The Pinball Paradox: Why Gaming Systems Must Adapt

In many ways, pinball is a lost art.

For a medium that arguably spawned a generation of coin-operated video arcades that, in turn, had tremendous influence on the video game market we all know and love today, nobody really plays pinball anymore. Two of the three great manufacturers have long since gone out of business, leaving pinball players with the steadily improving, but still inferior, offerings of Stern Co. in the absence of Williams/Bally and D. Gottlieb and Co. Whenever I ask anyone why they are willing to play arcade games but refuse the stately pinball in the corner, the answer I invariably get is, “Pinball’s too hard. I get frustrated with it too easily.” This bugs me. You see … I know pinball’s history. I know why they say that, and I see it happening again in the modern video game industry. It’s a big problem.

None of us should ever forget that pinball was originally a form of gambling. Although the earliest pinballs date back to the late 1700s, the medium didn’t become popular until a coin-operated variant was introduced in the early 1930s. You see, pinball machines didn’t have flippers back then, so the entire game was similar in concept to a slot machine: insert coin, pull back the plunger, and watch the balls land where they may. The higher your score, the higher the machine’s payout—gambling, plain and simple. When public opinion inevitably turned against the noble art (I mean, then-mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia even went as far as to smash pinball machines in public, declaring “war” on the “scourge” of pinball), the industry scrambled to make a new image for itself. With the addition of two (widely spaced, but still present) electronically controlled flippers, suddenly the machines had changed categories. “Games of skill, not chance” was the slogan of the day, and it certainly worked.

Pinball continued in vogue as the coin-op of the time until the late 70s/early 80s, when video arcades began to steal pinball’s spotlight. With about 30 years of flipper-machine experience under their belts, the major manufacturers were turning out extraordinary works of pinball art, with a mind-boggling number of solid-state electronics under the hood and complex, flashy game modes that included loops, kickers, trick shots, and even skill-launches. The only problem?  Pinball had become difficult! Not unbearably so, mind you, but difficult enough that one would probably have to spend a couple of rolls of quarters before the sting of the learning curve wore off. Compared to new, competing games like Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids, which offered simpler pick-up-and-play experiences and much more instant gratification, consumers left pinball in droves and flocked to the newfangled “video games.”

The pinball industry, bleeding from the sudden loss of income, tried steadily to steal video games’ thunder by incorporating more gamey elements: Embedded LCD screens, integrated sound effects, and more game modes all found their way into pinball machines over the next 10 years. By the early 90s, however, it was clear that the industry had one of two paths to choose: either dumb down pinball considerably to reduce the learning curve, or accept the diminishing relevance of the medium and cater exclusively to the hardcore niche. For perhaps unfathomable reasons, the few remaining pinball manufacturers chose the latter strategy, producing some of the very best designed pinball machines the world had ever seen for a virtually nonexistent player base.

If you’re astute, you probably see where this is going. An older, more complex entertainment medium is challenged by a simpler competing medium with a lower learning curve. It happened with pinball and arcades. Now it’s happening with console games and mobile games. The parallels are actually uncanny. A roughly 30-year-old industry with a long history of complex games finds itself challenged by a newer, easier entertainment medium that offers more instant gratification at lower prices. For someone not raised to understand the complexity of a standard console game, the choice is a no-brainer: go with what’s fun and easy on your iPhone instead of buying a dedicated console. Not too different from someone deciding between a pinball and an arcade, is it?

The interesting thing to watch for the future, however, is how the gaming industry (the traditional, console-based producers, that is) will react to the “threat” of mobile gaming. Will they appeal to nostalgia and ditch most of their market share? Or will they attack mobile games on their own ground with simpler control interfaces and more instant gratification in the medium? Either way, the industry is setting itself up for a step backward; with the necessary reduction in skill level, there will also be a reduction in rich and artistic content in video games, at least until mobile gaming stabilizes and begins to grow. We can already see this phenomenon occurring on mobile platforms: Angry Birds, Super Hexagon, Jetpack Joyride, Mega Jump, and all their infinite variants are about as complex (design-wise) as an Atari 2600 game, just with better graphics.

It will be fun to see where mobile gaming goes when the industry matures 30 years down the road, the platforms stabilize, and design specifications become more and more complex. The only problem? I don’t want to wait until I’m 50 to play good games again.

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