Pinball FX and the Editing Hand of Mild Aggravation

Every once in a while something comes along that’s far more obnoxious than is easily justifiable. Today’s entry is Zen Studios’ editing of art and potential removal of other content from the Williams tables in Pinball FX3. As it turns out Pinball FX3 has an E10+ rating which means cigars, bikinis, and other shocking content isn’t going to fly. Zen Studios has been creating its original tables with a specific age group in mind, and the remade Williams tables are going to fit in there no matter how inappropriate the original pinball may be or how many tiny edits it takes to make it safely clear the rating.

The changes first showed up in the beta that took place in September, with the fisherman from Gone Fishing losing his cigar and a few edits made in Medieval Madness’ video modes. You could change the settings to fix Medieval Madness and the cigar wasn’t even worth a sarcastic eye-roll, so onward we went without worrying about it too much. And then the first Williams Pinball pack came out and all those little edits added up to feel far more stupid than the sum of its parts.  (Note- If the government or other outside entity was stepping in saying this content had to go it would be censorship. This is a private company adjusting content it’s got the rights to, so the word is “edit”. Although some of the covered material in-game is labeled “CENSORED”, which isn’t helping much keeping the phrasing straight.)  The beer is now soda. Nobody can smoke. Blood is erased but the casual homophobia of “The king is a queen” graffiti in Medieval Madness is perfectly ok. Bikinis are now one-piece swimsuits. The PC version has a toggle to fix the covered-up in-game functions on the DMD displays but the table art is the same whatever console you play on. There is no possible way Xenon will be released with this standard in place, much less Future Spa. A lot of the greatest pinball machines are relics of the 70s and 80s and the art can’t be made all-ages without a complete reskin.

Zen Studios addresses this issue on its FAQ, second question from the bottom.  It starts with “Zen Studios is very aware that certain tables, such as Medieval Madness, have content that cannot be included in an E10+ rated game.” and ends “This is a complicated issue with varying ideas and opinions, and it directly intersects huge stakeholders including legal, business, product and community. Zen’s first obligation is to provide age-appropriate content within the game’s rating.”  That last statement is troubling because, while it’s certainly a company obligation to not break the ESRB rating, I’m feeling fairly confident in saying it shouldn’t place that high on the hierarchy.  It’s worth noting that the FAQ only deals with the game ROM, though, and the art isn’t discussed until Zen Studios VP Mel Kirk weighs in on this with a response over at Ars Technica– “People expect a specific type of game associated with certain types of content. I’m not going to jeopardize all those relationships, all that history, all those families that play the game for some bits of artwork.”  Which is so deeply flawed a response that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I’ll settle for addressing “a specific kind of game” (pinball) “associated with certain types of content” (family-friendly).  Seeing as the pinball games Zen has access to are some of the best in the history of the game, maybe it’s people’s expectations that are the problem and not the tables themselves.  The “some bits of artwork” crack can just hang there dangling uncomfortably in the wind.

The king’s sword on his hip has no blood, the troll beside the sword lost his cigar, and the woman on the lower-left got an all-new swimsuit. Pinball FX3 on the left, Pinball Arcade on the right.

The gameplay mechanics of pinball are relatively simple- hit ball with flipper, nudge machine when necessary, hit targets, get score. If you strip out all the art and sound it would play the same, so in theory a few alterations in the presentation don’t matter. And yet it does, because a major part of recreating these tables is digital preservation. These changes are small and gameplay-irrelevant but they matter because it means you can’t trust Zen to deliver a faithful recreation. Gambling, for example, is a big theme that crosses the E10+ line so what are the odds of ever getting Riverboat Gambler? Pinbot should be easy enough to bring in whole but what changes would Bride of Pinbot see in its blatantly-orgasmic audio?

Zen Studios is the only company with license to Williams and Bally pinball tables when it comes to digital recreation. If you have the Pinball Arcade versions already you’re set, but there were plenty of machines Farsight couldn’t get to and honestly, Zen has done a fantastic job on its first release aside from this painfully ridiculous editing. These changes are small and nitpicky now, but they set a precedent that erodes trust and means pinball fans will be constantly on guard against Zen protecting a rating that isn’t appropriate for the content.

As for how The Pinball Arcade got away with its E10+ rating, Zen Studios VP Mel Kirk weighs in on this with a response (also from the Ars Technica article)– “I believe that The Pinball Arcade was in violation of ESRB and other ratings boards. We did a thorough review on this.” More tellingly, he also says “We’ve been penalized ourselves by the ESRB previously. We made some mistakes. We can’t afford to be caught again.” This is in reference to Infinite Minigolf, which got bumped from E to T when an inappropriate placeholder poster featuring a huge nearly-naked demon and a collection of scantily-clad women was accidentally left in. That’s bound to make a company a little gunshy in terms of content, but the solution is to make a separate pinball game with a solid T rating rather than pulling out the scissors and CENSORED tape.  Which, to be fair, Zen is considering doing for some tables.  The games play as well as they ever have, and it’s honestly hard to notice some of the edits, but the knowledge it happened is hard to forget. Right now this is little more than an obnoxious little tempest in an overprotective teapot but if minigames are removed due to content issues or entire tables can’t be recreated that’s when this issue becomes an actual problem.