In the course of preparing for a podcast segment, I began my journey down the rabbit hole on ‘street level’ pinball machines. A short-lived experiment, that in brevity could merely be described as tried and failed, but in reality is a slightly more complicated story of a pinball manufacturer that thought it saw a market demand but did not obtain the results it wanted.
What is ‘Street Level’
The ‘street level’ games are a series of six titles put out by Premier Technology, which at this time owned and sold games under the Gottlieb brand (and will be referred to as Premier from here on out). These games were released in 1990 and early 1991. The table below shows the specifics in terms of game, release date, production count, and designer(s).
Details from the Internet Pinball Machine Database (IPDB)
All ‘street level’ games had specific goals and features:
- They were single-level (no ramps, no upper/lower playfields, etc.)
- They were slightly smaller (lacking ramps they did not need to sink the playfield as low at the back of the cabinet; cabinet length was also a few inches shorter than full-featured games)
- Simpler (from an operator perspective, there were to be less issues requiring intervention, such as stuck balls or broken mechanisms; traditional pinball features rather than customized toys)
- Cheaper (both for Premier to build and the operators to buy)
How Did ‘Street Level’ Perform?
As the table above shows, production counts varied significantly from game to game. The noteworthy aspects are no game was produced in as much quantity as the first release (Silver Slugger), and indeed after Vegas (the second ‘street level’ produced) nothing really got much past 1,000 units of production.
Of course, these figures are relative. To get a better sense of things, let us look at a bigger window of time. The table below explores all the major (traditional) pinball releases from the main manufacturers spanning from 1989 through the end of 1991. This keeps the window relatively small (and avoids the pinball resurgence of 1992 from skewing things even further), but gets our examination through the ‘street level’ period while including a decent quantity of data points before and after the experiment. In addition to Premier, the main manufacturing labels in play at this time were Williams, Midway, and Data East.
1989-1991 Pinball Production by Manufacturer and Game
In the case of Premier, games in light blue represent ‘street level’ releases, whereas dark blue are traditional, full-featured pinball machines.
While the chart is carved into four manufacturers, at this time there are actually only three big players. WMS Industries controlled both Midway Manufacturing Company and Williams Electronics Games, as WMS acquired Bally/Midway slightly before this period of examination. As such, the red Williams games and the pink Midway column could actually be combined, as they were both making money for one parent organization. While a separate issue from this discussion of ‘street level’, it shows just how dominate WMS was at this time. Indeed, their Williams-branded games alone easily eclipse all the other listed manufacturers, and Midway-branded games were still more significant in unit production than Premier (and that is totally discounting the rise of Data East’s own production levels with their heavy reliance on licensed themes).
However, it is important to note that Premier was not gunning for the number one position of pinball manufacturing. The ‘street level’ games were not meant to dramatically change the scope of their operations. According to pinball designer John Trudeau (who designed Silver Slugger and began the initial design efforts on Deadly Weapon before leaving to work for WMS), Premier wanted to target a different market segment with the ‘street level’ games than was being attended to via the traditional release of full-featured games.
He also noted Premier was pleased with Silver Slugger’s demand and sales performance. A 2,100 production game was a healthy number from Premier’s perspective. Also, by all indications Silver Slugger was a good earner on location, with WMS noting its performance rivaled games like Diner (which cost far more to make the Silver Slugger did). Harley-Davidson (Midway 1991) was a WMS attempt to build a game along the lines of ‘street level’ to see if it could be as successful as Silver Slugger was.
Nonetheless, Silver Slugger’s success was never really replicated. As seen in the chart above, Premier produced roughly 2,624 fewer pinball machines in 1990 than in 1989 (not including non-traditional games and games without production counts listed online; provisions applied to all years examined in the chart). That’s a decline of almost 33%, and obviously was quite significant. Premier responded in 1991 by only putting out two ‘street level’ games (the last, Hoops, coming out in February) and then returning to full-featured machines. As the chart indicates, their numbers recovered (not to 1989’s level, but still over 2,000 units and a 39% improvement from 1990).
Why Did ‘Street Level’ Fail?
According to Jon Norris (a pinball designer who worked on three ‘street level’ games and stayed with Premier until the company closed), he felt two factors were primarily involved. One fell on the shoulders of Premier and the other on Premier’s distributors.
In the case of Premier, Norris felt it was a major mistake to go all in on the ‘street level’ concept. Like Trudeau, Norris noted the games were designed to appeal to a different market segment than normal. Norris viewed it as a niche market, one that would find simpler games more appealing to operate (such as if the pins were at remote locations difficult for the operator to reach in a timely manner, so reliability would be paramount but the games might also face less competition so the simpler designs could still competitively earn).
However, Norris believed most operators wanted full-featured games most of the time, and so it made more sense to only do a ‘street level’ release on occasion (such as a single game annually). Instead, Premier only did ‘street level’ games, as the chart notes (disregarding some novelty games they did as well, which are not included in that chart). Had they spread the ‘street level’ releases around more chronologically, and relied on traditional pinball machines as the bulk of production, Norris thinks the concept would have endured for a longer period of time.
As to Premier’s distributors, their responsibility in Norris’ eyes stemmed from the ‘street level’ pricing. Norris indicated that Premier was able to reduce the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) on the ‘street level’ pins by a significant amount. However, Premier’s distributors were not required to adhere to the MSRP. They were allowed to go over it. As such, Norris said many distributors sold the ‘street level’ pins at the same price as they would full-featured releases (and just pocket the windfall profit), or they would only offer a slight discount versus a full-featured game.
Without the incentive of saving significantly on purchase costs, operators were given a choice of buying a stripped down game or a full-featured game from a competing manufacturer that might earn at a faster coin-drop rate (since the differences, visually, between a ‘street level’ and a full-featured game were obvious to anyone at first glance). Without the pricing advantage at the time of sale, there was little incentive to think a ‘street level’ game was a worthwhile investment for many operators.
Given the decline in production numbers, and the ultimate fate of Premier (going out of business a few years later), there tends to be a sense that ‘street level’ games were a contributor to that downfall. Norris indicated that, while ‘street level’ was worse for Premier than what they did before, it did not sink the company, and that the numbers not only recovered once they abandoned the experiment (as shown back in the chart), but that even with the ‘street level’ production counts Premier could have endured as a company. It was after the experiment was over, and Premier decided to diversify their income stream by getting into gambling devices (which never panned out and saddled the company with a lot of debt) that the company had to fold.
As for the legacy of the ‘street level’ games themselves, from a gameplay perspective, they appear to be relatively forgotten, probably because many people have never had much chance to play them. As of this writing, at Pinside only Silver Slugger has enough user-submitted ratings to be ranked in their system (and that ranking is barely in the Top 300). At the IPDB, at the time of this writing the average rating for all Premier titles with a rating (including novelty games and other non-traditional pinball) is 7.1, while the rating of the ‘street level’ games averages to 7.3, so the games appear to be recognized as roughly on par with other Premier efforts.
Overall, ‘street level’ as a concept never panned out for several reasons.
Would it work in the pinball era of today, where home collectors are a larger share of the market and manufacturer MSRP amounts are well-known and tracked by operators/collectors directly, rather than just relying on distributor information? Would it work today if used more sparingly than Premier tried? It remains to be seen, as at least at the beginning (with Silver Slugger) Premier was getting noticed by operators and competing manufacturers as possibly having something good on their hands. Still, as today’s world relies less on operators, the design decisions to make operators’ lives easier may hold far less appeal in today’s market.
For the time being, ‘street level’ will likely sit in the dustbin of history; an interesting experiment hampered by a variety of decisions and in the face of stiff competition from other manufacturers.