Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pinball design - part 2: The distance from the start button

While designing features for a pinball machine you have to think of the big picture at all times. Two things you have to consider are: How hard is the feature you are creating while you are playing it? And: How hard is the feature to get to?

This is what I mean by “distance from the start button”. How long it takes someone to get to the feature after they push the start button and start the game.

This is all about the pacing of the game. You want the game to be deep but you do not want there to be long stretches of “work” to artificially deepen the game. You want the game to be action packed but you can’t let all the action get too bunched up. You have to design the game so that the pace of the game is good. You have to place the different features at good distances from the start button.

The pacing of the game is very important. Where it is most noticeable is in how hard the various multiballs in the game are to achieve, or how far they are from the start button. The closest one is for the Novices, another one further away as a challenge for the beginning players and a stepping stone for the intermediate players, another to give the intermediate players a challenge, and lastly one really far from the start button for the experts.

A great example of this is in the recent Spider-Man pinball machine. Spider-Man has Doc Ock which is only two shots to start. Further out is Black Suit, then Battle Royal, and finally Super Hero is really far from the start button. Well done Lyman.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Pinball design - part 1: The Silhouette of a Pinball Machine

Who plays our games? What I mean is what range of skill sets do the people that play our games have? Are they mostly novices or do they have some amount of skill? We have no means to do real research. So we mostly just guess.

Knowing who our players are is one of the first steps in knowing what game to design. How much of the game should be engineered for the novice, beginner, intermediate, expert, or Lyman?

My guess is people play our games first and foremost because they have the shape of a pinball machine. From a distance they have the silhouette of the game they know how to play on some level. I believe Pinball is like billiards, or darts, or bowling you have some idea what it’s about and you want to play it or you don’t. They are a form of entertainment but we are not a movie or bar band that people can passively participate in.

When I design a game I try and place emphasis on the beginning to intermediate player. I think it’s really important for the novice as well as the expert to have fun playing the game too. But I believe we should not bow down to the novice. We should instead make a game that intrigues the novice and pulls him in. Then after a few games the novice is no longer. In his place is a player on his way to being average. Yay!

The fear is that since a novice's skill is so low they will play once not achieve anything, decide that their original assessment was correct, pinball was not their “thing”, and not play anymore. So it is often argued that we should design to allow the novice to accomplish something every game.

I argue that an initial experience of a particular game is not one 2 minute game but a series of games. The goal then is after that series of games the player has learned enough about the game to want to play it again someday. I think it’s a mistake to design a game so that everyone every game sees every major feature.

There is one wrinkle in this line of thought. More and more games are being sold to be in basements. Most of which are people putting a Pin-table next to their bar and 60” flat screen for when they entertain guests. Guests will play pinball because it’s there even if they normally would not. They are novices that for the most part will not become a player but still need to be entertained.

Friday, February 1, 2008

..... A new begining

I wrote this article in 2003. I wrote it for Michael Schalhoub whom asked me to write a few articles for his book "The Pinball Compendium: 1982 to Present"

This is the story of The last few months at Williams and how I got my job working for Stern Pinnball Inc 1999.

To talk about my start at Stern is to talk about the end of Williams. It was the worst day of my life, October 25, 1999.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the end. For years, every three months there was another potential layoff of engineering peoples. Being a publicly held company, every three months is another quarterly report and the stockholders expect profits or action. Pinball, and the whole coin-op industry in general, was declining from mid-1994 on. Why it was declining is a whole ‘nother story. Layoffs were like vomiting. It is so gut wrenchingly painful as it is happening, but afterwards you feel better. You think, “That sucked, but maybe it’s over now, maybe things will get better from here.” You force yourself to have faith in the leadership of the company.

The beginning of the end to me was sometime in 1998. It had been made clear to us that we had to do something or we would be out of business. Even then I didn’t believe it. We would have meetings to discuss different ideas people had. We thought what we had to do was change the face of pinball. Make it look so different that it would draw new interest.

Looking for the answer was very difficult. In my own way of thinking it was like there was this really big field. We knew the answer was buried somewhere in the field. Some of us were walking around with a spade shovel digging holes at random. Some were walking around waving a metal detector back and forth in front of them and listening to little beeps. John Popadiuk was the most visible. His team was digging a really big hole with one of those large yellow diggers. George Gomez was often seen walking in straight lines, taking evenly spaced steps and often nervously glancing at a parchment. Sometimes George would take sharp right turns and continue pacing out of sight. In saner terms, we didn’t know what we were doing but John’s team had the most viable idea.

Basically, John wanted us to change pinball to have a new style of cabinet with a monitor instead of a dot-matrix display. He had many more ideas and some of them still persisted into what became Pinball 2000.

In a meeting with Neil Nicastro (the president), we were asked if everyone was behind John’s idea. I knew that we needed to sell it to Neil. I knew that it was important for us to stand behind the best idea and see it through. George Gomez thought differently. I followed George back to his office and asked him “What the hell are you doing?” He told me that he thought what John was doing was not the answer.

Time went by and we were pushing forward with John’s ideas. Later it was learned that George and Pat Lawlor worked at Pats garage building a demo to show the rest of us. When they brought in their demo it was clear to all that that was it, that we were done searching. This demo became Pinball 2000 and we were saved. Someone that saw the demo later said we had just “bought pinball 5 more years”.

What followed over the next many weeks was amazing. We became a group on a mission. We were reinventing pinball from the ground up. Everything was scrutinized to find a way to improve on the way it was done. The most visible part of Pinball 2000 was the interactive video, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. Very few people outside our group appreciate this today.

Lyman Sheats led Keith Johnson and I to write the software for Revenge from Mars, the first Pinball 2000 pinball machine. We were writing a game on a new platform while the Operating System itself was being developed. This was no easy task. Revenge from Mars, the second game (Star Wars Episode I), and the OS were almost all developed at the same time. We learned tons of things while we developed them. The next couple models were going to make great strides towards improving the platform.

We premiered Pinball 2000/Revenge from Mars at the ATEI show in London in January, 1999. The show was a huge success. While I had very little to do with the Pinball 2000 design or its OS, I worked harder on Revenge from Mars than any other game previous. Revenge from Mars sold well, 2 to 3 times more than any recent game.

Pinball Expo ‘99 was October 21st through the 24th. For two weeks prior to Expo, Tom Uban, Lyman Sheets, and others worked their butts off to get one of the newest additions to Pinball 2000 ready. While we developed Pinball 2000, we created and maintained a wish list of stuff to enhance it. We planned to develop these ideas when we got the time. One item was a card reader. The machine could know who was playing if the player had a card and scanned it before they started. This would have enabled lots of other cool features to follow. It did help facilitate the tournament at the Expo.

When I arrived to work on October 25th, the Monday following Expo, I learned that Williams laid-off the entire pinball department. This was over 400 people, including 45 engineers. I was devastated.

Meanwhile, Gary Stern had recently made a deal with Sega to take possession of the pinball division he was already in charge of.

In the next few days after the lay-off, we were allowed to clear out our offices. I had ten years of miscellaneous pinball junk in my office, most of which I didn’t want anymore given my disposition at the time.

Jim Patla was in charge of overseeing the archiving of the department. When I ran into him, he told me that when he last saw Ken Fedesna, our General Manager, Ken told him he was surprised Dwight didn’t take his door. My door is unique. It is covered in Star Trek: The Next Generation back-box decals. Jim and I took Kens comment as permission that I could have my door. Jim wrote me a property pass for it and I took my door home. I plan to use it someday when I finish my basement.

We were also given interviews at Midway, our sister company. I was half sure I didn’t want anything to do with making games anymore, ever.

Headhunters called me every couple days. I went on a couple of interviews.

Several of us made a date to drive down to see Gene Cunningham. The plan was to start a new pinball company. For a short while this seemed very interesting yet scary.

I heard from my good friend Cameron Silver that Lonnie Ropp was looking for software people at Stern.

I was offered a job at Midway.

I called Lonnie and he interviewed me over the phone. He had a lot to say and talk about. He seemed to already know a lot about me. He asked me to come in for an interview early next week.

On Sunday we drove down to meet with Gene. On the way back I was torn about how I felt. It seemed too good with lots of unanswered questions.

On Monday I put on my one suit (a different one from my interview at Williams, honest!) and gathered my letters of recommendations from Larry Demar and Ted Estes along with resumes into my leather notebook. I went in for an interview with Lonnie and Gary Stern. It went really well. I was confident that they would make me an offer.

The Gene Cunningham plan turned south. I think I dodged a bullet there. In the end, my only real choice was to work for Midway and learn to do video games or work for Stern doing what I had been doing for ten years. I started work for Stern Pinball Inc at the end of November 1999.

Gary Stern is a good man. He is passionate, hard working, and cares about pinball. While today pinball is still on very shaky grounds I believe it is in good hands.

Dwight Sullivan
July 10, 2003