GamesBeat: I was talking with Jack about the explosion of the boutique and garage pinball developers. For the sake of being transparent, I was involved as a freelance artist with one of these groups, Skit-B, on  an unannounced project. Obviously, since their Predator project imploded with licensing and legal issues, I’m not holding my breath seeing the project I was working on happening.

With that said, from my perspective, I think a lot of these developers took a blind leap into pinball development thinking it was easy. I don’t blame them, because the coding and artistic portions of designing a game are accessible. But this isn’t like designing and releasing a mobile phone game. It’s a physical and complex piece of machinery that needs to be manufactured.

What are some things you have to consider while designing, and perhaps edit down, because you’re dealing with a physical game that requires actual assembly and moving parts?

Johnson: Obviously, everything you want to put in a game has to physically fit on the play field. What most people don’t think about or realize is that there is a massive iceberg-like footprint to everything you see on top of the play field that has to fit down below.

Sometimes you lay out a game and leave an area for a toy to be designed later … you quickly find out you didn’t have anywhere near enough room left over, so your big toy suffers as a result.

I would say this happened to both the Witch in Wizard of Oz and Smaug in The Hobbit.

The interesting things that we wanted to do with the toys and their interactions with the ball were significantly compromised because of what room was left after everything else was all said and done.

The Hobbit pinball playfield 04

Above: Another look at The Hobbit play field.

Image Credit: Jersey Jack Pinball

GamesBeat: One of my favorite eras for pinball is the ’70s and ’80s, especially where solid state digital displays (think a display with just numbers, like a digital clock) were coming in. To me, there’s this great balance between the rules and the physical layout of the play field.

It feels like rule design and physical design are doing the lifting together. A great, fun, challenging play-field design with smart, simple, elegant rules — can be an incredibly addictive experience.

Lately, I feel that the balance has gotten out of whack. People can be easily fooled by a mediocre play-field design, which is masked by highly convoluted rules. Am I onto something here or am I just an ’80s snob?

Johnson: No, it’s an accurate statement. Lord of the Rings, which I programmed, is considered by many to be one of the best games, if not the best game ever made.

Honestly, the play field is a normal, simple fan play field. A fan play field is a game with only two flippers at the bottom of the play field, and a spray of shots laid out left to right with posts in between them. [It’s] a concept that has been around for quite a while and shows no sign of going away.

Terminator 2 was probably the first example of a real fan play field. No Fear is pretty much the ultimate fan — all shots, no bash objects or toys. Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness are both extremely popular fan games with bash toys in the middle for players to hit.

Despite the lack of creative geometry to the shots on Lord of the Rings, it did have several things going for it. Most shots could do at least two different things with the ball via diverters or locks. It had an amazing package in terms of art and sound … a great and popular license … and rules that were really fun to play and integrated extremely well with the movies.

It was a great total package with an extremely hackneyed base play-field concept.

GamesBeat: I think one of the challenges of pinball design, which video games take advantage of and do very well with because of its “level structure,” is that it’s difficult to progress a player from novice to expert aspects of the game.

You’re dealing with a public who mostly doesn’t understand the basics of the genre at all. Such as how many balls there are to play and that there’s more to the game than keeping the ball alive.

But then there is this other level, where you either start modes or you don’t. It seems like pacing a player to do very simple things first, then progress them to doing more advanced things, is difficult to design in pinball. Have you been able to tackle this problem at all? If so, how?

Johnson: You can’t force a player to either realize that there are rules to a game or to get further into a game. All you can do is make a game that is engaging, gives entertainment value to batting the ball around, and then hopefully they start to get it.

This was hopelessly difficult with dot matrix display … and earlier games, but I think with the LCD display we have a very good chance at showing people there’s a lot going on, and telling them how they can go about doing it as well.

I’ve heard stories from Wizard of Oz owners how Oz is the first game people have actually asked them about the rules, mostly because they see there is a bunch of different things to do in the display.

de Win: Because we have a high-resolution monitor now, we have more ‘room’ to show the player information about the rules during gameplay.

Although you will learn the most by watching the screen while a friend plays. You’re [as the player] too busy watching the ball, instead of the screen, but this is the same on a dot matrix display game.

During attract mode we added animations to explain to new players — newbies — how to insert coins, press start, and plunge a ball. During gameplay we show these as pop-ups onscreen to guide the new player.

GamesBeat: The back glass LCD is something I’ve been making noise about for almost a decade now. Pinball has needed this innovation for a long time. Jersey Jack Pinball finally brought it to the table with Wizard of Oz. 

With that said, I imagine this has not been easy to develop for. Especially on the art side, where the canvas has suddenly gone from animating dots on a dot matrix display to full-blown, high-resolution images.

Johnson: From a programming perspective, it is obviously a challenge to drive HD graphics compared to making little buffers of stuff that’s 128 x 32 x however many shades of orange and red. It’s an even bigger design challenge to figure out how you’re going to fill that space up, with what, and how it should all work.

de Win: I’ve had no experience with creating animations for a dot matrix display, but my experience in creating HD-graphics for television is of great use here.

We’ve had to come up with a design for the interface, which is a cool creative process. I know when I started with The Hobbit, the UI had to be redesigned to match the theme. In my vision every next pinball game with a LCD will have its own screen layout to match the theme the best it can.

With dot matrix display resolutions, there’s not much variance in what you can create or to set it apart from another game. The LCD-screen has become part of the art package.

Jersey Jack PInball line of Wizard of Oz

Above: Wizard of Oz machines on the Jersey Jack Pinball floor.

Image Credit: Jersey Jack PInball

GamesBeat: Keith, you’re known for creating epic, long journey-style rules in pinball. Two of your games, Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons Pinball Party, are considered the complete opposite of short and quick designs. Each have a ton of modes and a lot of objectives to complete in order to progress through the game, to the point where I know players that have owned both of these games for years and still haven’t reached the wizard mode — the end of the game — on either machine. What’s your attraction to this rule design style?

Johnson: A couple of things. One, I am a good player, so I make games that interest me.

Two, games that have a lot to do are more attractive in the long run, whether it’s in term of earnings or in terms of longevity in someone’s basement. The last thing you want to do is plunk down $8,000 for a game for your home and have done everything the game has to offer in two weeks or less.

And with multiple layers to the rules, it’s easier to string someone along — to your above point — deeper into the game when there’s always the next level of thing to get to.

GamesBeat: Do you ever worry about player fatigue? Like, maybe there is a threshold where the rules need to be edited down? I know sometimes I’ll be playing pinball and someone will say, “Hey man! Let’s throw down on Lord of the Rings!” And in my head I am thinking, “Oh, God! There go 30 to 45 minutes!” For the record, I love Lord of the Rings, but it’s such an epic game.

Johnson: No. Obviously, you don’t want to make it so that someone has to have an hour-long game to do everything, and that was never my intention. In The Simpsons Pinball Party, lots of players will get close to the end and not finish one of the tasks, such as Alien Invasion.

They’ll then slog through all the modes again to get another shot at it and hopefully get to the final mode. That may or may not happen, and either they’ll get the big payoff or be faced with the prospect of doing it again, which is really where the fatigue sets in.

The Simpsons Pinball Party was always meant to be played this way. Depending on your skill level, maybe you get to one of the final modes each game. On better games, maybe you see a few. On your best games, you play every wizard mode one. And when the stars align, you have the game of a lifetime, you actually win all the wizard modes and get to the final mode.

The repeated slog on a single game was not something anticipated by me. A perfect playthrough — getting everything the first time, which I’ve done — can be done in 30 minutes. That feels about right to me.

GamesBeat: In the end, the overall game design has to start worrying about mechanical obstacles. Such as toys that are actually complex mechanisms that do something unique. What’s it like trying to design rules around this element?

Johnson: Generally you work hand-in-hand with the play-field designer to make sure you both are on the same page in terms of what experience you need to expose the player to, and how it’ll actually wind up being used in-game.

Lots of play field designers design their shots first, then try to force toys into the space that’s left, because the shots are more interesting to them. I wish more [play field] designers would concentrate on interesting interactivity first, and work the shots around the toys.

GamesBeat: What is the dream theme you guys wish you could work on? Forget what’s coming next for Jersey Jack Pinball, just pretend you were told you can do any theme. But seriously … you can talk about what project you’re working on next if you’d like.

Johnson: That’s a great, unanswerable question. I would love to answer it, but can’t give the competition any ideas to rip off, you know? I have lots of ideas of things I think would be amazing and cool, but, put simply, just can’t be talked about.

de WIn: I’d love to see another black and white game, like Centaur, in the form of the graphic novels and movies [like] Sin City.

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