Pinball and Game Balance

On Tuesday, my friend Ashleigh and I went on a one-day vacation field trip to The Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, NH. After buying a paper cup of tokens at the front desk, we meandered around playing whatever caught our eye, which included (among others) Arkanoid, Gauntlet Legends, Sailor Moon (it’s a beat-em-up), Q-Bert Qubes (a surprisingly cunning puzzle/action game), and the four-person Pac-Man Battle Royale. And, of course, a ridiculous amount of pinball.

A whole lot of pinball machines.

Look! Pinball!

I’ve always enjoyed pinball, but I’ve never been a connoisseur. When I play pinball, it’s usually “hey look, a pinball game!” followed by dumping in quarters. I knew that tables were different from one another, but I never appreciated just how different until I played a dozen machines back to back. Even seemingly minor changes in the table configuration can produce a vastly different experience.

In non-digital games, there’s an entire category called dexterity games. This includes traditional classics like marbles, jacks, and pick up sticks, as well as more commercial-era games like Operation, Jenga, and Sorry! Sliders. A dexterity mechanic even appears on two Magic: the Gathering cards, though these cards are almost never played and now appear on the reserved list (aka the We Will Never Print These Again list.)

The modern pinball game straddles the line between dexterity and digital. The player’s interaction is physical, the scoring and feedback are digital, and the physics engine is the most accurate one possible.

And from a game design perspective, pinball is completely fascinating.

Let’s talk about pinball!

Historically, pinball design was affected by the particular economics of pinball, since pinball machines cost thousands of dollars. Many immediate consumers purchased pinball games as a commercial investment, so pinball had to be fun for the end player (or no one would play, resulting in no income) without giving them a disproportionate amount of time for their quarter (or no one would have to put in more quarters, resulting in no income).

Today, pinball is a much smaller industry, and the economic context has changed accordingly. Stern holds a near-monopoly in the industry, and the most significant challenger on the scene (Jersey Jack Pinball, a really interesting contender) has only shipped two games so far. According to Stern, 50% of their games are going overseas, and 70% of the games that stay in the United States are purchased by collectors and hobbyists.

But the core expectations haven’t changed. Pinball games should rely on gravity and fight gravity through flipper action (and, occasionally, whacking the machine). They should have multiple balls (lives) per play. They should track your score as you play. They should present players with a variety of increasingly complicated challenges. And they should make fantastic noises and flash exciting lights, because seriously, what else do we play pinball for?

(Okay, that last isn’t universally true, but it’s true of every pinball machine I’ve ever played. I’m not very old-school in my pinball.)

The rules of a pinball game are enforced by a combination of physics (gravity, flipper and plunger action) and electronics (scoring, bumpers, drop targets, and so on.) None of these happen by accident. Designers, mechanical engineers, and software engineers work together to determine the rules and implement them in physical and electronic form. (There’s a Wired article that takes a behind-the-scenes look.)

The game mechanics of pinball

In a pinball game, the player’s choices expand as the player’s skill set increases. A novice pinball player just wants to keep the ball in play as long as possible. More advanced players begin aiming for specific targets when they receive cues from the game, and expert players understand the various series of tasks within a given pinball game, and then maneuver among them to maximize points.

Ideally, a pinball game will engage and challenge all these players – the novice mashing the flippers, the intermediate player aiming for specific targets, and the masterful player deliberately selecting among the various tasks available. (For detailed pinball strategy, check out this list of key skills on the Internet Pinball Database.)

Like a game of Tetris, a pinball game keeps going until the player fails. Unlike a game of Tetris, pinball doesn’t speed up as you go. And like a game of Tetris, there are random elements working against you as well as your skill working for you.

The skill factor is severely underestimated by novices, which is why New York City (along with much of the rest of America) outlawed pinball for thirty years as a form of gambling. (In fairness to New York, flippers weren’t invented until 1947, and pinball had been outlawed in most cities around 1942.) But the skill component is in fact enormous. Mark Steinman (of PAPA, the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association) asserted to Kill Screen, “Every time you drain in this game, it’s your fault.”

The best roguelike games (particularly those conforming to the Berlin Interpretation) bear a distinct resemblance to pinball. Novice players are just trying to stay alive from turn to turn. More advanced players have a better understanding of the options available. In addition to moment-by-moment tactical reactions, they have techniques that will help them stay alive, such as knowing that identify, light, and destroy armor are three kinds of scrolls in Nethack, or knowing how to activate multiball in a pinball game. Expert players have a broad strategic understanding of the game, so they understand the best circumstances to use each of the techniques that they’ve learned.

And pinball games, like roguelikes, generally feature permadeath: at the end of the game, you’re starting from scratch all over again.

Game balance within pinball

Game balance is the concept and practice of tuning a game’s rules. What this actually means varies from genre to genre, but the basic idea is to ensure that a player’s choices are always meaningful. (For more on game balance, here’s Ian Schreiber’s excellent writeup.)

Balancing a roguelike is a matter of numbers – combat numbers, experience levels, spawn rates, item rarities. It involves significant spatial considerations, such as the shapes of dungeon rooms and the frequency of special areas and levels.

Balancing pinball also involves numbers and spatial considerations, but in a very different way because of the medium’s sheer physicality. Which locations are easy to reach? Which locations are hard to reach? What angles will the ball encounter, and how will those angles interact with the layout of the game? A bad decision can shut off entire sections of the table and render any related choices meaningless. At the end of the day, a badly balanced roguelike will be evident in the numbers, but a badly balanced pinball table will be evident in the physics.

Bad game balance also shows up in the fun – that most critical and yet most elusive property of good games. If a game feels pointless, or frustratingly hard, or players don’t understand the reasoning behind a choice (or don’t recognize that a choice is available!) then something’s wrong with the game design, and the game balance is likely off.

In a pinball game, game balance is the difference between a table that feels good and one that doesn’t. There may be useful things that can be done with spreadsheets, and angle calculations, and all the evidence and data from every prior pinball table – the same things we have for roguelikes, fighting games, first-person shooters, and every other genre of game. But at the end of the day, the interface between the player and the table is too complicated for an algorithm.

The physical and digital realms

As physical tables lose ground, digital pinball is becoming increasingly popular. Digital tables can play with the pinball genre in a way far beyond physical tables, including things such as altered gravity, localized balls, or monsters wandering around the field. The powerful physics engine of Unity 3D makes it natural for creating pinball games, and several premade examples are available in the Unity assets store. Plus, digital pinball can be played for hours on end without scrounging for quarters.

But there’s something magical about physical pinball – the vibration of the plunger, the thwack of flippers against the ball, the deeply solid way that everything moves and connects.

I design games in a digital space, but games have existed in physical space for thousands of years more than in the digital space. Pinball, playing cards, Pictionary, dice, paintball, chess, football, Senet – these are the precursors to my work. It’s valuable to spend time in that space and recognize what makes it special, to see how it relates to and differs from the digital worlds I build.

This field trip was completely worth it.

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  1. You had to post this, didn’t you? You just *had* to. You *had* to reawaken my fascination with Pinball games.

    I’ll have you know you drove me to iTunes where I compulsively downloaded every free item that came up when I searched for Pinball.

    I’ll forward you the bill from the recovery clinic I’m doomed to visit.

    • Hooray, pinball!

      I only picked up the free Zen table from iTunes, but I read many, many pinball entries in TVTropes. I had not expected that site to be anywhere near as detailed as it is on this subject. Some pinball aficionado must be very active there.

      • The Zen tables are good, but the Pinball Arcade and Pinbal HH Collection are seriously impressive. Clunky old-school so-many-lights-it’s-hard-to-figure-out-what’s-going-on bonanza. The Atomic Pinball ones are great too – only two of them, and they have “Try” and “Purchase”, but I really don’t know what the limitations are.

        I remember playing Psycho Pinball in my Sega Mega Drive (that’s Sega Genesis to you non-European folk). I loved it. Then I got Sega Saturn and, predictably enough, Digital Pinball. In my desktop I used to have Pinball Mania.

        You know the funny thing? I’m not even particularly good at it.

        • (wish I could edit my previous comment to include:)

          In fact, the few times I’ve played on actual pinball machines I well and truly sucked.

  2. Now for a possibly more relevant comment: you forgot to mention something that can be found in some Pinball tables, and which is very surprising. Story. And the gradual build-up to a climax.

    Not every table does this, but the ones that do are the ones that really have me hooked. If you download Pinball Arcade and play their freebie table, based on the Arabian Nights, you are faced with an incredibly complex system. Your ultimate goal is to free the princess from the genie. You accomplish this by first hitting the Princess target, then the Genie target (I think) and that triggers one of seven random “Arabian Nights”-inspired “tales”. The goal may be to open Ali Baba’s cave spelling SESAME, or to win a camel race by hitting all the yellow targets, or by finding something which is randomly hidden inside one specific target. Successful conclusion gives you a jewel (you can also “wish” for more jewels in the bazaar). Once you have the 7 Jewels you can engage the Genie in, essentially, a tug of war that, skill permitting, will end up with you saving the Princess.

    Sure, the mechanics are the mechanics of Pinball, and the strategy is the same: prioritize, aim, and keep your head. You’re still shooting targets and ramps. You’re still trying to maximise your score. But there’s a fascinating veneer of *storytelling*.

    Football pinball games are also quite common, and they also have a story, though a simpler one: you usually have to score a goal, and this usually involves a number of steps beforehand. The mechanics are the usual fare; the overall *goal* though (excuse the pun) is a little story in of itself.

    • I didn’t forget to mention it! (Actually, it’s *most* of what Ashleigh and I talked about on the way home.)

      I just left it out because I wanted to focus on the game balance aspects, and narrative would have been a whole ‘nother thing. (The article was getting away from me as it was….)

      With that said, everything you said is right. I was actually speculating about the possibility of making a Puzzle Quest style game with video pinball mechanics. Turns out it’s been done before (most recently,

      • I considered doing an IF pinball game as a sort of “arcade IF” joke.

        Think about it. Properly done – and if you include commands like SHOOT TARGET X, SHOOT RAMP Y (or just elliminate the SHOOT command), which have a random chance of succeeding based on the difficulty of the shot and your increasing experience (and maybe a KKKruip-style TENSION counter?) and try for technicques like TRAP BALL to increase your chances for a difficult shot…

        …then you realise it’s way too much work just for a joke game. But it’s doable! And intriguing!

        • I dunno, Stephen Granade made Pong, one of my secret favorites. A ridiculous amount of work must have gone into that!

          • Well, it’s definitely doable. It’s still in my head. I mean, the notion that if the ball is on the right flipper then the left field becomes easier to hit, and hitting things on the right field become quite harder and are dependant on luck and experience…

            …The idea of trapping a ball during multiball (THERE’s something to look forward to coding), therefore leaving a bigger gap for a ball to drain and leaving you to try and single-flippedly score with one ball while having the other one “safe”…

            …being able to try and switch flippers once you have the ball trapped (or at any time, really)…

            …well, it’s doable. I briefly considered a 10- 15-second delay in which, if you typed nothing, the ball drained, but I quickly drained that idea (heh. Pun. Hehehehehe). Before I flushed (ew, extended metaphor), it ocurred that that might work if, instead of typig, there were hyperlinks to click. And then I flushed. It was getting away from IF completely.

            But, well, doable. Sure. Why not. I’m not doing it, though. :) I’ve got plenty hard things to do in my life already.

  3. “As physical tables lose ground, digital pinball is becoming increasingly popular. …. But there’s something magical about physical pinball – the vibration of the plunger, the thwack of flippers against the ball, the deeply solid way that everything moves and connects.”

    There totally is.

    A company recently did a (licensed) digital re-release of the _Addams Family_ pinball game. I’m mostly a dabbler at pinball, but my dorm freshman/sophomore year had an Addams Family machine in the lobby, so I played a fair bit of it.

    I leaped onto the Kickstarter to get the rights for the digital re-release. And it’s impressively close to the real thing!

    But ultimately, I stopped playing it digitally, because the digital experience can’t quite replicate the analog one.

    (Both in a general experiential sense… and in a “this doesn’t re-create the same mapping of action to reaction” sense, despite them consulting and fine-tuning with experts at the table! For my first dozen games I was astonished at how accurately it replicated the dynamics, but the more I played, the more I found that the digital table was subtly easier.)

    • Thanks to publishing this article, I found out that I know someone who owns an Addams Family pinball game. And now I want to invade his house and play pinball.

      I’m better on the Windows 95 Microsoft Space Cadet pinball table than anything else (go figure) but… if a physical version of that existed, I would totally play it. And it would be awesome-er. (Though I don’t know how they’d handle the gravity well – magnets are awesome, but not THAT awesome.)

    • Amazingly, there are subtleties nowadays that bring the digital versions’ experience surprisingly closer.

      It’s quite something to play Pinball using a PS3 controller, which vibrates and which actually has trigger buttons…

      …but what about using an iOS device and actually nudging it to nudge the table? I’ve figured out the sweet spot, it’s a bit of an open-palm smack.

      It doesn’t compare to actually nudging a table, which is something I’m too shy to do anyway, but it’s surely the next best thing! It’s *thrilling*.

      • I remain startled (not surprised, in retrospect, just startled) by how many expert pinball moves involve whacking the table. The knowledge that whacking it TOO hard would send it into “tilt” always cemented it in my head as Not A Good Behavior, and so I never even tried.

        • Same here, actually, but when I found it was A Thing, and not just wanton violence, I started getting into it.

          I only use it as a last resort. Does it look as though the ball is headed straight for the drain at high speed? Nudge! Is the ball going to the outlane? Nudge! That’s it, I don’t nudge in any other situations. Sure, in some cases it’d make it easier for me to hit a target, but it could also result in a Tilt. So I use it in cases where I’d be screwed *anyway* if I didn’t do anything, so a Tilt isn’t much of a loss.

          • I do have a standard trick that works on quite a few digital games… and practically none of the faithful recreations of actual real tables, so it’s probably just a digital trick.

            If the ball is, say, going down the right outlane… I would lift the right flipper… and at just the right time… WHACK!

            If the game’s physics allowed it (and you’d be surprised how many do!), the ball might just lift enough, and have enough momentum, to land right on top of the left flipper. Presto! Ball saved!

  4. I’ve been dabbling into it more deeply now, thanks to Pinball Arcade and their faithful reproductions – I think they’re the ones behind Addams Family.

    You know what I’d *love* to play on a real table? Cirqus Voltaire. You know when a game grabs you from the very first moment? And then never lets go? Yep.

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