Pinball Breaker Forever: XperimentalZ’s Last Mobile Game
XperimentalZ Games was founded in Montreal, Canada in 2010 by Patrick Jacob. Jacob had formerly worked at Gameloft, where he served as a lead designer on a popular racing game. Having grown up in the Atari 2600 era on games like Pac-Man and Missile Command, Jacob was a big fan of games that were both simple and fun. Looking around at the landscape of the mobile gaming market, Jacob felt that the market was about to make a major shift and go back to the roots of video gaming. He wanted to be a part of that, and decided to strike out on his own in 2010.
He started XperimentalZ Games soon after leaving Gameloft, but at the time it was just a one-person studio. After an initial idea proved to be a bit too complicated to realize, Jacob put together a smaller game in a matter of a few months called Gravitation Defense. While it wasn’t a hit by any means, the game proved to be an excellent learning experience for Jacob. Later in the year, Jacob was joined by a friend named Ghislain Bernier, adding his programming experience and bringing XperimentalZ Games up to two full-time employees.
Jacob wanted to go back to his original idea, and in anticipation of that plan the studio brought in eight part-timers. Since it was the first time the team was working together, however, they opted instead to put together another simple game just to get their feet wet. In 2011, Repulse-O was released. An unusual match-3 puzzle game, Repulse-O secured the developer’s first App Store Feature from Apple. Now sufficiently warmed up, the team was ready to take on something bigger. That project would turn out to be Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword, an auto-running platformer with a cheeky sci-fi vibe.
The team slimmed down to four regular members following the release of that game, but it didn’t slow down its output of games. Over the course of the next few years, XperimentalZ Games would release a number of high-quality titles, including Platforms Unlimited, Pixel Boat Rush, and Mechanosaur Hijacks the Moon. The latter game released in 2015, and in figuring out what to do for its next game, the team went back to a concept it had been kicking around for a while.
The core philosophy that powered XperimentalZ Games from its inception hadn’t faded any in the intervening years. The goal was always to make simple but fun games that reached back to the appeal of gaming’s early hits. Sometimes that was a spiritual guideline, and at other times it manifested in more visible ways. One of the genres that had always intrigued Jacob was the brick-breaker, popularized and virtually perfected by the classic Breakout. He was always trying to think of new ways to approach the idea, and took note of interesting variants on it.
An issue that Jacob wanted to resolve was the overall speed of the game. Brick-breakers tended to have really slow starts, and even when the ball was faster stages tended to drag on as players tried to bounce things just right to take out the last few bricks. Whatever solution the team came up with had to work with touch controls, something even the original game had trouble with at times. It was decided that swapping out the paddle for a pair of pinball flippers would deal with both problems. Jacob often puttered away at a prototype of this idea whenever he had spare time, with the physics simulation in particular proving quite challenging.
In contrast to many of XperimentalZ Games’s other prototypes, the prototype for the game that would become Pinball Breaker Forever took a rather large amount of time and energy. Over a year’s worth of spare time went into building a solid base to work from. Once that was settled, the team got to work full-time on it. The rest of the game was finished in about eight months.
One interesting aspect of the game came from a desire to take the traditional stage-based design of the brick-breaker genre and move into an endless, randomized design instead. Hand-made arrangements of blocks would be randomly selected, and to put pressure on the player, the blocks would slowly descend down the screen as time went on. Clearing the blocks would call another set of blocks, but if any of them reached the bottom of the play area, the player would lose a life. Rather than having a fixed number of balls that the player could lose by them falling off the bottom of the play area, the team decided to have a miss result in the blocks suddenly dropping down.
This gameplay mechanic reminded the developers a lot of Space Invaders, which ultimately led to Pinball Breaker Forever’s alien invasion theme. These aliens disguised themselves as blocks and were threatening your city, which sat at the bottom of the play area. Your lives were charges for the force shield that was protecting the city. An interesting way to give context to a genre that typically doesn’t bother with any.
Pinball Breaker Forever released in May of 2016, and while many aspects of the game were praised, one element proved to be divisive. Reviewers and players were decidedly split on the game’s physics, and there didn’t seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to whether someone would love or hate them. In response to this, XperimentalZ Games worked hard on an alternate physics model that was added to the game in a later update. If one mode could not fit everyone, two at least stood a better chance.
Unfortunately, Pinball Breaker Forever would be the last mobile game released by XperimentalZ Games, at least for the time being. The developer moved on to other markets, leaving the future of its mobile catalog in jeopardy. Pinball Breaker Forever was brought into the GameClub library in 2019, ensuring it and its vintage-flavored action will be around and updated for new generations of players.