If you’ve been to this site more than once, you might’ve noticed that I have an affinity for the pinball games made by Zen Studios. Be they based on the Star Wars movies, Marvel Comics, or an original idea, Zen’s pinball tables always manage to mix realistic physics and sounds with physic-ly impossible mechanics. Which, for a gamer who grew up on pinball, hits a real sweet spot.
I recently had a chance to pick the brain of Peter Grafl, one of the pinball table designers at Zen Studios, and asked him who decides what tables they’ll make, how they’re designed, and what tables he’d like to make.
When did you first fall in love with pinball?
I think it happened in 1988 when I saw a pinball machine for the first time. I was in a restaurant and I saw Williams’ High Speed and F-14 Tomcat. I was six years old back then, so I barely could see the playfield because of my height, and had to stand on a chair to play, but I remember clearly how much I enjoyed it even though I had no idea what was going on. This is one of the many things that makes pinball so fun: even if you don’t know the rules, just hitting the ball around with the flippers is fun.
I grew up in a relatively small town here in Hungary but, luckily, there were many pinball machines in the local arcades, and they were changed regularly, so later in the ’90s I got to play many of the most famous pinball tables.
How did that lead you to your current job at Zen Studios?
It all began in my childhood when I was around seven years old. My sister fired up the first game on our new Commodore 64, which we had to smuggle in from Austria due to political reasons. I remember I was stunned that I could control something on the TV screen and things happened accordingly. I knew that I want to be part of this at some point in my life. I had no idea how, especially in a small European country like Hungary, but I wanted it really badly.
Later, this love for video games grew stronger. I had all the mainstream gaming platforms, and I played them a lot. I have a list of around nine hundred video games that I have completed, not counting the many games that I’ve played for a couple of minutes or hours. In 2006, I started to write a lot on the forums of a Hungarian Internet gamer portal, and later, in 2009, I received a private message on that forum, asking if I was interested in a game tester position. How in the world wouldn’t I be interested?
I became a tester of Zen Studios in early 2010. I tested the Planet Minigolf title at first, and after the release I designed some obstacles and toys for the DLC. But the release of the Pinball FX2 was just around the corner, and the first Marvel tables were on their way too, so I found myself testing Pinball FX2. A little later I got my first independent design task: the Fantastic Four table.
The thing, for me, that has made Zen’s tables so great is that the physics are authentic, as are the sounds of the balls rolling across the table and hitting the bumpers. But how much refinement have you made in these basic mechanics since you released the current incarnations?
The basic physics are untouched since the release of Pinball FX2. The tweaks we implement depend on the table characteristics and the designer. I prefer the more powerful bumpers and slingshots that feel more like real life tables, so I adjust them that way in my tables. I prefer quicker, shorter, real arcade gameplay but, at the same time, it must not be as frustrating as real pinball was back in the ’90s, when the operators adjusted their machines to be money pits. It is a real walk on the edge, and I spend many hours with these tweaks on every table to make sure they’re balanced perfectly.
When you start work on a new table, what comes first: the basic layout of bumpers, flippers, and ramps, or the more elaborate mechanics?
The first thing is always an Initial Specification. Once it is approved, comes the detailed game design with the planning of the layout. These two go hand in hand; this is the time when the designer decides on the features of the table, all the toys, mechanics, game modes, and character positions. Basically, we decide what and where will be on the table, and what each object is going to do. This is at least a two week long process in itself. In the meantime, the 2D graphics artists are creating concept art for the table. It’s only when every design document and layout plan is ready and approved, either in-house or by the IP holders, can the 3D crafting and scripting be started.
How often do you have a table designed, but when you start to program it or test it, you realize it doesn’t work as well as you had hoped, and you end up scrapping the whole thing?
Our leads try to prevent this at all costs by having several checks in place. It would be a waste of time. But, of course, we designers want to experiment with new stuff all the time.
Mistakes happen mostly in the first one or two designs. Later on in the process it becomes rarer, but it can happen with me even after six tables designed and scripted. On almost every table of mine there is something new I came up with in the design, and I saw it working in my mind’s eye, but then it turned out that there isn’t enough space for it on the table, or it simply didn’t work for whatever reason. There is always a workaround, or a small change that gets it to work.
For example, my first idea for the Tusken minigame on the Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope table was that the Tusken figurine could have hit a hanging pendulum ball that can be moved with magnets by the player. But it didn’t work out because of the ball’s string would have conflicted with the weapon of the Tusken raider.
There was another incident with the Star Wars Pinball: Darth Vader and the Star Wars Pinball: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi tables. Another designer and I each came up with minigames based on the same gameplay. We both designed vehicles that could be controlled by the player — a TIE fighter and a speeder bike — so one of us had to change it. I was the one who agreed to redesign it, and so the speeder bike minigame became what you see today.
Zen Studios started off making their own tables, but most of the recent ones have either been based on Star Wars or Marvel Comics. Are there any plans to do more original tables anytime soon?
Original tables are on the way. I myself already began the scripting one that is part of a three- or four-pack, while another is much more advanced. So stay tuned, we will have news on that pretty soon.
Cool. Along with the Star Wars and Marvel Comics tables, you’ve also done ones based on such video games as Plants Vs. Zombies and Ms. Splosion Man, as well as the cartoon Rocky & Bullwinkle. When it comes to these licensed tables, who decides what they’ll be about? Like do you say to Marvel, “We’d really like do one based on Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Civil War series,” or do they say that to you?
It depends. I remember I picked Fantastic Four, and the first couple of other Marvel tables were chosen by us, the designers. Starting with The Avengers Chronicles pack, the topics for the tables were suggested by Marvel, but the final list is always the result of lengthy discussions, as is the case with Star Wars tables.
How often do they say, “We think a _______________ table would be cool, but we want to wait two years into the new movie comes out” or something similar, and how often do they just say, “No, you are not making a Jabba The Hutt table”?
Disney has a schedule of releasing both films, and games years ahead. Since both Marvel Comics and Star Wars are Walt Disney properties, they have a clear vision of what and when we should release our tables. Of course, there can be some leeway depending on the project, but there are also some “hurry up to release with the movie” situations we adhere to.
Have you even been approached by someone hoping you’ll do tables based on their movies or whatever, but you ended up passing because their movies suck?
Nowadays, there are many companies approaching us to create pinball tables based on their IPs. Sometimes it surprises us, and yes, sometimes we have to politely say no. It’s never the case that their IP is not good, though, because we can make something great regardless; it’s really a choice about what are we interested in and what we want to do.
What about something that you think would be cool, but you know that no one in their right mind would ever buy? Like a Howard The Duck table?
We had an idea that maybe we could make a table about Zen Studios itself. You know, a table creator table. We came up with many jokes based on our colleagues, but these would mostly be inside jokes for us here at Zen Studios.
Now, when you’re making a table based on someone else’s movie or comic book, it obviously adds a layer of complexity you don’t have to deal with when you create an original table. But is there anything good about making a table based on something else?
It only makes it more difficult, I think. The most common problem is that when I know there must be something in a given spot, but I can’t just put any random stuff I come up with. It must fit the theme, and sometimes it takes days to find something that fits there both as a gameplay element and a theme-based object.
You have games for almost every system, tablet, and computer…except the Xbox One. I assume that one is coming, but do you know when?
Xbox One is being worked on as we speak. With any new system there is a learning curve and delays will happen. There should be news about this very soon.
What about a whole new game. Has there been talk of making a new game, Zen Pinball 3 or whatever?
Well, I have to admit that I know almost nothing about the new titles we are developing, but it’s an open secret around the web that there will be Zen Pinball 3 and Pinball FX3. I had a sneak peak of the new graphics engine, and it is truly mind blowing and even opens up new gameplay possibilities. I’m very excited to design a table for the new platforms.
Is the plan to give it the same name across every platform? Cuz that always confuses me; I can only imagine how confusing it gets for you guys.
In the case of the pinball tables and packs, the name decisions usually come from our IP holders, or we come up with something in-house and they approve it. As to the games, it’s more like a mix of traditions — like the Pinball FX and Zen Pinball series — and IP related naming conventions, such as Marvel Pinball and Star Wars Pinball. And, finally, there are the evolutionary exceptions like the Zen Pinball THD and Zen Pinball HD titles on Android. Sometimes even we get confused as well.
Finally, if you could make a pinball game based on anything — a movie, a comic, whatever — what would be your dream table and why?
Tough question, I couldn’t name just one. One was definitely Star Wars since I am a fan myself. There are some other movies I’d like to make a pinball table for: Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, Tron, and Transformers. There are some games, too: the Uncharted series, the original version of Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. These, however, wouldn’t be as good as they could be without an M-rated title, which we don’t have yet and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have one.
Wait, why wouldn’t you guys do an M-rated table?
I’m not sure that we would “never” do an M-rated table, but it could not be done in the Zen Pinball or Pinball FX2 framework as all content under those platforms must be E10 in order to maintain the rating. If we were to do M-rated pinball, we would create an entirely new pinball game.
For my review of Star Wars Pinball: Balance Of The Force, click here.
For my review of the 3DS version of Star Wars Pinball, click here.
For my review of Zen Pinball 2 on the PlayStation 4, click here.
For my review of Star Wars Pinball: Heroes Within, click here.