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Letter to the Zen Pinball team

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  • Letter to the Zen Pinball team

    WARNING: THIS IS A LONG POST. I LIKE TO RANT. TLDR can be found at the bottom

    First off, I think that Zen does really well in working with theme. With the exception of the machines based only on a movie, and some of the machines just about a character (except the han solo, or darth vader table, and deadpool, and...well okay, some of them are good), the tables work really well with capturing the a good feel of theme.

    That being said, there's several problems with the tables that I had hoped would be corrected in future tables as more experience was gained, but this doesn't seem to be the case. It's a problem I call "all splash, no dive". Basically it means this, most tables seem to be so focused on theme and style, that they are severely deficient in actual gameplay. Now just so you see my point of view, I'm a Amateur-Professional pinball player, with a couple league and tournament trophies. During the season, I spend 1/2 of my free time playing pinball, and was raised on real machines (although I did have Sierra's 3D ultra pinballs, which I enjoyed), so I have more than a decent grasp on pinball design, but I don't mean to say that I know more than other people, there are sure many people I know who are a lot more of an expert than I, but I just thought it should be said that I have some idea what I'm talking about here.

    Anyway, I'd like to highlight specific areas of Zen's pinball design which I think are flawed, but for each category, I will highlight tables that Zen has done which I think are closer, or hit the mark, of good design on that part. I do this because I honestly think Zen Pinball can get much better. Right now, most, if not all, of leaguers that I talk to all do their non-serious, off location skill practicing on Pinball Arcade, which is, I should say, very, very good, even if their pricing and purchasing system is completely stupid. When they talk about Zen Pinball, they are mostly dismissive, and like to use my smarties analogy, in that smarties (the candy) are decent to eat once in a while, but they're really just all sugar, no substance, and you'll get sick of them in a short amount of time, and really, there's better candy out there if you want something with actual substance. Such is with many tables that Zen puts out.

    I think, with better design, combined with Zen's talent for style and theme, Zen Pinball can really get on Pinball Arcade's level, but offer a different experience that PA doesn't, but is just as good. Enough introduction, lets get down to the meat.

    The biggest flaw would have to be many table's complete lack of strategic depth (or more clearly stated, gameplay). Now, a deep table doesn't have to have a lot of main features, and it doesn't have to have a ton of complexity to those features, depth, at least how I perceive it, comes from the difference in option strategy, and how the different options interact (when I say options, I mean features, both main and minor). It's certainly nice when a table has lots of different ramps and things, but that means nothing if they don't work together in some way, and if they do work separately, it doesn't help that they're all pretty much the same shot, but different result. You can best see what I'm thinking if we look at a classic EM table. The features usually are, 1 or 2 banks of drop targets, a few rollover/unders, maybe some top lane roll over (A-B-C or the like), and maybe some wells. Very sparse, very simplistic, but yet it has strategic depth. There are many different options for runs, many of which are not mutually exclusive in their elements. You have strategic options, do you go straight for points, a multiplier or building a bonus score, there's many ways to start stocking up on something, a jackpot perhaps, for access at a much later time.

    Closely related, and actually one of the main contributors to table strategic depth is flow. Flow also contributes separately to table feel. The table elements have to work together to make a flow. Shots have to chain together in some way, not necessarily in some combos, it chaining has to feel good, and if you have multiple elements, they have to chain together in a way, you can't really have an element without a chain unless there's a reason. Look at Steve Richie's tables, as I view his designs to be very good in flow.

    I feel that many of Zen's tables fail in this aspect. Let's first look at some examples of the bad tables. I feel that the table that really has completely no depth is Civil War. The literal only strategy is make ramp shots, any ramp shots, some are better than others, but just in a minor way. There's the safe house and the raft whirlpool thing, but those features feel completely apart from the main game due to their placement (the raft is a little better on Tony Stark's version of the table, but still). And when you make a lot of ramp shots? You hit a ball capture lane, and then you get to make more ramp shots, but this time, you can only hit one to get any sort of value. I like the idea of the battle between the other invisible player, and the table is fun-ish at times, mostly because of trying to beat the other guy, but really when you get down to it, the table is super lame. Also, lets look at X-Men, or similarly, FF, you have a bunch of modes, completely separate, all tied to one shot to start it. Not good. As for some examples of terrible flow, I can only point to my least favorite zen table ever. World War Hulk. Not because the theme is bad, its fine, even with the kind of annoying VA clips. No, its because the table feels awful. Pretty much only ramps, and only 2 of them tie together, the rest are so inconvenient to hit that they never get hit, and the arena video game just feels way too fast and doesn't do the mini-pinball idea well. And the modes are all pretty eh. Ugh. There are tables that do well, however. Fear Itself, the flow is a little off, but the table really comes together. All features feel like viable options and all can be hit with a reasonable amount of skill. Some of the worthy modes are a little bad, but really good table. Han Solo, same thing. Deadpool, same as well. Same with some of the zen originals like deep sea have this as well. Tables with just good flow are few. I'd say that although Civil War is not very deep, the ramps do have a decent flow to them. Avengers has ooookaaay depth, but pretty nice flow. There are a decent number of tables that have both good flow and nice depth however, Excalibur is a great zen original that has both. The features for the most part all feel good, and everything flows pretty well. Most of the marvel pinball original tables, including Thor (its not a marvel original, but plays like one) have good flow and depth, they each have some minor flaws still, but they're all pretty good, I'd say Iron man is the weakest, but that's mostly because the shots that just do one thing, (raise the security level, for instance) are kinda eh, but not as bad as the spelling ramps.

  • #2
    Part 2

    There are three sub-criteria that I will look at, and then I'm done (I promise, I know, this is a long post); The ramp problem, difficulty and modes.

    First, lets do the easiest. Zen, stop using ramps as a crutch. I feel like in many tables, they're abandoning other perfectly good pinball table elements to make Ramp-a-palooza. When I saw the new Guardians of the Galaxy table, I facepalmed. Now, having a lot of ramps is fine, one of my favorite tables is ST:TNG, and that has four ramps, which is a pretty high number. The difference is that zen doesn't use them well, and also doesn't use other elements. Even ST has some stationary targets. And as for not using them well, this falls under the depth and flow. The ramps need to be mostly easily accessible, and usually the only challenge to them should be slope if anything, making it so you have to hit it with some power to make it up there. In addition, the ramps usually should be part of one overarching system. Doesn't mean they can't be a little different, but well, I mean, if we look at Demolition Man, it's a fine table with lots of ramps. The thing is though, that they all flow together and tied under he explode system, but they still are different in destination and function. Zen keeps doing this stupid spelling thing, where the ramps only serve to spell something out, to start a mode. That's stupid to do for every single ramp, when they all spell different things. The only table I can think of that did something similar is South Park, my most hated physical table, mostly due to the annoying sound bytes that play every time you do anything, but it does the same type thing as zen tables, although with a lot better of flow. It has no depth whatsoever. It is good as a beginning table however since it teaches shot placement and such, but why it doesn't work for zen is my next point.

    My next point is the difficulty. Now, difficult tables are fine. I like Metallica and that's a hard table, same with Tron. The thing is, is that there's several categories of difficulty, speed, shot danger, shot difficulty, and outlanes. The best difficult tables focus either on only speed or have a balance of shot danger and difficulty that isn't insanely high, and outlanes that are hard, but not totally unfair. Many zen pinball tables fall on the side of "bad" difficult. I can say that all of the difficult tables, the problem is that the difficulty lies that the shots that aren't hard to make, are dangerous, and the shots that aren't dangerous, are hard to make. And at a high percentage of shots, there's no safety shot. Now, usually the hard to make shots are minor, which is how difficult shots should be (well, not minor, but such that they aren't necessary to do everything on the table, they're challenge shots that provide (usually) good reward, and they're few in number. The problem in zen tables are that usually you are required to make a difficult shot to get any points in a mode (I'm looking at you, civil war, it's hard to purposely hit the one shot, but with that time limit? Come on.), and frequently I find that too many shots are just needlessly dangerous, that the ball goes on a direct course to the drain and there is nothing I can do. It's not a huge problem, but its frustrating when the challenge is just seeing how long your luck can last.

    Last are the modes. Oh god the modes. Now not all of the tables have this problem, most of the tables I named that have good depth and both flow and depth are alright, but this tends to be an overall problem. Zen seems to have this weird fixation on modes where you have to make one shot to proceed, which is not bad if there's only one or two modes like that, but there's two problems: 1. The one shot is frequently a hard to make shot, often with a stupid time limit. 2. EVERY SINGLE MODE IS LIKE THAT. The style on the modes are good, they're good ideas, but no thought or creativity is given to the actual mode gameplay. Most tables that I like tend to have modes that fall on number one (like a few of the worthy modes in FI, but most of the bad tables (or I should say, that I think are not good at all) hit both problems, or just number 2, which just makes it boring. Puhleeeze Zen, I know its hard to match the virtual action happening during the modes, but sometimes its like you don't even try.

    TLDR:Anyway, Zen, I really think you need to slow down your table output, and maybe spend some time studying classical table design, and the good designs you have made in the past. So many good ideas are being wasted on bleh tables. I believe in you zen, make it so I am buying the tables for both gameplay and theme, rather than just theme, which is what I seem to be doing lately. Also, please note that the above is just my opinion, and if you like the tables I don't like, I don't really hate you, but I know many other avid pinball players feel this way, so I know I'm not totally alone

    Also about the guardians of the galaxy table, if you're going to do a table based on the movie, you can at least get the actors, like I understand that they might have been busy at the time, and the replacements are, frankly, alright, but it's weird.


    • #3
      Oh, and infinity gauntlet, although not very deep, is still fun because all the modes are pretty fun and varied, which is a way that you can get around strategic depth, by making the modes unique and fun, or what I like to call, the Stern Star Trek approach. It flows okay, but that's beside the point. The reason why Infinity works is that the modes are started all from multiple shots, making so you don't have to keep hitting a certain shot to start a mode, the modes are started from a reasonable number of shots, and the modes are fun. Although not deep, it doesn't need to be, as you chain from mode to mode fairly easily, so you don't get the problem that other non-deep games have where the modes take a while to start, and there's nothing to do in the meantime.


      • #4
        Thanks for the feedback, I will be sure to make sure the design team reads this. You bring up some really great points.

        Just to be fair to our team, I want to make a comment to this point, "I think, with better design, combined with Zen's talent for style and theme, Zen Pinball can really get on Pinball Arcade's level, but offer a different experience that PA doesn't, but is just as good. Enough introduction, lets get down to the meat."

        Let's remember that PA is not designing anything. They are copying what someone else has designed. Design is the MOST DIFFICULT part of a good pinball table, and we are getting better. I would be really interested to see what PA might be able to design on their own, not saying they cannot, but this would be a better benchmark than simply comparing our designs to PA, which really are not PA but the GREATEST designers in the world.

        When we first started, we drew a lot of inspiration from these great designers and over time were able to step away and fly on our own. I agree with you that we are really great at themes, and we will continue to be better at design!

        Thanks again!


        • #5
          Of course when I say that, I mean in overall pinball experience.

          Design is of course very difficult and PA has that part pretty much easy. The difficulty they face is trying to recreate it as exactly as they can, which means lighting (both spot and GI) emulation, top physics emulation, designing in quirks, etc. With Zen, you guys have to deal with design and theme, but obviously since you are not attempting emulation of a physical product, you get a pass there. They are of course going to be different experiences, and I am very much not holding the design up to the same standards, tables like spiderman, and wolverine though, I would say are reasonably good design, while not as good as the ones by the "greats" it doesn't have to be, to be on that level in experience. You have the advantage of theme and the digital nature to be able to provide just as fun as an experience, and I would say you already have tables that do, like I will once again say the original marvel pinball tables, especially wolverine and spiderman, and like I said, Thor is also that level. Those are some of the best I've seen, they show good design, and the theme, while not as sophisticated as what you'll try later, is still great.

          I know it sounds like I want the design to be as good as TNG or Taxi or whatever, but that's not really the case, I know that's not exactly a reasonable expectation. I was using those as an example of design elements, and of course, fantastic design. But the table's design doesn't have to be fantastic (obviously it would be great if it was), but I more would just like the design to be "smart" in a way, or just a reasonable level of good. Average is still alright. It's just that repetitive, bland, or otherwise "dumb" design really takes away from what I believe is the strength of the zen tables which is the great theme, and fun tables, which successful accomplish what the tragic Pinball 2000 line tried (and failed) to do, which is to add a lot to the "spectacle" factor. Having wolverine and sabertooth duke it out on the table while you hit the flashing shots is just plain fun. And that's really what I see the place of Zen being in the pinball community. It's obviously not going to be used for hard practice for tournaments or league, but it would be great (and what I play the tables I like for) is to be used as just fun. Although I (speaking for my league as well), have fun playing pinball, professional (and amateur-professional) play really tires me out, and eventually the pure fun is replaced by the fun of competition, and the tables blend into a series of shots to maximize score rather than experience the table, it would be nice to be able to play a table thats just pure pinball fun, where I feel more like I'm playing a video game rather than a sport. And that's really why I like Zen pinball when its at its best.


          • #6
            Also thanks again for reading it, since I know its long, and kinda pinball fanboy-y, but I just thought I should present what I and my league had in terms of areas you do well in as well as areas you can improve in, since to be honest, I was a little disappointed in the GotG machine (mostly because I am very much a fan of the franchise, both movie and comic). But I do this out of love, since I very much believe that Zen is at the forefront of getting more gamers into pinball, and although I know I kinda ask a lot, I have seen you guys get very close before, so I know you can get there again.

            Oh and also, probably the biggest thing of all... I haven't heard or seen Stan Lee in any of the marvel machines! Having a non-comic marvel thing without Stan Lee cameo is tantamount to heresy nowadays
            Last edited by pinchao999; 08-12-2014, 12:48 AM.


            • #7
              Glad to see that someone else noticed the "Bad difficult" thing Zen's got going on a lot of these tables. Whether it's way too many hits to complete a task, start a multiball, or just have your ass kicked by slingshots that are too strong, something annoyingly toooo difficult always seems to pop up.
     The City Is My Church


              • #8
                Phew! Well pinchao999, I read it all and you made some really great points of which I agree with many. I understand you're passionate but maybe you could have been a little more succinct, I found it tough sometimes to be clear exactly what you were trying to say. Or maybe that's just me.

                I do worry that the demand for Zen to produce more and more tables will lead to them seeing the dollar signs (or should that be Forint signs?...) and bringing out an amount of tables that suffer from being of lower quality. Whilst I love that they have created so many, the release pace seems to be getting quicker and quicker and I just hope that the designers are being given enough time to bring us their best work. I guess it's a difficult balance, maybe they get to hire more staff as they have continued success, I hope so. Sometimes, less is more.

                Speaking of less being more, I totally agree that just having more ramps does not lead to a table being deeper and more playable. Looking at real-life pinball tables, they never have many ramps but still manage to be challenging and fun to play. A lot of Zen tables have so many ramps that any time you hit the ball it feels like it hits a ramp somewhere.

                I imagine getting the balance between a table being challenging and varied enough for pinball fans to enjoy and yet easy and accessible so casual gamers can have fun too must be so difficult. I bet if Zen could make a table which was just for all us pin-heads it would be awesome but I understand that is never going to happen. If anything, they must lean towards entertaining those casual players who just want to see everything the table has to offer with little effort as I'm sure they make up the majority of their sales. I think sometimes we start to forget that this isn't a pinball simulation and we want all the things which makes us enjoy real pinball...

                My view on table flow is that while it is massively important to a real table, with Zen's tables it's much less so. I think this is because it is so easy to hold the ball on the flippers that nearly all tables are more stop-start. Even combos lately allow you to pause significantly to line up your shot, a feature I'm not a fan of. A combo for me should be all about timing that shot with a moving ball.

                Things which make a great table for me include: Varied objectives, challenging yet quick to start missions, dramatic pauses, over the top flashing light-shows and magnets. I just loooove magnets.