Interview: Farsight Studios - Pinball on Wii U, 3DS and Kickstarter
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Bringing tables onto your screens
Farsight Studios has been in the gaming industry for over 20 years, but is probably best known for its extensive range of pinball titles including Pinball Hall of Fame — The Williams Collection on Wii and 3DS. The studio recently announced that its latest title, The Pinball Arcade will come to Wii U and 3DS, as well as running a successful Kickstarter campaign for The Twilight Zone official license, meaning that the immensely popular table will be developed for digital release.
Farsight Studios President Jay Obernolte joined us to discuss the company's work, development for Wii U and 3DS, as well as the recent Kickstarter campaign.
Nintendo Life: First up, can you tell our readers about Farsight Studio's work?
Jay Obernolte: We’ve been developing console videogames for over 23 years. Our first game was on the original Nintendo NES, and we’ve developed on just about every platform that’s been introduced since then. Some highlights for us over the years have been: NFL ’95 (Sega Sports on Genesis, our first million-unit seller), NCAA ’98 and ’99 (EA Sports), Scarface: Money, Power, Respect (Vivendi), and the Game Party franchise (for Midway and later Warner Brothers with over 6 million copies sold).
NL: You've had The Williams Collection published by other parties at retail on Wii and 3DS. How was the experience of working on those platforms?
JO: We love both! Wii has been the most successful platform ever for us — we’ve done 12 games now for Wii. And we find the 3DS really innovative.
NL: As part of your Kickstarter campaign, which we're keen to talk about later on, you announced The Pinball Arcade on 3DS and Wii U. Are you able to confirm whether these will be physical or digital releases (we understand that it's been a digital release on Xbox and PS3)?
JO: Right now we are planning on a digital release, but we aren’t ruling out the possibility of a physical release later on. A physical release would probably take the form of a roll-up (where several of the digitally-released tables are bundled together so the package still represents a good consumer value).
NL: When this title was released on Sony's PlayStation Network it received cross-purchase support between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Is there a possibility that we could receive the game on both the Wii U and 3DS with a single purchase as well?
JO: Possibly — we’d have to work with Nintendo on this.
NL: Have you had much opportunity, so far, to work on Wii U. If so, do you have specific ideas of how the GamePad capabilities can be used for pinball?
JO: Yes, we’re hard at work on bringing our Pinball Arcade product to the Wii U. We’re using the GamePad to show the table DMD display (so it doesn’t obscure the table like it does on other platforms) — it’s really cool!
NL: We have to ask, do you have an estimated release date for the 3DS and Wii U versions of The Pinball Arcade?
JO: Not yet. We’d like to bring the Wii U version out as close to the launch as possible. We have a few technical problems to solve on the 3DS, mainly related to the ROM-emulation: we’re having trouble running it fast enough to play the game at 60fps on the 3DS’s processor. The Pinball Hall of Fame collection we released previously on 3DS did not feature ROM-emulation, but many tables in the Pinball Arcade depend on it.
NL: Moving onto Kickstarter, can you explain why you used the platform, and summarise how it works for those that are unaware?
JO: The way a Kickstarter project works is you define a project, set a funding goal, and choose a time limit in which to raise the money. Backers make pledges to your project in exchange for project-related rewards that you define. If you reach your goal in the time you’ve set, the project is successful and you develop the game and deliver the rewards. If it doesn’t succeed nobody’s credit card is charged. It’s an exciting idea!
NL: At what point did you have the idea of using it for The Twilight Zone project?
JO: We were very excited when crowd-funded projects began succeeding in funding videogames, and eager to try one. The idea to try it for the Twilight Zone came when, after negotiations with CBS over the license rights, we realized that we would have to charge too much for the table for it to be commercially viable. It seemed like an interesting fit for Kickstarter — let the audience decide if the table deserves to be made!
NL: You posted a video on the campaign explaining how you digitise tables from the actual machines themselves. Can you summarise the process and explain the benefits that it brings?
The process of digitizing these tables is very complex. We first acquire the actual physical pinball table we want to digitize. We want our videogame version to play exactly the same as the table played when it was new, so we start with a thorough restoration of the table. We then strip the table down to the bare wood playfield and take high-resolution digital photographs of every part. We use these to create three-dimensional computer models of each of the components on the playfield. When the modeling is complete we export the data into our graphics engine, which displays the table on each of our target platforms.
Next we implement the table logic and sound. We do this by emulating the electronics in the original pinball table. Most complex tables were controlled by what are by modern standards primitive computers. We’ve created ROM-emulation technology that allows the same program which controlled the original table to run on our target devices. This means that every rule, sound effect, and light sequence is exactly correct in our digital version. The idea that you can run the original code that controlled a huge cabinet-based pinball machine on your iPhone is pretty cool!
The last step in digitizing a table involves tuning the pinball physics. We’ve continuously improved our pinball physics engine for the last seven years and we’re very proud of it. We can individually control reflection angles and physics parameters for every section of any component on the playfield. We use the original table as reference when doing this to ensure accuracy. Finally the table goes through a review process where it’s critiqued by pinball experts and approved by the table manufacturer. The end result of this painstaking process is an exact digital recreation of the pinball table that you can play on your handheld device or in your living room.
NL: Following on from that, what particular challenges arise from trying to accurately replicate the ball physics into a digital format?
JO: We’ve been improving our pinball physics engine for six years now. We tune the physics individually for each table to make sure all of the table shots are the appropriate difficulty so the table scales like it should. It’s an incredibly involved process.
NL: The license for The Twilight Zone was $55,000 and you hit that target. You've also raised some extra money and have announced the possibility of doing this again for Star Trek: The Next Generation. When the campaign launched, what level of success did you initially expect, and were you surprised to hit the target?
JO: We really didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve been gratified and humbled by the tremendous outpouring of support from our fans.
NL: There was minor criticism when you added the second table to the campaign and didn't quite hit the doubled-up target for those that donated for the extra table. Was that potentially a mistake?
JO: If we had it to do over again we’d probably not have tacked on the stretch goal of funding the Star Trek: The Next Generation license. That is another great table that deserves its own campaign.
NL: We've already seen a lot of Kickstarter projects from other developers, how big a part do you think it'll play in future game development?
JO: We think they will play a big role in future videogame development, but we feel they will not lead to the renaissance of indie games that everyone would like to see. They have the same visibility problem as apps on mobile platforms- when there are thousands of them every month, it’s hard to fund the small projects because the high-profile ones take up all of the spotlight.
NL: Finally, what's your personal perspective on the Wii U and 3DS systems, and how prominent do you think they'll be for your company's future titles?
JO: We love them both! In particular we’re really excited about the Wii U. The original Wii was FarSight’s most successful platform ever, and we think Nintendo potentially has another hit on its hands.
We'd like to thank Jay Obernolte for his time.