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Postmortem: Zen Studios' Pinball FX2
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Postmortem: Zen Studios' Pinball FX2

August 25, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

3. Working Closely with Microsoft Paid Off

In January of 2010, about 10 months before the release of the game, it was essentially in a final state. However, the XBLA team at Microsoft sent us some ideas for new features. These features would greatly enhance the social aspect of the game, they said.

We were pleasantly surprised by how well their ideas fit within our vision and existing design. Normally, when I get a big list of ideas like this from a first party, I find one or two reasonable ones, a bunch related to their latest peripherals or initiatives, and some that are well-intentioned but not very timely.

However, as I went down the list, it was just one great idea after another, all completely cohesive and feasible. In fact, they were good enough to get us to hold off on releasing the game and to spend another nine months on it.

Because pinball, like many games with arcade roots, draws much of its appeal from competition for high scores, Microsoft's ideas centered around how to enhance that competition: a cumulative score for all tables, which extended the competition beyond just individual table leaderboards; a score that included friends' scores and offered avatar items as rewards, which encouraged players to populate their Friends leaderboard (competing with friends is more enjoyable than with strangers); a "challenge" feature that allowed you to send a message to a friend when you beat their score; in-game notifications when you were getting close to your or a friend's high scores; and several others.

These social features they suggested are mentioned by reviewers and customers alike as reasons to keep coming back to the game. We owe quite a bit of our success not only to Microsoft's ideas, but also to the extensive work the company did to accommodate our "pinball platform" model on the back end.

In turn, our willingness to put in the extra time and effort led to Microsoft's inclusion of our game in the Game Feast promotion, which included a few days of Dashboard placement -- a huge boost to visibility that no doubt contributed heavily to our success.

We continue to exchange ideas with the XBLA team and coordinate development as closely as we can with the marketing team.

4. We Did Our Own Marketing and Press Tours

XBLA is a tough market because the competition is extremely strong. Gone are the days of cheap retro ports and shallow original titles. In recent years, Microsoft has been very proactive in bringing quality content to the platform. Today's best XBLA games, like Shadow Complex, Super Meat Boy, Splosion Man -- and too many others to list -- boast incredible style, depth, and polish.

In this environment, it is not enough to create a high-quality game. As most forms of advertising are cost-prohibitive for XBLA developers, the game also has to have enough visibility to attain the critical mass that will sell the game through word-of-mouth. This is especially true for FX2, which relies on competition with friends for a large part of its appeal. If your friends aren't playing, that part of the game's appeal is lost (for this reason, one major goal of the "Wizard Score" feature is to get players to populate their Friends list with other pinball players).

One of the moves that paid off in this regard was to hire a full-time senior PR/marketing guy with extensive experience in the game industry to help promote the game. Although Microsoft gave us a few days of Dashboard placement at release, we had our own PR campaign, from communication with hundreds of gaming sites to visits to major gaming press. By getting our game in the hands of hundreds of sites, we made sure that potential customers searching for information on the game would find plenty of facts and opinions to guide them, rather than a wasteland of press releases and speculation.

It became evident after the initial response to news of the game's existence (thanks, Australian Classification Board!) that one of the biggest potential complaints we had to address was, "Why don't they just release more downloadable tables?" In order to justify a sequel, we had a number of points that we had to communicate clearly, such as the free "platform" approach, the ability to import old content, the aforementioned social features, removal of the 250 point Achievement cap, etc.

Although it was a tall order, by and large we managed to get across the most important points: that it would cost you nothing to try out all of the content and to import all of your FX1 content, and that there were some cool new features to make it all worthwhile.

5. Timely Workflow Improvements

After it become clear that a DLC-based business model was ideal for a pinball game, we restructured our workflow and table scripting system to allow for easier production of tables and integration of new hires.

Once we had several tables' worth of experience under our belts, we had a better idea of how much time and how many people it would take to create and test a table that met players' quality expectations. Based on that knowledge, we established a set process, task list, and schedule that could be applied to each table we created.

We also changed the organization of the team such that each pinball table had dedicated resources, rather than resources being spread among multiple tables. This change allowed for a greater focus on each table and a sense of responsibility for the quality of each piece of content.

We created a custom scripting system to replace Python, the scripting system we used for the first batch of FX1 tables. This system simplified the scripting environment, making both the learning and development processes faster, and made the scripts run more efficiently on the target hardware.

These changes took place not long before pre-production on FX2 started, preventing the inefficiency that results when content development and workflow changes are happening simultaneously. This improvement paid off during the production of content for FX2, as three of the four initial tables were created by newly-hired designers and were completed well before the launch of the game.

It also allowed us to complete production of the Marvel table pack in time for release during the critical six week post-launch period.

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