Pinball-Based Design and Presentation (Parallel Appeals)

Aug 11, 2011

It was not player dissatisfaction that disrupted the pinball industry. It was the high cost of manufacturing, distributing, and maintaining such equipment compared to software-only sales, arcade videogame cabinets (which have about 3,000 fewer parts to break, jam, burn out, or otherwise need repair and replacing), and slot machines (where mechanical maintenance is offset by higher returns – several companies formerly designing pinball machines went this direction).

Pinball is unfortunately non-trivial
to manufacture and properly maintain.

There are still worthwhile lessons to learn from studying how pinball machines pulled in players, held their attention, and kept them coming back.

Pinball machines work at numerous levels, corresponding to the player’s experience, personality, and approach to gameplay:

1.) Pinball as Salesperson

Appeal to: Attention

Get the playing thinking: “That sounds/looks fun – what is it?”

A salesperson’s work is to get someone’s attention, then persuade the listener(s) to buy something. This is part of what pinball’s sounds and lights are designed to do. It’s no accident that it sounds fun and it looks fun before even figuring out what it is.


2.) Pinball as Display Window

Appeal to: Imagination

Get the player thinking, “Hey, Lord of the Rings*! I wonder what they included from it…”

* Or: Space Aliens! / Addams Family! / Carnivals! / Racing! / Elton John!

The back glass – the tall head of the machine with a brightly lit image and score displays – does much of the work here. Artists like Roy Parker became masters at putting together a pleasing, eye-catching visual. The artwork on the play field helps as well, when the player is close enough (or drawn close enough) to notice it.

The videogame equivalent might be the side of an arcade cabinet, or the front of a software box on the shelf. The ‘play field’ in the case of boxed retail goods would be the screenshots on the back.

Movie licenses have become common – it’s all Stern Pinball seems to make anymore – for their instant recognizability. However even before that pinball machines were riding on the coattails of film and TV with knock-off/spoof IP like Dragonette (it was based on Dragnet, and had nothing to do with dragons) or F-14 Tomcat (unofficially playing off of Top Gun’s attention, which came out the year prior). The wacky paddle positions in Q-Bert’s Quest are not what drew me to it, likewise for the Super Mario Bros table (both of which I’ve only been able to semi-play in Visual Pinball / VPinMame). I took an interest in those games purely because I recognized their themes, and wanted to see how someone might create a pinball machine around each of these games. Only after the theme wins the player’s attention and brings them over can the layout and mechanics of the play field have a chance to make a difference.

Dragnet spoof.

Appealing to Top Gun fans.

Elton John. Just in case
you thought I was joking.
Context (video) – for if
you’re my age or younger.

3.) Pinball as Chaotic Spectacle

Appeal to: Thrill of fireworks shows (booms, bangs, and glowing colors) and reckless play

Get the player thinking: “I’m just hitting the ball anywhere, but sometimes I get lucky and the machine goes crazy with lights and sounds. It’s exciting. I instantly feel good at it.”

The novelty and surprises as rewards for skills and lucky accidents, as well as the feel and flow of the table – these factors only become relevant at this stage of interaction.

People new to pinball play it like people new to pool: they just hit the ball in the general direction of targets and hope something good will happen. Pinball designers like Pat Lawlor went out of their way to ensure that even when the player misses or fires blindly, something good happens. In an interview for the documentary Tilt’s extras*, Lawlor describes that approach, from the player’s perspective he aims to support, with the phrase, “I meant to do that.”

It’s not necessary to progress any further toward developed skill or underlying depth to enjoy pinball. Although there is a different and perhaps longer-lasting type of satisfaction to be found in digging deeper and getting better, in pinball it’s entirely possible to enjoy the game without being particularly good at it nor even making any effort to get better at it. There’s genuine pleasure in live spectacle. Though it would be a harder sell, a ‘pinball’ machine could offer just a 2 minute sound and light show and shoot a shiny ball around without any player input, and it might still find some people willing to pay $0.25 for it – a bit like the old gum ball machines that added value by having the candy spiral down a tall enclosed helix before vending the purchase.

*(As mentioned in another entry this month: the extras disc is not included in the iTunes purchase. Consider ordering from their website if interested. I have absolutely no stake in the DVD selling, but (a.) it really is quite good (and b.) linking to it here helps alleviate some of my guilt over borrowing so many quotes from it in the entries this month.)

I don’t understand what to
what to do in Diner, but just
hitting the ball around makes
exciting things happen.
Note that the DINER lights
are not out, but cycling –
this can make pinball games
hard to photograph in their
typically dark settings (bars,
theater side rooms, arcades,
bowling alley game areas) since
at any given instant in time,
much of the table is dark.

4.) Pinball as Self-Contained Toybox

Appeal to: Fascination with miniatures

Target thought: “I want to see what that does.”

The toys on the play field, such as Steve Ritchie’s dancing Elvis or Brian Eddy’s exploding castle in Medieval Madness, add to the spectacle, surprise, and appeal to imagination. The toys are just delightful to see working.

The creepy face in Funhouse, Rudy, is what first drew my attention to it.

Using toys more selectively keeps them special. Designer Larry DeMar explained (also in the extras of Tilt) this as one of the balancing challenges of The Addams Family pinball machine from 1992. Initially the Thing hand was designed to come out and grab the ball too frequently, and testing revealed that they needed to scale it back to keep it interesting and special for the player.

Having dynamic toys on the play field is a feature of pinball that completely loses its magic in virtual remakes. Pinball videogames like the Pinball Hall of Fame collections (both Williams and Gottlieb versions) and Visual Pinball + VPinMAME or Future Pinball (supporting many fan-made table remakes via and respectively) include the same parts, sounds, and animations, but the impact is watered down beyond recognition. When a plastic castle rumbles and tips, an Elvis action figure swings its hips, a mechanical face begins talking and looking around, or a toy hand reaches out of a box and picks up a steel ball, it is genuinely surprising and novel. The toy comes to life, seeming to act on its own accord. Of course when a polygonal model of these things – existing purely in software – rotates, animates, plays recorded speech, or moves the ball around the screen, it’s far less impressive. In the realm of what pure 3D graphics, animation, and audio can accomplish, these simple behaviors are tame, ordinary, and unprofessional looking. (Marvel Pinball on PSN by Zen Studios, which uses original table designs for virtual play instead of remakes of real tables, gets around this issue by using fully animated characters, particle effects, and other visual flair fitting user expectations for on-screen displays.)

That the mouth of Rudy’s face in
Funhouse is the correct height and
size for a ball to go in surely helps.
It’s a clear challenge to the player.

5.) Pinball as a Basic Skill

Appeal to: Desire to get better at what looks deceptively simple (simply keeping the ball in play – the same appeal as the classic bouncy ball strung to a paddle)

Get the player thinking: “I used to lose really quickly sometimes. Now I can keep it going awhile, and my scores are much higher. I’m visibly getting better.”

It’s possible to play a long time without/before caring about score or how the machine’s Mission Rules tie together. It takes a certain level of base skill and familiarity with a machine before those thoughts become relevant.

If pinball were just about novelty, this is where we’d step off the ride. It isn’t, of course. There’s a game of skill buried behind all that noise and flashing.

Beyond keeping the ball alive, this level of play typically involves setting one-off personal goals: focusing on trying to get up a particular ramp, or trying to clear all drop target banks before running out of plays, etc.

For many, many players though, play will likely never progress beyond this stage of consideration. As mentioned in my entries on heuristic play patterns (example), the majority of players tend to fall into the category of “experienced but not expert”. Such behavior is weakly adaptive, but overall focused on nothing more advanced than trying to keep the ball in play, occasionally shooting for specific targets, and hoping something exciting happens.

This is the stage of interaction at which a player begins to feel somewhat competent at pinball, rather than random and out of control. Somewhere between starting this stage and advancing to the next one, a player goes from feeling a bit self-conscious and nervous about being watched to feeling proud and confident to have someone else paying attention.

When I was new to this machine,
I practiced hitting the toilet,
since it’s in at an easy central
angle off the right flipper. Now
that I’ve had more time with the
table, I’m trying to get better at
hitting the Mojo targets and Mini-Me
ramp from that flipper instead, since
those are a bit more difficult to reach.

6.) Pinball as a General Skill

Appeal to: Competitive drive to master challenging and unfamiliar domains.

This thinking bridges the gap from, “I play pinball,” (often in reference to one or two favorite local tables) to “I’m good at pinball,” (often in reference to a number of tables, and pinball more generally, even if with a personal focus on a few particular ones).

Beyond simply keeping the ball in play, there are a number of intermediate and advanced skills in pinball for players to practice (some are listed in this month’s Advanced entry). For each of these tacit skills, there are two aspects to learning it: (1.) rapidly recognizing the right situation to apply each technique (and 2.) practicing muscle memory to reliably execute each maneuver successfully under pressure. Mastering these skills, much like practicing chords on a guitar, can prepare someone to be more successful at pinball in general, not only on a particular machine, but extending to improving performance on tables that they’ve never seen or played before.

The videogame equivalent might go something like, “I’m pretty good at FPS games,” or “I used to play a lot of Command & Conquer and StarCraft – so although I haven’t played this particular RTS game yet, I’m sure I’ll pick it up easily.”

The pinball analog, to be clear, might be: “I have pretty reasonable control over keeping the ball in play and getting it to different areas. If I don’t yet know what happens when I go up a particular ramp or hit a target, I just try it. Usually I’m able to figure out which of the handful of standard conventions or patterns are being applied.”

Part of what makes this development of general skill possible is a clear grammar, or visual and interactive language, conventions that are consistent between tables. That grammar in pinball is then used to compose each game as a rearrangement of recognizable, known parts (bumpers, slingshots, rollovers, flippers, plunger, drop target banks…). In pinball this approach was partly guided by manufacturing reuse and what parts could be mass produced economically in a fashion rugged enough to survive being hit repeatedly by a steel ball; by comparison in videogames, where duplication of designed virtual components is zero-cost and maintenance-free, it’s driven more purely by a need to establish, build upon, and incrementally advance player-understood conventions (ex. health bar, lives, power-ups…).

Multiball is also a part of that standard grammar: not in its affordance, like the other parts mentioned (expectation of consequence before it happens), but in its reverse interpretation (recognition of excitement as a visceral reward for something done which must have been praiseworthy). In addition to the natural excitement of trying to keep several balls in play simultaneously, seeing multiball initiate is a bit like seeing your Tetris blocks all change to a new palette – it reads intuitively as a sign that you’re playing well.

The similarity between individual components in machines – at least those from a given company during a given era of pinball history – makes ‘level design’ a useful metaphor from videogame production. The game (here real pinball, as opposed to Call of Duty or Arkanoid) has an established language known to the player about how each part behaves – and the design task becomes a matter of laying them out and theming them.

Note that this metaphor should not be taken too literally, though; a pinball machine in the 90’s took an engineer a year or more to design, the complexity of wiring and mechanical consideration has to be factored in, and the lively chaos of a real ball striking and spinning against real materials gives a pinball table substantially higher replay value than the typical level from a particular game (although levels famous for their replay value, such as 2fort in Team Fortress or de_dust in Counter Strike may be roughly analogous). In the case of pinball, the level is the standalone game.

By the time I played Tron I had
practiced on a variety of other
tables, allowing me to approach
the gameplay more deliberately.

8.) Pinball as Per-Game Knowledge

Appeal to: Being the best, being in control, having confidence

Player thought: “I can challenge anyone on Funhouse.”

The goal at this point is getting the player to obsess over a particular table – learning its ins and outs, developing an actionable strategy to identify techniques that optimize reward against risk, and adapting general skills to meet the precise needs of a given playfield.

Every table has its own particular sequences, goals, and tricks to be performed. Even after someone is an expert ball handler, that skill won’t go far unless someone knows where to put the ball, when, and why. Contrary to the looks of many pinball machines, their reward structures are often surprisingly complex. (Check out the instruction guide to playing The Simpson’s Party.)

The parallel from videogame players might be along the lines of, “My time with Halo and Quake helped me with dodging and aiming in this new FPS, but it wasn’t until I figured out which guns fire through cover and learned the multiplayer maps that I really began to dominate.”

Here’s the guide for Indiana Jones.
I’m not good enough at basic control
yet to worry about these sequences
and details, but it’s clear that the
best players take risks and tradeoffs
based on knowing this information.
The effect that these rules have on
a player at my level is that the table
unpredictably changes modes while I play.
Though that sounds awful and undesirable,
it actually makes the game more enjoyable,
since it leads to accidental discovery of
features and keeps the play field dynamic.

It’s About Supporting a Variety of Players

The above stages are not universal. Some people aren’t as interested in the art or the concept, and others aren’t as interested in the potential gameplay tricks or competitive scoring strategies.

There are a variety of different ways that each pinball machine can appeal to different interests and priorities in people. One of my friends went straight for multiplayer competition, inviting others to compete in turn taking instead of practicing alone. Another friend took an immediate interest in his scores and trying to improve them each time, leading him to check the instructions before playing each game.

The differences in depth outlined earlier in this entry can be thought of as just another form of player preference, albeit a type of preference that changes over time as a player gains experience. It’s an approach that appeals to both inexperienced and experienced players, in different ways, keeping a player engaged as they mature within the general domain and with each particular game.

Pinball, like any good twitch gameplay experience, benefits by being able to work well at many of these levels and types of appeals. These appeals are simultaneous and parallel, not serially gated one behind another, so no matter what the player’s preference or experience level is, it’s ready for their enjoyment immediately.

I can have fun on this table,
and so can a first-time player,
and so can an expert. There’s no
difficulty switch – we’re each just
getting something different out of it.

Next up:
Pinball and Rules: Rough Divisions of Real-Time Gameplay

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