From Pinballs to Pixels is a comprehensive look at Williams and how they became the center of Chicago’s pinball and video game industry for a period of time. Ken Horowitz does an excellent job of documenting the history of Williams, and I like how he tells this story. However, I wish more time had been spent on the other big companies like Bally, Midway, and Gottlieb.
Bally and Midway have a more interesting story than is presented here. I know it isn’t the book’s focus, but I felt it would have made the book better. These four companies are all intertwined and helped to create some iconic video games.
Video games are the reason I picked up this book. I was hoping to learn more about the classic arcade games that Williams made and the games that Midway licensed. I’m not sure if I learned much about the video games they made, but I did learn a lot about the pinball games they made.
Chicago Pinball Industry
The book starts with the history of the Chicago pinball industry. This explains how the significant companies ended up in Chicago and who founded each of the three that play a part in our story. Gottlieb, Stern, and Chicago Coin are talked about briefly, but they aren’t as crucial as Williams is for this book.
There was more to the story than just pinball and video games, especially when talking about Williams, but that is for the next section. There are a few companies that I’ve never heard of in this book. They aren’t all that important to the narrative, but I was glad they were included.
Ken also goes over the other coin-op amusement devices and games that were sold. The industry dates back to the late 1800s, and those games don’t always get their due. They do play a role in the evolution of coin-op amusements.
I found the long history of Williams to be very interesting. Especially how Harry Williams, the company’s founder, didn’t stay at Williams. He retired and semi-retired several times. It adds to the story of the Chicago pinball industry.
This is the company that Ken focuses on for the majority of the book. It has a long history in coin-op amusement. It is also interesting to see how it started in Los Angeles and moved to Chicago.
Williams was the company that drove innovation in the Pinball industry. However, Ken points out how some simultaneous innovation was going on at the time, and it is hard to tell who was first. He also does a great job of pointing out the inconsistencies between multiple sources when discussing specific features.
The pinball tables and the people who created them are gone over. Ken gives the reader a snapshot of the important tables, usually the ones that did something new or were significant in sales. New tables are brought up throughout the book because of when the historical timeline begins.
He does an excellent job of bringing up how Williams found success with video games before the North American video game crash. However, the few years after the crash are the most interesting. Williams was able to survive because of their pinball division.
They made a few attempts at putting out video games, but the pinball division dug the company out of its financial situation. It is a unique situation. The other Chicago companies had abandoned pinball in favor of video games and ended up shutting down or being absorbed by Williams.
This part about the video game crash was fascinating! It is a small part of the larger story. There are so many stories about companies in the North American video game crash, and it seems like they are mostly different. I see similarities when I research them, but they don’t seem to be in the same situation.
Licensing deals and the pinball versions of arcade games are brought up. These are attempts by Williams to keep the pinball division alive. They’re all interesting, and it makes the story of Williams all the more interesting.
There are many other stories here. Ken was able to perform interviews with some of the people involved with Williams, and they are very interesting. It adds to the story of this company and the coin-op amusement games they created over the years. I’m glad that Ken wrote this book!
Bally and Midway
This was the disappointing part of the book for me. It isn’t a big deal, and I understand that Ken couldn’t put everything into the book. The focus is on Williams, so things like Midway’s licenses of Pac-Man and other games aren’t covered in depth, and the Bally Astrocade isn’t discussed.
The two companies are mentioned throughout the book, but they are most talked about in the 90s after Williams purchased parts of each company. Bally is mentioned in Pinball, and Midway is talked about when we get into the late 80s and 90s video games.
Midway’s licenses are briefly mentioned, and then we transition to their arcade hits in the 90s. They were instrumental in reviving video games for Williams, but there is more to their story than what is presented here. A few other books fill in the gaps, and I understand why everything wasn’t included here.
Bally is an interesting player in the history of Williams. They tried to buy Williams at one point and were a big player in the pinball and coin-op business. The most interesting thing for me is the Bally Astrocade. It has many other names, but I know it as the Astrocade.
It was an advanced system for the time. However, Bally didn’t market it well, and it didn’t catch on. It would have been an interesting chapter or two in Ken’s book, but it probably deserves its own book entirely.
Some of the stories about Bally and Midway are ignored by focusing on Williams. This doesn’t mean that the book is bad or doesn’t tell a complete story; it just means that some of the stories I would like to read aren’t here. Maybe they will show up in another Ken Horowitz book, or maybe they will be covered by another author.
Stuck in the Arcades and Dying Slowly
The same thing that brought Williams success also led to their downfall. This is a conclusion I came to after reading Ken’s book as well as other accounts of the video game arm of Williams. They fell behind and tied themselves to the arcade scene.
Home consoles had surpassed arcade games from a graphical standpoint, and the number of places where arcade games could be placed was dwindling by the early 2000s. They were also getting more expensive.
Ken throws a ton of numbers at the reader when talking about both pinball and video games. Selling 20,000 arcade games or pinball tables is considered a huge success. Compared to home console games, this would seem like a low number, but you’re talking about a different product and market.
The same could be said of the pinball industry as well. They tried to do some new things with pinball, but the market was down. The other manufacturers had left the market, giving Williams a 75 percent market share. The problem was a lack of demand.
One thing that I thought about after reading this was, did Williams make pinball video games? It isn’t addressed in the book; I assume they didn’t. I’m not sure what the demand for them was back in the 90s, and I can only assume there wasn’t much. It would be interesting to dig into at some point.
Eventually, their dedication to arcade games would impact their business model. Williams exited the arcade business in the early 2000s, and by 2009 they were shut down. The intellectual property was sold off, with the most notable, Mortal Kombat, going to Warner Bros.
Likes and Dislikes
This is a good book, especially if you’re interested in pinball or Williams. At times, I wasn’t sure why some pinball tables were being brought up. The video games all made sense to me, but I don’t know enough about pinball to know what games are important and which are not.
The book does get a little repetitive at times. This isn’t a big deal, but I want to mention it here. Ken uses some video games and pinball games to move the story along. When the book got into the 90s, I struggled with why some pinball games were brought up.
I don’t know much about pinball history, so I relied on Ken to tell me if one game was important. I’m not sure that all of these pinball games were needed to tell the story of Williams Pinball. Ken didn’t always do an excellent job of making me care or explaining why I should care about the examples he used.
There is a printing issue with the book I have. After page 94, there were two blank pages and then reprints of pages 45 and 46. Then you get to page 95. I’m not sure if this is a common issue, but it is how my copy of the book is printed.
The rest of the information is great. Willams is a very interesting company with a long history in the arcades. Ken does an excellent job of pointing out why it declined and what the company thought during the 90s.
This is one of those strange books where I liked the beginning and the end, but the middle wasn’t as good as I wanted. There isn’t anything wrong with it, but it felt a little repetitive. Much like his other books, I wasn’t sure that all of these games and pinball cabinets were needed.
This is one of the books that I see as more of a resource for other projects. It tells a great story, and there is a lot of information in it. Ken wrote a great book, and I look forward to seeing what else he writes.
Whenever I read one of Ken’s books, I get ideas for future projects. It is one of the many reasons I like reading them. There are so many stories from the 70s, 80s, and 90s that had an impact on video game history.
Books like this can be a little tricky for me. I never know exactly what I need to talk about. I wouldn’t say I like recounting everything in these books. These books are important because they recount the history of video games, but this makes them hard to talk about as some games that are brought up aren’t as essential to telling the story of a company or video game history.