FIRST LOOK: deeproot Pinball’s Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland, plus Interviews with John Popadiuk, Steven Bowden, and Robert Mueller

FIRST LOOK: deeproot Pinball’s Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland, plus Interviews with John Popadiuk, Steven Bowden, and Robert Mueller
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FIRST LOOK: deeproot Pinball’s Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland, plus Interviews with John Popadiuk, Steven Bowden, and Robert Mueller
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FIRST LOOK: deeproot Pinball’s Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland, plus Interviews with John Popadiuk, Steven Bowden, and Robert Mueller
Published on
March 14, 2019
Updated on
March 14, 2019
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This weekend at the Houston Arcade Expo, deeproot Pinball will be introducing their first prototype pinball machine: Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland (RAZA). There will be two RAZA prototype machines at the show to play. According to deeproot, this is not a launch and this machine will not have the final art, design, or code.

(You can find more details about the official deeproot launch below.)

Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland (Prototype)

Interview with John Popadiuk

TWIP: I want to focus on Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland, but first wanted to ask about your journey from Zidware to deeproot Pinball, with deeproot helping the past Zidware customers, to this Houston Arcade Expo and showing the world your newest design. Can you share what that journey was like and what you learned along the way?

John Popadiuk: Big question… Zidware was started to bring back the “90s” style of pinball to the community in 2011. Obviously it was not so easy to do as I learned. We had a great development group back at WMS.

Also in this case I had to develop the whole platform from scratch (which) became magic girl and engineer it all from the ground up.

It has been an extremely hard road and certainly harder from a business point of view. I am a better showman and pinball designer than CEO. but the passion was always about pinball and making “better” games that raised the bar.

Even as the road became difficult, almost impossible, I did what I could to keep going and told folks that I would not give up on keeping the games alive as they are relevant.

Around this time I met Robert thru a mutual pinball buddy, and he was able to see my work, my studio and the effort I was trying to do in making these games. Robert is very passionate and loves pinball as much as I do, he must have seen something in me or my games that wanted him to throw in his armor and join the quest. A quest it is.

As with anyone with a dream, struggle seems to be part of learning. And those that have actually been inside Zidware and now deeproot can really understand more of what it takes to make pinball, and slog thru the daily grind of “problems”. The end goal is the game and really is the only thing that will speak for us and the dedicated talented teams of creators behind the curtain.

But today certainly I am learning (learned) patience, humility, gratitude and more. It is really a team effort and I believe our pinball community needs people that love making games while they bang bricks on their head trying to make something amazing.

For me “amazing” is just a starting point or blank sheet of paper as there are a lot of new pinball inventions to make.

To top it off Robert has built an amazing facility staffed with the most talented pinball makers I have ever worked with, so for this we are really thankful that he has that vision and business sense to put in place great foundation stones at deeproot.

TWIP: Games designed by JPOP have a distinct look and feel. When you design layout, what do you focus on first? What does your design process look like?

JPOP: I guess I can give some of my secrets away….

Well I start with the theme and the name first….the theme has to be something exciting, new, inventive and classic. licensing is great for some titles but the best games from 90s are mostly original themes

Once I select a theme idea, then I go for the look of the game, art style, color, design and try to get a visual look in my mind. the same way Nikola Tesla (I am no Tesla) would create machines in his mind. I can see the whole game in my mind space, all created and in color.

Then I will try to now find a common element, feature, character or idea to use as a central “hook”. All good pinball needs a hook and all great past games have them. Flying saucer, castle, magic box, ventriloquist head, monster, etc.

In the case of Retro Zombie the main idea was an amusement park, like Cyclone or Hurricane, but then the twist is the space zombie alien thing. People love family style pinball, and for me have dead zombies was not really fun for mom to play. Hence the original theme idea that can work in pinball.

Once I get this far I start sketching on a yellow pad and then move to full size paper. I do not use technology to draw my designs, ramps, flow. I do that by hand like Leonardo, and then use a tool like 2d or 3d cad to get it into my digital canvas. That’s one of my big secrets! 🙂

This way I will know and see that my basic vectors will react the same as drawn. the big thing I try to teach new designers or engineers is that pinball actually comes with a complicated set of physics and unpredictable behaviors.

Most of the time the ball is spinning as it is rolling, even though you may not see it. So the way it comes off a flipper, or a sling or around a bumper area is not real predictable. So I have to design with this in mind and then try to relay this to the team who may want a change in the geometry. Steve Ritchie taught me a lot about what the ball does and how to think about the ball on its way back to you the flippers. Naturally Gottlieb games from the 50’s and 60’s did this well, using seemingly little on the playfield but having great play and flipper shots.

Once I get my basic toy(s) sketch in then I spend time with adding new ideas or features. Pinball players love “never before seen” mechanics and playfield mechs. Just plopping down 2 ramps and some bumpers is getting real old.

I will keep going from here and usually I get hung on ramps, as we have limits to how big they can be, how long and what do they cover on the playfield. For me I try to leave as much open, on a complex playfield, so the player can watch the ball as that is one of the core tenants of pinball. Just watch the silver sphere move wildly around the board.

At this stage I will start drawing cad #1 or whitewood #1 to make a real game. In many cases I do a foam model to test shots and stuff, all from hot glue and “Nordmanite”. Here I can lay down some artwork, logos or character sketches. I try to draw some characters early to find the “soul” of the game. That’s the next secret.

Then I keep going and usually will bring others in for comment and critique. If you can get a good vibe early on your new game then that’s a good sign. As development might take 1-2 years the game has to be really [awesome] at the start and also when it’s shown to the pinball community.

In the case of Retro Zombie I had some good gamers to look at for ideas and see what worked before. Everyone loves an amusement park, it’s great for pinball and has easy to learn rules as most stuff we have all experienced before.

But basically I start this way….a lot of thought and imagination goes into every title….as far as layout as I try and create new shots, flow or features. again…not to just do something easy or expected.

TWIP: In looking at the game, it looks like there is a “NED” bash toy in the back, a Ferris wheel on the back left, a spinning target in front of a target up a ramp, and duck target on the left, a drop target in front of the “Atomic Shop”, a spinning disc on the right, a magna save on the right outlane, etc… Can you talk about some of the features and toys in the game and how they work?

JPOP: For sure. The game has stuff in each section of the game. Working around we have a double level “spook house” kickback on the left….something new, a rotating duck gallery target bank, double spinners, the “dizzy” which is like a floating TOTAN lamp, big zombie roller coaster ramps, an underground “xenon gas” tube area for ball locks, motor cycle jump device, new magna diverters and magna save and of course the classic swinging target from the 1960s you can bash, rollover buttons and the “atomic shop” to start modes and multi balls. Lots of other small items. The Ferris wheel is there too and shuttles the ball forward to the left “atomic” lane.

The idea behind all this is to give the player of any skill level something to flip, interact with, and feel accomplished. The ball is really wild and activates all this stuff, just like being in an amusement park.

The play is fast, big loops, nice ramps and super up/down playfield action. Kinda’ a mix of 90s design with some 1970s mixed in.

Instead of giving the player just 1 or 2 new features, we have a lot more to learn about and keep you excited. and with the great rules designed in the games has some really deep paths and ultimate direction.

With all this the art package was created to make it feel like an outer space amusement park.

So lots of stuff buried in the design, art, type and style for people to discover…

TWIP: Where is the “xenon gas” tube?

JPOP: To the right of the NED target; there is a drop hole and Xenon Gas girl on the plastic.

TWIP: One of the most noticeable design elements about this machine is the unique JPOP ramps, particularly that right looping ramp. How difficult was that to get “dialed in” so the ball has enough momentum to make that ramp shot?

JPOP: Ramps are always tough for me. I try to push the envelope and edge of what the flipper technology can do. Also as I said I design and test in “real play” meaning I watch people shoot the game or play myself and see what I am making and what is hard. In this case the main entrance is on the ‘greek’ side of the flippers, a left flipper shot.

So it kinda evens out play as most people are right handed- right flippered…..and adds some tension to the game, as pinball designers we can add tension and uncertainty (excitement) to game play but how we layout the game and manage ball flow. The player will not understand what is happening, other than to say “that was a cool shot” or feel frustration. So we can design this out basically, and keep the “play again” feeling alive from game to game.

So it’s a real balance of items, especially when ramp engineering is concerned. But people like big ramps, at least that is what they say.

TWIP: What is your favorite design element of RAZA? What was the most difficult design element?

JPOP: Well I generally start from the top level view as I begin designs… I love the way the game is this really amazing retro amusement park, with all sorts of throwback stuff from older games and the carnival midway.

As far as design elements the left double level “spook house” kickback was a challenge to design and make it work….

The small side “twister” spinning disk is cool along with the concentric circle design on the targets, a detail we do not see in pinball any more, the xenon tube looks cool all lit up with balls in it and an updated version of the “motorcycle” jump from Comet we have here next to the new rotating “duck gallery targets”. Again, lots of smaller pinball features that will be new for the player! And of course a good amount of magnet tricks and ball paths.

TWIP: What is your overall feeling leading up to the RAZA reveal at Houston? Nervous, excitement?

JPOP: Well the game is fun to play, very original and will be a challenge for players to learn it all. Hopefully people will have a good time playing this prototype and getting used to the new pinball “kid” on the block called deeproot pinball.

Not nervous really, I love watching people play and learn so much from feedback and game comments. Pinball is like a cruise buffet, some folks like the bacon and others the prime rib. But is all good, and NIB pinball today is fantastic for our pinball community.

[As far as being excited] for the Houston show and moving ahead…..not so much for myself….BUT I am very excited for Robert and his new pinball company….it has been a long journey since he started and of course making these games is a real test of a person’s character on all levels. We all work hard here so he can be proud of seeing his new vision for pinball take form…

Interview with Steven Bowden

TWIP: So after asking JPOP about his journey, you moved across the country to work at deeproot Pinball – how big of a life change has that been for you?

Steven Bowden: A very big life change coming from the East Coast to TX but I am glad I did. I really like it here in SATX.

TWIP: Can you give a 20,000 foot view of what you would say your general approach is to rule design?

Bowden: I will try…the approach I have taken so far as I have been learning how to apply rules to games is to start off by looking at what the game is giving me.

The shots, potential series of shots, flow combinations. Things like that.

Also taking into account the game designer’s mission with the game. How can I use the rules to help communicate that mission…

TWIP: As one of the top players in the world, how do you make a game approachable for people new to the hobby but also attractive to tournament players?

Bowden: It is a needle to thread to be sure.

There needs to be:

  • Something easy to do for instant satisfaction
  • Something easy to progress to show The Player that they can accomplish something more
  • Something more difficult to explore as The Player proves themselves and gains confidence

And then … something worthwhile to see once The Player has proven themselves worthy.

But STILL, the “simple things” must remain to make sure The Player is having fun as they learn about the game and get better.

TWIP: And going back to the 20,000 foot view – from the RAZA trailer we can gather that you have an alien invasion which is led by Ned, the Villainous Alien Invader. With Ned is Angela, the Heroic Rebel Martian Princess, who destroys the gravity drive, sending the saucers to crash land in Adventureland, which is an amusement park that happens to be built around a defunct nuclear power plant that happens to be on top of a grave yard. The crash releases xenon gas which brings the dead to life, and Ned leads to the zombie army to take over the world. Can you add any more to the overall goal in RAZA and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Bowden: Without giving too much away I’ll provide this cryptic analogy … imagine in the basic game you are roaming around an amusement park with of stuff to do. Most of that stuff involves you having fun in the Adventureland while you help Angela deal with Zombies and make life difficult for NED.

However, connected to this is an X-story “tower” (not revealing how large “X” is) of other, more focused activities to accomplish where you can go deeper into the story…

You can have lots of fun hanging out in the base areas of the Adventureland, but what could be at the top of this hypothetical tower?

And also use certain strategies once you learn them to score as much as possible, let’s not forget that 🙂

TWIP: I listened to your recent interview on Pinball Profile, and I know you don’t want to give away too much. But in looking at the playfield inserts, we see four Battles at the bottom, can you give any details on those? Would you consider this a “mode based” game?

Bowden: Let’s keep those relatively secret for now (But, remember that “tower” I was talking about?)

TWIP: How far along in code would you say RAZA is currently?

Bowden: I won’t put an estimation on that as far as percentages or 0.XX numbers or the like. Not trying to obfuscate – my estimation would probably be off anyway. Just that I like what I’m seeing, the programmers are hard at work on it and I appreciate their diligence.

TWIP: How do you know when a game is “done”?

Bowden: Have we told a complete journey? Is this potential addition we are thinking about really necessary to tell that complete story? Have the rules done the best job possible to that end? Have the goals of the designer been realized?

Is the game still FUN for beginners and experts?

[But then going deeper … have we squashed the bugs? … Is the scoring balanced? … Have exploits been addressed?]

We must be careful of going into that black hole where you are always tweaking the painting so to speak.

TWIP: Last question, same as JPOP: What is your overall feeling leading up to the RAZA reveal at Houston? Nervous, excitement?

Bowden: You got it exactly. “Nervous excitement!” But also knowing that the journey continues in earnest after Houston as we progress forward to do more great things. I’m happy that I’ll be able to talk even a little bit about a game I helped to develop. And I’m even happier for the people who are working so hard on making RAZA and our other games happen.

Interview with Robert Mueller

TWIP: Why is it important for deeproot to have prototype machines at Houston as opposed to waiting for the full deeproot launch?

Robert Mueller: I believe that three reasons come to mind.

From a developmental perspective, it would be stupid to try to launch a machine that hasn’t experienced movement (i.e. shipment), real-world testing, or external eyes on the design. From a morale perspective, we needed to be able to experience the pressure of a fixed ‘launch’ of sorts and how employees dealt with the pressure to show something final…before the real final launch. From a marketing perspective, it allows us to see how a low-end build (for us) would be received by the community.

TWIP: In looking at the pictures of the machine, it looks like a standard cabinet, not a “deeproot cabinet” like I saw during a tour of your facility. Can you comment at all on what the differences will be between the prototype cabinets and the production cabinets?

RM: Some things are the same, and some are very different. That would include things that can be seen normally, and some that can only be seen in servicing positions. In one perspective, the ‘package’ is irrelevant to the user experience, but in other ways it makes all the difference. We’ve tried to make the prototype cabinet familiar. And the production cabinets will be more aesthetically pleasing. On some titles, maybe there will be an option, and others I think we will choose one or the other. Besides as a big Battlestar Galactica fan, the Cylon-look of the lower backbox has been growing on me.

TWIP: You’ve discussed that deeproot playfields would be higher quality and more durable (#hammer) than anything on the market currently. Am I correct in saying that the prototype machines at Houston do not have playfields made by deeproot? Have you built any deeproot playfields yet for testing?

RM: We had contracted with Mirco to supply the playfields for the Houston Expo prior to the quality issues being made public. It made the most sense to just use them for this limited purposes, and keep our playfield protection design a mystery. We have tested many samples.

TWIP: Will the deeproot playfields be made of wood?

RM: Yes.

TWIP: You mentioned in your interview with LoserKid Pinball Podcast that focusing on helping the Zidware customers sucked time and money out of the pinball project and caused delays. Was that a main reason for the delay that deeproot Pinball has experienced?

RM: One of maybe a handful of reasons. But not the sole reason. I think I was lamenting more on my disappointment of the dysfunctional nature of the industry. As to the main reason, it is simple. We decided to innovate first, then build a pinball machine second. That takes time, and a lot of disappointment in how many times we (for example) iterated 20 times on something and all 20 were bad. We could have (like everyone else) built the pinball machine first, and then innovated. But our goal has never been building a pinball machine first. It was re-innovating the pinball machine from the ground up in a more comprehensive way than ever has been done in the history of pinball.

TWIP: Can you give an update on production – do you have an estimation on how close deeproot is to starting production?

RM: I’ll answer it like this. We will meet our modified Zidware deadline of June 30, 2020.

TWIP: It seems that scaling up to mass manufacturing is a challenge where most (if not all) new pinball manufacturers experience delays. How do you plan to avoid delays when deeproot ramps up manufacturing?

RM: I’ve answered this before. But I’ll reiterate. We’ve been thinking, analyzing, planning, and working on production from the very beginning. At every step in our engineering pipelines, we have not gated until multiple production analyses are done. We’ve applied agile and L6S principles and determined what makes sense to do in house, and what makes sense to use vendors for. We don’t intend to brute force much, which is what we understand all other manufactures are doing. We hope these efforts will minimize surprises, waste, inventory bottlenecks, and labor contingencies. As for actual production, we do not estimate that supply will exceed demand for some time. Which relieves some of the pressure off of the commencement of the lines.

TWIP: Can you give any estimation of the approximate price range for a production RAZA?

RM: As I stated in a recent pinball podcast, value is my (and our) primary goal and mission. Value in pricing is not only the NIB cost, but other hidden costs like distributor commissions, shipping, upgrades, mods, maintenance, and resale value. deeproot will not only fundamentally change pricing in the pinball industry, but will humble the competition by being the go-to manufacturer for value. Our goal is to give pinball consumers and enthusiasts the best bang for the buck. They finally deserve an option where they can consistently say: “I just landed the latest deeproot pinball machine for my collection and I didn’t get ripped off in the process”. We also think deeproot value will help keep resale prices closer to (or higher than) NIB prices over an extended period of time.

TWIP: Do you have a goal date in mind for the official launch of deeproot Pinball?

RM: Yes. deeproot Pinball will launch in the deeproot Auditorium at the San Antonio Headquarters on Wednesday March 25, 2020 at 8:55am. Schedule of events, media passes, travel vouchers, lodging, and VIP’s to be announced in due time.

TWIP: Does deeproot plan to have more than one title ready at launch? How long after launch do you expect deeproot machines to be shipped and arriving at the homes of customers?

RM: Our primary goal is to launch with the ‘deeproot package’. RAZA will of course be the first game. If we are able to fit another launch title (or two) in prior to the fixed launch date, then great. If not, then not. We expect the first delivery of machines to arrive between the beginning of April at best, and the end of June, at worst.