How Zen Studios Made Star Wars Pinball VR the Ultimate Fan Game

You trigger the ignition and settle in, anticipating a good flight. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Stormtroopers invade the field, the Death Star fires its apocalyptic beam, the Emperor cackles, and your game ends. No, it’s not a fever dream. It’s Star Wars Pinball VR from Zen Studios, one of the most immersive pinball games on VR and one of the ultimate Star Wars fan experiences.

“I think it’s safe to say that our own Star Wars fandom mixed with our passion for pinball drives our creative process and choices for the tables we create,” Mel Kirk, COO of Zen Studios said.

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Zen has been working on Star Wars pinball tables for almost a decade, starting with the original Star Wars Pinball in 2013. Kirk said that, since then, the team created 21 Star Wars pinball tables, ranging from movie-themed tables to tables built around specific characters such as Darth Vader or even location tables. Star Wars Pinball VR is like a “best of” collection featuring tables from the original trilogy, a Rebels table, and Zen’s brand-new Mandalorian table.

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Of course, Zen’s developers have just as much experience with pinball as Star Wars, if not more. Lead Producer Ákos Szabó said most of the development team has fond memories of going to the local arcade to play on the old Williams and Bally tables — two of pinball’s premier table makers, now defunct.

“Our designers are real old-school pinheads who know all the pinball machines from the golden era of pinball better than their own hands,” he said.

However, Star Wars Pinball VR isn’t just rooted in the past. Szabó said Budapest is seeing a resurgence of interest in the past few years, with several local spots adding at least a few modern pinball tables.

“Our goal for Star Wars Pinball VR was to re-create this feeling in virtual reality,” he said. “And because it’s also a video game, we were able to add some new gameplay features that would be impossible on an actual, physical machine.”

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One of the biggest features is adding key pieces of Star Wars movies and shows, from scenes to moving models and voice-overs. The decision to include Yoda’s battle with Palpatine or C3PO’s journey to Jabba’s palace is more than just deciding which scenes they like the most, though. It’s a painstaking process that starts long before development can even begin.

“First, we thoroughly watch the source material multiple times and search for key elements of the movies or series that can also fit in a pinball table. Not only do we look for action-packed scenes, but we also identify the most important conversations and try to implement them in a way that can move forward the plot on the pinball table as well,” Szabó said.

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The next step is figuring out how to make these scenes and ideas actually work on the tables. Pinball has a restricted play space by nature, Szabó said, and Zen’s designers will develop countless ideas and plans for possible layouts, models, and events before finally settling on one that makes the most of the space available. A significant part of this process is working out how the game modes fit into the designs.

“In pinball, you have to satisfy people who like to “beat” the table by completing every main mode, but you also have to make hardcore pinball fans happy by creating high-scoring modes such as multiball game modes and hurry-ups,” Szabó said. “We have to be sure that every target, hole and bumper is being used variedly in as many modes as possible.”

That goes double for Star Wars Pinball VR’s Career mode. Career mode tasks you with completing very specific challenges in a limited time, from hitting the highest score in three minutes to having a limited number of times you can use flippers. Despite the extra effort involved, Szabó said it was a feature the team couldn’t possibly leave out.

“We already had a similar game mode in the Switch’s Star Wars Pinball collection, and the feedback from our community suggested that everybody liked them, so it was a no-brainer to return to that idea for Star Wars Pinball VR,” he said. “Missions like those get you playing pinball in a way you’ve never thought to play pinball before.”

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With all this and the 2D and 3D modelling finished, Zen can finally start adding voiceovers and squashing all the (figurative) Shaclaws and Knytix that crop up during development.

“It is truly massive teamwork, and everybody works hard to create the best possible experience while also staying true to the table’s source material,” Szabó said.

Star Wars Pinball VR adds a new layer to that development process with immersion mode. Immersion mode is what the name suggests, an alternative camera mode that puts you on the pinball field instead of above the table.

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“Our first thought was, let’s do virtual reality…in virtual reality! One of our designers came up with the idea of how cool it would be to stand in the actual pinball table, about the same size as the characters you see wandering around on the playfield, while actual life-sized environment characters tower over you outside the table,” Szabó said.

“Although it wasn’t an easy task to put this feature in every table,” he continued, “We felt that our efforts will be worth it for the players who like these kinds of experiences in VR. Just don’t expect your highest scores from this angle.

Aside from the pinball itself, one of the game’s biggest draws is the Fan Cave. Star Wars Pinball VR rewards you with dozens of collectables, from posters to Rebel helmets, and gives you room to display most of them in a giant room dedicated to all things Star Wars. VR offered the perfect way for Zen to tap into their own love of the franchise and collecting in general.

“We thought that something like the Star Wars Pinball VR environment is perfect for recreating a space for any collector to fulfil their desire to collect Star Wars-inspired artefacts and relics of their beloved franchise without spending a small fortune on it,” Szabó said.

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“A lot of the inspiration came from the fact that most of our team members are huge game collectors. We also have a lot of Star Wars-related items in our office, such as a Stormtrooper helmet, or posters signed by actors of the movies. There’s even a life-sized Han Solo in carbonite on the wall, plus a Star Wars pachinko machine!”

From wall-running RPG epics to massive multiplayer experiences, Star Wars games keep evolving and will doubtless continue to do so. However, Szabó believes this evolution of Star Wars and gaming, in general, offers a unique place for games such as Star Wars Pinball VR.

“The video game industry continues to grow and evolve at an amazing pace and it is clear that there is room for many different types of gaming experiences, including single-player games,” he said. “Pinball is easy to understand and pick up and play, but hard to master. Here at Zen, we are so proud to have carved out our own space within the industry, and certainly with the Star Wars franchise. VR development allows us to take Star Wars Pinball to an experiential level never before possible.”

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