When IGT revealed its spectacular new Whitney Houston slot game, along with hardware designed specifically to take full advantage of the license (the new SkyRise cabinet, with stacked 55-inch monitors and a custom sound system), many heralded one of the relatively few new licensed themes to appear at the Global Gaming Expo in recent years.
What may not have been known by all was that IGT had already used the license for another offering. At the 2022 World Lottery Summit in Vancouver, IGT launched a Whitney Houston instant lottery scratch-off ticket.
According to Jennifer Fales, vice president of global brand licensing and social casino for IGT, we can expect to see the Whitney Houston brand on other channels as well. IGT acquired the right to use the Whitney Houston theme in gaming and lottery—as in any gaming and lottery channels.
“Over time with the way licensing has ebbed and flowed, partners have wanted to separate rights and they’ve wanted to consolidate rights,” Fales says. “So one of the first questions I always ask (in licensing negotiations) is, what channels are available? We look at all gaming and lottery channels, and all of the teams are independently evaluating and then collectively discussing what brands would work best in an omnichannel environment.”
That term “omnichannel,” a growing buzzword in the gaming supply sector, applies to much more than licensed brands at IGT. Well-known core games like Cleopatra and Cats, legendary game franchises like Wheel of Fortune, and the newest licensed themes are appearing not just on casino floors, but in all distribution channels, including online and mobile through the IGT PlayDigital division, in retail and online lotteries, in VLTs, and even table games.
Nick Khin, IGT chief operating officer, gaming, says the ability to spread content across the full variety of available verticals boils down to one crucial element—popular games.
“IGT has a significant library of well-known games,” Khin says. “Games like Cleopatra, Cats and Wheel of Fortune are all player favorites. The brands are very strong now. When players walk into a land-based casino, they are already very familiar with those games. The same is true online. It’s no surprise that those games are as popular online as they are in the land-based casino.”
“We have a lot of games and content, but we also have a lot of mechanics,” adds Gil Rotem, president of iGaming for IGT PlayDigital. “When content works in all channels, it really comes back to the mechanics of the game.
“This one of our competitive advantages. And not only do we have quite a lot of games and mechanics—we also have a very a good track record on porting games from land to online. And every operator that we work with is asking to get those games.”
The Wheel Works
One of the most prolific IGT games across all channels has been its Wheel of Fortune franchise. At no time was this more evident than last spring, when IGT partnered with BetMGM to launch the Wheel of Fortune Online Casino, the first online casino branded to a single game family, featuring more than a dozen Wheel of Fortune titles—along with Wheel-branded promotions, word games and contests.
“Wheel of Fortune is the most successful branded slot game in the land-based world,” says Khin, “and it was only natural that we bring it to life in the online world. IGT has had the Wheel of Fortune license now for over 27 years, and in the land-based casinos, we’ve come out with more than 250 different types of Wheel of Fortune slot games.
“There really is a Wheel of Fortune game for everybody— every type of player, all the different demographics, and different spend levels as well. We have a huge range of Wheel of Fortune games available, so it’s only natural that we made the decision to bring those to life in in the online world.”
“IGT has done a fantastic job of nurturing and growing this franchise and evolving the game play,” adds Fales. “Twenty-seven years ago, we actually started with a video game. We didn’t even start in the stepper space. We started with a video concept in 1996, and we’ve evolved that. We have great teams that are able to take something that is in the land-based space and figure out the right way to translate it into the online space.
“And we’ve done a fantastic job taking a physical wheel that spins and turning it into a concept that works in the digital space. That digital wheel is just as compelling. But I think it
really goes back to the strong DNA, the mechanics, and this identity we’ve created for Wheel of Fortune that we’ve been able to translate into both mediums.”
Khin adds that IGT developers have made sure that even without a physical wheel, players have plenty to keep them engaged in the game.
“Merchandising in land-based casinos helps the game stand out from a crowded gaming floor, and advertises the jackpots to players, so players can see what the potential is of that game,” he says. “In the online space, we are able to do that effectively as well. We’re able to actively promote the jackpot to players and make sure it’s very visible to players, so they know what they have to potential to win.”
The online presence of Wheel of Fortune is only going to grow, given the recent announcement that Sony Pictures Television and IGT are extending IGT’s exclusive gaming rights to the legendary game show for another 10 years.
“We’re really excited about extending our relationship with Sony,” says Fales. “You typically find Wheel of Fortune games in land-based casinos, but we’re obviously working on getting new Wheel of Fortune content out into different areas.
“IGT has the exclusive right to use Wheel of Fortune in gaming, whether it’s land-based gaming or online gaming. It’s such a powerful brand, we believe it should be playable and visible in all the different gaming segments in which we operate.”
That now extends to one of the key draws of Wheel of Fortune in the brick-and-mortar world, the wide-area progressive. Early this year, IGT launched an omnichannel version of the Wheel of Fortune jackpot in New Jersey, allowing players to vie for the same Wheel of Fortune jackpot online and in the casinos, the big-money prize meter incremented by wagers on Wheel of Fortune titles available both in Atlantic City casinos and on New Jersey iGaming sites.
“IGT is the only company able to link jackpots between land-based casinos and the online world,” Khin says. “A player can play for a life-changing jackpot in a brick-and-mortar casino in New Jersey, and then when they get home and go online, they can play that exact same game and play for that exact same jackpot.
“The power of the sharing the jackpot is the fact that you’ve now got players contributing to it from the land-based casino side, as well as online, so the jackpot is ticking over much more quickly.”
According to Rotem, at press time, the New Jersey cross-channel Wheel of Fortune jackpot, launched in June on 18 different Wheel themes with a $500,000 reset, had already exceeded $1 million.
“When we launched it,” Rotem says, “and when we launched the Wheel of Fortune Casino with BetMGM, we did significant merchandising, because of the affinity that players have with something that they know.
“We’re using videos (in the online version); we’re using sound from the game. So it’s the same experience, even when it is on your mobile phone.”
While the cross-channel jackpot is new in New Jersey, it’s not new for IGT, which has been running an omnichannel slot progressive in Canada since 2016. Called Powerbucks, it is a Wheel of Fortune-style wide-area progressive on branded slots placed in casinos in most of the provinces.
“We have between 120 and 130 Powerbucks machines right now in land-based casinos across Canada,” says Rotem, “and you can also play that game online. Since we made that available in both land-based casinos and online, we’ve had over 50 jackpots hit. And these jackpots are $1 million or more, so they’re really life-changing jackpots.”
He adds that the Powerbucks progressive is now being implemented beyond just the branded slots online and in Canadian casinos. “We are now extending Powerbucks to additional areas of the online offering,” he says. “If you look at the omnichannel game, the chances you have at the wide-area progressive, whether you play at the local casino or online, have to be exactly the same.”
Rotem notes that while the world of omnichannel content is still in its infancy, IGT is working on improving its variety and quality. One sure way to do it is to duplicate, in the online space, the titles and features drawing players to the games on the slot floor.
“The process of developing a game for land-based is much longer than the process to develop a game online, and also the time to distribute a game will be much longer for land-based casinos than online,” Rotem says. “So one of the things that we’ve been doing in the last year is working together to anticipate what will be the next hit. This is in addition to our test bank plan. We are taking the most successful games that have been developed for land-based and porting them online.”
He says the latest example of this strategy is Cleopatra Fort Knox. “This game combines very strong IP with a very strong bonus mechanic, both very familiar with land-based customers,” he says. “With that, we create a new bespoke game that is performing very well with one of the biggest online operators, FanDuel. It’s performed well compared to any other top game in their portfolio.”
Khin says going forward, making content available across all channels will become a strategic necessity for any slot supplier. “That’s probably one of the reasons you see a lot of a lot of slot suppliers are either in this space or getting into this space. We’ve obviously been in this space a long time, and we’ve always thought it was a strategically important area.”
“It’s very important, but it’s important not only for us; it’s important for the operators,” says Rotem. “And also, it’s good to know how to create a game that works well in both areas, because it’s not that simple to just alter a game for different channels, because the whole experience is different.”
Khin adds that players online gravitate to the titles they know. “If you’re a player, there’s an expectation that you should be able to play the game that you like in the land-based casino when playing online,” he says. “So one of the things that separates us from the competition is the fact that we’ve got this huge library of well-known, branded content.
“We have demonstrated that a good cross-section of games that work well in land-based also work well online. In fact, not that long ago, we actually ported online a game that we use in land-based VLT, the video lottery terminal segment. One of our Canadian customers asked us if we would do that, and we did. And they’re seeing a good level of play out of that game.
“This is a game that you wouldn’t typically find in a land-based casino. You would only find this game in in routes, like in bars and restaurants, for example. It’s a good example of how all different content can apply online.”
Rotem says IGT works with operators to offer different versions of popular titles that are suited to different types of players. “Different games can be used for different types of customers in terms of volatility, in terms of themes, in terms of a game type,” he says. “And working together with the operators, you can offer the right content to the right players. The variety of games that we offer, from Cleopatra to Cats to Fort Knox and more, means everyone can find something that they can relate to.”
According to Fales, IGT also works with its operator partners in developing omnichannel themes. “We interact extensively with our partners,” she says. “I think it’s one of the things that we do as a company very, very well. We are constantly interacting with our partners. From the beginning, we generally have three major touch points—conceptually, what we are thinking at the outset; a midpoint level when we’re entering focus group testing; and of course, with a final product.
“So it really becomes this sort of marriage of us building a fantastic game, and them giving us input as to how the brand can best be represented within the context of a game.”
Fales says the omnichannel approach will continue for top IGT brands, not only in casinos and online, but in VLTs, lottery scratch tickets, iLottery, pull tabs and other channels.
“I think that a lot of types of content work in all channels,” she says. “It really comes back to the mechanics of the game. As we look at licenses, whether it’s for online or land-based or both, and even extending into lottery, across the board, the same needs and wants are both applicable for online and land-based channels.”
“We’re trying to create a roadmap that has a lot of omnichannel content,” adds Rotem. “For example, in the next few months, we’re going to release two Prosperity Link games. That was one of the most successful games for IGT last year, and still is, but also later in the year, we’re going to have Mystery of the Lamp, which is at the top of the charts right now. (The online version) is already in development. We are working much more closely with operators to give them not just the legacy IGT content, but also the games that actually work now on land.
“Our strength is knowing how to take a game that has a big cabinet, the sound, the visuals, to omnichannel, and convert it to something that is still going to give you the same experience and the same value that you’re used to. And I think this is where, when we look at our competition in omnichannel content, we do it better.”