A Manufacturer-Supported Pinball Mod Community

November 27, 2010

Pinball News has an interview with pinball player and Valve game designer Cayle George, in which he states:

One of the biggest things I think is missing from pinball, that is often encouraged in video games, is a mod community that is supported by game developers. Pinball manufacturers should make tools available to the public for modifying the rule set and code of their games. I truly understand the issues, problems, and liability questions this raises, but a successful community of end user game developers would help pinball grow beyond its current marketplace.

Cayle makes an interesting point. Independent mod communities such as P-ROC (with which I am involved) and FreeWPC exist and are showing signs of promise, but it sounds to me like Cayle is more interested in Stern Pinball supporting mods, which is an entirely different animal.

From time to time there is call on the newsgroups for Stern to open source its game software, usually with the suggestion that this is be a no-brainer. As far as I can tell this demand is mostly driven by game owners feeling that their game software as provided by Stern is incomplete (programmers pulled off the project before it is polished, or worse), and that if the source code were available somebody in the pinball community could enhance it.

Without any good information (I don’t know what Stern’s source code/OS looks like), I have a feeling that the chances that somebody in the community would be able to “finish” a game in a reasonable amount of time would be fairly slim, but it’s an interesting notion none the less. The minds of non-developers are prone to vastly oversimplify the amount of work required to make some modification, or add a mode. It’s one thing for a developer to write something new; it’s quite another to get inside another developer’s head and make modifications to their work, particularly in something like a pinball machine, and particularly when it probably wasn’t written with future developers in mind. Pinball software is done once, relatively speaking; there generally isn’t a “2.0” a year or two later with new features that we see in the desktop app world.

Despite these challenges, I think there are three reasons Stern has yet to release their source code:

Support

New versions of game ROMs floating around has high potential to create a nightmare for Stern support. As we have experienced in the P-ROC project, pinball enthusiasts can have a difficult time grasping certain concepts, and as such I can easily imagine game owners running custom software and either not knowing that, or not understanding that this puts them in a position where their game is not supportable by Stern. Let alone fending off support calls from people trying to get the software tool chain setup, or having trouble getting their DMD images in the right format.

Money

It simply doesn’t make good business sense for Stern to do this. Even if they sold SDK licenses, my guess is that the positive impact on their balance sheet would be negligible. It just wouldn’t sell enough additional games. For a company with a product like Stern, open sourcing is a cultural decision, usually made with the understanding that there will be some cost associated, but that it’s worth it in order to suit the ideals of the owners. If we know anything about Stern it’s that they are about making and selling amusement devices, primarily to operators. Not creating warm fuzzies in the community. And they believe this is why they have survived. Why would they change? Why would they put money into creating the documentation to enable people in the community to meaningfully modify the software in their games?

Licenses

Stern does licensed games. My understanding is that various aspects of such games must be approved by the license-holder. I can’t imagine license-holders being too thrilled about the licensee supporting reworking of licensed assets (sound, music and video) outside of their control. Perhaps this could be overcome if Stern were to make an unlicensed title, but that would be at odds with past behavior.

I think it’s pretty clear that Cayle understands these issues too, and I should make it clear that while I think there are a lot of very good reasons for Stern not to do this (in addition to the question of whether developers in the community could do what other members of the community seem to think they can), I certainly wouldn’t complain if they or some other manufacturer did take a chance on this route. I could even see it as likely for a very small manufacturer, such as Snow Mountain Pinball, to try out. I do agree with Cayle that it would add some much-needed vitality to pinball.

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