Guest Post: A Beginner’s Guide to Manufacturers

A huge thanks to Dennis Kriesel of the Eclectic Gamers Podcast for this interesting article on the Beginner’s Guide to Manufacturers!  Check out the Eclectic Gamers Podcast here, and their Facebook page here!

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Manufacturers

by Dennis Kriesel

Introduction

Trying to keep track of every manufacturer that ever involved itself in pinball is almost an exercise in futility. Over the decades, many companies have tried their hands at pinball, especially in the early years. However, it is helpful to know several of the current and former manufacturers, due to their impact on the hobby and relevance today when it comes to collecting, competing, and casual play.

For this guide, the focus will be regarding the start of the solid-state era through modernity, as those are the pinball machines most commonly encountered today. The guide is segmented broadly into three categories:

  • “Modern” Manufacturers
  • Major Past Manufacturers
  • Minor Past Manufacturers

For each manufacturer, there is a short summary providing the most basic of information, and a detailed section that gets a bit more specific (though far from comprehensive; this is a guide not a definitive treatise on each manufacturer’s history). This should simplify matters for those who are after more of an outline versus those wanting to understand things in more depth. Where possible, links to additional information sources appear (for those wanting to learn more).

“Modern” Manufacturers

“Modern” here is defined as anything since the year 2000. This section should be useful to those trying to quickly understand the manufacturing scene as it stands today. It does not really distinguish between a major or a minor manufacturer (anything deemed too minor is just not listed).

American Pinball

Short Summary: Incorporated in October 2015, this new company has produced one pin (Houdini Master of Mystery) at the time of this writing.

Details: American Pinball emerged on the scene in 2016, due to former Williams pinball designer John Popadiuk being involved with the company. The original plan was for Popadiuk to design the Houdini pin, and in exchange American Pinball would produce Magic Girl for his attempted pinball start-up company: Zidware.

American Pinball did produce the Magic Girl machines, but Popadiuk’s Houdini design was abandoned and Joe Balcer was brought in (who kept the theme but completely redesigned the game). Game production began late 2017, and since then American Pinball has achieved production levels of 30+ games per week, is looking to expand to a larger facility, and working on their second game.

Chicago Gaming Company (CGC)

Short Summary: Manufacturer focused on remaking popular classic pins.

Details: CGC is more than just pinball. They also manufacture arcade games, pool tables, and foosball. In terms of pinball, they’ve remade two classic Williams titles: Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars.

For Medieval Madness, CGC actually contracted with Stern Pinball to handle the build. For Attack from Mars, CGC set up their own assembly. Both games are not pure remakes in the truest sense of the word, as the pins have new, differing electronics from the original Williams builds. Options also exist for enhancements (such as color displays).

At the time of this writing, the third remake pinball machine is expected to have an imminent announcement, as it has been pushed back from the original expected reveal date of March 2018. CGC has indicated a desire not just to obtain Williams licenses, and is considering remakes from other manufacturers.

Dutch Pinball

Short Summary: This company has only produced one game (The Big Lebowski). The production run has not finished and it has been a long time since any production units were built.

Details: Dutch Pinball made a name for itself with a conversion kit (The Machine: Bride of Pin·bot 2.0). From there, the company took The Big Lebowski on as a theme and designed a full game around it. Construction of the game was not in-house, but instead relied on a contract manufacturer called ARA. While production units were shipped at one point in 2016, eventually game production ceased.

Dutch Pinball announced in March 2017 that production with ARA was not moving forward due to a conflict relating to price. Dutch Pinball began working with Xytech (another contract manufacturer), and while some prototypes were built by Xytech production was not achieved.

Dutch Pinball faced legal action initiated by ARA. Dutch Pinball, in turn, counterclaimed. At the present time, all production of The Big Lebowski is on hold while the legal process advances and is expected to remain suspended during the entire process (barring some sort of financial intervention).

Heighway Pinball

Short Summary: Now defunct, this company produced two pins: Full Throttle and Alien. Not everyone who ordered Alien received their paid-for game.

Details: Incorporated in 2012, Heighway Pinball set out to produce pinball machines revolving around a swappable playfield design. The concept, in principle, meant owners could possess one cabinet and relevant hardware, while being able to swap playfields (along with software, side art, and translites) to change games. All games would be widebody designs, to accommodate the standardized system initially developed.

Full Throttle was Heighway Pinball’s first game, released in 2015. Alien Pinball experienced numerous delays, with production starting in 2017. However, the company struggled to produce many Alien machines. Andrew Heighway, the founder of Heighway Pinball, was completely out of the company by Summer 2017, with an investor group taking over. Alien production increased after that, and numerous refunds were provided, but ultimately not everyone who preordered received either their money back or a game. Some new buyers were able to jump the line and obtain machines, while the company attempted to use that new money to produce the games for both new customers and the old preorders.

Ultimately, Heighway Pinball chose to liquidate, as it was unable to find revenue sources large enough to satisfy all its creditors. It appears some assets changed over to another company, but at the time of this writing nothing has publicly moved forward on that.

Homepin

Short Summary: Manufacturer of arcade and pinball machines, it presently produces just one pin: Thunderbirds.

Details: Homepin is an Australian-owned company based in China. Established in 2013, Homepin has spent most of that time producing arcade games (included Hankin-branded cocktail tables). While Thunderbirds has been in development for quite a while, at the time of this writing it has only recently seen production begin.

Jersey Jack Pinball (JJP)

Short Summary: Manufacturer targeting high-end collectors with pins showcasing the latest technology and feature-rich toys and programming.

Details: Started in 2011, JJP was founded to offer full-featured games to the collectors’ market. JJP led several pinball innovations that have since taken hold more broadly in the industry, such as the use of LED lighting and LCD screens to display animations and information.

JJP has released three games so far (Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and Dialed In!) with its fourth, Pirates of the Caribbean, slated for release later this year. JJP’s production timeline per game has varied drastically, and it appears the company still has been unable to solidify around a regular release schedule for new titles. The company continues to stress the quality focus of their builds and the depth of features for all its pinball projects. While production run sizes are unknown, JJP is suspected to be the second largest manufacturer at present.

Multimorphic, Inc.

Short Summary: Manufacturer of the P3, the world’s first modular, multi-game pinball platform.

Details: Multimorphic’s business is far more than the P3. The company is best known for its pinball circuit boards, namely the P-ROC and P3-ROC.

As for the P3 platform itself, there are a host of games available for it (mini-games and full games). The platform allows for modules to be swapped in the back part of the playfield, changing up a lot of the layout. The pinball rolls along a video screen as well, allowing art assets and objectives to change throughout from game to game without requiring additional mechanism swaps.

Production is underway, with a modest number of systems out to customers at this time.

Spooky Pinball

Short Summary: Boutique pinball manufacturer focusing mostly on limited runs.

Details: Founded in 2013, Spooky Pinball has constructed several different pins at this point. The formal, official games developed in-house tend to adhere to a horror theme, and have announced, limited run counts. Spooky Pinball has also been willing to function as a contract manufacturer, and those run sizes and themes thus adhere to the desires of the contractor.

To date, Spooky Pinball has one game, Total Nuclear Annihilation, that was an outside design sought after by Spooky Pinball for production. As such, it is not a horror theme, and has no announced run limit, but also is not a typical contract job.

Spooky Pinball appears comfortable staying in the boutique role and has avoided rapid expansion of its production capabilities.

Stern Pinball

Short Summary: The largest pinball manufacturer in the world, releasing multiple new titles every year.

Details: Stern Pinball, as it is presently named, came into existence in 1999 when Gary Stern bought the pinball company from SEGA (which had bought Data East’s pinball division, that Gary Stern helped found, years earlier). As 1999 was when the last other major manufacturer, Williams, exited the industry, this positioned Stern Pinball as the only significant manufacturer of pin games left in the world.

In 2009, Stern Pinball took on another partner to infuse funding to survive the Great Recession. This point marks the start of the current iteration of Stern Pinball. While the company faces more competition now than it ever did (without going back to its prior-named incarnations), it remains the only pinball manufacturer to consistently output multiple new game titles a year. Stern Pinball also tends to sell multiple tiers of games, with some targeted towards the collectors’ market and others more oriented towards the needs of operators. It is recognized as the largest pinball manufacturer in the world, though it does not release production-run figures.

Due to its size, Stern Pinball employs several pinball designers and programmers who once worked for major past manufacturers.

Major Past Manufacturers

This section essentially covers the mid-1970s (when solid-state pinball took hold) up until the year 2000. It is debatable on what manufacturer might be seen as “major” versus “minor”. For this guide, the games most commonly seen in the United States (be it on location or in private sales) have been grouped as a major manufacturer.

Bally

Short Summary: Arguably the strongest manufacturer when the solid-state era began, the company never really was successful in competing with video games. After 1981, cost-cutting measures ruled the day and the company entered a period of decline. Williams obtained Bally’s pinball division in 1988.

Details: Founded in 1931, Bally was an early player in mechanical amusement devices, but pinball was not the company’s focus for many years. When Ted Zale was brought in as Director of Design, the pinball division began to have dramatic output. By the mid-1970s Bally climbed out of pinball obscurity and began the solid-state era as arguably the strongest of the pinball manufacturers.

By the early 1980s, video games were a serious threat to pinball in the arcade space. Bally attempted to address this with creative approaches to pinball, notably their games released in 1981 (commonly referred to as the Class of ’81). Nonetheless, Bally was unable to reverse their downward sales trends, and the games became less creative and cheaper builds as time marched on.

Williams, a competing manufacturer, weathered the changing landscape better than Bally did. In 1988, it acquired Bally’s pinball division. The Bally brand was used extensively by Williams, and thus Bally pinball machines (in name only) were released until Williams exited the industry in 1999.

Data East

Short Summary: The predecessor to SEGA and Stern Pinball, Data East was the company that really pushed forward on the idea of using licensed themes.

Details: The pinball division started production in 1986, and Data East grew rapidly as a pinball manufacturer, though its market share was quite a bit smaller than Williams (especially after Williams acquired Bally in 1988). Many of the game layouts were seen as near-copies of Williams pins, but Data East did push on some innovation, notably being the first manufacturer to release a pin with a DMD display and to use stereo sound.

Eventually, Data East started to focus on building pinball machines using licensed themes, rather than original concepts. While other manufacturers used licenses from time to time before this, the strategic shift for Data East led to expanded sales of its pins, and other companies started to follow suit with exploring more and more licensing deals.

SEGA purchased Data East’s pinball division in order to have its own pinball division in 1994.

Gottlieb

Short Summary: The master of the electromechanical (EM) era, Gottlieb struggled early and constantly during the solid-state period, both with the technology and several ownership changes. While its market share continued to fall, it remained a significant manufacturer of pin games until it closed.

Details: Founded in 1931, Gottlieb is seen by many as the leader of the EM era (at least up until Bally’s moves in the early 1970s). The company was slow to adopt solid-state technology compared to its rivals, and early decisions (such as outsourcing the creation of its System 1 boardset) compromised their ability to adapt.

Gottlieb and Company (the first iteration of the company) was sold to Columbia Pictures in 1977. That became Mylstar Electronics in 1983, and in 1984 it went to Premier Technology. The Gottlieb brand was used on the pins during this entire period, but none of the games they released created any seismic impact in the industry as gamechangers.

Premier decided to shut down in 1996, ending the production of Gottlieb pins.

SEGA

Short Summary: The successor of Data East, and predecessor of Stern Pinball, SEGA’s short tenure in the pinball hobby continued the Data East focus on making licensed themes.

Details: SEGA bought Data East in 1994, and ultimately released 19 pins during its short existence (including low-run experiments like Golden Cue). SEGA did try to innovate with a large-sized DMD display, using it on four titles before abandoning the concept, as a feature designed to help operators earn more money on location. Otherwise, SEGA continued the strong focus on licensed themes started by Data East.

It is worth noting that SEGA was involved with pinball prior to this. The iteration of SEGA from the 1990s (and most commonly known) is Sega Pinball, Inc. SEGA did involve itself in pinball from 1971 until 1979, focusing on the Japanese market (as the costs of importing pinball machines made them infeasible for operators) under the name Sega Enterprises Ltd. Sega Enterprises’ shareholders also established a company called Segasa in Spain in the early 1970s, which also built pins.

SEGA’s 1990s era involvement ended in 1999, when it sold off the pinball division to Gary Stern (which became Stern Pinball, Inc.).

Stern Electronics

Short Summary: A mainstay of the early solid-state era, Stern Electronics had respectable production numbers but never recovered from the video game crash and arcade downturn in 1983 and went out of business shortly thereafter.

Details: Founded by Sam Stern (who had been involved with Williams for years and even worked briefly at Bally), it started in 1977 with the purchase of the then-failing Chicago Coin (an amusement company, but not a major one for pinball specifically). After the first year the company moved fully to solid-state pinball design, and production runs for games were generally a few thousand units per title. Harry Williams, the founder of the Williams pinball company, even did some of the Stern Electronics designs, though a number of games from various designers found success.

Once Stern Electronics started to struggle in the early 1980s, it never recovered. Data East created their pinball division by purchasing the pinball assets from Stern Electronics in 1985. As such, while Stern Electronics is not included in the same chain of company continuance that Data East, SEGA, and Stern Pinball are, the assets moved along as well so Stern Pinball today possesses the intellectual assets of Stern Electronics.

Williams

Short Summary: The largest manufacturer for much of the solid-state era, Williams pins were seen as the standard by which all others were measured by the late 1980s. The company voluntarily got out of the pinball business in 1999.

Details: Fans of solid-state pinball often gravitate towards Williams games, particularly those familiar with pins from the 1980s and 1990s in particular. Williams started in 1944, and went through several revisions of its name as its operations shifted and expanded. While Williams was not particularly regarded as a top-tier pinball manufacturer prior to the solid-state era, it was prolific and deeply involved in the industry since its inception.

Williams found its position improving as technology advanced, and its pins held ground better against video games than other manufacturers, though its pinball division did suffer through the same down-turns faced by the other companies. It simply weathered the changing landscape better. The main difference was Williams produced several highly successful games at critical times, notably Space Shuttle in 1984 (a game that featured a playfield toy and speech integration to a degree that captured a lot of interest and was recognized as helping save the company from bankruptcy) and The Addams Family in 1992 (Bally-branded but under Williams ownership at this point, this game was a financial juggernaut for Williams and saw over 20,000 units produced to satisfy demand). Such successes allowed Williams to continue to expand market share within the shrinking pinball industry, especially after its acquisition of Bally’s pinball division, a chief competing manufacturer, in 1988.

As pinball declined in popularity in the late 1990s, Williams decided to exit the industry, and shut down its pinball division in 1999. The games remain quite popular, hence why Chicago Gaming Company reproduces some of them in the present day.

Minor Past Manufacturers

This section covers the same time period as the major past manufacturers (mid-1970s until 2000) but tend to be less-often seen in the U.S. (though some of these manufacturers had significant production runs). This is not a comprehensive list. These manufacturers were chosen because there is a decent chance of encountering them, so if a beginner wanted to be extra-prepared, these are companies worth having some passing familiarity with.

Alvin G. and Company

Short Summary: The Gottlieb family’s attempt to get back into pinball, the company did not last long even though it launched during the pinball resurgence of the early 90s.

Details: Founded in 1991, Alvin G. and Company was the attempt by Alvin Gottlieb (son of David Gottlieb, the founder of D. Gottlieb and Company) to get the family back into the pinball manufacturing business. The company was called Alvin G., as Premier controlled the Gottlieb brand and so the historic family name could not be used by the upstart rival manufacturer.

Despite launching the company just before The Addams Family heralded a new resurgence in pinball, Alvin G. was unable to find much demand for their games. Seven pins were produced, and the most successful, Al’s Garage Band Goes On a World Tour, only reached 1,000 units (not a strong production count for 1992). Alvin G. closed in 1994.

Atari

Short Summary: The king of video game coin-op decided to try its hand at producing pinball machines. It did not work out.

Details: Atari kicked off their pinball division in 1975, as video games were not always strong performers for operators, and something more traditional was seen as a good diversification model. However, Atari had no experience in pinball production and brought in very little expertise to help it out. Only releasing seven games, Atari struggled with reinventing components and making choices that alienated operators and consumers.

While Atari made improvements as time moved on, Warner Communications (which purchased Atari in 1976) lost patience with the division and shut it down in 1979.

Capcom

Short Summary: An 18-month attempt to gain a foothold in the pinball industry, Capcom produced a few games and is best known today for a couple of its rare prototypes.

Details: Capcom chose to enter pinball (as Capcom Coin-Op) in Summer 1995 (having been briefly involved with pinball via a company called GameStar in 1994). Capcom’s strategy was to recruit industry veterans, and it targeted talent at Williams specifically (and was successful). Williams, in turn, used litigation against Capcom on pinball features developed or controlled by Williams, and Capcom had to start reinventing core pinball components to avoid lawsuits.

With production costs being higher than expected (due to all the additional development costs to avoid Williams’ wrath) and getting in on pinball at the start of its 1990s decline in popularity, Capcom ended its pinball efforts in December of 1996. They produced six games, including multi-unit prototypes. Today most people are familiar with the Big Bang Bar (which saw a challenging reproduction effort) and Kingpin prototypes, though some of Capcom’s other titles are relatively common and easy to acquire.

Game Plan

Short Summary: A company focused originally on cocktail pinball, it expanded into full machines but did not find consistent success.

Details: Founded in 1978, Game Plan initially was oriented towards making cocktail pinball cabinets. A year later, they released their first full-sized pin, Sharpshooter. At over 4,000 produced units, the company shifted focus to full pinball machines. Their future efforts failed to ever find as much success as Sharpshooter had, and the company closed in 1985. Some of the names and employees affiliated with Game Plan moved on to more successful companies, and are the primary legacy left by the manufacturer.

Playmatic

Short Summary: A Spanish pinball manufacturer that operated for almost two decades, the company did export their games and some can be encountered with relative ease in the U.S.

Details: Playmatic operated from 1968 until 1987. While most of its games are from the electromechanical era, they produced a number of solid-state titles in their later years. As with other European manufacturers, they used a different process for coating and producing the playfields than the U.S. companies, and a byproduct is the playfield art often is in superior condition compared to similarly aged American pins. Over 60 games were produced (roughly two dozen being solid-state pins).

Spain saw a number of manufacturers appear, several of which exported their pins to other counties. Playmatic was just one of the more prolific and long-lived.

Zaccaria

Short Summary: A famed Italian pinball manufacturer, its production numbers were substantial and it lasted over a decade before going bankrupt.

Details: Founded in 1974 by three brothers, the company was established to offer an option for pinball machines to Italians without the costs of importing. The demand was significant, and at its best Zaccaria was the third-largest producer of pins in the world (behind Williams and Bally). Over 50 games were produced, with some of the most compelling artwork in the industry and interesting features on many games (such as bonus play-time after the regular game is over and flippers functioning both as lane guides and manual outlane saves).

Zaccaria produced games until 1987. It reorganized as Mr. Game, and produced games under that name until 1990, when the company went bankrupt. While Zaccaria games are not common in the U.S., some of the more popular titles have been imported and are somewhat accessible for purchase or play.


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