Tilting the D20: Pinball meets Role Playing in Rollers of the Realm

Pinball and fantasy have a long history together. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at Black Knight or Medieval Madness. But marrying a fantasy theme with a pinball table doesn’t really speak to gameplay that fantasy enthusiasts’ love. For that, you’d need to delve into the world of roleplaying. And Rollers of the Realm? It’s looking to tackle both.

At the time of its inception, the team that would come to work on Rollers of the Realm were looking to do a portfolio piece. Many of them had worked on games for AAA developers, but because the projects they were working on never saw the light of day, they couldn’t produce the evidence that would speak to their years of experience. Because of this, they were looking for a project they could tackle quickly that would show plenty of polish to back up their credentials. “What can we do in three months?” was the question of the day.

And that’s when someone suggested Pinball Quest.

Rollers of the Realm

Pinball Quest served as early inspiration

Appearing on the NES in 1990, Pinball Quest combined elements of pinball and action in a fantasy setting. Games like Devil’s Crush were playing with pinball/combat hybrid gameplay around the same time, but what made Pinball Quest stand out as unique was the way it presented players with a sense of narrative progression. As a source of inspiration, pinball-meets-combat-meets-narrative seems like a fertile playground – and one that you might be able to wrap a project up in quite quickly. Unless people really like it, that is.

After showing the prototype off at GDC, Phantom Compass were given two very important things: the funding needed to move from XNA development to Unity, and the kind of peer approval that let them know that Rollers of the Realm had the potential to be more than just a portfolio piece aimed for the Xbox Live Indie Games channel.

Now, a year later, Rollers of the Realm is closer to the end of its development than its beginning.

Unlike its inspiration, Rollers of the Realm isn’t just a pinball game with a fantasy varnish painted over top. Nor is it simply a pinball game merged with action elements, like Mario Pinball Land or Metroid Prime Pinball. Instead, Rollers of the Realm manages to feel like a role-playing first; one that just happens to use pinball mechanics as a way to tell its story. Players will meet a variety of characters, form a party of varying classes, and worry about their mana supply running low – just as you would in any D&D campaign.

Rollers of the Realm

But that doesn’t mean the game shirks its pinball sensibilities. Gameplay will always consist of a ball and two flippers, but it’s how Rollers of the Realm uses these elements that sets it apart. Each ball is a different member of your party, complete with different skills, strengths, and weaknesses. And the flippers? They double as your health, getting smaller as they take damage. David Evans, the game’s director, describes it as a wound system: the more damage you take, the more likely you are to suffer that fatal blow. In the case of pinball, that means missing the flippers and sewering your ball.

“I’ve always wanted to work that into an RPG, some sort of elaborate wound system. And now all of a sudden we’re making a pinball RPG… and we have a wound system!”

If your health is running dangerously low, you’ll be delighted to learn that you can always switch balls on the fly. Swap out that drunken knight for your helpful healer, and your flippers will be good as new in no time.

And not every level will be about combat. During our visit to their St. Catharines studio, Phantom Compass showed us some stages that embrace puzzling over fighting. The few puzzle stages we checked out didn’t offer a tremendous challenge, but seemed as though they’ll provide a pleasant breather from the more action-oriented tables. It’s also worth noting that we only sampled a handful of stages, and there could be some real noodle-scratchers in there that we weren’t privy to yet.

Rollers of the Realm

For pinball veterans, there’s one question that’s always at the top of mind when it comes to the digital gameplay: “BUT WHAT ABOUT TILT?!” This age old cheat has often factored into digital pinball, a seemingly clever nod to the old school players who’d try to beat the system. Rollers of the Realm embraces this notion, but does away with the cheating aspect.

Tilt is a required gameplay mechanic in Rollers, which here they call “nudge.” You’ll nudge the ball left or right in a variety of situations, whether sneaking behind the backs of enemies or guiding your ball through a puzzle. It adds another layer of gameplay to the experience, which, in a sense, is what Rollers of the Realm is all about.

Using pinball as their foundation, Phantom Compass is building a unique role-playing experience that should easily appeal to audiences of both genres. If you’re interested in checking this one out, be sure to show them some love on Steam Greenlight. Rollers of the Realm should be available to PC gamers in late 2013/early 2014.