The myth of who is making the game rules

So, in pinball debate, podcasting, commentary etc., there seems to raise a common understanding that “the software guy is designing the rules of the game”. Here and there you hear the software guy for a specific game be given a lot of praise, or, a lot of s*** for the game it turned out to be.

To me, this is ridiculous. Credit to where credit is due. But to express the lead designer is not responsible for the rules. Please, guys.

Speaking of the more recent era. Say the last 30-40 years. Surely, a lot of games are the result of a team effort. Including rules design. But on any developement team, the lead designer must have had the final saying.

However, I can easily imagine that some game developements have been more or less abandoned by the lead designer. And left off to the software guy to finish up. With the good and the bad the playfield had to offer. So you may say, that the final rules twists were the work of a single individual. But, if that turned out to be a poor design, I will not blame him. I will blame the developement leadership. For not seeing the product through to the end. So, ease off, please.

And in any case, think of how tight a budget pinball machines were generally made under. Speaking of both money and time. Poor rules may not always have been due to incompetence or bad will. Just the damn deadline ( - and other matters).

Calling industry people? @keefer @bcd @Dwight @sk8ball


I think @keefer talks a bit about how much input goes both ways on

If you haven’t listened it might be interesting.


Bingo for Guardians of the Galaxy, assuming the shop talk is true.

Looking forward to some dev input on this one - and maybe some reasoning into some of their more “controversial” rule decisions or ideas if that’s allowed to be disclosed. I love rules, and I’d love to hear the why to get more of an understanding on what goes down behind the scenes.

About a year ago i got (rightfully) put in my place here by Spooky’s rules dev (forgot the Tiltforum name, dammit) and learned that there’s a lot behind the scenes that we don’t know. Definitely give the rules guys a chance with a ruleset - there is always room for improvement and usually it shows up in a code update or their next machine once their current dust settles.

OK here’s my personal experience.

  • RFM - a ton of people worked on this, and it was pretty collaborative. To say this was any one person’s game is pretty hard to do. Basically each programmer owned a couple modes, a ? mode, a multiball, and some misc. stuff. George, Brian, and the artists had a lot of say in how everything was presented as well. In a lot of ways, I guess you could say this was the ultimate design-by-committee game, but it was pretty important to the company, obviously, and there was a lot of stuff to do.
  • HRC - @pinballguru had the concept and layout mostly drawn when I started. He wound up more or less being forced out, so the ultimate implementation of the game rules were all me.
  • AP - just did dots and Moonbase MB.
  • TSPP - 100% game rules, theme implementation, and art direction by me. There also probably wasn’t anyone there who knew Simpsons better than me at the time, either.
  • LOTR - 100% game rules by me, 90% theme implementation by me (Granner was a big LOTR fan and help as well), and general designation of playfield areas.
  • Elvis - design by committee. Basically designed Jailhouse Rock MB, the Whitewater notes rule, picto-pops I guess they’re calling it now (idea came from Whodunnit obviously), Flip Flip Revolution, and Graceland.
  • Sopranos - code monkey for modes.
  • WPT - 95% rules and theme integration by me. Steve had some ideas as well.
  • POTC - did some display effects and implemented the final mode.
  • FG - design by committee. I usually say “I did the fun stuff.” You be the judge: all 6 tv modes, Stewie Pinball (pf had already been designed with all the names), Stewie MB, Sperm Attack.
  • WOF - 100% rules and theme integration.
  • BDK - did some display effects.
  • IJ4 - lots of misc work. Have a self-inflicted black hole in my head about this project.
  • CSI - Centrifuge MB…? I dunno, more black holes.
  • WOZ - 100% rules, maybe 70%-75% theme integration but Joe came up with a bunch of solid ideas for the PF like the monkey, upper PFs, etc., and Granner was a big help with the speech package.
  • Hobbit - Overall rule design, but lots of implementation and theme integration from Ted especially and our 2 new (at the time) hires (including @PinballKatz)
  • DI - did a couple small things, mostly manager/adviser on this one.
  • POTC - Worked with Eric on rules direction more than I did with any other designer in my personal history. It was a collaboration on general direction, most of the specs are mine with implementation on many things left to Joe and JT.

Hope this clears things up for you a bit.

For most designers, rules are not necessarily their strong point. Pat has a lot of specific ideas as to things the couple biggest things on the game he’d like to do I’ve noticed. Eric is a player and much more useful to bounce things off of than anyone else I’ve worked with.

As a game programming lead, these days, it is mostly your responsibility for the total choreography, presentation, and fun of everything in the game. As the Director of Software for JJP, it’s ultimately my responsibility to make sure we don’t put out anything that I think is stupid, unfun, offensive, etc. Fortunately I haven’t had to step in and correct anything yet, more the occasional gentle suggestion. :wink:


Excellent rundown, Keefer. Excellent merit. Great insight.

@keefer’s post accurately shows the truth of the matter - who does what is wildly dependent on team makeup and project specifics. I know that I’ve made no secret of my lack of involvement in the games I worked on with Pat. While Louis and I may have gotten some tiny stuff in here and there, those rulesets were very largely driven by Pat, and to attribute them to the software engineers on those games is just wrong. (And to clarify as always, this is not a dig at Pat. He has always had very specific visions about his games and I respect that a lot. I just had very different visions and neither of us was necessarily “right” or “wrong”.) Other groups with other designers work in different ways even between projects.

I think the narrative of “software person as rules designer” mostly started with people watching the threads that were woven through the games Larry worked on, but really become prominent in the modern day because of the games from people like @keefer and Lyman who a) came into the industry as prominent players and b) got to work with designers that were more less willing to let them execute on a vision. It’s a useful shorthand but is probably as much exception as rule with a lot of games.


I designed the game rules for all of my playfields: Bad Girls, Car Hop, Cue Ball Wizard, Diamond Lady, Gladiators, Hot Shots, Lights Camera Action, Golden Cue, Mario Andretti, Shaq Attaq, Super Mario Bros, Surf N’ Safari, Tic Tac Lotto (never made), Vegas, and concept for High Roller Casino- (@keefer finished this game and did a great job!). I always designed my playfields with the game rules in-mind.

I also designed the game rules for almost all other designers pinball playfields at Gottlieb: Barb Wire, Brooks & Dunn (never made), Cactus Jacks, Deadly Weapon, Excalibur, Frank Thomas Big Hurt, Freddy, Operation Thunder, Robo War, Stargate, Street Fighter II, and Waterworld.

We had a very unique situation at Gottlieb. We only had about 3 months to go from beginning to end, so the game development was “Just-In-Time” parallel development, which meant that the game was being programmed while the art was being created, while the unique parts were being made. A lot of times, we only had a week or two to tweak the game rules before production and I had the ability to work on the game rules while the playfield designer was busy with other playfield related tasks. Basically, everybody worked on every game.

To this day, Gottlieb/Premier games receive a lot of criticism for unbalanced game rules. That is because we didn’t have the time to balance them and the policy of Gottlieb was to never release update sofware unless there was a major bug.

Ironically, my research as to why I was forced out of Stern had to do with the fact that SPI was implementing a system where the software programmers were tasked with designing the game rules and I was no longer a good fit for SPI.


Just to kind of piggy back on this thread a little, @keefer or @pinballguru what programming language are the rules written in? I imagine it was quite a bit different on older machines than it is now…

Thank you very much for the “peek behind the curtain”!

Apologies in advance to @soren for the following off-topic rambling.

This is the first game I can recall being decent at. Might not get a lot of love from collectors, and they’re a rare sight these days, but as a novice location player in the mid/late '90s it was exactly what I needed. Fun ramp shots, digestible rules, attainable multiball(s), great light & sound feedback when you’re hitting big shots.

Long story short, thanks @pinballguru for your contributions to the hobby. Without games like Big Hurt I may not have become the pinball lifer I am today.


We had a very unique situation at Gottlieb. We only had about 3 months to go from beginning to end, so the game development was “Just-In-Time” parallel development, which meant that the game was being programmed while the art was being created, while the unique parts were being made. A lot of times, we only had a week or two to tweak the game rules before production and I had the ability to work on the game rules while the playfield designer was busy with other playfield related tasks. Basically, everybody worked on every game.

I’d love to hear the story behind how Class of 1812 came together. That is an old favorite of mine (and most people seem to really enjoy it when they play it) and it really seems the guys making that game must have been having a lot of fun. Probably the strangest-in-a-fun-way game I’ve seen. :slight_smile:



I appreciate your comments- I am also a “pinball lifer”!


Both Cactus Jacks and Class of 1812 were the games that immediately followed the street level series. At the time, I was working on a game called “Tic-Tac-Lotto” which was a street level game. It had the “Chicago Coin-
Criss Cross Pop Up” ball pop unit inside the cabinet and you could see the unit through a window in the playfield.

Suddenly, management decided to scrap all in-progress street level games and go back to regular games. Both Ray and I didn’t have enough time to start a game from scratch, so we had to choose an already completed playfield from the “Mothballs” rack. I chose Cactus Jacks, designed by Reiny Bangerter and Ray chose a playfield designed by Joe Kaminkow (Joe was over at Data East Pinball at the time).

I designed the rules for Cactus Jacks and finished the playfield. Ray did the same with Class of 1812. The rule set for Class of 1812 was mostly designed by committee, with both titles rushed out. Mike Vrettos had a big influence on both titles (Director of Engineering), with regard to the entertainment embellishments and animatronics.

Both games turned out great considering the circumstances that we were up against! We were able to complete the games on-time and go back to making regular games fairly seamlessly.


So here’s a different take, from someone with a much shorter resume than Keefer or Jon. I’ve got exactly one game under my belt: Alien. When I joined the team as a software guy, I was provided a bundle of files that contained assets (movie clips) that had been requested for use from the licensor, and some high level concepts for modes/features based on these assets. (Generally, these assets represented some of the most action-packed scenes from the movies.) Some of these concepts were pretty solid and made their way into the final game more-or-less as originally outlined. Other concepts were… not so good, and I made the decision to scrap them completely and do something else. Some things that were initially pencilled as modes morphed into multiballs, and vice versa, or into secondary features instead of primary ones. For most of the concepts, the high-level outline was a decent start but insufficient, needing to be fleshed out to be fun. None of the concepts handed to me had specifics on silly details like point values. There was also little to nothing provided on “secondary” features like combos, bonus, etc.

So I wound up watching the clips over (and over, and over), reviewing the concept outlines, pondering, talking with the team, and wrote a proposed rules document, eventually 20-ish pages long, that describes every nitpicky little rule detail, and sent this out for the entire team to critique. (I’m condensing the story a bit; the document was actually written in sections over a span of a few months.) It was a pretty iterative process with everyone contributing ideas. One mode (Combat Drop) was almost completely driven by audio guru David Thiel because he really wanted to showcase Hudson’s awesome “badass monologue”, which ended up working great. However, the process didn’t become an evil “design by committee” because I kept the role of gatekeeper of the rules. So while the playfield designer (Dave Sanders) would chime in from time to time, he didn’t have the final word on the rules, I did.

One unusual thing about this whole process was that this team was very geographically scattered, across something like 8 time zones. Slack, Skype, and Google Docs worked wonderfully.

TL,DR: if you’ve played Alien and enjoy the rules, it was the collaboration of several very talented people. If you’ve played it and didn’t like the rules, it’s my fault.


So to summarize… the OP and the position he is countering are both wrong. It’s not one or the other. It’s a “depends” situation largely driven by the staff involved and the circumstance.

I think the only thing I’ve seen consistent is what you hear about what some designers are more interested in or not.

My perception is that Ritchie is more about the geometry and less interested in the software and rules… Pat seems to be a wholistic guy who is really into the total package delivery… etc.

Maybe that is more of an interesting topic to capture the interests and strengths of the different contributors.

I did all the rules for my game. So if you don’t like them you can blame Joe as well :wink:


It bothers me that I can’t find a flaw in that logic.


I will blame Betty White


Exactly. The merits of Keefer and Sheats is likely the main root. And Greg, sorry for the oversight of you as one of the insiders here.

Boy, that is tough. And a pity with the potential of the games in mind. Had there been just a little more time around the loop. My point of reminding people to consider this. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for sharing. I hope the game will reach a stabillity and wide release for us to experience it in full.

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Effin’ Joe, man.

The only time I really notice rules being “bad” is when they conflict with the design of the machine or they force you to play the game in a manner that starts to feel more like a chore than a game. I’m also starting to get multiball fatigue big time with many modern games. Shallow or deep, it doesn’t matter, just as long as something is cohesive and logical, I can get behind it.

I think I’ve been falling back on classics a lot lately because the majority of their code is fairly simple, but it demands you make a key shot either repeatedly or at an exact moment. Too many games these days are just “accumulate X number of shots on target Y and Z will happen. Then accumulate 2X number of shots again on target Y and Zb will happen.” Usually Z is a multiball. Oh, and there’s another multiball for doing it on target Q and another on target G and another on target W.


Is this mostly due to the “Z being Multiball” clause or just a general trend? What if Z starts modes (a la how some Segas like Baywatch play) or does something else that’s cool?