MadMax's Future Pinball Table Detail Design Guide
…or “How to Create Realistic Pinball Tables”
Initial release, 12th September 2006
The HTML version of this guide can be found at this URL:
Anyone can build a pinball table with Future Pinball. It’s very easy to get something together that looks convincing because FP has very realistic graphics and objects to work with. However, there are some guidelines to follow if you want to build a table with truly realistic visuals, and I’m taking you through them in this guide.
For starters, you should have some basic idea of what you want to create since this guide is not for absolute beginners. But if you have a table in the works and want to spice it up with some realistic detail, read on.
1. The Beginning: The Real World
When designing a pinball table on the computer, the best comparison you could have is a real pinball machine. Practically all of the little tricks I’m about to show you bring your Future Pinball table closer to a real machine since you will be recreating details which are common on them, but often overlooked in FP. So if you have access to a pinball machine or you can find detailed photos of one, you can always compare your work to the real thing. A good photo resource is, of course, the Internet Pinball Database at http://www.ipdb.org.
Future Pinball is a simulator and as such its essence is detail and realism. The program provides enough models and functions to build a truly realistic pinball table, but it isn’t always obvious how these functions should be used. It starts with the placement of screws and ends with custom-tailored details, like realistic ramps. A little creativity can even substitute some missing features in FP, and some things I came up with will be shown in this guide.
I have created a customized “new table” which has many of the features implemented that I describe here. You can use the table for research or to build your own creation. Since it’s basically an empty table with some added stuff to quicker get you started, I won’t mind if you mess around with it and use it as a base to build your own. Of course you can remove the credits in the info, I just put them there so you know where this table came from. ;-) The table can be downloaded here:
2. The Groundwork: Building a Solid Fundament
Once you have a table layout in mind, start with the basics that make this layout work. That means, don’t go around placing plastics and screws yet until you’ve created a playable and working layout of metal wall guides, bumpers, target banks and ramps. But how can we add some realism to the table when we are just in the first stage of construction?
The ball trough on FP’s default “new table” has a huge unrealistic flaw – the exit to the plunger lane goes straight upwards from inside the trough, kicking the ball up high into the lane and forcing the player to wait a second for the ball to come down and rest on the plunger. This is not only annoying on many otherwise fine tables, but it’s also not how a real machine’s trough works. A real ball trough has a bend on the inside walls which direct the ball so that it is kicked straight onto the outer wall of the plunger lane, bouncing back and falling down instantly. The ball comes to rest on the plunger within milliseconds and is ready to play.
The modification to make to the ball trough is simple: add a non-smooth shape point on either trough wall and move the points close to the exit, then shape a bend with them to force the ball horizontally out of the trough. See the picture for reference.
You may get a better or worse ball serve depending on how close you make the walls around the trough kicker and how far the kicker is away from the exit. The default strength of 3 should be enough to get the ball out quickly.
Normally a plunger lane has a metal protector on the right wall to prevent damage to the wall from served balls. When shaping a short plunger lane with a diagonal exit, the whole wall would be covered with a metal wall guide that would lead to the exit.
To build a protector like on a real machine, simply create a metal wall guide with a length of roughly 11 centimeters, position it on the right wall, make a surface of equal length that covers the guide and the wall and put it on top. You can add Orn-Screw models to the surface to simulate that the protector was screwed into the wall. Sphere map both the guide and the surface to make it look like metal.
By default, the flippers are strangely shifted a little upwards and don’t line up with the lane guides. Moving both flippers down by one millimeter (one tap on the down arrow key) positions them perfectly.
Also, flipper strength and animation is a little critical in the current release of FP. On normal strength, the flippers are strong enough to get the ball up on high ramps even with a table slope of 8 degrees (which in fact are not 8 true degrees!), and increasing the strength makes the flippers extremely strong, only useful for widebody tables or high table slopes. However, it also makes the flipper movement more realistic since they will appear to “snap” up quicker like on real machines, and on very high strength settings there is even a slight improvement in ball physics (center shots are easier and the ball takes better paths). It’s up to you to figure out what suits your table best, but keep in mind that high flipper strength can lead to uncontrolled air balls and malfunctioning ramps.
When shaping a rubber around posts, try to make it as smooth and hugging as possible. The rubber shouldn’t loosely sit on the posts, but in fact be tightly strapped around them. Use the blue circle on posts in the editor view as a reference. The circle represents the carving of a post where the rubber should sit in, so fitting the rubber closely around the circle with at least three smooth shape points and one non-smooth ending point on each side should give you a nice result. Also, rubbers never bow on a side; they should be straight on every side of the shape they represent.
The default rubber offset for star posts is 14, and 20 for the second rubber on double-carved posts. Metal posts usually use an offset of 14 as well.
One thing that Future Pinball lacks is a Z-axis view, so you are forced to know the height of posts, rubbers, guides and plastics in order to get it all together. When it comes to posts, there are some differences in height that should be watched:
star posts: 27 mm
rubber bumper posts: 29 mm
smooth plastic posts: various
In general there is one thing that is often overlooked by designers. Star posts need to be affixed to the playfield with a long screw on pinball machines, and this screw is also the holder for plastics which are placed on top of the posts. There is an ornament model called Orn-Nut-Spacer which represents exactly this post screw, and it should go into the center of every (translucent) star post so it actually looks as if they were fixed to the playfield! But more importantly, the nut on the screw (the spacer) which holds the post in place adds a height of 2 millimeters to the post, totaling in 29 millimeters just like the metal wall guides and rubber bumper posts. If you place your plastics on star posts later, you should always keep this in mind as you might want to make sure that your plastic offset is 29 millimeters on every post/guide, be it a star post or not. And to get these height compatible, you can use the spacer nut.
Metal Wall Guides:
These guides shape any lanes, loops or blockades on your table. Aside from careful shaping there is one thing to watch out for if you want to stay real: whenever two wall guides meet, put a post between them. The post acts as a screw point for the plastic that will be put over the guides, and it will smoothen out the otherwise sharp edge that would appear on meeting guides. Adding a post to the end of a wall guide can also be useful if you put a ramp next to it or if you want to add something like a target bank, which needs posts on both sides.
A standup (leaf) target bank only needs a rubber bumper post at each end of the bank to separate it from the rest of the table. Also, since the bank will most likely be covered with a plastic later, the posts act as screw points for the plastic.
A drop target bank should have a single or double rubber behind it to let the ball bounce back in case it hits a target which is already down. The rubber should fully cover the length of the bank and be attached to two star posts. A rubber bumper post at each end of the bank will keep the outer drop targets from being hit from the sides, unless you want that to happen. You can screw a plastic to these posts later to cover the bank just like with standup targets.
Colours & Texturing:
Correctly colouring a pinball table can make a difference between realism and oddity. I’ve seen some tables with true blue, 100% red and light green ramps, walls and plastics, and they looked like a child’s toy. Decent colours make a table realistic. But colouring in FP has an important effect on models and textures as well.
For example, it’s never a good idea to work with absolute values. If you want to make some-thing black, setting the RGB values to 0 is not a good idea since it will ruin the 3D effect of the object – top and side will look identical and will be hard to distinguish, but slightly upping the RGB values to 30 (very dark gray) will give you a nice black object with a slight bright-ness difference on the sides. Similarly, pure white should be used carefully as it often makes objects look “glowing”. A very light shade of gray, like the one in the custom colour table, is almost perfectly white on most models and doesn’t have the glow effect.
When applying a texture to an object, the colour will be layered over it and determine the tone of the texture. Using different shades of gray you can determine how bright you want the texture to be. This is especially important when using sphere maps: a darker sphere map can be made brighter with white colouring while a bright map can be toned down using dark gray.
An example: you want to texture a spinner bracket with a sphere map. Normally the “chrome silver” map produces a rather dark and golden tone which doesn’t look particularly polished. There are two alternatives: either you use the “chrome white” map which is essentially brighter, but looks a little dull because light reflections are smoother. However, you could also keep using the silver map and change the colour of the model to white, enhancing the brightness of the map and reducing the gold.
Overall I’m using these textures and colours for the following objects:
metal wall guides: chrome white, light gray (default)
wire guides, wire ramps, metal posts: chrome silver, white
rubbers: light black (RGB 30, 30, 30), light gray (custom colour table)
GI bulbs: bright olive (RGB 213, 213, 181)
bumpers: full colour for lit cap, balanced darker tone for unlit cap, deep dark colour for skirt
plastics: dark or mixed colours
Lights & Flashers:
GI bulbs are a little tricky to set up. First, don’t forget the ornament holes under them and send them to the back. Make sure that any objects you want to block the light are drawn in front of the bulb, but that flasher bulbs should be drawn in front of everything to really flash over the table objects, creating an “overbright” light effect. For white bulbs, the best and probably most realistic colour is bright olive (RGB 213, 213, 181) since GI bulbs are rarely pure white. Also, while the colour tone may seem a little dark, Future Pinball will make it very bright in-game since bulbs have a radiosity and intensity that will increase the brightness and make the colour “glow” a little. A nice radius for most bulbs is 64 millimeters although you might want to up that a little depending on how much scattered light you want in an area.
For “naked flasher bulbs”, i.e. flashers without a plastic dome, there’s a neat trick. Simply insert a normal bulb, make it completely white and set the radius very high, like 96 millimeters. The white colour and radius will make this bulb extremely bright. Don’t forget to draw this bulb in front of any object as you would do it with flashers, so the bright flash will overdraw any objects. Then flash this bulb using the Flash-ForMs script function, and it will appear a lot like a plain white flasher bulb without a dome. To further enhance the effect, position a real flasher close to the bulb, set its colour to plain white, and disable the model to make the flasher invisible. Using the FlashForMs script function, flash the flasher with identical para-meters parallel to the flasher bulb you created earlier. The bulb will now provide the visual flashing effect while the invisible flasher will light up the whole playfield and screen, like a dome flasher would if you were using that. You now have a perfect naked flasher!
3. The Topping: Adding Detail
With a nice foundation to build on, you can now concentrate on details that will make your table look more realistic on the surface.
Plastics & Screws:
One thing to know about plastics is that they are usually not translucent. They let light shine through and produce shadows of posts and objects touching them, but you can’t see the playfield below a plastic unless it’s clear (no artwork printed on it). Many people think they should make their plastics translucent to get the GI lamps to shine through, but the “reverse drawing” approach gives much more solid results. For one, you will get a definite light halo on top of your plastic graphics that nicely brightens them up, similar to the light dots on the backglass. Secondly, your graphics will remain fully coloured when the plastic is opaque. It’s very easy to produce opaque plastics with light halos over them: draw your plastic above the GI bulbs, then send the plastic to the back and turn on ordered halo glow for the bulbs. The halos will now be drawn on top of the plastic since it’s rendered behind them, and any graphic on it will get nice light spots as if the plastic was lit from below.
When creating a plastic, be sure to go the same route you went with rubbers: often more shape points produce smoother rounded corners, and plastics should always be rounded on their outline, never have a sharp edge on any end. Ideally, the plastic should follow the shape of the rubber beneath it if there is one. Make sure that posts under the plastic are centered and that the plastic is not shifted to a side. Plastics on posts should always start at the height of the posts, often 29 millimeters. If you work with star posts, use the Orn-Nut-Spacer model where possible to get the post height up to 29 mm, then put the plastic over it and finish up with a nut model on top. This will create the perfect illusion that the post is fixed to the playfield with a spacer nut and that the plastic is tightly screwed to the post. If for some reason you can’t use spacer nuts on star posts, or if you put your plastic on top of rubber bumper posts, add Orn-Screw models to the plastic to “screw” it onto the posts under it. Don’t forget the screw/nut texture!
If you line up plastics along metal wall guides, it often helps to let a little rim stand over the wall so the plastic fully closes up with it. Make sure your wall guide is high enough to meet the plastic (default 29 millimeters) and keep in mind that the default height of the outer playfield walls is 32 mm. Any plastic you attach to them must have a height of 32 mm and can’t properly meet with wall guides or posts unless you change the height of the playfield wall. I ran for a compromise of 30 mm on both the playfield wall and the guides so I could safely attach the plastic to both, and any posts under it would have a space of a millimeter which is hardly visible.
Applying screws is not only important on posts. For example, plastics are often screwed into the metal wall guides when there are no posts to screw them to. Simply adding a screw near the wall guide will do the trick. Of course you can also add rubber bumper posts anywhere and screw your plastics to them. This can be useful if the plastic can be looked under, i.e. if the trick with the screw near the wall guide doesn’t work.
Models like bumpers and bumper lane guides look much more realistic with screws on them. For bumpers, place two screws inside the two openings of the bumper base (see picture) and offset them by 43 millimeters. It will look as if the bumper cap was screwed to the base. Do the same for lane guides, placing the guide on two posts (offset 10 mm for thin posts, 8 mm for star posts without spacer nuts) followed by two screws to fix the guide to the posts. The screws get an offset of 29/31 mm since the guide is 2 mm thick.
A final detail to add to screws and nuts is random rotation. On a real machine, naturally not all screws will be rotated to zero degrees, so giving your screws some random rotation values will make them seem “screwed in”.
Gates & Brackets:
When using a gate, a bracket should be added to hold it. Brackets and gates look best with the “chrome silver” sphere map and a colour of 100% white. The gate must be attached to a surface to get the correct height, otherwise it will sit inside the playfield. Attaching the gate to the wall next to it will give it the right height at most times since this wall will probably be used to attach the bracket as well. Gate brackets are not symmetrical; they have a longer and a shorter screw side and the longer side is 2 millimeters lower! You cannot place a gate bracket on top of two identically high walls or posts; one of them must be 2 mm higher than the other. A gate bracket is only 1 mm thick, so add two screws with an offset of 1 mm to the walls or offset them by 28/30 mm when placing the bracket on posts. This is also a perfect example of when not to use the spacer nut on a star post: if you want to have the bracket’s lower end on the post, simply place it directly on it and put the screw on top, 28 mm high. Since star posts are only 27 mm high and you’ll want to get the higher end of the bracket to 29 mm, a star post without a spacer nut is perfect for the lower end. It’s done like this on real machines too.
A spinner bracket has the same height on both ends, so when using a spinner bracket, nothing of the above is required.
Flipper Lane Guides:
On FP’s default table, the flipper lane guides have no plastics. This would work for early electronics tables, but all modern pinball machines have plastics on the lane guides, often one, sometimes two layers. It’s very simple to create plastics for the lane guides: simply copy the existing metal guides and move the copies up to 27 millimeters. Then increase the height of the lane guide holders so that they touch the plastics and offset the screws by 29 mm. To make the left plastic more like on a real machine, cut down the upper left end so that it is on about a line with the upper right end of the right plastic.
Flipper lane guides often have GI bulbs under and openings in them to let the light shine through. Creating such an opening is a little work since it requires you to add shape points inside of the metal. Start with two points on the upper or lower side of the metal and try to position them so that they meet on a straight line. Basically the sideline of the metal should look as if there was no shape point on it at all. Once aligned, use these two points to cut out a circular hole in the metal, adding smooth shape points and forming a ring. See the picture for reference. Then place the GI bulb and ornament hole under the opening. Send the lane guide plastic to the back (or the bulb to the front) to get the light halo on top of it.
Creating ramps is easy with FP. Making them look real requires a little creative work. In its current version FP lacks ramp entrance blades. It’s easy to create such a blade, though: make your ramp, then create another ramp (model T2) without walls (set the wall height to 0). Make its width a little smaller than your real ramp’s width and set the end height to 2 or 3 millimeters. Make this flat ramp short so that it almost shapes a square. Apply the “plastic black” sphere map and move the square slightly above the entrance of your real ramp. This is your ramp entrance blade.
To attach the blade to the ramp and the playfield, add four screws as shown on the picture. Offset them so that they appear correctly on the blade. On a real ramp, the blade is attached with two rivets that can currently only be simulated by screws. To make the screws look more like rivets, sphere mapping them is a good idea. Normally texture the “real” screws that fix the blade to the playfield.
To make the entrance even more realistic, you can add two rubber bumper posts in front of the ramp walls. This will ensure that the ball bounces off if it misses the ramp entrance a little, and it will also prevent the ball from accidentally rolling under the ramp. Usually you should also use guides or some other form of blockade around the ramp so the ball won’t get stuck under it.
If the posts are not your style and you want to make the most use of your playfield space, you can also work with two slim standup (leaf) targets. Put each target in front of a ramp wall, then rotate them so they line up. Don’t forget to add round or hammer ornament holes for the targets. If the holes are too large, you can hide a part of them under the entrance blade!
Sound effects in FP lack a little realism. They are not bad, but there are better sounds out there. One thing that sounds like it should are the flippers. Their sound is very close to the real thing and shouldn’t be changed, but the file that FP uses has a latency which can be seen on any stronger flipper strength. I have edited the file and cut out the latency, and the flippers sound much snappier now. The file is included in my sample table.
Also, slingshots and bumpers could use better sound effects. While the slings are okay, just not as snappy as they should be, the bumpers on real machines either have a much harder click/thump than in FP, or they feature a plastic sound that kind of “oomphs” a bit. There are some fine bumper sounds in several mechanical sound libraries, and these libraries were made with a purpose. Use them and get your sounds real!
If you have tried some of the ideas in this guide, you have seen how easy it is to add realism to your tables. Of course many details mean a big polygon count, but since everyone has the option to turn off ornaments and render objects with less polygons, it shouldn’t pose a big problem. Future Pinball runs great on many systems today and some added detail shouldn’t be a performance problem. Enhance your tables!