Coin-operated, User Experienced

Tilt: The Battle to Save PinballGreg 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.

Pinball 2000: Revenge from Mars
Above: Pinball wizadry. A detail from Williams’ “Revenge from Mars,” the first in its innovative “Pinball 2000” line of game machines. Note the projected video imagery towards the top, which added a previously unthinkable dimension to game play.
Below: Detail of a game designer’s sketch of the playfield for “Revenge from Mars.”

Designing Pinball

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.

Sketch for Revenge from Mars

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.

  1. What a great surprise to see this post on Subtraction, as I’m a regular reader and a recovering pinball addict :^) I’ve been on Maletic’s mailing list since I first got wind of the film, probably over a year ago.

    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.

    Yep, that’s hitting the nail on the head. They not only have to work on the software experience of music, lights, animations, and voice effects (so many Bally/Willams games have fantastic personalities), but the physical experience of how it feels to shoot loops and ramps and play the ball as it rockets back at your flippers, or to make the plunger skill shot. Then they build in, for the more skilled (or just obsessive) players, large-scale arcs of specific tasks for the player to complete in pursuit of that elusive Grand Champion score — it really is anything but aimless.

    No surprise that Pat Lawlor had some of the most interesting comments; he’s the favorite game designer of nearly all the pinball freaks I know.

    OK, off to order the DVD. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Hi. I think you’ll enjoy this lecture from dorkbot vienna on hacking game machines and in this particular case a pinball machine. Pinball history, musical experimentation and geeky sweetness. Enjoy.

  3. While in Las Vegas for the IA Summit, I visited the Pinball Hall of Fame with some friends. The PHoF is Pinball Mecca. Hell, it’s Pinball Heaven on Earth. There are literally hundreds of machines (mostly pinball, but a handful of old arcade video games, too), dating from every decade back to the 1950s, all lovingly restored and with historical annotations galore.

    And every single one of them is fully playable!

    (And many of them are set to easy skill modes, with lots of balls and lots of bonuses, so a quarter or two can last you half an hour if you’re even half skilled).

    It’s truly one of the most astonishing places I have ever stepped foot in, not least because the place is almost always completely deserted. If you go, you will have the run of the place. Seriously, they’re hurting for business (they’re a non-profit) and attention. As we left, $40 poorer, they practically begged us to come back and to tell all of our friends.

    Next time you’re in Vegas, this must be on the top of your list of places to visit. It’s worth a trip all by itself.

  4. Chris: That does sound like an amazing place, thanks for the tip. It’s almost reason enough for me to go visit Las Vegas. I’m not otherwise a fan of that city.

    I am, however, a pinball fan, which is something I probably didn’t say enough in this post. Admittedly, I don’t have a deep knowledge of the game, but I enjoy it when I play it, and when I find myself in an arcade, I much prefer the pinball machines to the video games.

  5. I’d pre-ordered my copy a couple years ago at the California Extreme classic arcade convention and got to talk to Greg again at Maker Faire this year. Great stuff.

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