But you might be surprised to know that the pinball industry influenced slot machines in a big way. In fact, the history of pinball goes back to the point when slot games began to grow in popularity.
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Now we have thousands of slot machines in both domestic and online casinos. Slots have basically become the king of the casino world.
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Pinball, on the other hand, has lost much of the popularity it had in previous decades. This game is basically a relic since you don’t find many pinball machines in stores these days.
But anyone who loves slots should also appreciate how the pinball industry helped lay the groundwork for slot machines. Read on as I discuss why pinball has played such a large role in slot history.
The French narrowed pool tables and placed wooden pegs on one side of the table. The players then hit small balls onto the playing field with a bat.
Of course, these primitive pinball machines were much different than the electromechanical games we see today. But improvements were made to this machine, including fixing the pegs to the table so they didn’t have to be reset after each game.
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These games used marble balls, small metal pins and a piston device to shoot the ball. Bagatelles were similar to a modern pinball machine, except for the lack of coin slots and electronic features.
Another major advance in the pinball world came in the 1930s, when manufacturers began producing coin-operated bagatelles (aka pin games). Launched by David Gottlieb in 1931, Baffle Ball became the first coin-operated bagatelle.
The players put a penny in the machine and got 5-7 balls. It wasn’t long before the Baffle Ball started popping up in drugstores and bars in Depression-era America.
Raymond Moloney, a salesman who grew tired of waiting for Baffle Ball production to slow down, started his own company called Lion Manufacturing. Moloney released Bally Ho, which soon became the dominant pinball due to its increased pocket count.
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Moloney later changed the name of his company from Lion Manufacturing to Bally. This is significant because Bally is now one of the leading manufacturers of slot machines (discussed later).
Another slot machine manufacturer that can trace its origins back to the pinball era is Pacific Amusements. In 1933, they began producing a machine called the Contact, which had an electric solenoid and a bonus pocket.
Harry Williams, who designed the game, later founded his own company called Williams Manufacturing (WMS). Williams Manufacturing is also a leading producer of slot machines today.
Pinball flourished in the early 1930s, with over 150 companies producing these games at the time. But the market quickly thinned out, and by 1934 there were only 14 companies in operation.
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Despite the smaller number of companies, pinball remained a very popular game in America from the 1940s until the 1970s.
Gottlieb’s Humpty Dumpty game, launched in 1947, helped take pinball to a new level of popularity. Humpty Dumpty was the first machine to have flippers, which added a lot of flair to these games.
Pinball really entered the electronic age in the 1970s, when microprocessors and electromechanical relays were added to cabinets.
These elements helped pinball manufacturers add sound effects, sounds and complex rules to their machines. Williams’ Hot Tip was released in 1977 and became one of the most popular games to offer these features.
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Arcade machines began to emerge around the same time Hot Tip was widely played. Players note video games such as Space Invaders (178), Asteroids (1979) and Pac-Man (1980).
Store owners realized that arcade games were surpassing pinball machines in terms of revenue. Add to that the fact that video games require less maintenance, and most stores stopped ordering pinball machines.
Companies like Bally, Gottlieb and Williams saw the writing on the wall and started producing more arcade machines than pinball machines. Bally exited the pinball industry entirely and sold its remaining machines and operations to Williams in 1988.
Bally had actually been producing slot machines since the 1930s. They designed mechanical reel games that were quite successful in taverns across the country.
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Bally had struggled financially since Moloney’s death in the late 1950s, but a group of new investors in the early 1960s kept the company alive as they moved into the slot industry. At one point, Bally controlled more than 90 percent of the world’s slots market.
This happened when New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City, and Bally took advantage by opening his own casino. They launched the Park Place Casino & Hotel in December 1979, and the property had many of its own slot machines.
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 their new skill-based slots.
Williams, now known as WMS, stayed in arcades until the industry died in the 1990s. They also continued the production of pinball machines and experienced a revival with the industry in the early 90s.
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They had previously entered the slot world with generic mechanical games. But their older slots were never very popular because they only focused on common themes like bells, suits, horseshoes, and stars.
WMS made a serious foray into the slot industry in 1994 when they started producing video slots. Reel ’emi became their first big slot hit when it was released in 1996.
Reel ’em was a revolutionary slot that introduced a second screen bonus round. Before this, slots bonuses were always free spins played on the main reels.
WMS went public with video game maker Midway in 1998, spinning it off from the parent company. They also stopped their pinball operations in 1999.
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This left WMS to focus entirely on manufacturing slot machines. Their change of direction was a great success as they began supplying casinos around the world, including many Native American casinos.
In addition to introducing second screen bonus rounds to the slots world, WMS also became one of the first companies to offer licensed slot machines.
Their first foray into this segment included the release of a series of Monopoly-themed slots in 2001. Some of the popular licensed games they have produced since then include:
This flood of licensed slots helped the company grow its annual revenue from $451 million to $783 million between 2006 and 2011. However, WMS’s decision to switch from pinball to slot machines has paid off.
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Pinball became a relic of technology in the late 1970s when many people switched to arcade games. But that doesn’t mean pinball died completely during this era.
Instead, the companies that remained in the pinball industry adopted some of the technology used in video games, including sound effects and the voices of famous actors/characters.
WMS remained active, particularly in the 1980s, publishing games such as Black Knight, Gorgar, and Space Shuttle. Black Knight introduced flashing chase lights, while Space Shuttle offered multi-ball gameplay.
While these features are revolutionary for pinball, they didn’t draw many players away from the arcade machines. But they helped make the industry successful in the 1990s.
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Williams did well this decade with licensed pinball machines and updated features. WMS’s Addams Family became a record flipper, selling 20,270 copies.
One thing that helped the pinball resurgence was the collapse of the arcade game market. After this, players switched to pinball, which increased sales and turnover.
But the late 90s saw yet another decline in the industry, when WMS and many other companies went out of business altogether.
Today, pinball games are produced by small independent manufacturers. And you can still find these machines in restaurants and stores around the world.
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Pachinko is a very popular Japanese gambling game that involves the bumpers, pins and pistons of pinball machines. They also include slot machine reels that spin every time a player shoots a ball into the bonus pocket.
The slot industry has grown strongly with the proliferation of land-based casinos and online gambling. Slots are easily the world’s most popular casino game.
Of course, slots and pinball machines are not real competitors. One is a form of gambling while the other is a pure entertainment game where players aim for high scores.
Pinball’s history suggests that its main competitor is/was arcade games. Both forms of entertainment met from the 1970s to the 1990s.
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Arcade games won this battle for a while. But pinball has proven to have more longevity because it’s still around.
The obvious connection between slot machines and pinball can be seen from how large companies changed industries. Bally and WMS, still the two largest slot machine manufacturers, switched from pinball to get out of the declining industry.
Since the popularity of casino gaming has grown significantly over the years, both companies made good decisions.
Pinball played well from the 1930s to the 1990s. In fact, it was once America’s most popular pastime.
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The popularity of slot machines grew steadily from their invention in the late 1890s until the 1960s. But slot games were not as popular as pinball during these decades.
This slowly began to change in the 1970s.