American Juggernaut: Ainsworth Game Technology

Australia's Ainsworth continues a lightning-fast march across America

Slot-machine manufacturers are big on symbolism. Some build their manufacturing and business headquarters on a grand scale, with enormous logos on building sides—in the case of Las Vegas-based companies, some in brightly lit neon that can be seen as one flies into McCarran International Airport.

One manufacturer relatively new to the North American market has made an unmistakable statement over the past year that it has arrived—in a big way. Flying into Las Vegas from the west, you’ve probably seen an enormous, stylized “A” emblazoned in bright red across the roof of a sprawling industrial complex.

You can see that same crimson “A” on the building’s side if you drive west on county highway 215. It is the logo of Ainsworth Game Technology, and it marks the Australian company’s uber-successful entry into the North American market.

Never mind the logo. The entire 291,000-square-foot North American headquarters, opened early this year, communicates one thing: This company’s products are in American casinos to stay.

The manufacturer founded in 1995 by slot-industry legend and Aristocrat founder Len Ainsworth, having already conquered substantial share in its home market of Australia as well as Asia and elsewhere, has spent the past two years zeroing in on the Americas, with results that have made operators—particularly in the U.S. and Canada—stand up and take notice.

If you doubt that, look again at the complex sporting the stylish “A.”

“The facility is state-of-the-art, but most importantly, it allows us to service our customers better,” says Mike Dreitzer, Ainsworth’s president-North America. “With the size and the space, it has enabled us to reduce turnaround time and lead time, so we can get product to market quicker, which is most important for customers.

“Obviously, the building itself makes a statement, and it shows our commitment to the market. We’re here to stay, and that’s what this shows.”

Few would argue the point. Ainsworth has been in the North American market in some form since 2008, but in the two years since Ainsworth broke ground on its Las Vegas headquarters, the company has gained market share upwards of 5 percent or more in most North American jurisdictions—and that number is still growing.

“We’re at 5 percent market share in California,” says Mike Trask, Ainsworth director of marketing. “We’re strong in Nebraska, Texas, Florida—we feel our growth is starting to hit that cusp.”

Leading the way has been the company’s rapidly growing game library on the A560 upright cabinet, which features a 32-inch, high-definition display, attract lighting styled to each game, premium sound and graphics, and an optional dynamic 19-inch LCD topper. Ainsworth followed that up with the A560SL, a premium format with a 32-inch vertical monitor that has become the company’s top-performing cabinet.

The company has released a flood of titles on these and other legacy platforms, building a game library numbering more than 200 distinct titles.

Adding to these will be two new cabinets the company is launching at Global Gaming Expo. The A600 and A640 cabinets, which Trask says will be among the highlights of the company’s G2E display, represent an evolution from A560.

The A600 cabinet uses dual 24-inch monitors, compared to the 22-inch displays of A560. The monitors are framed by a matte black finish that makes the graphics pop with a cinematic feel—the graphics themselves improved because of an upgraded CPU. An LCD button panel is dynamic—changeable for different games and denominations—yet maintains the feel of classic buttons, and includes a “bash button” for quick play.

Dreitzer notes that the two new cabinets being launched this year in North America (they were previewed last year at G2E) are already field-tested. “We launched them in Australia about a year ago,” he explains, “so we have a lot of data to know what works and why. And as you know, there’s a strong correlation between the Australian market and the U.S. market, in terms of market acceptance, game acceptance and performance.

“So, we have now a year’s worth of data or more, to be able to put our best foot forward. That’s another reason we’re excited about the A600 and A640 launch.”

According to Trask, A600 will be launched with six dedicated themes and more than 50 legacy titles. “There will be an enormous library available on this cabinet right out the door,” he says.

That’s not to say anyone is abandoning the A560 format, originally launched in 2010. “Our product roadmap for A560 and A600 lasts seven years,” Trask says. “We’re not releasing new cabinets every two years; we’re supporting the cabinets a long time, proving they can be sustained. Customers are still seeing value in these cabinets on their floor.”

In fact, the A560 cabinet is serving as a workhorse in an entirely new product space for Ainsworth—Class II.

Super Nova

With the construction of the new Las Vegas facility has come marked improvement of Ainsworth’s R&D capabilities, including the company’s first U.S.-based game design studio.

However, one move last year doubles down on U.S.-based design by adding a ready-made team dedicated to accomplishing something that completes the manufacturer’s portfolio—Class II games for Native American markets.

Early this year, the company closed on the $38 million acquisition of South Carolina-based Nova Technologies. The purchase gave Ainsworth an instant presence in a Class II market that is still seeing strong growth in Oklahoma, California and elsewhere. At the time of the January 18 closing of the acquisition, Nova had an installed base of 1,425 units in 11 states.

The purchase had other immediate benefits for the company. It doubled the number of units Ainsworth has placed under recurring-revenue agreements. It added systems expertise, as all Class II games are linked to a central server. But one of the most important perks of the deal is the Nova design team.

“With the acquisition of Nova, we inherited a top-notch team, not only in Class II systems, but for Class II games as well,” says Dreitzer. “We like to say that now that we’re building a U.S. design team, but it actually will be our second U.S. design team, the first one being at Nova.”

He says the company has completed its integration of the Nova business into Ainsworth’s North America operation. “I’m very excited about the speed with which we were able to bring some quality Class II product to market,” Dreitzer says, adding that the integration has included the incorporation of Nova content into the A560 cabinet. In fact, he says, the company now easily swaps content between the A560N dual-screen cabinet and the popular 32-inch Nova SL cabinet.

Trask adds that Nova’s team has technically developed Class III games for more than a decade. “At Nova, the Class II games are actually developed first as Class III,” he says.

Meanwhile, the company is busy building its Las Vegas-based R&D studio, as well as legal, executive and game design staff. Since the fiscal year began, the company brought in Daron Dorsey, previously of William Hill, as general counsel; Dave Waters of Nova Technologies as director of technical compliance; multimedia artist Lori Jo Ross, who spent years with Aristocrat; and Trask, formerly a longtime marketing executive with Bally Technologies and Scientific Games.

Dreitzer says Trask and his staff are directing a marketing initiative that is unprecedented for the company. “Historically, Ainsworth has been limited in its marketing approach,” he says, “but we’ve really done a lot more aggressive marketing, so people understand who we are, where we’re going and what our products are. Add to that more salespeople, greater marketing presence, and a greater reach within all the markets in North America.”

In late July, Ainsworth announced the final piece of the staffing puzzle for Ainsworth’s North American operations, with the addition of Kelcey Allison, formerly CEO of slot-maker Aruze Gaming America, as senior vice president of sales for North America.

“We are excited to welcome Kelcey to our team,” said Dreitzer in announcing the addition of Allison. “Kelcey brings more great experience, strong customer relationships and further leadership capabilities to our already top-notch sales team. His addition will allow us to continue our momentum and position us even better moving forward in this very competitive marketplace.”

As the U.S. team comes together, Trask says other top game designers will be added by the end of the year. The U.S.-based design team, says Dreitzer, will hit the ground running. “Up until this point, all the original game design had been out of the Sydney office, and we have made it a core priority to do game design out of the U.S. office. And we’re very much under way. By the end of this calendar year, we will be up and running with unique U.S.-based game design.”

Trask adds that the U.S. development studio will work with and benefit from the strong studio that remains in Sydney. “Australian development continues as great as ever,” he says. “But creating the Las Vegas studio expands the options available—math models, game play features—to customers.

“Our roots are still very much that Australian math model. That’s what brought us to the dance, and it will continue to be a very important part of what we do here.”

Debut Performance

This year’s G2E will serve as the first grand stage for the new Ainsworth, and the fruits of the company’s new U.S.-based operations.

The 120-plus games on display at Ainsworth’s booth will include between 60 and 70 new titles, in all the company’s various cabinets and form factors.

The new A600 cabinet debuts at the show with “Cash Odyssey,” a series of three games based on literary classics—Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe.

All games in the Cash Odyssey series feature base games on two separate reel sets, on each of the cabinet’s dual 24-inch monitors. Each monitor has a “Blue Zone” and “Red Zone,” on which a credit prize is awarded every time a Cash Odyssey symbol lands. During free spins, appearance of the symbol on the second or fourth reel triggers a re-spin feature.

Other A600 launches include two series of multiple-progressive video slots, under the themes “Quackpot” and “Thunder Hits.” (The latter includes base games Thunder Gold and Thunder Money.) Both series use stacking symbols in line combinations to award progressives.

The games exclusive to the new format will be joined by successful A560 titles on the new cabinet, as well as a complete lineup of games on the legacy cabinet, including Gold Awards, which brings six proven A560 titles to the tall-screen A560SL. Popular games Dragon Lines, Mustang Money, Roaming Reels, Twice the Money, Glitter Diamonds and Dolphin will be presented on the premium A560SL.

 The company also will display A560SL hits, including Eagle Mountain and the Sky High Stacks series, on both A560SL and the new A560 WideBoy.

G2E will also provide the first showcase for the fruits of the Nova acquisition, in the form of a series of titles available on either the A560 variations or the Atlas 100, Nova’s core cabinet for Class II. “Within eight weeks of closing the Nova deal, we had Ainsworth titles on their box and Nova titles on ours,” says Trask, “which was quite an engineering feat.”

According to Trask, 12 new Nova Class II titles per year will be added to the 30-plus now available. Additionally, he says, two new Ainsworth Class III titles are being made available in the Class II library every month.

The first three titles available on both platforms are Dragons Heat 2, the follow-up to a high-performing Nova title offering a three-level progressive jackpot and up to 40 free games with a 4X multiplier; Mustang Fortune, a classic Ainsworth 40-line title featuring re-triggering free games with locking wilds and multipliers; and Wheel Time, a game developed at the Nova studio featuring high-frequency wild symbols and a bonus involving three virtual spinning wheels.

“Mustang Fortune was the cream of the crop as far as Ainsworth core products, doing well above house average everywhere, even seven years after its release,” Trask says. “It is the same game going into Class II; the math created for the Class II version is identical to the Class III game. I would challenge anyone to be able to sit down and tell me which is which.”

Other games available in both legacy cabinets introduce features new to the Class II world—the multiple wheel-spinning bonus in Wheel Time, in which the player advances through levels to achieve higher wins, is new to Class II, as are wheel bonuses in general.

By the end of the year, the company will release win-at-any-bet progressive games, and in the first quarter of 2017, “hit-before” progressives, in which progressive jackpots must hit before a predetermined threshold. “That is very difficult to do with bingo math, but we’ll be the first to do it in Class II,” says Trask.

Finally, Ainsworth will be releasing premium titles based on licensed brands, a type of game which has grown for the company over the past few years with releases including The Three Amigos, King Kong, Showgirls and The Sound of Music.

The new licensed brands are being kept secret until show time, but Dreitzer says Ainsworth is in the branded space to stay.

“We’re going to have some very exciting announcements in the near future (on licensed brands),” Dreitzer says. “We do believe that the branded segment is a segment where you have to go in full-throated, and give everything you have. That is a segment where we’re not the leaders, but we are making a concerted effort to do more in the licensed space, and over the next 12 months, you’ll see evidence of that.”

New Horizons

While Ainsworth maintains its market strength in Australasia and builds it stronger in North America, the new combined R&D team will continue to feed new games into a growing portfolio. “What it comes down to in Australasia, North America or anywhere n the world is the quality of game content, and the games in the pipeline,” says Dreitzer. “All across the world for Ainsworth, you’re going to see tremendous steps forward with game content and the game library, and that’s going to be really displayed at G2E.”

“We feel we have the momentum,” adds Trask, “and this show is a nice place for us to showcase and continue that.”

The momentum stands to go to more new markets after regulatory approval of the pending purchase of a majority of Ainsworth shares by Austria’s Novomatic Group. In July, Ainsworth shareholders approved the purchase by Novomatic of the 53 percent share of founder Len Ainsworth. The deal, which is still subject to regulatory approvals—a process that will take around 12 months—will benefit both companies without slowing Ainsworth’s momentum, says Dreitzer.

“We anticipate a lot of benefits of the two companies working together,” Dreitzer says. One of those benefits is the opening of new markets for Ainsworth in Europe, where Novomatic dominates the machine space. Novomatic has committed to place 2,000 Ainsworth games or game kits immediately in casinos with which Novomatic works and casinos that the Austrian company owns and operates. “We’re also looking to evaluate ways we can work together better in North America as well,” Dreitzer adds.

That will all take time, but for the surging Ainsworth, the Novomatic acquisition will not interfere with the emerging slot-maker’s march across the Americas.

“They have committed to keep Ainsworth as Ainsworth,” Dreitzer says. “We’ve had great success in North America. The numbers don’t lie, and we continue to grow in market share. 

“So, the commitment from Novomatic is business as usual. Ainsworth keeps going.”

And going, with plenty of room to grow in the massive new Las Vegas facility. “When you build a business this big, the customers will take it seriously that you’re here to stay,” Dreitzer says. “So, this is an enormous flag-plant for Ainsworth in all of the Americas. It says we’re here to stay, and we are a major player in market share moving forward.”

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.  

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