As many of you know, I’m a big fan of the genre of electromechanical games known as Pinball. I got a chance to spend some time with the Twilight Zone machine over at Emporium Arcade Bar recently, and I want to share some thoughts about pinball design which might apply more broadly to game design experiences.
Over time, it seems, pinball rules have become more and more obscure. In tournaments where precise control of the ball is the skill most tested, it makes sense to have long chains of events which result in increasing point values. But in casual play, the rules often seem overcomplicated. Here is the rule sheet for the Twilight Zone machine I was playing. Check out this video where the rules of Bally’s ‘Frontier’ machine are explained.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most pinball players care about three things:
- Length of play
- Play Modes
Length of play is an obvious way that a casual pinball player can feel good about a session. The longer you play, the more chance you feel have of activating something special, and you can’t help but accrue points just by hitting things randomly. Conversely, when the ball goes down the drain and out of play, that’s a very punishing feeling.
Toys are the interesting things sticking out of the playfield. Sometimes they flash or jiggle or make noises, or all three! When a toy is activated, it’s very rewarding, regardless of the point bonus they often represent. Sometimes they have interesting gameplay consequences, as in one of my favorite machines of all time, Jurassic Park.
Probably the most rewarding thing — and what people care about the most — is activating different modes of play. It’s accepted that shooting the ball up the field with the plunger and flippers is the standard mode of play, but breaking up the fun with different kinds of experience is a core gameplay principle. Think about the power-pellets in Pac-Man, which switches the player from the hunted to the hunter, or the special contraptions in Jetpack Joyride which change up the input. The problem in pinball is, outside of expert play, these things are far too rare. Getting a multiball or a mini-playfield often requires unlocking that experience by performing a sequence of difficult actions.
You can even think about a pinball machine as just one part of a larger game, which is getting the most enjoyment out of the pinball available to you. If points are to have any value in that context, they need to be standardized across machines, otherwise the question will always be “is 540,000 points good?” Outside of competitive play, everything is made up and the points don’t matter.
I don’t like to point out a problem without offering some solutions, so here they are:
- I DON’T think that points should be eliminated, and I’m skeptical that they’ll ever be standardized across games. I do think they should be clear consequences of specific actions, pointed out with something other than a playfield light, which are so easy to ignore amongst all the other flashing whatsits. It would be great if points could be displayed over the place where the points were awarded, perhaps by projecting onto the playfield glass?
- Activating toys and modes should be more straightforward, though not necessarily less difficult. For example, getting the ball up a narrow ramp can be very difficult, especially if there are drop targets in front of it. Drop targets (panels which drop below the playfield when hit by the ball) are a very intuitive, straightforward way of barring progress. It can be difficult, as long as the player understands the steps needed to trigger a special event WITHOUT READING.
- Extend the average playtime, if possible. I know this is the arcade business, and that the margins on pinball are the worst they’ve ever been, but when the Donkey Kong machine right next door gives the player more playtime, that’s where they’ll put their quarter.
- Make it quality time. People need to feel powerful and competent right away, and there are some pinball games that already do this. Bride of Pin-Bot, I’ve noticed, makes some ramps and moving targets really accessible to new players, and saves others for the advanced (or lucky) ones. Just the fact that you can hit a ramp reliably feels like a huge accomplishment. Other games (such as a favorite of mine for other reasons, Black Hole) make the player feel stupid. If there is a big empty area in the center of the playfield, or a lot of stationary targets that just bounce the ball up into the glass, they’re gonna have a bad time.
I’m really excited about what’s happening in pinball right now, and I hope that this article will cause pinball designers to spend a little more time thinking about this segment of players — the casual barroom or arcade player, who plays pinball because it’s there, not because he loves the flippers the way we do.
That goes for other game experiences, too. I wish that hardcore games of all types would consider the players that might wander in looking for a few minutes amusement. Being a hardcore gamer should not be a prerequisite for playing COD, but playing COD should make me want to become a hardcore gamer. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe high-profile videogames can afford to turn away users by the millions because there are still millions more. Pinball, however, definitely does not have that privilege.