Saturday, December 12, 2009

Good Documentary on The Silver Ball

I recently watched TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball [Official site here], a documentary about the decline of pinball, of Williams (the industry's leading manufacturer), and of the effort to save the industry through one last big R&D project.

I really liked it on a number of levels.

First off, it was really fun to see the design process behind the games themselves. Seeing footage of these guys storyboarding out designs, laying out playing fields in cad packages, considering technology tradeoffs, etc. This was all really cool. Very similar to what we see in game design, but with a tangible, physical element that we don't have (except maybe at Harmonix?)

Secondly, it was humbling - and maybe a little frightening - to see how quickly the industry declined. Many assume it was videogaming's introduction that lead to pinball's downfall. That certainly was a factor, but for several years pinball continued to grow even at the height of the arcade boom. So there are other factors we can learn from, and that have some similarity to games - concentration on few genres/themes, viewing big licenses as an excuse for poor gameplay, increasing complexity to win the hardcore consumer may have frightened off newcomers, etc. The footage of pinball trade shows at their high look an awful lot like E3 does today. Most of those attending didn't realize they'd be out of a job in a few short years.

Highly recommended for anyone in the games industry and/or those who grow up pumping quarters into Black Knight, High Speed, and others.

[Update: A friend was in town for a visit so we dropped by Ground Kontrol. Shame on me for having been here over a decade and never set foot in it before! Anyhow, I got to play Revenge from Mars, the first game based on the Pinball 2000 machine/platform. Its pretty rad but definitely not for pinball purists. The reflected video overlay is pretty neat but is distracting from the ball and playfield underneath. It feels like they could have done something like painted the playfield a dark color in order to light up just the ball, so that the ball's location would come through clearly. Anyhow, if you ever see one, give it a go. Piece of history!]


garyh said...

Saw this awhile back and really liked it too. The other interesting point they made was that the newer pinball machines were competing against the previous years machines.

Oddly, this doesn't seem to affect videogames as much due to the short lifetime and marketing effects (marketing for pinball was always aimed at the operators, not the players). With the exception of some online games, most videogames disappear within a few months.

Arcades were already dying in 2000, so even with videogames machines replacing pinball machines in the arcades, their days were numbered.

One other interesting difference between videogames I just thought of is did pinball machines ever increase in difficulty as you played them? Videogames (even in the arcades) generally started out "easy" and got progressively harder.

I really want to try playing one of the pinball 2000 machines though just to see what a modern pinball machine looks like.

KimPallister said...

Might not affect individual games, but it does affect consoles. Sony for a long time cited that their main competitor was themselves (for both PS1-->PS2, PS2-->PS3)

Pinball didn't necesarily increase as you played, but they did in the sense that the hardest "levels" requred a lot of skill to get to. The levels being the final challenges/mini-games in the game's story/progression. They discussed this a bit in the movie.

Unknown said...

Ooh poignant. Those failures are indeed pertinent.

Although, did size of case have anything to do with it? I own a pinball machine, and it's bloody massive and unwieldly. I can imagine that when arcade cabs came in, pinball owners breathed a bit of a sigh of relief.

KimPallister said...

Alice: Having owned both, I'd note that they are BOTH crazy unwieldy.

(Funny though, the film talks about the fact that there was a reason pinball machines developed heavy cabs and eventually tilt mechanisms: to prevent you from tilting it! Seems that would be less of an issue with arcade cabinets, and that they'd have been better off with far lower weight and some kind of anchoring mechanism to the walls/floor. I'm guessing slots do this?)

The square footage consumed was an issue cited in the film, but the bigger issue was the revenue/hour. Video games allowed for simultaneous dual-player, etc. Recall the money we all pumped into Gauntlet, four people at a time.

Darius Kazemi said...

This has been on my to-watch list for a long time. I'll definitely check it out when I get chance.