As gaming legend Len Ainsworth celebrated his 100th birthday this year, the slot manufacturer that bears his name was completing a research and development revitalization.
Ainsworth Game Technology spent the last two years becoming a new, different, and much-improved supplier. The company, founded by Len Ainsworth in 1995 after his long run heading Aristocrat (which he founded in 1953), established steady sales and high game performance in North America after its new U.S. headquarters was unveiled in 2016 in Las Vegas.
But David Bollesen saw much more potential.
Bollesen, an 11-year veteran of IGT, where he was vice president of game studios in Australia, became Ainsworth’s new chief product officer late in 2021. He immediately identified Ainsworth’s strengths, particularly in high-denomination video, but he noted that the company’s success was limited as far as slot genres and the most popular game mechanics of the day.
“We had admittedly not been investing properly in some of our R&D segments,” Bollesen says. “We weren’t necessarily attracting the right talent, so we did a significant overhaul—probably an increase between 20 percent and 25 percent of our R&D spend, just increasing it to get people properly compensated.”
Bollesen, headquartered in Sydney, has spent the past two years reshaping Ainsworth’s game design system, bringing a team of talented veteran game developers together in a system of six studios, five in North America—in Las Vegas; Reno; Austin, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and Monterrey, Mexico.
Heading those studios are game design talents from both Ainsworth’s own studios and newer arrivals from other manufacturers.
Heading the Sydney studio, now the Buzz Studio, is Melinda Parr, a 20-year Ainsworth veteran who has headed the company’s Sydney-based studio since early 2022.
Loren Nelson, who joined Ainsworth last year after heading game development at Everi and Bally Technologies, now heads Ainsworth’s Sierra Studio in Reno.
Jim Palermo, a veteran designer who formerly spent 20 years designing games for WMS, Everi and Incredible Technologies, is heading Ainsworth’s Electric Factory studio in Austin. The Atomic Workshop Studio in South Carolina is headed by Dusty Fasbender, a longtime developer of successful VLT, keno and slot products.
In Las Vegas, the Neon Garage studio is headed by Keith Kruczynski, who joined Ainsworth in October 2022 as vice president of studios-North America after 20 years of game development success at Scientific Games, IGT and Gaming Arts.
Monterrey, Mexico’s Steel Rolling Studio will serve Ainsworth’s Latin American markets with a focus on multi-game products.
Bollesen says Ainsworth’s R&D staff has increased between 10 percent and 12 percent, and those additions fit into an overall plan to increase the quality of games. “We’re not just throwing dollars at the problem,” he says. “The Monterrey studio is a good example where we believe we can do cost-effective development and have focused R&D.
“What we’re trying to do is put more bets on the table, and to really try to explore new areas of opportunity for our portfolio.”
All this work will be evident at G2E, where Ainsworth will show games with a variety of styles and mechanics never before seen from this supplier.
Even the company’s booth at G2E will reflect that this is not the same Ainsworth the industry has known in the past. Styled to reflect the sleek design and red-and-white colors of the company’s Las Vegas headquarters, the booth will be dominated by that recognizable giant “A” that forms the Ainsworth logo.
The booth definitely says “Ainsworth,” and it will be located in a different part of the exhibit floor than in the past—which is to say, the Ainsworth exhibit will no longer be adjacent to and dominated by that of its largest shareholder, Austrian gaming giant Novomatic AG.
It was quite a deliberate move.
“Five years now with Novomatic as our top shareholder, we’ve shared booth space with them, even though we operate independently,” comments Deron Hunsberger, Ainsworth’s president, North America. “Having our own space, we’re really trying to show that we’re an independent company with our own direction and game design, and in what we’re going to be offering to our customers.
“This is the first time in my six years we’ll have our own independent space. It’s a great way to let people realize that we’ve got our own development teams and we’re focused on the North American market.”
“I’m delighted with the booth this year, because I think it’s setting a new tone for the company,” adds Bollesen. “People will say, ‘Wow, that’s not the Ainsworth I expect.’ Everything on the show floor this year, when in the signature area of the booth, is going to be reinforcing that this is a new Ainsworth.”
“Our new tagline is ‘Legacy to Create,’ and our goal has been to use this incredible legacy of Ainsworth,” says Mike Trask, vice president of marketing and product strategy. “It was founded by an absolute icon of gaming, and over the years we’ve had some incredible success. We want to be able to capitalize better on that legacy, including the DNA of the company, our high-denom content, and a number of the game families we’ve had over the years that have been incredibly successful.
“We’re using the booth as a launching point for some of the new branding. It’s a significant investment by the company, but it’s also really setting a tone and sending a message that a few things have changed here, and we’re pretty excited about the future.”
Raptors, Kingdoms, and Links
More surprising than the Ainsworth booth itself will be the products within, starting with a major new cabinet introduction. Making its debut at G2E will be the Raptor, a beautifully designed cabinet with an oversized, dual-bash button panel fronting an elegant J-curved, 49-inch 4K monitor.
The button panel is special in itself. “The 18-and-a-half-inch full button deck allows for a multitude of configurations, bet structures, animation changes—it really opens the door and makes this feel like a next-level cabinet for our company,” says Hunsberger.
At the back of the cabinet are two space-age support beams, drilled with holes that increase in size top to bottom. The whole display is framed with LED lights. It will present a unique profile on the slot floor.
Bollesen says he’s been passionate about this project, which began several years ago. To say he has followed its development closely would be an understatement. There’s even a photo of Bollesen clad in a welding mask, working on the Raptor with a welding torch.
“I graduated with an industrial design degree, so I have a fair passion in product design and ergonomics, and just how those things work,” Bollesen says. “This became an opportunity to explore that with the hardware team down in Australia. And the goal was to do this thing differently… The initial sketches of this were, I would say, conservative. So, we got more aggressive and took a lot of inspiration from Japanese architecture.
“It does not look like anything else on the floor today. We wanted to make sure our cabinet was reinforcing what we believe is a new path on our content.”
“The Raptor release will be early 2024, so it will be shown publicly for the first time at G2E,” says Trask. “We will have some exclusive concepts that are built for this game—three exclusive content concepts from multiple studios.”
At the front of the list is Jackpot Kingdom. Coming from Parr’s Sydney studio, it combines several compelling game mechanics, including a hold-and-re-spin feature, free games with increasing multipliers, and “Shake ‘n Break,” a unique feature that randomly increases the value of all cash-on-reels symbols on the screen.
The game brings back the Ainsworth “Hold & Stack” feature. Shield symbols trigger the feature and remain in place as cash-on-reels symbols.
Above each reel is a credit award. If the reel fills up with collected shields, the accumulated coin amount is immediately awarded. The awards grow larger the further on the player gets in the feature. The random Shake ‘n Break feature causes the screen to shake when a large credit award lands, after which all other shield values are upgraded to that level.
There are three base games in the series, and each has a different multiplier feature for the free spins. Lion’s Spirit features a 2X wild multiplier that can add up to 16 times the bet. Elephant’s Empire features an increasing wild multiplier that rises from 2X to 10X during the feature. Rhino’s Run features a 3X wild multiplier on reel 2 and a 5X multiplier on reel 4.
“Jackpot Kingdom is going to be an absolute highlight of our booth,” says Trask. “We’re very passionate about this game. Melinda and her team in Australia have been working on this for a number of years, and we feel it’s a primary example of our step forward, and the ability to utilize a new cabinet with a new button deck, with a new engine to really be able to drive this next generation of game play for us.”
Also featured on the Raptor at G2E will be another title from the Sydney Studio making its North American debut. The two-game Oriental Gongs series incorporates player-favorite game mechanics such as a free spin feature and Instant Win prizes in the base game, alongside a new hold-and-re-spin feature with increased anticipation right up to the last spin.
The third Raptor exclusive series, Triple Troves, will be unveiled at G2E. It’s being created by Nelson and team in Reno.
Elsewhere in the 4,500-square-foot space will be more than 20 new game concepts, including more than a dozen that will be available on the Raptor, as well as Ainsworth’s A-STAR Curve and A-STAR Curve XL cabinets.
Among the new games from Kruczynski’s Neon Garage Las Vegas studio are a pair of brand extensions with special features in what is called the Platinum Series.
“We’re continuing to support our Curve and XL boxes,” Trask says, “and at some point, a number of these games will be available on the Raptor as well as the XL.”
QuickSpin Platinum and Quad Shot Platinum both reprise the popular features of the originals, but boast special Platinum features. Both are low-denomination games, unlike the originals. Both are multiple progressives with a twist—the two top jackpots are must-hit-by progressives, which will add an element of jackpot fever to the popular brands.
Quick Spin Platinum retains the large progressive bonus wheel of the original, along with the retriggering free-spin feature. Its two progressives must be hit by $1,000 and $10,000, respectively.
On both games, Platinum symbols trigger a hold-and-re-spin bonus event. On Quad Shot Platinum, any five-of-a-kind with a platinum frame on the fifth reel triggers one of six progressives. The middle two of those prizes are must-hit-by amounts.
According to Kruczynski, the Platinum features can be added to any game, and there likely will be Platinum versions of other legacy Ainsworth games in the future.
The must-hit-by prize as a mystery jackpot is being offered in custom packages to be applied to other games, including high-denomination offerings like Thunder Cash Classic, to debut at G2E. This new version of a past favorite takes the five-reel Thunder Cash into a three-reel format, with the two lower of its three progressives set as mystery jackpots that scale by denomination.
Another high-denom game to be featured is Super Charged Link. Coming from the Las Vegas studio, it is another follow-up to Ainsworth’s mega-hit Quick Spin brand.
This game breaks more ground—it is a traditional three-reel game with a hold-and-spin bonus feature. It features a player-selectable payline setup—five or nine lines. Three or more orb symbols on the reels transition the screen to a five-reel array. The orbs move to the middle three reels in the five-reel array and lock in place for the hold-and-re-spin feature.
Another new game out of the Las Vegas studio is Reels of Wheels Double Deluxe, reprising the feature in which five bonus wheels spin to enhance features on each reel—multipliers, guaranteed wilds—in a free-spin event.
From Fasbender’s Atomic Workshop studio in South Carolina comes the San Bao family, with base games Dragons and Pandas. These games feature another mechanic that is new to Ainsworth—the pot-style bonus. In San Bao Dragons, the pots are two dragon eggs and the dragon character. In San Bao Panda, the three pandas serve as collectors and triggers for a free spin bonus enhanced by the triggering icon.
Symbols cause pandas or dragon eggs to grow larger, until they burst (the eggs hatch), in a perceived-persistence feature resulting in sticky wilds, extra spins or a game that can win one of five jackpots.
“The perceived persistence or pot mechanism has not been well-represented in our games in the past,” says Bollesen, “so that’s one of the mechanics we’ve used to achieve more variety.”
Other G2E launches from the Charleston studio are Gambler’s Gold, a multi-game product for VLT markets; and two new keno games.
One highlighted game from the Buzz Studio in Sydney is Mustang Mucho Dinero, featured on the A-STAR Curve XL cabinet. It is a ways game on a four-by-five array, which translates to 1,024 ways to win on each spin. A central bonus is a symbol-replacement feature, in which several reel symbols are replaced by the same higher-paying symbol.
All these games will be joined at G2E by show launches from the other studios.
Jim Palermo’s Austin Electric Factory studio will reveal the game Waking Wolves, Nelson’s Sierra Studio in Reno will launch its Raptor exclusive game, and the Monterrey Steel Rolling studio will launch Multi-Win Max, a new multi-game unit for Latin American markets. Ainsworth’s booth will be rounded out by a selection of titles for the growing historical horse racing market that the supplier helped create through a partnership with Churchill Downs Inc.
“In addition to new features, you’ll see a lot of results of Keith’s team on getting back to our legacy,” says Bollesen. “We have legacy games that we had abandoned, and you’ll see some games where Keith’s done a great job of understanding that many of those games have unique game configurations and game concepts that still resonate in the marketplace. We’re bringing them up to date and adding new features.”
In all, G2E 2023 constitutes a coming-out party for the New Ainsworth. “We have great product coming out, a great roadmap, and G2E is an opportunity for us to show that off to our customers and the industry,” says Hunsberger.
“The company’s maturing. There’s a maturity to how we’re approaching our portfolio planning and our product development. It’s exciting.”