How Arcade Games like Pinball Changed the Slot Machine Business Forever
Published on April 16, 2018
Pinball and slot machines don’t seem like they have much in common, other than the fact that they both operate in cabinets.
But you might be surprised to know that the pinball industry impacted slot machines in a major way. In fact, pinball history actually rolls into the point when slots began increasing in popularity.
Now we have thousands of slot machines located in both land-based and online casinos. Slots have essentially become the king of the casino world.
Pinball, on the other hand, has lost much of the popularity it had in previous decades. This game is essentially a relic due to the fact that you won’t find many pinball machines in stores today.
But anybody who loves slots should also appreciate how the pinball industry helped lay the foundation for slot machines. Keep reading as I discuss why pinball has played such a big role in slots history.
Pinball’s origins can be traced back to 17th-century France when Louis XIV ruled the kingdom.
The French narrowed billiards tables and put wooden pins on one side of the table. Players would then use a cue stick to hit small balls into the field of play.
Of course, these rudimentary pinball games were far different from the electromechanical ones we see today. But improvements were made to this contraption, including fixing pins to the table so that they didn’t have to be re-set after every game.
Montague Redgrave, a British inventor living in the US, began manufacturing “bagatelle” tables in 1871.
These games used marble balls, small metal pins, and a plunger device to shoot the ball. Bagatelles were similar to modern pinball, except for the lack of coin slots and electronic features.
Another big advancement in the pinball world came in the 1930s when manufacturers started producing coin-operated bagatelles (a.k.a. pin games). David Gottlieb’s Baffle Ball, which was launched in 1931, became the very first coin-operated bagatelle.
Players put a penny into the machine and received 5-7 balls. It wasn’t long before Baffle Ball began appearing in drugstores and bars across the Depression-era US.
Raymond Moloney, a seller who became fed up with waiting on slow Baffle Ball production, started his own company called Lion Manufacturing. Moloney released Bally Hoo, which soon became the dominant pinball machine thanks to its increased number of pockets.
Moloney later changed his company’s name from Lion Manufacturing to Bally. This is significant because Bally is now one of the leading slot machine manufacturers (covered later).
Another slots maker that can trace its origins back to the pinball era is Pacific Amusements. In 1933, they began producing a machine called Contact, which featured an electricity-powered solenoid, along with a bonus pocket.
Harry Williams, who designed the game, would later form his own company called Williams Manufacturing (WMS). Williams Manufacturing is also a leading slots producer today.
Pinball boomed in the early 1930s, with over 150 companies producing these games at the time. But the market would quickly thin out, and only 14 companies remained operational by 1934.
Despite the smaller number of companies, pinball continued to be a very popular game in America from the 1940s to 1970s.
Gottlieb’s Humpty Dumpty game, which launched in 1947, helped take pinball’s popularity to the next level. Humpty Dumpty was the first machine to feature flippers, which added a great deal of skill to these games.
Pinball truly entered the electronic age in the 1970s, when microprocessors and electromechanical relays were added to the cabinets.
These elements helped pinball manufacturers add sound effects, voices, and complex rules to their machines. Released in 1977, Williams’ Hot Tip became one of the most popular games to offer these features.
Arcade machines started to surface around the same time that Hot Tip was widely played. Gamers took notice of video games like Space Invaders (178), Asteroids (1979), and Pac-Man (1980).
Store owners realized that arcade games outperformed pinball machines in terms of revenue. Adding in the fact that video games require less maintenance, most stores stopped ordering pinball machines.
Companies like Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams saw the writing on the wall and began producing more arcade machines than pinball games. Bally left the pinball industry completely, selling their remaining machines and operation to Williams in 1988.
In addition to making arcade games, pinball giants Bally and Williams started making slot machines, too.
Bally had actually been producing slot machines since the 1930s. They designed mechanical-reel games that did quite well in taverns across the country.
But slot machines didn’t become a core part of their business until the mid-1960s.
Bally had been struggling financially ever since Moloney passed away in the late 1950s, but a group of new investors in the early 1960s kept the company alive as they pushed forward into the slots industry. At one point, Bally controlled over 90% of the world’s slots market.
The company also began forays into the casino gambling market in the late 1970s.
This was when New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City, and Bally took advantage by opening their own casino. They launched the Park Place Casino & Hotel in December 1979 and featured many of their own slot machines on the property.
The company also began licensing Midway arcade games around the same time, including Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Space Invaders. This is important today because Bally is using some of their old arcade games as bonus rounds in new skill-based slot machines.
Some of the biggest slots that Bally has produced over the years include:
Williams, now known as WMS, stuck with arcade games until the industry died out in the 1990s. They also continued producing pinball machines, experiencing a resurgence along with the industry in the early 90s.
They had previously made inlets into the slots world with generic mechanical games. But their older slot machines were never very popular because they only focused on common themes like bells, card suits, horseshoes, and stars.
WMS made a serious plunge into the slots industry in 1994, when they began producing video slots. Reel ’em became their first major slots hit when it was released in 1996.
Reel ’em was a revolutionary slot machine that introduced a second-screen bonus round. Prior to this, slots bonuses were always free spins played on the main reels.
WMS went public with video-game maker Midway in 1998 and spun it off from the main enterprise. They also closed their pinball operation in 1999.
This left WMS to focus entirely on making slot machines. Their change of direction was a big success, as they began supplying casinos around the world, including many Native-American casinos.
Besides introducing second-screen bonus rounds to the slots world, WMS also became one of the first companies to offer licensed slot machines.
Their first venture into this segment included releasing a series of Monopoly-themed slots in 2001. Some of the popular licensed games that they’ve since produced include:
This flurry of licensed slots helped the company’s annual revenue grow from $451 million to $783 million from 2006 to 2011. That said, WMS’ decision to move away from pinball into slot machines has paid off.
Pinball became a technology relic in the late 1970s as many people transitioned to arcade games. But that doesn’t mean pinball completely died during this era.
Instead, companies that remained in the pinball industry adopted some of the technology being used in video games, including sound effects and voices from famous actors/characters.
WMS especially remained active during the 1980s, releasing games like Black Knight, Gorgar, and Space Shuttle. Black Knight introduced blinking chase lights, while Space Shuttle offered multi-ball play.
Although revolutionary for pinball, these features didn’t draw many players away from arcade machines. But they did help set the industry up for more success in the 1990s.
Williams did well in this decade with their licensed pinball machines and upgraded features. WMS’ The Addams Family became a record-breaking pinball game that sold 20,270 units.
One thing that helped fuel pinball’s resurgence was the collapse of the arcade gaming market. Players gravitated towards pinball machines after this, which increased sales and revenue.
But the end of the 90s saw yet another decline in the industry, at which point WMS and many other companies completely exited.
These days, pinball games are produced by small independent manufacturers. And you can still find these machines in restaurants and stores around the world.
It’s also worth mentioning that Japan has numerous pinball-slots hybrids called pachinko.
Pachinko is a very popular Japanese gambling game that includes the bumpers, pins, and plungers from pinball machines. They also include slot machine reels that spin whenever players shoot the ball into a bonus pocket.
The slots industry has grown greatly along with the spread of land-based casinos and the advent of online gambling. Slot machines are easily the most popular casino game worldwide.
Of course, slots and pinball aren’t truly competitors. One is a form of gambling, while the other is a pure-entertainment game where players shoot for high scores.
Pinball’s history suggests that its main rival is/was arcade games. Both forms of entertaining clashed from the 1970s to 1990s.
Arcade gaming won this battle for a while. But pinball has proven to have more longevity, since it’s still around.
The obvious link in slot machines and pinball can be seen from how major companies switched industries. Bally and WMS, which are still two of the biggest slots manufacturers, switched from pinball in order to get out of a declining industry.
Given that casino gambling has increased greatly in popularity over the years, these companies both made good decisions.
Pinball enjoyed a good run from the 1930s to 1990s. In fact, it was once the most popular amusement game in America.
Slot machines steadily grew in popularity from their invention in the late 1890s until the 1960s. But slots weren’t as popular as pinball in these decades.
This slowly began to change in the 1970s, though, when the first video slot machines began rolling out. The industry hasn’t looked back since, with video slots offering the capability for better graphics, more bonuses, and unique features.
Bally and WMS were able to look ahead and foresee the popularity of slots. They then focused more efforts towards making video slot machines and boosting their revenue.
The casino world is grateful, too, because WMS and Bally have helped revolutionize the slots world with their innovations and licensed games.