I've been thinking about The Hobbit a lot since going to Expo. It's not really a secret that I've been disappointed with it, but at times I wasn't really able to pin down exactly why. What is it about it that didn't work for me when I saw it next to WOZ? And why did I break my rule about pre-ordering games to get in on TBL?
I've come to realize that it's really about the theme and presentation, and not about any real technical competence. JP really listened to our feedback and fixed things on the art that were bugging me. I think Smaug is fine for the most part. He's not epic like people hoped, but talking dragon is fine by me. Replace the ugly VUKs with the wireforms from the whitewood and move/fix the book and give the dragon some surroundings and I think it will do a lot for the game.
The thing is none of that can address what's bugging me now that I've pinned it down. The game is moody and dark looking, and there isn't a real story in it. I like dark as a concept, but I don't like it when it's drab. I want my skulls to be bright and with green slime, give me Greg Freres' Scared Stiff any day. It's not just that The Hobbit is "photoshopped art", but that it's just dreary. That's not pinball, to me at least.
Look at The Big Lebowski. It's got color! It's bright and graphic and bold, and I love it from all the way across the room. When I get closer though it's even better, not only in the detail in the art, but in the way that the whole playfield tells the story. The bowling, bashing the car, building the White Russian, everything is part of the movie in such a way that you see it all. Dutch Pinball said they didn't need a rule card, because if you know the film the shots will make sense.
Now look at WOZ. Same thing. Very colorful. Maybe too much for some, but you have to admit, it's gonna draw people in. And once again, the story is there. The spiral of the yellow brick road anchoring the center of the widebody game. The haunted forest, the flying monkey, the castle, the spinning house and Wicked Witch of the East, The Witch in the center, the ruby red flippers, the hot air balloon. You can trace the movie throughout the whole game. It really is a smart design.
Hobbit just doesn't do that. Sure, it has the dragon, and the barrels if you get the LE (but not on the standard) but it's very segmented and silo'd. Sure, popup bad guys, but they're all treated the same, there's no narrative to them. They don't own their own sections. All the dwarves are on there, but they're scattered and again in way way part of a story. It feels vast and empty.
Hobbit is a journey. I'm sure Keith will make that clear, I have faith in him, and it could still be an epic game. I really think it's too early to write it off. But it doesn't have that magic. And after WOZ we were all expecting it, and maybe not sure why it wasn't there. It's not the toys, though those help of course, it's the whole package and the story it needs to tell before you even press Start.
Look at this:
Oh man, if the playfield looked like that? I know, the license, wasn't gonna happen. But it's what I wished it could have been and I didn't realize it. Bold, colorful, and the whole story is there. Look at how you start on the left spiral and work to the right one. You can see the whole narrative laid out in front of you. I can see it in my head without hearing a sound effect, or seeing the LCD backglass play a movie clip.
And that's what makes great pinball. It should lay out the world and draw you in. If the playfield looked like stained glass, with trolls and dwarves and the inserts were doing the beautiful lighting effects that JJP is so good at? I'm seeing myself just watching it without even playing. I think we would have been lining up for it. That's how much these things matter.
I know it's too late for this particular vision. And everyone may not even agree with me. But I really think there's a lesson in here for anyone making a pin. Learn from this. And if the license is going to handcuff you so you can't do it? Find out ahead of time and walk away. There are lots of fish in the sea.
Best of luck to JJP with their game, and I hope Lawlor is making the kind of epic and captivating game that will bring that magic back.