[Update: This piece has been updated with comments from Zen Studios VP of Publishing Mel Kirk at the bottom of the original piece.]
Earlier this week, Zen Studios released its first set of four licensed Bally/Williams pinball tables as DLC for its popular Pinball FX3 digital simulation. That came as welcome news in the pinball community after 60 such licensed tables were removed from Farsight’s competing The Pinball Arcade earlier this year.
But those new digital tables come with artistic alterations the developers say were made “to meet our age rating obligations” for the E10+-rated game. And those changes have some authenticity-focused pinball fans up in arms.
Pinball FX 3‘s digital recreations of the iconic Medieval Madness, Fish Tales, and Junk Yard tables feature many modifications to the original playfield, backglass, and side table art. Scantily clad women have been covered up with additional clothes or obstructions. Bloody swords have been cleaned. Cans of beer have been relabeled to be cans of soda. Characters smoking cigars have had the “pertinent items” (as the game’s legal notice puts it) removed from their mouths.
In console versions of the game, the tables are also stuck on “Family Mode” settings, censoring spoken voice clips such as Medieval Madness‘ famous “I’m Lord Howard Hurtz, who the fuck are you?!” This setting can be toggled in the options for the Steam version of the game, which does not seem to have an official ESRB rating (but which does still feature the edits to the table art).
All of these changes are ostensibly to put the games’ content in line with Pinball FX3‘s E10+ rating from the ESRB, which includes content descriptors for “Fantasy Violence” and “Mild Language.” But versions of these tables that were previously available in The Pinball Arcade contained no such edits to the original art, even though that game also received an E10+ rating from the ESRB. (The Pinball Arcade did earn additional ESRB descriptors for “alcohol reference,” “mild blood,” and “suggestive themes,” however).
The Pinball Arcade‘s ESRB Rating Summary explicitly makes note of content like “brief instances of violence,” “an image of an altar with streaks of blood,” “women wearing low-cut tops,” “frothy mugs of beer,” and “the word ‘b*tchin.'” None of this content was deemed incompatible with that E10+ rating at the time, suggesting either that the ESRB has changed its standards or Zen Studios is being over-cautious in its modifications.
Who is this for?
Zen Studios didn’t respond to a request for comment from Ars Technica. In a legal notice included with the game, though, the developer writes, “while painstakingly trying to keep the experience of playing these classic pinball tables as authentic and as close to the original as possible, in order to meet our age rating obligations, we were compelled to tone down or adjust the following pertinent contents of the table.”
In an FAQ posted last month, Zen also notes that it is “very aware that certain tables, such as Medieval Madness, have content that cannot be included in an E10+ rated game… 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. We hear from both sides… and we will work to find the right balance for this situation.”
These artistic changes might seem relatively small, especially considering that many are limited to backglass and side art that is rarely visible when playing these digital recreations (and none of these changes affect the physics or gameplay of the tables directly). But that hasn’t stopped many pinball aficionados from complaining about the changes online.
“Personally I’m not against promoting pinball to youngers [sic], but doing it in way of cutting out content from tables is ruining whole idea of proper tables recreation which many of us were waited for for so long time and finally have license of guys with enough skill and expirience [sic] to do it right,” user russian_martian writes on the game’s Steam forums.
“I work in the Pinball Reproduction industry and let me tell you, ‘We,’ including myself are some of the most picky people you could ever know,” user Canadian Badass adds in a separate thread. “We like our pinball authentic, right down to a shade of color being incorrect can throw everyone into a talespin. So those who think that removing that little cigar from the mouth on Fishtales is not a big deal, those are surely mistaken.”
Some pinball fans also worry about what this kind of self-censorship might mean for future Pinball FX3 recreations of classic tables, some of which include scenes of violence (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), gambling (Jack Bot), or partial nudity (The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot).
It’s hard to blame Zen Studios for not wanting to risk a somewhat risque T rating that could limit the game’s sales among content-conscious families. At the same time, the core audience for a recreation like this is probably adults who grew up during pinball’s heyday, and that audience likely wants those classic tables recreated as authentically as possible.
(For what it’s worth, we’re also not aware of any arcade owners who kept these original tables in age-gated rooms away from children’s sensitive eyes.)
Zen Studios also seems aware of the primary audience for these recreations. In a “Making Of” video posted on YouTube, Zen Designer Gergo Kovacs says directly that “our goal is to bring back the feeling when you first looked at these classics in real life.” Other designers note in the video that “we are trying to get as close to the original pinball machine as we can get,” and that “these machines are going to be as close to realistic as we can make them.”
Hopefully some accommodation can be made to thread the needle between the ESRB’s ratings requirements and the core audience’s desire for authenticity. For now, the compromise position isn’t earning Zen Studios a lot of goodwill among classic pinball fans.
[Update: Shortly after this article was published, we heard back from Zen Studios VP of Publishing Mel Kirk. He clarified that Zen made the decision to alter the original table art after the company went through its own vetting process to determine what would be safe under the game’s existing E10+ rating, which couldn’t be changed without major headaches for existing marketing and licensing arrangements.
“We pride ourselves on Pinball FX being a very family-friendly game,” Kirk said. “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.” The ESRB did not review the original artwork or demand any changes to it before the alterations were made, Kirk said.
While the same table artwork garnered an E10+ rating when it was included in The Pinball Arcade, Kirk said bluntly that “I believe that The Pinball Arcade was in violation of ESRB and other ratings boards. We did a thorough review on this.” The Pinball Arcade feature to turn off Family Mode in the settings on consoles is an example of something Kirk said “there’s no way they could get away with what they did under that rating. I do believe that somehow they flew under the radar and it was not caught.”
As noted in our original article, The Pinball Arcade‘s ESRB description includes direct mention of “brief instances of violence,” “an image of an altar with streaks of blood,” “women wearing low-cut tops,” “frothy mugs of beer,” and “the word ‘b*tchin'” under the E10+ rating.
Kirk noted that Zen Studios has been penalized for inadvertently crossing the ESRB in the past. Last year, the studio’s Infinite Minigolf was removed from digital storefronts after some inappropriate placeholder artwork accidentally made its way into the VR version of the game. The ESRB raised the game’s rating to a T, requiring it to be altered and resubmitted to the ESRB before it could go back on sale at the original E rating.
“We’ve been penalized ourselves by the ESRB previously,” he said. “We made some mistakes. We can’t afford to be caught again.”
Kirk said Zen knew going in to the Williams licensing deal that some content would need to be changed to accommodate the existing rating and that some people would be mad about that. That said, he feels those complainers represent a small portion of the audience. “I don’t want to minimize their importance, but I do believe it’s a very vocal minority [complaining] because our sales for our first few days are through the roof, off the chart,” he said.
Kirk also acknowledged that other Williams games added to Pinball FX3 in the future would probably need ratings-related alterations as well. In Champion Pub for instance, a simulated gambling mini-game, might have to be removed entirely.
“In extreme cases like this, something Zen has considered for a while is, is there another iteration of Pinball FX that can exist?” he said. “It’s a completely different game experience, it has more mature content, it can have blood and guts, there can be more mature themes, simulated gambling. That is something we’re actively talking about internally right now… It’s really just a matter of how much we want to focus on this. Does it bother us enough that people are mad at us?… It’s a vocal minority, but nonetheless they’re very important and we want to make them happy too.”
In the end, though, Kirk said he thinks the studio made the right decision in making sure these games are playable by as many people as possible, including the large portion of the audience that has never even seen the original tables.
“For all the hardcore players that don’t like what we’ve done, we have just as many people saying thank you for doing this, because now my kids can play too, and they now know these games,” he said. “If the artwork and some of the things that are more mature are super important to people, we’ll hear them and we’ll try to make those available, maybe under a different label or a different game. But FX3 is a family-friendly game.”
“I have daughters myself that are 8 and 10 and I’m so excited that I can let them play Medieval Madness and not worry about some of the things that are in there that they’re not ready for.”]
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