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Guest Post: Speculation on What Happened with the Williams Bally Digital License
by Chris Friebus
The following is an essay steeped with heavy speculation. I am not an investigative journalist, you are not going to find source notes or hard evidence. This is simply my perspective as someone who has followed with great interest the digital pinball scene for over 6 years, piecing together all the bits of knowledge I have collected in that time. That being said, I think I’ve hit close to the mark. Enjoy!
Speculation on What Happened with the Williams Bally Digital License
Although it was a probably only a minor blip among traditional pinball fans, for those that follow digital pinball the announcement in April of 2018 that FarSight, makers of The Pinball Arcade, had lost the license to Williams and Bally tables was huge. After much hand wringing and wondering about why Scientific Games chose not to renew the license with FarSight, the answer is now clear and quite honestly rather exciting; Zen Studios has acquired the worldwide digital rights to the WMS license for their FX3 platform.
Before diving into the details of Zen’s future with the license, let’s look at a little history and a ton of speculation on my part. When FarSight first had licenses for Williams (for their Pinball Hall of Fame collection) and then Bally tables (for The Pinball Arcade), Scientific Games was not part of the equation. FarSight typically had the ability to make around 20 titles in 2 years before seeking a contract renewal. They were also under advisement from (I believe) Zach Sharpe as to which tables they could choose from. The first signal to those of us in the digital pinball community that contract renewals weren’t a given came at the end of ‘season’ 2, which ended right around the start of 2014. A string of Gottlieb tables had gotten released multiple months in a row after a stellar output of AAA WMS titles had been dominating the season. What none of us had cared to notice, nor did FarSight make any mention of, was that Scientific Games had purchased WMS in January of 2014, and then would go and purchase Bally in November of the same year.
It’s important to get a sense of these dates, because there’s a lot to speculate about when wondering what happened with FarSight and how Zen was then able to get involved. Rumors have circulated that Zen had looked into getting the Bally or Williams license at some point around 2014. One can imagine that Scientific Games, after having spent 1.5 billion on WMS in January (when FarSight contracts were up), wasn’t really too concerned with some digital license to a pinball division that wasn’t even functioning anymore. So while there was a delay in that first contract renewal, probably due to the transition, it went through with little issue from what I know. Zen meanwhile had been chugging along with Zen 2 and Pinball FX2 across various platforms, with loads of original Marvel tables, and Star Wars tables had just made their debut. So you have to kind of assume nothing but feelers were being sent out. Where things start to get interesting is at the start of 2016, the next contract renewal for FarSight.
Keep in mind that when FarSight started The Pinball Arcade at the end of 2011, they seemingly had no long term plans beyond those first two seasons. They front loaded the game with all the major titles most people would want rather than spread them out over the course of many seasons. They had two kickstarters in a matter of months to fund Twilight Zone and Star Trek: The Next Generation in that first season, and followed that with another for Terminator 2 in the second. Looking at it now, they were operating like they only had one shot at this, so they’d better make the most of it. Surprisingly FarSight found themselves with a very popular and lucrative platform that fans couldn’t get enough of, who were more than willing to buy whatever new tables they could produce monthly. Fast forward to the second contract renewal in 2016, with FarSight having now worked on the same title for five years, longer than any game they’d previously made by a long shot. When questioned about the upcoming contract renewal, FarSight responded with great confidence and hinted that going forward, they would not have to worry about the contract or how many WMS titles they could release going forward.
The reason for this response was that it was rumored FarSight made a bid with Scientific Games to buy the WMS pinball license outright. They had recently put out the Stern Pinball Arcade that promised even better versions of Stern tables because of having direct access to Stern and their resources, most of the remaining big ticket titles in the WMS catalog were IP license heavy, so having to pay both Scientific and whatever 3rd party necessary would seriously cut into profits with each table sale. Having the license to themselves for WMS would eliminate part of that concern. For reasons not known, Scientific Games chose to instead just renew the contract as it had been, with FarSight getting a limited number of tables within a 2 year period once again. So why did Scientific Games let FarSight believe owning the WMS license was a possibility only to deny that offer?
It’s fair to guess that by this point Scientific had looked a little more into their WMS holdings and saw that there was something to the digital pinball license. I have no idea how generous the offer from FarSight was, but Scientific probably remembered that Zen had come calling before and maybe it was worth seeing what they’d be willing to offer. Suffice it to say, I’m of the mind that Zen was contacted soon after, right around the same time they’d have been starting to work on their newest platform, Pinball FX3. This new platform seemingly came out of nowhere when it was announced in August of 2017. Zen said they had been secretly working on it for about a year. It basically upped the ability of what could be done within the digital pinball platform significantly, despite most people being rather happy with FX2. Was striking a deal with Scientific Games something that pushed this project over the top? Or was it vice versa, Zen showing Scientific what they’d be able to do with the WMS license?
Here’s where a certain amount of poking around on social media can offer up clues and facts. In January of 2017 a tweet went out from Zen about a new addition to their in-house pinball collection, Road Show. A few of the other tables they mentioned having were Champion Pub, Metallica, Fish Tales, Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and more. Not unusual that a place that make digital pinball would actually have some in house, but curious in hindsight. Then in August of 2017, Mel Kirk who is a VP at Zen, tweeted “Writing up a licensing proposal for a brand I have been dreaming about working with for years! #Pinball dreams do come true!!” which today we know was for the WMS license. Most strikingly though is the fact that FarSight had no clue any of this was brewing.
UPDATE: In a new interview for the Another Retro Gaming Podcast, Mel Kirk stated that Scientific Games actually contacted Zen in 2016 about taking on the license, but Zen already had a full plate with licenses for Fox, Portal, Star Wars, Marvel to build tables around. He also says they’d been having talks with WMS since Zen started making pinball games, but the timing was never right. So it is safe to assume this is why Scientific only agreed to a shorter contract with FarSight in 2016, knowing all along that Zen would create an opening in their schedule.
When it came time to renew the contract once more in January of 2018, Scientific was suddenly not approachable. FarSight kept plugging along, and they were almost all set to release The Pinball Arcade onto the Nintendo Switch. The timeline here gets really fuzzy, as there’s only so much you can glean from what was actually said and what might have been implied. The one thing we do know is that FarSight released The Pinball Arcade on the Switch the first week of April, and then had to remove it from the eStore within hours due to Scientific demanding it. The start of May brought the news that FarSight had lost the license and all 60 tables affected would no longer be available for sale at the end of June. Some might think it was the Switch release that caused the license loss, but looking at that Mel Kirk tweet, we see that was far from the case. What I have heard through various means is that Scientific wanted to pull FarSight’s license to sell even earlier than May, but FarSight had argued for a little more time to give the fans a chance to purchase rather than see everything disappear without warning. See FarSight was operating under the notion that the WMS digital rights were just being mothballed, and Scientific didn’t tell them any different. The one thing FarSight did know was that there was no offer they could even make, as it was made clear to them it was a done deal. Again, knowing what we know now, I have to believe the deal with Zen had been completed around August of 2017, four months prior to FarSight’s renewal date.
Looking at how this all played out, it’s very akin to a wife suddenly leaving her husband, handing over the divorce papers as she walks out, only for him to later find out she’d been seeing another guy and was already engaged to him. The ink just needed to dry before she could remarry.
Thing is, think whatever you want about Scientific Games (the wife in this situation), Zen is a great hookup! Of all the possible scenarios that could have played out with the WMS license post FarSight, Zen getting ahold of it is the best possible outcome. They have a very stable pinball platform, they consistently put out a quality product, they have the resources to deal with huge licenses (hello Marvel, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, etc.), and most importantly they are passionate about pinball.
But let’s also not forget that were it not for FarSight securing the Williams license all the way back in 2008, we might not be talking about a WMS licensing deal today at all. Huge props need to go to them for everything they did within the game, warts and all, because they truly showed how translating real pinball into the digital form should be handled legally (no offense Visual Pinball).
So let’s take a look at some of what Zen has revealed. First and foremost, they are now the sole license holders for all digital rights to the Williams/Bally library of pinball. These will be faithful recreations of the tables we all know and love, and the physics will be equally faithful. In other words, this isn’t going to play like any Zen table prior.
The tables will be under the heading Williams Pinball, but that will include Bally too. They will be fully integrated into the FX3 platform, and all that entails. You will be able to set up tournaments, you will be able to play the 1 ball or five minute challenges. It will be optional whether you see the pop-ups of friends scores and such or if you want to play a completely non interfered experience.
The tables will be using ROM emulation, but Zen is also working to optimize the code so that it can run as smooth as possible. In terms of physics, Zen feels this is the closest they have ever come to replicating the real world behavior of a machine. There will be ball spin, you will be able to perform flipper ‘tricks’. From personal experience with the demo, it’s the closest anyone has come to capturing the real pinball feel.
As for why you would want to repurchase tables you have already? Hi-rez graphics across the board could be reason one. The flexibility of the FX3 platform and the community nature of play they have established with it might be reason two. There’s even more info that’ll come out before release that will be in and of itself a very strong reason three. Although no licensed tables have been mentioned yet, Zen has very strong outreach when it comes to licensing, and as mentioned before they already have released tables with agreements from Marvel, Lucasfilm, Universal, Fox, and more. Are you really going to cherry pick tables and play between two platforms or are you going to just want to navigate through one ecosphere? Anyone with experience of Rock Band and Guitar Hero will be able to tell you how that eventually went. Once you actually get to play the tables though, you’ll see there’s no comparison. I went back and forth between FX3 and TPA with the four tables announced, and the difference was immediately noticeable.
This is truly a new era for digital pinball. It’s going to take a while for Zen to build up their collection of tables to the 61 FarSight reached, but it’s going to be exciting getting there. And who knows, depending on how things go, maybe Zen convinces Jersey Jack Pinball to let them do digital versions too. Meanwhile FarSight still has the licenses for Gottlieb and Stern, there’s been talk of getting Capcom into TPA too. Competition is good, and we digital pinball fans only stand to gain from it. With any luck, the two companies will now push each other to produce better and better digital pinball experiences. The net result is it’s a good time to be a digital pinball player.
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