I asked Chris Kuntz for suggestions on what to tell new pinball collectors, and one point tha the made was to group games by eras. He offered this, which I have edited in order to introduce errors to annoy him.
Be aware of the history of pinball. A manufacturer whose star is rising generally produces the best games. Here’s a cheat sheet:
Who cares? If you do, you probably don’t need this cheat sheet.
1947-1960 (Woodrail era)
Gottlieb makes the first flipper game in 1947. Williams is founded a few years later and becomes a strong second.
Gottlieb is the leader. Williams games were geared a little more toward adults with their potential for gambling. Gottlieb’s games were more for amusement only, so more kids AND adults played them. Advantage: Gottlieb.
1960-1971 (Wedgehead era)
Gottlieb’s “wedgehead” cabinet marks their single-player games.
In 1963, Bally starts making pinballs after a long absence. Williams games no longer have the potential to win as many free games as the woodrails they made earlier. Gottlieb, however, still rules the roost.
By 1972, all manufacturers had switched to 3″ flippers.
Bally builds Fireball. Until this time, they had been in third place, but with Wizard! and Capt. Fantastic following a few years later, they are poised to challenge Gottlieb for the throne. Pinball production is soaring at this time, and all three manufacturers are benefiting.
1976-1982 (early Solid State; the Golden Age of Video Games)
Bally is first of the three to introduce a solid state game. This, combined with the fact that (a) they were first, and Gottlieb was last; and (b) their system was best, and Gottlieb’s was worst, sent Bally soaring to the number one spot.
Stern Electronics is founded from the ashes of Chicago Coin. They produce games until 1982 or so, then sputter out as pinball loses ground to video.
1983-1984 (the decline of the video arcade)
Very few pinball machines were manufactured. Pinball peaked in 1979-1980, when Pac-Man and other video games burst onto the scene. The manufacturers were making lots of money, but not with pinball. Many arcades had no pinball at all. When video crashed in 1983-1984, Gottlieb and Williams were looking at bankruptcy. Bally, with their slot machine manufacturing and casinos, weathered the storm.
In 1983, Gottlieb changes its name to Mylstar to disassociate itself with its pinball past, and bets hard on video. That doesn’t go so well, and in 1984, Mylstar is closed by its owners. Premier Technology takes up the Gottlieb mantle and starts making pinballs.
Williams abandons its back-to-basics budget pinballs in favor of Space Shuttle, a game with ramps, speech, and Multiball, all more costly features. It sells well, saving them.
In 1986, Williams releases High Speed, which puts them so far ahead of anyone else that within three years they bought their biggest competitor, Bally. Bally retains their casinos and slots, selling only the pinball and video game division. Games made after 1988 branded Bally are initially different from Williams games, but within a year are simply all-Williams games with the Bally name on them.
The success of Williams attracts the attention of Data East, a Japanese manufacturer who produces machines in Chicago under Gary Stern’s management.
Pinball does record business, peaking in 1992, then goes down sharply.
Data East and Williams start making dot-matrix games around 1991.
In 1995, Data East, unable to pay a debt to Sega, gives then their pinball division instead.
Gottlieb closes in 1996, having struggled since their disastrous initial electronic systems put them in third place.
Williams begins making touch-screen bar top games, and has already diversified into slot machines.
Williams releases their last traditional pinball, and then two Pinball 2000 games, a last-ditch effort to reinvent pinball.
Pinball 2000 falls short of sales goals and Williams gives up. Williams still competes with Bally today, but on the casino floor.
Gary Stern buys the pinball division from Sega, naming it Stern Pinball. Games from 2012 look a lot like games from 1993.
Stern pinball reigns unchallenged.
Jersey Jack Pinball becomes the first competition to Stern in thirteen years. Stern responds by segmenting prices into operator and collector price points in order to provide more features to those willing to pony up.
Spooky Pinball starts producing games adding competition, and a lower price point, into the collector market.
Stern launches Batman ’66 and their Spike 2 system, finally putting a LCD panel into all their new games. This makes the last 27 years of dot-matrix pinball finally look “old”.
If I want to buy a game from the dominant manufacturer in a era, whose should I buy?
1947-1976: Gottlieb rules the electromechanical era.
1976-1984: Bally’s reliable solid state system puts them far ahead of the competition.
1985-1999: Williams enjoys being top dog for a while.
2000-2012: With no competition, Stern wins by default.
2013-2020: JJP makes some great games, but Stern outsells them by a wide margin.