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The pinball industry has been riding a steady incline for the last five years, and one of the two manufacturers pushing it forward is a shop out of New Jersey.
The company is Jersey Jack Pinball, and in a discussion I had earlier with the founder “Jersey Jack” Guarnieri, we covered the ride of this unique genre of play and the ways they are innovating pinball, specifically in relation to its two games, The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit.
Jack Guarnieri may have started Jersey Jack Pinball, and subsequently jump-started competition in the pinball industry, but he’s primarily a businessman. In the end, pinball is about great play experiences, and great play experiences are born from talented development teams. So, after my discussion with Guarnieri, I talked to two members of Jersey Jack Pinball’s development team: Jean-Paul de Win, the lead artist on The Hobbit, and the legendary pinball rules designer and coder, Keith Johnson.
Where Jean-Paul de Win is still a relatively new name to pinball, Keith Johnson is practically a household name among silver-ball enthusiasts. Johnson has handled the rules in extremely popular epic, long-form style games like The Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons Pinball Party. Both games are unique to the pinball world in that their rules are designed to be long journeys. This is the complete opposite philosophy of most other famous pinball designers, like say Steve Ritchie, who concentrate on quick and fast experiences.
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I got a chance to talk with the team just as manufacturing and shipping of the first run of their latest game, The Hobbit, is in full swing.
GamesBeat: For those joining us that don’t know who you are, let’s do a quick introduction and mention what you did on The Hobbit.
Keith Johnson: I’m Keith Johnson, I lead software development on games. For both Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit, I came up with the overall structure and basic set of rules for the game.
Jean-Paul de Win: I’m Jean-Paul de Win, graphic artist for the LCD screen and art on the whole game [The Hobbit].
GamesBeat: Before we dive too deep into talking about designing for Jersey Jack Pinball, what other pinball machines have had the biggest influence on you? And why?
Johnson: Three games come to mind for me: Whirlwind was the game that got me started in pinball in college. It was the first game I played where I realized there were significant rules and depth to games that could keep your interest for longer periods of time.
Next was Twilight Zone, which I had viewed as the pinnacle of utilizing a licensed theme to its maximum potential when integrating game rules, objectives, toys, sounds, etc.
The third game is more about rules geekery, and possibly an unlikely choice, Jackbot.
Jackbot has a multiball with multiple levels of goals, and it remembered your progress between each play. It got harder and harder to start, but it was necessarily worth more and more because you were always further into the depth of the multiball. World Cup Soccer 94 has a similar structure, though not as fleshed out as Jackbot. It was also a game where multiple rules — not just the main multiball of the game — got harder and harder as you did them multiple times, and is a structure I’ve incorporated into every game I’ve worked on.
There’s no point if you’ve already done something in a game, it should be just as easy to do it again. But, it should get harder in an interesting way, not a boring … “wood-chopping” in pinball vernacular … way.
de Win: Twilight Zone has always been my favorite game and could be considered an inspiration. Pinball 2000 probably comes closest with the motion graphics to compare the Jersey Jack Pinball screen model.
Animation-wise, Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure has some dot matrix display animations that inspired me for animation on The Hobbit.
I think the video-card game Hearthstone has inspired me the most for The Hobbit user interface.
Obviously, the art on The Lord of the Rings inspired me for the play-field art, but making better use of the current assets quality.
GamesBeat: I see pinball as one of the most abstract genres of play we have. You got a game, with rules, that must be won or lost, but like video and board games, the play field … the rules … the ball, they all represent pieces of a narrative.
In Wizard of Oz, the play field represents the land of Oz and the ball is a representation of Dorothy. On a superficial level, the ball represents the physical challenges Dorothy faces in Oz. But on another level, I see the ball being a representation of her mental and emotional struggles as well. For example, certain objectives that she has to see through are more dangerous and stressful than others, represented by shots or play that is more likely to lead to a drain.
Maybe I am reading too deep into this, but I see a lot of this in other games as well. Am I onto something here, or is a cigar just a cigar?
Johnson: You’re actually on the right track. The Witch [in Wizard of Oz] is obviously your main nemesis, and so she is a somewhat dangerous target to hit, especially when you consider the two magnets in front of her that can sling the ball almost anywhere on the play field after you whack her.
The rollovers on the play field are not unlike how Dorothy meets the other three main character in the film … wandering an unknown area, then all of a sudden they just pop up.
The throne room of Oz is a big challenge to get to, and is probably the most difficult thing to shoot on the game on purpose. As I alluded to earlier, really absorbing games make maximal use of their license or theme and try to map their experience directly into pinball as much as possible.
GamesBeat: Is there a design language here that the average person may not be aware of or see? Like how film has its own visual linguistics and rules for conveying certain ideas.
Johnson: I don’t know if it’s a language per se, but obviously there are a lot of fairly standard element in pinball machines, and people expect to see most of those in a game: flippers, switches, ramps, spinners, slingshots, bumpers … it’s all about match up those elements to your source material in a way that makes sense for both pinball and the theme.
GamesBeat: I was asking Jack about this from a business perspective, but from a creative angle, pinball has three major audience members. The operator, who puts the machine out into the public and is trying to make money off of the coin drop. The collector, who spends a ridiculous amount of cash to buy limited edition games new-in-box to place in their basement. Then there is the player, who values good gameplay and design over everything else.
How does each affect your design process? Is one more desirable to design for over the other?
Johnson: For the operator, you need to design your game and its elements in such a way that the game is as problem-free as possible, and when problems do arise, that it’s as serviceable as possible. Needing to take off three ramps in order to change a slingshot rubber band is not serviceable, especially for one of the biggest failure-prone parts of a game.
For the collector, obviously everything has to look good. Good artists and a solid design that gives them a good canvas to paint on is paramount. And design not just from a ‘open area to put artwork on’ perspective, but one that’s inspiring as well with interesting shots and ball movement paths.
For the player, it’s mostly about experience. It can be challenging to keep presenting new ideas, concepts, rules, and game flow to players since a lot of things have ‘already been done’ … but this is what pinball must do to keep players engaged.
For me, personally, my strength is catering to the player. I do not have a design background from an artistic point of view, but I’ve played an awful lot of pinball of all eras, and I know what I like and don’t like, and can more or less play out ideas in my head and know how they’re going to feel in the game.
de Win: For me, in the end, I want to play a fun game with good rules and call outs. But if the art is not interesting or appealing, it might keep the player from choosing your game in a row of many others. It’s always been my goal to appeal to as many people as possible with the art and visuals I create, but I’ve learned that you can’t make everybody happy.