Every fall for the past decade, Aristocrat Technologies and its parent company, Aristocrat Leisure Limited of Australia, have added to a virtual highlight reel of innovation.
Aristocrat has built up a network of some nine game design studios stretching across the globe, which have coordinated efforts in building a game library that is the envy of the industry.
The company wasn’t going to let a little thing like a global pandemic interrupt that.
“That’s actually a very important point of pride for Aristocrat in this environment,” says Jon Hanlin, senior vice president, commercial strategy and business analytics for Aristocrat. “We made it a priority to keep our studios operating with full staff; we didn’t furlough any staff from our studios. We knew that coming out of this shutdown, slot performance and having high-performing product was going to be really important to the recovery of the industry. So, it was paramount to us to make sure we continue to deliver product.”
As a result, the volume of new games and new cabinets this year has not changed. “We will be charging forward,” Hanlin says. “We believe we’re the industry leader in how much revenue we plow back into our D&D (design and development) function. That hasn’t stopped, and our board is committed to delivering that same investment. We will release roughly the same amount of games this year and every year going forward.”
That commitment includes more new cabinets, in an era where hardware plays an integral part in new slot products. In summer of 2019, Aristocrat launched its MarsX core cabinet, featuring dual 27-inch 4K displays, a new platform, a premium virtual button deck and wireless cellphone charging.
“The MarsX is what we call a workhorse cabinet,” says Hanlin. “It’s a dual-screen cabinet, but the graphics, and the experience the player can have, are just remarkable.”
This year, Aristocrat gives those graphics a new platform with a single-screen portrait version of the Mars cabinet. The Mars Portrait features all of the advanced capabilities and amenities of the MarsX, only centered on a 42-inch flat-screen portrait monitor.
The Mars Portrait is designed to give a premium feel to a workhorse cabinet. “It really fits that portrait cabinet that we’ve seen be very strong in the market, but it’s an affordable cabinet,” Hanlin says. “It’s a cabinet that’s going to be priced for the market. And we know that as the recovery comes and if potential recession were to come, we’re going to be able to provide our customers new product to refresh the floor, but at a price point that’s economical for them, given the environment.”
He adds that the Mars Portrait injects a player experience normally found in gaming ops titles into the for-sale side. “Traditionally, the for-sale product has been very myopic,” says Hanlin. “Here is this game, and it has this mechanic, and that’s what it is. As competition gets tighter in that space and as more people enter it, you really need to elevate your game. And part of that is changing players’ expectation of what they get in a for-sale or core product.”
Hanlin says the cabinet would have been one of Aristocrat’s highlights at this year’s canceled Global Gaming Expo. “The Mars Portrait cabinet really takes what we’ve seen that’s very successful in Mars X and elevates it,” he says.
“It might be the best cabinet we’ve ever made, because it can go everywhere, but it’s also premium enough that customers are going to really love it. And we have content on it that’s going to blow people away. Between Buffalo Link in the gaming ops space, Wonder 4 Boost Gold in the for-sale space and others, there are only going to be winners on that cabinet.”
Aristocrat also is launching a new cabinet for the premium space which is something of a grand follow-up to the imposing Arc Double cabinet that has become a fixture on slot floors with games like Buffalo Grand and Game of Thrones. The Neptune Dual cabinet is a supercharged version of this format, with stacked, curved 49-inch monitors replacing the dual 43-inch curved displays of the Arc Double.
The screens are angled in a way that the player can look straight up and see the top progressive meter, when seated in the custom-designed chair. Add to this 4K graphics (as opposed to 1080p on the Arc Double), and you have the next big thing in Aristocrat’s premium gaming ops space.
“In the premium gaming ops space, it’s really about attracting customers—getting them off the walkway and onto a slot machine,” says Hanlin. “The Arc Double cabinet, which was the first of its kind in that double-portrait cabinet genre, really did that. So, when you build a cabinet with that kind of iconic shape, it’s hard to let it go.”
Rather than letting it go, the company improved on it. “We looked at the Neptune and said, we really need to raise our game in this space,” Hanlin says, citing the larger 4K displays and the positioning of the screen—and the adjustable chair.
“We really focused on ergonomics with that cabinet, on making customers feel comfortable at a cabinet that’s so big,” Hanlin says. “You don’t want to intimidate people with the cabinet; you want to engross them. And that’s what this cabinet does.”
Innovative cabinets need innovative content, and Aristocrat is obliging this year. The new Mars Portrait cabinet will be launched with Buffalo Link, a game that draws on the main features of two of Aristocrat’s most iconic brands, Buffalo and Dragon Link—itself a sequel to Lightning Link, the game that pioneered the “Hold & Spin” game mechanic now being featured by most slot manufacturers in one form or another, in the so-called “persistent state” style of game.
“We take pride in that; copying is the highest form of flattery,” says Hanlin of the Hold & Spin trend. “We invented the space, and we’re very happy that people are putting games out with those mechanics—but we need to be the market leader in that category.”
The best way to introduce a new Dragon Link-style game is to attach it to the well-known free-spin round and other game features of the Buffalo brand. The game also includes new features like 2X and 3X wild multipliers and a mystery “must-hit-by” bonus that awards either the Hold & Spin feature or free games, as well as a four-level jackpot consisting of two static awards and two progressives.
“It’s a very important game for us, because it takes our most iconic brand, Buffalo, and our best and most unique mechanic in Hold & Spin, and combines those two,” Hanlin says.
Meanwhile, the new behemoth Neptune Dual cabinet will debut with another potential blockbuster from game design legend Joe Kaminkow, Crazy Rich Asians.
Based on the 2018 romantic comedy hit from Warner Bros. about a Chinese-American professor and her boyfriend’s rich family in Singapore, the new game takes full advantage of the stacked 49-inch 4K monitors to deliver remarkable quality in footage from the film through primary game play and bonus features that include 2X symbols, a wheel bonus and a pick-em progressive bonus aiming at that big jackpot directly over the player’s head.
For Aristocrat, Crazy Rich Asians continues a partnership with Warner Bros. Entertainment Company that has yielded hits including The Big Bang Theory and Mad Max: Fury Road, among others.
According to Hanlin, Aristocrat will soon launch other major titles on the Neptune Dual, including a new entry in the Game of Thrones series and several proprietary brands.
In addition to developing games to take advantage of the new cabinet capabilities, Aristocrat has spent 2020 rolling out content for the current cabinets, including the dual-screen MarsX, launched last year.
One of this year’s offerings on the MarsX is a new version of the legendary Cash Express multi-progressive slot. First introduced at ICE London in February and officially launched in August, Cash Express Luxury Line features the familiar four-level progressive supported by three of the company’s highest-earning base games—Buffalo, TimberWolf and 50 Lions.
The game is a direct descendant of the revolutionary progressive of the same name which in the early 2000s launched Hyperlink, in which random players were awarded progressive jackpots after the iconic steam locomotive chugged on the screen.
The Luxury Line version incorporates the “Cash-on-Reels” feature, in which a “Gold Star” symbol returns instant credit awards or “train jackpot” symbols that correspond to the colors of the Grand, Major, Minor and Mini progressives. The Gold Train symbols awards repeat jackpot wins.
“Cash Express was a huge brand for us, and it really set us on the path of gaming ops—that premium lease model,” Hanlin says. “It’s a product that really fits the current environment.”
Also on the MarsX is Fu Dai Dragon, which includes a unique Hold & Spin-style progressive jackpot feature using free spins in which the letters spelling out the names of the four jackpots—Mini, Minor, Major and Grand—remain in place while the reels re-spin, until one of the jackpot names is completed to award that prize. The amounts of the two static jackpots and the two progressives scale upward according to the bet.
Another standout among the Asian titles on the MarsX is Long Fei Feng Wu, which includes another Hold & Spin feature, in which the player can collect twice on a jackpot if the coin symbols corresponding to a jackpot are accompanied by two or more Phoenix symbols.
Another highlight in the dual-screen format is Timber Wolf Gold, a new version of the popular title in which the player collects Timber Wolf symbols, the highest-paying symbol in the pay table, and ultimately replaces lower-paying symbols on the reels for huge wins.
The Helix XT cabinet, the portrait cabinet with the curved 4K monitor released in 2018, this year hosts Buffalo Chief, which adds a white buffalo symbol to the iconic brand. The game features “Supercoins,” which trigger the “Buffalo Chief Collection” feature during free games, when every Supercoin triggers a wheel bonus to determine the number of the top-paying white Buffalo Chief symbols that will be added to the reels for the remaining spins—up to a total of 250.
Buffalo Chief also features a random “Stampede” feature in which the middle three reels expand up to 10 rows high, creating a reel array with 16,000 ways to win on each spin.
Also on the Helix XT is Really Wicked Winnings, another new version of a well-loved theme, this one including an expanding reels feature.
Aristocrat’s other curved cabinet, the unique flame55, this year hosts Zorro Wild Ride, a ways-to-win offering that combines expanding reels, persistent wilds, cumulative multipliers and progressive jackpots.
The game also features Aristocrat’s next new game mechanic, the Wild Ride sticky-wild feature. “It’s a brand new, never-done-before mechanic,” says Hanlin. “It’s a sticky wilds mechanic, which does exist in the world, but it’s implemented in a way that’s completely unique to the industry.”
In the feature, Zorro’s alias, Don Diego de La Vega, changes into wilds, wild multipliers or jackpot symbols. Stacked Don Diego symbols provide the opportunity for players to land a screenful of wilds on just one spin.
The Edge X cabinet, the immersive game setup that was home to last year’s Game of Thrones: Winter Is Here and Star Trek: The Next Generation, this year features Conan, based on the legendary fictional pulp-magazine and Marvel Comics hero.
This year’s burst of innovation extends to the company’s RELM and RELM XL mechanical stepper formats as well. This year, Aristocrat takes its signature Hold & Spin feature to the stepper realm or the first time in Dynasty Link, on the imposing 9-foot RELM XL cabinet. (“As the inventor of Hold & Spin, we reserve the right to put it on everything!” says Hanlin.)
From Systems to Digital
Aristocrat, like all major manufacturers, has paid a great deal of attention this year to product groups that are suddenly in great demand because of the pandemic—namely, cashless play options on the system side and spreading content online, which increased in importance while the brick-and-mortar business was shut down.
For Aristocrat’s Oasis 360 casino management system, cashless wallet features were refined this year and placed into test at Boyd Gaming properties in Las Vegas.
“Cashless is a big focus of ours,” says Hanlin. “We have a great partner in our systems business with Boyd Gaming. It’s been a great partnership to drive innovation with us, and they’ve gotten us to a cashless place. We’ll have a cashless wallet, and it will be tied to our key product in the Oasis system. It’s a very important space.
“Events like a pandemic can accelerate things that probably need to happen anyway, and cashless is one of those arenas where we as an industry have probably not done a great job in getting where we need to be. This crisis we’ve all dealt with will probably push us to be better at it.”
While Aristocrat is not currently active in for-money online gaming, the company was one of the early pioneers in social gaming. The Product Madness suite of apps—House of Vegas, Cashman Casino and Lightning Link Casino—has made most of Aristocrat’s casino hits available online. “Our digital business is doing very well, and we’ve seen a significant uptick in daily users, downloads and all other elements,” Hanlin says.
Hanlin says he is confident of a bounce-back in sales for suppliers as casinos again ramp up operations. “The term everyone likes to use is ‘pent-up demand’—and it has been great. You’ve heard the earnings calls. A lot of the regional operators have already turned profitable. We’ve seen high coin-in, strong play.
“As macroeconomics in the country unfold over the next few months, how much are they going to be willing to invest in their floor? I’m bullish, because from what we’ve seen, slot product is winning the day. It’s a product they can turn on, and it has immediate benefits to them, and it’s helping to drive them to a profitable place quickly.
“They’re going to realize that investment in the slot product and slot floor, and new product, will pay for itself.”
While industry sectors like online gaming and sports betting are sure to continue to grow after the pandemic ends, Hanlin says for now, Aristocrat will continue to concentrate on that traditional slot product.
“We know what we do well,” he says. “We put together high-performing, strong slot content, and we put it on best-in-class, innovative hardware. That’s what we do. And coming out of a pandemic, that’s what people are going to want from us, and want from the industry.”