Raise your hand if you’ve ever really thought about pinball table design. I can’t see through the internet to check if someone is sitting there awkwardly holding their hand up to their monitor or smart phone, but I’m going to assume most of you haven’t. For the longest time, I sure as hell didn’t think about pinball table design.
As a result, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to do just that, by looking at a couple of tables that I’ve owned in Pinball FX2 for the longest time. One is a community favorite: Fear Itself. The other is one of the community least-favorites: V12. Upon closer analysis, it’s clear that pinball table design has a lot more in common with video game design than would initially meet the eye.
Player Influence and Readability
I’ve often said that most people actually like hard games, as long as they feel responsible for their failures. This is to say that we can tolerate a wide range of difficulties, as long as we understand what is happening intuitively and feel capable of controlling the outcome.
This need for control sets up an interesting paradox for pinball, where you only guide the trajectory of a physically independent ball with two flippers located at the bottom of the table. Unless you are well-versed in pinball physics, it can be pretty tough to predict where a ball will go, and it is literally out of your reach for much of the game.
Your first instinct might be to add more flippers, and that does help alleviate the problem somewhat; in fact, almost all tables in Pinball FX2 have at least one more flipper on the board. However, unless you coat every surface in flippers, the ball is going to be out of the player’s direct control much of the time, so the player still needs to be able to read and predict what happens.
Enter the first difference between Fear Itself and V12: in the former table, there is a wide amount of space between the flippers at the bottom and any of the action near the top. Thus, when the player needs to use the flippers, they have time to react to the ball. Likewise, illustrated lanes of fire help lead the eye to follow the ball’s trajectory. Additionally, by looking at these lines, we can see that more often than not, the top half of the table feeds directly to the flippers, where the player has complete control and influence.
In V12, meanwhile, there isn’t a lot of room for the ball to move, which means the player must be constantly ready to react to changes in the ball’s path, which are significantly trickier to follow. There are also no guiding lines, which makes the ball’s trajectory slightly harder to predict.
And then there’s the left side of the table.
The game gives you a flipper on this side of the table, but it’s not well-placed as to give you control of the ball. This wouldn’t be a big issue if the flipper wasn’t your last chance to save the ball from going off the table, and if the table didn’t have multiple ways for the ball to easily go to that flipper, but alas that is not the case. Although nothing here takes control away from the player entirely, the higher difficulty of maneuvering the ball makes the player feel less in control. And frustrated.
I already mentioned how much more space the Fear Itself table gives you to maneuver immediately, which also lends itself to another point: flow. Pinball can be extremely satisfying when the ball is in constant fluid motion. Much like platformers or racing games are more satisfying when you are given a chance to maintain forward momentum, the same principle applies to pinball tables.
Fear Itself is built with several uninterrupted loops. When a ball enters these loops, it maintains its momentum and comes flying back to the flippers where it can be launched into another loop, and keep going around and around. Some of the loops have ramps which require a bit of velocity to overcome, but if the ball doesn’t make it up one of the ramps, the player is given space and alternate options to work up the required speed.
V12, meanwhile, as far as I can tell, only has two loops. There’ a thing in the back that is sort of like a loop too, but it’s laughably hard to reach, and won’t make a difference to most players. Not only does V12 only have two loops, but the closest entrances to both are steep ramps that require momentum. And how does the player get this momentum? First they need to unlock the back half of the board, and then use gravity to build the ball’s speed, and hope that the positioning is right to hit the loops. It would be a neat puzzle-like element to the board if it wasn’t mandatory to perform these steps in order to make the smallest bit of progress on the level, but most players will get frustrated before they can get enough practice to achieve that kind of flow.
Optional Risk-Reward Challenges
If all there was to pinball was hitting the ball through ramps and watching it fly about, it would get boring fast. Fortunately, pinball tables are typically designed with extra timed objectives and “modes” that require the player to hit precise sequences of ramps and bumpers for a better reward. It’s a classic risk-reward trade-off in its simplest form.
Fear Itself has several of these challenges, including 7 unique possible “worthy” missions. With a lot of missions available, Fear Itself is able to cater to a wider skill set, and include both obvious, easy-to-find challenges, and also some obscure secrets for the player to discover after extensive play. For the experienced player, completing several of the “worthy” missions unlocks another final phase, lending a high skill ceiling to the board. Meanwhile, the easier objectives provide a nice difficulty ramp up for new players.
Contrast this with V12, which has only a few fairly difficult missions, and requires the player to complete these missions repeatedly to unlock its final challenge. Not only is it tough to complete any of these missions, but you’re expected to do so multiple times in one go. This proves to be just as frustrating and repetitive as it sounds, and much like video games that recycle the same level or boss repeatedly, it gets old fast.
It’s All The Game To Me
To recap, in a good pinball table, you want flow, a strong sense of readability and control, and a nice range of risk-reward tradeoffs for a variety of skill levels. In short, you want everything you’d want in a well designed game or level. This may not sound all that surprising, but it’s easy to forget that pinball tables, like video games, have to be designed with the similar attention to detail and design, even though the feel is incredibly different. Frankly, it’s inspiring to see the level of thought and care that goes into a good pinball table, and I would encourage any other aspiring designers to take the time to analyze the design of a game type you never think twice about. You may be surprised by what you find.