Mon 23 Jul
Greg Maletic’s film “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball” is, like many of its peers in this recent golden age of documentary films, a temporary detour into what might have otherwise been — and what may yet be again — overlooked subject matter. It’s highly entertaining, completely engrossing and beautifully made, but you’d be forgiven for not expecting much in the way of day-to-day practicality. As it turns out though, it provides a surprising amount of tangible relevance for those of us working in digital design.
With a prefigured sense of melancholy, Maletic uncovers the tale of Williams Electronic Games’ last ditch attempt to reinvigorate a gaming industry suffering through a precipitous decline. That the decline followed so soon after the industry’s peak, and that both happened so recently — the pinball business hit all-time highs in 1993 and was on its last legs by 1998 — is a turnabout in fortune familiar to anyone who lived through the dot-com wave that boomed in the late 1990s and foundered in the early part of this decade. In a way, the one can be seen as a less-glamorous template for the other, or even a cautionary tale for the present.
There’s a certain deliberateness to these unexpected strains of relevance throughout the movie. Though he wrote, produced and directed “Tilt” by himself, Maletic’s resume is less auteur than technologist; he was Product Marketing Manager for Apple Computer’s OpenDoc technology platform, an ambitious but failed attempt at revolutionizing the industry — and user experience — of software. The middle-American domain of Chicago pinball design, where the industry was seated, may seem distant from the cutting edge of Silicon Valley, but as the movie unfolds it reveals how similar software and pinball design really are.
The art of pinball construction, with its gaudy light shows and seemingly aimless game play, actually turns out to be a highly sophisticated form of experience design. Not too dissimilarly from design for the Web, the creation of a new pinball machine requires a scientific and artful balance between design, technology and business. WIlliams’s Hail Mary solution for salvaging their flagging business, a highly advanced and masterful combination of traditional pinball, unconventional video graphics, purpose-built software engineering and economically inventive product development called “Pinball 2000,” was both a labor of love and a marvel of cross-disciplinary cooperation and innovation.
There are many interviews and details throughout the whole film worth pausing and re-watching, but Web designers might find one from Williams pinball designer Pat Lawlor most salient of all. The clip appears on the movie’s exhaustive supplement DVD, which contains several hours of extended interviews and documentary content.
“I and every other game designer in the world — no matter whether it’s video or pinball or whatever — have a balancing act they have to create.
“The balancing act is that you have to create a game for a wide spectrum of people and you have to create a game that keeps their interest for as long as possible.
“In the case of pinball, far more people who are not accomplished pinball players play pinball machines than do accomplished people who play pinball machines. We put things in games for the accomplished people who are at the outer reaches of what they are able to accomplish. And it’s necessary to put those in the game — but they are not the end-all and be-all of why we design a set of rules in a pinball machine.
“Any pinball machine that is predicated around the six people in the world who are that good at playing pinball is a failure.”
This is an eloquent restatement of a deceptively simple truth: most users are not experts. It’s at the very heart of good experience design, whether one is working online, in video games or in pinball, and it was invigorating to see it uttered so convincingly by a veteran designer from another industry. As it happens, “Tilt” is full of these moments.