Ainsworth Game Technology has made great strides in the past five years—particularly in the North American market, and particularly in the high-denomination video genre.
But a new era has dawned for the Australian company founded by gaming legend Len Ainsworth. It’s an era that actually dawned a year ago, around the time of G2E 2021. It was around that time that the company brought in slot supply veteran David Bollesen as chief product officer, headquartered in Sydney.
Bollesen, who previously spent 11 years at IGT, ending up as vice president of game studios in Australia, saw Ainsworth’s strengths immediately. He also quickly formed a vision of how the supplier could expand its horizons in the slot market.
“Ainsworth has a strong history around their high-denomination product—their ability to execute on high-denom has been really impressive,” Bollesen says. “But as things migrated over to multi-denomination, where that became a more integrated part of game design, I think we lost a little bit of our mojo in that .01/.02/.05/.10 space.”
Bollesen instituted a return to the classic Australian style of multi-line video in the lower denominations, aiming for the same kind of success the company already enjoys in the high-denom area. However, there was much more detailed adjustment to be made in game design.
“In the low-denom space, we’ve been really breaking down the entire product,” he says. “One of the things I’ve used that helps the main framework is ‘sight, sound, action.’ On the visual arts, we weren’t presenting ourselves with clarity to the player. It could be something as simple as the way that we’re coloring the contrast in a jackpot prize—so that Major becomes something you shop across a room. With some of our products, you couldn’t even see it.
“It could be the type of royals that we were using in products in the base game. It could be the type of character that’s up above. It really wasn’t creating harmony, so we focused a lot on that visual art piece to really provide clear and meaningful value.”
On the sound front, it was a question of finding the right balance. “On the audio side, we did as much about tweaking existing sounds a we did taking them out. The audio is just an extremely important part, but you could easily overstimulate a player or create player fatigue with the wrong sounds. Something as simple as the way that reel spins and stops—historically, Ainsworth had a very key signature sound, at least in Australia. But if you play the product over time, it actually creates fatigue… So we’ve actually pulled a lot of those components out.”
The “action,” of course, has been the most important project. “On the mathematical side, which is everything, that’s where we’ve spent probably the most time is making sure that the ride is meaningful. A player that’s playing a 1 cent game is a very different player than a 10 cent player. And that’s a very different player than a $1 or $2 player. We have to provide mathematical solutions around that in a single game that is sensitive to that player journey. How we migrate that experience is really important, and that’s where we spent a ton more time in refinement.”
The result of Bollesen’s direction is that the collection of games with which Ainsworth arrives at G2E may surprise many. “You can’t change everything overnight, but I’m really proud of what we’ve put together in just the course of one year,” he says.
“Our game development team has been vastly revitalized over the last 12 months,” comments Mike Trask, Ainsworth’s vice president of product marketing. “The fruits of bringing on David are shown in some of the content you will see at the show.”
Trask says Ainsworth’s transformation is thanks not only to Bollesen, but to a wealth of new and veteran talent on the game development side, much at the studio level. Belinda Parr, who in April was named director of the Australia studio in Sydney, is a 20-year Ainsworth game designer who has specialized in graphic design, motion graphics, visual effects and animation. Shortly after G2E, the company will announce a new head of the U.S. studio in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, joining the Ainsworth team in a consulting capacity is Loren Nelson, a veteran executive who spent five years as senior vice president of game development for Everi, after 11 years at Bally Technologies as vice president of game development.
“Loren is helping us out in a consulting capacity with some different ideas,” says Trask. “He’s been great to work with in helping us fine-tune games.”
Bollesen says the R&D efforts are rounded out with a few new third-party developers, including Horizon Digital and a subsidiary of major Ainsworth shareholder Novomatic.
“It’s important not only to have an internal perspective, but to bring on some experienced developers that have worked in the industry and have created solutions for other companies,” says Bollesen. “You get a different perspective. We don’t want to be a me-too company—we really need to have that broader solution.
“I think it’s important to cross-pollinate, and that creates the healthy studio.”
The industry will get its first look at the results of these efforts at G2E. According to Trask, the company will display more than 100 games total, split between Class III, Class II, VLT and historical horse racing—a genre Ainsworth pioneered, and one in which it has dominated, with more than 2,000 Ainsworth HHR machines in the field and a total of 3,500 games from various manufacturers using Ainsworth’s groundbreaking HHR platform.
New Face of Ainsworth
Trask says there are three games that will be launched at G2E that exemplify the new face of Ainsworth—Treasure Spirits, Ca$h Stacks Gold and Ultra Shot Gold. All were developed from games that have done well in the tough Australian market. “These three games are absolutely our step forward, and should signify a real return for Ainsworth to that Aussie-style game,” says Trask.
Treasure Spirits will be available for sale at the show. It is a family of three base games—Treasure Spirits Dragon and Phoenix are the launch titles, to be followed by Treasure Spirits Dragon. All are 243-ways-to-win games in player-selectable denominations of .01, .02, .05 and .10. In the primary game, when a stacking symbol appears on the fifth reel, prizes displayed in any cash-on-reels symbol on the array are added up and awarded to the player. This can include any of four progressive jackpots, the top one resetting at $10,000.
At the center of the game is the “Hold ‘n Stack” feature. The player is awarded five free spins in which to keep collecting coin symbols. There are frequent extra spins added along the way. Above each reel is a credit award. If the reel fills up with collected coins, that amount is immediately awarded. The award grows larger the further on the player gets in the feature.
“Treasure Spirits is performing very well here in Australia,” says Bollesen, “and historically, when you can get something to fire here, there’s a good chance it’s going to work well in other markets.”
Ca$h Stacks Gold, with four inaugural titles, features instant wins in the primary game up to 800 times the bet, as well as multiple progressives and bonuses available on a single spin. It also features the Hold ‘n Stack bonus. The base game has five, 25 or 50 paylines, depending on the denomination. The title adds the $1 and $2 denomination to the four lower ones, and for the higher buy-in, the Hold ‘n Stack feature can be particularly lucrative.
Ca$h Stacks Gold will be approved by the time of G2E or shortly thereafter, according to Trask. Behind that in Q1 of 2023, the company will launch Ultra Shot Gold, a game packed with bonus features including the Ultra Shot hold-and-re-spin feature, which can progress through three levels, with increasing values to the collectible coins at each level. “Leveling up” gets the player 2X and 3X multipliers, and at the top level, the four progressives are in play, including the top Grand jackpot.
The player is given a choice between four free-game configurations—from the highest volatility with larger pays and fewer games to the lowest with lots of spins and smaller awards.
“Ultra Shot was recently released in Australia, and the early numbers show it is performing very well for us,” says Bollesen. “And that’s for a game that was 80 percent complete.” He says to develop the U.S. “Gold” version, “we took it back down to 40 percent. It wasn’t practical to start the game completely over from scratch, but we really focused a lot on those (design) principles, and executing on that title.”
The games are all presented on the A-STAR Curve cabinet, with its sleek 43-inch curved floating infinity monitor. Also being launched on that cabinet is Fa Cai Coin, a new low-denomination game featuring a “Big Reel” multiplier in the base game and a hold-and-spin bonus with escalating award values as the player progresses through the feature. A “reset” feature enables back-to-back hold-and-spin events.
Other new low-denom games include Beaver Bucks, a low-volatility penny game with a wheel-spin bonus and a special “Beaver Bump” mechanic in which the beaver character “bumps” up to as many as all five reels for a credit award or a wheel spin; and, released this summer, a rare branded entry from Ainsworth in the penny denomination—Marilyn Monroe Romantic Kisses, a five-reel, 243-ways-to-win video slot packed with still images and film footage of the the iconic movie star and 1950s sex symbol.
These join other recently released low-denom entries including Lucky Stars, with launch titles Emperor’s Lucky Stars and Blazin’ Hot Lucky Stars. Both games highlight a collection feature that grows a metamorphic pot on the monitor. The more of a special star symbol you collect on reels 2, 3 and 4, the bigger the visual representation of the pot grows. Flames and shooting stars appear when the pot is close to full, which leads to a free-spin feature.
The addition of Aussie-style low-denom games certainly doesn’t mean the company is moving away from the high-denomination marketplace in which it has achieved the most success.
“In the high-denom space, we didn’t have to change much,” comments Bollesen. “It’s not to say that we’re not paying attention to it. I think that player is a very specific part of our market segment. It’s one that we’ve historically served well. Some of our staff has a real skill in that area, and we’ve built things around them, to help service and maximize that potential.”
One new high-denom title to be launched at the show is Dollar King, a 10-line dollar game featuring a giant wheel-spin bonus and six levels of progressive jackpot. It is all played out in grand style on the A-STAR Curve XL, the showpiece 55-inch premium cabinet launched last year with the Take It or Leave It game family.
“In high-denom areas around the country, when we set up these sort of jumbo-style cabinets, we’re seeing 2X, even 3X (house average) performance,” Trask says. “It’s a nice little piece of the puzzle for us—it uses what Ainsworth is best at—high-D, high-D, high-D. We have utilized both legacy content, these proven Ainsworth brands—Thunder Cash, Eagle Bucks, Mustang Money—games players have been playing for the better part of a decade. We’ve now made them available on the larger cabinets.”
The same high-denom success applies to the A-STAR Slant cabinet, home to the popular new Grand Legacy game; and the A-STAR Dual, with twin 27-inch monitors. “The A-STAR Dual is the No. 1 performing cabinet in North America versus house average, per the Eilers-Fantini report,” says Trask. “That is a testament to the power of Ainsworth’s high-denom product.”
Ainsworth’s G2E presentation will round out with a display of the company’s historical horse racing games. “HHR is something that we’ve done very well,” Bollesen says. “And we’re looking at maybe building our approach toward introducing some products in HHR in the future, and actually using that as an opportunity to introduce those players to games. HHR is something we’re taking very seriously. We feel it’s untapped potential for us.”
In all, G2E 2022 is something of a coming-out for the new Ainsworth. “We really believe that G2E 2022 for us represents a significant step forward as a company,” says Trask. “We already have eyes on G2E 2023, which we feel is our true leap forward.”
Bollesen agrees: “I’m really proud of what we’re bringing to this show,” he says. “Were already talking about G2E 2023, G2E 2024. We’re looking well beyond the here and now and asking, where do we want to be as a company, not just for this show, but for the next decade? It’s exciting.”