Ben Heck interview – Part I from Random Bits

Happy New Years everyone! As a New Years gift I’m proud to announce an exclusive interview conducted with one of the heroes of our industry, Benjamin Heckendorn, A.K.A. Ben Heck. Lucky for us Ben’s Corn Dog only distracted him for a short moment, allowing plenty of time for us to get down to business. In part one of this two part interview we hear from Ben about his modding career and some specifics around his tools of the trade. Part two of the interview focuses on Ben’s Xbox 360 projects, and what he’s working on going forward.

Outside of completing the actual projects, you have accomplished many things such as an appearance on G4, articles for Engadget, and interviews by Reuters and HackADay. Out of these types of events, what do you feel has been your crowning achievement and why?
I was pretty proud of being in Popular Science and Maxim in the same year. I thought that was an interesting justification, personally. I know that sounds a bit weird, but I thought it was interesting.

Why those in particular?
I don’t know. It just seems like two different sides to the spectrum of publications you could be in during a three month period. I thought that was kind of funny.

What year was that in?
Oh gosh, I think it was 2005. I know it was regarding my book. Yea, that’s probably right. It was published in February, 2005.

Outside of your modding career, what other jobs have you held, and did the exposure of modding affect them in any way?
Well I was a graphic artist before I started this and even while I was doing this. That certainly helped from a design standpoint, and with computers, machinery, and stuff like that. I learned a lot because I do a lot of computer designs with this stuff, and of course I do my own website, too, at least the graphical parts. So that certainly helped. You know I’ve always been interested in video games and stuff, but it wasn’t until I got better at design that I was able to do the things I do [now].

For aspiring modders, how did your career start, and how did you grow it into what it has become today?
Well originally my hobbies used to be internet film, although sometimes I still do that, like I did one this year. I just finished one of those, and this was probably about.. Man, it’s been going on 9 years now. I was like, “Well, I’ll try something different for a hobby.” And I, you know, built my Atari, my original one, and I was like, “This is fun,” and I just kind of you know, did it.  I put it on the internet and people were interested in it. Far more [people] than I would have ever guessed. When I started doing it for a living was when I started my book. I figured that was a good time for a transition. So that’s pretty much how that worked. I kept getting more and more requests. I still do, I still get more requests even in “tough economic times.

Was it a big transition for you?
Not really, no. I mean, I didn’t have any tingling sensations or anything.  It took me a while to write my book, it was like 12 hours a day. It wasn’t terribly difficult but it was time consuming. So, you know, it was a good time to change careers anyway. So when I got done I just kept making things and I guess, never really had a lull so I just kept going. Lately, in the past couple of years I’ve been doing even better, so that’s good. It’s about perseverance I guess.

You certainly have many successes, are there any projects that you feel became complete failures, and if so, why?
Oh sure. Well I still haven’t finished my Commodore 64 laptop. Actually I’m starting it over from scratch, and I’ve been working on it for over two years. That’s pretty bad. I was building a Mame cabinet for someone, and my first version of that pretty much failed utterly, so I had to start that over from scratch. So my new thing to do is start things from scratch.

I tried to build a GameCube portable, that failed utterly but other people have done it so that’s fine, I don’t need to do it [now]. There are certainly tons of things I would like to do but I will never get off the ground like my pinball machine, modify a radio, I mean like a really old radio. But I haven’t done that yet. Not failures, [I] just haven’t done them [yet].

There are certainly projects I did that I wish I hadn’t done. Like the ColecoVision portable was a pain in the ass, N64 portable was a pain in the ass. The first Xbox Live stuff I made was an enormous pain in the ass that I didn’t make any money on it, or very little compared to how much time it took. However, it certainly got the balls rolling so it was worth it from that aspect.

Specifically, what tools and brands of tools do you keep in your workshop, and which ones do you use most frequently?
I just use cheapy Radio Shack soldering irons. I guess I could get a soldering station but I haven’t really seen the need. I use my Dremel a lot. I didn’t actually use one of those for quite a while. I’m not actually sure how I got along without it. You can never have enough Dremel cut off wheels. [They're] very useful. Let’s see, what else. I have tons and tons of screwdrivers and TORX bits. [You] can never have enough of that stuff. Hot glue. Tons of hot glue. And tons and tons of screws. I like to buy things in bulk, well, not really in bulk, but I’m like “Oh yea! I need to get a bunch of screws!” so I always have all manor of screws lying around, and LEDs, and all sorts of stuff.

I wouldn’t say any brands in particular, but it’s always good to have a lot of “things” lying around. I have no problem going the hardware store and buying every package of hot glue they have or super glue, because I know I’ll use it.

Read part two of the interview where Ben describes his Xbox 360 projects, and what he’s working on going forward. And remember to check out Ben’s site at

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