Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t a hotbed of pinball by any stretch of the imagination. However, pinball is alive and well in the ABQ. The local group of enthusiasts, Duke City Pinball, is enjoying record numbers and the city can boast that it is home to both Don of the Pinball Podcast and the good people at Mezelmods. In less than one year Tim Mezel and Kristen Browning-Mezel (pronounced like the spotty disease) have been creating, making and selling pinball modifications that can be classified as “MUST HAVES” for the machines they are manufactured for. You probably know them best for their Metallica snake fangs and the “Donut Heaven” mod for High Speed II: The Getaway. I got a chance to ask the Mezel’s better half, Kristin, a few questions about how the company began, the mod creation process and Pinball Podcast Don’s frequent visits.
Credit Dot: Can you give me an idea who makes up the Mezel Mods team?
Kristin Browning-Mezel: Our team is small but efficient. Tim is the entrepreneur and the founder of Mezelmods. He doesn’t rest until his latest mod idea is up and running. I’m the business operations person which includes everything from marketing, sales, customer service, inventory management and manufacturing. Don Walton [of Pinball Podcast fame] works in what I call Mezelmods West. He lives right around the corner and pours hours of his time into the electrical work behind most our mods. He’s also the brains behind the mods we’ve produced for Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz.
CD: How long have you been in business?
KBM: A whopping seven months! When I joined Tim in December he had just hit it big with the Metallica snake fangs. He was drowning in orders. Ever since, we’ve had consistently growing revenue.
CD: The “Donut Heaven” mod for The Getaway: High Speed 2 was another mod that helped put you on the map. Can you give me some insight as to what inspired the original build, and how it morphed into what it is today?
KBM: Tim got interested in pinball mods after purchasing the Getaway. He found the metal bracket above the ball launch distracting and ugly. After combing Pinside, he found others that felt the same way, and also the plans for a Donut Heaven café which was rumored to have been part of the original design for the game. His first effort to build Donut Heaven was less than sufficient. The materials available at the hobby shop just didn’t cut it. So, he decided to buy a 3D printer (technology he had coveted for some time) to build the mod. The feedback from Pinsiders was overwhelming and the rest, as they say, is history.
CD: Was the success of Donut Heaven that moment when you said to yourself “I can make a living from this!”?
KBM: I’m not sure we are convinced that we can make a living off of this yet! That being said, after Donut Heaven, Tim began to see many opportunities to mod Metallica. Those mods continue to be widely successful. As a result, we frequently talk about the possibility of growing the business into other aspects of pinball, and beyond into other niche hobby markets.
CD: How do you decide what mods get made?
KBM: We’ve had a few knock down drag outs over what to make, and what not to make. I want to make more for WOZ, whereas Tim says we are done. But in all honesty, Tim is the entrepreneur. He looks at the machine for places where something is missing or could use improvement. My involvement starts once a concept has been formulated and we are ready to start refining the idea.
CD: Tron and AC/DC top the list of Pinball’s Most Modded, having more mods available than any other game. Collectors really seem to love to mod their Stern games right out of the box: the mods you offer reflect this. Why does this trend exist?
KBM: The Stern business model lends itself to adding mods. The three tiered approach to releasing machines–Pro, Premium and Limited Edition models–means the lower two tiers quite often have lots of space for mods. Additionally, Stern seems to focus on what they are best at: building a great game around a popular theme. They have one or two centerpiece playfield ‘toys’ that are accentuated by colors and graphics. This leaves tons of room for modders to make interesting additions.
CD: After a mod is first made, how long, if at all, is it play tested in the machine it is made for?
KBM: Test time varies by mod. Some mods, drop targets for example, have to go through extensive testing, up to a month on multiple machines, prior to launch. Others simply need to be tried out for a few weeks.
CD: Quite a few of your products are dependent on 3D Printing technology. Can you give us some insight into what equipment you use?
KBM: We currently utilize a consumer grade printer by Makerbot and are in discussions to partner with a firm with more high-end, business printers. We want to be able to develop mods using technology that our Makerbot is not capable of producing.
CD: How many mods are too many mods in a pinball machine? Is there such thing as “over-modding”?
KBM: To mod or not to mod; that is the question. Some keep their machines pristine. Others come close to creating their own little version of pinball hoarding with trinkets everywhere. Modding is a matter of personal preference. We believe that the best mods are those that could have been included pre-market. They are obvious gaps: a snake without fangs, a dark area in the playfield, a trinket that was planned but cut from the final design. Those types of mods sell like crazy. While we sell trinkets or add-ons to the game, personally, we don’t like to over do it.
CD: What are your thoughts about Stern’s announcement of the “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” of Metallica? This is basically a “modded” machine straight from the factory! Is it worth the enormous price tag for what you get?
KBM: There are pinball fanatics who are also music fanatics who will no doubt pick up this game. Collectors may also be interested in this game because Metallica is likely going to end up on the majority of collectors’ top ten lists. It is a great game. Combine that with custom artwork and it is likely worth it to the right person. While it is a hefty price tag, the custom painting looks fantastic. Bottom line, this is a niche machine for a very specific audience.
CD: A game such as Funhouse has very little available, mod-wise. It stands out because it was a high production game with a theme that lends itself to adding “theme park” augmentations. What makes a game like Funhouse “immune” to modding?
KBM: Our biggest limiter to modding new machines such as Funhouse is accessibility to the machine. Tim’s creative genius comes from hours of play and staring at the playfield. While having Don’s machines just down the street has helped, nothing replaces having the pin at home. Maybe we will open an arcade so we have access to more machines!
CD: Can you give us a sneak peak on what new products do you have on the horizon?
KBM: The Wizard of Oz State Fair mod is just about to be released thanks to Don’s hard work. We are also working on a pretty cool backbox addition for AC/DC. One of our customers is testing a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Idol mod which is just about ready for prime time, too. Our next machine to work with is World Cup Soccer ‘94! Expecting great things from that one!
CD: How active are you in the social aspect of the hobby?
KBM: We are very active…social butterflies in social media, as it were! Pinside is our go-to place to get feedback on new mods and to find out what customers might want to see next. We are slowly, but steadily, growing our fan base on Facebook and Twitter. Come check us out! Like our page! Follow us! [Ed. note: links can be found at the conclusion of the interview.]
CD: What is your best selling mod to date?
KBM: Hands down our Metallica snake fangs. They have sold like gangbusters. This is likely due to what I mentioned previously about the best types of mods. If we had the chance, we would have loved to have manufactured these for Stern pre-market. Virtually everyone agrees: the Metallica snake needs its fangs!
CD: What games are in the Mezel gameroom currently?
KBM: We currently have eight games occupying a good bit of our front room and garage. The three games in the front room are primarily being modded–Metallica, AC/DC and High Speed 2. In the garage we have Johnny Mnemonic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Wars, Revenge From Mars and a currently non-functional World Cup Soccer ‘94. Have we mentioned the cobbler has no shoes? My WCS94 has been down since the business started!
CD: What is the pinball scene like in Albuquerque?
KBM: Small. And we’d love to change that. One of our business ideas is an arcade/restaurant in the 505’s downtown area. We know there are folks out there who play, we just don’t have a ‘go-to’ place here in town. We do have a group of enthusiasts organized under the Duke City Pinball banner.
CD: With Don from the Pinball Podcast being a neighbour, I imagine he comes over to “borrow a cup of sugar” quite a bit and ends up in your gameroom…
KBM: Pre-Mezelmods, Don and Tim did quite a bit of pinball visiting. Now that we are running full tilt (no pun intended) most of our get-togethers are business related. We talk about the best gauge of wire, what kind of Molex connectors we need, and the best type of LEDs. OK…we maybe talk a little pinball in between, but we hardly have a chance to play together!
CD: Any closing thoughts for the modest group of readers out there?
KBM: We love getting ideas from fellow players. If you have an idea for one of your machines please get in touch with us. We love partnering with customers on a new mod!