Pinball is storied; pinball is distinctive. Pinball has a fascinating history, pinball has been a part of almost every American's youth in some capacity or another. It's a controlled collision of physics and art, all in the service of giving players a kinesthetic experience that's not quite like anything else. Pinball is… well, it's pinball.
In this mini-documentary, the team at FarSight Studios, the makers of Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, walk us through the process of recreating classic Bally, Williams, Stern and Gottlieb tables for their upcoming game The Pinball Arcade. It is fascinating.
FarSight president Jay Obernolte begins the tour, starting with something that's not particularly sexy, but is vital—licensing. Getting the rights to the art and design of a classic table is very important, but there are a ton of complicating factors—the music used in a game might require a whole other set of licenses, or the film tie-ins for film games. Furthermore, if the art features an actor's likeness, then… yep, gotta get the licenses.
That's all interesting, but it's right around 5:00 where producer and audio designer Norman Stepansky takes the wheel. Stepansky takes care of the physical machines that FarSight owns, and oversees much of the process of rendering them into digital devices. Of course, they keep all of the tables that they're working on accessible to everyone to play at any time to make sure that they've got the game tuned just right. And as Stepansky points out, it's a difficult job, because the tables break down "a bit more than we expected them to."
First, they take a picture of the board from every angle to send to the 2D artists, before removing all of the parts off of the "playfield," to send them to the 3D artists, who make them into the objects in the game. They're clearly dedicated to recreating every light, lever, bell, and whistle as accurately as possible, which is a daunting task.
In a cool bit touch, Obernolte talks about how they would use emulation in the game to recreate each game's specific ROM.
"To get the most authentic video game experience possible, " he says. "We wanted to take that exact computer program and be able to emulate it on whatever device we're running on. And that's what we do. We actually take the computer chips and emulate them on a cycle-by-cycle basis. So what you're seeing on our pinball tables is an exact, pixel-perfect recreation of what's going on on the original table."
Director of Development Bobby King walks through the process of building the physics and "feel" of each table, and how new technology helped them make The Pinball Arcade their most accurate collection yet. "Because we can get gravity feeling a lot better," he says, "I think that this collection is going to be the best pinball game ever made."
Art Director Mike Field, whose job is to oversee the meticulous recreation of each game's art and design, often via the original documentation, describes what they're doing as a kind of curation.
"It's hard not to love these old machines," Field says. "I think in a sense, we're archiving and preserving the legacy of pinball, and at the same time we aim to bring these amazing machines alive again for a new generation."
The Pinball Arcade is now available for iOS and Android market. I checked in with FarSight about the other versions, and they said that the PS3 and Xbox Live Arcade versions are targeted for March, with the PS Vita coming right around then and the 3DS a bit later.
The enthusiasm in this video is real and infectious; these guys clearly love what they do. I for one am really looking forward to playing this game on the Vita—with its huge screen and flippy shoulder buttons, the handheld seems to lend itself quite well to an immaculate, portable HD pinball game. Regardless of the platform, it's good to know that the finished product will be a labor of love.