I've tried to be open-minded about what constitutes a sports video game, largely because the genre has so few new titles or competing products in a given year. Pinball FX 2, one of my favorite games of 2011, has struck me as a quasi-sports video game for a while, I just couldn't really articulate why.
After talking with the game's creative director, Neil Sorens of Zen Studios, I think I've got a handle on it.
"The appeal of pinball as a video game, a major part of it, is that it's a simulation of a real-life activity," Sorens said. "If you get too far away from that, then you have a physics-based video game with a pinball theme. This is a simulation of an electromechanical device."
Sorens doesn't advocate pinball as a sport. ("I don't think golf is a sport, but I don't think bowling is a sport, I don't think Counter-Strike is a sport," he says) Full disclosure, he was indulging my phone call over Christmas week, a conversation borne out of my enthusiasm for what Zen makes, more than it was any real news.
"Every time we put out a new table, I get a new favorite," Sorens says, speaking for me, too.
Wide World of Sports featured cliff-diving, mountain climbing and Evel Knievel breaking bones, and that's generally the most exotic boundary line of what's a sport. Pinball never made that show. But poker, billiards and bowling also are broadcast by sports networks, and when they cross over to video games, they're associated with the sports genre. It's because they're games governed by objective rules, where a user's actual skill and understanding determines the outcome.
So is pinball, and so is a video game simulation of pinball.
"In other video games, you might lose because your individual stats aren't good enough, as with a role-playing game or an online shooter," Sorens offered. "Maybe you did all the right things, but somebody sniped you because they had the sniper rifle, and they did all the right things with it. But in pinball, if you make the shot, you are going to be rewarded for it every time."
I'd argue that Pinball FX 2 (Marvel Pinball, on the PlayStation 3), is more of a true simulation of physical competition than even the best of the sports genre, like FIFA, MLB the Show or NBA 2K. Passes in those games are button presses; basketball shots and throws from third base usually have a timing mechanism, but they're nothing like actually lofting or throwing a ball. But map Pinball FX up to the bumper buttons, and you've got a 1:1 physical experience, real life to video game: Hit the buttons to move the flippers. Your timing is the same in real life as it is in the game. There is a tilt feature in Pinball FX 2 but I rarely use it, as a flick on the right stick just doesn't feel like the two-handed short shove or forearm slide in real life.
The glue of all of this is what glues together Madden, Tiger Woods or or any other simulation sport: a physics engine that delivers reliable and repeatable results.
"The principle of the game, the principle of its physics, must be inviolable," Sorens said. "You can't mess with the physics engine game-to-game. People figure out, OK, this is how the physics works on one table, and they base their judgment on that. If you change the physics in the middle of the game, it throws everything off, and it violates the core law that players use as the basis for their decision-making."
From there, Pinball FX tables still follow guidelines anchored to reality. Though Zen Studios theoretically has the luxury of making tables of nonstandard lengths and widths, they use the dimensions typically seen in actual arcade pinball machines, which were restricted by arcade operators' need to put many of them side-by-side while still allowing for foot traffic, spectators and playing space.
Flippers likewise conform to a physical standard; Sorens says pinball makers have two gap widths (the open space between the flippers when they are perfectly level to each other). Zen Studios uses the narrower width, because its product isn't intended to create a shorter, quarter-sucking experience. Likewise, the table layouts aren't configured to slingshot the ball into the outside lanes, and ballsave periods last longer. Some of these things can be tweaked in the operator's menu that each table includes (another simulation-quality feature) but you will last longer on one of Zen's virtual tables, simply because you own it, you're not patronizing it.
Zen's offerings still afford plenty of variety. Wolverine is a small, compact surface, suggesting both Logan's short stature and his infighting style. Thor is a huge, grandiose layout, imparting the size of Asgard and the godly eminence of its title character and his adversaries. "Spider-Man also is a larger table, with lots of long ramps that mimic web-slinging, and with two levels (of play) it gives that feeling of fighting on the street surface and atop buildings," Sorens explains. Flippers are given extra strength to reach the upper areas of larger tables, but that still is within standard industry tolerances.
The game's physics are informed by a model that includes variable friction and elasticity values, for surface material changes like plastic, to metal, to a "bouncier" plastic. Probably the greatest similarity Pinball FX 2 shares with a sports game is in the feedback Zen gets from its hardcore clientele. They nitpick the physics, collisions, and interactions as comprehensively as a Madden diehard sweats EA Tiburon about the same thing. "Someone might be playing another pinball game and they say our ball is too heavy, or it moves too fast," Sorens says. "Or people play our game and go to another and they say, 'Whoa, the ball feels too floaty.' The engine is the thing people nitpick or comment on the most."
They haven't recreated any of these tables in real life. "That would be a really big undertaking," Sorens said. "The Bill Paxton pinball table that Ben Heck made, it took him years to finish that. We don't have the tools, expertise, time, or people—but if somebody wants to make one, get in touch with us."
Zen has still taken measurements and measured physical interactions off of real pinball tables, and is confident in the realism of playing surfaces it has created, and the consistency of the forces acting on them across all of their offerings, even if they are buttressed with outlandish eye-candy that either defies reality or would be prohibitively expensive to engineer.
I asked if, given the chance to observe two elite pinball players in real life and judge which one he thought was was better, Sorens would be willing to bet $100 of his own money on one of them, playing Zen Studios' game. "Absolutely," he said. That sounds like a sport to me.