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Gama Network Presents:

The Unique Design Challenge of Pinball Simulations
By Ernest Adams
October 3, 2005

Before I get into this month's topic, a follow-up from last month's "Bill of Players' Rights" Several people wrote in with suggestions for amendments, but there's only one I want to mention at the moment. Reid Kimball put it very eloquently:

The Right to Accessibility Features. I can't think of one game that doesn't come with a choice of multiple skill levels. Developers understand that gamers are not all created equal in skill level. So why do developers frequently neglect to add accessibility features that may compensate for a gamer's hearing, vision, cognitive or physical disabilities? After all, not all gamers have perfect hearing and many have various eye conditions that make picking out the fine details within a game more difficult. There's a range of disabilities, some small, some extreme, and game developers are unaware of how they affect a player's experience with their game. This unawareness is hurting their ability to reach out to more players. All games should allow the player to turn on closed captioning for dialog and sound effects for the entire duration of a game in cinematics and gameplay. A game should also allow gamers to use high contrast video modes and scalable text sizes to help readability. Those are just a couple of many accessibility examples games should utilize.

I agree completely, and I might add red-green color-blindness as another one that affects a sigificant part of the male population. I know it sounds easy to say after the fact, but I actually considered including a right to accessibility in my original article, but decided against it because I didn't know enough about the issues. So consider this Amendment 1 of the Bill of Player's Rights, and if you're interested in the subject, the IGDA has a Special Interest Group with a website you might want to look into. Reid also has a page of his own about closed captioning issues.

I love pinball. I'm not a fanatic -- I never had enough money to be a fanatic -- and my hand-eye coordination isn't great, so I was never terribly good at it. But I enjoy it all the same. There's something very satisfying about playing a good pinball machine. It's a rich sensory experience. The heavy silver balls, the ringing of the bells, the flashing of the lights, and the complex three-dimensionality of the play area give the game a feeling of solidity. Pinball machines are not violent, but they are energetic, almost aggressive. The kickers and bumpers slam the ball around with great force, and if the ball flies up and hits the glass, there's a startling crack that makes you wonder why it didn't break.


Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set offered one of the
earliest video game pinball experiences.


Fifty years ago, there were many kinds of mechanical or electro-mechanical coin-operated games . Many of them were simulations of other things -- racing cars, baseball, shooting galleries, and so on. With the arrival of video games, they've almost all disappeared except for pinball, and Stern Pinball in Illinois now claims that it's the only pinball machine manufacturer left in the world. I think one of the reasons that pinball has survived -- barely -- is that it's a game in its own right, not a poor mechanical analogue of some other game. Its enduring appeal is not lost on game developers, and from Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set in 1983 to Pure Pinball, released for the Xbox last year, the game industry has released a steady stream of video pinball simulations.

If you want to make a pinball video game, it's essential to reproduce that rich sensory experience as closely as you can. When you first start up a pinball game there's a great deal of clacking and flashing as all the mechanical devices reset to their initial positions. It's not really necessary; since the machine wasn't in use, they were probably in their initial positions anyway, but it's the machine's way of saying, "I'm ready for you. Bring it on!"

The physics simulation in a computerized pinball game must be impeccable. For one thing, the player is counting on his own intuitive understanding of inertia and gravity to play the game successfully. The ball must behave exactly the way a real ball would. If it speeds up or slows down unexpectedly (in response to changes in the computer's processing load, for example), the player will notice it right away. His reaction times will be thrown off, and he'll miss shots. The game will feel wrong. If you're going to do a multi-ball mode, make sure you have enough horsepower to do it smoothly.

Another thing to check for is to be sure that the ball doesn't get into a infinite loop. Because computer algorithms are deterministic, occasionally you get a ball going from A to B to C and back to A again, endlessly repeated. Usually the player can stop this with a tilt feature, but if the ball is hitting targets that add to the score, he might happily let it sit there and rack up points for hours. The software should keep a list of the last hundred targets struck, for example, and search it periodically for repeating patterns. If it appears that the ball is in an infinite loop, it can "nudge" the ball slightly to make it go somewhere else.

Physics is typically the province of the programmers, not the designer, but be sure to make it a high priority in your scheduling.

Theoretically, pinball machines don't need a theme. All the mechanical devices would work just the same if there were nothing painted on them. But the theme is part of the entertainment; it gets the player's attention and fires his imagination. Licensed themes, of course, hope to attract players who like the movie, TV show, or whatever the theme is based on. Stern now claims that all of their games are based on licenses, from Playboy to the Lord of the Rings. The theme should be something that's not too serious, and perhaps a bit fantastic. A pinball game maps images and ideas from the theme's world onto bumpers and drop targets in the game, and you don't want to create absurd associations. Both The Simpsons and The Addams Family have been made into pinball games, and I think they have the ideal sort of goofy charm that the form needs.

To create that feeling of solidity that real pinball machines have, a video pinball game needs rich, detailed, vibrant graphics. When a target lights up, for example, it shouldn't be one continuous color, but should give the impression that there's an incandescent bulb behind it -- brighter in the center and darker at the edges. The wire ramps should cast shadows on the playfield, and so on. Real pinball machines are very three-dimensional, and modern 3D graphics techniques have improved the feel of video pinball enormously.


Full Tilt! Pinball's playfield takes up only half the screen
real estate, and doesn't leave a lot of room for details.


There's a fundamental problem with all pinball games, though. The aspect ratio of a pinball cabinet is about 1:2, while the aspect ratio of a video screen is 4:3. Displaying the playfield is always something of a compromise (and you can forget about the backglass). If you display the whole playfield, you'll use less than half the screen and everything will be pretty small. This was what Full Tilt! Pinball did, and it was serviceable but didn't leave a lot of room for details. If you display only part of it, the camera has to move around to follow the ball, and that's problematic in multi-ball play. Pure Pinball tried to solve this with no less than 12 different cameras for the player to choose from. It works OK, but I found the constant swooping of the default perspective to be a bit dizzying (Flipnic looks cool, but it isn't pinball as a pinball aficionado would know it. It's an action game with a pinball theme.). In real pinball you're standing quite still, holding onto the cabinet; firmly anchored in place so that you can follow the ball clearly. Personally I think the best solution is to duplicate the real-world situation: a fixed point of view that shows at least three-fourths of the table at any one time, with the camera only tilting up slightly when the ball goes to the very top of the playfield.

Sound is a critically important part of the pinball experience. It provides the player with feedback about what's going on, and it's also part of his reward. Real pinball machines use mechanical devices to make a lot of their sounds. A bell rings as the player scores points. Drop targets make a mechanical chunk sound as they drop, and so on. Electronic beeps and boops don't have the same immediacy. When you are searching for sound effects for your game, try to find ones that sound as much like real mechanical objects as possible. They need to have some resonance, like an old-fashioned bicycle bell.

The game should include unique sounds that are only heard when the player accomplishes something difficult or unusual. These should be related to the theme: musical stings, car engines revving, funny lines from the movie, or whatever else makes sense. They should be short, though, and sufficiently rare that the player doesn't hear them so often as to get fed up with them. It's the clacks and ker-chunks of the bumpers and drop targets that are the essence of the pinball sound.

With computerized pinball you can, of course, do things that you can't do in a real pinball machine. You can teleport the ball around, change the force of gravity, or turn the ball a different color, for example. I wouldn't do any of these things just because you can, however. Part of the fun of pinball is its old-fashioned, mechanical feel. If you take too many liberties, you may still have a fun game, but it won't be pinball, and you may lose some of your core audience. It might also be rather difficult for players to understand.


Pure Pinball offers no less than 12 different camera angles for
the player to choose from.


However, you can certainly take advantage of all that computing power, and the fact that the game is virtual and not physical. Real pinball machines are expensive to build, which puts limits on their complexity. You can have all the gates, spinners, ball-elevators, ramps, bumpers, kickers, and flippers that you like. You can design a pinball machine that would be much too fancy to build in reality. You can also import a lot of features from the video game world -- customizations like flipper strength and number of balls per game, plus the ability to save and reload (although you'd have to be a pretty hardcore player to want it).

An essential, though entirely informal, part of pinball is shaking the machine, and you'll need to include it. If you want to be serious about it, include both left and right as well and forward and back nudges. The tilt sensors on real pinball machines are more forgiving of forward and back shaking because it has less effect on the gameplay than side-to-side.

One last consideration is how hard the game is. Real pinball machines are coin-operated, and that means they have to make money. Like any arcade game, they must strike a balance between being so difficult that the player feels cheated, and so easy that they never make back their owner's investment. You don't have that concern. Obviously you'll need to balance the game, but you can make it easier without costing yourself anything.