EXCLUSIVE: "Marvel Pinball" Adds "Avengers Chronicles"

When "Marvel Pinball" arrived on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network in late 2010, it opened up a whole new avenue of video game excitement for comic book fans, letting them play on dedicated tables based on their favorite Marvel Comics heroes. These included Wolverine, Spider-Man and Iron Man among others. Several tables have been added since then, including ones devoted to the Fantastic Four and Moon Knight -- and developer Zen Studios isn't done yet.

Thursday night, the company premiered the new trailer for the "Avengers Chronicles" table pack on GameTrailers.com. Set to debut this May across multiple platforms (including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and the handheld PlayStation Vita), the pack introduces story-based pinball tables to "Marvel Pinball" for the first time.

The first table is based on the upcoming "The Avengers" feature film in theaters May 4. The others take a more original approach, with "Fear Itself," "World War Hulk," and "The Infinity Gauntlet" -- all of which are based on actual Marvel Comics shorelines.

To get an idea of what to expect from this new "Marvel Pinball" add-on, CBR News spoke to Zen Studios' PR maestro Mel Kirk and Marvel Games' Chris Baker to get more details. Needless to say, fans of the game will have every reason to "flip out," so to speak.

CBR News: The team at Zen Studios must be psyched to work on Avengers-related tables just in time for the movie's release this summer. How excited is everyone for this opportunity?

Mel Kirk: There is no question, everyone at Zen Studios was ECSTATIC to be working on "Avengers"-related tables. The "Avengers" movie is going to be one of the hallmark moments in entertainment history, and for us to be a part of this buzz and excitement is really special. We were really honored that Marvel would allow us to work on a table that is based on the film, as it shows a certain level of trust and demonstrates how much they think of us as a partner.

We haven't seen many "Avengers" games in the past (save for the awesome "Captain America and the Avengers" game from long ago), but it appears these tables will be very true to their story, is that right?

Chris Baker: Hey, don't forget the smokin' hot "Avengers Alliance" on Facebook! But yeah -- I know what you mean. The Marvel gaming landscape is definitely dominated by Spidey and the X-Men over the last 30 years, but I think the time for "Avengers" to take the industry foothold they deserve has finally arrived. "Avengers Chronicles" is a great step in this direction -- Zen can pretty much do no wrong when it comes to making great pinball tables.

And yes, "true to their stories" only begins to describe it. For each table, we've gone to painstaking lengths to ensure each authentically represents the event in its title. This includes everything from the general look and tone of each table to the extensive use of actual dialogue and even the gameplay itself.

It's funny, because the trend in movie games now, like you'll see soon in Activision's "The Amazing Spider-Man," is to be "true to universe" with brand new stories as opposed to stories that actually have you reliving the plot of their source material. However, because pinball is so abstract and deep plot isn't as core to the experience, it's the perfect way for fans to get a fun experience with familiar material without risking their becoming bored because they know what happens next. It works as well for pinball today as it did in some favorites from the '90s like "Jurassic Park" and "The Addams Family."

Explain how Zen Studios worked with Marvel on the concept of each table. What led to your decision to go with something more story based than character-oriented, like previous tables?

Kirk: Zen and Marvel have shared a desire to create tables that play out specific storylines for a long time. We decided that we had to do this because it would be a lot of fun and Zen saw this as an opportunity to really advance our pinball craft. It would also help to keep the Marvel Pinball franchise fresh and exciting. Each table in "Avengers Chronicles" was chosen because the story had elements that would translate well on the pinball playfield and we could create four distinct tables that feel different from each other.

Hulk is one of the most requested characters by fans, so we knew it was time to bring him to the game. "The Infinity Gauntlet" and "Fear Itself" lend storylines and characters that allow us to use new mechanisms and table effects in really powerful and meaningful ways. And last, working on a dedicated Avengers table that is based on the movie is just super awesome. There is no way we could say no to that.

In order to do all of this right, we developed the table around contextual dialogue that connect the events and story lines within the table. We produced cinematic introductions for each table, threw in some cameo appearances, and created modes that help to draw conclusions to the actual comic events that are played out.

How many tables are included in the pack, and how does each one relate to the "Avengers" saga?

Baker: "Avengers Chronicles" is a four-table pack including "Marvel's The Avengers," "The Infinity Gauntlet," "Fear Itself" and "World War Hulk."

To be honest, the only "true" Avengers table that comes from something actually branded as "Avengers" is the movie one. The rest are based on blockbuster comic-based events in the Marvel Universe that heavily involved Avengers characters. You'll definitely see the "big four" Avengers -- Cap, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk -- factor into each of the four tables in some way. Well, all except for "The Infinity Gauntlet" -- if you really wanna get picky -- where the one who looks like Thor is actually Thunderstrike.

The game also has special gems that play a part in how play is affected. Care to explain the trickiest -- and most entertaining -- ones?

Baker: Actually, only "The Infinity Gauntlet" has gems -- the Infinity Gems to be precise. In that case, literally every Infinity Gem -- I'm not even going to pretend to suggest I can name all six off the top of my head -- becomes a playable pinball that affects the table in a way indicative of its power. So, for example, the Time Gem will slow and speed things up at random, or the Soul Gem will actually take you to a minigame where you relive Adam Warlock's trial on Soulworld as seen in "Strange Tales" #180. But the one people seem to respond most to -- whether it's with love or with hate -- is the Reality Gem, which changes reality by literally flipping the table upside-down.

Even though "The Infinity Gauntlet" is the only table with actual gems, we certainly haven't left out the idea of specially powered, unique-looking pinballs from the other tables. In "Fear Itself," you'll see Odin empower a ball and turn it gold, while there's also a multiball mode that casts a sort of "Star Wars"-hologram-like image of a hero over different balls, suggesting they represent a certain hero, like Thor. Then, in "World War Hulk," you have to "gamma up" the ball to boost your power, which turns it green.

And finally, on the "Avengers" table, every ball in play bears iconography symbolizing the character it represents in play, including all six Avengers in the film. Depending on the ball you choose, you get certain buffs, like increasing the value of your skill shot if you're Hawkeye or boosting points on bumper hits if you're the guy who smacks things the most -- the Hulk.

Will these tables feature online leaderboard support?

Kirk: As with all of the Marvel Pinball tables, "Avengers Chronicles" all feature online leaderboards, integrating seamlessly into the current leaderboard systems on both "Pinball FX2" and "Marvel Pinball." We will release details regarding PS3 and Vita integration in the near future, but I can tell you that they will connect and users will be very happy with the integration of the game across both platforms.

Chris, how popular would you say the Marvel Pinball tables are in general around your offices? Do comic book creators ever give you feedback? Maybe even folks who work on the films?

Baker: Out here in the L.A. Marvel Studios office, there are definitely a dedicated few who play the table whenever they come out. Our product placement manager, Craig Romans, gives me a run for my money more than anyone -- I don't think I'll ever catch his Moon Knight score.

I don't really interface with comic artists and writers as much as I would at Marvel HQ in New York, but I do hear from them every so often, especially if I've worked with them on games. I think the most passionate of the Marvel creators regarding this game would be Dan Slott, who of course has been the man shaping Peter Parker's life in "The Amazing Spider-Man" for the past couple years, and who I worked with a bit on "Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions." He loves 'em. In fact, he was the first person in line for the Q&A at our Marvel games panel at New York Comic Con last October, and even though he could have been asking about "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3" or "The Amazing Spider-Man," which we had just revealed, he was dying to know if we'd be doing a "Murderworld" table at some point. It's funny when you have to give the ol' "nothing announced at this time" answer to someone whose work you so greatly admire.

Another guy I know who's a big fan is Frank Tieri, who gamers should know well as the lead writer on "Marvel vs. Capcom 3." Just today, he commented to me over Twitter about how competitive "Marvel Pinball" can be. I would quote him directly, but my mom might be reading this. Check out Frank Tieri's Twitter (@FrankTieri) feed if you're dying to know.

What would you say is more vital in "Marvel Pinball" table design -- authenticity or entertainment? Or perhaps a combination of the two?

Kirk: Depending on who you talk to around here, you would get strong arguments on both sides. I personally feel that it is a combination of both. Zen's pinball games are growing a new breed of pinball player, and feedback suggests that they would like to see the entertainment, or interactive aspect, taken even further. Most of the people playing our tables want that 'wow' factor that makes you excited to play a game so we are working hard to provide that. There is a fine balance to all of this, and in some tables we really take advantage of the fact that we are a video game. For example, each gem in "The Infinity Gauntlet" has an effect on the pinball table that could never be done in real life, yet these effects make the table so much fun and create a real video game pinball experience.

Mixing in a brand like Marvel requires strong attention to detail in order to produce a table that is true to characters and events in the Universe. Combining the entertaining features along with an authentic product produces the best result and ensures that our fans will have the best experience possible.

Baker: I think it's interesting that when Mel, the pinball guy, hears "authenticity," he thinks realistic pinball action; but when I, the Marvel guy, hear the word, I think you're referring to things like character portrayal and story -- authenticity to the Marvel Universe. Mel covered authenticity from Zen's angle. On the Marvel side of things, I'd have to say it really depends on the situation. At its core, my job is to make sure authenticity is there in all the Marvel games I work on. However, we're making a game here, and if fun diminishes at the cost of being authentic, then entertainment definitely wins out. The classic example is that Hulk would pretty much be unbeatable in any "Marvel vs. Capcom" game, so we have to work around that to suggest that somehow someone like Chris Redfield could even hope to get the best of him.

Speaking of Hulk, I think there's a good example of this that happened during the development of the "World War Hulk" table. Zen's original plan was that Hulk fights Wolverine, Thing, Doctor Strange and Hulkbuster Iron Man in the exact order he does in the source material. For authenticity's sake, this is great, but let's face it -- pinball is hard. Most players will have a hard time beating the first guy regularly, much less make it through them all. As an outsider playing the game from a fan's perspective, my feedback was to allow players to pick the order, as they do in most pinball games. Does it change the story a little? Sure -- but it also increases the fun and lessens any frustration that non-pinball wizards might feel because they can't see all the cool battles Hulk fights.

Is there a particular Avenger who isn't featured in the collection that you wish had been? Someone who may have been cut?

Baker: Well, we didn't really approach this pack from a character perspective. The approach here was tying to events that have happened in the comics or, in the case of Avengers, on the big screen, so in the name of authenticity, the characters were handed to us for this. That said, we did have to lessen roles of some popular heroes in favor of keeping the dialogue focused so you know who's talking, so even though you might see Quasar on the "Infinity Gauntlet" table or She-Hulk on the "World War Hulk" table, you won't necessarily hear them speak. There are a few quick cameos, though, when we can make them instantly recognizable and in character. For example, one of the ball saves on "Infinity Gauntlet" is, "Another daring save from your friendly intergalactic Spider-Man!" We've also got a small section of "World War Hulk" devoted to the events of "Punisher War Journal" #12, which basically has you as Frank blowing away Hiveling aliens by nailing a certain ramp.

Finally, what's next for the Marvel/Zen Studios partnership? Hopefully more tables. I'd love to see something along the lines of "X-Men: First Class" tables...

Kirk: Marvel has been really great about keeping us informed on what is up and coming -- everything from movies, games and storylines -- and all I can say is that things are getting bigger and better. There are several table ideas being considered for release alongside these new events but you will have to wait and see what happens. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Baker: All I can really say at this point is that our relationship is super strong, and I hope we keep making tables as long as the interest in them equals that strength. We're not prepared to officially announce any other tables beyond the four in "Avengers Chronicles" at this time, but check out the latest "Game Informer" and you might just get a peek at a couple more coming down the line...

"Marvel Pinball: Avengers Chronicles" will be available for digital download this May.

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