Gottlieb was really good at card themes. They were known for that. Card games like poker, you’re trying to get different hands, a royal flush, they used that name a bunch of times—Card Whiz, Royal Flush, Pop-a-Card.
In the 1950s, Gottlieb would run a machine for maybe three or four weeks in their factory and then make anywhere from 500 to 1,500 machines. They would produce maybe 10 different games a year. By the 1960s, production numbers began to bump up. One thousand was now a low production number, and 2,500 to 3,500 was a good run for any particular game. The games were becoming more popular. They were selling more of them.
By the 1970s, some of the machines were breaking sales records, especially the early Bally licensed stuff. They were selling 10,000 machines, 15,000 machines, and this is an incredible number of machines compared to what they were selling just a few years before. But in the mid-’70s, video games were just on the horizon, and by 1979, microprocessor games like Space Invaders, which was a black-and-white game, really started to cut into the pinball market share.
When Pac-Man came out in 1980, pinball really took a dive. Where just a couple years before they had been selling 8,000, 10,000, 12,000, or 15,000 machines, now manufacturers were having a hard time selling 2,000 machines. So the popularity would go down, and pinball would constantly have to reinvent itself. By the late 1980s, Bally was almost out of business, and Williams bought them just to get the name and basically kill a competitor.
By the early 1990s, pinball was on upswing again. Manufacturers were selling boatloads of machines, with the Adam’s Family being the most popular game of all time. And then in the mid-’90s, home-gaming consoles became popular and once again pinball’s popularity started to slide. People weren’t going out so much to be entertained. Arcades were having a hard time, some even closed.
In 1999, Williams/Bally stopped making pinball machines. They just stopped. They said, “We’re just making slot machines.” Remember, Gottlieb had already gone out of business in 1995. So now there was only one pinball manufacturer left, a company called Data East, which in 1995, was bought by Sega.
By 1999, Sega wanted out, so they basically dumped the pinball company. A long-time Data East guy, Gary Stern, picked it up for a very fair price. So now, Gary Stern is running Stern Pinball. There are no stockholders to answer to, it’s just Gary. Because of that autonomy, his pinball machine company has been able to survive. He’s been able to keep his company afloat even during these poor economic times. That’s good because if Stern Pinball goes under, there’s nobody left making any new machines. There almost has to be a new pinball manufacturer out there to keep pinball alive as a pop cultural icon.
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