Interview: "Aliens Vs. Pinball" designers on the art of turning movies, comics, and more into pinball tables

Over the years, Zen Studios have made tables for their Zen Pinball 2, Pinball FX 2, and Zen Pinball games that were inspired by movies (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron) TV shows (Archer, Family Guy), Marvel Comic characters (Deadpool, Spider-Man), and even other games (Portal, Telltale's The Walking Dead).

But how do they translate these films, shows, comics, and games into such fun pinball tables? To find out, we spoke to the designers of their new Aliens Vs. Pinball Pack: Thomas Crofts, who made the table inspired by the movie Aliens; David "ndever" Szucs, who designed the table based on the Alien Vs. Predator comics, movies, and games; and Peter Horvath, who made a table inspired by the game Alien: Isolation.

GameCrate: How does this process start?

Thomas Crofts: As designers, we were initially told we would be making a 3-pack based in the Alien universe, and we could make suggestions for which tables we would like to make.

A film-based table that covered several Alien films was initially proposed, but eventually it was decided to concentrate on just Aliens. We felt there was more than enough cool material from that film for a whole table.

David "ndever" Szucs: The idea to make an Alien vs. Predator table was also present from the beginning. We thought, "How awesome would it be to play as the Predator"? Fox was on board with that idea from the first draft.

Peter Horvath: We also wanted to include Alien: Isolation because that game was outstanding. Fortunately, we were lucky enough that the people at Creative Assembly agreed.

GC: When you started designing the mechanics of your tables, did you have to get those approved by Fox, or did they largely leave you alone?

TC: On the Aliens table, we specifically designed everything ourselves, and throughout development, Fox would give their approval of the various features. Though they did have some ideas as well. They wanted the M577 APC drive through the atmosphere processor in some form, which we were able to include. Then, towards the end, they had feedback on a few balancing and difficulty issues.

DSZ: They had some valuable suggestions for the Alien vs. Predator table as well. For example, they wanted to use the Breeding Pyramid in a separate game mode, so we came up with a minigame dedicated to this monument.

PH: For the Alien: Isolation table, we only had some specific issues, but nothing we couldn't resolve. They periodically gave feedback throughout the development, which made the gameplay just a tiny bit easier.

GC: Did Fox also give you any research materials, like photos or access to the props?

DSZ: For the Alien vs. Predator table, we had assets from several different sources, including the first movie, a considerable number of comics, and really huge amount of assets from the 2010 AVP video game.

PH: For the Alien: Isolation table, Creative Assembly gave us everything we needed. Most of the important assets like Amanda Ripley and the Xenomorph came directly from the original game.

TC: As for the Aliens table, the film itself was obviously the best reference we could have. Fortunately it's also one of my favorite films all time, so watching it over and over again wasn't a problem. There was also a plethora of imagery and references found throughout the Internet to inspire us as well.

GC: Given that the Xenomorphs are in all three games, did you guys make sure you weren't employing any of the same mechanics?

TC: From the outset, we were instructed that the three tables should look, feel, and play considerably different to each other. Though there are still several common elements on each table — such as the facehugger eggs, flamethrowers, and, of course, the aliens — so there is a consistency between the tables. But each feature has been implemented differently, giving good variety for the pack as a whole.

GC: Were there any instances where one of you came up with an idea that you realized would work better for one of the other tables?

PH: We usually check out each other's tables during the development. Most of the time, when we create multiple tables, we all throw in our ideas about the other tables after we played them, and we'll often implement the other designers' ideas if they work well with our mechanics.

DSZ: Though we did decide to have the drinking bird as an Easter egg in only one of the tables.

GC: In making the Aliens table, Thomas, were you able to get any of the cast to record new lines for the game, or get director James Cameron to offer any suggestions?

TC: We exclusively used lines from the film on the table. Not only would it have been impractical to get the cast to record new lines, but we also wanted to remain as faithful to the original film as possible. We designed the mechanics from the start to accommodate ideas from the film into the table, rather than the other way around. For example, instead of a traditional kickback mechanic, we use Hadley's Hope vent system to move the ball to a safe place on the table, and the voiceover lines reflect this.

As for James Cameron, all of my communications about the table were with Fox. Either that or my invitation to meet him got lost in the mail.

GC: Mr. "ndever," in figuring out what your table would do, you mentioned looking at the first movie, the comics, and one of the games. Was there one of those things that was more inspirational than the others?

DSZ: I tried to capture the initiation process of a young Predator becoming a great warrior. For that, I used the Breeding Pyramid from the first movie as an environment because it makes a perfect playground for a thrilling pinball experience. I dropped the story and instead tried to focus on becoming a hunter in this ever-changing environment. So, I guess the pyramid itself was the greatest inspiration; the entire design of the gameplay evolved around it.

GC:  Peter, how much, if at all, did you consult with the people at Creative Assembly while making your Alien: Isolation table?

PH: We consulted with them at the beginning of the project, and they were nice enough to lend us all the assets that we requested, but they left us do what they thought we do best, making a pinball table. Though they were helpful when we needed something.

GC: Lastly, I want to put you guys on the spot: Of the tables you didn't make, which is your favorite?

TC: That's certainly a difficult question for me, as the other two play very differently, but, I'd have to say Alien: Isolation is my favorite, as it's more in the style of game I enjoy playing.

PH: I'm a huge Aliens fan, but I have to go with the Alien vs. Predator table because the Predator is just badass, and it has a layout that’s so complex that I still can't figure it out where my ball will go next time. It's driving me nuts.

DSZ: I like both tables but my favorite? Maybe Alien: Isolation because it captures the suffocating atmosphere of the original game so well.

The Aliens Vs. Pinball Pack is now available for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Vita (Zen Pinball 2); Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC (Pinball FX 2); and iOS, Android, and Amazon (Zen Pinball).