I posted this yesterday on The Florida Pinball Forum, and thought I share it with the Pinside crowd as well.
Last week I was fortunate enough to meet up with John Popadiuk and take a tour of the Zidware shop where BHZA and Magic Girl are currently being designed, and their prototypes built.
I was in on BHZA fairly early (#16) but had been lagging behind in sending my next payment. While I had spoken to John on the telephone a couple of times, and exchanged many emails, I had never had the chance to meet in person.
Please note that while I didn't set out to make my description of this experience sound like an advertisement for JPop or Zidware, the whole thing was a little like walking through the door to Willy Wonka's factory. So be warned if I seem a bit bowled over by what I saw.
John was very cool to hang out with, and was kind enough to spend well over three hours showing me around the shop. I really did get a good look at both MG and BHZA's progress. To the naysayers and doubters, you might consider keeping an open mind, because when you see the end product, I'm pretty sure you are going to be blown away. John really is designing and building handmade pinball machines from scratch. This is a REAL pinball company, and significant progress has been made on both machines. To compare what John is doing with either JJP or Stern, would be comparing a hand built Aston-Martin to a mass-produced Cadillac. I'm guessing that these machines ultimately will be considered true pieces of art when they are completed.
I was able to see a lot more of BHZA than MG, though MG appears to be quite a bit further along. John said he expects that he'll have prototypes of MG in the next few months. He also said that BHZA is still on schedule, which means Q4 2013, for those counting the days.
CABINET: Both machines use a new style cabinet which is solid plywood, deeper at the top than the traditional B/W and Stern cabinets to accommodate the new LCD screens, and really quite beautiful. All trim pieces are stainless steel. The close-to-final cabinet art that I saw for MG was stunning-- in design, colors, and in printing which was direct to wood and appeared to be a different process than currently being used by JJP. The cabinet art for BHZA also seemed to be close to the final, though not yet printed to wood. If I understood correctly, the legs will be stainless steel as well, with a unique design that appears to fit the cabinet nicely.
PLAYFIELD: I saw several variations of the playfield art for BHZA, all of which looked very interesting. The actual shot layout appeared to be still in flux, with a foam core design mounted inside a near-finished cabinet. One proposed new playfield toy is a zombie head you can customize with your own face, your wife's face, etc. and looked like a combination between the leapers on SS and the ringmaster on CV. I also saw whitewoods for MG which were beautiful and contained a zillion inserts, a couple of which are were shapes unique to this game. John mentioned that only a couple of people have seen the MG playfield art, and alas, I was not one of them. I did see the MG plastics, which looked really good.
BACKGLASS: The BHZA back glass art I saw was only in black and white, and not the final, but a few generations beyond what I have seen posted online. The style of artwork reminded me a bit of the great cartoonist Charles Burns-- very well-done, humorous, and creepy in a very cool and retro way. BHZA in particular looks to be very much a stylistic departure from any pinball machines we've ever seen. I really liked the quality and humor of the art a lot. The MG backglass was noticeably hidden behind paper and blue tape on a finished cabinet.
DISPLAYS: If you look at John's website you'll see I'm not giving anything away here, but these machines will both feature a 19" Color LCD mounted on the play field like CV. I saw some of the custom animations for MG, and I was pretty well amazed. I won't give away more than to just say JPop's idea about replacing the traditional DMD trumps JJP's by a few miles.
INNOVATION: I asked John a couple of times about how much stuff I could tell people, and he pretty much said tell people whatever is reasonable, just don't ruin all the surprises. While I have held back most of the specific details, I can tell you both of these machines appear to have many innovations which will be copied. Much of the secrecy and NDA stuff is due to patent filings which John said have resulted in at least a few new patents for these two machines. I'm not sure how many $10-16K pinball machines a company could sell, but if they all look like I expect these two to look when completed, I'd say JPOP's #3 is going to sell out very, very fast. That being said, John's plan is to continue to innovate, and he plans on building more machines for at least the next 10 years,
BUILD-QUALITY: John is designing all of his brackets and mechs in CAD, and many of the boards from scratch. I looked at a lot of stuff, much of which was heavy-duty stainless steel and beautifully built. He's building these machines to last forever.
TEAM: John is very clearly the guy in charge, but it looks like he has a great team of both talented young guys just breaking into pinball, as well as a few veteran pinball guys behind the scenes. One of the things that impressed me the most, after spending quite a bit of time with him, is John's knowledge and involvement of seemingly every aspect of the designing and building of pinball machines. Yes, he is-- in my opinion-- one of the best DESIGNERS to ever work in pinball, but he is also a mega-idea guy with the practical ability to test and build the physical object, and he understands how to manage a team.
THE "COOL" FACTOR: I've read a few comments on Pinside how John is building machines for the elite collector. I'd like to counter that with this thought: If you could buy a NIB machine as cool as TOTAN, TOM and/or CV, wouldn't you sell a machine or two to get there? That's where I am at this point in my collecting life. While I've bought a few NIB Sterns, I've never taken the plunge for a MM, CC, or BBB. BHZA is less expensive than any of those three, will be NIB when I get it, have stuff none of those machines have, and probably be a lot cooler looking and better built. Will it be as much fun, or hopefully, even more fun to play than the newer Sterns or the classic B/W machines? Well, that's really the $64,000 question. Definitely expect these machines to be cooler than anything we've seen from Stern in the last ten years, and to trump JJP in the innovation department.
CONCLUSION: As I stated in the beginning of this post, I fully expect these machines to be considered works of art when they are completed. That said, as much as the next guy, I like to PLAY pinball machines, not just look at them. So, if BHZA and MG turn out to be REALLY FUN to play, then these games and JPop are destined to inspire a new generation (and maybe some of the old generation) to rethink the way games are designed and built. While it is true that with only 19 MG's and 124 BHZA's being built many people may never get to see or play one, I think the influence of these games will spill over to the general pinball hobby, and hopefully to the other manufacturers. And perhaps with that in mind, as I suggested to him myself, John will be persuaded to make his next few games a little less exclusive, with larger runs.
Ultimately I went to see JPop and the Zidware shop to decide whether I was moving forward with my own order for BHZA. In the end, I not only affirmed my confidence in the project and the progress being made, but I also came away with a new respect for John, and caused my own excitement level to go up about 10 notches. I hope to visit the shop again next summer, but in the meantime I'm really hoping for more updates, and to finally see the Magic Girl prototypes in the Spring.