THE TOMMY FACTOR
Article by Eddie Mole
What exactly is it that makes a specific game your favourite, or least favourite? The theme or the art may attract you initially, but what holds your interest?
I reckon there are less obvious factors at work; the things that give me an extra buzz when I have my fingers on those flipper buttons. And no, I’m not talking about poorly earthed '60s games.
I recently realised that all my favourite games are exceptionally interactive in some way or other. For me, it certainly isn’t just down to the theme or looks. There’s other cool stuff going on that engages me and gives that extra 'wow'.
It’s what I call the 'Tommy Factor', the term I use to describe what happens when a player becomes totally involved in his game of pinball.
The reason for this scribble is to look at some of the more successful and sometimes wacky ways designers have tried to enhance the Tommy Factor of games.
I reckon most can be put into the four categories; a good challenge, the sounds, the visuals, and a mix of factors I refer to as 'special game features'.
Note: I decided to leave out 'smell' as this would probably be burning coils or circuit boards, and a bad thing!
A good challenge: is the easiest to explain and one thing that keeps players coming back for more. I like a game that really forces me to play well. A good, tough game for me is something like Paragon, Johnny Mnemonic or Twilight Zone, and doing well gives me a real buzz. That’s one reason why I still have Ripley's Believe it or Not! It’s the only game I have owned and not yet completed.
Personally I like a touch of unpredictability in a game. This could be because of a large gap between the flippers, or that it has high risk strategies like in Dracula. Dracula is a good example. It can be a drain monster, but to get big scores you need to start all three multiballs at once, so do you risk losing the last ball in order to set up all three multiballs, or take the ones that are lit before your last ball drains?
Of course, what is a good challenge varies depending on the capability and opinion of each player, so that is a tricky problem for designers to overcome. Modern games normally seem to have a mix of aims - some easy and some more difficult - so as to appeal to everyone.
Sound is not always immediately obvious in a game, especially on site were you probably can’t hear, but it is important. If the sound is bad it certainly ruins a game for me, and interactive sound features can add a lot to the game.
What I mean is not just nice background music, I mean the additional sounds you get when you hit the ramp, complete the line of drop targets or activate the tilt warning. It’s the sounds that occur as a direct result of your actions on the playfield that I'm referring to.
Such interactivity occurs in its most basic form in electromechanical games, where triggering switches sounds chimes or buzzers. In the late '70s, solid state games offered more possibilities, and by 1980 games like Firepower and Xenon were exploiting sound technology in a very interactive way. By then you had Xenon’s sexy voice advising you to "go for the tube shot”, while the electronic background sounds speed up and become ever faster to indicate that a worthwhile bonus is ready to be collected.
In 1981 Centaur used sound in a similar way. This time the pitch and speed of the sounds increase while the voice has echoing reverb for added effect. Centaur also had a rollover lane change feature, and if you’re late with the lane change your mistake is telegraphed by a disappointed 'bummer' tone or the phrase “bad move human”.
After the initial solid state leap forward, things progressed more slowly through the mid-'80s. This was partly due to the economic climate in which some games had speech taken out in order to save money.
The next big progression came with Data East’s Laser War, which introduced a 2.1 stereo sound system to pinball. The system was a step up in terms of quality and it was also very interactive.
The game plays basic music but if the ball is kept in play for long enough you get additional drums and bass kicking in. The music also changes in beat and tempo - as was common at the time - as you head towards multiball, but additionally, hitting playfield features when playing Laser War adds extra layers of sound. Sounds can change according to how hard you hit the spinner or if you hit the ramp two or three times in quick succession. These additional sounds also change in pitch so they remain in tune with the background music. This means that game sounds vary every time you play. Now that’s what I call interactive sound. After a good game, it almost feels like I got the game to sing!
Historically Black Knight 2000 also stands out in terms of sound. It was made in '89 and although it’s been some years since I played it, I still remember the impression it left the first time I heard it.
It has a rock music sound track that complements its fast, aggressive play. What’s most impressive is the way the song lyrics change seamlessly as you progressed through the game at a seemingly relentless pace. At the time of production it won a game industry award for outstanding sound and it still remains pretty special today. What could be better than a rock chorus of “you can do it, you can do it” kicking in to accompany a hurry up or timed feature in a game.
It's humorous, fast, fun and totally engaging, and one of the reasons - along with Steve Ritchie’s excellent playfield design - that Black Knight 2000 remains a favourite of many players today.
Some of the '80s and early '90s games engage players in terms of sound almost by accident. Games such as The Addams Family are inferior in terms of sound quality when compared to the later Bally/Williams DCS or modern Stern sound systems, and when the game is in full swing the sound becomes a little ragged as it reaches its limits. I find this quite satisfying, even if it wasn’t done on purpose.
More deliberate player interaction was used with Rudy’s talking head in Funhouse. The same feature appears on other games such as No Fear and Roadshow, but Funhouse has the most dedicated following. I think this is partly because Rudy is by far the most player interactive character. Rudy speaks directly to the player and at times is purposely annoying, or even creepy; “Stop that!", "I thought you were my friend” and “You're making me very unhappy” are quotes that spring to mind.
Specific music themes or bands have always been popular, and if you’re a fan then one of these games may be the one for you. Examples would be games such as Elvis, Guns 'N Roses, The Rolling Stones, or the rock and roll tunes of Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Dracula brought something new in terms of sound with it’s a dual volume setting in '93. During multiball, some of the quotes and screams are much louder. I feel this adds a lot to the game but sadly this feature is often turned off when the game is put on site. Similar features are found on the Capcom games of the mid nineties, but dual volume sound never really caught on, even though in my book it’s worth a tick in the Tommy Factor box.
So how has sound progressed in recent years? In terms of quality there was massive improvement in the early '90s. Williams' DCS sound system is of the highest quality, and Data East were not far behind with their BSMT 2000 system.
The trend since the '90s is for mode based games in which the various modes trigger a different sound track. This is certainly interactive but it means that the game tends to sound similar each time you play. So could it be better? Well, Stern's games World Poker Tour and Pirates of the Caribbean featured a new board set with more memory and higher quality. This was excellent news as the old White Star system had been around since 1995, which is a long time in the technology world.
Musician and Sound Designer, David Thiel’s comments on Pirates of the Caribbean:
At first, the lack of samples from the film may seem a bummer as everyone likes Johnny Depp right? (Well, I know my wife does). But at least it did give more freedom for sound development. David worked on those exceptionally interactive early DE games starting with Laser War, and when discussing POTC says:
Over the years classics like Gigi, Captain Fantastic, Lost World, The Adams Family and more recently The Lord of the Rings and Avatar have benefited from top notch looks that encourage players to part with their cash. There are plenty of more interactive examples from the past that are also worth remembering.
The attract mode from Centaur is one of these. Touch the button and the game would run through an attractive light sequence that demonstrated the features of the game, accompanied by an echoing voice.
This isn’t really of significance when considering the Tommy Factor, but the chase lights on some other early '80s games such as Space Invaders and Vector are. When playing these games the lights around the edge of the backglass cycled faster as you progressed through a good game, and were great at raising the tension and excitement levels.
Xenon is the ultimate example because not only does it have the chase lamps in the backbox, but also a line of chase LEDs on the playfield behind the tube (ramp).
Flashing lamps on top of the back box have featured on a number of games, such as High Speed, F-14, and Lethal Weapon 3. These tend to come to life in a particularly exciting bit of the game - such as multiball - to great effect.
To the best of my knowledge, the ultimate strobing game remains Attack from Mars which has an actual strobe lamp on the playfield. It’s the only game I know of which has a health warning for epileptics in the introduction.
All these games are pretty aggressive in terms of theme and game play, but lamps are also used in much more subtle ways.
Phantom of the Opera is the ultimate example in this respect. The game itself has beautiful graphics. The back glass is decorated on both sides, and amongst other things features the phantom himself. His disfigured face is painted on the back of the glass and his hat and mask on the front. This means that at certain times during the game when the flashers behind the glass flash you see the Phantom's disfigured face through his mask.
A similar thing also happens with the lit picture of the Phantom in the centre of the playfield, and to add to the dramatic effect, the candle sticks flicker on either side. But that’s not all because the main feature shot of the game is the organ ramp. It’s a short ramp that lifts to allow you to lock balls, and when it does, it glows red from within.
Modern games such as Iron Man and CSI make excellent use of lamps, flashers and LEDs to add excitement and indicate features to the player, but Johnny Mnemonic’s Power Down deserves a special mention.
After completing all the modes comes the wizard mode, and a siren/claxon sound begins along with an announcement of the impending power down. From then on, the game begins a continuous multiball. Your aim is to keep hitting areas all over the playfield. Failure to hit an area will mean that it will “power down” and all the lamps will go out in that area. When the playfield is in darkness the wizard mode is over. Nice!
The impact and importance of these elements may well depend on where you play your pinball, as some visual and game features may well be lost in certain sites. Once you get a game at home or in a quiet spot however, all three have an important role to play in the enjoyment of the game.
I reckon for players to put money into a game and then keep coming back, it needs a high Tommy Factor. In some ways this was easier to achieve in the past. Many of the most successful games produced (e.g. Firepower, Xenon, Black Knight 2000, Funhouse, Bride of Pinbot and Attack from Mars) had an advantage in that they allowed the designers freedom to do what they wanted. Licensed themes are safer bets, but bring with them limitations in terms of the permitted creativity.
This is challenging for designers but challenges can be overcome. As long the game of pinball continues to engage with players, it should be a success!
It seems that various gimmicks and toys have been around for years, and many add to the Tommy Factor of a pinball game.
Backbox toys are a good place to start. There are hundreds of these which seem to fit roughly into three categories:
The above vary in terms of Tommy Factor, but games with backbox animation are often highly collectable, so players must like them. Both 'event' and 'progress indicators' add to the challenge of the game when well-designed, and are usually directly connected to what the player has achieved on the playfield.
'Mini-games' are a mixed bunch and remind me of video modes. Sometimes they can break the flow of the game, but when done well they are a great bonus feature. The 1996 game Scared Stuff is a fine example. Hitting the lit shot on the playfield spins a giant spider in the backglass and you must stop it with the flipper buttons to pick one of several awards or start a mode. In addition, picking up all the spider awards starts the game's ultimate challenge - the spider wizard mode. Some players own the game for years and never actually achieve this.
Playfield toys are even more imaginative and varied than backbox toys and have been around for years. The animated boxers on Gottlieb's 1950 Knock Out is a great early example, especially when combined with an authentic end-of-round bell sound which was included. Once again, I have split playfield toys into three categories.
There are still a number of interactive gimmicks which have so far avoided categorization, such as shaker motors which have been used effectively on a number of games. When used well they can add greatly to the playing experience, such as the cabinet shaking in Tales from the Crypt, or the revving engines in Harley Davidson, or - my favourite effect - the shudder they create to represent the monster's footsteps in Godzilla or Jurassic Park - The Lost World.
Alvin G's Al's Garage Band Goes on a World Tour had, what I believe was, a unique feature. It had small solenoids which bumper the back of the flipper buttons. Like shaker motors, it interacts with the players through their sense of touch. Clever, but not all that effective, which maybe explains why the feature hasn't appeared on more games.
Projectors have been used to project images onto the playfield in a few games. The hologram on Creature from the Black Lagoon is a version of that and probably the most famous, but similar ideas featured in games such as Arcon's Magic Picture Pin and their famously X-rated Sexy Girl.
The ultimate example of the of toys in a game, for me, is Twilight Zone. It has a flipperless mini-playfield on which you control the ball with magnets, an animated clock, playfield magnets and a gumball machine which locks balls and occasionally releases a 'Power bal' which travels far too quickly for my liking. It's not my favourite game though, and I'm not sure why, buy maybe it has too many toys which disrupt the flow of the game for my taste.
I reckon for players to keep putting money into a game, it needs to have a high Tommy Factor. In theory, player interaction should be easier to achieve now than in the past due to advances in technology. But this has been countered to some extent by the trend of using licensed themes and soundtracks which bring with the their own limits on creativity.
Some of my all-time favourite games don't have strong licences: Strange World, Flight 2000, Lightning, Laser War, Xenon, Black Knight, (Bride of) Pinbot and Attack from Mars.
These games have an advantage because the designers had more freedom to do what they wanted, and their likes may never be seen again. Having said that, some of the Stern Pinball games are excellent, and as long as game design continues to engage sensually with the player, the future of pinball should be safe.
You still can't beat a totally absorbing game of pinball.
© Pinball News 2011