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DVD Review: Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball

Speaking of product design, today’s convalescence (bad head cold) meant I could gorge on the DVD for the documentary Tilt and it’s copious extras.

The movie focuses on the development of Pinball 2000, an attempt by Williams to salvage a dwindling market for its pinball games. I found out about the film through Khoi’s post from last July (definitely worth reading), and, as one who plays the silver ball, thought it was worth a shot.

The movie itself is quite short, barely over an hour in length. It probably serves best as a Harvard Business Review-like case study in product design, development, marketing, and strategy. What’s most interesting is how Pinball 2000 accomplished nearly everything it set out to do (and in a remarkably short period of time), and Williams killed its pinball business anyway. In an interview (MP3) with the filmmaker Greg Maletic, radio host Faith Salie introduced the film by saying, “You’ve probably heard the saying, “Innovate, or die.” But what happens if you innovate and die?”

As Khoi points out, there are plenty of tasty bits for those of us interested in experience design. Most of that is in the trove of extra material provided, including in-depth discussions of the process of designing a pinball game, the different styles that different designers have, and how these designers were very much aware of not just the playability (which was paramount), but feasbility from a cost, engineering, and maintenance perspective.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this film to those who aren’t interested in pinball. From a filmmaking standpoint Maletic had two big strikes against him — focus on a niche product (pinball companies were happy to build 5,000 of a product), and a story that, at the time of release, was 6 years old. Maletic never makes it clear why this is an important story that overcomes its nicheness and its age, so it’s really only interesting to pinball devotees. But, as he explains in the commentary, he tried very hard to make a movie that appealed to a non-pinball audience, and so he watered down some of the interesting discussion of design and technology, forcing interested parties to scour the extras to get all the meat off the bone.

My Negative Nelly-ism notwithstanding, Maletic is to be congratulated on producing a quality doc on what must have been a shoestring budget, and pretty much all on his own (he even rendered the animations in the film). It turns out he’s an active blogger with a passion for entertainments of all sorts — amusement parks, pinball, movies. He’s currently working at Bunchball. (What the hell is with the Bunchball website? When Bunchball first launched, it seemed to be about social games. Now it’s about “engagement,” “web catalytics” and “making your site sticky,” all kinds of hideous marketing-ese that obscures just what on earth they are about. Oop. There’s the Negative Nelly again.)

  1. i watched this with khoi – i loved it, the extras on the DVD are great too – too bad it didn’t/hasn’t gotten broader distribution. i had never even heard of pinball 2000 and i was kind of an arcade weenie, so the film felt like some kind of alternate reality.

  2. Hi, Gong (and Peter): there’s going to be a much bigger marketing push for the DVD in April 2008–along with a push to get it shown on TV–so hopefully it will reach a bigger audience soon.

    Peter–thanks for the review!

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