Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dutch Pinball Magazine Interview Part 3

After almost 10 years at WMS you were (one of) the first former WMS employees to be hired by Stern. From Keith Johnsons Topcast interview we understood things were different at Stern than at Williams. What can you tell us about that period?
Stern was different in a couple ways. Mainly, it was smaller. I am noticing now that I am at a large company just how much the size of company dictates how the company goes about its day to day activities. Moving to the smaller Stern we noticed that everyone wears more hats. Meaning they have more responsibilities on their shoulders.

Was it different for you as a programmer working at Stern, compared to what you were used to at WMS?
Not really from a responsibility perspective. My job was pretty much the same. Do my best to make a fun game on time.

The problem at Stern was how little time we got to make the game fun. Lonnie used to claim that the schedules were just more compressed at Stern. Not true. The time frames were about the same at both companies. Each game got about a year to go from concept to production line. The problem at Stern was how much time was eaten up of that year at the beginning deciding what the theme should be and getting to the first white wood. That was something we did much better at Williams.

It’s clear to me and others that the sooner you have a flipping whitewood the better. Exponentially! It gives you time to flip the game with rules and see what is bad. Then time to replace it with a new idea. I feel this is the number one reason why Stern / Data East have produced inferior products.

Looking at the games produced by Stern and comparing them to the WMS games from the 90’s, some may conclude it probably was more fun for the design team to work at WMS. (more room for creativity, less licensed games with all the restrictions that come with that, more time, more challenges, and so on) Is that correct?
It was more fun to work at Williams than it was to work at Stern. For a lot of reasons including all those you listed above. Of course, once the black clouds came (potential layoffs every 3 months) times at Williams were less fun.

Keith and Lyman are very skilled pinball players. How about your pinball skills?
I am a very poor player compared to them. I love to play and I thought I was pretty good until I first started working at Williams and saw, that in fact, I was not. I think that this worked out to my advantage though. I have always been insistent that games I have worked on had to be at least fun for my skill level. I have always believed that my skill level and that of the average bar player were very close. So I used my skills as a litany test.

We heard Gary Stern say plenty of times deep rule sheets don’t matter to him. Some designers do think different about that. At Stern some games do have a deep rule sheet; other games have incomplete software or medium deep rule sheets. Is a deep rule sheet a budget matter? Or a deadline matter? Or just a programmer doing what he thinks is best?
Isn’t budget and deadline the same thing? Of course they are not but they have the same affect.

Every game I was in charge of at Stern went to production complete and the depth of the game was completely my choice, for better or for worse.

I believe it is important the game be fun for each skill level that steps-up to put money in it. This is a big part of why I think most people could not be a pinball designer. You need to consider all skill levels. In my mind and in broad terms there are three skill levels: the new player, the average player, and the good player. You need to have something fun for each of the 3 groups.

The average player, by far, is where the lion share of your cash box comes from. I believe it to be about 80% of the games played are by this group. This was the topic of much debate at Stern. Of course we had no real data, that would be silly, but I know I was right. These guys are the guys that stop off on the way home from work to have a beer and play a little pinball. To me it was most important to pace the game such that this player would be challenged. Meaning there should be high goals for this player placed at a challenging distance from the start button. A game that did this well was Monster Bash. Monster Bash is one of my favorite games that I didn’t work on. Partially because it had a Wizard Mode (Bash not Rock) that I could barely reach once in awhile. It was challenging for me and I consider my skill level to be smack in the middle of this group.

The new player does not account for much of the cash box but is still very important. He is the future of pinball and the lack of him playing / enjoying the game is a huge reason why the industry is where it’s at. Pinball is intrinsically a very confusing game. Even before you push start. Just looking at a game makes you go huh? So once a new player does get past that first hurdle of deciding to push start he has to 1 have fun and 2 understand at least a small part of what is going on. It’s ok if he doesn’t understand the whole package. In fact, I think it’s a draw if he doesn’t. People like to have some understanding at first but then discover the rest as they go, over the course of a few games. At least this is my philosophy. The magic is to not be too overwhelming in the beginning.

The good player. This is really two groups of people that I rudely lump into one, but these groups overlap quite a bit; it’s really hard to distinguish them. 1 - The player that is so into pinball they know the games really well but may not have great skill. 2 – The players with great skill that probably are also in category one. These are hobbyist and tournament players. To be honest this group I have spent the smallest amount of time worrying about. They are important though, so I always try to add a high end wizard mode that most likely I will never see when I play. I also justify this time spent because its great for the average player group to see goals that are even further down the road for them to attempt.

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