Monday, December 11, 2017

Interview with Victor Gyorei from Zen Studios About Pinball FX 3 [ Nintendo Switch eShop ]

As a long-time fan of everything pinball, and having played many of the Pinball FX tables on my PC, PS Vita, and Android tablet I'm thrilled that Pinball FX 3 is finally making its way to the Switch! To help celebrate, Viktor Gyorei, the Head of Zen Studios was gracious enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about the evolution of Pinball FX, what new features and enhancements it has to offer, and what further surprises are still in store... apparently including another surprise yet to come this year!

Though it has the genre identified very clearly in its name we always start with the classic "elevator pitch" question. Since we obviously know it involves pinball perhaps focus on what Pinball FX 3 is bringing to the table to make it stand out? 

VG: If we are talking specifically about pinball and videogames, there is really nothing like Pinball FX3 available on any other game device. Pinball FX3 has turned pinball into a community-driven game with lots of competition and fun. The game has also turned pinball into an RPG of sorts, allowing players to level up and gain XP for their gameplay. Lastly, Pinball FX3 is a pinball service, so we are always updating the game with new content and features. When you take all of this into account, I think Pinball FX3 does a really good job of standing out among pinball games.

For people who have played tables from previous incarnations of the FX series what would you say has changed in the move to 3 that should help bring them back? 

VG: We focused on developing a brand-new framework with tons of features that apply to each table including new single-player modes and challenges, matchup and league play, and of course user-generated tournaments. Each of these elements bring a whole new value to past table purchases and give you many new reasons to play them again. On top of that, all the tables in Pinball FX3 have received graphical updates including dynamic shadows and lighting – so they look better than ever.
Are there any specific table gameplay enhancements that have been made possible with the new engine and the increased power of these newer-generation systems?

Although the changes introduced with the new engine are mostly visual that don’t affect gameplay directly, they offer more options for designers on how to approach their tables’ game mechanics, too. The use of dynamic lights and shadows or some special post-effects can now be considered active elements for table design, and I look forward to seeing them utilized more and more going forward.

While there had been existing functionality like support for online leaderboards and people being able to track their friends high scores, it looks like there have been additional features added in FX3 for helping to foster some competition between friends and to help you enjoy "leveling up" within the game in certain ways. What kinds of things will happen as people play more and pass these level milestones? 

VG: Leveling up does not affect the multiplayer experience in Pinball FX3 just yet. This could change in the future. For now, the biggest way to progress in multiplayer is to participate in League Play via the multiplayer matchup mode. If you can manage to get in the top 20% of the league for the week, you progress to the next league and keep moving up. Eventually you can make your way to the platinum league with all the best, most competitive players battling each week to stay at the top. If for some reason you do not end up in the top 80%, you will get kicked back to a lower level league.

Just to give some reference, what would you say ended up being the typical level of effort to update the existing tables from previous engines to work on the FX3 engine?

VG: Bringing over existing tables to FX3 certainly posed its own challenges. There were two major areas we intended to touch up: the visuals, including the in-game assets, effects and table/environment lighting, and the game logic to include all the new features – perks, wizard powers, challenges. Needless to say, these adjustments required the involvement of all the expertise we usually need to deliver a final table – art, design, and several test passes from the QA team. Considering the implementation and the test-and-fix cycles, updating any one table took around two man-weeks.

Over time you've made multiple tables for a number of major properties from the likes of Star Wars and Marvel, but you've also created both standalone licensed tables and some that are unique creations as well. As you move forward, are there plans in the works for partnering with new licenses, more original creations, more tables tied to partnerships you've already made, or you'll continue to pursue a blend of each? 

VG: There are tables in production right now from previous partners, brand new partners, and Zen Original tables. We like to maintain a nice balance of licensed versus original designs. Of course, we have some dream brands we would love to work with, and hopefully someday we can make them happen.

Considering that the regular releases you make are quite different from other studios, in that you're releasing new content for an established and stable engine, what would you say is the typical level of effort in time and resources to bring one new FX table to the market? 

VG: The level of effort is always high on our part. We never reskin a table or reuse assets. Every table is always developed from the ground up with new ideas and something that sets it apart from the other tables in our library. On average, it takes one of our pinball teams eight months from start to finish, and then another few weeks for the publishing effort before it is finally released. Sometimes it is much longer, as you can imagine working with some of the big brands in our portfolio can offer various challenges – but it’s always worthwhile since we end up with great tables every time.

I take it that the licensed tables likely take more time since they'd require approvals and coordination with the owners of those properties, what portion of the typical development cycle on a new table would you say is devoted just to that aspect of the work? 

VG: Licensed content always takes longer, no doubt. You have to understand that licensors know their characters and stories better than you ever will, and they always have ideas that you did not think of. This is a good thing! But yes, this does result in longer production periods. We try to identify all of the changes to our own design very early in the development cycle so that we are not making big changes well into development. Of course, things can always change, but it’s much easier to change cosmetics or colors than a 3D interactive model.

As with previous releases on other platforms will Sorcerer's Lair be a free download for people to check out how it performs and what the general action on the new FX3 engine is like on the Switch? 

VG: Pinball FX3 is a free download, and Sorcerer’s Lair does come for free. You can check out all of the new game modes with Sorcerer’s Lair to get a real idea of the depth of the game.

Aside from the excellent tables already available and the new Universal ones that include JAWS and Back to the Future do you all have any exciting things in the mix you can discuss that are on the way? 

VG: We will have one more pinball content release this year, which will launch with Pinball FX3 on Nintendo Switch. There will be some really great surprises with this release, so keep in touch with Zen to hear this news! There will be several huge pinball releases next year – I can’t wait to share the news with you!

A wonderful trick that is possible with tablets is that you can play pinball tables in vertical mode rather than having to pick a perspective shot at a specific angle. Will this be supported with the Switch since it would be so much better with dedicated physical controls instead of having your thumbs blocking part of your screen? 

VG: Vertical orientation is supported on Nintendo Switch! You can even play with just on Joy-Con attached, so the Switch is much better balanced in your hands. You can then play with either buttons or touchscreen – we think touchscreen is much better in this case. To our knowledge, we are the only game using this type of functionality with the Switch. Add HD Rumble for all the clicks and clanks of a real pinball table, and you have a really awesome portable pinball experience!

Since the game is already on so many other platforms were there any special challenges or surprises with how much easier or difficult getting some aspects of the engine running on the Switch went overall? 

VG: Development on Nintendo Switch was really smooth. There were no crazy challenges or anything we were not able to achieve. It’s been a great experience!

You've already released Infinite Minigolf on the Switch as well. How many teams do you currently have working on projects that are outside of table or engine design for Pinball FX? 

VG: Zen currently has four internal teams working on various original games, and we have the newly announced ‘Port & Publish’ team that is working on bringing great games from PC to consoles. The first of these is Out of Ammo for PlayStation VR – but we’re definitely thinking of Switch for this initiative as well!

I'd like to thank Victor for taking the time to answer my questions and am looking forward to what Zen Studios still has in store for us in the coming year! Pinball FX 3 will make its debut on the Nintendo Switch December 12!