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Behind the Game: PinOut!

A conversation with Henrik Johansson from Mediocre about their latest game PinOut!, what game developers do exactly, and why creating mobile games can be challenging.

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This interview is part of a series of conversations in which I talk to small game development studios and independent developers to shed some light on the difficult decisions, surprising challenges, and funny stories great games are made of.

“Games should be about entertainment and storytelling, not just vessels for profit.”

Mediocre is a small game studio in Malmö, Sweden, founded in 2010 by Dennis Gustafsson and Henrik Johansson, who had a mission “to make games that are free from violence and unethical business models.” They feel that “games should be about entertainment and storytelling, not just vessels for profit” and have published eight games in six years. Emil Bengtsson joined the team in 2015 as a game and level designer to help further their vision.

Their latest game PinOut!, a pinball arcade game, was released in October 2016. This interview with Henrik Johansson has been edited for length and clarity.

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Dennis Gustafsson (left) — programming, physics, game design; Henrik Johansson (center) — graphics, game & level design; Emil Bengtsson (right) — game & level design

The Team

How did you meet and start working together?

Dennis and I knew each other from school, back in our early teens. Almost seven years ago we decided to do a project together.

We met Emil at E3 [a popular annual event for the video game industry], a month before releasing our first game. We decided to work together a few years later [in summer 2015]. We always got such good feedback from Emil over the years, so we thought it would be exciting to work with him.

How do you describe the kinds of games that Mediocre makes?

I would call them simple, casual, arcade-like games. We’re fairly focused on polish. We like to make simple things. There are no stories in our games in general.

“When we started out, I almost felt that people around us in the industry were pushing us to do cartoony things.”

Has the style changed over the years?

It changed quite a bit. When we started out, I almost felt that people around us in the industry were pushing us to do cartoony things. At the time it was all Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. Cute characters, bright colors. After the first couple of games we tried to move away from that, doing more abstract environments and less childish looking designs, which resonates much better with us.

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Earlier Mediocre games show the company’s progression from cute characters and bright colors to more abstract visuals: Sprinkle Islands (left), Granny Smith (middle), and Smash Hit (right).

Where does the company name “Mediocre” come from?

We wanted to do a play on words. There are so many game companies that have a tendency of underperforming, in contrast to their names. They would say that they are the best in the world, and then there is something mediocre coming out. We wanted to do something that felt more humble, and joke at the expense of the games industry — it’s a pretty harmless joke I think. It’s about not promising too much, and then surprising people with something they didn’t expect.

Did you ever get feedback from players or other people about the name?

A lot of reporters wrote nice things about it and thought it was funny. And sometimes players, too. The only people who didn’t seem to like it are investors and other types of businesses like that. A colleague heard an investor say “Mediocre… I would never work with anyone called that.” We thought that was great. We were actively avoiding people who couldn’t be related with that name. We don’t want that type of business. We just want to make games. It was almost a relief to distance ourselves from traditional business that way.

Lightweight Pinball for the Masses

One skill every game developer must master is describing their game in few words. A good description is concise, but still manages to do several important things: it tells you what’s special about the game, creates pictures in your head of what it is about, and piques your curiosity and excitement, so you want to learn more. Henrik clearly has this skill dialed in.

What’s your very short, tweet-sized description of PinOut!?

PinOut! is perpetual pinball. It’s a new take on the classic genre of pinball games.

How does it work and what’s special about it?

The difference between classic pinball and PinOut! is that pinball is just one table and PinOut! goes on and on. You keep moving upwards. There is not one board that you need to learn; you have to learn how to escape from your current position. It’s a race against time rather than a precision game, where you want to get a score as high as possible or as many balls as possible. PinOut! is different. It’s much simpler and more varied than classic pinball, in terms of environments, music, and style.

“We wanted to make pinball more accessible and easier to get into. Pinball for the common person.”

Did you have a specific kind of player in mind when you designed PinOut!?

Usually, when we set out to make a game, we say what kind of players we are not looking for. In this case we are making a pinball game that is not for pinball game players.

Most people have very fond memories of pinball. They think it’s charming, it looks good, and that it is fun. They want to try it out again, but when they do, they suddenly remember how hard pinball is. We wanted to make pinball more accessible and easier to get into. Pinball for the common person. Not for experts or pinball enthusiasts. PinOut! is lightweight pinball.

What would pinball experts expect from a pinball game? And how did you make it work for casual players?

In pinball it is really hard to do precision shooting. We made that a lot easier. PinOut! is pinball on training wheels. If you are a pinball expert, the physics won’t behave the way you would expect a pinball game to work. I think most experts get annoyed with that. It might be harder to do expert tricks.

The pinball scene is a world on its own, but it is very small. We wanted to make the game easy for someone who doesn’t know all these tricks.

That sounds like you either have somebody on the team who is really into pinball, or you spent a lot of time researching it.

None of us are pinball players. A few of us played a lot of pinball computer games in the 90s, when we were teenagers. But that’s completely different from actual pinball games, that’s just a pinball simulator.

We looked on YouTube and read articles. Dennis researched the physics of pinball a lot. We started out with something that was really close to pinball physics, but most people don’t like realistic pinball. It’s too hard, too frustrating. We tweaked everything to make it more accessible. And that seemed to work really well. We knew from the start that it would annoy experts, but this is not a game for experts. This is a game for everyone but the experts.

One of the genius things in PinOut! is that it doesn’t take you very long to feel like you’re pretty good at it.

That’s the intention. And it seems to work. It’s a very narrow line from when it works to when it’s too obvious. That’s one of the things we tweaked the most.

Testing and Tweaking

How did you find that balance between making it feel like a realistic pinball machine, but also making it significantly easier for players so they don’t get frustrated?

By testing it on people, seeing what works. You are testing, tweaking, changing variables, and then testing some more. Suddenly, we had people saying “There is something strange with the physics, isn’t there?” When enough people start saying that, we know we’ve gone too far. It was a lot of balancing, back and forth, throughout development. It was pretty tricky. But I don’t know any other way of doing it.

How much time did you spend testing the game with other people?

Especially when we find new players, we take every opportunity we get. We want to try it in person. Mainly because we don’t need to hear what people say. We want to see their reaction when they play. You can see on a person’s face if they are frustrated or don’t understand what we intended. You have to be there in the room.

“If someone says »that’s a really nice game, I thought it was fun,« you can tell if they are not enjoying it.”

What are you looking for when someone is playing your game?

Everyone shapes their own reality. What people do is one thing and what they say is another. If someone says “that’s a really nice game, I thought it was fun,” you can tell if they are not enjoying it. If they don’t want to continue playing, that’s a strong sign that they are not having a good time. You can get positive remarks, but then you can tell that someone doesn’t really understand how to play. A lot of times it’s just making sure people understand the instructions, that they are figuring out how the controls work. We also measure how far they get into the game before they stop playing, how long it takes them to learn.

Inspiration

Is there a story behind how you came up with the original idea?

It was Dennis’ idea. I’m not sure how it happened. We have always talked about pinball games. That’s probably the type of game we played the most when we were kids. A lot of Swedish developers have made pinball simulators during that time. It’s a nostalgia project in that way, I think.

Our other game Smash Hit is a lot like PinOut!. If you did a crossover between traditional pinball and Smash Hit, then PinOut! is what you would get. It’s a continuous journey with the same electronic, sci-fi looking environments.

How does Smash Hit work?

Smash Hit is a game where you travel forward into a tunnel with abstract elements and you are trying to avoid running into glass objects. You can only do one thing: throwing metal balls at glass objects that are obstacles coming towards you. It’s a very simple game. Basically, you are throwing rocks in glass houses.

It’s this perpetual motion forward, and the metal balls have that pinball feeling to it. Visually, there was a seed to PinOut! already in Smash Hit.

Do you remember the names of the pinball games from the 90s that you played?

Pinball Dreams and Pinball Illusions are two, which are the first two games from the big company DICE, who are now known for Battlefield. That’s how they started out. I think they were called Digital Illusions back then. And there is another one called Slam Tilt. That was pretty good.

I remember the Digital Illusions ones. I played those a lot myself in those days. Is there any other game that you would consider inspiration for PinOut!?

We looked at a lot of precursors to pinball. Pinball has been around for a while, but there were other games similar to it before it existed in its present form. There is a French game called Bagatelle. It’s a physical game. You drop balls, and it’s just pins and balls. It’s not much of a game.

There are many similar things that we looked at for inspiration. It is interesting to understand the history of pinball and where it came from. Even though most of the games that came before it didn’t really have much gameplay in them, you could still find things that seemed inspirational or at least had an aesthetic that was interesting to look at.

Learning from Prototypes

Game development often starts with a prototype, a simple and abstract version of the game that is playable, but requires a lot of imagination. Prototypes are much quicker to create than a polished game. In many cases, developers create several prototypes to try different ideas and then discard them before finally building the actual game. The work on PinOut! started in February 2016, and it took Henrik and the team about nine months to finish it for release on October 27th that same year.

What was the next step after having the initial idea for PinOut!?

At the beginning of every project we make prototypes for a couple of months or so. This time it happened fairly quickly. We’ve had our own engine for every game but the last couple of years we used Unity, just for prototyping. Emil made a pinball prototype in less than two days. It was playable and we could instantly feel that this idea worked. Over dinner we decided that this is going to be our next project and then immediately started doing concept art and level design decisions, talked about game design, and asked Dennis to prepare our engine for this project. It took a month for it to get sophisticated enough to start making levels.

You mentioned “engine” and “Unity.” How would you describe what these things are?

I would describe an engine as the whole environment and toolkit you have at your disposal for constructing the game. It’s something to assemble all the visual assets, all the audio, all the level design. You put all these things into the engine and on the other side you get a game. It’s the technical part of the game that makes everything possible, really.

“Level design in pinball is pretty hard. That we learned early.”

How was the initial prototype, which Emil made in two days, different to PinOut! today?

I don’t think it was that different. We added a simple table, a ball, and the flippers, which are pretty easy to program: with a press of a button you change the rotation of the flipper. And then you can put random objects on this table, which is longer than a pinball table normally is.

That was just a proof of concept, and that doesn’t take a very long time. At least not for a game with such a simple core mechanic. It’s one thing to do it quickly, to see if something has any potential. But then writing all that from scratch and making it well thought out, that takes a lot of time.

Why do you throw the prototypes away instead of adding to them?

When you make a prototype, you don’t really need to think about quality. You don’t spend much time looking at details. You don’t do a proper foundation for the game. You are just testing things out.

Once you have a concept it’s best to go back and do a solid foundation. Otherwise, when you are further into the project, you need to do more complicated things. You need to lay the groundwork for what’s coming ahead. That’s a strong reason for starting over.

What did you learn from the first prototype?

We learned that the idea was good, but we also learned that making solid pinball physics is hard. How heavy should the ball feel? What kind of tilt should we have on the table? It was difficult to find obstacles and ramps that worked in a way that felt enjoyable for the player. Level design in pinball is pretty hard. That we learned early.

Did you show the first prototype to other people?

No. We showed it to one or two people perhaps. Sometimes we can just tell. You can see that this is easy to understand, it’s enjoyable, and we could tell that this is bringing something to pinball that didn’t exist before.

What Game Developers Do

There are toolkits that help you build a prototype in just a day or two, but you spent nine months working on the game. What happened during those nine months?

We have distinct roles. The first thing to think about is planning. We have to decide what the game is supposed to be. You think a lot about game design, obstacles — should we have power ups, for instance — and all those things. You need to have a clear idea of what you are going to do before you start production. We set up a simple time table for that.

Dennis will start working on the physics, the graphics programming, making the tools ready for me to do good design and for Emil to make sophisticated levels. In the early stages I do a lot of concept art. Emil will do the same for level design. But the majority is production: making levels, making art for every part of the game, making songs, sound effects. A lot of production goes into a game like this.

Dennis created tools for you to build levels. How did that work?

Everything happens in iterations. We start with something very basic. In the beginning of the game everything is just flat surfaces with no colors. And as the engine becomes more sophisticated we can add more things to it.

So you started with simple graphics, then Dennis would enhance the tools to support better graphics. And that is how it progressed from an idea to the final game?

Yeah, and that’s true for many other things. We have sensors that slow the ball down and speed it up. You have surface properties, because you want to have a bouncy feeling, so you have restitution properties for bumpers and other surfaces. We have a lot of complicated ramps. They would be quite high, or very long. How do you design those things? Some ramps don’t have walls, or only walls on one side. All these things sound simple, but they take a lot of time to make, especially when you have your own engine.

Throwing Ideas Away

“You can’t imagine a game, picture every aspect of that game perfectly, and just make it happen.”

Are there ideas that you decided not to use?

You have to try a lot of ideas in order to know if they have any value or not. A lot of game development is throwing things away. That can be difficult to understand, how much work is put into something you don’t see, because we didn’t use it.

It has to be like that. You can’t imagine a game, picture every aspect of that game perfectly, and just make it happen. You have to try different things, compare them to each other, and make a decision to throw many things out.

Do you have an example for something that did not make it?

PinOut! was almost unusually straightforward. It didn’t have that many things we threw out compared to our other games. Sometimes there are really small things that you try different settings and attributes for. For instance, we tried three times as many power up ideas than we have in the game. That’s one example.

Level design is another thing that’s very focused on iteration. We probably made five times more levels than we have in the game. You make pinball table after pinball table, and stick to the best ones. You make sketches for a level and then you keep going back to add things, remove things, and maybe scrap something altogether. Level design is where you throw most things away, for sure.

Challenges

Was there ever a moment where you thought “we should probably stop and do something else”?

We always believed in the project. For me the biggest problem with PinOut! was that I thought it was too simple, that it would just be about hitting the right ramps and that was all there was to it. But as soon as we introduced time bonuses, power ups, the mini games, and a few other special objects, I felt like that now there is something more to it.

Is there anything in the game that looks really, really simple, but took a long time to get right?

The sensors that make it easier for players to hit things we want the player to hit, ramps for instance, took a lot of polishing.

Also the time system. You are racing against time and you have these dots, each represent a second. Maybe a dot should represent five seconds? How much time should you have at the beginning of the game? How long should a level be? All these things take time to balance.

“Every time you make a small change, you have to test the game from start to finish for multiple players, because everything you knew before has changed.”

The dots that players can collect throughout the game give them extra time; a player’s game is over when the time runs out. How did you determine whether they should be one second each, or five seconds each, or something in between?

It’s easier to understand having one second dots than five second dots. But how many dots do we want to have on one level? Say we have five second dots instead of one second dots — that would change the level design quite a bit. We would have very few dots, because we don’t want people to get too much time. That would make the game too easy. Then, perhaps, it would be about precision shooting for a small number of dots. Having longer lines of lower value dots made them more noticeable. I like that. It made it easier to understand that this is the ramp you should go for, because you will have more time if you go that way.

It’s a difficult balance trying to understand how much bonus time we should make possible for a player. If it’s a huge difference, then that also increases the difference between a bad player and a good player. That changes how good you can get at the game. Also the mini games add more time, so that’s another aspect to that.

Every time you make a small change, you have to test the game from start to finish for multiple players, because everything you knew before has changed.

Playing PinOut!

What was the most surprising thing you learned from somebody testing the game?

Some players just flip the flippers. They don’t really think about what they’re doing. There is something about pinball that invokes a state of panic in some people. They don’t look at how the ball interacts with the flippers. Something about that constant motion made some people nervous. I don’t think I expected that to happen.

It’s almost impossible to do level or game design around that. We can put up little hints and signs that say you should play this way or that way to help them get started.

What tips do you have for new players to get the most out of PinOut!?

Keep your calm. Some people are in a rush. They want to keep the ball going upwards quickly, but if you don’t learn how to aim, you constantly miss. It’s better to take your time to aim rather than rushing through, flipping the ball upwards in any direction.

The best way of doing that is to hold the flipper up and let the ball rest against it before you decide your next move. Don’t hit it too fast, but let the ball go all the way to the tip of the flipper.

These are two things to practice. It’s a game about aiming and timing. If you learn these two things you know everything you need to know. But that seems to be quite a hurdle for a lot of people.

For people who feel like they have mastered the game, are there tips to make the game more interesting again?

Master the mini games and the power ups. It will get you a lot more time when you get to the overtime part of the game. Also going back and replaying checkpoints will give you a lot of extra time. Some people forget that you have that option.

The last stage looks like it’s endless. Is it really endless, or can you actually finish the game?

There are eight different levels, or seven checkpoints. Once you finish those, you can continue playing. The game starts over in what we call overtime. You get other achievements and ranks, depending on how far into overtime you get. You could essentially play forever, but not really, because you don’t get any extra time once you’re in overtime mode. You only have what you had when you started overtime.

You have a reason to go back and play the beginning of the game better to bring more time with you for overtime. It’s hard to explain, but it’s simple. I wouldn’t call it endless; it repeats, but it’s a new challenge that is different.

Is there anything in the game, like an inside joke, that you probably would never get if you’re not a game developer?

We do have an Easter egg early in the game, but I don’t want to tell you exactly what it is. It’s not that hard to find. It’s on the levels. You need to hit the ball in the right spot. That Easter egg is a nod to one of our other games.

And we have this special rank. If you clear the whole game in overtime mode, which you can continue playing even after that extra lap, then you get a special rank that’s connected to a special internet meme that’s pretty funny. I don’t want to spoil that either. You can probably find it if you google it.

The Music

I love the music in PinOut!. You’ve been working with Douglas Holmquist, the music artist, for a long time, but this feels like it’s more than just music for a game.

We’ve always thought that music in our games is really important, for every game we ever made. Every time we’ve increased the level of ambition. This time was definitely the most ambitious so far with vocals and all that. Douglas did fantastic work.

I think the style of that retro synth music was a lot of fun for Douglas to explore. It resonates really well with people. It’s available on iTunes and other places. We also printed it on vinyl. That was fun.

And you had a launch party where the music was a pretty important part.

Usually, Douglas performs the music of our games live at these parties, but this time was special, since we had vocals also. That was so much fun.

The Name “PinOut!”

How did you come up with the name “PinOut!”? Were there a lot of names that you considered?

We had a lot of ideas for the name. Since pinball has been around for a long time a lot of the name ideas we had were already taken. We wanted something that sounded like an arcade game from the early 80s. That constant motion upwards made us come up with the name “PinUp.” But since that has an almost sexual meaning, we were worried that some players might be upset and that it would get confused with other things. We loved the name “PinUp,” but realized that we couldn’t use it. That’s when we started talking about “PinOut.” It sounds like “BreakOut,” that early 80s game. It’s a simple name, but it feels like an arcade game, and you usually understand that it’s a pinball game, too.

Running a Business

PinOut! has been out for a while. Did it do well? Are you happy with the results?

Yeah. You can never be sure about these things, even when you get good user feedback. There are just so many games. PinOut! is either our second or third most popular game. For eight games that’s pretty good. Smash Hit was so popular that we never expected PinOut! to surpass that in popularity.

Were you worried that nobody would buy PinOut! or not even hear about it?

We are always worried about that sort of thing.

What did you do about that?

This time we put the game in soft launch. We’ve only done that once before.

“If you don’t make any money as a game developer, you can’t continue to make games.”

That means you released the game in certain countries first, so only a few people play it.

Yeah. In this case we released PinOut! in Canada about two months before releasing the game worldwide, to see how well it performed. Maybe it was Australia, I can’t remember right now.

The main thing we wanted to understand was, if people wanted to make that single in-app purchase we have to Premium, which is our only source of income. Previously we used the terminology “buy Premium” and we wanted to try something else that said “buy the game.” We wanted to communicate to players that you don’t own the game, we are just giving this to you for free. If you don’t pay for it, then there won’t be any more games. If you don’t make any money as a game developer, you can’t continue to make games. That’s pretty simple logic that seems to escape some people. That didn’t go well at all. So we changed it back to “buy Premium.”

I guess we have to accept that some people can’t or won’t pay for games. That’s just the way it is. We have to try to persuade as many people as possible that it is a good thing to pay for a game and hope that they will. Still, we want everyone playing. We want them to have a good time playing, even if they don’t pay for the game. It’s good to at least try to explain to them that if they don’t pay for it, there is no other source of income for us.

It’s strange sometimes to have people complain so much about something you are giving to them for free. We spent nine months working on something and invested blood, sweat, and tears. Here you go. And they are still angry. And they play the whole game. That’s just… that psychology is very different and difficult for a developer to understand.

PinOut!, and some of your other games, you can download and start playing, and you don’t have to pay anything. But you can upgrade to Premium. Can you describe a little bit more what I get for free and what I get when I pay for Premium?

The only thing you get when you pay for Premium is checkpoints, which is saved games, essentially. If you don’t pay, you always have to start over from the very beginning every time you play. If you get checkpoints, all progress is saved, and you can continue from these saved points. It doesn’t change the difficulty of the game other than that it will be easier for you to learn later levels, because you don’t have to go through the hassle of playing all the way from the start.

The whole point is: people hate content paywalls, which I think are a fair way of doing it. You give something away for free, people can try the game, and then they have to purchase the rest of the levels. People react very strongly against that. So this is a compromise. We give the whole game away for free, with the exception that you have to start over from the beginning each time, which I think is pretty generous. If you don’t buy the game, you can still play all of it without spending a single penny. And there are no ads or anything like that. In my opinion, Premium is the only way that’s really fair. It just doesn’t work for most games on the App Store anymore. Sadly.

Why do you think that Premium is fair?

If you go to the movie theater to see a movie, or you rent a movie on iTunes, or you want to buy a book, or anything… sure, you can buy a book that’s full of ads. That type of entertainment — music, videogames, or movies — that’s worth money. If something is free it devalues the product.

“That type of entertainment — music, videogames, or movies — that’s worth money. If something is free it devalues the product.”

Earning a Living as a Game Developer

While working on PinOut! were you paying your bills thanks to the earlier games that you still sell?

Exactly. We don’t have any other funding. There are no investors or anything like that. The first game we made in our spare time, with saved money.

And then you hoped for the first game to be successful enough so you can continue making games? It seems like it worked out for you.

It did. We didn’t have any expectations, really. We assumed that we have to go back to doing other things, but we were lucky. We could afford to continue making games.

If you didn’t have income from earlier games, how many people would need to buy PinOut! so that you can pay your bills?

The game is at $2.99 (US dollars) per purchase. There is a 30% commission to Apple and then there are taxes. After expenses and split between the four of us making the game, you realize you need to sell quite a few copies in order to make a living.

The Future

What are you working on now?

We made eight games together for six years, which was a lot of work for me. In the last couple of months I’ve been taking a little break from Mediocre and have been helping some other developers in the industry. Partly because I want to learn new things and see how other people work, but also because it’s nice to help someone else with their ideas.

There is one studio here in Malmö and another in Copenhagen that I’ve been working with.

At the same time I’ve been looking for inspiration for my own projects. I feel like I want to take some time to think about my decisions, life in general, and game development, before committing to anything major.

“I like the idea of having something be finished. That’s the way games used to be.”

Is there anything coming up for PinOut!, or is this a finished game?

It’s a finished game. We’ve tried in the past to add features, levels, and such, which is a lot of fun to do. It’s nice to support a game you’ve been working on, but usually it has almost no impact on sales or appreciation from players. You put a lot of work into those things, but it doesn’t really do anything for us. It is very hard to motivate doing work for free for a very long time over and over again. It would be really nice to make more levels, but if it’s not going to do anything for us, we have to let it be and focus on new things.

And I like the idea of having something be finished. That’s the way games used to be. It’s a new concept, especially for mobile, that games constantly continue to develop and add more content. I’m not sure it has to be like that.

We made a game we are proud of. It is what it is. It doesn’t have to be longer, doesn’t have to be bigger, or more perfect. We are happy with it. Nobody adds levels to Pac Man anymore, or Super Mario, the original. And people still enjoy them.

If you want to support Henrik and the Mediocre team consider upgrading to PinOut! Premium. And check out their other games, too. And don’t forget to tell your friends about PinOut!

Thanks for reading!

This interview is part of a series, where I talk to small game studios about how they create the games we love. I’d love to hear your feedback. If you want to support my work and would like to see more interviews like this, please share this interview with your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.

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