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.


Hunty said...

I was surprised by your last paragraph; I thought you were going to say "since people are buying new machines for home use, they need to be MORE complicated and deeper because the owner will spend more time scrutinizing it than a player on location would". But giving a game a great opening to appeal to the owner's guests makes a lot of sense too. I wonder if this was part of the reasoning behind the two modes in Judge Dredd; a whizz-bang mode for more casual players, and a deeper, more traditional mode for veterans.

thanks for keeping this blog, by the way! I just discovered it today via RGP, and since I've recently become obsessed with pinball design and development it's very entertaining and insightful!

Anonymous said...

I found that last paragraph interesting as well and I definitely see where it has some merit. Novice players who come to my home are quickly turned off by a machine that overwhelms them, and doesn't give them a clear direction of what to accomplish. I, on the other hand, play all the time so I want something deep and challenging. A game that can deliver both is ideal for my environment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dwight, Wolffy here... we'll start our long awaited debates somehow! :)

I think your statements are both correct and incorrect at the same time. I reflect myself back to late 1991 and 1992 when I was a novice. A designer by the name of Pat Lawlor unleashed his first work on the WPC platform. I agree with you about a novice needing to see the rules over a course of a few games. Pat did this best in the late 80s and early 90s when there rules were there, but you could accomplish them in any order you choose. This kept each back to back game fresh. But at the same time you needed something to keep game 2 and 3 on the table after that potentially first bad game.

Here is where I think some basic pinball concepts have been forgotten over recent years. Funhouse added a toy that talked smack to you. That drew wisecracking punks like me into the game. Amazingly it also was a hit with the girls. I'm also reminded of how BK2K opened me up to games from other designers. The music was a great help here but there was a little something extra. As a novice, I learned that I could hit the big giant loop shot. 'Cool' I thought to myself. However the game taunted me... 'if you can hit that 4 times in a row I will make you loop champion.' I played again cause I knew for whatever reason, that I could accomplish that and have my initials in lights.

You are right in that novices need to see they can do beat the simple goals, but they also need to find a connection to the game to keep them coming back. More fun equals greater addiction which equals more interest in pinball.

Pinball has been dead for a while now, but at the same time interest has been growing. The time has come to unleash a new addiction onto the public bars, train stations and airports. Do you think you have another T2 in you? :)