If you’re new to the hobby of pinball, either as a player, or a collector, technician, or whatever, you may be interested in a little history regarding the hobby, so you know where the current games are coming from. On this page the focus will mainly be the past 25 years. Obviously there is a lot more history to tell, which other websites already have done. See the links at the bottom of this page for some of them.
The big players
While over the years there have been many different manufacturers of pinball, only a few managed to become truly big players. The most common brand names are: Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, Data East, Sega, Stern, Capcom and (since 2011) Jersey Jack. In the 60’s, when all games were still ElectroMechanical, Williams (started in 1944) and Gottlieb (started in 1931) were the major manufacturers. Bally (started in 1931) was around, but only started making a name for themselves in the mid and late 70’s. Bally really propelled itself to the foreground when Solid State (SS) pinball, was developed in 1976 (electronic circuit boards replaced the previously used mechanical relais and scoring units) and they adapted it as one of the first. While Gottlieb had been very strong on Electro Mechanical (EM) games, their solid state games never saw any titles exceptionally stand out, probably due to the fact the company was sold several times since 1977.
Data East / Sega Pinball
In 1986 Data East started, which would in 1995 be sold to Sega. Data East did introduce the dotmatix display (dmd). Under both brand names the policy seemed to do mainly licensed themes, often related to movies. Despite that, or perhaps due to that, most operators preferd to operate Bally / Williams games.
Bally / Williams
In the 1988 Williams took over the pinball division of Bally. During the 90’s Williams used both the Bally and Williams brandnames to release games, while the games were actually build in the same factory and used the same hardware. The first big hit under the Bally brand was ‘The Addams Family’, released in 1992. In the mid 90’s some competition arose in the form of Alvin G. and Capcom, but both companies only released a couple of games.
In the late 90’s Bally / Williams developed a new pinball platform called Pinball 2000. It featured a full colour monitor which video images reflected in the playfield glass. To the player it appeared they could hit virtual objects. Only two titles were produced, and two others were being developed as prototypes, when Williams pulled the plug on their pinball division late 1998. While some people see Pinball 2000 as a failure, in numbers it actually was a success. The two released P2K games outsold many previous regular pinball titles.
In 1999 Gary Stern bought his former pinball company back from Sega and started Stern Pinball. Being the only remaining manufacturer of pinball machines, the company continued to do what they did in the 90’s: develop games based on licensed themes. On internet forums it was often debated whether Stern games measured up against the games Bally / Williams released in the 90’s. According to some only a few games stand out, while others figured the community should be happy Stern was at least still making new games. While the hardware was improved during the mid 00’s, the company almost went bankrupt in 2009 when the financial crisis hit. An outside investor stepped in, keeping the company going.
In 2011 former Stern pinball reseller Jack Guarnieri (pinballsales.com) announced he would start his own pinball factory: Jersey Jack Pinball (JJP). His first title would be The Wizard Of Oz. Jack hired some top talents, of which some prior had worked for Stern Pinball. All of a sudden Stern Pinball rehired some recently laid off designers as well to meet Jacks competition, which -according to some- resulted in instant improved games and details.
Meanwhile some other former Bally / Williams designers started their own projects as the pinball hobby seems to develop towards a collectors market. For more details on that, see the Who’s working on what? page.
As mentioned earlier: this is just some history in a nutshell, and the above information may not be entirely objective. If you’re new to pinball it may help you understand the hobby and its history some more. If you’re interested to find out more, check out these links:
- The ultimate pinball infographic: www.silveroakcasino.com/blog/entertainment/the-ultimate-pinball-infographic.html
- Pinball history snapshots: www.pinballshowdown.com/history.htm
- Pinwiki: www.pinwiki.org