With The Pinball Arcade, FarSight Studios have brought classic pinball tables from Williams, Bally, and Stern to the PlayStation 4, 3, and Vita, iOS and Android devices, PCs, and the even the Kindle Fire and Ouya. But how exactly do they recreate those classic pinball machines so exactly, and what does the future hold for this series (and does that include bringing this series to the Xbox One)? I spoke to art director Jason Juneau (who’s been at the company for six year, starting as an animator) and Lead Designer Bobby King (another six year vet who’s also the VP of Product Development), to find out.
Let’s start at the beginning. Prior to joining FarSight, had you designed pinball tables for anyone else, either real ones or video game versions?
King: The short answer is no. When we were first asked by Crave Entertainment [The Pinball Arcade’s original publisher] to create a pinball game, I was very resistant to designing an original table. Though I was a fan of playing pinball, I’m not a pinball machine designer. It’s been a privilege to get to play, re-create, and collect all of these great machines.
Juneau: Yeah, before FarSight, I had never played pinball. The success of The Pinball Arcade has allowed me to relive some of the experiences my parents had, which has been awesome. The following that some of these tables have is really something else, these machines really were a magical escape for a lot of people.
Did you ever play with EA’s Pinball Construction Set back in the day?
King: I didn’t, but I checked it out a few years ago to see what you could do. Video pinball was a lot simpler back then. But Jay Obernolte, the president and owner of FarSight, played a lot of it back in the day. He’d actually like for us to release a modern update, but there are challenges in creating tables in 3D and keeping the interface relatively user friendly. We’ve been off and on developing our version of a pinball construction set, but it’s still a ways off.
Nice. So who actually decides which tables you guys are going to make for Pinball Arcade? Do you ask Bally, Williams, and the other companies if you can make specific tables, do they tell you what you can make next, or do they give you a list and let you pick which you do or do not want to make?
King: The decision is up to us, but we take a lot of input from the manufacturers, well respected ranking lists, pinball experts, and our fans. Also, a lot depends on which licenses we can get.
What about when it comes to tables that are based on a movie or TV show, such as the Star Trek: The Next Generation, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the upcoming Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Adams Family tables? Is the process the same, or is there an added layer of complexity because there’s a studio, and thus their lawyers, involved?
King: Yes, that does add quite a bit complexity. Some licenses are near impossible to get while other are just too expensive. Thankfully our fans have helped us out via Kickstarter to pay the added costs for Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Terminator 2. We are currently running a campaign for The Addams Family [which you can find here].
How much does your opinion — and I mean both you personally as well as FarSight collectively — have an influence on what you’ll do. Like if Stern said, “You can make the Metallica table if you want,” but you guys all hated Metallica, could you tell Stern, “Thanks…but no thanks,” or would you have to make it?
King: We could certainly say “No.” It’s our game.
Though we would never say no to recreating the Metallica table, nor we would ever so no to adding a table that was a consensus “great” table.
Once you’ve decided to make a table, how do you actually design it? Do you get the original blueprints from the company, do you get one of the original machines from somewhere, or do you have to rely on photos? Or is it different every time?
Juneau: It’s never the same, I can tell you that. How I wish we could find some of the original art, especially for the playfield prints. This is our process: We buy the actual table, get it into the office, and take it completely apart. We then take a picture of the playfield with the lights off and then with the lights on. We take all the parts to be modeled and textured, then we place them on our playfield picture, which has been cleaned up and measured. At this point we put the actual table back together and we go back and forth with measurements and placements of all the pieces in the game until we have everything where it needs to be. We deliver the final art assets to code and they tie everything up to the emulation, which isn’t easy and I am not anywhere near qualified to tell you how its done. We then tune everything so it plays like the real table, then start testing and bug fixing until everything is nice and clean. As we are doing this, we are also learning the rules and getting the instructions done. The last step is getting the final approval necessary, whether that is Stern or Williams or whoever.
How many people are typically involved in making a table for Pinball Arcade?
Juneau: Lets see, 4 artists, 4 programmers, 1 sound/table engineer, 1 producer, and then obviously the higher ups are always involved.
King: And then there’s the engineers who deploy each table onto each of the platforms we support, as well as the people who create the pinball and graphical technology we use. Plus, we rely on our team of internal and external testers and consultants to get the table as accurate as we can. So there’s probably 20 to 30 people who contribute in some way.
When it’s done and you’re testing it, do you ever get people who’ve played the real one — or maybe even the original creators — to test it out to make sure it plays like the real thing?
Juneau: Of course. Most of our beta testers are very passionate about pinball because they grew up playing all these tables. We also use Josh Sharp [president of the World Pinball Player Rankings] to make sure everything is authentic. Its amazing how many modifications people make to these tables. We do are best to deliver the original table, which would not be possible without the folks who point out our mistakes.
King: We also get general feedback from such pinball legends as Steve Ritchie [who designed such pinball machines as Black Knight and Terminator 2] and George Gomez [who designed the tables Revenge From Mars and The Avengers].
Of all the tables you’ve made for Pinball Arcade, which have been the easier to bring over, and which were the hardest?
Juneau: I can only speak for the art side, as I would imagine the engineers would probably have a different answer. The easiest to make, I would have to say probably Big Shot, mostly because there is not a whole lot there art wise. Hardest, for me, was Ripley’s Believe it Or Not. It was the first table I made, but it’s also such a complicated table. The ball moves around a lot underneath the table, and its the unseen mechanics that are hard to make feel right in the 3D version. I learned a lot during the course of that tables development.
King: From a gameplay standpoint, most table give us a new challenge or two. Mist multi-ball was a big challenge just last month for Dracula. So were the whirlpool spinners in Taxi, Creature, and most recently High Roller Casino.
Conversely, what part of a pinball table is usually the easiest to make for Pinball Arcade?
Juneau: Drop Targets, regular targets, popbumpers, the parts that are there on every table. When we get them working right and we like it, it is easy to just replicate that on all the tables.
So is there a table made by Bally, Stern, or someone else that you guys at FarSight have always wanted to make for Pinball Arcade but, for whatever reason, you haven’t been able to?
King: Yeah, there’s a lot. Why? Because some pinball tables are based on tables with video game license fees in the seven figure range. Great tables like Batman, Indiana Jones, The Simpsons, Lord Of The Rings, and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Though my guess is that eventually we’ll be able to add a few of these that seem impossible right now.
Are there any tables that you’ve wanted to make for Pinball Arcade but couldn’t because there were none still around for you to look at, or no reference photos, or no blueprints?
King: Pinball Circus is the only table that fits this category and I’m guessing we’ll find a way.
How often, while working on one of these tables, do you come up with ideas for your own pinball machines?
Juneau: All the time. It’s a conversation everyone that works here has been involved in.
King: Yeah, there’s a strong desire internally to design some original tables. We’ll be releasing what you might consider an original mod next month, but we have plans to do a whole lot more.
Juneau: I am a big sports fan, so I have a lot of ideas of how I would like to do a sports themed table. But we also have this incredibly successful product, and we still have a lot of tables that actual pinball designers have made that we have not done yet, so while everyone likes the idea of designing a table ourselves, at the same time, why mess with something that is working so well?
Pinball Arcade recently came out on PlayStation 4, though there are fifteen tables that haven’t made it into that edition, including the Terminator 2 table, PIN•BOT, and Tee’d Off. First off, can we expect to see those tables anytime soon?
King: Yes, we just had to promise Microsoft that Xbox One would get them first. You can expect them by the end of 2014.
Well, that brings up an interesting conundrum. Due to legal nonsense with the previous publisher, you guys haven’t been able to add anything new to the Xbox 360 version of The Pinball Arcade. Where do things stand on this now, and when will we see Pinball Arcade on the Xbox One?
King: On Xbox One, we’ve gone through two rounds of pre-certification testing with Microsoft, as our game is the most complicated game in the ID program in terms of PDLC [premium downloadable content]. Our final certification test date is later this week. So fingers crossed, we’ll be releasing within a month.
On 360, we should be submitting soon. Updating all of the tables has uncovered many issues that we’ve had to work through.
Most of the tables that haven’t come to PS4 are available for the PS3 edition, save for Diner, High Roller Casino, and Lights…Camera…Action! How much work do you have to do to bring a table from PS3 to PS4, and is it just a matter of upgrading the visuals?
Juneau: For the PS4 and Xbox One, we have started using dynamic lighting. So this is a pretty big overhaul and takes a little time to get everything re-lit and working correctly.
King: The PS4 includes the latest pinball tech, tuning, and bug fixes. However, yes the dynamic lighting tech is the biggest upgrade and we’ll continue to build on it. Plus, the time that the artists spend getting the lighting right isn’t trivial.
Finally, the main competitors for Pinball Arcade, in a sense, are Pinball FX 2 and Zen Pinball 2 from Zen Studios. Except that those games are not really competitors since Zen make up their own pinball tables, they don’t make video game versions of real pinball machines. Still, I have to ask, do you ever play their tables and if so, which are your favorites?
Juneau: I agree about us not really being competitors, I think we actually help each other expose pinball to the younger generation. I am a big Marvel fan, so I enjoy those tables especially Spider-man.
King: I though Plants Vs. Zombies Pinball was pretty cool. Both Zen and FarSight have created pinball products that are not only a lot of fun, but have helped pinball in general.