There is something naturally unnatural about the sight. Jeremy Williams is lurched over his PinSim creation, one tenth of a pinball cabinet that can be used for the Oculus Rift version of Pinball FX. He’s dangling face forward towards a machine that isn’t there.
It isn’t an official peripheral, the PinSim is something Williams built in a day to move digital pinball one inch closer to the real deal. My friend sent me the video of it, asking if it was an April Fools’ joke (to be more specific, he asked “is this garbage?), but it seemed legitimate. And Williams brought up legitimate reasons for building it: “You can’t move your head to get a better perspective on the ball, of the field of play,” he said about the current videogame versions of pinball to The Verge. PinSim is his solution to that.
Mel Kirk of Zen Studios, the creators of Pinball FX, supports Williams’ creation, and any similarly creative hardware hacks. “[VR] is world-changing technology in every aspect,” Kirk told me. “We are breaking the space limitation issues that really hold pinball back. There are not many people who have the space or the money for a physical pinball machine or cabinet… Additionally, the level of interactivity and immersion that we can create in VR is something that you can’t do in any other medium.”
VR could potentially usher in a whole new era for pinball. That is, if pinball can ever learn to trust VR again. Throughout the 90s, arcades experienced a defiant second wind, a sort of last-call before home consoles overlapped them. It was because of Street Fighter, it was because of NBA Jam, it was because of Mortal Kombat, and it was also because of pinball. It seemed like no single Hollywood feature was legitimized without appearing in pinball form. And you’d think this would be great for pinball, but no. Williams, the company that comprised the majority of the industry, was miserable. The best-selling pinball machine of all time dropped in March of 1992, The Addams Family, which sold over 20,000 units, four times the industry’s standard of success. The problem for Williams is that its machines of ‘92 and ‘93 earned their keep so well that they began to cannibalize future projects; arcades, bowling alleys, and home owners didn’t hunger for turnover like fighting games did.
only one kind of target for people to hit
Pinball sales began to bow out in 1996. The 90s began with five major companies, but by the end of the decade Williams only had one competitor, Sega, and employed the majority of the industry’s stars. Williams split their talents—Addams Family’s Pat Lawlor, NBA Fastbreak’s George Gomez, Theatre of Magic’s John Popadiuk to name a few—into think tanks, demanding they come up with a way to “make pinball seem old.”
The new trick was inspired by an old one. The 1981 revamp of Asteroids, named Asteroids Deluxe, used a ghost mirror to project a richer cosmic background over the geometric game mono-colored game. The designers applied the same method to pinball, casting a hologram veil over the middle of the playfield in a prototype Gomez put together called Holopin. The execs were astonished, and Williams bet the farm on the product line dubbed “Pinball 2000,” AR cabinets with interchangeable tables. They released a promotional video clumsily comparing their breakthrough with the moon landing and Martin Luther King. Designed by Gomez, Revenge From Mars, a sequel to 1995’s Attack From Mars, was Pinball 2000’s pilot game, launching in January 1999. The second table, released in June of the same year, was Star Wars Episode I, designed by Popadiuk, a much simpler game that had to weave around the style guides and secrecy to the film. The 2008 documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, seemed to feel that Star Wars was the anchor that brought Pinball 2000 down. Not to defend anything with an abundance of Jar Jar Binks in it, but neither game was a classic.
It was a brief thrill to see characters come come to life on a 2D plane, hovering above a pinball table (heck the CG was pretty good for animators accustomed to dot matrix displays) but it didn’t do much to make pinball a better game. In order to make the illusion work, the entire juicy back end of the table, where ramps, orbits, and toys are usually located, had to be blacked out to make the holograms pop, and even that effectiveness varied depending on the darkened arcade or the healthily-lit food court. And as for playing with the holograms themselves, it just didn’t feel captivating. The targeting was fudgy and monotonous, once you’ve slapped one of Pepper’s ghosts with a metal ball, you’ve pretty much slapped them all. The attempt to create the future of pinball was one that gave pinball only one kind of target for people to hit.
“Pinball in VR is a very delicate situation”
Players and owners didn’t seem to take to Pinball 2000. Adding insult to injury, its sales were being clinched by Sega’s South Park (1999), a conventional pinball machine which made non-stop fart noises. Williams, who had been an arcade staple for several decades, dropped out of pinball and arcade machines by the end of the year, focusing on slot machines under the new moniker WMS Industries. Sega’s pinball division became Stern, who still exist today, and are the leading producers. There are, somewhat surprisingly, others. Defiant others. Why Jersey Jack, Spooky Pinball, and Dutch Pinball have all entered the fray recently is difficult to interpret. Commercial arcades do not seem to be making a comeback, but the actual interest in pinball as a game seems to be growing in volume. FarSight’s platform, Pinball Arcade, releases digital reproductions of existing pinball machines, and Pinball FX/Zen Pinball, which releases original tables, are available for almost every gaming system, and it isn’t unusual to see pinball sneaking into the digital best-seller list on any of them. The generation who grew up during the 90s arcade boom now have their own pocket change, just not enough to buy a pinball machine, or even the space to house one.
And so the question arrives: could VR tricks usher in a pinball comeback where they failed before? Digital pinball machines have fixed some of the maladies, price, space, and distribution issues, but have also created some of their own. Underappreciated aspects of pinball design are communication and legibility, which make faraway camera angles uncooperative. Furthermore, many tables, like Lawlor’s 1993 machine, Twilight Zone, have key shots that are hard to see with a straight, fixed vantage. VR, where the perception is unhooked, could fix all of this. Zen Studios seems to agree, as it sees VR able to ultimately solve the issues with depth perception.
“Pinball in VR is a very delicate situation,” said Kirk. “97 percent of the game remains the same: you have a silver ball, flippers, the table. However, we now have the opportunity to do anything we like with the environment and table setting, and that involves that final three percent.” … If we go too far we could potentially ruin the core pinball experience? Conversely, if we don’t go far enough are we really creating a good VR experience?”
Whether or not VR will work for pinball doesn’t guarantee it will work for pinball fans, and therefore the creators of pinball. Players didn’t buy Pinball 2000, and though virtual pinball cabinets have been available for a while now, they don’t seem to generate the same level of interest as the traditional machines. It feels like 1999 never really ended. Blame it on all the small things, the subtle rumbles, the blinding light shows, the ear-piercing “plok” the machines make to tell you that you’ve won a free game. The blunt physicality. Pinball is a magical, fantastical game, but it is not an economic one. It’s why the big fans make pilgrimages from tournament to tournament, state to state, just to get their fill.
Pinball fans will have to make concessions at some point. The goal for technology, VR, and other illusions in that regard is to make that concession a little easier.