The Psychology of Pinball

I have a couple of quick questions about the psychological aspects of designing and playing pinball games.

  1. On modern games with digital scorekeeping systems, I notice that it’s possible to score tens of millions of points. Of course, it’s all in the way the chips are programmed. IOW, achieving a certain goal in the game (say, light all five of these targets and launch the ball up the ramp when the blue light is lit) may net you 500,000 points or 500 points, depending upon the whim of the programmer.

My question is, do pinball designers (and players) consider higher-scoring games more “fun” than lower-scoring games. For example, if you take a modern game and reduce the scores by a factor of 1,000, would people still play it? Instead of scoring 59 million points, you score 59,000 points for exactly the same game. Would such a game bore the players (“Wow! I scored 59 million points!” as opposed to “Damn! I conly scored 59,000 points!”)?

  1. It’s been over a decade since I played pinball regularly, but from what I remember my second ball never lasted for more than a few seconds; a minute tops. Are the games designed so that the second ball will last a significantly shorter time than the others (fueling the players’ desire to pump another quarter into the machine)? Or was I just an unbelievably lame pinball player?

I prefer the older (mid 70s) scoring conventions where 100,000 points represented a darn fine game. I’m just not impressed with scoring hundreds of thousands of points just by putting the ball in play. In the old days, we used to measure our manhood at 10,000 points per inch, seemed like a real logical unit of measure and at the time it worked for most machines. Now there’s just too much variation in scoring to remotely equate scores between machines and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Regarding ball 2- I’d have to say it’s just the way your luck has been running. I’ve never noticed a difference in ball play from one ball to the next.

It’s not that the designers like lots of points, it’s that they believe the consumer do. If you play a lot of machines, you’re more likely to play on one that gets your more points, so there is point inflation. (Or so the theory goes) Personally, I like games where getting a million means something.

As for ball two, that just makes no sense. How would they design that? Have magnets that do different things on ball 2… but what if it’s an extra ball you earned on ball one? You’re just unlucky, or have a post-ball one let down of some kind.

I remember when 1000 points was a phenomenal score. Hitting some bumpers would give you a single point.

I actually liked that better.

One thing I’ve always noticed is that the ball miraculously finds a way to shoot straight down toward the center of the table, in that little gap between the flippers, at a high rate of speed just a few seconds into play on ball two. There are other ways, too. For example, some games have little barriers that lock off the exit channels to the right and left of the bumpers (not sure what they’re called, but I think you know what I mean). Those barriers will be deployed/undeployed at various stages of the game. Just make sure they’re all off during ball two…

Back in the olden days of radio, a quiz show called The $64 Question was so popular that any difficult problem was referred to as “the $64 question”.

When they moved the show to television in the 1950s, the show became the $64,000 Question.

With Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? $64,000 is just a middling question leading to the real prize. The lowest, easiest, most laughably obvious question is $100.

I think you can never go back. Today’s notions of what “big” is are just much larger than ever before. Big numbers are far more a part of everyday vocabulary. Millions and billions and trillions are everywhere. Small numbers are recognized as just that. Computers have contributed, with each year’s models specs dwarfing last year’s and making their numbers look small and ineffective. Bigness is a sign of progress.

As for 2) my second balls were usually much better as I got into the feel of the machine. And wow does that sound dirty.

I propose normalising the score by throwing away all unused digits. Eg. on some tables, if you score 1,350,100,000, it’s probabable that everything is a multiple of 100,000. So only look at the 13,501 part. Not perfect, but it’d give you some indication of manhood.

I’ve often wondered about this. Great question. At my high school, you get 5 credits for each semester. Thus, you need 40 credits of English to graduate. I have no idea why they don’t just say “You need 8 semesters” because AFAIK, there is no way to gain 1 or 2 credits at a time. Either you get the 5, or you don’t. Same in pinball when the “basic unit” seems to be 1,000 or 1,000,000 or something. Of course, what a point is worth will vary on different machines, so to say that one table is easier, because it gives you 1,000 times as many points is just ridiculous. That’s like saying that you’re richer than I am because you have 1,000 yen, while only have a few American dollars.

You would think that people would realize that and just not bother trying to make meaningless comparisons. OTOH, I can imagine designers multiplying all their scores by 2, or 5, or 10, or even 1,000, on newer and newer models of their tables, and I think some people would appreciate the changes. Have there been any studies that test whether people understand the difference between a point on a table where a good score is around 5,000 vs. one where the average score is 5,000,000? If scores really are increasing (which I don’t doubt), have we reached an upper limit? Somewhere around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 the ridiculousness of it all will become apparent, I’d think.

BTW, changing dollar values on game shows isn’t exactly the same problem. $64,000 really is more than $64, whereas pinball “points” aren’t worth more or less than anything, unless they correspond to tickets, like at Chuck E. Cheese or something.

Naah, they’ll just switch to using names instead of writing the whole number out.

Woohoo! I got 100 googolplex points!

Having the last several digits be zeroes makes it too obvious what they’re up to. I have wondered sometimes (not many times, but some times) why they don’t make targets be worth 1,002,356 points instead of always 1,000,000. That way it would look like those extra digits are meaningful, even though they aren’t really.

Wow, a legit suggestion for pinball scoring! Manduck, I’m afraid the pinball makers will now forever shun you! :smack:

Oh yeah, one more thing. Are there any reputable non-eBay sites that sell the old-style machines that have the analog-scrolling scoring system?

You reminded me of a running gag that Craig Kilborn used to do – I can’t remember if it was his CBS show or “The Daily Show” when he was still hosting it – of showing movie grosses in liras so they’d look REALLY impressive!

I don’t really care about score, unless I got the high score.
What I really care about is having a good darn game.
Which means each ball seemed to be worth it, no obvious
or semi-obvious magnet tricks and lots and lots and lots more
of multiballs.

I love multiballs. My favorite machines are ones where it is easy
to get multiballs.

But yes, I noticed score inflation from the middle 80’s when I started
playing till now. Always thought it was lame.

Sung to the tune of Pinball Wizard?

Um… am I supposed to tilt? I appreciate that the alarm goes off when you do, and that always made me assume that it was Not Allowed. But virtually every PC game of pinball that I’ve played has an optional “tilt” button, which can be used, like, once or twice before it goes “BNGBNGBNG!TILTILTILT!” I mean, the tilt button is sewn into the game’s fabric, it’s right there on the “Control Keys” screen. Does that imply that tilting is an essential element of pinball? Or is it the equivalent of a horseracing game including an option to drug your opponents’ horses?

Pinball is a game of physics, if you can gain an advantage by physical interaction with the machine beyond the pressing of the flipper buttons, you should take it. The tilt mechanism is there to prevent people from taking this idea to far and damaging the machine.

What the tilt mechanism is is a tapering metal pendulum thin at the top and thick at the bottom surrounded by a metal ring, if contact between pendulum and ring is made, a current flows and the machine locks the flippers and ends the ball. Sensitivity is changed by altering the ring position up and down the pendulum so that it has to swing further or less to contact the ring (it’s tapered remember). Variations on the theme have a slam tilt where if there are a certain number of tilts in a short period of time the machine assumes you are overly violent and takes all your balls (and occasionally credits) just to stop you from playing it anymore.

I’ve never played pinball professionally, but was a decent player in college and from my experience you’ll never become truly good at the game unless you can nudge the machine to save the ball at least from centre draining and side channel draining. I’ve seen better players than I perfrom ‘drain saves’ where a ball that has gone down the side channels can be saved by a judiciously timed thump to the front of the cabinet (most modern machines hate when you do this though).

So in short, yes nudging the machine (IIRC tilting is what happens if you nudge too much) is very much a part of pinball play.

Look in the Yellow Pages under “Amusement Devices.” The operators listed there may have old machines for sale (at least, if they haven’t pirated them for parts), or they might be able to put you in touch with an individual or outfit that does.

I’ve worked on these old electromechanical (EM) games before as a hobby, and these operators are a great source of parts and information.

There is also the ball tilt, where a steel ball (like the one used in play) sits in a track. If the machine is moved/slammed in such a way that the ball reached the end of the track, the machine tilts.

The machines I’ve encountered generally have one pendulum tilt and one ball tilt, but many slam tilts. They’re small, uncomplicated, and easy to install, fix, and set, so you’ll find them in a lot of places–inside the coin box door, on the chassis, underside of the table, etc. I’ve seen up to five slam tilts installed on a single machine.

As for the OP, I would imagine that high scores are more a function of being able to do more with software that with electromechanical relays. In the old days before solid-state machines, you had (as has been noted), 1, 10, 100, and 1000 points available; or multiples, such as 500 or 5000, on those scores. You couldn’t score 20,000 on a single shot, for example; the relays in the machine and the score reels couldn’t handle it. But software can be programmed to let you score as little as 90 or as much as 30,000 or 1,000,000 (or, for that matter, something strange like 17,652,700 if the designer wants it to). Software is more flexible in what it can do, in other words, and I’m sure many people find it more challenging.

And no, I’ve never heard of a machine that is programmed to burn Ball 2 as soon as possible. If you want the outlane gates to open, or multiple bonus, or the Special or Extra Ball feature to be active on Ball 2, shoot for those targets or make those sequences. The machine won’t give them to you automatically.

Yet our guitar amplifiers still don’t go up to 11…

I really picture pinball developers doing that in boardroom meetings, “Here’s our new model, it gives you 10 million points per bumper instead of a puny 1 million.”

Or maybe even using scientific notation. Then maybe kids wouldn’t be so scared of it the first time they saw it at school. I have some “Dr. Brain” CD-ROM game (the fourth one, I think) around here somewhere that records scores in scientific notation, and if you know how it works, it’s actually not too difficult to get a feel for which scores are better or worse.