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Aristocrat Technologies: Aiming High

Aristocrat aims for the top of the slot market with new game styles, new takes on classics, and some of the top game development talent in the business

Aristocrat Technologies: Aiming High

Aristocrat Leisure Limited turns 60 this year, but the company, which built its first slot machine in Australia in 1953, is just getting started.

Aristocrat has undergone something of a rebirth over the past few years, but this year marks a new era, centered where the company has concentrated much of its effort recently—in North America, with the Australian manufacturer’s Las Vegas-based subsidiary, Aristocrat Technologies, Inc., at the epicenter.

While Australia—a market Aristocrat has dominated for six decades—is still the home base for the parent company, the U.S. has become entrenched as the slot-maker’s No. 1 market. It is where the company’s legacy multi-line video slots, after transforming the slot market in the 1990s, have remained favorites of thousands of players. More recently, though, two words have spelled Aristocrat’s success in the U.S.: gaming operations.

Aristocrat has spent the past several years improving, refining and adding to its gaming operations division, which has been the company’s top revenue-producer. High-profile licensed brands from “JAWS” to “Mission: Impossible” to “Tarzan” to “Superman” have defined the company’s recent success.

Aristocrat’s 60th year was marked by a new milestone this summer when the company passed the 7,000-unit mark in gaming operations. “We’re not going to stop until we pass 10,000,” says Dallas Orchard, vice president of gaming operations, who quickly adds, “and we’re not stopping at that point either.”

Aristocrat’s tagline for this year’s G2E show is “Transforming the Game,” and that is precisely what the company has been doing in all of its game and system segments. “The tagline speaks to everything,” says Orchard. “It speaks to the diversity of our portfolio; it speaks to bringing in new talent. It’s a bold statement from a company that’s about to hit its stride.”

Many feel the company has already hit its stride. Spending on research and development—or, as the company categorizes it, “D&D,” for design and development—has increased 20 percent year-on-year. Recurring-revenue games, including more high-profile licensed brands than ever, have never been stronger for the company.

 This year, however, investments have been made not only to increase those operations numbers even further, but to bolster every other area of business. According to Orchard, the company took a methodical approach to its investments in D&D, concentrating on four major divisions—Core Games, Entertainment Games, the Jackpot Segment and, of course, Gaming Operations.

It’s not that any of the categories has been neglected in the past. The core games segment was already the best in the business, notes Orchard. “By increasing our D&D spend 20 percent year-on-year, we’re proving to the market we’re able to diversify and be successful,” he says, “while we absolutely make sure we’ve refocused our core organic game designers on what they’re the best in the world at, and that’s producing great Aristocrat gambler-style content. The quality of those games continues to get better.”

“All these areas of investment are complementary to our core,” adds Matt Wilson, vice president of marketing for the Americas. “We’re not walking away from what made us great; we’re adding segments around our core, and that’s what’s called for the increase in D&D investment.”

Top Talent

One of the most important areas of investment has been to bring in new talent. In that respect, Aristocrat scored three major coups in the past year:

Dan Marks, the creative force behind High 5 Games—one of the most highly regarded of the third-party content suppliers, responsible for hit titles from IGT’s “Da Vinci Diamonds” to Bally’s “Green Machine”—now works exclusively for Aristocrat.

According to Wilson, the addition of Marks gives a giant boost to the company’s Entertainment Games segment. “The entertainment segment is a very large portion of the North American market, and we wanted to participate in it in a meaningful way,” Wilson says. “Dan has an amazing pedigree and skill set around building visually beautiful games that have been very successful in the North American market. He has an exclusive arrangement with Aristocrat, and will work on the evolution of our entertainment segment.”

Marks will deliver more than 20 games to Aristocrat within the next year. “He’s got the industry’s best track record in building entertainment games, and it’s the ultimate complementary skill set to our internal ability to produce the industry’s best core volatile games,” Wilson says.

For the stand-alone progressive jackpot segment, the company has brought back one of its former top game designers, Scott Olive, who will now work full-time for Aristocrat as a third-party designer. Olive was the inventor of Aristocrat’s groundbreaking Hyperlink progressive product, the multi-progressive that propelled the slot-maker’s success in the early 2000s.

“Scott created Hyperlink and a number of other innovative jackpot mechanics,” says Wilson. “We wanted to bring him back into the fray to give us the ability to evolve the jackpot progressive segment even further.”

Perhaps the biggest coup will manifest itself in the Gaming Operations area. In February, Aristocrat announced the hiring of one of the industry’s game design legends, Joe Kaminkow, as senior vice president of game development. In two stints with slot-maker International Game Technology, Kaminkow set the tone for two different eras in the slot sector, ushering in IGT’s entertainment-themed slots of the late 1990s and early 2000s with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Price Is Right” and several incarnations of “Wheel Of Fortune;” and more recently, contributing to an IGT rebirth with games like “The Dark Knight,” “Sex and the City,” “Ghostbusters” and many others.

“Our success in gaming operations has grown on the back of excellent game designers here and in Australia,” says Orchard, “and we’re building on that by bringing in Joe Kaminkow, who has designed some of the greatest-ever gaming operations products in the marketplace. We’re really proud to have Joe on board; we think it’s going to put us over the top.”

Wilson adds that having “the best talent in the industry for every segment of the business” gives Aristocrat a unique position as it goes into this year’s G2E show, a fact that will be obvious when looking at the new products at Aristocrat’s Booth No. 1141.

Brand Power

Aristocrat’s top talent will be on display with a collection of games at G2E that promises to be the most memorable in the slot-maker’s 60 years. Heading up the collection will be the cream of the gaming operations side—including more licensed brands than Aristocrat has ever brought to the big show.

The company has secured a remarkable collection of high-profile brands, some which were still under development at press time. And brands like these, Orchard says, are right in Kaminkow’s wheelhouse.

Take “Flashdance,” based on the iconic 1983 film starring Jennifer Beals as a Pittsburgh welder living in a converted factory building who transforms herself into a professional dancer. “We already had that in development before we brought Joe Kaminkow in,” recalls Orchard, “but after he was done with it, it was a night-and-day change. The attention to detail is sensational, and the way he brought it to life by using that top box, and having symbols unlock additional features in the top box, is all great.

“We showed this to a group of our top customers, and they were very impressed. It’s going to be wildly popular.”

The game, in Aristocrat’s Feature Top Box Video group, combines intricate animation, graphics and video footage of the movie’s dancing sequences with the film’s famous music—“Maniac Free Spins,” “What A Feeling Free Spins”—all driven home to the player with the new Aristocrat Surround Sound Chair.

Another major branded slot in Aristocrat’s lineup aims for a completely different demographic—most not even born when Flashdance came out, but forming the core of younger players casinos have been increasingly courting. “The Walking Dead” slot game was developed by a team led by Ted Hase in the company’s Innovation Studio—the same team that created the Tarzan family of games. The game is based on the first season of the AMC series that has grown into the most-watched drama in basic cable history, with season 3 reaching 55.7 million total viewers. (A second version of the game, “The Walking Dead Season 2,” is slated for a 2014 release.)

The show’s theme of humans trying to survive as hordes of zombies swarm the ruins of a post-apocalyptic world is reproduced in video, animation and reel symbols under a $500,000 multi-site progressive jackpot housed in Aristocrat’s Vervehd cabinet, featuring a 31.5-inch LCD top monitor.

There will, naturally, be Aristocrat “zombies” walking the trade-show floor.

Meanwhile, the older casino demographic—namely, baby boomers—is targeted by a third major licensed brand in “Batman 1966.” This one was a perfect fit for Kaminkow, whose masterful design of the games based on the modern-day Batman film The Dark Knight won accolades for his former employer.

This time, he was given the job of recreating the campy 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, complete with all the “Bam!”-“Boom!”-“Crunch!” comic-book sound balloons, villains like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and Cesar Romero’s Joker, and all the cornball clichés that made the ’60s series so irresistible.

“This game is a coming-out party for Joe Kaminkow,” says Orchard. “The hardware alone is going to be something the industry has never seen.”

The game is on the Modular Video Platform (MVP), with the large portrait-style top-box screen for bonuses. Few other details on the game were available at press time, but you just know it’s going to say “Same bat time, same bat channel!” somewhere in there. (Holy gaming ops, Batman!)

By the way, the original Batmobile—the one custom-built using an experimental Ford model by George Barris for the Batman series in 1966—will be at the G2E show. Kaminkow happens to own it, and periodically lends it to museums for displays. And, word is, its original driver—Batman himself, Adam West—will be at the Aristocrat booth as well.

Not all the brands in the Gaming Ops group will be based on TV or movies. One of the major releases at G2E will be “Buffalo Stampede,” based on the core “Buffalo” brand—the game voted the industry’s top-performing slot machine two years running in a Goldman Sachs survey.

Buffalo Stampede takes the popular features of the original into the Vervehd cabinet for the first time, with a base game in a new version of the Xtra Reel Power format, the reel setup with no paylines and wins based on adjacent symbols. This version of the format features reels that expand up to 5×6—six symbols per reel—for a possible 7,776 ways to win on each spin. The game has a two-level local-area progressive jackpot.

Other Gaming Ops standouts include “Sherlock Holmes” on the Hybrid cabinet, featuring a unique setup of three mechanical spinning reels accompanied by three sets of video reels, also in three-reel mode. Fourth and fifth mechanical reels are activated during free spins, thanks to Aristocrat’s “Shutter” hybrid technology, which incorporates a video overlay system that can alter the number of reels in a stepper format, or completely cover the reels for a total video bonus event.

This is an imposing game, with the theme—based on the original novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—wrapped into the huge Viridian Hybrid cabinet. The portrait-style top-box monitor houses a giant video wheel on which players can win credits, free games, upgrades to a secondary wheel with larger prizes, or one of three progressives, including a linked Grand progressive prize.

Other recurring-revenue games to be highlighted at G2E include “Let’s Make A Deal,” which was released this summer; “The Mummy: Tomb of Dragon Empire,” based on the 1999 film starring Brendon Fraser; and “Cash Express Gold Class,” the newest version of the original Hyperlink multi-progressive game.

Slated for 2014 release are a version of Cash Express with new support titles, and a new version of “Let’s Make A Deal,” which is the first game-show title ever done by Aristocrat. The latter game, featuring modern-day host Wayne Brady, mines the No. 1-rated daytime game show for all of its best sequences, including the gambling factor that has made the show popular for decades.

There also will be a new game in the “Superman” series, called “Superman 1978”—Kaminkow’s take on the popular brand. According to Orchard, Aristocrat recently secured the brand license for this year’s Superman film, Man of Steel, rounding out that brand group to include everything from the DC Comics version of Superman through the superhero’s most recent incarnation.

Finally, there will be a several surprises at G2E with brands Aristocrat has secured recently. While the company is keeping a few under wraps while the business details are worked out, there is one new branded slot developed by Kaminkow and slated for launch at the show that will represent a milestone in the slot business: “The Rolling Stones.” Yes, those Rolling Stones, the greatest rock band in the world.

The E-Series

The arrival of Marks has prompted Aristocrat to create a new game group. The E-Series, “E” for entertainment, will be launched at the G2E show with several new game groups featuring low volatility, low denominations, lots of paylines and an array of new play mechanics designed for people who play slots mainly for the entertainment value.

Heading the list of E-Series slots are “Sky Rider” and “Temple of the Tiger,” each of which features the new “Max Stacks” brand of stacking symbols. While the volatility factor is low compared to Aristocrat’s core games, it is still slightly higher than the main competing group the games target, which is IGT’s Super Stacks series.

Sky Rider and Temple of the Tiger will actually be game families, each launching with two base games. The common thread is that the player gets to pick the symbol that will show up as stacked symbols—clustered symbols creating big wins—in free-game spins. The number of free games, up to 36, varies with the value of the symbol chosen, so in effect, the player is selecting the volatility of the free-game bonus round.

The other main initial category in the E-Series is “Big Symbol Stacks,” with a unique stacking feature that incorporates oversized reel symbols that form a stack by covering a three-by-three portion of the reel set. When the Big Symbol Stacks land squarely on the reel set, they have the effect of nine adjacent stacked symbols. When it’s a wild symbol, that’s three entire wild reels.

 The player also gets the chance to pick the symbol that will form normal stacks in the free-spin round, picking the volatility of the bonus just as in the Max Stacks series. There is even a player-selectable order in which the reels stop.

The Big Symbol Stacks series will launch with four game families: “Storm Queen,” “Red Moon,” “Magic Mirror” and “Flowers of Babylon.”

While these games are in the for-sale category like Aristocrat’s core games, Marks has created an entirely new look for the E-Series games—highly stylized poker symbols, clearly different than the classic Aristocrat look; elegant artwork on all the reel symbols—which clearly sets these games apart from the core Aristocrat games.

Boosting the Core—and the Jackpots

Those core games are as strong as ever, and will be well-represented at G2E. Heading the G2E highlight reel are new versions of “Wonder 4,” the multiple-reel-set games that have been taking the industry by storm since their introduction last year.

Wonder 4 is a multi-game, multi-reel concept. There are four reel sets, and the player can choose to play any or all of the four base games at once. A unique “Drag and Drop” technology allows the player to drag any of the game titles from the menu and drop them on any of the reel sets—you can play one Buffalo and three Pompeii games, four Fire Lights, or any other combination. The choices include standard payline-based video slots, Reel Power slots (243 ways to win) and Xtra Reel Power enhanced scatter-format games (1,024 ways to win).

Aristocrat executives have dubbed Wonder 4 their “Game Changer,” and operators across the U.S. seem to be agreeing with the moniker, reporting strong performance and installing more than 1,700 units in the first year alone.

Aristocrat’s G2E lineup will highlight a second batch of four popular Aristocrat base games—selected based on player feedback—in “Wonder 4 Special Edition.” The four games players picked for this edition are “Buffalo” (it’s the most popular Aristocrat core game, repeated in the second edition), “Fire Light,” “Wild Patagonia” and “Indian Dreaming.”

The Special Edition will be accompanied by a second grouping picked by the players in “Wonder 4 Stars,” including “Wicked Winnings II,” “5 Dragons Deluxe,” “50 Lions” and “Timber Wolf.” The new grouping, categorized as the “Future Pack,” includes a new “phantom-style” mystery free-spin bonus that occurs more frequently than the bonus in the original Wonder 4. A third grouping, “Wonder 4 Gold,” is slated for December release.

The other game series fronting the Core Games group is “Legends,” which wraps the most famous classic Aristocrat games into a choice of two versions—players can choose the classic version of a popular game, exactly the way they remember it, or a “Deluxe” version with all the more modern bells and whistles. (Wilson says most players, surprisingly, have picked the “Deluxe” version.)

Heading the Legends games at G2E will be “Buffalo” and “Timber Wolf,” titles which have shipped a combined 8,000 units over the past five years.

The core group also will highlight Aristocrat’s stepper slots, headed by “Cashman Live” in the Viridian Hybrid cabinet. The reel-spinning version of the popular game series, which features the “Mr. Cashman” character popping onto the reels to award wild symbols, wild reels and multipliers, is represented in three new base-game titles, “I Heart Diamonds,” “King 7” and “Stacks of Gold.”

The Mr. Cashman bonus feature, as with the Sherlock Holmes game, is accomplished in the stepper format through the “Shutter” technology.

Finally, in the Jackpot Products segment, among the new titles on display in Olive’s first G2E back with Aristocrat are “Sparkling Jackpots” and “Jackpot Reel Power,” along with fan favorites like “Hyperlink Multilink,” “Cash Express Hyperlink” and “Millioni$er.”

System Suite

The multitude of games on display at Aristocrat’s booth—there will be 204 in all—will be accompanied by exhibits of Aristocrat’s other growth area of late, the Systems division.

According to Kelly Shaw, vice president of systems sales and marketing, two main areas will be highlighted at the show—networked bonusing in connection with the popular Oasis 360 casino management system; and the company’s suite of products designed to take Aristocrat games into online and mobile channels.

Oasis 360’s “SpeedSolutions” bonusing portfolio contains bonus features that can be driven to players’ slots that are designed to drive loyalty and increase incremental revenue. Among the networked bonus features in the suite are “Play ‘N Win,” which awards a type of match-play functionality for bounce-back incentives. Elements like QR codes will allow those incentives to be shared between brick-and-mortar casinos and mobile devices.

“This is one of the most exciting times for us in systems, because we’re extending our commitment to move beyond brick-and-mortar into the online space,” says Shaw, “to get our customers ready not only for free-play platforms but for social casinos and online casinos.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the hot “nLive” system module, which is in place at the Maryland Live! casino and is on queue for more installations. The nLive platform allows operators to create a free-play online casino in connection with their websites, to drive player-club sign-ups and ultimately drive players to their properties.

“We’re lowering the cost of entry for some products by moving the platforms into the cloud,” Shaw says.

In all, this year’s G2E is sizing up to be like none before it for Aristocrat.

An appropriate kickoff to the company’s next 60 years.

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 books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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