Wider post. Previous post covered path to Expo and attempted to address prototype status. Some general bullet points first:
- Heighway have moved to their third factory recently, and been there for 4 months. This one seems like a better set up (better ratio of shop floor to office space) and better size (neither too small nor far too large). Also newer, in much better state of repair and significantly less costly than the huge 40,000ft2 place. This, I think, is about half the size. Small production line and most of the vital equipment is set up and working. Production line will be expanded considerably for Alien(s), with more stations. They're about to install a load of new storage for the mass of parts needed for volume production.
- Producing everything in house for now has been dropped, and some of the very expensive machinery which a lot of capital is tied up in will be sold. Good thing. Even if it was ultimately successful, too much for a small start up to take on and manage adequately. However they are continuing to conduct research and development on a couple of major elements, which may see fruit borne some time in the future.
- Focus is about to switch from producing Full Throttle to Alien(s). As you might expect, and HW certainly do, Alien(s) will be the main source of orders, machines wise. They'll produce Full Throttle to demand in future, presumably mostly in kit form. If Alien(s) goes down well, they should expect quite a few kit orders IMO.
- The cabinets and their trim continue to be refined. Many people, me included, weren't keen on the black with grey colour scheme. The newer black on black is a big improvement and should satisfy quite a few of the cosmetic grumblings. Finish looks to have been improved too.
- Trim options (even if not the full list) should be detailed at or by Expo. Some stuff may come after initial production. Nothing finalised on this yet. It'll be the last thing to be done, practically.
- Some new features, which should be the first to actually make it to production in pinball machines, have been added to the machine very recently. Proof of concepts were in the machine I saw, and cabinet waiting for the soon to be finished second prototype. Can't say what, but they aren't something which will take endless revisions to reach production. Even if you don't like the iteration, the way it's being integrated ought to allow for retrofitting of community developed alternatives. Also, if it were looking likely to be a cause of any delay, it shouldn't stop production or shipping of games (my opinion), as they ought to be able to be easily shipped on their own or in bulk and installed by end users. There will be a lot of this technology in future games across the industry.
- Difficult to really get a sense of it when playing with glass off, cacophony of noise from factory floor, and blinding studio lights, but the sound package David Thiel is responsible for looks like it's going to be what most fans of the franchise would hope for.
- Animations and game UX still not finished / all hooked up. But what is there looks decent and it's definitely evocative of the universe and its style. Finished animations look great. Not quite JJP level, but embarrasses Stern and better than Full Throttle.
- Hundreds of sound clips lifted from the films (not sure how many video clips). The original (to the machine) voiceover work sounded good, of the little I heard - definitely not a TWD situation. Seemless and fits in well with the licensed property.
- Some of the shots feel good. Some ... well, playing half blind in studio lights wasn't easy. I do think shots from the upper right (3rd?) flipper shot will require some significant skill and timing.
- TONS of skillshots.
- No video mode. Likely a good thing ... might have been a nightmare to get Fox to approve, and would probably break immersion rather than enhancing it.
- Some feature elements (rather than effects) of the game's UX are rendered in real time and interactive. Took a long time to go back towards Pinball 2000. Game doesn't make heavy use of it. But there's scope for Heighway and others to do way more of this in future. I would guess, if Heighway do have one speculated cartoon franchise (I don't know), it would employ a great deal of it.
- I wasn't aware, but Heighway have moved on from custom ARM based boards to an Intel x86 processor and board. At a guess, more expensive, but they're not going to have any supplier issues if they can buy completely generic off the shelf parts. Also, long, long into the future, and well past the point of being supported, obtaining replacement parts or an entirely new computer shouldn't be too much of an issue.
- Development and conveyance to production status of future games should be expedited. The idea is to have some staff dedicated to each game.
Regarding Alien(s) itself. Per the above bullet points, it wasn't really possible to form much of an opinion about it from play due to the conditions and the ongoing filming. It needed some tuning, and there was a software bug, but those can be addressed - the latter probably swiftly once the games are with the American team in the flesh. What I was really concerned about was how the sound and any original speech used (if any) would turn out. I like it. Difficult not to smile at the promo video when played in a quieter office. It's typical(ly excellent) David Thiel work. A big feature was waiting on a board, so I didn't get to see it in action; its arrival is imminent. Cosmetically, except the brand new features I can't talk about, one toy (the one Fox want to look a little different) and some decals, it's done. So almost everything I saw above the playfield should be what you see when it's revealed. I.E. It's ready to see the light of day. Inserts' light show wasn't really in yet, but there was some potentially good news on that front which was added recently; shouldn't delay production, but may take some extra time to fully utilise in code as it ought to allow for more creativity. Fibre optic lighting will be on the left and right ramps that run parallel to the left and right side of the cabinet. This is both for LE and as a pay-extra upgrade. Wasn't in yet, but I think the work that took so long to complete it for Full Throttle should mean there are no issues. On the LE front, translite and side panel artwork will be LE exclusive. Wasn't 100% confirmed, but looks like the 27" backbox LCD is going to become standard. Hardly a surprise as this has been default for pre-orders through CoinTaker for some time now. Could increase the price of admission slightly, but this HAS to be done, imo. The translite and frame for it would require 6 (SIX!) versions with the original scheme of full translite, small LCD, large LCD and a Standard and LE model. 2 seems like a much more manageable number. Besides, it's a shame for spectators not to be able to see what's going on, and during more cinematic moments, the player's likely to enjoy a 27" screen more than the one in the pf. Also it seemed like a major point of confusion for people interested in Heighway's games. Removing that must be positive. If some features aren't fully working for Expo, or play is limited, I don't think that is or should be seen as evidence of a malaise, it just happens that the game has reached its approval state mere days before Expo.
Regarding production. Assuming approvals go through as quickly as expected, Andrew's still adamant that they can get a first small run of games out and shipped by the end of October. This does seem optimistic to me. But it is doable. They can definitely be built by then, but that depends on suppliers coming through with parts on time and in shippable standard; with all that's going on at the moment, there is acute awareness at Heighway of how vital QC is. But small numbers for the initial run oughtn't to be a big issue. Of course, there could be other unforeseen circumstances that delay things. However, whilst I expect this target to be missed, days and weeks are what we're talking in terms of delays, from what I've seen. That's only 4 weeks away now, and there would be no shame in running slightly past it. We should be able to say goodbye to the endlessly churning score reel of month after month of delays. When I said they were in the final furlong in the previous post, I really think they are. Code probably shouldn't be a worry, given that Full Throttle shipped in a reasonable state, has seen updates, continues to be developed, and most seem to agree that the code is good.
In terms of mass production, that is expected for November. Again dependent on parts, of course. I expect it may slip a little, and their ramp won't be as quick as they or their contemporaries at DP or JJP hoped and experienced. But I do think they're in a good position to enter mass production VERY SOON and with a minimum of potential operational pitfalls.
Lots of new labour, after new hiring, and until they set foot over the threshold of the facility, completely untrained for the required task labour, likely also devoid of any knowledge of pinball, could be a huge headache generally, and a nightmare as far as QC is concerned. But, per the earlier mention, they are cognisant of this.
People were sceptical about the claims of assembly man-hours for Heighway machines of less than half the average at Stern and JJP. However they appear to have done a fantastic job of simplifying the under playfield mechanisms and drastically reducing the amount of wiring (much of which is plug and play), boards, mechanisms, mountings and points of contact. Having seen what they've done, I'd be very surprised if their claims aren't accurate. The function of assembly should be a lot easier and less likely to result in damage than traditionally. So one would hope that QC and a ramp to volume production targets shouldn't be nearly as difficult as other recent examples. If Alien(s) is a huge hit, all this work should aid them in scaling up seamlessly.
Like many of you would be, given the history of continual delay and unrealistic schedules, I was braced for a series of red flags and the possibility that the game might be stuck in 'development hell'. However, I didn't see the former, and if it ever was in the latter, I don't see any evidence of it being extant. Indeed, while nothing is really ever certain, it looks like some kind of catastrophe would be needed to significantly derail production at this juncture. The first customers ought to receive their games pretty soon.
I know Andrew does and will think I'm unfair to cast mild doubt about their schedule, but they're at the end of a long, hard road on bringing Alien(s) to market. Development time, I think, has been wholly reasonable, it was just announced far too early and estimates were continually way-way off due to a combination of lack of experience, over-optimism and no doubt various unknowns. Any misses now shouldn't be a mark of shame, or a cause of huge consternation, hand wringing and tittle-tattle, they ought to be a rite of passage into becoming a volume manufacturer and just a normal if frustrating part of the management of a business of this type.
It's impossible to say how well the game will sell, but it looks to be in a decent place, and even in a market that's getting increasingly crowded, they have a unique selling point in the modular system that allows space starved collectors and operators to acquire new games, and with less onerous financial commitments. Moreover, its benefits should become more apparent, the closer to saturation the market gets. Like Alien(s), their upcoming two games are famous IPs, so it ought to bode well that they're able to obtain these from rightsholders.
Aside from hoping they'll succeed, I've tried to keep bias to a minimum - if something was highly personal or potentially exclusive to me and I liked or disliked it strongly, I tried to avoid it here. The visit was informative. Hopefully my account of what I saw and thought about it will be of use and interest to some of you.
TLDR if you're lazy. They're in a good place from an operational perspective, relative to starting mass production; a lot of the work they did on planning their system looks like it'll pay dividends. Alien(s) is pretty much done. Vast bulk of the work is behind them. Physical changes should be extremely minimal. Code should be close to going gold, hooking up all the media will be the biggest change. I was told a lot of the animations and UX were still placeholder, soon to be replaced, but they still looked good. If there are further delays, they should be very minor, at this stage. Couple of new features to be revealed at Expo. David Thiel seems like he's done another great job on the sound package. People will have games soon, barring calamity.