Game Designers in Detail: John Popadiuk

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.

In this interview, MFA James Marion and speaker John Popadiuk discuss ‘gimmicky’ design in pinball, the possible future of digital pinball, and how the role and responsibilities of the pinball designer has changed dramatically since 1999.

To go deeper into the craft of game design, join us for PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail on November 14-16. More information and tickets available here!

James Marion: In Special When Lit, a Pinball documentary by Brett Sullivan, some pinball veterans expressed dismay at new tables’ reliance on toys and multiball. The perspective from those who hold this view seems to be that they emphasize gimmicks over “traditional” pinball gameplay. Do you agree with this sentiment? What do you feel is the role of special features (like toys) in modern pinball machines?

John Popadiuk: Well, I am a pinball traditionalist. I grew up with games from the 1960’s – 1970’s, which had no toys (as defined today) but did have gameplay gimmicks or novelties to create a “hook. All games need a hook. So, my early games were based on this philosophy of design, which were state of the art at that time. Pinball moves with society, and so does the design thinking. I do agree that the new player today, the “OCD type,” demands more instant gratification. The seasoned players or collectors demand novelty and creative, and they judge us on this aspect. But, underlying all the toy layers resides a classic 1970’s or 1980’s style playfield. It’s like jam on bread – the “bread” cannot change as it is the “paradigm” – it’s almost immutable. Toys personify the theme, give players instant feedback, and make the games different in an important way. Also, the toy/design mixture is the designer’s signature – people know Magic Girl is from me as it shares the design language of Circus Voltaire, for example.

JM: How do you feel the resurgent popularity of digital pinball has affected your craft? Specifically Pinball Arcade, which attempts to remake classic pinball tables as authentically as possible. Do you see this kind of product as competing with traditional physical tables, or is it likely to get younger players interested in the “real deal?”

JP: Digital pinball has brought new “device” players to real pinball. Folks may play the Theatre of Magic version of Pinball Arcade, then go looking for the real game. Also, real games have influenced the digital designers – they are notpinball designers in any traditional sense; they look to our past games and “borrow” designs, features, toys from those games. Zen made a Tesla game that has much of my design work from Arabian Nights and The Shadow. When I asked the owner, he scoffed it off. I told them to go invent their own stuff and stop copying, since they rule digital pinball. But, interestingly, digital pinball has not captured the haptic feedback or texture of real pinball. Nobody has made that leap, so it is always thought of as inferior.

JM: You have two pinball machines currently scheduled for release – Magic Girl in 2015 and Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland in 2016. These will be the first wide-release machines you’ve worked on since the release of Star Wars Episode I in 1999. In what way has the process of designing a table changed? Is there a kind of player that you’re trying to appeal to and, if so, how do you design for that audience’s expectations?

JP: That’s a tough question. I started out not really know what was in store for me. So, following my traditional methods from a decade earlier, I started to design, but I found them lacking. It was like coming from Camelot to modern times. The world was different, the pinball community was different, we interacted in new social ways, and the business of pinball was new. I had a customer who demands the best. Then I met Ben Heck and his cohorts. Ben brought me into today and helped me update my “toolkit,” so to speak. I got on Facebook, bought two MakerBots (we are making a new MakerBot pinball in secret), and I started to talk to customers and become a millinial of sorts. I love speaking publicly, but this was all new territory. Luckily, I am a quick learned – I shed the past and went full steam into making pinball. People want new ideas, good art, and great pinball presence. The first MGs had a digital playfield (which we might keep) and a ton of new features. The art is hand-drawn, like nothing else today. We are raising the bar for a pinball community that appreciates it. But, as an artist and designer, the process is slow, frustrating, and not for mass production like it was at WMS. Every day I learn and need to wear a jockstrap and flame-proof underwear. As a designer, my skin is very thick – I imagine others would cry. But yes, the audience is me, and my “crap” filter is on high – rarely do I let junk through, and I am as OCD as the next person.