A huge thanks to Dennis Kriesel of the Eclectic Gamers Podcast for this interesting article! Check out the Eclectic Gamers Podcast here, and their Facebook page here!
Throughout its long history of existence, Gottlieb as a pinball trade name existed under four separate ownership models:
- D. Gottlieb & Company (1931-1977)
- D. Gottlieb & Company, a Columbia Pictures Industries Company (1977-1983)
- Mylstar Electronics, Incorporated (1983-1984)
- Premier Technology (1984-1996)
This article will focus on the Mylstar era, arguably the least understood and least discussed period of Gottlieb’s existence. While it only operated for roughly a year, it represents a tumultuous period in not just Gottlieb’s history, but in all of pinball.
How Mylstar Formed
Gottlieb was owned by Columbia as of the late seventies. It was during this period that Gottlieb struggled with adapting to the solid-state era, and their position as undisputed master of all things pinball not only was challenged, it was quickly flat-out lost. Separate from what was happening in pinball, Coca-Cola became interested in Columbia Pictures. Coca-Cola acquired Columbia Pictures on June 22, 1982. In 1983, Coca-Cola decided to rename/transfer Gottlieb as a new Coca-Cola subsidiary: Mylstar Electronics. The exact date of this change is not clear, but it appears to be between September 1983 (when Amazon Hunt was produced by Gottlieb pre-Mylstar) and November 1983 (when the first Mylstar games hit).
Why the name change? According to Michael Shalhoub in his book “The Pinball Compendium: 1982 to Present” Coca-Cola sent a letter to operators indicating it was to evoke an organization developing exciting new products to meet tomorrow’s entertainment needs and was chosen after much research. Mylstar did not just create pinball machines; arcade games were also included (Gottlieb, like many pinball manufacturers, was already producing arcade games to diversify their coin-op portfolios).
According to an interview with Gottlieb pinball designer John Trudeau, the name change was motivated by the video game craze that had been underway for several years. Trudeau indicated management at Mylstar wanted to be a video game company, and their goal was to stop making pinball entirely.
Internally, the decision was derided by veteran Gottlieb employees, who felt Gottlieb was an established name-brand in pinball and not something to be tossed aside. According to Trudeau, head pinball designer Ed Krynski asked a vice president of the company, who was announcing the name change to the employees, “Why hasn’t all the research into this great new name come up with the fact that Mylstar pronounced backwards says ‘rat slime’?” Purportedly, the room burst out laughing.
The next few months for Mylstar were no laughing matter, as the ongoing pinball downturn was about to get a lot more severe.
The 1983-1984 period was bad. Not just for pinball, but for video games as well. A large-scale recession of the industry, commonly referred to as the video game crash of 1983, was being felt by the fledgling home console market, the once powerful video arcade game scene, and the already struggling pinball manufacturers. Mylstar fared no better than its peers.
Mylstar had many pinball machines in prototype phases which never made it through approval for production. Six titles ultimately survived through their internal process and were built and sold.
Mylstar Pinball Games (Production Runs Only)
|Game||Manufacture Date||Production Count||Designer|
|Rack ‘Em Up||Nov-83||1,762||John Buras|
|Ready…Aim…Fire!||Nov-83||390||Adolf Seitz Jr.|
|Jacks to Open||May-84||2,350||Ed Krynski|
|Alien Star||Jun-84||1,065||John Trudeau|
|The Games||Aug-84||1,768||John Trudeau & Adolf Seitz Jr.|
|El Dorado City of Gold*||Sep-84||905||Ed Krynski|
* El Dorado City of Gold was the last pin produced by Mylstar but continued at Premier. Production count reflects the combined Mylstar/Premier run.
Mylstar was in the sort of cost-saving mode its rivals were also adopting. Cost-cutting measures ruled out certain designs; anything easy and inexpensive was prioritized for production. These steps were not enough to make Mylstar successful. They needed a hit, much like how Space Shuttle (with a run of 7,000 units) helped save Williams’ pinball division. But the hit never came. Early in 1984 Mylstar laid off pinball designer John Osborne (best known for designing Haunted House).
The next major loss was head pinball designer Ed Krynski. Krynski became disillusioned by the pinball industry’s focus on just making money, without consideration for creating fun games. A case-in-point of this philosophy can be seen in the demands that he re-run his classic layouts rather than be permitted to create new designs (Krynski already did three other rehash games, Super Orbit, Royal Flush Deluxe, and Amazon Hunt just before the Mylstar name-change, and then Mylstar requested the Jacks to Open redux of Jacks Open). Krynski quit after designing El Dorado City of Gold (a remake of 1975’s El Dorado). The separation was so acrimonious that Krynski deliberately stayed out of pinball for almost the rest of his life, moving on to other fields of work. Shortly before his death, he finally relented to reengaging with pinball.
Coca-Cola quickly lost patience with Mylstar’s inability to stabilize and turn profit. The subsidiary appeared to be in a death spiral and was not the reason behind Coca-Cola’s acquisition of Columbia, and thus a low priority. By the end of September 1984 Mylstar was closed. It was not immediately transitioned into anything; for all intents and purposes the Gottlieb brand was dead.
As dire as it seemed at the time, action was swiftly taken to save the pinball assets from Mylstar. A management group was formed, consisting of two partners: Gottlieb Electronics Corporation (a subsidiary of Mondial International Corporation, which was the largest Gottlieb distributor) and Embassy Electronics Inc. (a company controlled by Gilbert G. Pollock, who was a former member of the Mylstar management team). This team bought the pinball assets and created Premier Technology, and Pollock led the way to reconstitute the Gottlieb brand. Many of the pinball employees of Mylstar switched over to Premier to help build up the new company. The effort required a factory shift (Mylstar was building out of Northlake, Illinois but Premier set up in Bensenville, Illinois).
It’s worth noting that almost all the video game assets remained over with Columbia (and thus Coca-Cola); they were not a part of what Premier purchased. In terms of their fate, Coca-Cola spun off Columbia in 1987, which was purchased in 1989 by Sony (and thus most of the video game assets Mylstar had are actually with Sony at this point, namely Q-Bert).
Premier was able to start producing games almost immediately by continuing the Mylstar run of El Dorado City of Gold and launching Touchdown (October 1984), a game which already had samples built over with Mylstar. Trudeau took on the role of lead pinball designer and efforts were made to bring the Gottlieb brand back to life. While it never restored its former glory from the electromechanical (EM) pinball heyday, another decade of life was gained from Premier’s efforts.
In some ways, Mylstar reads like a crash and burn story, though it seems to be more a victim of circumstance (the tumultuous coin-op years of 1983-84) than outright negligence. Nonetheless, pinball fans do not look kindly on those managers who were more interested in Mylstar advancing into video games rather than working to produce innovative pinball. The pinball games themselves are seen in a sort of mixed-bag light. Most of the Krynski games were very popular EM games originally, and thus maintain the same gameplay standard as before. Alien Star is a favorite of many competitive players due to its scoring strategies. The rest of the games are seldom seen or thought of. But, from a historical perspective, the Mylstar year is an interesting glimpse into just how desperate things really got for pinball in the mid-1980s.