Saturday, December 18, 2010

learning to play pinball

Pinball is a game with a long, incredible history.The basic idea for pinball has been around for hundreds of years, so the design is polished and play tested more thoroughly than most computer games.  The learning curve, in particular, is beautiful in its simplicity.

Stages of learning pinball:

Controls: On a physical pinball machine, there are exactly 3 things you need to know: The glowing “START” button starts the game. The ball ejected into the plunger slot is launched via the obviously spring-loaded mechanism extending into your thigh as you lean over the table. The buttons on the edges of the table flip the flippers.

Each one of these buttons has the unique virtue of being completely comprehensible within seconds. The start button glows once you push in your quarters – so you press it. The ball clanks into the launcher tube – so you pull it, and feel the resistance. You can test it, letting it go gently and watching it push the ball gently. You can slam it back and hear it kick the ball – perfect visual and mechanical feedback long before the rumble pack was conceived. The flippers are also simple– you can push the button, and see the reaction. There is no confusion about the actions and reactions available to you. If you don’t understand the mechanics, you don’t play – the game doesn’t start, the ball doesn’t launch, the ball falls out of play. Compare this to a PC or console game, where the buttons never have a 1:1 relationship with the game functions available to you.

Strategies: Once you understand the buttons you need to press, you start thinking about how to press them. Experiment with the launcher – see how you control the ball as it exits the launch. Your muscles tune themselves to the resistance of the launcher, so you can learn to reproduce shots consistently.

Na├»ve experimentation: Experiment with the flippers, the most important part of the game – you can start by mashing them, but you’ll quickly learn that’s more prone to throwing the ball under a flipper than back onto the field of play. However, another byproduct of mashing is you will learn the ball, when it has no momentum, can rest safely in the space between the pivot and the board – a “cradle”.

Corrective measures: Once you learn that mashing isn’t an optimal strategy and you’ve figured out how to cradle, you can start aiming for control of the ball. This will probably mean cradling every time the ball comes your way. It’s a natural progression from mashing the flippers – you go from complete chaos, with the ball flying everywhere, to complete control, trying to impose your dominance on the table by forcing the game to progress at your own pace. You’ll still lose a few balls now and then, but you won’t blow through a round nearly as quickly as when you mash the flippers.

Getting comfortable: once you’ve exhausted the “control” playstyle, cradling the ball every time it comes your way, you’ll notice 2 more things: a ball with no momentum can’t reach the top of the board. A ball with too much momentum can’t be cradled. You stop trying to bring the ball to a dead stop every time it approaches the bottom of the board– your instincts are being honed, ready to hit the button just as the ball touches the flipper. This takes practice, but you can do it. There’s nothing stopping you but time, patience, and quarters.

Learning the board: The game has, to an observant and thoughtful player, already taught the virtues of a chaotic playstyle (pure speed) and a controlling playstyle (accuracy, not losing your ball as frequently). Your instincts are becoming better along the way. Now you can see the high scores – orders of magnitude higher than anything you’ve accomplished. As you launched the ball previously, you might have noticed ramps flashing, the dot-matrix board giving orders, the voice cues changing. Before, you were focused on keeping the ball in play, but now that you feel comfortable with that, you see “2x” lit – hey, maybe that’s the key to a higher score. You start learning the board, not just the basic mechanics – this ramp takes me here, and does this. Launching the ball from here takes me to the bumpers, which increase my multiplier. Putting the ball in this bucket lets me choose a “mission”, which requires me to hit the flashing ramps.

There’s a directions sheet at the bottom left of the board. You glance at it, but it’s too vague to be useful. You continue exploring, attempting to master what you think you know.

High Scores: The best aspect of videogame pinball isn’t the quarters you save- it’s that your high score is tracked. You’re no longer at the mercy of whatever high-scorer dominated the Top 10 scores with his initials that somehow happen to spell out “ASS”. You are only responsible to yourself. Your first few high scores are negligible, they show no improvement over the last – on a lucky fluke, though, you hit 10 million. That score sits there, taunting you as you continue to learn: “You have no idea how your score got this high. You will never be able to reproduce me.”

And then: You start hitting the ball off the flipper’s sweet spot, and the ball doesn’t lose any momentum as it rolls from the left ramp back to your flipper and perfectly flipped on to the right ramp. It happens again, and again. You look at a spot on the board, and think “I need to go there”, and the muscles in your left hand flex, and the ball goes there. Your eyes focus on the entire board, not just the motion of the ball. The lights, the sounds, every bit of non-essential information is blocked out until the exact second you need it. You feel the clank of the flippers, the bounce of the ball, not much else – unbeknownst to you, your brain is now emitting alpha waves. You are in an alternate state of consciousness, the same state that professional athletes and musicians enter when they’re performing at their best. Unlike them, you won’t set any world records, you won’t be recognized – but that ball keeps moving, keeps going, the flow doesn’t--- you drop the ball. You swear, profusely. The game asks for your initials, and suddenly you are able to see your score – twice that of your previous high score. You are getting better. You have objective proof that you are getting better.  You start a new round, your ball drops within the first twenty seconds, you swear again, and restart the round from scratch immediately. You’re better than this.