"Actually, it's done," Benjamin J. Heckendorn tells me. "I finished it last night."
His voice holds perhaps a hint of quiet triumph, but mostly he just sounds matter-of-fact. That's typical. Though the Verona resident is a minor deity in certain circles, and though he'll talk at length about anything if you get him going, he's no blowhard. Still, this latest accomplishment - a unique one at that - has been nearly five years in the making. He could be forgiven for indulging in a little boasting.
I mean, we're talking about a Bill Paxton pinball machine.
If that strikes you as underwhelming - well, you are wrong. But we'll get to that.
There should be an obvious historical or fictional analogue for Heckendorn, but no one jumps to mind. He's a polymath - among other things, he does carpentry, art, mechanics, audio and video editing, electronics, computer programming and math, and writes too - but his output is more esoteric than, say, da Vinci's or Benjamin Franklin's, as his best-known works are all connected to videogaming. He's largely self-taught, with little formal higher education, but unlike 19th-century British natural philosopher Michael Faraday, he's focused on completing specific projects rather than unlocking the mysteries of science.
And Heckendorn is not quite Q, who supplies James Bond with an endless array of clever gadgets. He works alone in his workshop in the second bedroom of his townhouse. Nor is he really a Gandalf, although there is a faintly magical or alchemical aura about him, an ingenious crafter of wonderful toys. (He built a portable PlayStation more than three years before Sony.)
He is, however, like all the best wizards, known by a memorable moniker that is not his given name. In the gaming, tech and gadget community, referring to "Benjamin Heckendorn" might be cause for a moment's pause - but they know exactly who you mean when you say Ben Heck.
Ben Heck is a modder. "Modding" is a term used mostly by videogamers, and generally means modifying a piece of hardware or software so that it does something its maker didn't intend.
In Heckendorn's case, his first major modding project was building a portable version of the original big home gaming system, the Atari 2600. It was 2000, and he was working as a graphic artist for a sign company.
"It took me a couple months, and then I thought I should make a website about it," he says. It was kind of a lark. "But the website generated all this interest, and I just couldn't believe it. I didn't think anyone else cared about these old Ataris. But I was quite wrong."
The piece, which he still owns, is entirely functional and elegant in an appropriately retro fashion. It's appeared in a couple of art exhibitions in New York City. More important, though, is that when Heckendorn put it online, it spurred other game aficionados to contract him to build portable Ataris for them, as well. Then he built a portable Super Nintendo and the aforementioned pre-PSP portable PlayStation.
"Then in 2004, I got a book deal," he says.
The result was Hacking Video Game Consoles: Turn Your Old Video Game Systems Into Awesome New Portables. "Not that book deals make you a lot of money, but I'm like, 'Well, it's gonna take awhile to write this, so I guess it's a good time to switch careers.' And since then, I never really got around to working for the man again." He describes what he does as "prototyping and design."
Now 34, Heckendorn grew up in Richland Center, about an hour northwest of Madison. His father died when he was young, and his family was not wealthy. "When I was a kid, I had one of those RadioShack kits, and I had to reuse solder, because my parents would only buy me so much," he says.
He was never especially into science, but loved creating stuff. As a child, he played with Lincoln Logs and Legos and Erector sets; in high school, he got into filmmaking. His latest effort, 2008's Possumus Woman, is a sequel to his first production, 1995's Possumus Man. Both movies - about a murderous man-size possum - are amateur in the best sense: goofy and lacking in professional polish, but well structured, made with love and highly watchable.
"Possumus Woman didn't even have a script, just a very detailed outline that we came up with in two hours," Heckendorn says. "I don't consider myself that good of a writer - I like making the movie. Even with theatrical films, if I buy a DVD, the first thing I do is listen to the commentary."
His interest in tangible results is overriding, and a big part of why he dropped out of college at UW-Richland Center after half a year. "I know a lot of people have the same problem, but I can't learn anything unless I have a use for it," he says. "And I've drifted along enough now that I've never had to go back to school, which is kind of dangerous, maybe. But as long people keep wanting my stuff...."
Which they do. Heckendorn gets numerous requests from people to build things, but at this point takes only jobs that interest him. About half his income comes from individuals, he says, and the rest from companies that hire him to do prototyping and design consultation. Among other things, he's designed controller monitors that measure the delay between working a joystick and the response onscreen and a high-end surround-sound headset. He did a prop for last year's Tucker Max movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. ("That cost more than all of Possumus Woman," he says.)
And even his gaming designs can serve a serious purpose. His Access Controller, distributed by eDimensional Inc., is a one-handed joystick for PS2s, PS3s, PCs and Xbox 360s aimed at disabled gamers. In 2008, he came up with a pedal that would allow such gamers to play Guitar Hero with only one hand, too.
"Here's a piece of hardware that directly changes someone's life, and I don't think a lot of people can say that," says Mark Barlet, CEO and president of the Able Gamers Foundation. "I think Ben really kind of relishes a challenge, and I know he's had a few disabled friends - buddies who've come back from Iraq or Afghanistan not in the same manner in which they left."
He's also had a perceptible influence on modding as a hobby. Jonathan Jandran, a 36-year-old modder from Georgia who goes by "Hailrazer" on the forums at benheck.com - which Heckendorn started five or six years ago as a way to let others discuss and show off their own mods - says he only began to appreciate all the mods that were possible when he saw Ben's site.
"His were the very first portables I saw, and that's what got me started," Jandran says. "I said, 'Heck, I could probably do that.' It was a lot more complicated than I first thought, but when his book came out, that helped a lot."
"What Ben has managed to do is not only get people interested in his work and buying his work, but get them interested in doing it themselves," says Nilay Patel, senior associate editor of tech blog Engadget, where Heckendorn is a regular contributor. "There are other people doing what he does, but not with the sort of name recognition he has. When we say 'Ben Heck,' our mainstream tech readers know what we mean."
"That's probably true," Heckendorn says, after I tell him that Jandran said he was perceived in the modding community as "kind of above everybody. Like, he's respected, but they think of him as somebody who's beyond just talking with the laymen."
"I don't know. I try to be down-to-earth," Heckendorn says. "But you do definitely notice something when you build something and you see it on the Internet, and it's not like, 'Person Creates Bill Paxton Pinball Machine.' Instead, it's like, 'Ben Heck Creates It.'"
He wears the trappings of his fame well. Never once do I get the sense that he thinks he's all that, and his unabashedly populist taste in matters of art and culture isn't an affectation. MGD is his go-to brew. ("Your readers should know he consumes massive amounts of beer," Barlet tells me. Heckendorn himself has already admitted that, though: "Oh, totally - I'm creative! Of course I drink all the time," he says, tongue mostly in cheek.) His drug of choice is Diet Pepsi, for the caffeine. And when it comes to the music he likes, only a 34-year-old man who was entirely comfortable with himself could respond as he does.
"Lately I've been into Shania Twain," he says. He sighs. "I remember when she was popular, and I hated her. Ten years later, I'm like, 'I kinda miss her.' It's the damnedest thing." Heckendorn laughs, but he makes no excuses.
He is proud of his work, of course, but not disproportionately so. "I don't know - I made that pinball machine!" he says. "But I'm still learning. I'm certainly no expert. I tell people that over and over, because I don't want them to be confused. I wouldn't say I'm humble enough, but I'm definitely smart enough to know I don't know everything."
As for the pinball machine - and its curious Bill Paxton motif - Heckendorn started building it in May 2005 because he kinda wanted one, and because he figured it would provide sufficiently multidisciplinary stimulation. Without a lot of instructions available online, he began by seeking out pinball machines to take measurements.
"It's a fun challenge - woodworking, art, programming, sound. It's basically got everything," he says. "I wanted to do it because I knew it would be difficult. Other people have made them before, but I wanted to make it really good."
The theme was secondary, but offered the opportunity for some fun features. This is no basic tilt-and-flippers contraption - there are 13 modes, covering a range of Paxton's acting and directing career. In Big Love mode, you have to play three balls at once, mirroring the character's three wives; in U-571 mode, your ball immediately drops through a hole to a sublevel, apropos of a submarine picture.
There is LED animation and audio clips (including, naturally, Paxton's famous "Game over, man! Game over!" from Aliens. There's also an empty Hamm's can that crushes and reforms itself when certain targets are hit (the actor drinks the beer in a number of his movies).
Heckendorn worked on the machine off and on, kicking it into high gear last summer to finish it in time for last month's Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee. The machine was free to play in the BenHeck.com Experience room, where the trade show's attendees could also stop in to work on mods, have their own mods examined or just say hi to Heckendorn. "Uh, do you have a Sharpie?" one mildly awestruck visitor asked him, holding a computer component. "I want you to autograph some RAM."
It's not entirely clear what he'll work on next, but he offhandedly mentions at one point that he'd like to build his own car. "I'm definitely gonna need some more welding skills before I can do that," he says.
"I just keep trying to make new stuff," Heckendorn says. "I don't know. I think a lot of kids, if they tried, they could kick my ass. And I hope they do, because we need more of the engineering mind-set in our country. It's kinda sad how people think anything more complex than getting off your couch is magic - just the fact that you put the effort into doing something is amazing to them. But really, it's not magic."