How Pinball Was Hyped Into Respectability

by Richard Meyers

(Appeared in the February 1983 issue of "Videogaming Illustrated")

  • Since its inception, Bally Manufacturing was known throughout the industry as a slot machine maker which, on occasion, put out interesting pinball machines.

  • Bally didn't manufacture a great many of these units because, in the 1950s and 1960s, pinball was seen as a symbol of decadence, fit only for the likes of habitual barflies, juvenile delinquients, and motor- cycle gangs.

  • Enter Tom Neiman, presently the marketing director at Bally. He's the man who started a revolution in the amusement game industry when, as he vividly recalls, "It seemed to me as far back as 1968 that there was a parallel between the kids who were playing pinball and kids who were buying records and seeing movies. That was the year The Who released their rock opera "Tommy," which included the hit song "Pinball Wizard." I thought it was a natural to start packaging and promoting games based on this and other youth-oriented properties."

  • Neiman went to various companies with his idea to do a pinball based on "Tommy," but no one was biting. Then in 1974, he went to work for Bally. He tried to sell them on the idea. "I had always felt that "Pinball Wizard" was a natural for them, since it contained the lyric, 'I thought I was the Bally table king, but I just handed my pinball crown to him.' Since the company's name was in the song, it seemed obvious to me that it was in their best interest to take advantage of it."

  • No one at the company saw it quite that way though. Fortunately, that was the year Columbia Pictures announced their film version of the rock opera. Neiman got the go-ahead to at least approach Columbia with the idea for the game; he met with executive Barry Laurie, who was thrilled with the idea and gave Bally an inexpensive license to produce a machine based on the film. All Neiman had to do now was convince his still-skeptical superiors.

  • "I had a tougher sale on my end than I'd had on the other," he admits. "I'd say, 'The Who' and they'd say, 'the who?' It was like an Abbot and Costello routine. Finally, they gave their reluctant approval along with a very limited budget to develop the game."

  • Neiman's efforts resulted in "Wizard," the first tie-in pinball machine and one of the highlights in pinball history. It went on to become the most successful machine the industry had seen to date. One reason for this was the anticipation which had been bred in music fans. They had heard the machine was coming and, anxious to emulate the character in the rock opera, were begging arcade owners to offer "Wizard." That put Bally in the enviable position of simply having to supply games rather than solicit orders. A record number of pinball machines were hurredly put into the marketplace.

  • "I've always thought that the whole purpose of doing a tie-in was to take an inanimate object like a game and give it a personality," Neiman explains. "Into this game we infused the personality of the rock opera. It's amazing how much our artist captured the film's ambiance, considering how little we had to go on. We only saw a few stills and read the script, but we were able to anticipate what the film would be like. We rode the coat-tails of Columbia's big publicity budget." Having the film's co-star Ann-Margaret pose with the machine didn't hurt.

  • The machine made an awesome profit for Bally and, while the players were standing up and feeding quarters into the machine, Bally executives were standing up and taking notice.

  • "When my boss came to me said, 'Well, what are you going to do next?', I was at a loss," Neiman grants. "I had always envisioned "Wizard" as a one-shot deal. I didn't think of myself as a marketing genius, I just thought I was doing the obvious." What was obvious was that Neiman had a tough act to follow, but follow it he did.

  • Neiman went back to "Tommy" in search of inspiration. He found that the one image which had made the greatest impression on audiences was the bespectacled Elton John in gigantic shoes playing pinball and singing the "Bally table" song. Rather than do another "Tommy" game, which would have been dated by the passing of the film, Neiman went after an Elton John game.

  • "I made an appeal to him directly," Neiman reveals, "and after a long talk had him saying, 'I love it. I WANT it!' And at that time, what Elton wanted, Elton got."

  • The game was "Capt. Fantastic (and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)," based on one of John's bestselling albums. In the jargon of the music trade, the game became Bally's second monster-hit in a row.

  • "There were always people who played pinball," explains Allan Reizman, one of Bally's engineers. "But they were the hardcore followers, the ones that went to the local bar to play. There had been no mass acceptance. But in the mid-seventies, when we introduced these games which had universal appeal, there were pinball machines popping up all over the place: in drugstores, candy shops, even in peoples' homes. It no longer had the stigma of being cheap and dirty." True enough: in fact, one of the stipulations in Elton John's contract was that part of the payment be made in Bally pinball machines.

  • Neiman picks up the story from there. "All of a sudden we were the 'in' thing,' which all the young people wanted to play, all the jet-setters wanted to own. Doors that were closed before were thrown wide open."

  • The marketing man walked right through those open doors -- finding himself smack in the middle of the Playboy Mansion. "I was looking for different markets to tap after the music successes," he notes, and I thought the Playboy lifestyle was a natural to try and woo the over-eighteen audience.

  • It was much more of a natural than Neiman expected, since the czar of the Bunny empire was a pinball enthusiast himself.

  • "As far as Hugh Hefner was concerned," states Neiman, "the Playboy pinball machine had to be. He was interested to the point of conducting all the negotiating and being personally involved in all the design work. Every meeting had to include him, and he sat there in his silk pajamas, on the floor of the mansion, contributing ideas right and left. It really astounded me."

  • The machine which evolved from these meetings astounded a lot of arcade owners as well, with returns which showed that something slightly risque could work without chucking pinball back into the dark ages of disrepute.

  • While Bally pursued new directions such as this, they didn't forsake their profitable roots in music: the "Kiss" machine perpetuated their record of success, as Allan Reizman details.

  • "Anyone who has ever seen this rock group in concert understands how their act leads itself to pinball art and design. You can do a lot with a group that features fire and explosions onstage. That was probably our most successful game from a sales perspective. The group came in and posed for pictures and backed the game one hundred percent. We got a tremendous amount of publicity on that one."

  • The rock and roll world fanned the flames of the pinball parlors until Bally's competition could no longer ignore the company's huge profits. Suddenly, Neiman's legitimate, inexpensive approach to obtaining licenses was shattered by a bidding war as other companies made rock stars and music personalities high-priced offers they couldn't refuse. Meanwhile, Neiman continued looking for new ground to break.

  • At first glance, the Harlem Globetrotters machine seemed to be Bally's attempt to corner the black market, but Neiman says it just isn't so. "I had been criticized numerous times for going after faces that were too provincial," he contends. "I was, in fact, doing mostly American tie-ins even though Europe comprised nearly fifty percent of our market.

  • "Our European representatives were complaining that we should do a great German soccer star or something, so I went looking for a personality with worldwide appeal. We were thinking of Muhammad Ali, but Stern wound up with him. Believe it or not, the Harlem Globetrotters tested best in all my research. I couldn't go anywhere in the world where the basketball team wasn't known and loved."

  • Speaking of criticism, in addition to being chastised for catering to the American market, Bally caught flak because they'd never featured a female as the lead character in a pinball game. "That," smiles Neiman, "is what drove me to go to Dolly Parton. I had always wanted to do a country western theme, and she was the field's most popular female star. At the time, I was trying to decide whether to go ahead with an "Urban Cowboy" machine. I wasn't sure how the film would do, and felt Dolly had sufficient appeal; we went with Dolly."

  • In the telling, Neiman and his associates made the correct choice. In fact, the game was a bust. "We had a problem with Dolly in that she decided to change her image in the middle of production. She seemed to want to go from Loretta Lynn to Ann-Margaret overnight, leaving our country western theme in the dust.

  • "It wasn't what I wanted to do, but we were so deeply committed to the machine that I had to work something out. I had at least three meetings with Dolly, who turned out to be a truly wonderful lady. However, she wanted a definite concept of how she wanted to be portrayed -- less country and more Vegas -- which resulted in our altering the backglass painting dramatically while maintaining the western-style playing field." The divergent styles clashed horribly.

  • Although as entertaining a game as many of its predecessors, the "Dolly Parton" machine was not a success. The different look of the backglass cannot be blamed entirely: One suspects that, in the end, having Dolly watch over the macho-aware players as they went down in flames intimidated them.

  • But Dolly's failure was not Bally's only problem. The company was for a time fielding accusations that their new "Eight Ball" machine was using Henry Winkler's "Fonzie" likeness without permission.

  • "It would be tough for me to argue that the character as pictured wasn't 'Fonzie-ish'," Neiman acknowledges. But the character from "Happy Days" was, itself, inspired by a long line of leather-jacket characters, and the issue was not pressed beyond a lot of saber- rattling. "Besides," says Neiman, "we had signed with Paramount to do a game based on their "Star Trek: the Motion Picture," and even though they were the producers and copyright holders on "Happy Days," they weren't inclined to do anything to unduly strain our relationship."

  • Unfortunately, the happy days of tie-in bonanza was ending. Two factors were to blame: prices for licenses were accelerating due to competition between manufacturers, and the market was becoming glutted with tie-in machines. And while many were good, some even exceptional, most were sadly inferior.

  • Atari, who would just as soon forget their pinball experience, released a wide-body "Superman" game. So infamous is this machine that many people on Atari's staff aren't even aware that the company had ever done pinball machines. Although their design and concepts were audaciously entertaining, what really did them in was their maintenance record. That, in pinball as in videogames, is equivalent to the death sentence.

  • Meanwhile, Stern, in addition to "Ali," put out a Ted Nugent machine called "Nugent," one which was plugged in "Playboy," "Oui," "Circus," and other magazines, yet was simply too mediocre to light many fans' fires. All too often, as in this case, there was little imagination applied to the tie-in. Gameplay failed to invoke the subject the way "Wizard" had, the only thing these machines having in common with their tie-ins being the artwork. The playing fields, as in "Nugent," tended to be predictable, boring rehashes of old games. Considering some of the titles Stern had to play with on "Nugent" -- such as "Cat Scratch Fever" and "Double Live Gonzo" -- there was a severe failure of imagination.

  • Bally's biggest competitor in this field was Gottlieb, who learned from their mistakes as well as from those others. After a few missteps, they put out a superior product.

  • "Charlie's Angels," released in 1978, wasn't one of those, one of their first tie-ins and a floundering game-playing experience. In a word, the whole affair was drab. Likewise, the James Bond machine. Despite a clever timer feature which allowed the skillful player to continue almost indefinitely, the pinball machine was undermined by a flat, unappealing backglass and an all too empty playing field.

  • Gottlieb enjoyed greater success the following year with their cartoon-oriented machines. "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Amazing Spider-man," based on the Marvel Comics characters, as well as the "Pink Panther" were machines which utilized far more individualistic gameplay. They were very successful among pinball players, and the familiarity of the characters attracted their fans to the field.

  • Simultaneously, Columbia Pictures licensed the rights to two films to Gottlieb: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger." The latter was made available in a variety of formats: a four-player electronic version, a four-player electro- mechanical edition, and a lesser-known two-player electro-mechanical style simply called "Eye of the Tiger."

  • That last machine is not to be confused with Gottlieb's latest and finest tie-in, "Rocky." Although "Eye of the Tiger" is the theme song from "Rocky III," the pinball games incorporates motifs from the three boxing sagas. "The audience for the game was tailor-made: the pinball machine was actually featured in the opening sequence of the screen's most recent Italian Stallion installment.

  • In the meantime, however, ground-breaker Bally hasn't been letting astro-turf grow under its feet. They've found a perfect superstar tie-in in their own backyard, namely "Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man." The success of this game is especially rewarding, on the heels of their best-looking but perhaps least popular tie-in, "Flash Gordon," which was based on the unsuccessful science fiction film and was lost in the ever increasing number of machines.

  • "Future tie-ins have to be perfect," Neiman maintains. "At the zenith of the tie-in craze we used to be able to do marginal properties like "The Six Million Dollar Man" and make a profit. The only reason we did that one was because it was a good hook on which to hang a six-player game. I don't think that Lee Majors was even aware that the game existed; compare that to how things were when we worked hand-in-hand with Elton John and Dolly Parton.

  • "What we need now are more games like "Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man" or "Space Invaders," properties which allow us to transform presold and well-known videogame themes into successful pinball machines. Or "Tron," which was a natural for our video-game division. I told Walt Disney Productions from the very beginning, 'Our game will out-gross the picture.' Sadly for them, it looks like I was right."

  • The tie-in pinball machines succeeded in giving the industry credence in the eyes of the establishment. But Bally isn't, nor could it affrd to be, a laurels-sitter. "We're kicking around some very interesting ideas," Neiman reveals, "some of them quite innovative. Your readers will be hearing about them very soon."

  • Keep your eyes open and quarters at the ready: as we've said before, the pinball era is far from over.

    Typed by Keita Iida

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