I was listening to the Loser Kid Pinball Podcast (episode 34) with Zach Sharpe, and they were talking about how (and why it is hard) to get pinball to be a spectator sport. One of the problems is that in pinball the better you are, the longer you play. With the very best players you have huge uncertainty about how long a ball, game, or match is going to go. How many people that aren’t already rabid pinball enthusiasts are going to watch a 45 minute two-player game of Black Knight Sword of Rage?!?!
One of the things that came up is the new programming on Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park where you can play the wizard mode as a stand alone game. They are exciting and shorter than a normal game and have finite rules that could be explained to the audience. If there were enough games to have this kind of programming, it seems like a win.
Sadly I would hate it.
I might lose a bit of my mortal status here, but I want to experience wizard modes by getting to them! I have avoided playing both because the accomplishment of getting to the wizard mode (for me) is a huge part of playing wizard modes. Even if I am watching and cheering for someone else getting to a wizard mode, a big part of the thrill is the accomplishment of getting there. And when I get to a new wizard mode I often flail around because I have no clue what I am supposed to be doing. But that is also part of the experience. It makes me want to do it again!
Not everyone in pinball has the same goal of finishing games like I do. But for me, I wouldn’t play or even watch a competition that used end game content as a way to limit play time.
That said, I do like that Stern is making these wizard modes more accessible. A lot of people are having fun playing them. And making mini games of end game content justifies programming exciting and engaging wizard modes.
So if I don’t like wizard mini games to solve this maximum ball time problem, shouldn’t I give an alternate solution. Here it is:
Maximum Ball Times!!!
My suggestion is to create a new software setting that allows you to set a maximum ball time. You reach that time and the flippers go dead. It doesn’t tilt. The flippers just go dead (and ball savers turn off). Once the balls drain you get your bonus and then it is on to the next player.
Maximum ball time code could get added first to new games in production, then added to older games through software updates. For older games, you probably wouldn’t be able to show a timer clock on the display (that would require significant reprogramming), but experienced tournament players would quickly learn how long common ball times are without displayed count downs.
Keep in mind this is a maximum time limit. You could still drain really fast and have a turn that was shorter. But it would allow you to set a pretty firm maximum time limit for how long a game or match would take.
So say you set the maximum ball time to 2 minutes. That means the play time for a four player game should max at 24 minutes. If each person takes one minute between playing (which is a long time), you are looking at a 36 minute four player game. Not bad. How much easier would it be to schedule, stream, and even televise pinball knowing that a four person three game finals round (with world class players) would be done in about 90 minutes!
Once you have a fixed game duration, you no longer have to worry about games and rounds running long. Tournament directors would no longer have to manipulate how games play in order to keep your tournament running on time.
Effect on game settings
You could leave ball saves on, and that would minimize the horror of house balls (balls that drain immediately without getting to flip once). You wouldn’t have to worry that a ball saver would lead to a 10 minute ball that slowed down the entire tournament. Also, I feel like the geometry of many modern games puts the ball at risk immediately, knowing that the average player will be protected by the ball saver. This would also allow players to plunge the ball into play normally instead of having to short plunge to the flipper for safety.
You could have a reasonable tilt setting. Shaking and nudging are important skills, and in some tournaments the tilts are set so tight (for the sake of time) that a normal slap save results in a tilt.
You no longer have to modify and bastardize games just to make them play quickly. Normal rubbers, normal outlanes, normal flippers, and no removing posts. You also wouldn’t have to make major changes to rules (like turning off the “power” on Addams Family) just for time reasons.
And my favorite, extra balls! You could let people play extra balls! Outside of tournaments, extra balls are one of the most valuable rewards in pinball. In tournaments, extra balls just bog the whole day down. But as long as a game doesn’t have quickly repeatable extra balls, extra balls could once again be a big reward to prioritize while only adding a couple of minutes to the game.
Effect on game play
I think that a maximum ball time would create a more interesting play style, especially for spectators. Instead of playing strategies that are safe, a limited ball time would prioritize high scoring high value goals.
The biggest change might be playing with less control. You might not want to take the time to get a perfect cradle before every shot. You might find valuable shots from both flippers instead of repeatedly post or alley pass to the flipper with the safe shot. Playing with flow might become common instead of the exception.
It would also change the way multiball is used in elite play. Currently multiball is the ultimate safe play, because if you can cradle one ball, you are in no danger of ending your ball. This safety net would be removed with a maximum ball time. Instead of cradling and hitting safe shots, it might be worth it to take shots with multiple balls at multiple jackpots.
Timing decisions would become strategic choices. Do you want to start a valuable mode or multiball towards the end of your ball time? Can you get multiple things prepared on one ball, and then start a stack quickly on the next? If you are late in your ball time does it become worth it to shoot for that risky shot?
Finally, you wouldn’t be able to grind out points. It is really boring to watch a player make the same shot 10, 20, or even 50 times in a row. Without a limit on ball time, that is just smart knowledge of the rules and a particular type of skill. With a maximum ball time, it might still be the best strategy, but at least there would be a limit to the boredom. Hopefully, the scoring on most games would make that type of repetition less valuable when you have a limit to your ball time and more varied play would be worth the risk.
The one down side
The one downside is that having a maximum ball time takes away the possibility of epic comebacks. If someone manages to get a huge lead, it would probably be impossible to make a comeback on your two or three minute last ball. This would be a huge change on modern games, but already regularly happens on EMs (where max bonus often limits how much a single ball can be worth). Hopefully runaways wouldn’t happen often because you limit house balls with ball saves and reasonable machine setup. But it is a possibility.
That’s my two cents
It might seem crazy, but so are 14 hour streams and tournaments that run past midnight. Elite pinball players are adaptable. They learn nuances in game rules and figure out how to exploit them. Instead of exploiting long playing rules, a maximum ball time would focus their skills on faster, hopefully more exciting, skills. And if it is a way for pinball to become a spectator sport, everyone in pinball wins!