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Rebound: The Design of Pinball

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Pinball is a brilliant invention. It resonates presence, it's mechanically ingenious, it's got a captivating history, and yet, so many of its tables are incredibly similar. As video gamers, we are used to seeing mechanics recur frequently in our media. Identical weapons pop up in shooter after shooter, and countless grid-based RPGs assign characters the same stats, like STR, DEX, and CHA. But even taking into account how standardised the mechanics of popular game genres are, pinball tables of the last thirty to forty years still feel markedly predictable. It's not just that you see the same parts make it onto countless tables (bumpers, ramps, kickers, rebounds, scoops, etc.); it's that the tables tend to place these parts in the same layout.

Common Design Tropes

Picture a pinball table with these design features:

  • A playfield angled towards the player.
  • Two flippers in the bottom middle with a space slightly larger than the ball in between them.
  • Two triangular "rebounds" above the flippers that the ball can bounce off of.
  • Two lanes to the left of the left rebound and the right of the right rebound. If the ball falls into one of the "inlanes" closer to the rebounds, it's safe, but if it falls down the "outlanes" closer to the table's edge, it drops off the board. That is, unless you have a "kicker" activated at the bottom of the outlane, which springs the ball back onto the board.
  • A table centre that is mostly empty space.
  • A bevvy of targets to hit at the far end of the playfield.
  • A chute on the far right side of the machine with a plunger at the base from which we initially deploy the ball.
  • "Missions" which task us with hitting certain board components in a certain order, with a large score bonus on offer for their completion.

That's eleven different features, all with a specific implementation and most with a consistent placement on the board. You wouldn't see a level design this crystallised take over all computer games, or even one genre of them, but this is the environment of most modern pinball tables. The basket of tropes above is so ubiquitous that a lot of players just see it as "pinball".

There are also trends that aren't universal in the craft but are very common. For example, bumpers grouped into sets of three or more, or "orbits": long curved lanes that wrap around the back of the board. So, what gives? Are pinball designers spent on ideas and stuck in their ways? Well, maybe to an extent, but when mechanics or formats come to consume entire game archetypes, it's because they serve some function. That doesn't necessarily justify their widespread use. A design component and its implementation can target a need, and seeing them everywhere could still be tiresome. However, if a design pattern has a purpose, its pervasiveness isn't arbitrary.

Mechanics Accommodating Mechanics

Introduction

We looked at a set of design currents in pinball, and must now ask what purpose each of them serves. Many of the lynchpins of game design are there to let you experience the full range of interactions possible using the game's "core mechanics". Or, at least, the range of interesting interactions possible. The bread and butter of a shooter is gun combat, and most shooters include a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and mid-range pistols or rifles. Developers embed those guns because they let us explore firing over the complete spectrum of distances possible. Sniper rifles for long range, shotguns for short range, and the mid-range rifles for, you know. You'll also find weapons running the gamut of firing speeds from the slow, methodical rocket launcher through semi-automatics up to machine guns that madly belch bullets.

In a grid-based RPG, you must set the equipment and stats of a character to overcome problems. The most fundamental interactions between you and entities in their worlds involve you positioning your avatar relative to other characters or clicking on menus. Menus include dialogue menus and combat menus. So, plenty of RPGs let you solve problems in the dialogue system or combat system and give you stats to do both. Common solutions include using CHA for dialogue interactions and STR or DEX for combat interactions. Within the combat, you can place your character adjacent to enemies or at a distance from them, so the games give you stats that support attacking an enemy when next to them (STR) and when at range (DEX). To reiterate that succinctly, these tools (STR, DEX, CHA) keep appearing in this genre because they're the ones that let us scour the genre's systems (dialogue menus, grid-based positioning, grid-based attacks). You can pick almost any game that lets you interact with its entities using a wide variety of tools, pick one variable in those interactions, and observe how the tools cover the full spectrum of that variable.

Properties of the Ball

The spine of pinball play is using the flippers to hit the ball and having that ball hit targets. It's very satisfying to be able to take such a rich medium and describe it in a single sentence like that. Remember those guns from our FPS example that let you experience all the properties a firearm could have? The ball in pinball has two properties that a component on the table could directly alter: speed and direction. Starting with speed, an element on the table could increase the speed of the ball, reduce it, or drain it entirely. Let's look at components and how they alter that variable.

The ball's speed can be increased by flippers, the launcher at the side of the table, "active" bumpers that push the ball when they hit it, or, in rarer circumstances, by magnets that accelerate the ball. The ball may also speed up through the simple process of descending an incline, either the overall slant of the table towards the player or a ramp. Ramps have an incline in addition to the table's existing gradient, making for a faster descent. The steeper the designer sets a surface, the faster the ball will accelerate down it. A smooth ball and table material ensure the ball isn't slowed by friction.

The ball's speed can be decreased by the opposite: forcing its way up the table or ramp against the slope. Here, steepness reduces speed. When the ball hits objects that don't actively push back against it, like "passive bumpers" or the machine walls, it will also lose some of its momentum to them. Losing enough velocity causes the ball to stop, but the angle of the table means that it starts speeding up again soon after, maintaining the game's fast pace and ensuring that the ball is returned to the flippers so the player can keep playing. There are, similarly, parts of tables that can stop a ball dead in its tracks, like a magnet or scoop, but you'll see that they quickly release the ball or dispense another ball in its place.

The ball's direction changes when it bounces off of anything. Its new direction is determined by the angle at which it impacted the other surface, the angle of the surface it touched, the ball's speed, and, in the rare case that the other object is moving, that object's velocity. Active bumpers may nudge the ball further in one direction, ramps can shift the ball along the Y-axis, and ramps, rails, and lanes channel it along the X and Z-axis. Tables often include "orbits", lanes that wrap around their back, partly because they allow the spectacle of the ball travelling down a curved lane and because they allow for a longer journey than would be possible with a straight lane. The ball's direction isn't just affected because it follows the paths of ramps, rails, and lanes but also because the shapes of those channels mean it will be moving in a certain direction when it exits them. And finally, there's that angle of the table again, hungry to return the ball to a downward velocity.

There are a couple more relevant properties of the ball: position and rotation. However, outside of software, there's no such thing as a teleporter, so no component can change the ball's position arbitrarily. That is, you can't suddenly write new X, Y, and Z coordinates for the ball to exist at and have it immediately appear at them. You can achieve the same effect by having a ball disappear from one spot on the table and dispensing another ball at another location, but mostly, the position of the ball is altered by changing its velocity, as velocity is how much something changes position over time and in what direction. This is why we have ramps or lanes that output the ball in a certain direction or bumpers and targets that deflect it along a specific vector. They allow the designer to influence the ball's position. As for rotation, because the ball is spherical, it is identical on all sides, so rotation does not change its appearance or how it behaves as a gameplay element.

Properties of Table Components

In these interactions between the ball and table elements, we've discussed how the ball might be affected. We've not yet discussed how the designer might explore the possible characteristics of components, either in themselves or in how they react to a hit from the ball. Like the ball, parts built into the table may also move position, either rotationally or by sliding along an axis. So, you have drop targets that fall downwards when hit. Conceivably, a target could move in any direction when punched, but it moving in many of those directions would block parts of the table or be difficult to implement technically, so they tend to drop down. Targets may also shift position without being hit, responding to changes in the table's mode or other gameplay events. Once in a blue moon, you will face a continuously moving target, but they can take up copious space and are a fair bit of work to implement. As for table components changing their rotation, that's what spinners and hanging targets do.

There are even rollovers, parts on the table that the ball interacts with without undergoing any change in velocity. You will recognise them as those lights that turn on when the ball glides over them. Unlike the ball, environmental components may also be mechanically equipped to emit certain sounds or light up and may have different shapes. It is empowering for the player to see elements react to being hit. The spinner spins, and the drop target drops for the same reasons that enemies in shoot 'em ups might explode upon dying, or the ball in a golf video game might leave a trail behind it. It lets the participant know that their actions are affecting the environment, and it underscores the speed and force of the object they control.

Making Level Elements Accessible

Introduction

In pinball, as in video games, it's not just the entities themselves but the relative positioning and orientation of entities that determines the player's experience with them. A ? block on the ground demands a different mode of interaction than one in the air. A trampoline in front of a pit facilitates a different experience than one sitting below a line of enemies. Designing a pinball table is designing a level, and two key concepts in level design are enabling applications of player powers and enabling interaction with target items.

A Sniper Rifle in an FPS is no use if the level doesn't include long sight lines. In an RPG, there's no point in an AoE spell that our INT might boost if enemies don't cluster together. So, pinball tables are designed in such a way as to make many of those interactions with ramps, spinners, bumpers, etc., that I described above possible when firing the ball from the flippers. The pinball community often describes tables and assesses their quality by looking at the "shots" possible on them. A shot is effectively made up of the path the ball travels from the flipper to a table component and potentially any routing a component like a ramp or a scoop. Note that the ball is usually shiny enough to catch your eye and looks the same whatever way it is rotated so you can immediately identify where it is in relation to table parts and act accordingly.

The Flippers

The need for ready access to components is why the flippers sit at the bottom of the table. Flippers propel the ball up the table instead of down it, so placing every target above the flippers is the only way the player can use the flippers to hit the targets. Try to imagine what would happen if you placed targets on the table below the flippers. You also get flippers positioned right above the out zone so that the player has the chance to save the ball before it tumbles out of play. Older pinball tables in the bagatelle style lacked this geography, and it makes it always feel unfair when the ball falls into the pit.

Unprotected out zones on the Fire Mountain remake in Zaccaria Pinball.
Unprotected out zones on the Fire Mountain remake in Zaccaria Pinball.

Flippers at the foot of the table usually come in multiples of two because each is angled down and to the left or down and to the right. These different angles not only mean the ball rolls into the out zone if it lands on the flipper and you don't hit it fast enough, but they also allow the flippers different trajectories at which they can shoot the ball. The conventional "left" flipper has more access to the right side of the table, while the conventional "right" flipper has more access to the left side. Put both the left and right flippers in a machine, and the player gets access to the full table and all the components and interactions possible across it. Note that the player only receives this reach as long as the flippers at the nadir of the table have their hinge closer to the outside of the table and slope towards the pit. If you vertically inverted the flippers so that the hinge was closer to the inside edge, they would mostly shoot the ball into the wall.

The rough trajectory range of the flippers on Gottlieb's Jet Spin.
The rough trajectory range of the flippers on Gottlieb's Jet Spin.

The designer can insert more left flippers than right or more right than left further up the table, and this may be appropriate. However, at the root of the table, doing this creates a heavy bias of access to one side of the table over the other. So, designers usually keep an equal number of left and right flippers at the table's base. If designers are after an equal number of left and right flippers, you might ask, why not go wild and include four or six? Some tables go that route, such as Red and Ted's Roadshow by Williams or Jungle Queen from Gottlieb. By making the player keep track of the ball in relation to more than two flippers, you extend one axis of difficulty. Large additional flippers will also provide the player with slightly wider access to the table, but there are drawbacks too.

The additional complication of more flippers may make the table too chaotic, or the increased access and safety net they provide could shear away at the machine's difficulty. You also have to consider that when designing the table, space is a precious commodity, and every component you add takes up more of it. As we'll discover, there are a lot of parts that are worth having in the bottom third of the table to enhance the experience, and more flippers drive them out of those spots they'd otherwise occupy. The flippers often steal those components' seats to add experiences to the table that are only slightly different from those the player can already tap into. You could reasonably argue that there's a subtlety between the trajectory of one left flipper and another right next to it. However, there are also a lot of players who are going to see that identical part in a very similar place doing a very similar job as redundant. The player knows there could be a different part doing a very different job in that spot.

To fit extra flippers into the bottom third of the table, the designer may have to make them smaller, which not only makes the window in which a ball will connect with a flipper frustratingly slim, it can also clip the utility of the flippers. The further a ball can travel up or down a flipper, the more distinct points along it the player can fire the ball from. The more distinct points along the flipper the player can fire the ball from, the more angles they can fire it away from the flippers at. The more angles they can fire it away from the flipper at, the more agency they have and the better their access to different targets on the table.

If the designer wants to add more flippers, they can install them further up the board and maybe even at eccentric angles. If they do that, the new flippers can facilitate interactions more distinct than extra flippers at the bottom of the table would allow. It's a means to increase the diversity of experiences on that table. This is especially true if the flippers are at different angles or are different sizes than those at the base of the machine, which is why you often see designers install them in that configuration. As flippers allow access to parts, new flippers call for new targets to aim for, enabling target layouts that would otherwise be questionable.

Pinball for the NES.
Pinball for the NES.

The Middle Third

The void between the bottom and top of the board means the ball is not blocked from hitting the components in the top third. You can see the importance of this negative space in Pinball for the NES. Pinball jams up the main thoroughfare of the table with bumpers and pegs, and as a result, you often feel like your ball barely has the chance to take flight before it comes crashing down again, that all the shots you take are truncated. The middle section becomes a bouncer to the party of targets in the upper third.

Returning the Ball to the Flippers

Another key idea in keeping the player in control and giving them entry to the full board is routing the ball back to the flippers regularly. The player's interactions with the table happen via the ball, and the player's interactions with the ball happen via the flippers. So, transitively, it's the flippers through which the player plays the game. Therefore, if the ball is not at the flipper at any one time, the player has little power over the game outcome, means to declare intentions, means to test their skill, or means to earn rewards or punishments. Going too long without letting the player shoot the ball in pinball is like having the player go too long without changing course in a flight sim, too long without directing a unit in an RTS, or too long without throwing the controller across the room in a bullet hell. It is a basic form of interaction, even if the ideal timings between course changes in a flight sim or commands in an RTS could differ from the optimal gaps between pinball flips.

How quickly the ball should return to the player is a matter of taste that starkly divides pinball fans. They often categorise tables into "flow" and "stop and go" variants. On flow tables, the path of the ball is continuous and unbroken. It gracefully completes the arcs you hurl it into and quickly returns to your hands, meaning that the pace of the game is relentless. This pattern is at work in Williams's The Getaway: High Speed II and Demolition Man. A stop and go table varies the pacing, halting or slowing the ball's movement with parts like magnets, scoops, and bushels of bumpers, giving a little more bite when the ball collides with something. Naturally, it takes longer for the ball to return to the flippers, leaving the player out of control more of the time, but giving them breathing room and creating peaks and valleys in intensity. Examples include Williams's Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Bally's Who Dunnit.

Williams's FishTales simulated in Pinball FX3. The arrows show paths that the ball can take out of lanes back towards the flippers.
Williams's FishTales simulated in Pinball FX3. The arrows show paths that the ball can take out of lanes back towards the flippers.

The simplest means by which the ball can return to the flippers is to follow the slant of the table, but many lanes or ramps also angle their exits so that when the ball flies out of them, it will do so on a path back to the flippers. It's further the job of the inlanes to neatly deliver the ball back to our tiny mechanical digits. For our purposes, we're taking the inlanes to consist of those little lanes above the flippers and the angled pieces of hard material under them that have the ball roll back towards the flippers.

The lower third of Chicago Gaming Company's Pulp Fiction.
The lower third of Chicago Gaming Company's Pulp Fiction.

The existence of the inlanes means that a ball landing at the bottom of the table has more chance of reaching the flippers. Note also that if the ball rolls towards the flipper from the inlane, it will travel the full length of the flipper if left alone. As the inlane couriers the ball to the flipper, the player gets the chance to shoot the ball away from it at any angle they want, giving them access to a wide set of targets on the board. And if the ball rolls towards the flipper from the inlane, an experienced player will know they can "catch" it, raising the flipper to slow the ball. When the ball is slower, it is easier to control. Thanks inlane.

A ball caught behind the left flipper on Pinball FX3's Jaws table.
A ball caught behind the left flipper on Pinball FX3's Jaws table.

Managing Tension

The Importance of Texture

I don't want to create the impression that the goal of the pinball designer is to make every component on the table as accessible as possible. There are "fan" tables, like Williams's Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Bally's Attack from Mars. They're so named because the potential elements are all accessed via shots that fan out from the flippers, but there is an argument that pinball should give substantial resistance to players trying to hit certain targets. Like any game, pinball can leave room for interactions that are easier to initiate and yield mild rewards and interactions that are harder to initiate and pay generously.

Desirable and Undesirable Positions

In pinball, as in any spatial game, there are positions for entities to exist at that are beneficial for us and positions that are detrimental for us. In a platformer, having your position intersect with an enemy's position results in failure, but having your position match the goal's position results in success. Positions take on relative desirabilities based on the goal. So, having your avatar near an enemy is bad, but getting it closer to the goal is good. This is actually true of all variables in gameplay: a higher fuel variable will be desirable in a vehicular simulator, more spell slots may be desirable in an RPG, etc. Because proximities to certain elements in spatial games can be positive or negative, the speed and direction of entities, which will alter the positions of entities on future frames, can also be positive or negative. If your jump arc in an action-adventure will propel you over a pit, that's good. Into the pit, that's bad.

Developers design levels with the knowledge that their stage design can lead players into or out of these desirable or undesirable positions. However, the game becomes dull if the player can always stay a long way from an undesirable position or any undesirable play state. If the player doesn't regularly run the risk of losing something or failing, the game lacks tension. So, the design needs to place the player in undesirable positions.

The problem is that the player will see themselves being forced into undesirable positions as unfair. This was the flaw of the pit design we mentioned that would deliver the ball off the table without giving the player a chance to intercept it. The designer can avoid forcing the player into undesirable states by having the player land in that position through failure to complete a reasonable task like catching an incoming ball in time or skiing through a gate. Designers can also achieve this effect by incentivising players to place themselves in harm's way. Perhaps they need to move into an enemy's attacking range to attack them back or have the opportunity to drive close to a wall to take the inside curve and outspeed other drivers. Positions that are undesirable in one sense thereby become desirable in another, and players will try to enter into them if they think the desirability of that position outweighs the undesirability.

Desirability and the Flippers

In pinball, we see this combination of the desirable and undesirable in the flippers existing just above the "out zone". To gain control over the ball and shoot it where we want it, we must also place it very close to the point of failure. We can't take a chunk of bait unless we swim right up to the hook. That sense of precarity is increased by uncertainty about which flipper we might need to use and when we might need to use it when the ball is in the top or middle third of the table.

Although, sometimes, the ball bounces so many times in a second or two, with such gusto, it doesn't feel reasonable for the table to expect me to predict where it will land. Aiding this chaos are the rebounds: the triangular bumpers that often feature on tables above the flippers. A rebound could ricochet the ball up into a target or away from the out zone, and the possibility of getting that bonus is exciting. It could deflect the ball downwards into the danger zone. It could also move the ball that hits it laterally, quickly changing what flipper you're expected to react with, keeping you on your toes. While we often talk about tests of skill and random outcomes in games as mutually exclusive, games frequently test our skill by giving us a random event to react to. In action games, this often happens at a moment's notice. This dynamic ensures tension and surprise without our success or failure being out of our control. In pinball, which flipper the ball lands on can be challenging to predict, but either way, we have the tools to deal with it.

Outlanes

We've covered most of the components that appear on the bottom third of the average pinball table: the energetic flippers, the helpful inlanes, and the wild cards: the rebounds. Now we have to check in on the crotchety old man that is the outlanes. Existing closer to the wall than the inlanes, these slots potentially deliver your ball straight into oblivion without any chance to hit it with the flippers. To me, that almost always feels like the table cheating. I get that same feeling when the ball falls directly down the gap between the flippers without touching either one.

You might wonder why the outlanes always exist closer to the wall than the inlanes, and the answer is just that the opposite would require that the inlanes somehow cut across the outlanes to return the ball to the flippers.

From a commercial perspective, outlanes can ensure that even a player who has mastered the use of the flippers might still lose the ball and need to cough up more change to keep playing. If I'm being polite, the outlanes encourage the player to seek a wider range of methods to keep the ball in play beyond hitting it with the flippers. The player may be able to nudge the ball away from the mouth of the outlane and can sometimes complete tasks on the table to temporarily activate a save at the bottom of an outlane, returning any stray balls. The same applies for the gap between the flippers.

The Launch Chute

This is a good time to mention that the chance to launch the ball via the chute can also encourage the player to face tension again after the sting of defeat. Even spawning in the ball is something the player takes an active part in rather than passively observing, and if the table has a mechanical plunger, they get to feel the spring snap of the launch pad and see the ball rocketing a path towards glory. Of course, if the player just lost their last ball, the chance to send another one up the chute is also a reason to insert another quarter.

Uncertainty and the Bottom Third

Because the ball has a good chance of hitting a number of different components at the bottom of the board, the degree of uncertainty is again high. The ball could land in an outlane, in an inlane, on a rebound, on a flipper, or in the gap between the flippers. Variety and tension persist here because of the differing implications for the play that each part creates:

  • The flipper gap or an outlane spend our ball if we don't have the requisitive savers on.
  • A guarded outlane or flipper gap save our ball but may spend their guard doing so.
  • A rebound semi-randomises the trajectory of the ball.
  • The ball hitting the flipper demands we react quickly, and if it hits somewhere we can't "catch" the ball from, we must strike with less chance to decide where on the flipper we take the shot from.
  • If the ball lands in the inlane, we get more power over the speed and trajectory of the ball and more time to consider our shot.

If all the parts at the bottom of the board had the same or similar functions in the play, there would be no tension in where the ball is going to land or reason for the player to care about where it lands. If the player doesn't care about where the ball lands, they also don't have any reason to modify its path. In pinball, as in all games, uncertainty is also a motivation to play again after the session is over. Skill at a game may improve imperceptibly slowly, but if the game is unpredictable, there's always the chance that the player will be more fortunate on the next play.

Table Structure

The Three-Section Model

This standard bottom third of the pinball table in which we have two flippers, two inlanes, and two outlanes is called, scandalously, "An Italian Bottom". That name goes back to a request for the European release of Bally's 1979 table Paragon to include this layout. It's also standard for the lower third to have two triangular rebounds above the flippers. In this article, we've cut pinball tables into three regions. The bottom third of the table is responsible for dropping the ball out of play, but we can also use it to shoot the ball up the table. The middle third of the table is mostly empty and is the open air our shots travel through. The top third is a canopy of juicy targets for us to swat at.

Alternative Layouts

Not all tables conform to this trifurcation, just like not all tables have an Italian Bottom. Older, bagatelle-style pinball machines tend to have targets all over the board as they're more about the ball falling down through the play space than being pushed upwards. This idea of the three-nation table is also complicated by "upper playfields". Some tables, like Bally's The Shadow or Flash Gordon, include a sort of mini pinball table, complete with its own walls and flippers in their top section. The separate playfield can't live in the bottom third because there are already flippers and other components there. It can't usually live in the middle third either because the designer often can't block the middle area of the table for reasons we've discussed.

The upper third of Bally's The Shadow. The upper playfield is visible in the top left. Photo by Christopher Wolf.
The upper third of Bally's The Shadow. The upper playfield is visible in the top left. Photo by Christopher Wolf.

Upper playfields are divisive in both senses of the word. Some players feel that they break the cohesion and consistency of the table. When their ball is locked in the pocket dimension of the upper playfield, the player also can't experience the full range of interactions that you get on a good table because they can't reach most of the parts. But it's not all bad news.

There's an increased variation and depth you get to your table by adding this second table inside it, and that second table has unique dynamics. Because the upper playfield is smaller than the environment overall, when the ball's inside it, it takes less time to reach its target and return to the flippers, quickening the tempo and demanding faster reaction times from the player. Arbitrarily increasing the requisite reaction time might seem unfair, but the game balances that increased difficulty against reduced punishment for failure. If you lose the ball in the upper playfield, you don't lose a life; you just leave that particular play area.

Regulating Rewards

Fixed and Increasing Rewards

Clusters of bumpers also allow for successes or failures through actions localised to one area of the table. If you have a lone bumper, the ball bounces off and flies somewhere else on the table. That's sometimes what the designer wants. It's an energetic and potentially stochastic interaction. However, if you have a copse of bumpers, you effectively get a new part because the ball can bounce between them continuously, racking up points or other rewards. Again, tension results from uncertainty because, with each bounce, there's a chance the ball will hit a bumper again, increasing the point count, or fly out, ending that score chain.

As the player can become numb to getting the same reward regularly, some tables, like Bally's aptly named Bumper, have the score increase with each successive bumper hit. The player stays engaged because the next hit is less likely than the last but also more valuable. The diminishing emotional reward of receiving the same points payouts repeatedly is also why many tables, like Stern's AC/DC and Williams's Fishtales, let the player increase their score multiplier or the bonus they get after losing a ball or completing missions.

Varying Rewards

In general, pinball tables, like any other game, keep the player engaged by varying the amount of reward across time. In an MMO, some loot sources will give more valuable items than others. In roulette, some spins will yield greater rewards than other spins. Pinball varies the amount of reward over time, not just through having different targets output different point amounts, but also through missions that require the player to hit certain targets in a prescribed order. A player will receive small points caches by hitting targets, then one large point drop at the end of the mission.

Missions

Accommodating Different Interest Levels

While pinball is a physical game, missions are an intangible design component that ties all the physical parts together. You can find the same dynamics in video games with the rules, visuals, and audio accompanying the circuitry and controllers. By allowing the player to pursue or ignore missions, modern pinball tables offer something for both the casual and experienced player.

Someone unwashed in the chaotic waters of pinball and looking for some quick fun can play the table in its default sandbox state, trying to generally hit targets and see how many points they can accrue doing so. But keep doing this, and the game can feel aimless. The player also gets better at hitting specific targets over time and will likely want to see that accuracy rewarded. That's where the missions come in. By asking the player to hit specific targets at specific times, designers ensure player shots are premeditated and a result of skill instead of flukes. That more focused mode can engross the experienced player.

Varying Types of Goal

The inclusion of missions also allows the designer to placate both players who like open-ended goals and closed-ended goals. The participant who wants an open-ended goal can see how high a score they can accumulate, and the one oriented towards closed-ended goals can focus on beating all the missions or the final mission of the table where applicable.

Game Feel

As Steve Swink notes in the invaluable textbook Game Feel, a designer can use goals and level design to give physical interactions in the game meaning.[1] Goals are also a protocol by which to direct players to the manoeuvres that have the best feel. On a pinball table, for example, we might decide that hitting a ball diagonally across the table into a springy pop bumper is satisfying. Therefore, the flipper and pop bumper may be placed to facilitate that shot, and one or more missions may ask the player to take it. Those interactions and that feel are a result of the base mechanics of the game, the level (or table) design, and the mission objectives.

Timed Missions

Most missions on pinball tables are timed. They are comparable to the timed missions in video games in that they ratchet up the tension as they progress. As your proximity to the goal is steadily increasing, your time with which to reach the goal steadily decreases. Having the clock hit that ultimate 0 in pinball is not as infuriating as it is in many video games, however, because it doesn't cause you to lose; it just ends the mission.

Theming

One of my favourite parts about video games is seeing how designers use physical components, rules, and play scenarios together to create metaphors for ideas external to the game. It's one of my favourite features of pinball as well. Zaccaria's Combat has long rails over the table to simulate the flight paths of planes. The same company's Circus exists in a constant multiball, giving you the experience of juggling the balls. Spooky's Total Nuclear Annihilation has an upper playfield in which your ball does an impression of a particle pinging around in a nuclear reactor. Pinball FX3's Sorcerer's Lair features a mission in which we must escape ghosts by running through the back passages of a haunted house. It has us roleplay that by shooting the ball through covered lanes where it temporarily disappears.

Conclusion

It never stops amazing me how complex and instructive deconstructing even a relatively simple game can be. In pinball, we find lessons that can teach us about the interactivity, player agency, accessibility, and sense of purpose in any video game, while pinball machines themselves are keen applications of all those concepts. I'll never launch a ball the same way again. Thanks for reading.

Notes

  1. Swink, S. (2009). Game Feel: A Game Designer's Guide to Virtual Sensation. Elsevier, Inc. (p. 18-20).
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