each case the decisions made about their implementation is far from arbitrary, since how the resulting aspects work together will determine the emergent, useful, and dominant techniques as well as the moment-to-moment player experience.

Worrying too much about recreating reality in the Visualization and Physical Mechanics of videogames would mean a world without rocket jumping, bunny hopping, and circle strafing. If a game is so realistic that it’s modeling every atom correctly (of course this is only hyperbole), it will only really help if it’s for pinball or another literal simulation where the gameplay depends on those particular Physical Mechanics. Otherwise it would strip out the core techniques of platformers, beat ’em ups, shoot ’em ups, fighting games, ball-and-paddle games, maze games, rail-shooters, survival horror games – what makes the gameplay in those games rich isn’t the presentation, narrative, or realism, it’s more so how the Physical Mechanics are implemented, how the Kinetics make those feel right to the player, and how the core techniques they afford work with Triggers throughout the Layouts.

Bonus Section: Pinball Maneuvers

Before I developed an active interest in pinball, I used the flippers in one of three ways: hitting whatever came to me, trying to stop the ball by cradling it (often failing at this – real pinball cradles tend to be significantly less effective than virtual pinball cradles), or scrambling to save a falling ball by wildly banging both buttons.

As explained at the opening of this entry, the difference between a beginner and an expert isn’t that the expert performs the same random and panicked actions slightly more effectively, but that the expert has developed an arsenal of techniques to control the ball much more deliberately.

Since I’m still comparatively inexperienced as a pinball player, we’ll look instead to Pinball World Champion Keith Elwin’s video, Pinball 101, for an overview of a few basic maneuvers. (Pinball 101 is originally available as a DVD, but the full movie is now also available as an iOS app for only a few dollars – if you’re interested in pinball play, I highly recommend it).

To connect to this entry’s thread about comparing real and virtual pinball: some of the following beginner level maneuvers tend to work fairly reliably in modern virtual pinball*, however several of them are still either far too easy, far too hard, completely unnecessary, or impossible in pinball videogames that have come out in the past few years. (The games that do these best are Pinball Arcade on iOS, Midway Pinball Hall of Fame on consoles, and Zen Studios console downloadable pinball games.)

A.) Cradle – stopping the ball by cupping it at the base of an upheld flipper. This only works if the ball has relatively low lateral momentum when it’s initiated, though if it’s coming in too fast there are other more advanced maneuvers to instantly drop the ball speed into range for a cradle.

B.) Flipper pass – when the ball is rolling down from the inlane (the path outside of the slingshot leading to the top of either flipper) too quickly for a cradle, holding up the flipper can create a ramp for the ball to hop across to the opposite flipper, often neutralizing enough speed to cradle on the other side if desired.

C.) Bounce pass – when the ball is rolling down quickly toward a flipper with a steep, nearly vertical angle, instead of hitting the flipper leave it still. The pinball will typically ricochet across to the opposite flipper, setting up a shot from a manageable speed off the other side’s flipper.

D.) Post pass – from cradle position, release to let the ball begin to roll down the flipper, then while still far from the tip fire the flipper to toss it backwards up against the bottom post of the slingshot to send the ball to the other side.

* When it comes to virtual pinball not based on specific real tables, all bets are off, even for the basic maneuvers above. The 1993 game Epic Pinball (ported to iPhone as Retro Pinball) often fails to complete a basic flipper pass due to how rapidly the ball loses speed while rolling up a raised flipper. iOS pinball maker OOO Gameprom (creator of “Pinball HD for iPhone”, which includes several of their once separate releases: Wild West, Deep Blue, and Jungle Style) has overly long flippers that lift to an absurdly steep maximum angle, which both makes cradling too easy (since the wall erected will always block an inlane roll regardless of ball speed), removes the flipper pass since the ball gets cradled instead, and blocks the post pass since bouncing the ball high enough to clear the raised flipper would require triggering the slingshot’s explosive bumper or outright shooting the ball back up into the play field.

A couple of the intermediate maneuvers, neither of which I have yet found reliable in any virtual pinball game (these seem to work on rare occasions in Zen Pinball and Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection):

E.) Drop catch – hold up a flipper as a ball is falling or shot toward it, then drop the flipper immediately after contact with the ball to zero its momentum, bringing it instantly under control. Whether the stopped ball can be safely cradled or needs to be fired promptly from standstill depends on how the ball was spinning on its way toward the flipper. The drop catch is considered the second most important skill after bounce pass.

The reason this technique tends to not work in virtual pinball because it relies partly upon the frictional effect of ball spin and partly upon give/slack on the flipper. Perhaps more importantly, this technique tends to not be necessary in virtual pinball, since getting a virtual ball to slow down or stop tends to take less effort and skill than doing the same for an actual ball.

F.) Flick pass – this looks and works similar to a flipper pass, but works with much lower incoming ball momentum (just a tad more lateral speed than what a cradle could catch, such that attempting to perform a flipper pass from it would cause it to limply roll off the flipper’s tip into the drain). While the ball rolls up a lifted flipper, a very quick release followed instantly by a repress of the same flipper causes the flipper to shake sharply without falling very far, hopping the ball across the gap onto the opposite flipper.

This technique tends to be unworkable in virtual pinball due to the flipper being programmed to always fall all the way down between every button press, preventing the necessary ‘flicking’ action that occurs with electromechanical flippers by quickly cutting and restoring power to the solenoid. Attempting to flick in virtual pinball games tends to just sending it into the play field at full force.

More Techniques

There are many other maneuvers defined and demonstrated in the Pinball 101 video that I have not included here: tip pass, alley pass, live catch, loop pass, tap pass, rolling tap pass, post catch, plus a few multi-ball specific maneuvers. If you’re interested in these, please consider looking up the Pinball 101 DVD or iOS app, which also contains animated diagrams and live demonstrations for each move, including a lot of other information about playing pinball. As with the Tilt documentary, I’m in no way in cahoots with the person behind Pinball 101, but (a.) it’s worthwhile, and (b.) I figure the brief plug is the last I can do since I leaned a bit on his expertise for part of the material in this entry.

Alternatively, there is another free resource on the web with descriptions and animations for a number of skills over at the Internet Pinball Database’s section on playing pinball skillfully. There’s also a YouTube video of Neil Shatz demonstrating several flipper skills.

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