Pinball as Historical Player-vs-Machine Twitch Gameplay

Aug 11, 2011

The types of videogames that I enjoy – or at least the aspects of videogames that I enjoy most – are those focused on hand-eye coordination, immediate playability, rewarding audio & visual spectacle, bringing order to chaos, and practice/replay.

Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of the existing literature, workshop resources, and publicly documented design techniques for videogames emphasize the qualities that are rooted in turn-based decision space, or narrative theatrical development, neither of which captures those specific qualities that speak to me.

(Although I’ll often refer to those games emphasizing the qualities I’m focused on here as “arcade-style videogames”, note that by extension I am including those early console games from the Atari 2600 through the Super Nintendo era that were ports or clones of arcade coin-op games, as well as those console or web games developed since that have carried on in similar style and design tradition.)

Shifting from Sports to Pinball

In earlier HobbyGameDev entries, I used to use sports as my reference for pre-videogame or non-digital forms of real-time twitch gameplay. This seemed a better match for arcade-style gameplay discussion than turn-based and decision-centric games due to the emphasis in sports on practicing skills, playing at the limit of our decision and reaction time, and developing hand-eye coordination. However a clear divide between most sports play and most arcade-style videogame play is unavoidable, based in essential sports qualities like rich complexity of bodily movements, the importance of physiological factors in fatigue, the general emphasis on direct human-vs-human competition, and the regulation playfield which is typically devoid of imaginative artwork, fictional theme, or substantial variety in arrangement (with narrow exceptions such as playing field surface in tennis, or the height and distances of home run fences in baseball stadiums, and a few full counter-examples like variations in golf course design).

This past month, pinball replaced sports as my key reference point for historical origins and non-digital perspectives on arcade-style videogame play. This began with the first few chapters of The First Quarter, by Steven L. Kent (I highly recommend this, by the way; it was rereleased and slightly extended as “The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon”). I have obviously long been aware of pinball’s existence, and though I had played it a little over the years, until recently I completely overlooked the connection between its player experience, business and cultural obstacles, and gameplay design in relation to real-time videogames.

Clearly not a videogame, though
in terms of gameplay design it
has quite a bit in common with
real-time arcade-style videogames.

The Pacific Pinball Museum

In previous entries investigating games and rules (older HobbyGameDev entries include both a blunt, clear version and a slightly more academic follow-up), I had no choice but to resign pinball and other mechanical games to a footnote. On the one hand, pinball gameplay seemed very likely to possess some similarities to the design and play of real-time videogames. On the other, I had little to no access to real pinball to investigate the matter further, and I had a gut feeling that digital pinball machines were quite different from real ones. (This suspicion is similar to my conviction that studying real-time play based on memory of play, watching someone else play, or mostly/only watching YouTube videos is a common source of incorrect junk theories slipping into gameplay design discourse.)

I lived in Berkeley this summer working for Will Wright’s Stupid Fun Club. East Bay turned out to be an ideal location for me to develop an outside interest in pinball, since Alameda just south of Berkeley is home of the Pacific Pinball Museum. For $15 admission, the museum offers unlimited free play until the museum closes, with roughly 90 playable machines spanning the 1950’s up through the 1990’s. Combined with the Austin Powers table in the theater nearby and the poorly maintained Elvis table in the record store down the street, I had enough access to varied examples that I could gain a little traction on studying pinball gameplay firsthand.

There are 4 rooms of pinball
machines at the museum. These
are the oldest in the collection.

These are their newest,
except for a few Stern
tables at the entrance.

Pinball’s Similarities

Here, in pinball, is an activity of player vs designed contraption, abiding by structurally-enforced/unbreakable ‘rules’ (why the scare quotes?), emphasizing reaction time and anticipating angles, rewarding the player with instant audio/visual spectacle, and typically played in short 3 minute solo sessions of heuristic feel and skill instead of hours of sequential decisions and/or reading human intention. Pinball games are imaginatively themed, the controls are precise and unambiguous, and this category is all around the closest non-videogame play experience to the types of videogames that I find most neglected in study (besides, perhaps, a handful electromechanical games like Chicago Coin Speedway and Sega’s Periscope, however in the interest of space I’ll leave that category for another time).

Like videogames, pinball employs thousands of themes, from cowboys and indians to racing to Star Wars. Like videogames, the input and player access is narrowly restricted and indirect – two flippers (triggered by discrete input buttons), a 1-axis analog plunger, plus subtle adjustments from nudge/shake/slap interactions. (Granted, performing the body english aspect of pinball well straddles the line between sport and videogame in input fluidity, however my argument is not that videogames and pinball are exactly the same, only that they have much in common.) Successful gameplay in both real-time videogames and pinball is built around executing a series of skilled maneuvers, where the skill has more to do with timing and anticipation than bodily dexterity (again, nudging aside). Scores in both types of games without a clear maximum – wraparound and overflow events for master players notwithstanding – provide an objective measure of accomplishment between rounds, even during single-player play (which, unlike swimming or running unaccompanied, is not just practice but is instead the final activity itself).

Pay-per-play, specific to public pinball tables and actual coin-op videogames at the exclusion of home-pinball tables and at-home arcade-style gameplay, also shared the same effects on early gameplay design in both media: promoting short play time (~2-5 min on average for non-expert players) through steep difficulty and a measure of unpredictability. The pay-per-play mechanism simultaneously discourages training isolated skills; non-expert players are very unlikely to spend quarters focusing on ball handling fundamentals or drilling shots to a particular target. Because skilled play can stretch out how long the gameplay lasts, pay-per-play also establishes a real reward for improving skill: more play time at the same or lower cost.

Overlap in Pinball/Videogame Designers

Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, the Williams developers behind Defender and Robotron 2084, were very successful pinball developers at the same company before then. Although Williams was best known for pinball leading up to that time, John Newcomer at Williams created Joust (Newcomer’s background was as a toy designer, however, not as a pinball designer, though I’m partial to George Gomez’s perspective that pinball is really just a toy that costs thousands of dollars).

Ed Boon, the co-creator of Mortal Kombat, was a pinball developer only a few years prior.

Ed Boon, later Mortal Kombat’s
co-creator, was the voice of this
creepy face in Funhouse. Boon also
did effects and software for a number
of other pinball games.

Several companies now mostly associated with videogames, including Midway, Sega, Data East (creators of Burgertime), Atari, (briefly) Capcom, and Taito (specializing in Williams/Bally/Gottlieb knockoffs for Brazil) designed and/or manufactured pinball machines.

Atari logos on one of Atari’s
widebody tables, Superman.

From the other side Bally, Gottlieb, and Stern, much better known for pinball machines than videogames, had brief but important forays into 80’s videogames. Bally developed a failed and overpriced but otherwise more advanced home videogame console, as well as licensing the coin-op blockbusters Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Ms. Pac-Man. Gottlieb created the iconic Q*Bert, an extremely popular and successful early arcade game – the cabinet even included a number of features and mechanisms borrowed from the company’s pinball machines, including a loud mechanical knocker (used when Q-Bert dropped off the field) and a voice chip originally intended for use in pinball tables. Meanwhile at Stern Electronics – a company formerly making mechanical games as Chicago Coin, under new ownership by the family later famous for the still-active Stern Pinball – employee Alan McNeil created Berzerk, an early action videogame arcade hit. One year prior, McNeil programmed the software for the Meteor pinball game.

(My source for much of this information, by the way, is Kent’s The First Quarter, the documentary Tilt and its extras, and the Internet Pinball Database.)

George Gomez, in addition to developing pinball machines since 1994 (he is still creating new pinball games at Stern), was on the original team for the Tron videogame, designed Spy Hunter, and later helped design Midway’s NBA Ballers franchise of basketball videogames.

Toru Iwatani, the developer responsible for Pac-Man, was a pinball enthusiast before he began creating videogames (“Iwatani wanted to create pinball tables, but Namco was only manufacturing videogames…” – from The First Quarter, p. 114). Even if Iwatani did not borrow from pinball design deliberately, it seems likely that concepts he enjoyed about pinball may have helped shape areas of his thinking. Possible examples include conditional “special when lit” awards (ghosts turning into collectibles after getting power pills), time-sensitive targets (fruits that disappears if not collected), constant audio feedback (Pac-Man is an especially noisy game), unpredictability as a core element (ghost AI – …excluding the unintended manipulation patterns that master players memorize), earning an extra life from scoring enough points (though Ed Logg’s Asteroids in the US beat Pac-Man to this mechanic by a year, that also reinforces that this element was new to videogames around  at the time and not yet a convention; by comparison, pinball machines had been awarding an Extra Ball after score milestones for nearly two decades before videogames did).

I’ll spare my more skeptical readers the trouble of calling me out here, and admit the possibility that so far all this is a matter of confusion, post hoc ergo propter hoc. I pointed out that these developers and companies worked on pinball games, and that they then worked on real-time arcade videogames, and perhaps I am trying too hard to force the idea that therefore real-time arcade-style videogame design followed from the design of coin-op pinball tables. Admittedly, the grounds shown for that claim up to this point are circumstantial. To dig deeper, we’ll need to turn to the design techniques and concerns of pinball designers, in their own words, to consider how relevant they are to real-time gameplay.

Pinball Designers on Game Design

What follows are excerpts from interviews in the authoritative ‘Pinball!’ by Roger Sharpe (1977), except where otherwise noted. The author and interviewer, Sharpe, is a famed pinball historian, worked for many years at Williams in their pinball division, and was the player that the NYC city council brought in 35 years ago to demonstrate that pinball is more a game of skill than a game of chance (which he did, breaking pinball free from more than 3 decades of being illegal in NYC due to prior association with gambling machines).

My purpose in sharing these is to search for arguments and design ideas from pinball that may still be relevant to modern and classic arcade-style videogames.

Norm Clark, chief engineer of novelty division at Bally, had this to say about playable real-time prototyping in the design process: “Once we have our design idea [sketched out], we’ll make up what we call a ‘whitewood,’ which is nothing more than a playfield that is fitted with particular fields noted on the design sketch. The whitewood is the design stage that lets us test out our ideas in action, to see if they work as well as we think they will. The most important criterion is play appeal. What does a new feature do? What does it mean to the player? These are the questions we constantly ask ourselves. And of course there has to be an element of skill, and plenty of play action as well. Then we must be certain that the game will be completed within certain time limits; for a five ball game, it’s about two and a half minutes.”

That the division of Bally responsible for pinball machines was the “novelty” division is itself a useful consideration. How much of what we enjoy about arcade-style videogames is based in novelty? And yet, strangely, I’ve never even heard the word in connection to real-time videogame design, except when used as a pejorative about iPhone whoopee cushion and gun apps – but novelty is a big part of the appeal of games like Angry Birds. Focusing on novelty has implications on feel, on style, on expected duration, and a host of other development considerations. Two other gems from Clark: 

“As the designer, you’re constantly thinking of the player, trying to figure out what he wants. What the designer wants comes second. This isn’t easy. What players wanted two years ago is not what they want today. So designers have to be aware of what’s popular.”

“I get most of my ideas from watching people play. I notice how they react to the features on the playfield and I take it from there.”

Adding to the prototyping process, pinball pioneer and founder of one of the last remaining pinball manufacturers (Jersey Jack, founded this year, is the other one), Gary Stern said: “You’ll plug holes and drill new ones until the game plays the way you want it to… We’re always looking for something new, for something better, that makes the play a little more interesting, while adding to the action.”

Alvin Gottlieb, son of David Gottlieb (David Gottlieb’s company was the first commercially successful pinball manufacturer, and continued to be a powerhouse in the industry until the early 90’s),  noting the importance of luck, said, “If carefully aimed shots from the flippers could easily hit every feature on the board, then a skilled player would just tear the game to pieces.” Steven Kordek, credited with inventing the drop target (for Vagabond, 1962), being the first to put two flippers at the bottom of the table (for Triple Action in 1948; the year prior most games had 6 flippers, and before that tables were plunger and nudging only), and sometimes credited with multi-ball (for Beat the Clock, 1963 – though depending on definition multi-ball existed in some form since 1956), added that well-designed pinball should be around 75% skill, 25% luck.

Humpty Dumpty, the first game
with flippers, beginning a trend
of 6-flipper games until Kordek
began the tradition of using only
two along the bottom of the table.

Even though individual tables are often referred to as the invention of one person for the sake of simplicity – a lazy shortcut that I’m guilty of using as well – Sam Stern emphasized the group effort involved. “A game is not one person’s game… Everyone in the company will make suggestions for changes and if they’re good ones, they go into the game.” What he didn’t mention – but is another natural analog between videogame development and pinball development – is that the projects genuinely are the product of many talented specialists in collaboration, with different people responsible for art, audio, engineering (often the same person as the designer, since implementation challenges heavily influence design), game concept, etc.

One aspect of that specialist collaboration that echoes in today’s design discussions is the conflict between gameplay flow and interruption for narrative sequences. In the extras of the documentary Tilt, designers refer to the constant battle between designers/engineers who want the ball to always be in-play for exciting flow, pitted against the desires of the dot matrix programmers and concept guys who want the ball held in a stop-and-go fashion by saucers and kick outs while entertaining and detailed information gets communicated on the back glass display for the player to have better narrative and mission context.

Other thoughts from the Tilt documentary’s extras, coming from the accomplished designer George Gomez mentioned earlier, include that if the table is well designed, when the ball drains the player feels accountable for that loss, not like the game just took the ball away from them. On the other end of the experience, as Gomez explained in Tilt, “Everything in the game is designed to reward [the player] the further he gets into the game, make him feel like a hero. We should be going crazy with the lights, the music should come up, the energy of the game, the display should be going nuts… all of those things should be giving the feedback to the player that wow, ‘look what I just did.’ That’s what a well designed game does.”

Gomez also explained that many designers, including himself, work from a division of angles into a “7-shot array.” However every designer has their own style and quirks. Pat Lawlor, for example, doesn’t use the 7-shot array. Gomez explained that Lawlor instead begins by putting the main elements where he wants them, then designs the shots around that.

In something that I suspect videogame developers will universally relate to, in a 2009 blog interview, Gomez quipped, “The dev cycle… license or not, there is never enough time.”

Though easier to get, the iTunes
download is only the first disc.
The second disc has ~7 hours of
interviews and other firsthand
source materials. The set can be
ordered from the filmmakers

Differences Between Companies

Sharing just a few more excerpts from Sharpe’s book, here are the differences that he identified between various pinball companies in 1977. Again here, the types of distinctions that he draws between the products of each company involve terms and concepts relating naturally to aspects of modern and classical real-time videogames.

“…Gottlieb… has remained the most consistently popular manufacturer… [designing] games around a workable and proven format. There are few surprises to the basics of their machines, which offer interesting features and play action to challenge the pinball wizard, while still giving the average player a chance to win.

“Bally is the risk-taker and innovator of the industry with games that frequently offer unusual designs and features such as asymmetrical playfields. Although recent models have moved away from the gimmick – or novelty – feature, Bally still tends to surprise and test the skills of players on all levels.

Old Chicago, a 1976 Bally table.

“Williams games are fast, with open playfields that demand quick reflexes to keep a ball in play. Rollovers and big sweeping lanes have long been a trademark of many of their greatest models…

“Chicago Coin also built fast games, but they tended to be less frustrating than Williams and also a bit ‘looser.’ for this reason, better players have sometimes shunned Chicago Coin games because of the ‘feel’ of the machine. However, much or this has begun to change following the [then, 1976] recent takeover by Sam Stern. His initial efforts have offered games more closely aligned to Williams machines.”

Lots of Work to Do

I tend to try to keep HobbyGameDev entries each a closed thought, but this is only the beginning. Despite reading, watching, and playing everything that I can get ahold of related to pinball over the past month, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of making sense out of pinball’s design and historical relevance to early arcade-style videogames. Buried in pinball’s 64-140 year history (flippers have only been used since Humpty Dumpty in 1947, but spring plunger and inclined playfield have been around since Improvements to Bagatelle in 1871), there’s is a distinct school of gameplay design focused on replay value, skill-based solo play balanced to be enjoyed by both beginners and experts (on the same table against the exact same challenges, without resorting to multiple difficulty modes), building and working with a rich vocabulary of common conventions, and so on.

Before videogames were faced with the question of how much to take away from the player after losing a life, pinball designers were thinking about whether a lost round should release balls the player had trapped toward multiball, which types of progress to reset (multipliers? mission sequences?), and otherwise what sort of punishment would seem fair, significant, and understandable. Long before videogame players were struggling to avoid having their concentration lost to overwhelming excitement, self-directed frustration, and too much happening at once, pinball players had already discovered the thrills of these challenges to composure, also to do little more than simply paying attention and pushing buttons. Before videogames were using themes and art to draw people in then story symbolism to confer information about goals, causality, and sequence, pinball games were doing the same.

Next up:
How pinball appeals to many experience levels and player types in parallel

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