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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 3 of 4 Next

6. Partnership with Marvel

Speaking of Marvel tables, our partnership with Marvel was also critical to the success of the game. While we had created tables based on licensed properties before (Street Fighter, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2), all of them were one-offs, and none were of the same stature as the Marvel brand, which is known worldwide in games, movies, comics, toys, etc. and has seen a major resurgence in the last decade.

With Marvel, we signed a long-term deal for multiple tables, bringing some badly-needed brand recognition to the stable of FX2 content.

With the release of the Marvel four-pack in December, about six weeks after the launch of FX2, we cemented in players' minds the notion of FX2 as a platform for new premium content, rather than just a clearinghouse for the old stuff.

The Marvel brand also opened some doors that may otherwise have been closed. Press who were not particularly interested in pinball alone were more willing to dedicate time and copy to a product with an appealing brand, especially since these tables were something other than obligatory, half-baked movie cash-ins. And we gained new customers who were on the fence about pinball but liked the Marvel characters.

The Marvel pinball table pack quickly became our best-selling FX2 DLC (and is on pace to surpass even DLC available for years starting with FX1) even though the bundling of the tables meant a higher total price than that of single tables (200 to 240 points, $2.50 to $3).

Although Marvel is no doubt one of the tougher licensors to please, because of how strictly it protects its properties, the work that has gone into the partnership paid off -- and also gave us valuable experience in working with brands of this caliber.

What Went Wrong

1. Supporting Old Content Was More Painful than Expected

Since our old tables were designed around an outdated physics model, to support them in FX2, we had to create new table geometry based on the new engine. The tables also needed to be re-textured, as they had not aged well.

Several of the old tables had also been outsourced, or created by designers who had since left the company. Because we had moved from Python to a custom scripting system (see "timely workflow improvements" in what went right), the old tables needed to be re-scripted. Without the original scripters available, this task became extremely time-consuming.

Implementing and testing the importation process was also difficult. Because of the way the Marketplace works, we had to prepare a title update to FX1 and work with dozens of pieces of content, while keeping the process simple for the player.

Furthermore, with the addition of a "Superscore" that combined scores from all tables, we had to rebalance the scoring systems of the old tables against each other and against the new content. Not only was this a lot of work, but it also caused problems post-launch when we had to update the Rocky and Bullwinkle table and reset its leaderboard.

Finally, we were not able to add many of the Pinball FX2 features, such as local multiplayer, local high scores, split-screen play, etc., to the imported FX1 tables because of their legacy design.

This issue also created a dilemma in how we sell that old content, which appears alongside the latest, greatest tables in the store at roughly the same price. We wanted the tables to be available for those who wished to play them, so removing them entirely was out of the question. We did not want to price them lower, because that would encourage players to buy the earliest, lowest quality tables we made, giving them a less than optimal experience. And yet it felt wrong to charge the same amount for old tables that were clearly inferior to the new ones.

With no perfect solution feasible in the available time frame, we ultimately decided to charge about the same price for all content, to place the newest/best content higher in the list, and to hope that the demo available for each table would help players make a good decision on what to buy.

Although this problem still persists today -- we get occasional feedback, questions, and complaints about it, but less than we expected -- we probably made the right decision, though it is impossible to say with certainty. We hope to address it eventually with a combination of feature upgrades to the old content and interface features, such as player ratings for each table, that will help to guide players to the content they will most enjoy.

Would we still make the decision to allow the importation of old content today? Yes, because it was such a critical piece of our pitch to FX1 customers. Plus, the additional content, although lower in quality than the newest tables, helped tide players over until we could start releasing new content again this year.

2. We Didn't Have Enough Content to Release Regularly After Launch

After the Marvel pack in December, we had nothing to release until the Mars table (a port of content previously released on the PlayStation 3) in April. The first completely new table, Fantastic Four, did not arrive until mid-May. All this despite the fact that we're employing the largest pinball design group in any company's history!

In an ideal world, we would have had enough content to prevent that five-month drought, especially since our business model is based on delivering new content.

However, the lead time for new content is several months long, and pinball designers don't grow on trees; even if they did, it would have been quite a gamble to hire the necessary people to create that much content long before we knew how the game would fare.

Since the game's release, we've expanded our pinball group -- though we still need to expand further -- and staggered the expected release dates of the content, with the goal of a table release every month and a multi-pack every now and then.

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