How to create virtual pinball: behind the scenes of the Avenger Chronicles tables from Zen Studios
I’ve spent the last few days playing the Avengers Chronicles pinball tables for Pinball FX2, and I was impressed by the care and attention to detail that went into each table. The way pinball tables are designed has always been an interest, so I reached out to Neils Sorens, the creative director of Zen Studios to see how the sausage is made. “We started out as game developers who happened to be pinball fans,” he admitted. “Our lack of pinball design experience showed in our early work, which was derivative and doesn't stand up well to what we're putting out these days.” The important thing was to learn by playing what works, finding out how to improve on those designs, and then coming up with their own ideas. “After enough imitation, repetition, and experimentation, your skill develops to the point where you can create compelling, original works.” The tables are built in 3ds Max and use a custom Python-based scripting system, and the basic designs are created once the license is in place. You can see looping “habitrail” type ramps on the Spider-Man table that are meant to feel like web-slinging, and the Wolverine table is short, fast, and brutal. Once these first few concepts are in place, they take the ideas to the license holder for approval, and then Zen Studios goes to work on the nuts and bolts of table creation. Each table has to be fun, and creating fun with a model is tricky. That's were the testing comes in. “We start playtesting as soon as the table geometry is in place, before any of the logic has been implemented. We want to make sure that it's fun just to hit the ball around without any of the sights and sounds in place before we start building the game modes and such on top of it,” Sorens said. Now that the team has some experience working on pinball, each designer has a few ideas stowed in their head waiting for the right license, but overall table creation has sped up. That being said, it’s still a long process. “Each table takes about 8 months to make, and it's being tested for about 75 percent of that time.”
The Marvel touch
Marvel worked with Zen Studios for over two years while developing pinball tables, and they were far more than an off-site company that had to okay the designs. “The Avengers movie table is probably the one that Marvel influenced the most, since our strict security measures made it logistically impossible to get a copy of the script to the development team in Hungary,” Chris Baker, the interactive manager at Marvel Entertainment, said. Baker met with Executive Producer Jeremy Latcham, Creative Manager of R&D Will Corona Pilgrim and other members of the film crew to come up with ideas for a pinball table. They decided to make the table a representation of the Helicarrier’s bridge. “A day or two later, I read through the script in a ‘pinball mindset’ to figure out any other cool scenes or aspects we might want to represent. Zen took those ideas, plus the reference we provided them, some which were actual CG models used in the film itself, and executed them beautifully.” Zen Studios had favorites they wanted to tackle as well. “World War Hulk was an event that Zen really wanted to do, and we worked with them to make sure it not only represents the event well, but that it also serves as Hulk character table in and of itself. For example, you’ll get things like Rick Jones pleading with Hulk by explaining his origin story, and you’ll get some classic Hulk vs. good-guy rivalries in the form of Wolverine and the Thing, representing his story-based grudges against Xavier and Reed Richards, respectively,” Baker said. That table shows Marvel’s attention to detail and love for their own characters. The model used in the World War Hulk table for Wolverine is different than the original model used in Wolverine’s standalone table; Marvel shared reference material with Zen Studios to make sure the proper suit was used on Wolverine to reflect the look of that comic. Marvel was nice enough to share some of that work with us, shown next to the finished model. Baker was also excited by the idea that each Avenger be given a specific colored ball that represents that character, and each one provides different bonuses when in use. There is some strategy to figuring out when to use each character in the game. “It’s actually a lot like a Marvel vs. Capcom tournament player figuring out his dream team, I think,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. “The table I’ve been championing literally since we started this whole thing is The Infinity Gauntlet. I think it might actually be what prompted the idea for event-based tables in the first place, just because the idea of Infinity Gems becoming their own balls is so conducive to great video pinball missions,” Baker said. “I think more than any table Zen has made so far, this is definitely a videogame and definitely not something you could see actualized in a traditional pinball form. One look at the Reality Gem in action, where the table warps your reality by literally flipping it upside down, and I think you’ll know what I mean.” The four-table Avengers Chronicles add-on for Pinball FX2 is available right now on the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network for 800 Microsoft points, or $10.