The Pinball Blog. The Machines. The People. The Events. The Addiction! Pinball Heroes: Industry Interviews.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Pinball Heroes: John Popadiuk

Time for another Pinball Heroes guest and this week it's the man behind Cirqus Voltaire, Theatre of Magic & Tales of the Arabian Nights!

John Popadiuk.

Let me start by saying John has been a really great guy helping me put the interview together and if you have any questions, he is happy to answer them. Leave a comment at the bottom of the interview and I'll make sure John sees it. Or if it's not suitable for public consumption, drop me a line and I'll forward it on.

The Pinball Blog. Your first production game came a while after you'd started in the industry. What were your roles before World Cup Soccer and was there a particular industry figure you most enjoyed working with?

John Popadiuk. Well this is a big question....we will need to do another interview. I started working at the Bally Pinball Division at the ripe old age of 19! Norm Clark brought me in to work in engineering with legends like Jim Patla, Greg Kmiec, Gary Gayton, George Christiansen, Greg Freres, Paul Faris, Ward Pemberton, Claude Fernandez, etc.....My first job was lab tech in the whitewood lab. It was a wild job! At that time all themes were attached to games AFTER the whitewood was playing well. Not the way we do it today. I was able to work with everyone at Bally and eventually Williams after Bally was bought in 1988. To meet Steve Ritchie the first time was amazing...after playing and operating all his games. Same for Greg and Jim......the Bally group was a big family, we would all work together, and then hang out later at nights all the time. Many got married just becuase we all were always doing stuff. Sometimes we would go into the city and mix with the Williams designers for a night of gossip.....something that was not allowed.

As far as who i enjoyed working with...that's a tough one. As a designer you are linked to so many people in the factory and in sales support. But honestly, and Cameron Silver or Duncan Brown might agree, probably the factory people I enjoyed working with the most. They were responsible for building your game from scratch, so we would really *live* with them daily and get to know them very well. Their family's, dogs, grandmas, etc....Games going into the carton, World Cup Soccer did almost 300 a day, meant jobs for us and revenue for Williams or Bally. In the old days I heard they used to ring a bell at Williams everytime an order of games were sold. We all worked our butts off on the assembly line, some days sweating it out if the air was not working. Great memories of a great time. And that new pinball smell.....ahhhh!!

TPB. How did you get your job at Bally?

JP. I bought Roger Sharpe's book on Pinball.... and wrote Norm Clark a letter. He invited me for a factory tour...and at lunch I told him I was not returning home and he would have to hire me. And he did, on the spot! I had been working for a pinball jobber for a while, so I knew the ins and outs of pinball repair, construction, I was useful on day 1 at the Pinball Division. Bally became my family and I met then a host of great lifelong friends.

TPB. Towards the end of the 1990s the powers that be asked designers to come up with something different to save pinball. Your own concept looked for a while to possibly be the direction they were heading before the Pinball 2000 idea was chosen. Can you tell us more about it?

JP. Well after TotAN, I knew pinball needed something new. I worked in my off hours on a new project that was to take a Nintendo Game System and merge it to our pinball hardware. Only a few people at WMS + Midway knew what I was doing...but the idea of a digital commercial pinball game seemed to be a natural extension. Kids know pinball today from the computer.

So I worked on this at WMS from my original designs I showed Jim Patla in 1993 from a very cool game called TILT. It was a hybrid game that had a digital ball on the playfield. The real ball would "digitize" into the computer ball....really cool......We experimented with this on ToM and Cirqus Voltaire. So when I was asked to come up with something, it was easy to get the pinball 2000 concept game built. Originally it was just called Virtual Pinball. The whole mock up was completed in 3 weeks. We chose Mace ( a Midway Game) as the theme because we could get art from Midway for the cabinet and playfield. Mark Weyna and Lyman Sheats did the other work, actually Lyman has a very basic game built with some code and effects. We presented a full size working mockup to management...and they decided to move forward with this idea and give us 2 years to turn around pinball.

This design had a new backbox with a digital screen and art. The ideas was to leave the playfield the same for now (as it was buildable) and introduce this Nintendo *feel* into the game via backbox art. It had a new cabinet that would fold up so the operators could easily transport the game. Overall it was a real jolt of pinball excitement for us in engineering, and it was a time that the whole pinball group at WMS were unified as one force to save pinball....all Ego's aside. But that did not last for long unfortunately. The pinball 2000 story really starts from here......a loooooong story......with an unhappy ending.

TPB. You have a very good knowledge of the history of pinball, how did historical pinball machine features influence your own designs?

JP. Well I think we have a mandate to keep the tradition of pinball alive (King for a Day) keeping the great pinball features in new games is a super idea. Most of what we know as modern pinball was designed a long time ago: spring plunger, scoring holes, bumpers, double level rails, flippers, magnetic things, not really much is new. It makes sense to keep the *retro* cool pinball stuff current. Ties the modern game with the historic game. Actually a lot of cool stuff was built 75 years ago, inside great rule sets like Contact, Ballyhoo or Spinball (really old games).

TPB. You're working at Zizzle now. With that fella down under not making pinball machines and times reportedly being tough at Stern, is there a possibility we could see an arcade sized pinball from Zizzle?

JP. A full size game was never in the plan for Zizzle, a completely different business model to support. It could be done relatively easily, but actually the 5 Zizzle's made to date took almost the same time to design and engineer as a commercial game. Building a full size game that actually looks cool and makes money is a tall order.

TPB. Would you like your children to follow in your footsteps or are you hoping they'll get proper jobs?

JP. Well I think I have a proper job. But the Popadiuk house is full of inventing, computers, gadgets, pinball parts, markers, paint, robotic animals and the sort. We turn off the TV and go dig in the dirt as much as we can. Actually my oldest daughter Isabella (8) and I are developing game ideas now for the iPhone and Nintendo DSi platforms. The twins Donna + Zophia (3) are the UI testers...

TPB. I believe you appear in a video sequence on Star Wars Episode 1. Did you get to choose your own character or was the force strong with the casting staff?

JP. Yes I am the motion capture character of Qui Gon Jin from Star Wars. For SW:EI we had a lot of animation to do, so it was decided that capturing real footage would fit our timeline better than do all the animations from mocap + Max/Maya work. Which is very time intensive. I had long hair like QG and kinda the same it worked. I had to take some Jedi lightsaber training as I didn't get my hand cut off. Kevin O'Connor is Darth Maul...we used to practice the scenes at his house in the driveway! All the neighbors would stare at us.

TPB. Any idea why Cirqus Voltaire was so popular among the gay community?

JP. The happy music and bright colors? Who knows. But it is one of the most popular home games today! Was supposed to be our homage to the Voltaire and the French...who brought pinball to America in the 1700's. Gotta' love the French.

TPB. You told me recently that the next Zizzle game is an Atari license for the first time in 30 years. Did Atari think you were joking when you approached them about making a licensed pinball product with their name?

JP. Actually Atari is very nice to work with. They just want to rebuild the brand, but it is cool that Superman was produced about 30 years ago! The Zizzle version of Atari Classic is really great, good music + sfx. Fantastic new art package. Another Zizzle team effort!

Tell us more about your job today at Zizzle, your responsibilities and whether you got to give yourself a funky job title?

JP. As the Zizzle Creative Director (not my title choice) I was responsible for anything creative and graphic. From toy ideas, to packaging to designing tradeshow exhibits and dvd demos. We had a small team of professionals who did a ton of work in short order. Currently I am in the process of building a new design and game development company here in Chicago.....more news on that very soon!

TPB. Who would YOU like to see featured as one of our Pinball Heroes and why?

JP. A tough one. I think all the folk behind the scenes who make pinball are really heros. It's a tough climate for the game today, and has all but vanished from the popular culture.

TPB. Finally, we always ask our Pinball Heroes to sum up their involvement in pinball with one word or sentence.

JP. I have been allowed to be *King for a Day*...and hopefully will be allowed to be again!

There are more pictures for this interview below. Many, many thanks to John Popadiuk for his great answers and more Pinball Heroes will be featured soon.


The Pinball Blog

Pictures Courtesy:
John Popadiuk
Jim Schelberg (PinGame Journal)
Gary Flower

Gary Flower & John Popadiuk
Jack Skalon, who engineered all of John Popadiuk's games. "The best pinball engineer ever." He is checking the engineering sample to make sure all the parts fit within tolerance before prototype production.
John Popadiuk as Qui Gon Jin
The white SW works-like proto was built with 1 mode, and the cabinet was built only on 1 side....for a big presentation....prior to WMS agreeing to the license from Lucas.
The "Kid" Jake Lloyd playing the SW:EI game at the Star Wars convention in Denver. The game was transported all wrapped in black plastic during shipping per Lucasfilm!
Cameron Silver and John Popadiuk building proto#1 in the lab. "Cameron would have built all the games by himself if he had the time".
Duncan Brown, Mike Hanley, John Popadiuk & Gary Flower