Custom Bill Paxton pinball machine by Ben Heck

The list of people making custom pinball machines keeps on growing.
Benjamin Heckendorn is working on his own custom pinball machine about actor Bill Paxton. Read his blog at to read how he continues working on the machine. We've interviewed him to learn more about this game.

Ben is busy since 2005 working on this pinball machine. His goal is to have it ready and display it on March 27, 2010 at the 2010 Midwest Gaming Classic.
On his youtube channel you can find some movies of him working on the pinball machine and making parts for it.

This article is a work in progress at the moment.. will be updated when his machine is ready !

So for the people who've never heard of you or your website, can you explain who you are and what you do ?
I am Benjamin J Heckendorn, often referred to as Benheck since my website is (couldn't pass up a 7 character dot com, could I?) I am a full time modder / prototype designer. Most of my work is in the field of videogames. I also build a lot of customized controllers for persons with disabilities.

Do you have other pinball machines ? How did you get into pinball ? When did you start buying games ?
I've always enjoyed pinball machines, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find them in the wild. I do not own any machine prior to this one.

How did you get the idea of making a custom pinball machine ?
Well it was about 5 years ago, I was working on a design for my own custom Neo Geo arcade machine and thought 'I should do a pinball next'. While my customers enjoy portable Xbox 360s and such, for myself I am much more interested in building arcade type units. Plus I knew a pinball machine would be very complicated and difficult and that was an interesting challenge I wanted to take.
The theme also came very quickly, probably a matter of seconds after deciding to do a machine. I've always liked Bill Paxton as an actor, and it gives my machine a lot of stuff to draw from.

Do you work on the game all by yourself or do you get help ? Do you work alone or it is a team of people ?
On certain parts I've had help, building the cabinet, applying artwork, 2 man jobs so to speak. But primarily I've done most of the work (and all of the design) myself. Jeri Ellsworth has given me advice on several occasions, which I much appreciate.

Do you have already an idea of how the finished game will look like, or do you just try something new and see if it works ? (rules, layout, ..)
Well the cabinet (which I built from scratch) already has artwork and there's a translite for the back box. (You can find pics on my site) As for rules and scoring, there are several modes all based off Bill Paxton movies. For instance in 'Aliens' mode you have to clear the drop targets before you run out of bullets to shoot the Aliens with. In 'Titanic' you have to get the ball through a wrecked Titanic maze to find the diamond, etc.

Now we only see the bare whitewood, is the goal to have a complete finished game (with artwork, complex rules, sounds, ..) ? or more to try and see where you end up ? Will you also do the artwork, sounds, .. by yourself ?
Yes there will be a finished game. Wood is cheap and I knew I wouldn't get it right on the first try so all along I planned to route a couple revisions of the board to test out shots and ideas. The game is fully playable with the test revision, which allows me to work on programming even without a final design.
The final board will have full artwork, lit playfield inserts, everything. It should look pretty badass.

Do you already have any idea what technology you'll use to control the game ? How to read switches, drive solenoids and lamps, .. ?
That is already in place. I use a Parallax Propeller as the main CPU, it's handy because it has 8 'cores' for multitasking. At any given time the machine is playing a sound, playing music, doing the display, looking at the I/O and doing game logic. So multiple cores are pretty handy !
Sound and music are each on their own SD card with separate file systems so they can run simultaneously. They are mixed on the way to the sound amp (my mixer is currently 4 resistors, gotta put in a good one) The file system is FAT so you can load them using a PC.
The LED dot matrix display (which I assembled and wired by hand from scratch) can display text (scrolling or static), the score or animations. Originally the animations were loaded directly off the SD card in native Windows Bitmap format, but the conversion process to make them work on my display was too slow.
So what I did was to make a separate program that converts the bitmaps into a stream of bytes that can be easily sent to the display. These streams are then stored in the upper unused 32k of the program EEPROM, for very fast access during the game. I can hold 128 4-frame animations on the EEPROM, though I highly doubt I'll need that many !
There is also a panning system for the animations, for example, a static animation of a rocket can be made to "pan" across the screen, or you can scroll up and down to reveal animations in progress.
Ironically, though the system can hold 4 gigs of audio and music, the game program itself must fit within 32k! Since most of the kernel is done, I know it will, thankfully :)
The switch sensors use banks of shift registers, as do the light and solenoid control. The system can control 64 lights, sense 64 switches, activate 16 solenoids as well as 16 bits currently unassigned, probably low power motor control.
I haven't done an exact test on the speed of the kernel, but I estimate it does about 200 cycles a second.

What are your favorite pinball machines and designers ? Is the layout of your custom games influenced by a certain designer or games, or do you go for a more original approach ?
That's hard to answer since I'm not an old school hardcore pinball guy. I will concede that I like modern machines more than EM's since there's a lot more going on and it makes better excitement. I do remember the first DMD game I played, it was Data East's Batman.
I guess growing up in the age of 8-bit computers it was thrilling whenever a machine could do digitized speech, so once that started showing up in pins I was quite impressed.
I will say some things I like on machines (and thus I want those features in mine):
Seeing pop bumpers - Some games you wouldn't even know they're there if it weren't for the sound of you hitting them. So I've made mine quite visible and easy to shoot the ball into. Pop bumpers are very gratifying.
Spring ball shooter - I wanted a traditional feel so there's a ball shooter instead of a electronic kicker.
Audio clips - My machine has 178 Bill Paxton movie quotes, plus sound FX. Music is from his band Martini Ranch and also the scores from his movies.

Update: The machine is now finished, read Bens blog for all details of the completed pinball machine!