When looking at the slots of Las Vegas-based American Gaming Systems, it’s easy to forget that only three years ago, the company was mainly a player only in Class II markets like Oklahoma.
While CEO Bob Miodunski has said AGS has no intention of trying to challenge the likes of IGT, Bally and other leading slot-makers in their traditional markets, the games coming from the AGS manufacturing facility these days look like those of a seasoned Class III supplier that is ready to make a run at the top echelons of the slot manufacturing sector.
It’s no wonder, when one views the company’s pedigree. Miodunski was CEO of the company that is now Bally Technologies in the early 2000s, including that manufacturer’s most crucial period, when it acquired Sierra Design Group, and the technology that would propel Bally back to its former glory. After being coaxed out of retirement in 2010 to take the reins of what was still mainly a Class II supplier, Miodunski sought out the best talent from the Class III supplier market, including Paul Lofgren, his former executive VP at Bally, who now heads sales at AGS.
He then made what is arguably his most important hire, bringing in Dr. Olaf Vancura, one of the most respected slot designers in the business, as VP of game development. He has continued to bring in top talent, most recently installing Ken Bossingham, the longtime Atronic and Spielo executive, as the new chief operating officer of AGS.
But it is Vancura—with the invaluable support of Sales VP Lofgren—who has driven the march of AGS into new Class III markets. His arrival was just in time for the perfection of the manufacturer’s new slot platform, Roadrunner, and what he has done with that technology has distinguished AGS among slot-makers—and, by the way, among players in the casinos as well.
The fact that players love AGS games can be traced to the slogan—a mantra, really—that Vancura established for his game design team, “Honor the Player.” The general idea is to give the player lots of innovative bonus events, and to offer them in a manner that gives the player a fair shake.
In practical terms, the fairness factor first came to light with last year’s pirate-themed masterpiece, “Blackbeard’s Treasure.” The game was the first Class III hit for AGS, not only because of its feature-packed nature—it contains picking bonuses, free spins, a spinning wheel, a multiple progressive, mystery wild symbols and multipliers, and just about any other game mechanic you can imagine—but because everything in the game gives the player a fair shake.
The bonus wheel is a “fair wheel,” which means it is equally weighted between the slices. The base-game math departs from normal virtual-reel mapping; each symbol on the strips is equally likely to appear. Picking bonuses are equally weighted.
“The fair wheel is a good example of how ‘Honor the Player’ manifests itself in our games,” says Vancura. “Not only is each segment equally likely; in some of our titles, the wheel includes several instances of the best segment. When we give the player a choice of objects in a pick bonus, it is always a free choice—we haven’t forced that outcome.”
“Blackbeard” set the standard for the Roadrunner platform, and for the premium games that would follow it. “Blackbeard has performed fantastically,” says Andrew Burke, senior director of product management at AGS. “It’s the first premium wheel product AGS has ever placed, and customers are really excited about it. It has provided great momentum for us.”
It Pays to Know
Tons of features and fair play for the customer were not the only benefits Vancura brought to AGS. He brought with him an idea about bonus slots he had nurtured more than a decade ago when he worked for the former Mikohn, where he developed a series of hit games like “Trivial Pursuit,” “Battleship,” and the first incarnation of a slot brand which kicked off a new series this summer for AGS, “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!”
The common thread to all those former Mikohn games was that knowledge played a part in the bonus game. Trivia questions, or in the case of Battleship, strategic abstract thought, formed the basis of the bonuses, and the more players knew, the higher the rewards.
Vancura has brought this idea to AGS in the form of the “It Pays to Know” series, kicked off a few months ago with a new take on the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” brand.
The core bonus of the new Ripley’s slot is a multiple-choice trivia quiz, the questions involving either general knowledge or some of the famous oddities in the collection of Robert Ripley, who traveled the globe early in the 20th century looking for amazing, odd and quirky facts and people. The brand, of course, was the subject of a long-running series of comics in newspapers across the U.S.
The “Honor the Player” mantra has dovetailed into the trivia quiz in Ripley’s. During primary game play, the player can earn up to three “assist features” which are saved for the bonus—the “Eliminator,” which automatically eliminates one of the incorrect answers to the bonus question; the “Stats” assist, which presents historical data about how other players have answered the question; and the “Re-Do,” which gives the player a second chance at the top answer if wrong on the first guess.
In the Ripley’s trivia bonus, if the player answers correctly on the first try, one of the five progressives is awarded. If not, a fractional portion of the progressive connected to the question is offered on the next try. A consolation prize is awarded if the player is totally skunked by the question.
The same principles of fairness apply in the two new “It Pays to Know” games being launched at G2E—“Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?,” based on the famous general-knowledge game show; and “Family Feud,” based on the other famous game show in which family members guess what the most popular responses were in survey groups asked certain questions.
The 5th Grader game breaks the bonus trivia questions into five categories—1st Grade Math, 2nd Grade History, 3rd Grade Astronomy, 4th Grade Geography and 5th Grade Science. The Family Feud game follows the pattern of the famous game show, with the progressive awarded for the most popular answer to each question, according to surveys.
Vancura stresses that while all players are guaranteed an award in each of the bonus trivia quizzes, more knowledgeable players win more. “A player can show what he knows, and as a result—unlike most slots—can have a different outcome than if a monkey was tapping the buttons.”
“Other than video poker,” adds Burke, “when was the last time you influenced the outcome of a slot game?”
Players who play one of the three games in the series frequently will get better at the quizzes, Vancura says, and may see the same questions repeated in different bonus rounds, making it easy to win one of the progressives—for a while, at least. According to Vancura, to make sure the casinos have a fair shot as well as the players, AGS will refresh each of the games every six months with a new batch of trivia questions.
In addition to the trivia-based bonuses, all of the premium games in the “It Pays to Know” series follow the lead of “Blackbeard” in that they are packed with a variety of primary and secondary bonus events, primary game bonus awards, mystery events and surprise awards.
“We try to be feature-rich in all our games,” says Vancura. “One reason is that players like new game mechanics and new bonus styles. It makes it more interesting for the player, and makes it more likely the player will continue to play. It’s one of the reasons the Roadrunner platform is architected the way it is.
“Roadrunner’s architectural design is modular, and once a feature becomes a module, we add it to the Roadrunner core. As a result, it becomes easier for us going forward to reassemble these modules into future titles.”
Because of this, games throughout the AGS library contain unique bonus events.
There is the “Chain Reaction” feature in picking bonuses for games like “Liberty 7s Revolution,” a new wheel game based on an iconic Class II brand in Oklahoma—picking certain objects in a field causes explosions that uncover several other awards instantly, making it easier to clear the field of bonuses.
There is the “Lock ‘em Up Wilds” feature in “Patriot Spins,” which keeps wild symbols in place for the free spin bonuses—not to mention the random “rocket,” which adds up to eight additional wild symbols to a free spin.
There are new AGS video poker games like “Multi-Shot Poker,” which evaluates all possible combinations in a five-card draw to result in multiple wins—even several four-of-a-kind payoffs on a single hand—and “Extreme Bonus Quads,” with an entirely new, original pay table.
There is the AGS stable of pachinko-style games, in which the player can see that gravity is the sole determinant of the award won—including progressives—when a ball tumbles through the game board toward prize pockets at the bottom of the top box.
Finally, there is the Illinois VLT market, for which AGS has designed a multi-game unit called “Gambler’s Choice,” contributing to an installed base already approaching 1,000 in that new market.
AGS will display all of these and more at G2E—including a new, giant slant-top cabinet with a 42-inch monitor—but according to Burke, the focus this year will be on the premium products like the knowledge-based games. “For the first time in the company’s history, we have premium product available, and 2013 for us is all about the premium games,” he says. “We’re really excited about G2E; this is the best lineup of product we’ve ever had.”
“The premium space is highly competitive,” adds Vancura. “We recognize that, and are striving to create a strong pipeline of premium games.”
Vancura adds that the company’s licensed jurisdictions continue to expand, with Vic Gallo, AGS general counsel, aggressively pursuing licensing in new markets. As that expansion has progressed, Vancura’s team has been working hard to develop new product, much of it in the premium category.
“All of this effort is starting to come to fruition for us as a company,” Vancura says. “It’s going to be an exciting time over the next 12 months, as we place premium product in all these new jurisdictions.
“We’re on the cusp of greatness.”