Aristocrat has been in training for this year’s Global Gaming Expo for quite a while.
Roughly six years, actually. That’s how long it’s been since Jamie Odell, CEO of Australia’s Aristocrat Leisure Ltd., announced a five-year plan to return the company and its U.S. subsidiary Aristocrat Technologies to the kind of powerful performance it had delivered in the early 2000s.
The plan was to tap existing and new resources to generate innovative new game styles—like the much-copied landmark games and play mechanics created in those early 2000s glory days—to rededicate itself to the U.S. market, and to increase the company’s footprint in gaming operations with high-profile entertainment brands.
The view at five years plus one is all that and more.
Aristocrat super-charged its investment in game content development, creating top titles such as the recently released Britney Spears, Game of Thrones, Lightning Link and Sons of Anarchy.
While the development team concentrated on building the company’s content strategy, Odell’s team moved to complete its product line by adding something it never had before—a thriving Class II gaming machine business in Tennessee-based supplier Video Gaming Technologies, an acquisition that closed in October 2014.
The VGT acquisition was incremental to Aristocrat, with very little if any staff reductions resulting from duplication, or “synergy” as it has become known. VGT had a ready-made Class II market of thousands of games in Oklahoma, California and elsewhere.
The VGT acquisition solidifies Aristocrat’s position in the North American marketplace, which now comprises 70 percent of the company’s revenue (although sales in its home base of Australia have soared as well). To help guide that journey, in June, Aristocrat brought in Brooks Pierce as managing director for the Americas. Pierce, a 25-year industry veteran, most recently was chief revenue officer for rival Scientific Games.
“I feel very lucky to be coming into this organization at this time,” says Pierce. “In terms of where we are from a product standpoint, we are firing on all cylinders. And most importantly, in terms of performance, the empirical data is strong about how our games are performing relative to our competitors. And in a market that’s consolidated and kind of flat, we’re the company that is gaining share relative to our competitors.
“At G2E, we’ll have some additional products that will get the industry excited, and will continue our momentum.”
In the 12 months since the VGT acquisition, the company has made great progress with integration. Aristocrat appointed Jay Sevigny, an industry veteran with experience on both the operator and supplier side, as president of VGT. And the marriage has already given birth to an enhanced product line, with the recent release of the Easy Money Jackpot wide-area progressive link, combining VGT’s industry-leading Class II product with Aristocrat’s progressive technology.
With the incorporation of VGT, Aristocrat comes to Global Gaming Expo with new products in all categories, from Class III to Class II to systems, social gaming and more. This year’s show is a result of the company’s R&D team developing content for any of a number of groundbreaking cabinet styles launched over the past two years, from Arc Single to Arc Double, Arc Wheel, Behemoth and Helix.
The Form Factor
The hardware styles have been vital in providing a palette on which Aristocrat’s dream team of game designers can create their masterpieces.
“Our focus for the last 62 years has been about the math, the game, the software,” comments Matt Primmer, senior director of portfolio planning and strategy for Aristocrat. “We still firmly believe that today, but curb appeal matters. The form factor matters. The big increase in form factors goes hand-in-hand with our share growth.”
He adds that the variety of game styles and cabinets has been one of the major changes in how Aristocrat has approached game development over the past half-decade.
“We used to be the Australian company that had one cabinet configuration, and we were the 10 percent company,” Primmer says. “Now that we’re growing out of that mold, we have three different variations of the Helix cabinet, we have the Arc Single cabinet in the for-sale space, and in our gaming operations, we’ve still got our Vervehd, which continues to perform phenomenally; and the Wonder Wheels configuration, which has been out for just over a year and continues to do phenomenal things.
“Now, adding the Arc Double and the Behemoth to the lineup gives us that strength of not only the games, the math—the things we’ve always been really well-known for—but also the cabinets, so that when customers are investing with us, they’re safe in the knowledge they can spread our content across their floors in all manner of different configurations and different segments, and get a great return on their investment.”
The Arc Single and Arc Double cabinets utilize giant 42-inch vertical LCD monitors to maximum effect. Curved toward the player (hence, “arc”), even the one monitor on the Arc Single almost gives the effect of being down front at the movies.
Already larger than most vertical monitors in the field, Arc Single was soon to be enhanced even further, first by adding a mechanical bonus wheel atop the cabinet, and then, by doubling down on the display with the hard-to-look-away Arc Double.
The Arc Double combines two of the massive 42-inch displays—and the interactive “iChair” providing booming audio and vibrations—to complete the player’s immersion in the game at hand.
And then there’s the Behemoth, which employs an unheard-of 84-inch LCD monitor in a presentation sure to draw a crowd. This year, Aristocrat places The Big Bang Theory on the big screen, in a hilarious video slot that makes the most of the funniest moments from the show in clips that are part of numerous mystery and triggered bonus events.
Filling the Form
Aristocrat’s lineup at this year’s Global Gaming Expo reflects the results of the company’s top designers utilizing all the hardware tools available to them to pump out a remarkable stream of new games in all categories—the C*Series of core video slots, the E*Series of entertainment-based games that include major licensed titles, the J*Series of jackpot products, and the new M*Series of multi-game products.
“We’ve segmented it such that any type of player, whether you’re a high-volatility gambler or you want time-on-device and entertainment, we have a different product line,” says Pierce. “Over time, having that kind of diversity and breadth is going to win the day.”
Matt Wilson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Aristocrat, says this G2E will be as much a “selling show” as any previous events, since the manufacturer launched several major titles as recently as late summer. “Manufacturers can be guilty at times at G2E of leaning too far forward to show futuristic concepts,” he says. “A big message to our customers this year is that we understand you have a business to run, and that you need products that will drive your business today. And we’re going to show a large range of products they can take here and now, either approved or on the verge of approval.”
The Arc Double will host two major new licensed themes as follow-ups to Britney Spears, which has been a major hit for Aristocrat. “A lot of the products we showed at the last G2E are getting into the marketplace today,” says Wilson. “Early performance for those games is off the charts, especially Britney Spears.”
With players still lining up to gaze at Britney up on the massive Arc Double screens, Aristocrat is launching two new major licensed themes on the Arc Double—Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey.
Game of Thrones, shown at last year’s G2E and launched last month, is based on the popular HBO fantasy drama about battling royals, kingdoms and dragons. Reel symbols depicting major characters and high-definition video excerpts from the series are wrapped into bonus events that include free spins on expanded reels that cover both huge screens and a giant wheel, viewed from the side as it turns across the entire two-screen display.
The slot machine based on the British period drama Downton Abbey, currently a hit in the U.S. on PBS, will receive similar theater-style treatment on the Arc Double, with reel symbols and bonuses depicting the show’s fictional aristocratic family, which is set against the historic events of early 20th century England.
Other Arc Double games include Buffalo Grand and The Walking Dead Season Three—the follow-up to last year’s most successful Aristocrat title.
“The release of Buffalo Grand is very exciting,” says Wilson. “That’s the biggest proprietary brand in the casino today.” He says players at a recent “Slot Fanatic Forum” in Louisiana actually stood and applauded the game.
More high-profile brands are coming in the Arc Wheel version of the cabinet, headed up by A Christmas Story, a hilarious treatment of the beloved 1983 Christmas movie. The title is joined by Batgirl, the latest theme depicting the Batman series of the 1960s; and Bettie Page, based on the 1950s pinup queen.
The trend continues in the Helix Wonder Wheels cabinet, with more hilarity as Dumb and Dumber, based on the 1994 comedy starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, gets the immersive treatment in the multi-wheel, theatrical format that hosts the wildly popular Batman Classic TV Series. Another new theme on the Wonder Wheels format is Man of Steel, the latest incarnation of Aristocrat’s licensed series based on recent Superman films.
Ted and The Big Bang Theory, both hit games introduced at last year’s G2E, round out the Wonder Wheels offerings.
The Behemoth cabinet will receive even more attention, as the company’s license connected with The Big Bang Theory gets a super-sized treatment with The Big Bang Theory: Bazinga. This one is loaded with clips from the show, on a screen so large the characters are practically life-size.
Pierce notes that Vervehd, introduced four years ago, is still generating top-earning titles, such as the recently launched Sons of Anarchy. “While we have fantastic new cabinets, we are proud that our landmark Vervehd continues to perform at such high levels,” Pierce says.
Highlights in the Arc Single cabinet include sequels Sky Rider 2 and Moon Maidens 2, along with Diamond Storm, Buffalo Gold, Miss Kitty Gold and Wonder 4 Tower. The latter adds a multiple-progressive tower bonus to Aristocrat’s popular multi-reel format, which allows players to choose any or all of four popular Aristocrat themes for simultaneous play.
Aristocrat is bringing new games to G2E that are designed for the Helix family of cabinets, launched last year in upright, standard slant and “Super Screen Slant.” The two floating 1080p-resolution LED display monitors, immersive rear-surface ambient lighting and quad sound package of the Helix format will enhance new titles.
However, one of the highlights of the show for Aristocrat this year will be a multi-progressive series developed for the Helix Upright called “Lightning Link,” which has been a major hit in Australia—as are all Aristocrat products in its home base, where over the past year the company has logged an astounding 70 percent ship share (up from around 25 percent five years ago, Wilson notes).
Lightning Link is a linked multiple progressive designed for core video slots that features a player-selectable denomination. In Australia, core Aristocrat game titles equipped with Lightning Link constitute 17 of the top 20 performing games, according to an independent organization that tracks slot win.
Lightning Link was launched on four games in Australia (Happy Lantern, Magic Pearl, Sahara Gold and High Stakes), with a top Grand Jackpot that that is linked along with a “Major” stand-alone jackpot and two levels of denominationally specific bonus prizes.
The technology adds a quick-hitting four-level progressive feature to Aristocrat core games. The jackpot feature is triggered every 100 spins on average, with the top Grand Jackpot hitting every 25 days on average, according to the company. It can be triggered from the base game or a free spin, and the progressive bonus game is simple—special reels appear and icons representing one of the jackpots are held and the other reels re-spun until collecting five of the icons.
“We’re incredibly excited about this product coming to North America,” says Pierce. “We’ve been meeting with all of our biggest customers, and they share the enthusiasm.”
“It’s one of those typical Aristocrat products,” adds Wilson. “People who understand games instantly see the benefits. It is innovation in the most core gambler-centric kind of way, and our customers are responding to it. It’s dominating the Australian market in a way we’ve never seen, at least not since Cash Express and Penny Train (in the early 2000s).”
The mind-boggling collection of Aristocrat slots will be accompanied for the first time at this year’s G2E by a complete range of Class II titles from the newly incorporated VGT subsidiary. New WAP, video and hardware products include VGT’s recently launched wide-area progressive, Easy Money Jackpot, with a three-reel mechanical WAP startup value of $250,000; and the new Red Spin Gambler Series high-denomination video games, which target core gamblers with known brands with high-denomination, low-line-count three-reel and five-reel video games like Mr. Money Bags Red Spin Deluxe, Polar High Roller Red Spin Multipliers, Lucky Ducky Red Spin Run and Ruby’s Red Spin Wilds.
VGT also will show VGT XL, a new jumbo cabinet featuring VGT’s most popular characters—Mr. Money Bags, Hot Red Ruby, Lucky Ducky and Polar High Roller.
Complementing the broad selection of games, of course, will be systems solutions, including Oasis 360, according to the company the most widely used casino management system in North America, and a line of products and services that enable operators to extend beyond traditional casino and F&B amenities—including solutions that track customer activity at every touch point, leverage actionable events to drive patron behavior and incentivize patron performance to achieve awards/recognitions.
Many of Aristocrat’s new solutions are available to operators regardless of the CMS system in place, and Aritocrat will show ONE LINK technology, HALO loyalty, Carded Mystery and Mobile Concierge. Aristocrat also will show its new beverage ordering system, Drinks on Tap, along with an unattended jackpot processing system and a completely redesigned nCompass player interface.
Strength from Stability
Pierce notes that the slot-maker’s strength and continuing upward trajectory in part come from the fact that it has not been part of the consolidation bonanza in the slot sector. “Customers don’t ask us questions about synergies,” he says. “They don’t ask us who’s not going to be here the next time we talk. They don’t ask us if we’re not going to be able to make our debt payments. Those are non-issues, so we can be very focused on delivering the best experience to our customers and ultimately to their players.”
And in the end, the products, he says, are the “key differentiator” in the business. “In the end, the customers want to buy what their players want, and what their players play. And there’s one litmus test for that— how much money is left in the bucket at the end of the day? And on that measure, we’re doing very well.”
“This is a changing industry,” adds Wilson. “With all the consolidation that’s happening, it’s certainly an industry that is going to look different, and certainly looks vastly different than it did a year ago, and more than likely will look different in the next couple of years. But we feel very confident we’ve got the team in place, and the products in place to execute our strategy for the foreseeable future.”