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Kickback Activated - Zen Studios talks Pinball FX

Kickback Activated - Zen Studios talks Pinball FX

Written by Eric Hauter on 4/28/2023 for PC  
More On: Pinball FX

Zen Studios' Pinball FX emerged from Early Access earlier this year with a long legacy trailing behind it. Since it's founding in Budapest, Hungary in 2003, Zen Studios - while occasionally releasing other games outside of its home genre - has become almost synonymous with digital pinball. The original Pinball FX title was released on Xbox Live Arcade back in 2007, and since then the studio has released scores of pinball tables on every platform and console imaginable. If a gadget has buttons and a screen, you can likely find a Zen Pinball game to play on it.

During the past two decades, Zen has released many "games", which have essentially been platforms to house their many digital pinball tables. Following Pinball FX, the company released Pinball FX 2, Zen Pinball, Zen Pinball 2, Pinball FX 3, Pinball FX VR, and many more, including various collections like Marvel Pinball and Star Wars Pinball. Tables have arrived at a steady clip, including a stunning array of tables based on some of the world's biggest entertainment licenses, adaptations of classic real-world pinball tables, and completely original tables that Zen Studios dream up from scratch. There have been so many releases that it has been a little difficult for even the most dedicated of fans to keep up.

Enter Pinball FX (2023), which released in February of this year. This release saw an upgrade of the engine powering Zen Studios' creations, moving everything to Unreal Engine 4. This meant that to release on the new platform - positioned as the final edition of Pinball FX for the foreseeable future - existing games would need to be ported to the new engine, and all new tables would be created to exist solely within Zen's new ecosystem.

Player feedback was a core tenant of the Pinball FX development process. Players were updated through a series of videos, and any changes made were announced in advance. Things seemed to be going along fine while Pinball FX was in Early Access on the Epic Games Store, but a sudden rumbling of fan dissatisfaction reached a peak when Pinball FX released on consoles. Some longtime fans of Pinball FX 3 balked at having to "rebuy" their tables on the new platform, regardless of how much work it took to recreate them. 

When Pinball FX arrived on Steam earlier this month (along with a slew of new tables, including a few new freebies), we took the opportunity to check in with Zen Studios for a chat about the history of the studio, what it takes to create a new digital pinball table, and the rather positive view the studio has of player feedback. 

The following questions were answered by Akos Gyorkei, Marketing Manager at Zen Studios.

Akos Gyorkei

I did a bit of research online, and it is very difficult to find a comprehensive list of all of the pinball tables Zen Studios has release over the years for its different platforms. Including all of the early stuff, the Nintendo DS games, the Apple arcade tables, the Williams tables, and the tables that have been retired, how many tables have been released since Pinball FX released in 2007?

Phew, I think we just crossed 160 with the Godzilla vs Kong Pinball Pack and Crypt of the NecroDancer Pinball but it might be even more. We currently have 105 tables in Pinball FX. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we had the opportunity to work on awesome themes. 

This represents an enormous body of work. How did Zen Studios zero in on pinball as its main focus as an organization? 

Our founder and CEO, Zsolt, was a big fan of the game. When he started the company, Zen did many contract development projects and when thinking about something of our own, pinball was one of the first avenues that came up. Zsolt has a great pinball collection (even rare ones like The Champion Pub!) so we had the expertise and the fandom to start! It was a niche market, but with the potential to be easily accessible by millions of players (which ultimately happened). We have a fond memory of the first tables - Agents, Xtreme and the likes. 

I’m a huge fan of Zen’s original, non-licensed tables. What is the process for the creation of one of these tables? Does someone pitch a table internally? Are you approached by folks outside of Zen Studios? How long does it take from ideation to completion?

Nice! It is always a treat to hear if someone enjoys the originals. The two types of originals work a bit differently. Firstly, our licensed tables start at a partnership, where we get in contact with Legendary Entertainment or Dreamworks and decide to work together. We are in the incredibly blessed position that many IP holders approach us, that they would like a Zen table! Once we are in contact, we narrow it down to possible brands inside the company we could do fun tables out of. Then, our designers get to work and we pitch a certain film, era or character of said brand internally, then to the partner. This is always fun, I know the guys really enjoy being creative here and exploring these universes.

For our ‘original’ originals (like Curse of the Mummy, or Wrath of the Elder Gods) our designers do an internal pitch to management. Many of them have cool theme ideas they’d like and we like to do these as well, keeping the library fresh. Here the whole pitch and review process goes internal.

It takes about 9 months (this can vary much depending on the table, the brand, how many platforms the table comes to) to create a pinball table from idea to release. It is a work of art created by designers, graphic artists, developers, sound designers and QA testers. We are lucky to have a very dedicated crew here and everyone wants to pitch in and make these tables the best they can be. 

Does one table designer take the lead? Is it a group effort? 

It is a group effort, but every table has a lead designer. They are the ones who serve as almost a project manager as well, negotiating their ideas with the 2D, 3D team, with the devs who might do something unique for them in the engine if they come up with some new crazy ideas. With licensed tables we give a transparent look to our partner at every step of the process. They sign off on the layout, the game modes, the characters, animations, art - even on promotional materials. It is an incredible feeling when a world renowned brand is happy with the content we created for their world. 

Do you ever go after licenses because you as a company (or someone in the company) has a passion for a certain property?

Oh, yes all the time! Of course the Williams library is very popular and it makes sense to get the license from a business standpoint, but I know many of our devs were coveting recreating these tables for years. I myself was dreaming of playing Attack from Mars again (I played it a ton when I was a kid). Our Pinball Master and Lead Designer Peter ‘Deep’ Grafl got to work on his dream IP as well, when creating Back to the Future Pinball. He’s the biggest Doc and Marty fan I know and suggested the IP many times before we were able to do it. 

There have been situations where games have been delisted, possibly due to the licensing expiring. (I still have a few tables installed on various older consoles so I don’t lose them!) What is it like to delist something that has been so painstakingly created from digital storefronts? Are there any tables that you would like to bring back?

It is what it is. Sometimes these situations present themselves and we have to deal with them how our opportunities let us. Management does everything in their power to keep the most tables in the library as they can for many years, and they are doing a great job with the 100+ ones we have right now. Of course it is painful to see, we live for the satisfied feedback and comments on our tables and we want the most people playing them. We’d definitely love to have the Super League Football table back, and South Park would be good to. Hopefully, one day they can rejoin. 

Pinball FX 3 was a very feature-rich platform. Released in 2017, that iteration of Pinball FX has been very popular with players, and has a wide library of tables available for it. What led to the decision to create Pinball FX (2023)? 

We wanted to keep with the times. We used our own engine for a long time and it became increasingly obvious that we need to move on to Unreal 4. Now we can provide upgraded lighting, upgraded physics, new features and a long roadmap of table releases that support these (I think the Godzilla Pinball table in particular really shows what we are capable of now). Every iteration is very important for us and we have a long feature roadmap in front of us as well - Pinball FX will just get more and more awesome as we go forward.

When upgrading an existing table from the older platforms to the 2023 version of Pinball FX, how much work is involved? What are some of the hidden tasks involved with a table port that players might not be aware of?

There is considerable work. Textures, code work, 3D work, balancing, new physics balance it is a big task. We tried to really enhance these tables, some of them created many years ago. It was not just a drag and drop into the new engine that’s for sure! 

As anyone in software development knows, there is a big difference between what you intend to create at the beginning of a project, and what you eventually release. Obviously, the scope and functionality of Pinball FX changed quite a bit during its Early Access period on Epic Games Store. The ticket system, for example, was altered to go for a clearer “pay for the tables you want with money” system. How difficult was it to make some of these decisions? And how tough was it to message these changes to players in a way so that they would understand why the decisions were made?

We felt we needed to try new systems and features in Early Access to really make use of it. This was the period where we could introduce our new ideas for a dedicated, vocal and engaged player base. We always try to communicate clearly and involve our players the most we are able. In changing the system we considered many voices both internally and externally but ultimately the biggest weight is always “what’s best for the pinball fans out there”? Most of them preferred the change, so we landed on that. 

The pinball community is very vocal about their likes and dislikes. There was clearly a backlash from some players upon the release of Pinball FX on consoles. How do you respond to long-time Zen Pinball fans that balk at the idea of “rebuying” tables on a new platform?

I think this vocality is the salt of the hobby. It is always better to develop something for engaged players who really care about not just your product but an entire game, than to not have any communication at all. All we see is people caring loudly at us, as Leslie Knope said, cause that’s what they do. They love pinball and want the best experience possible, it is really a privilege to service this crowd - even if sometimes we need to face the music.

We’d say that we are incredibly grateful for their support over the years, many of them have extensive libraries. Try out the new tables, we tried to make sure there is a huge amount of new content so there is something for everyone in Pinball FX, even for those who had every table in Pinball FX3. 

You have to appreciate every piece of feedback you get from players and then work to be worthy of their attention - we are on this every day. Pinball FX has a long life ahead of it, filled with more new pinball that you have never seen before. 

Did the backlash impact Zen Studios’ plans going forward, regarding the cadence of new releases, or other release strategy changes?

No, we are pretty much locked in well into the future. We have such good tables coming and big plans to be the champion of pinball. Our teams are working on features, on bug fixes, on cabinet stuff. It is full steam ahead for us. 

What determines whether or not a title is included in Pinball Pass? Is it a licensing thing?

Yes, this comes from licensing agreements. We would love to have all of them in the Pinball Pass of course, that would be a perfect way to present our library. 

April 13, 2023 was a pretty big day for Pinball FX. The title launched on Steam, the second Marvel pack dropped, and there were five brand new tables released, along with the addition of a few new free tables for free-to-play players. It was a pretty overwhelming amount of content. What was it like as a studio to prep all of that content to release at one time?

It was a tall order but we knew we had to deliver. We wanted to arrive on Steam with a big bang, and provide our console players a very meaty, meaningful first content update. I think we managed to pull it off, from what I’ve seen on the internet the new tables are very well received. Crypt of the NecroDancer Pinball we felt was a very fun little peak into the indie world and people seem to appreciate the fresh take. The Godzilla vs Kong Pinball Pack was destined to be awesome, I always say that big monsters and pinball are a great pair (just look at the Jurassic World Pack). And of course Twilight Zone, we just had to take the original and recreate it to the best of our abilities, sprinkle on a little of the Zen magic powder and it is a smash hit. 

Of all of the new tables, I’ve been spending the most time with the Crypt of the NecroDancer table, which has some pretty wild mechanics. When adapting an existing video game into pinball form, do you work directly with the original game’s creators? How much time do you spend playing the original game?

I think is a great opportunity to speak about Gary, the designer of the table. He started at Zen as a Support Agent but showed promise and understanding of pinball. We gave him a shot to join Deep’s Pinball Academy and he cut his teeth on Wrath of the Elder Gods, and now delivered Crypt of the NecroDancer. He brought a great new perspective to the genre with his wild ideas like reimagining how a round is played and the Versus mini playfield. Kudos to the team for helping him make his designs come true as well. Yes, as mentioned when talking with partners we work very closely with the creators. Brace Yourself Games was kind enough to provide music, voices, art, models and everything we needed to create this. Those who worked on the table from the Zen team all spent considerable amounts of time with the game, you really need to get to know the material. 

One more question, just for fun: I approach each new table as though it is a completely new game. I find that any skill I’ve developed on one table doesn’t usually carry over to others; I start from scratch every time. Any advice for a moderate-to-poor player to help get better at pinball in general?

That is a great way to think about it and very true! Every table is unique.

A few general tips I think always help:

  • Try to slow the game down, hitting the ball every time it nears a flipper might cause some chaos where you’d lose your ball
  • Listen to the voice callouts and look at what’s blinking. There will be the big points
  • Learn to nudge! If you can get a good grip on nudging the table, your sessions will double in points and time. For example, if you see the ball bouncing around the outlanes, give the table an upward nudge, the ball might fly back to play. If your see the ball coming down for the drain, a last minute side nudge might just land it on the tip of one of the flippers. And of course, the best feeling in the world - Dead Saves! This is only possible on our originals, if you see your ball go down the outlane, flip up the same side flipper and give the ball a big nudge when it heads for the drain, it might pop up between the flippers and you can play. 

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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