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What Is The Game About: Precision Pinball — Point Line Square

What Is The Game About: Precision Pinball

July 2nd, 2012 — 5:24pm

This is part three of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.  The first post can be found here.

I’ve designed a lot of computer pinball games.  My first one, “3D Pinball For Windows“, has the odd claim to fame of being seen by pretty much anyone who ever owned a PC.  Back in 1994, when I started working on that game, I wasn’t asking myself “what is the game about”.  I just went and made a pinball game (one that was about as kitchen sink a design as you can imagine).  It wasn’t great, but it was entertaining and acceptable for the time.

So when I sat down to make a computer pinball game for a mobile phone in 2003, I really wanted to get to the underlying core of what pinball was about.  At a minimum, I wanted to identify a key element a mobile pinball game could be built around that wouldn’t be crippled by the device.

What I settled on was “motion”.  Pinball is all about sending the ball careening around the playfield.  Unimpeded motion is far more appealing than obstacles;  and any motion that ends with a reaction (e.g. a target drops or a spinner turns) is better than one that ends with nothing happening at all.

Some of the things we did to reinforce motion in the game:

  • Every possible angle away from the flippers resulted in a target being hit or, more often, the ball gliding gracefully up a ramp or through an arcing channel.
  • We changed the underlying collision detection to be different than the visual, narrowing things like posts and the ends of walls so that the ball was more likely to glide past and into a lane or ramp than bounce back.
  • Lights were laid down in all channels and ramps that would light up briefly as the ball went past, adding to and enhancing the motion.
  • We made the game easy.  There were lots of reasons to do this, but more fundamentally, one ball in play for a long time is more continuous motion without interruption.

Reviewers and players loved the game, although it fared poorly as a commercial title (it only appeared on three handsets, limiting its distribution).  It did very well in OEM, which was oddly appropriate given how most folks discovered “3D Pinball For Windows” a decade earlier.

Next week:  Dodgeball

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