Interview with Joe Balcer, Playfield Designer for Houdini – The Desire to Create

Interview with Joe Balcer, Playfield Designer for Houdini – The Desire to Create
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Interview with Joe Balcer, Playfield Designer for Houdini – The Desire to Create
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Interview with Joe Balcer, Playfield Designer for Houdini – The Desire to Create
Published on
December 21, 2017
Updated on
December 21, 2017
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This Week in Pinball:  When did you join American Pinball?

Joe Balcer: I joined American Pinball October of 2016.  So it’s been just over a year that I’ve been here.

TWIP:  Before joining American Pinball, you designed Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit with Jersey Jack Pinball, and then The Simpsons Pinball Party with Stern.  Is there a significant difference for a designer working with different companies, or does the design process stay pretty much the same?

JB:  It is definitely different with each company.  Coming in to Data East, Stern or Sega, they had design concepts and a protocol on how things got done.  When I came into JJP or when I came into American Pinball, there has been no protocol set.  So in my mind I have the same procedure, same type of thing on attacking a design that comes from how I see it working.

TWIP:  As far working with Wizard of Oz and Hobbit (being licensed themes), how much different is it working with an unlicensed theme like Houdini?

JB:  Licensed themes carry their own weight.  You get a script and you get all kinds of elements and IP (Intellectual Property) and things that go along with the game.  So it kind of makes it in a way easier to get a game design together, but then the difficulty comes at the end because you have to get approvals.  So what you might think is something good and cool and special that is going to work, the licensor is going to say “I don’t think so”.  So you may have to change a whole part of the game or part of the artwork that you don’t have to do with non-licensed themes.  Non-licensed themes, it is really an easier way to go when it comes down to design, but it can take a lot more time because you have to create it.  Everything that goes up on the screen, all of your graphics, everything that goes on the playfield, all the art, has to be created as opposed to going to a website and pick what you need.  There are plusses and minuses to both sides.  I prefer the non-licensed, kind of a “pseudo license” that you have a license/design/concept that everybody knows but it isn’t tied to a licensing fee.

TWIP:  I think a lot of people are surprised that Houdini is unlicensed.

JB:  I was too.  When I first came in, I said “Is this covered, really?”  But I guess Houdini had no children so there was nothing passed on, and there was a statement made during his life that he wanted his legacy out there for the public to be into forever.  With all the magic games out there, you would think that Houdini would’ve been pursued a lot sooner than we did.

TWIP:  There was some speculation as to the reasons you left Jersey Jack Pinball, can you expand on that all?

JB: I’m limited on what I want I want to say.  But it was kind of a difference on company direction and my part I felt there were false promises made.  It wasn’t fun anymore, you kind of lost that fun part of being in pinball for me, so I pulled away from the whole industry for a few years.  I used what I knew with assembly and running an assembly plan and it was a good experience for me, but there was always that pull back to pinball.  I’ve been in it for a long time and I can support my family with it and have a lot of fun while I’m doing it.  I have the desire to create, and it is fun to be able to do it in this industry because it is a small industry and I have a pretty good feel for what people like to shoot, how they like to shoot, what they like to shoot at.  It is kind of a work smarter not harder kind of thing – make it your own and people enjoy it.  It is great to see people having fun on something you put together.

TWIP: To make sure I have the timeline right, American Pinball first introduced Houdini at Expo in fall of 2016 around the time you joined AP, then you went on to completely redesign Houdini and have a flippable game at Texas Pinball Festival in March of 2017?

JB: Right.

TWIP:  That seems like quite a feat, what was that time at American Pinball like?

JB:  One thing I’ve learned over the years, working for Gary Stern, you would turn playfield designs over in a short amount of time.  You had to make the right decisions – design is not what it looks like, it is a design of how it works.  So you have to make the right decisions. There are a bunch of decisions along the way to get to a design fairly quickly.  When it was decided – in November is when I had a piece of paper (the design of Houdini).  So Houdini was a piece of paper in November of 2016.  I was allowed to put a team together – kind of a difficult task because most of the guys that are very knowledgable, guys that I know, are hired at Stern or at JJP.  Guys you can’t just go and get.  Friends of mine, guys that I know are really talented.  So you find the best that is out there.  I was allowed to put together a team of the best guys I could find – guys that had worked in pinball, guys that had a desire to get back into pinball.  So that piece of paper in November was when I got together the team and got my artist and got a programmer which was Josh who wasn’t hired at the time.  Got an animator, got guys together to create a team.  Picked up a mechanical guy here and there on contract to do the mechs we had in mind.  When I got them all together and said “Ok guys, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to put this game together from this piece of paper I have right here.  And we’re going to go to Texas in March with a game finished.”

I probably didn’t hear too many people laugh as hard as they laughed – at the time they thought I was out of my mind.  In time that started to take root.  I was more on this path of saying “Look, the pinball industry has shown over the last 5-6-7 years that it takes 2 or 3 or 4 years to bring a design out.  Some of these new companies were 2-4 years before they really felt like they could ship.  For whatever reason, I had in my head that we could get this game to Texas.  It’s a four month window but we’ve got the best of the best here and we’re going to make this happen.  I got vendors I’d worked with for years on board.  We had guys bringing parts to us at 8 or 9:00 at night two or three days after they were designed, and helping us out in a big way.  Guys that were staying here until all hours of the night helping us build or helping us work through getting past a white wood that we basically never really built.  We tried some parts on it but kind of skipped the white wood process.  That was another big issue – we’ve got a white wood to play for several weeks, and we decided not to do that.  So we decided to skip the whitewood – we were confident in the shots.  And everything just kind of fell together.  It was amazing to see at the time and for us to get to Texas.  We wanting to bring three games which was completely out of the ball park.  But we got there with two games.  The last game we put together as the truck was waiting for us for a couple hours in our dock to get the second game on the truck.  It was just sheer want.  Everybody on board just really wanted to make this happen in that time frame.  And for us to show up in Texas with a different game, a different cabinet, a different design, different artwork, different sound, different code, from what everyone had seen as a box of lights at Expo in October – that was what kicked off the company.

TWIP:  I think the pinball community was floored that you had were able to get that finished.

JB:  Yes, a lot of naysayers.  And the more naysayers there were on Pinside or online that said these guys are just BSing their way, they’re trying to take your money, all the negative things that came out – we opened up the company in March by not taking any pre-orders, by showing what was then considered a pretty complete game even though we knew there was a lot of work to be done.  But it was a shooting game that people were really knocked off of their chair about wondering how’d they do this? And that is kind of what we wanted.  My vision was to make the pinball industry say “how’d they do that?  What’d they do to make that happen?”  So we got to that point and it was a good feeling for all of us.  It was huge.

TWIP: What major tweaks have you needed to make after showing the game at TPF up until now with the production game?

JB:  Mostly it was to open up some of the shots and to get some of the feature shots more reliable.  The whole thing ever since Texas has been to tweak the shots, open them up as best we could to still make them make-able shots that felt good.  I always like to keep a shooter in mind.  I like a pinball game that is a little more challenging than really wide open shots that you just can’t miss.  I’d rather build a game or design a game to give some of the novice players that – just by flipping – they’re going to make some shots.  But the important shots I want a shooter to feel good that he/she made the shot.  Maybe it looks small but once you feel it and you get that spot on the flipper, you’re going to hit that shot all day.

TWIP: Backing up a little bit, what is the first thing you do as a designer when you’re presented with a new project or theme?

JB: To form a team if you don’t have a team in place.  Rely on that input to get the best out of the title.  So you take a title like Houdini and you have everybody give input.  You have things like escape from shackles or stomach punch or rabbit out of the hat, card tricks, traveling magic show, disappearing elephant.  Everybody comes up with these different aspects of Houdini’s life and at some point you narrow that down to what can we make mechanical – what is going to be a feature on the game?  And go from there.  So then you fit that into a layout.  In my opinion that is the best way to do it.  I’m not the kind of guy to say “that is the shot, that’s the layout, that’s how it is going to be” because there are too many unknowns.  I could come up to a game I designed and miss every shot 15 times row because pinball is just that way.  But in the back of my mind I know I can make all those shots because I’ve done them.  I try to get that fine line between this is too hard to let me shoot this a few times, I know I can make that shot.  It has a lot to do with input from the team.  That is where I get a charge from: “now I need to make the team happy” – we’ve got these four things that are critical to this game – give me a week or two and we’ll meet again and I’ll show you what I’m thinking.  It is a pretty good percentage that at that point I’m on my way.

TWIP:  Would you say that you were trying to make a difficult game?

JB:  No, not really.  Keeping in mind what Houdini is…it is across the board, men, women, kids – it is a magic theme.  I wasn’t trying to make a difficult game but I was trying to make a challenging game.  I’m going to give you the loops and give you the ramp shots.  You can close your eyes and hit those shots.  But some of the shots – to lock a ball to get to the catapult, to get to seance multi-ball – it is out at the end of the flipper.  There has to be some difficulty to a pinball.  A super easy pinball is not an earning pinball, it isn’t something that people want to come back and play.

TWIP:  I read online that the stand up targets are smaller than standard size?

JB:  Yes – stand up targets at some point need to evolve.  It is a leaf switch with a target on it.  The blade of a leaf switch is 3/8″ wide.  To be safe the smallest target was 1/2″ wide.  So we said lets not be “safe” anymore.  Lets machine down the 1/2″ target a 1/16″ on each side and make it the exact same size as the blade and that should open up the shots.  And that is exactly what happened.  So it kind of evolved – here is the thinnest stand up target we could get at a 1/2″, how much smaller can we go?  The blade is 3/8″, lets make the target 3/8″.  I’ve got tight shots on the game so it helped open up the shots in a big way.

TWIP:  How much time was spent researching Houdini the person and his life?

JB:  That happened right after we got the team together.  There was a lot of multi-tasking for me where I’m working on a layout but I’m also doing a lot of research on Houdini.  What it did was it made me change directions on a couple ideas just because I don’t think they were as prominent in his life and his legacy as we all thought.  This guy is a magician, he does magic – well it is a lot more than that.  He did a lot of things that really blew people’s minds.  To shoot a ball on one side of the game and it comes out the other side of the game almost instantly – that came from more research.  We said we just have to make this thing trickier.  We have to trick the player a little bit without losing control.

TWIP: And how does that work because when you’re playing it, it does feel like the you go into a certain spot and suddenly the ball seems to appear from an unexpected area?

JB: That is the slight of hand that magicians or illusionists do – that is what we tried to do with the game.  So instead of having your standard six ball trough at the player, we have a three ball lock under the playfield on the right side and a three ball lock on top of the playfield on the left side.  Josh has a commanding position where he can load and unload balls from either side of the playfield at any given time.  So once he starts to load up the right side, the next time you shoot to the left side he can release a ball from the right side.  It is a balance of where he can load balls during gameplay and fool the player.  You think the next ball is going to be kicked out into the shooter lane and it comes out of the left side of the playfield.  It gives you that feel we were looking for.  It was a successful thing by spreading out the ball locks on the game.

TWIP: For the magnets that are under each hand near Houdini’s mouth, were those planned from the beginning?

JB:  Being a magic game, magnets have to come into play.  Programmers can do some crazy things with magnets.  Sometimes they can plan it, sometimes they can’t plan it.  Sometimes by pulsing those magnets the ball does some crazy things that they’ll never be able to duplicate.  Once we got the preliminary art package done by Jeff, and he wanted to go with the open hands – it was a natural thing at that point to drop the magnets under the hands.  The targets worked out well right by the hands.  So every time you hit those targets, it fires that magnet so the ball does some tricky stuff.  Sometimes it will catch it and spin it around, in multiball it will catch two balls and spin them around.  All sorts of chaotic stuff goes on and people have a big “wow” when they see that.  Everyone knows what it is but when you’re playing a game it takes precedent and you say “Wow, that was amazing”.

TWIP:  At what point did you know you wanted to add a stage and a catapult lock shot?

JB:  That came from the original design and concept.  We refined what the original layout was – originally there was a catapult in the game but there was nothing there to assure the shot was going to work.  You go to the games that use catapults, you fire the ball and it catches on a wire ramp almost immediately.  I was intrigued by just taking a catapult and firing it, how far it went.  As we were messing around with the pulsing on it, I taped up a little square on a back panel to see – almost like you’re pitching – seeing where you’re throwing the ball at all times.  And I was seeing some pretty concise hits where they were hitting within 1/2″ of each other once you got the pulse regulated.  The catapult shot became the big shot on the game.  Using the second catapult was just an after thought.

TWIP:  The second catapult is the one that feeds the wireform that goes down to the right flipper?

JB:  Yes, it lofts it into that wire ramp, and that is very safe.  The one that we’re throwing in the air approximately 22 or 23 inches – its unheard of.  It is definitely a first of a ball flying that distance.  And it is pretty controlled.  We’re getting 95-96%+ accuracy.  Once it is set up on location or in your home, you’re not going to see a lot of failures.  If it does miss for whatever reason, you still get the lock even though the ball falls back into play.  So you won’t lose what you achieved.

TWIP: When was it decided for the stage display to change from a vertical screen to a horizontal screen?

JB:  It was always in my mind that it was intended to be horizontal.  Initially we put it up there vertically just to put something out there that once it changed people would understand why it changed.  We were in a prototype situation so we had an opportunity to do that.  I think in the long run the way I saw the display being used was in that marquee type of style that you see on the front of a theater.  So for us to go from our sample game which was vertically mounted to production games which is horizontally mounted like a marquee – I think that was a big plus for our customers.  I think they felt like it was a nice change that was done.  Whether or not it was intentional, it definitely fits the theme better.  It was almost a slight of hand we pulled from sample to production.

TWIP:  There are two shots through the pop bumpers – when I typically think of shots through pop bumpers I think of them going into a loop or something similar.  This one has a shot that goes through and hits a target, and a second shot that goes through and feeds to the theater entrance.  Can you explain the thought behind that?  It seemed very unique when I was playing it.

JB: It evolved – I’ve done a couple of games where you shot the ball through the pops and I like the challenge to make that shot.  Its always big enough to make the shot but seven or eight times out of ten you’re going to hit the pops.  But the ones that go through feel really clean and it is a feel good shot.  It evolved as the layout was coming together.  Not only can I shoot straight up through the pops, I think I can cut one over and divert a ball to hit the stage.  It’s not a 100% shot – the spin of the ball and speed of the ball effects it.  But when you hit it and hit it clean, it goes right to the stage.  More or less, again, just a feel good shot.  People may not even see it there until they actually make it.  We reward them in the rules by – if you make the stage shot through the pop bumpers it advances and opens the stage immediately instead of having to shoot it three or four times.  Same thing as shooting through the pops all the way up to the upper target – it will start a mode that is instant as opposed to having to shoot X amount of shots.

TWIP: The pop bumpers are also interesting in that they can kick the ball into the magic shot or into the theater, so I’m paying more attention than normal hoping the pops can complete a shot for me.

JB: Yes, because to get into the Magic Shop there is no clean shot from the flippers.  We found as we played the game we were getting a lot of bounce backs.  There were actually different post configurations in that area to keep the ball in the pop bumpers, but as time went on those posts were removed.  We saw the chaos coming out of the pop bumper area is going to help you advance by going into the Magic Shop.  Once you play the game and the Magic Shop is lit, you know to loft the ball up in that area and chances are you’re going to get in there off the pops or a bounce off of the stage.  So balls drop in there a lot more than you think.

TWIP: Can you explain the unique head shape on the game?

JB: Early on, when we first did the cabinet design, we had a design here from the engineering group to put marquee lights on the head, and being that Houdini did most of his magic on stage, we wanted to bring out the marquee lights.  We weren’t going for the multi-colored crazy chasing lights.  It was more of a marquee light – that kind of yellowish white that you can get out of LEDs and just have them chase up and down.  And putting the curves in the sides of the box made the lights come out at you and then disappear under the box.  It looked cool, it was one of the things we didn’t get in the game.  I really wanted to see that happen but under the time frame and everything else, we couldn’t put our attention to that as much as I had hoped.  The design look of it stayed the same, and it actually has provisions in the head to add chase lights at any given point.  There may be an upgrade down the road.  I would think that you might see that on another game we do.  At least it is designed in.  When we did have it working it was a cool effect and if you put 20 games on a wall and turn on all the games, your eyes would go immediately to Houdini just for that aspect.  It was more of a “get your attention” aspect but I think we could’ve worked it into gameplay.  But the time and effort and cost to make it happen put the skids on it for now.

TWIP: Do you think that could be something that a pinball mod company could do down the road?

JB: Absolutely.  It’s on our list as something to get to, to make it available.  It is just something we haven’t gotten to.

TWIP:  Were there any other features you wanted to include but had to be cut for time reasons or budget reasons?

JB:  Not really.  I think the lit backbox was pretty much the only thing we didn’t get to.  Everything else evolved into what it is.  Obviously as a designer you want more of everything.  As a first game for a company, we didn’t want to build a monster.  We didn’t want to build something that is difficult to clean or service.  I love building big games.  Having no restraints on putting together Wizard of Oz from day one – a three playfield, multi-level, multiple flippers, all kinds of stuff and the kitchen sink in that game.  That was the philosophy of that company.  Thats the way the company wanted to come out of the box, as bigger and better.  I think our philosophy here coming out of the box is “lets give them as much as we can”, “lets keep the price down”, “lets make it an easier serviceable game”, so instead of going into the basement or game rooms of collectors, this game has a better possibility of hitting the streets.  The operators are not going to look at you like you’re out of your mind wondering how to clean it.  Some of the basic stuff we kept in mind – it is a design to more “keep it simple”.  It has one ramp so it has to be interesting on the single level to make the ramp shot that much more important.  You look at the game as an operator and I’ve talked to a lot of operators, and they’re giving us kudos that they can take a rag and wipe down every lane, I can change a light bulb without any big issues.

TWIP: A lot of stuff in it but still relatively easy to maintain.

JB:  Yeah.  At least to keep it clean.  One of the bigger problems you have with games on the street is that you come up to them and they’re filthy.  And it’s because maybe 60-70% of the game you can’t even get to without removing units and playfields.  So this has a little more of an advantage as a street game and I hope that takes root when we start shipping.

TWIP: When did the LCD in the back box and the idea of the curtain and the crowd and the LCD being a stage come about?

JB:  Once we came up with the concept of the stage mechanism, which went through three or four different ideas and designs to come up with the design we used – once we got the curtain moving, Jeff Busch, who is our artist, took it and ran with it.  Next thing I knew I got a phone call that said “what if we move the display up, lets get it off the bottom and integrate it into the art to make it look like its one piece”.  Instead of having a big 27″ display, we pulled this off with a 15.6″ display, and it looks like a larger display because it is integrated into the art on the back glass.  It is definitely something we’ll keep in mind on each model and try to integrate that into the art design – whether or not it is curtains or just phasing in and out – keeping some of the elements of the art in the backglass along with it to make it look like a bigger and better display than really what it is.

TWIP: What has been the most difficult part of the design process with Houdini as compared to past projects?

JB:  Taking a chance on throwing a pinball 20″+ and expecting the same result each time was the big challenge.  There was no plan b.  If it didn’t work, we probably would’ve lost a couple of months redesigning a different way to do it.  I go back to the night where we were close to getting everything wired and running and I had to go.  It was late, it was after midnight and a couple of the guys were hanging around.  It was either that night or the following day when I started to get pictures and a little video of the mechanism working.  And it was banging off the plastic ramp and slamming in to the side of the cabinet.  It was doing everything we didn’t want it to do.  It was a matter of trimming the plastic ramp down, making sure we were lined up just right – and the next thing you know this thing started hitting.  So the catapult shot – shooting a ball 20″ inches and keeping it under the glass which was the biggest challenge.  I could take a catapult and launch it and it would go 6″ over the glass and drop in every time.  But to get it set right and get the launch angle set right – that was the challenge.  And if it didn’t work we probably wouldn’t be talking today on shipping games this month because we would’ve lost some time doing something different.  It was a learning curve.  I took a shot and said this thing was going to work.  And by enough prayers and hoping it really works well.

TWIP:  What have you learned from the test machine at Level 257 so far?

JB:  We picked up on a couple really crazy ball traps.  Something you wouldn’t think would happen.  We didn’t see certain ball traps until we got there so we’re able to cover those for production, which is great.  The coil strengths – we get to see the differences with the power we have at the office versus the power we have on location.  With our electronics we’re able to find out how to dial this in and make it easier for the end user.  It isn’t going to be factory set and then it gets to your house and you’re going to plug in and you do that first catapult and it’s going to be perfect.  It may come up 2″ short or an inch long – it may not be perfect.  So there are simple adjustments to dial it in for location.  You do have to adjust it.  Some of the code issues you don’t find when you’re doing in house testing.  You’re looking for specifics, whereas in the field you’ll see stuff you never even thought of.  Being on location has been a big help to Josh.

TWIP:  Why did American Pinball choose to do just one model instead of the Limited Edition and Premium, etc.?

JB:  It was a lot of potential customer input.  We wanted to do it the right way.  I’ve been in this a long time and back in the day there was one model, one price.  And that’s what pinball was.  Obviously it’s evolved.  It has evolved into three models, three price ranges which can fluctuate.  Or you come out with a Super LE that trumps them all.  I have a friend in pinball that owns a company in pinball and his saying for pinball is something I’ve said a million times is “pinball is hard”.  You look at the game, you play the game, and you think this is nothing.  But then you open it up and see everything that is involved to make the ball do what it does – it is a gigantic project.  Our way is that it narrows down to one game, one price, and it takes all that other stuff away at least for now.  Will we end up doing an LE someday?  I’m not going to say we’re not.  Can we come back in a few years and do a limited edition Houdini game?  Yeah, why not?  But our plan is to put a game out at one price.  I think as we evolve it will be more a la carte – where if you want blades, or magic glass, or a topper, or a shaker motor, you could customize the game as it leaves the factory.  The bottom line would be one game one price.  You’ll get a full blown pinball.  There are no extras, everything else would be cosmetic if you want it.  Other than that I’m not going to add a playfield and make it an LE.  I’m not going to have different code.  I’m not staffed for that which is another thing – we have a very small engineering staff.  The big guys have 20-30 people in engineering.  We’re back to old school where we have one team that is going to hit each game.  Obviously as we grow, the hope is that that grows and we can have a couple teams working on each game.  You don’t want to have the same designer and same team doing each game.  It doesn’t have the variability from team to team.  As we grow and start to sell Houdini and get into our next game I’m sure the company will grow with it.

TWIP: Is there a specific goal for sales of Houdini, or a success mark that needs to be met to go onto the second game?

JB: We have lofty numbers in house that we want to see.  This is our first game.  We have to deliver a sound product and support that product.  We have to have distributors that are on board with us and customers that work well with us.  I don’t think there is a lofty number out there or was even a number etched when we started.  But to get an initial release of Houdini of 1,000 units would be very comfortable for the company.  And we’re hoping that doubles because really that was based on U.S. sales, and we haven’t really tapped western Europe, Australia, etc.  Once the game starts to ship there we hope our numbers will grow.

TWIP:  I noticed American Pinball is one of the few companies that manages to have constructive conversation with online forums like Pinside – how much have you guys listened to feedback from the pinball community?

JB: I learned a lot working at JJP – at the time, owners had their own forum that when you bought a machine you got your password to get onto a forum.  Pinside can be informative, Pinside can be destructive, Pinside is Pinside.  I’m not a regular reader, I usually don’t have input.  Josh Kugler came from the home-brew type guys and Pinside is a part of their deal, so he’s tried to communicate what he can.  He is kind of our voice on Pinside.  I take it for what it’s worth.  If something hits home with me, maybe its something I’ve been thinking about – maybe a shot is not working that well or an aspect of the game could be better.  I read that and maybe its on the same wave length that I’m thinking.  Obviously we’ll take that into consideration.  You get more of a public opinion.  Like I said, I like to design with input so it is important.  It’s a different world, it’s 2017, its social media, everything is done online, so it is viable – I can’t say I don’t listen to it, I don’t read it, and I don’t care.  That would be the wrong approach.

TWIP: And you’re not going to please everybody no matter what you do.  It seems like Josh has done a pretty good job on the forums.

JB: Yes, he likes to communicate that way.  For myself, a lot of these guys that do complain a lot or have a lot to say – you know what, I don’t see your name on an application to be a designer or to be a programmer – put your name in here.  If you think you know, come and be a part of it.  Don’t sit behind your computer and bash everything you see, be a part of it.  See how difficult and fulfilling doing a pinball is.  It is a small market.  It is a tiny grain of sand in all the companies in the world, but it is a fun industry and a tight industry and you have to listen.  You know when somebody is just out there slamming you or maybe had a few too many and got ticked off at a game he played.  But you have to be able to figure that out.  I welcome it, I think it is great stuff and I think Josh does a great job of communicating and giving people something to go on.

TWIP: I know there has been talk of when shipping will start – is the plan still to start shipping before the end of 2017?

JB: Our promise from Texas still holds true.  I joked about it at a couple shows and said “Hey, we’re not lying if we at least put a game in a box by December 31st.  To be truthful, we have 25-30 play fields on the line right now in rotisseries, 75% built.  We’re putting cables on now.  We have a game in our lab that is basically the first production model that just came off the floor that we’re going through with a fine toothed comb.  Making sure we’re using the proper hardware, making sure we’re sticking to the bill of material.  I have all the confidence in the world we will ship a few games before the end of this year.  I don’t know what that number is.  But if we don’t it is not the end of the world, I hope people understand that.  We’re doing everything in our power with a small staff to make this happen.  We’re right there.  I see a beautiful game being put together.  We’ve brought in some people that have experience in pinball that have a lot of input and know how to build good games.  We’re ahead of this thing, we’ve got our cartons printed, we’re ready to go, our distributors are itching to get those first ones.  We don’t want to let people down, and its not our culture here to say something and not do it.  I wish I could say we’re going to ship 100 games before the end of the year, but it is December 19th so I can’t put that kind of quantity on there.  All the little things you think are going right just don’t go right.  I’ll never put a blame on a vendor or vendors or the system or how we did it.  It is all collectively one thing.  Until this thing is really rolling, something is going to effect shipping, it is just going to happen.  I have a lot of pride in what I do, and our staff here have a lot of pride in what we do collectively.  We’re not going to ship games just to ship them.  They have to be right.  I don’t want someone unboxing a game and this is missing or that isn’t strapped.  That is worse than to not ship games before the end of the year.  There is a line in the sand – we’re not going to be that company that says we’re going to do this and not do it.  There have been companies that said the exact same thing and didn’t ship for three or four years.  We are not that company.  If people are expecting big things in this short about of time, hold that thought because big things are coming.  It is not going to be as fluid and easy, like some people like to say that “pinball is easy”, it’s not.  There are so many variables you’ll rip your hair out trying to figure out “how did that happen?”  You’ve got all the paper work done and all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted and you’re waiting for those parts and here they come and…then there not there.  Or you fix something in the code and it caused five other issues.  We’ve got a handle on this.  Josh is trying to make it deep in the rules and give it some depth.  But we all know one thing effects others and we have to catch those things before the end user gets them.  I am confident we’re in a good place here.  Obviously we have a production facility built. We’re not relying on a contract manufacturer to build our games.  We’re not relying on other peoples money.  We’re not taking preorders.  The last part of the puzzle is to ship it and service it.  It feels good to be where we are.

TWIP: When production is in full swing, how many machines do you expect to be able to produce each week?

JB: This facility we have here is pretty small, it is about a 15,000 square foot building – take away offices and take away the lab, you probably have 10 or 12 thousand square feet.  Our goal is to get to 10 games a day which would be 50 a week, with knowing we can do 20-25 a day.  Once this thing is figured out, work stations are moved around, the timing is done correctly, we’re not sitting on a playfield at one station for 10 minutes when the next guy can get done in 5 minutes causing a bottleneck…could we get to 100 games a week?  That is our ultimate goal, to get to 20-25 games a day which in this facility would be a pretty remarkable thing to do.  We’re not sitting on a lot of square footage.  Our offices are small, we’re sharing offices.  Luckily everyone here likes each other.  Josh said one time early on something I didn’t think about – between him, myself and Jim Thornton, and some of the other guys that were involved early on, we were here for 12, 15, 18 hour days and one of the things Josh brought up was it was a good thing we like each other.  We were all after one goal, to get to Texas.  None of us punched someone else in the face because they didn’t do their job or didn’t come through.  To say that it is basically the company itself is the same way, we’re small, we’re walking on top of each other.  All it takes is one or two to mess that flow up which would kick us back a bit.  We’ve been blessed with that, the people we have and the contributions everyone makes is all for that end game. That’s who we are.

TWIP: Being a new manufacturer with the first machine about to go into production right now, what is the overall feel at American Pinball right now?  Nervousness?  Excitement?  A bit of both?

JB: It is all that – anxious, anger, happiness, hour to hour it changes.  You can have a great morning that turns into a really bad afternoon or vice versa.  At least after every day, I think we have made a step forward no matter how many steps back we did that day.  That has to happen especially in a small company.  Every day is filled with something new.  Once we get that first game in a box on the truck, I think we’ve finally hit that milestone we’ve been looking for.

TWIP: Is there going to be some champaign that day?

JB: Yeah, we’ve hit a thousand milestones to that point but we haven’t shipped.  We have to ship.  I think the industry, the customer base, everyone takes a big deep breath after that.  A sigh of relief to say “look what they did”.  This isn’t 2021, it’s 2017 still.  And we’re here, and that is what I want to be able to say.  That we did that.  We made it to Texas in four months.  We make it to production in eight months.  Under a year from the piece of paper.  Our company will take off in a big way when we hit that milestone, and I don’t see us turning back after that.

TWIP:  Is there any concern as to the timing of the release of Houdini with how many machines have been released in the last year or so?

JB:  Coming from me, and I’m definitely biased, but no, not at all.  I thought it was a solid theme.  And the layout once we tweaked it, we’ve got a solid layout and solid theme.  You can have a great theme and a garbage playfield and the game goes nowhere.  Or a garbage theme and great playfield and the game goes nowhere.  But when you put those two together, all of that equals success.  And I think that is where we’re at.  To get something that felt good when you finger shot the whitewood.  We knew there were tight shots but we knew there were open shots.  There was definitely no fear going against the biggest title out there. People are going to jump on this thing and see it and wonder if it is the LE.  No, that is the model, one game, one price.  

TWIP:  Are you working on a second game?  Do you plan to stick with unlicensed themes?

JB:  Absolutely we’re working on a second game.  We’ve got a title.  We’re going to stick with the unlicensed titles at this point.   We’re trying to find those “pseudo” titles for lack of a better word…

TWIP:  The ones that “feel” licensed but aren’t?

JB:  Yes, something that is known worldwide.  We talked a little earlier about – the creative side is a bigger side, but the actual work involved to make it a finished product is more. I would rather do that balancing act than try to make some guy in Hollywood happy that his face looks good. I want to be able to design around a team, build it up the way we see it, and put it out there the way we see it.  All of us here have a desire to create.  There is a saying that design is intelligence made visible.  That is the fun thing about pinball.  You’ve got to have smart people doing it.  I’m not the smartest guy on the planet but I love laying out a pinball machine and putting it together with a good programmer and a good artist.

TWIP:  Will you the designer for game #2 after Houdini?

JB:  Right now game #2 is mine, and we’re going to open it up after game #2.  We’ve got some ideas for games three and four, and we’re definitely open for new designs and new designers.  We need to start shipping games.  Our company is an income based company.  American Pinball hasn’t seen an income now for a few years and it’s time.  We have to grow and we have to be competitive.  I feel that we need to step up and support our people too, we need to take care of the people that are here.  We bring people in and say “hey change your life and come here and work” – we need to come through. Its a big obligation.  I’m a big people person and I like to have those relationships and want to be truthful and say – “look – number two is going to be better than number one”.

TWIP:  As far as long term goals with American Pinball and releasing machines, is the goal one game a year?  Or one game every 18 months?

JB:  Right now our goal is a model per year.  Obviously not all models and not all themes are going to be as good as the last one or the next one.  We don’t know when to talk about game 2 yet because there is a phenomenon that happens when a game starts to ship.  People have waited and finally it starts to ship and people are getting it in their homes and it is showing at barcades – and there a soaking time as the games starts to ship that adds to the quantity.  People start to buy in more – everything has been pictures and shows up to that point.  But then people see it on the street or a friend of theirs has a game, and you’re going to get more orders.  We’ll watch how this scales up and when it starts to plateau with sales, we’ll come out with game number 2.  We don’t want to do it too soon or too late.  It is a balancing act with sales of Houdini.  If Houdini takes off and does some crazy numbers, there is no reason to talk about game two.  Are we going to have a game two?  Absolutely!  I want to retire here.  We’ve all left other jobs and came here to come back in the industry or to come over to this company, and we want this to carry us through.  Obviously game 2 has to be as big or bigger than game 1, and game 3 has to be the same with game 2, and that is the hard part.  I think once we start to ship and this thing does some numbers on the street, I’m hoping that opens the door for more experienced talent, guys and ladies that are out there that second guessed who American Pinball is, get a better feeling for who we are and maybe come knocking on our door.  

TWIP:  Last question – I know you just mentioned that you need to wait and see with Houdini before you have a time frame before announcing game 2 – do you have a “latest date” for announcing it or is it purely wait and see?

JB:  If all goes as we think it will and this carries us through the first half of next year, when we still have orders or we’re still building, I think we’ll want to make a big splash at Expo next year.  That would be tentatively where we’ll announce game 2.  If we see things sliding before that, there are plenty of shows during the summer months that we could plan the first show of the new game.  I think we thought that Texas would be our kick off each year.  But with the start up of the first year, I don’t know if that is real anymore.  So if I was to show game 2 at Texas in March, I think popular consensus is that it was kill Houdini sales.  People are going to say – oh wait a minute, I kind of like this one a little better, or someone is on the fence about another magic game and lets see what else they come out with and maybe game 2 is something more up their alley.  We don’t want to hurt sales and we don’t want Houdini to not get max life.  So it will be an internal call on when we’re ready.  I can’t say I’d have ready in March but – guess what – we did it last year didn’t we?  It is December and the game is on paper – could we pull it off and actually be in Texas?  We’ve done it before I’m sure we could do it again, but right now that isn’t on the list of things to do. We’ll just leave it at that.