Catching up with Bowen Kerins; Talking Multimorphic’s Final Resistance, Pinball Rules Design, Dream Themes, and more!

Catching up with Bowen Kerins; Talking Multimorphic’s Final Resistance, Pinball Rules Design, Dream Themes, and more!
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Catching up with Bowen Kerins; Talking Multimorphic’s Final Resistance, Pinball Rules Design, Dream Themes, and more!
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Catching up with Bowen Kerins; Talking Multimorphic’s Final Resistance, Pinball Rules Design, Dream Themes, and more!
Published on
July 25, 2023
Updated on
July 25, 2023
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Today we’re super excited to bring you a conversation with Bowen Kerins, an accomplished competitive pinball player, rules designer, and advocate for the game. 

Many of you will know Bowen from his excellent PAPA Game tutorials (check out his latest Mata Hari tutorial if you haven’t seen it yet). Others may know Bowen from his competitive play (has been ranked #1 in the world and has won 5 World Championships), tournament work (he was a Tournament Director for Pinburgh, once the largest pinball tournament in the world), or his rules work for Spooky Pinball’s Alice Cooper’s Nightmare Castle, Rick & Morty, and now Multimorphic’s Final Resistance

For those less familiar with Bowen know that he’s one of the best ambassadors for pinball in the community, and when he’s involved with a project, you should take notice!

This interview covers a lot of ground! Originally intended to be a discussion focused on Final Resistance, we wind up discussing Bowen’s history with pinball, the creative process of designing a game, licensed versus unlicensed themes, and a lot more. 

Final Resistance is a module for Multimorphic’s P3 system, designed by Scott Danesi (Total Nuclear Annihilation, Rick & Morty) with additional support from Bowen Kerins, Michael Ocean, Rory Cernuda, TJ Weaver, Trey Jones, and Jonathan Bergeron

Final Resistance is available for pre-order now, either by itself or as part of a full P3 system purchase.

Note - this interview was originally recorded live and has been transcribed and then lightly edited for this format. Due to length, we’ve split this interview into six parts. Feel free to use the Table of Contents to skip between sections. 

Part One - Bowen Kerins' Pinball Origins

Kineticist: Normally, we start by asking what your pinball origin story is, but in your case, maybe we get the high-level overview of your whole journey  - what’s the pinball story of Bowen Kerins? 

Bowen: My dad got me into pinball. He would take me around to a few different places. The earliest memory I have of playing a specific pinball machine was when we were living in Miami, and he took me to this big arcade in the basement of a hotel that had a bunch of games. I’m pretty sure I played Frontier, but I definitely know I played Sharpshooter. Because I remember this crazy light in the corner that you couldn't hit. It was impossible, but if you did ever get the ball to go over there, the game would go crazy and make big noises at you. That was the very first thing that grabbed me. And then it wasn't until 20 years later that I saw another Sharpshooter.

sharpshooter pinball bowen kerins

And I saw it, and I was like, wait a minute. This is that game. And that guy [Roger Sharpe]. 

I know this guy now; he's that guy. Now 20 years later, he's that guy from that movie [Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game] still doing the same work. 

It’s been interesting to meet a lot of the people now who made the pinball machines that I grew up on or got into it with, or I remember playing some games like The Addams Family or High Speed and seeing this mysterious name “LED” on the game. I'm like, well, who is LED? The guy won't even say who he is, just his initials, and well, is this the same guy who made LED lighting? No. And it turns out it's Larry DeMar and just an absolute beacon when it comes to creating great machines with great rules that are immersive, but also, you feel like you're evolving in your understanding of the game as you go. They teach you how to play. And I always modeled some of my work in pinball after Larry. You'd be like, okay, well, I don't know what to do here. What would Larry do?

larry demar pinball

Kineticist: That’s cool - what else can you tell us about Larry DeMar?

Bowen: Larry invented the hurry-up on Black Knight. Larry invented the jackpot on High Speed.

And you run through the list of the games he's worked on, and it's this insane list of amazing machines like FunHouse, Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and World Cup Soccer. And that’s just the who's who list of the games I love. 

And I think I can say this about a lot of pinball people, the detail shows in so much of the work, and you can see just little effects, like grace periods, for example, that Larry or Lyman [Sheats] would just consciously build into the game. It's really hard to do that, to have the game back off to regular play, and you're like, oh, my multiball is over. And then your ball hits a shot, and suddenly it's like, oh, no, no, you got it. Jackpot.

Kineticist: So, grace periods are intentional decisions? 

Bowen: Absolutely intentional decisions in coding, including things like, okay, your ball save light went off, but then the ball just trickled down right on the end of it, and you get it back, and you feel like, whoa, what a miracle. I got my ball back. No, that was a conscious decision by the programmers and the designers of that game to give you more time than what they were claiming. They're lying to you the whole time. They're saying this mode is only 20 seconds long when it turns out it's actually 23 seconds long so that they can give you that final opportunity.

Kineticist: That’s cool! Had thought they were technical limitations or bugs, didn’t think they would be intentional! 

Bowen: Oh, yeah. My favorite of that is Attack from Mars, which has two phases, the jackpot phase, and the super jackpot phase. And if you hit the last jackpot on the grace period, in the regular jackpot phase, not only do you get the jackpot, but then it still goes into the super jackpot phase, which is a whole different beast. And you get a grace period on top of your grace period. And just all of those are deliberate, conscious choices by the programmer, Lyman in that case, to give you that feeling and that excitement of having the extra [moment].

Kineticist: How did you start transitioning into more organized pinball work?

Bowen: Well, competitive play, I found out about that when I was in college, and there weren't very many tournaments. There were really only three that I can tell you about, the PAPA World Championships in New York City, the IFPA Championships, which at that time was near Chicago, and the Pinball Expo at the Chicago Show. And so I started going to these events thinking, all right, I'm going to learn from everybody because I learned from the locals in California more about how to play and nudge machines, and it’s going to be great to learn more and meet these people.

From Pinball Expo 1995. John Miller, Jim Belsito, Bowen Kerins, Roger Sharpe

And then I ended up winning. I won the World Championship in 1994 as a sophomore in college, and it was crazy. It was like, all right, now I have money as a college student, and I have a [new] pinball machine (World Cup Soccer), and I get to fly to Chicago to meet Roger Sharpe and Larry DeMar and Pat Lawlor and Ted Estes and all these amazing people that I have worshiped, and then get to play a brand new Demolition Man and World Cup Soccer, shown for the very first time at that trade show that they flew me to, and I still have the World Cup Soccer today after almost 30 years.

Part Two: Multimorphic & Final Resistance

Kineticist: How did you start getting involved with Multimorphic?

Bowen: Well, the career path into working on pinball machines started just as a goof. Total Nuclear Annihilation came out in 2018, and I said to Scott Danesi and to the team at Spooky, "Do you want help promoting this? I'd love to talk about this game or film it or whatever." We had a pretty successful YouTube channel of tutorials at that point. 

And instead, they're like, "No, actually, what we need is we need someone to help us write the rules for our machines, do you want to do that?" "Yes, I want to do that." And then I went to Texas Pinball Fest, and they introduced me. I played TNA on stream for them and destroyed Reactor Nine [the final objective in the game] live in a seminar with 300 people watching. 

That was pretty ridiculous. And then they introduced me as the rules designer for Alice Cooper's Nightmare Castle. I worked on that game, and I also worked on Rick and Morty, both of which turned out pretty well, and Rick and Morty, a Scott [Danesi] game with Eric Priepke on software. Eric's a fantastic programmer.

Then Spooky decided they wanted to go their own way with the programming and design of future games. They've done Halloween, and they've done Scooby-Doo. And then I moved to work with Multimorphic, worked with them on Weird Al and then Final Resistance. So Final Resistance actually now is my second time collaborating with Scott. And so there was a lot of push, not a lot of push-pull, but a lot of ideas going like, okay, we need to make this feel like a successor to Total Nuclear Annihilation in some way while still feeling like its own game and also an evolution in the timeline. And if TNA is an early 80s machine, then Final Resistance is a late 80s machine. And what does that mean? What does that look like?

bowen kerins and scott danesi

Kineticist: Did Multimorphic reach out to you? How did that start?

Bowen: Multimorphic had reached out to me many years earlier to see if I wanted to be involved. I was like, I can't, I just don't have the opportunity right now. And so I think I reached out to them just to say, "Hey, what's going on? You okay? Again, is there anything you'd like me to do to help you with these things?" And the next thing I know, I'm on the team.

Kineticist: When you’re working on a new game like Final Resistance, how much does the concept change from the initial vision that the designer (Scott, in this case) defined versus what’s actually released to the public?

Bowen: There's always an evolution. And usually, the evolution is in a positive direction because you think of better ideas over time. And one of my examples of this is from an existing Stern machine called AC/DC. They had originally advertised to do certain modes in their game with the cannon behaving in different patterns. And it turned out that when they tested it themselves, they found that these things weren't very fun. And so they went in a direction that they thought was more fun. 

But some people, when the game is confusing, they ask, why are these things still here? What's going on? And it's a mix between the manufacturing issues around when things are built and the software issues of when things are written and all of the evolution of the game design. Now with P3, we're fortunate that we can basically redesign the playfield whenever we want to, at least the front half with anything.

And so, some of the original ideas for how the game might play didn't make it into the final version. We can imagine this is true for just about every pinball project there is. We just never hear about it as the team makes its decision. And that's also why you see these teams just lock down what they're doing internally. Nobody likes to talk about the game we're building, and here are our ideas. Because then, if not every single one of those ideas shows up in the final product, you get users going like, well, wait a minute, what about this? You said you were going to do this. We're like, well, yeah, we tried that. Turned out it sucked, and we did this instead. We thought this was much better, and we hope you will too.

They're like, no, you need to do the thing. You promised a thing. And it's much better to just not promise anything, just shut up and keep everything to yourself until you release it all. 

This is actually one of the issues also with licensed versus unlicensed games. When someone says that they desperately want a Three Stooges pinball machine, they also have 10 ideas of what they want that Three Stooges pinball machine to be like, and then the game comes out, and it doesn't have all of their ideas in it. Maybe it has a few, but why didn't you do this for this episode? And we got that for Rick and Morty, for example; why aren't you doing assets and episodes from Season Four? Where are my Slut Dragons? And we're like, well, first, we don't necessarily even have the assets for that season. That might cost extra money, or it might be impossible to get.

Second, we don't necessarily have voice assets for these things. We don't have the rights for all of the different people who voiced all of those dragons to just pull their work from out of a TV show and put it in a pinball machine. They have to be paid extra for that, and we either can pay that extra or not, or we can record our own audio and try to place it over that, and by the time you do all those things, you're investing so much time and money that it's not worth it.

So for Resistance, one of the ideas we had was you'd be fighting these aliens, and they would be yelling at you in an alien language that you don't understand. So we built these call-outs for what the aliens would yell, and it turned out it was not helpful. Just having something go [garbled yelling] like, okay, then you're trying to understand it, but it's not understandable, and it makes you think that all the call-outs are going to be impossible to understand. And you don't learn anything other than this thing is mad at you, which you already knew. So what are we getting from it?

Kineticist: Is the idea to do those voices like an atmospheric or aesthetic choice originally? Why include something like that versus callouts that might provide guidance to the player?

Bowen: Well, I think the idea was you're fighting these mysterious aliens who have just come from who knows where, and they don't talk to you, and all they want is to destroy you. Scott has said it's his vision to have it be a little bit like the first half of Independence Day, the movie, where these aliens just show up and just start destroying everything. You don't even know what they look like or what they want. You just know that they're kicking you to the curb. And so having the aliens be less in your face and more just destroying you, almost like they don't care. That became better than having the alien call-outs.

Kineticist: Speaking of aliens - the whole attack ship mech is super cool - who came up with that idea?

Bowen: Oh, it's a joint effort between the entire team. Scott has an initial concept of what he wants it to be, and then TJ Weaver is the lead mechanical engineer at Multimorphic. He makes the prototypes, then you go back and forth. What he ended up designing was a different design for the shield.

So there's this shield that actually comes down out of the alien ship to block a ramp shot and a lock shot that the ship has. And when you hit the shield, it works a little bit like the Attack from Mars shield. In the end, you hit it, and then it moves away. It doesn't move down into the playfield, it moves up into the ship itself. And then the original concept Scott had was to have it be more like a standard shield, like a three-bank shield you'd hit, and then it would drop.

And so you're able to hit that shield, and it knows whether you've hit the left side of the shield or the right side of the shield. So at the beginning of the game, you can hit the shield at all, and it will go down; it will get out of the way. Later you have to hit the left side of the shield and the right side of the shield independently to get the thing out of the way. And then there are fake lamps in front of it to tell you what your progress is.

Kineticist: Making this clear for the readers - the mech that fires the balls back at the player, is that called the Alien Attack Ship or something else?

Bowen: So the alien attack ship really has three different aspects to it all. The first is this shield that blocks shots in front of the shield, in front of the ship. So you have to clear the shield in order to access the ramp of the lock. The second is that when you shoot the lock, there is an up kicker that kicks balls into the lock, and you can see the balls that have been kicked into the lock stacked vertically. One, two, three. When multiball starts and there are three balls in the lock, it runs this long introductory multiball, get ready, get ready, get ready thing. And then the three balls get fired consecutively back using a kicker [mech]. In the style of the raptor kicker from Jurassic Park or the rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy.

And Scott's initial design included this to have the ball, fire a ball, then the next ball drops into position immediately because it's all stacked vertically instead of stacked in some other way. So there have been other games like Transformers that kick the balls out for a multiball, like consecutive pow, load, pow, load, pow. There hasn't been one that can do it this quickly because of the vertical drop. Soon as it fires the ball, the next ball is already dropped in, and all three balls can be fired within 0.5 seconds.

Part Three - Pinball Game & Rules Design

Kineticist: As a rules designer, when do you typically get involved with the project? And what does the collaboration process look like with the rest of the team from there?

Bowen: I'm involved from the very beginning. It's Scott on the main playfield design, I'm the rules designer. Michael Ocean is the programmer. Then there's Rory Cernuda, who does the effects, and TJ Weaver, doing the mechanical design. There's Jonathan Bergeron (Johnny Crap) doing the artwork, and then it's all overseen by Gerry Stellenberg [Multimorphic Founder & President]. 

There are even opportunities for anyone else at the company to look at the game, play the game, to give advice as well. So it's not limited to just those people even. But I'm getting involved from the beginning, I guess Scott was saying, all right, we want this to have the flavor of Total Nuclear Annihilation, but different. And so my main idea was what you see now, which is this two-phase prep and battle back and forth. So you spend some amount of time preparing for the next battle wave, and the preparation you do can make the battle wave easier. You can earn powerups, you can lock additional balls, you can set up the main multiball. And when the battle begins, you are assigned a battle. You don't really get to decide what battle you're going into, and then the ship is actively fighting you.

And those battles are all different from one another. Some are multiball, most are single ball. And you can either win the battle or lose the battle. Ultimately then, whether you win or lose the battle, you earn things or lose them. We originally planned that every time you win a battle, you'll earn new powerups to be used in future battles. That's still in play. We had originally planned that if you lose a battle, the aliens will take away one of your powerups. And we decided against that in the end because it's just rich-get-richer pinball, which is okay, but you don't want to make a player feel like they got pooped on too many times.

Kineticist: Does the game start with a concept, or how does the progression go from idea to rules to playfield design? What does that early phase of game development look like?

Bowen: Playfield almost always comes first. You have the playfield, you have a bunch of shots, and then you start thinking about what those shots might be. So there was this spinner-inner loop combination that's in the game that was always there from the beginning. And then I was like, oh, great, how do we integrate this with this ship? What are we doing? What are we doing to this ship? Are we trying to destroy the ship? Well, not really, because the ship is so huge that all you can really do is fight it off and try to survive and live another day, live for the next battle. Then we said, "All right, well, what battles could we do? What would be fun? Combo. Combo ramp making, big spinner shots, loop, consecutive loops. What if we put this massive kicker in the right orbit so that the orbit will sometimes work like an orbit, and sometimes it'll Yagov you [like in F-14 Tomcat]."

Okay, well, what would that allow us to do? Well, we can make that shot really valuable in the different modes and in different battles. But we'd have to make it also super risky to shoot because it could kill you just by shooting it. And that's basically it. 

Then once you've got the overall structure of, we're going to prepare for battle and then battle, all right, well then what happens during each of those phases and how do we distinguish them? How do we make sure the player knows which one they're in? How do we let them know what battle number they're in? How do we let them know the progress in the different battles they've already fought? If they have powerups, how do we show them to the player? What powerups should they have? And what should each of the powerups do in each of the battles? And you just end up with this long, long list of, like, all right, we have to settle these questions. What happens if you shoot the spinner when nothing's happening? That should still be fun. What should it be?

How does the player earn mystery awards, are there even those kinds of things? What about this lock? What about this other lock? Just all of those things need to be quantified. Then you start to build it, you start to program it, you start to play it, and you're like, all right, this is too hard. This is too easy. This is not fun at all. This is really fun, but it's not being rewarded at all. Design me something that involves these shots because making this combination of shots is really satisfying.

Oh wait, we didn't program a bonus. We didn't program skill shots. We didn't, oh, what do we want to do about this or this or this? Or players will expect this, or are we going to do a match? No other Multimorphic game has ever done a match before.

Kineticist: Thinking through who you're designing for, do you have a particular player archetype in mind when you start building the rules and going through the game development process? How do you balance appealing to the hardcore pinhead versus the casual player?

Bowen: If the game's not appealing to both of those types of players, we messed up.

It has to be that if it's the first time you ever played this game, and you come in, and you leave going, “that sucked”; we blew it. You're never coming back because you're not going to give us another chance. But it has to also have enough depth and play for people to figure out. And my best example is the powerups. You have these powerups, and they each do different things. So one of the powerups is a time slowdown, and in the time slowdown, everything runs at 25% speed for 15 or 20 seconds. I mean everything. So you have a ball save timer, and you want it to run really slow, great, choose it then. You have a timer on your mode, you've only got five seconds left in your mode, and you'd want to finish it, then go; that's a really good opportunity for this.

There are other ways to use it as well. So a clever player or an experienced player will look at that thing and figure out when it might be used and take advantage. If it's the first time you've ever played the game, you're not even going to see that that thing is a thing. You're not going to notice. 

Look at World Cup Soccer. What do people notice the first time they ever play that game? They look at the goal. They're like, oh, I should shoot that. And they shoot it, and it goes, "Goal, yeah!" And they're very excited, and then they're got their moment; they're going to play again.

So, we need moments like that to be in the game for a brand new player to be able to go like, yes, something cool happened, I caused that. And then you have the layers. So the second layer is the different battles and how each one of them plays, and what the purpose of winning a battle is. And then the layer beyond that is, oh, there are these powerups. And the powerups can be used in lots of different ways. So one of my favorite powerups is Simplify, which is directly stolen from a TV game show called The Cube. One time during the game on The Cube, you can just say, this is too hard, Simplify. And they'll say, all right, fine. Instead of having to do this 12 times in a minute, now you only have to do it 10 times in a minute.

That doesn't make it a lot simpler. It just makes it 20% simpler. So that's what we do. When you push the button to Simplify, if you push it when you're in a battle, it'll make the battle 20% simpler. If you push it and nothing is happening, it will make all of the other small objectives 20% simpler. It'll advance your combos, it will light the lock, it will light the mystery award and things like that. 

But a brand new player at pinball, even when we flash flashlights at them, like saying, "Hey, here are your powerups, and here is the button you push to use the powerups." They don't care. They're just banging a ball around to have fun, and they need to have a good time too. So you have to serve all of your audiences. You have to serve beginners, intermediate, advanced, experts. Doesn't matter. If you ignore any of those audiences, you blew it.

Kineticist: It's got to be challenging to appeal to all those different players at once, right?

Bowen: Sure. And part of that challenge is also to create a simple enough rule set that can be understood while still having the flexibility and challenge of growth over time. Like in Rick and Morty, we have multiball, we have the Megaseeds, and we have the Meeseeks. So we have all these little layers that all can work together, but you have to discover and figure out what those layers are, why they support each other, and that the Megaseed, which seems like the least important thing, turns out to be the most important thing when you're trying for the highest scores. So baseline players will shoot for adventures, and maybe they'll get a couple of locks, and they'll get a multiball. You get to the intermediate players; they start to work in the Meeseeks and get double jackpots and get extra bits there. And then the expert players like, oh yeah, you got to get all your dimensions. And so they move through dimensions a lot more often than the intermediate players do.

So I'm really happy with how that came out. Resistance is a little bit more straightforward because the aliens are driving the game. There are plenty of things to do during the prep time to lock up a ball. That's one of these things. There's a mini lock, like a Danesi lock, but one ball. You can't release it. You can only lock it during prep, you can only release it during battle. When you release it during battle, it's two balls in play. So it's a double playfield, and then hopefully, you can finish your battle.

It's called the reinforcement. And then, if you finish the battle and you still have your second, your reinforcement ball in play, you can put it back. Put it back in, and it'll say, all right, you're locked again, you're safe, you're back and prepping for the next battle. And that ball will be ready to go again for your next battle whenever it comes.

Kineticist: Can you talk a bit about the differences in designing rules for a more traditional game like you did with Spooky versus the P3 platform, which is quite unique in its design and use of tech.

Bowen: Designing for P3 I think, is much more difficult because of the interface. You have to invent the interface. And it's not something that people usually think of for a pinball machine because you know what interface you expect in a pinball machine. There are lamps, and there are soundbites, but the lamps are just there showing you where to hit. And so one of the things that the team all agreed on is we want this game to have the look and feel of a game that just has lamps, that acts like it has a regular playfield. And so if you tune in and you see somebody playing this game, you just see like lamps flashing battle, battle is lit, lock is lit. Everything feels normal, normal enough. But it doesn't mean we have to keep it that way.

So we can fire a beam weapon across the entire playfield whenever we want to. Oh, the aliens are firing, and it just zaps over the entirety of that LCD screen. There are times when something happens, and the whole screen will pause on purpose because of what you did. And you come in those times, and you realize, oh yeah, these aren't pinball lamps, this is a screen. Oh my God. But the effort that Rory and Michael made to make those lamps work the way that people think they have to work was really impressive. It's fooling people and lulling them into this spiel of, oh, I'm playing an F-14 Tomcat, or I'm playing a game from the 80s.

Kineticist: Because I guess if you think about video game development, those assets probably don't exist before this game. The graphics and the lighting and all that, so you have to build it from scratch.

Bowen: Yeah, it's all from scratch. I mean, there are some assets that are being used from earlier games, but not that many. And the style of the UI on Weird Al and Heist is very different from the style of UI on Final Resistance. And I think it works out really well in that it does fool people. It's like, oh yeah, this thing is lit for a three-way combo, and you shoot it, you have a three-way combo sure enough. And so you get the familiarity you would get from a traditional playfield while still having the benefit of having all of the things that the P3 screen can do that would not be possible under any other machine. So the simplest example of this is you start a multiball, and the jackpot will be lit, but right next to the jackpot lamp being lit is a little tag that tells you it's this many points. And it's just on the screen on the LCD where a traditional pinball playfield just can't do that.

Kineticist: That’s interesting. I would have thought that the traditional playfield would be harder in some ways because you’re sorta locked into a template versus the comparative blue sky of something like a P3.

Bowen: Yeah, I think the thing that makes it difficult is not the design but justifying the interface and making an interface that a player will look at and go, “I want to play that.” I'll give you an example of this. I talked to a player on the first day of Texas Pinball Fest who had lots of things to say about Multimorphic that were not particularly kind, about trying all the previous games and they were never getting into them because of this and this and this. I was like, okay, well, that's great. Play this game, give it a shot, and let me know what you think.

And they came back two days later, and they're like, wow, this is what I think of when I think of what it should be like. I'm like, well, okay. Yeah, but there are probably going to be just as many people who look at this and go like, no, I liked Weird Al better. I liked the ability to wipe the entire screen when you go into a mode and change the entire way the game plays from one mode to another. So in our case, we impose our own rules on this. We said if there's a lamp on the play field, it doesn't move, it doesn't change its name. If it says “shield” on it, it's going to say “shield” on it the whole time, and it's going to use this shade of white. And then overall, we stuck to all of those principles unless we felt like there was a reason, like okay, this is even cooler. We need to do this now and override the rules we would normally go by.

Part Four - Multimorphic’s P3 Platform

Kineticist: What do you enjoy about working with P3 platform?

Bowen: I think the flexibility is really interesting from a design standpoint. The initial design of okay, you can do what you want, so what are you going to do? All right, well, let's see if we can do this, do this. We do this, we can use the scoops in this way, and we could use the walls in this way. If we put a ramp there that feeds over there. One of my best examples is just back on traditional pinball. The P3 has a fully integrated trough, which means that you shoot the ball into a hole wherever it is, and the ball can be given back out in any of the positions that the game sees fit.

So the way this plays out with prep and battle is that during prep, all the feeds from the scoops, from the locks, from everything, all those feeds are nice and kind to you. They kick out into a VUK, they kick out from a scoop, they kick out down the side. They are the friendliest feeds that can be picked. When you're in a battle, the opposite happens, the most difficult feeds that can be picked. So you can shoot the same shot into a feed, and instead during a battle now it'll fire out of the cannon of the ship instead of being fed to your flipper directly through a VUK. And this happens because the P3 has a flexible trough.

Kineticist: So you could not do that with a more traditional game?

Bowen: Oh, you could, but it's really hard because the trough would have to manage itself. Star Trek Next Gen is a good example. It stages balls in places where when a ball's kicked out of one place, it can fire it from that other place, the cannons. But the P3 is just like, yeah, you want that? Fine, boom, boom, boom, boom. It's very, very simple by comparison to a traditional pin. And so there are lots of examples of things like that where the screen gives you the flexibility, but also just the design of the machine gives you some options that you would not have had otherwise; most people just think it’s the screen that makes the difference.

Kineticist: Are there any other major challenges working with the platform?

Bowen: No. The interface issue is so drastically different, and you really want the player to come up to the machine and just be able to go. And that was one of the things that I did. I don't like having players make decisions where it's before anything useful can happen. For example, when you go up to play Rush for the first time, it's like, hey, pick your song. And you don't know necessarily that the song is not a relevant choice because it's actually just music where if you go up and play Guardians of the Galaxy, it's like, hey, pick your song or pick your mode, and that one actually does matter. It matters a lot what you pick at the very beginning of that game, or what turtle did you pick [in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], or what house did you pick [in Game of Thrones], or what character did you pick in Pirates of the Caribbean.

All those things are reasonable things for an intermediate player or an advanced player to know about or care about. But if I'm just stepping up to play a game for the first time, I don't want to deal with that. I just want the ball. Give me the ball, push the button, where's my ball? So I insisted that the amount of time it takes for someone to get the ball and do something interesting with the ball should be as quick as possible because you don't have a lot of time to get a new player into it and to get excited for doing this thing.

Kineticist: Can you talk more about the future potential of the P3 platform? It seems like maybe you’re just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible with some of the people who are now involved in Multimorphic in terms of what you can do with the platform. 

Bowen: I mean, there are future ideas that I can't really talk too much about, but what I can talk about is there's this perception of the price - buying the P3 with the cabinet and with the first game, it costs roughly the cost of Stern LE. And that's a lot of money. That's a lot of money to put into one game. But then the modularity of the P3 is such that every additional game beyond that game is half the cost of a Stern Pro forever. I think Final Resistance might be $3,500, or $3,400, Weird Al is roughly the same price, and Heist is a little less than that. And so, as soon as you have this cabinet, you have the ability to buy games at a significant discount compared to normal purchases. 

But for this to really take off, you just need more games; you need to not just have two or three or even four games just to say, oh yeah, all these are good games. You could buy all four of these games. You want six, seven really good games. And then someone would say, okay, I'll buy that. I'll buy that cabinet. Yeah, it's expensive the first time. By the time I get through to the second game or to the third game or the fourth game, it's way in my favor now. People ask about resale and that's fine. People do sell cabinets and sell modules. There is a used market. It's just the same as any other used market.

Kineticist: How about from a game development standpoint? It seems like if you were going to try to evolve pinball and take more of a hybrid approach between traditional pinball and video games, P3 is pretty much the only platform you can do that with, right?

Bowen: I think P3 has a lot of opportunities for hybrid pinball, but I also think that there are lots of people who don't want hybrid pinball. They don't want to be able to shoot over a virtual target. They want only real physical targets and real physical pinball. And that's what this game does. There really isn't a situation in the game where you are rolling over something that's floating in the middle of the screen and having that register. You are scoring jackpots by making real shots. You are advancing the game through real physical interactions between the ball and objects, not anything to do with the screen. 

But we use the screen to enhance things. So there's this situation where you have to acquire a missile and then fire it at the ship. So when you shoot the shot that acquires the missile, a missile appears on screen and moves into the position where your left flipper is and says, all right, the next time a ball is feeding to your left flipper, you've got a missile ready. And that's how it works.

The next time you feed your left flipper, the next shot you take fires the missile along with your shot. And we know when you flip the flipper to shoot, and you can see it moving up and arriving and exploding, or if you fail your shot, missing and then blowing you up instead. Those are things that you can do with the P3 that still involve just pure physical pinball play. Think about what makes moments really good in pinball. You shoot that goal in World Cup Soccer; all I [as the player] really did was push a button and a ball plunked into a hole.

But the physicality and the sound and the lights and all of those things bring that to a new level. And the P3 screen is just another form of that to me. And it doesn't mean it can't also be used as a virtual target space like ROCs or Lexy Lightspeed or some of the other games use it for. I don't prefer to use it that way unless I have a really good reason in gameplay to make that the choice that the player would take. It's got to feel really obvious to them. It's got to feel really satisfying to them. It's got to feel like it's still real pinball play.

Part Five - Working with Licensed vs. Unlicensed Themes

Kineticist: Are there other major differences between working on a licensed theme and an unlicensed theme and how that impacts your rules design work besides access to assets?

Bowen: This is pretty serious. Access to assets is an interesting issue because it actually means making an unlicensed theme is more difficult than making a licensed theme, even though it may feel like it isn't. 

With something like James Bond, you know what you expect from it, and then when those assets are there, you get it. Galactic Tank Force is an example of, okay, what are we going to do? We can do whatever we want. Oh, all right, let's do this. And then you deliver it, and you hope that people will come along with it. But if you deliver Rush, people are like, okay, what do you expect from Rush? They're like, oh, okay. It's Rush. This is what I expected. And there's less creative room to go really high or really low with it, but there's also more reward in that you have more people recognizing what you're doing. The game comes out, and it's like, well, what pinball machine are you working on? We're working on The Godfather. Oh, okay. I know what you're talking about. What are you working on? We're working on Final Resistance. They're like, what's that? You lose customers because of the “What’s that”?

Kineticist: What's the business reason for doing an unlicensed theme if it's harder and it will probably sell less than a licensed theme?

Bowen: There are a number of reasons. Licenses are not just free to acquire. Licenses cost you part of your per-machine cost as well as the fixed cost of pursuing and acquiring the license in the first place. So depending on what your sales are and what you're after, it may or may not be possible to acquire the license you want. 

Or you may have a group that says no, we really do want to make an unlicensed game because we like it and we think that when it gets visibility, it'll grow. And Nuclear Annihilation is a great example of this. It took a while, but now it's regarded as one of the best games that have come out in the last 10 years. When it first came out, I was like, wait, so one dude just did this in the basement, and this is what it looks like, and yeah, that's it.

Want to buy one? No, it's just one dude in the basement. Okay, well, this game is really good. Are you sure? It's just one dude in the basement, right? Well, now he's got a whole company making the game. But it was, yeah, one dude in the basement. Now it's two dudes together, between him and David Van Es doing the animations, and it got there. 

And Final Resistance has that same opportunity to become a game that people have a very high regard for. And then it becomes its own thing beyond anything else that exists. And sure, we could have done Mars Attacks [the 1996 film], but if we had done Mars Attacks, where are we? We're beholden to the license. We are stuck doing things that are appropriate. We know we'll have to have this battle, and this battle, we'll have to make this joke appear in the game. We'll have to have the aliens' heads explode when they play this song. 

And that is a blessing and a curse when it comes to licensed pinball. Like when we got the Rick and Morty license, it was like, okay, what are we going to have to do? We're going to have to do Meeseeks. We're going to have to do dimension hopping. We're going to have to do a portal. We're going to have to do the ship. We're going to have to do all these different adventures. 

Well, how do all these things work together? What adventures do we pick, and what are we allowed to pick from? And whose voices do we have? And okay, we can't get this voice because that voice costs a lot of money. So we can't have the dog saying “Where are my balls?” But we can have a display that shows the dog along with the text “Where are my balls?” And use that for the ball search instead of just having the person who said that saying “Where are my balls?”

So you end up with some things being a lot easier. We know these things are going to be in the game because they're the things that the people who like this license will resonate with. But then you're locked in. You're like, I have to do Megaseeds. I can't not do Megaseeds. What are we going to do with the Megaseeds? I don't know. The show never tells anybody what the Megaseeds do. All they know is you cram them up your butt. All right. So I guess that means we can do anything we want with the Megaseeds. Yeah. It’s like, all right, so what do you want to do with the Megaseeds? I don't know. I don't have any ideas.

Kineticist: Does that make it hard from a creative perspective? I would think that if you were forced to incorporate certain elements that the solution might not be what you wanted or as strong as it could be if you weren’t forced and could fit into everything naturally.

Bowen: Yeah, it's true. And this is one of the things, if you look at the licensed themes, for example, the ones that Keith Johnson's worked on, like Lord of the Rings, there's some amazing attention to detail there about Gollum. For example, Gollum is double your score half the time, and then half your score, and then back and forth every 10 seconds. 

It's just a great rule that fully aligns with the license and with the concept. So you have to look for those things, and if you're smart enough, you can find them, and you can figure out how to make them work. You can figure out how to work the fact that at the end of the Meeseeks battle, Jerry has to shoot a golf ball into a hole; otherwise, everybody will get killed. And so that's the end of the Meeseeks multiball, is Jerry trying to shoot this one shot to double the entire value of everything you've earned in the entire multiball.

And then, when you miss it, it just says, "Loser." And people love it for that because it's a great theme integration. It helps there to have Eric, who's just a fantastic super fan of Rick and Morty as the programmer. So he was as much a rules designer as a programmer and just came up with ideas and structure for things like Roy. But what we were able to do with Rick and Morty is look for things that had a connection but then were still open-ended, like Roy, you know that they play this game and they go through his life, okay, well what does that look like? What if we made it choose your own adventure? Now that opens it up to all sorts of things that aren't in the TV show, the different other ways Roy could have gone.

But it lets us be respectful of what that thing was. And even also the fact that when Rick plays, he does these crazy things that the game normally doesn't allow, we did that as well by making one of the completely unlit shots be a Rick option that was worth more than any of the others, which you could activate in a specific way to cheat the game. 

What would I prefer? I think at this point I'd probably prefer working on licensed themes because they seem to be a more sure bet for sales. But they aren't necessarily, there are plenty of licensed themes that have done badly over the last few years.

And pinball as a whole, if you look at the 70s, 80s, there were very few licensed themes. And then suddenly, now we're in a place where everything is licensed. And I think it comes down to the fact that the market is much more a home market and a collector's market than it is a players’ market, where players are like, oh shit, Earthshaker. Oh, a Whirlwind or a FunHouse. But would they make FunHouse today, or would they make Five Nights at Freddy's instead?

Part Six - Pinball Themes and Market Trends

Kineticist: Speaking of themes, we do a lot of theme tracking with our Hype Index. Are there any themes that would be on your personal wishlist?

Bowen: This is a hard thing to answer while working at a pinball company, obviously. The theme that I have wanted forever is The Price is Right.

Because obviously, man, you just get a spinner that goes, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, and you've got me, I'm going to buy that game. The Price is Right has all these games like Plinko and Cliff Hangers and the Big Wheel and all these things that would fit well. I hope somebody picks up the license someday. I've heard that it's a challenging license to try and acquire, and I'm not aware of anyone who holds that license. 

Other movies, obviously, Fast and The Furious is a license waiting to happen someday.

I hear these rumors about Harry Potter, whatever. If that's their game, then so it goes, I'm sure that game will sell just fine. Other video games, it's hard not to look back at popular video games, and I think The Last of Us will end up becoming a pinball machine someday.

But you could look back at a large number of successful video games like Fortnite or League of Legends that are just very popular. They could become successful pinball machines. But the other problem with the collector base is you need the collector base to be willing to throw down thousands of dollars on the item. And with a game like Fortnite, who is your audience? Who's going to spend $8,000 on a Fortnite pinball machine?

And if you don't have an answer to that, you don't get the pinball machine. If you want to know why all of the games that come out are these games that seem to be targeted at 60-year-old white dudes, this is it; that's the collector base, for better or worse. So there are lots of great themes; my partner keeps saying, well, why don't we have a Cher pinball machine? We could have another Dolly Parton pinball machine now after another 30 years of great songs. We could have a RuPaul's Drag Race pinball machine. We could have all these themes that aren't necessarily targeted at that particular collector base, but those are all hugely risky going down those roads.

Kineticist: Kind of a chicken and egg problem, right? Sometimes I wonder if you put a few new themes that target a different market if that would encourage the growth of that market. But yeah, that’s a risky play.

Bowen: Well, it's funny that, I mean, Foo Fighters is a risky theme.

Kineticist: But I think it's paying off, right?

Bowen: It's definitely paying off. But if it hadn't worked out, Stern's probably okay with it because they certainly have enough backorders and they have enough catalog, and they have other themes ready to go. So, believe it or not, the company that can take the most risks is Stern because of their ongoing base. So maybe Jack Danger will work on Golden Girls next.

But I think it's less likely. I think it's more likely that will be an Elwin game.

Kineticist: Looking into the future, what do you feel like the pinball scene will look like 10 years from now?

Bowen: Oh, well, if Multimorphic is more successful, we're going to see more and more P3 games, and we may see more third-party creations for P3; we actually… It's an open-source setup. So if there are lots and lots of P3s, then there'll be lots and lots of games, and I don't see it being too different otherwise, I get the feeling that there may be fewer manufacturers long term.

However, the barrier of entry to manufacturing is lower than it was 10 years ago. Just the amount of effort to build your boards, for example, there are now already ready-to-go board sets that are good. Whether it's P3-ROC or Fast Pinball or there are others too. Companies can get into the game fast, faster than before. Whether companies that get into the game fast can actually succeed at producing more than 10 or 100 of a machine remains to be seen. I don't know if that can happen. I mean, Stern and Jersey Jack are doing quite well. American Pinball is still doing fine and there are plenty of other companies that are at the different tiers. Spooky seems to be getting okay sales for the last two games. I hope they put together a really great game next time and see where it goes.

Kineticist: Do you think that the market will continue its growth trajectory overall or plateau?

Bowen: I’m horrible at these predictions. 

I don't see the market getting too much bigger than it is now without expanding the base. And if the base is old people, what are we doing? What's going to happen when we're like, oh wow, there's a 20-something who plays pinball, it's shocking. And there are barcades and the scene, and that has all grown. But I don't see people having experiences that I did as a kid, learning to play at age seven or eight, growing it so that I was playing a ton in high school and into college. Because just the locations to do so are few and far between. Everything is 21 plus. And that's fine. Those places are thriving, but the arcade scene and the way it was when I grew up is just not a thing anymore.

Thus concludes our interview with the one-and-only Bowen Kerins. If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out Bowen’s Patreon account, where you can support his efforts at creating extremely helpful pinball rules tutorial videos for the last 12+ years.

Also, go play Final Resistance, go try a Multimorphic game, and consider buying a full game from them. More info on their website.