LAST WEEK IN (DIGITAL) PINBALL
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Note: this is a guest article, TWIP has not independently verified all the information below.
Before I jump into the big news that is causing all sorts of havoc across the various forums that discuss digital pinball, I wanted to just say thanks to you the TWIP audience for showing a genuine interest in this digital corner of pinball fandom. When I was in a monthly pinball league and the topic of my passion for digital pinball would come up, a lot of players would sorta look at me strange and say something to the effect of “if I want to play pinball, I’ll play pinball. I have no desire to play a video game”. Then there was the look I’d get if I brought up a full size virtual cabinet to sit amongst their collection of machines. It was as if I was some sort of heretic!
So yep, when Jeff asked me to write for TWIP, I really didn’t know what the reception would be. The response has been great, real and digital pinball fandom can co-exist, glad I can take you all on the journey. This article in particular I’ll be curious to hear from your reaction. Reason being, to the casual observer the news I’m reporting might not be anything earth shattering. To the hard core fans of Zen pinball, many are acting like it’s an asteroid ready to cause a mass extinction.
Got your attention now, don’t I?
Zen has been putting together a monthly show on YouTube called The Pinball Show. It’s a heavily scripted ‘interview’ show that essentially is an infomercial for getting Zen’s news out to the public. You may recall last time I wrote about their first episode, which served as an announcement for their new pinball platform, Pinball FX.
In their second episode they announced Star Wars VR, an 8 game package that would feature 2 new tables, one of those being based on The Mandalorian. This game will actually be released toward the end of April for Oculus Quest 2, PlayStation VR, and on Steam VR. For the record, pinball in VR is kinda awesome. Being able to lean over the cab, altering your viewing angle to better view the ball, for tables that exist purely in a digital space, it’s the closest you can get to playing a real machine.
The only thing that troubled people about the VR announcement was that while yes, The Mandalorian and Star Wars Classic Collectibles (the other new table) would be coming to PinFX, there was still no release date on that and people were worried about how long the wait would be. After all, the last new table pack Zen released was back in November of 2020. That in mind, all eyes focused on the next episode of The Pinball Show as it was promised to be a much deeper dive into the platform.
Here’s the short version to what was revealed then…
- PinFX will launch on the Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X, and on the Epic Games Store. Epic will carry the game on PC with a 1 year exclusivity before PinFX can launch on Steam
- Previously purchased tables in FX3 will not transfer to PinFX
- These tables will be labeled ‘Legacy Tables’ and will be rebundled at a discounted price for PinFX
- Due to the graphics engine changing from Zen’s PX engine to Epic’s Unreal 4, no PinFX tables will be coming to FX3
- No new tables will be coming to FX3, but the previous DLC content will still be purchasable and the game will not be delisted as FX2 was previously
- All Legacy Tables are being remastered and rebuilt in Unreal with the Williams physics applied
- The only licenses not carrying over to PinFX are those for Portal and The Walking Dead
For a deep dive, some fans felt the pool had been drained of water and Zen just dove us consumers head first into concrete. While I knew people would be unhappy with prior purchases not transferring over (in the past two generations of FX, Zen had allowed this), the hatred for the Epic Game Store (the exclusivity apparently just being salt on the wound) deal has people going apocalyptic, swearing Zen is dead to them and they’ve spent their last dollars on any of their games.
You didn’t think consumers of physical pinball machines got all the drama, did you?
So I have pulled some quotes from Zen’s COO, Mel Kirk, from the episode to help explain Zen’s reasoning. If you happened to watch BlahCade # 219, you’ll have seen and heard all this. If not, here ya go! Oh, and heads up…my bias is about to show.
On why Zen moved away from FX3 to PinFX:
“It’s become harder and harder to keep a game engine up to date with the demand to support new platforms and devices. Sometimes you have to look at things and ask ‘at what point is maintaining these older systems stopping us from making something really new?’
As my BlahCade partner Jared stated, Zen was becoming a game engine designer rather than a software developer. So the decision was made to scrap the inhouse developed PX engine in favor of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4:
“We can focus engineering bandwidth on Pinball FX platform development instead of working to keep the engine up to date. Second, we no longer need to chase first-party support – we can let Epic worry about that and focus on more important tasks. And finally, we get access to an awesome engine that can power next-gen graphics, exciting new tech like HDR and ray tracing, and so much more.”
Sounds like a good reason to me and one that will benefit players of the game. Zen will be bringing their physics engine along for the ride too, which is good news. All this gets lost in the chaos of hearing consumers are going to have to double dip if they want to play the Legacy Tables in the new PinFX. Mel gave it a shot anyway, to explain that these changes cost studios resource and man hours:
“Every table in our library has to be reworked, updated, and optimized for Unreal Engine. We are totally rebuilding and remastering these tables – some of which date back to 2007 – in a new engine, which is a massive undertaking.”
For those soured by this news, the reaction tended to be that there was nothing wrong with FX3 and no need to jump to a new engine. From a player’s perspective, they’re not wrong. FX3 is only 3 years old, looks and plays great. From a developer’s perspective, when you have 2 new consoles that can run games in 4K at 120fps, PC graphics cards that are more robust than ever with cab owners running 2 and 3 monitors at the same time, the PX engine of FX3 wasn’t going to cut it for much longer.
And while the console owners are disappointed in purchases not carrying over, the reality that no new titles will be coming to FX3 is also a bit of a burn as neither the PS4 or Xbox One was mentioned as a destination for PinFX, or at least not at launch. The idea has been floated as to why Zen can’t just port the new titles into FX3, to which Mel said:
All our focus and energy will be on Pinball FX going forward. It’s just not possible for us to build new tables in both Unreal Engine and the original PX engine at the same time.”
This is a lesson FarSight did not learn with The Pinball Arcade as they were writing code for PC with both DX9 and DX11 graphics, something that introduced a host of fires they had to put out simply because one code was not always compatible with the other.
Zen has decided to make a clean break of things to set themselves up for the future. They’ve given themselves a true uphill battle to win back some very vocally angry fans. There is no doubt some of those are lost forever. But what if all these changes are necessary to gain even more fans? And more importantly, to keep the studio relevant for the next 10 years? Time will indeed tell.
I’ll be sure to report any other major announcements coming to Pinball FX, and there’s sure to be plenty. And I would love to hear what the TWIP audience feels about these developments, whether it sounds like something every other game studio has done in the past, especially with remasters for next gen systems, or does this sound like a cash grab?
Feel free to contact me BlahCade Pinball Podcast about this article or anything else digital pinball related. For more in-depth analysis, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel.