In January 2020, Andrew Burke, longtime head of the slot division at Las Vegas-based supplier AGS, left that company to take on the assignment of building Bluberi Gaming Canada, Inc., a slot supplier founded in the mid-1990s in Drummondville, Quebec, into a significant player in the U.S. slot market.
The company’s entire operation was at the time centered in Drummondville, which is between Quebec City and Montreal. Burke’s first order of business was to establish a presence in the gaming capital of Las Vegas. Though R&D is still centered in Drummondville, Burke’s connections in Nevada served him well as far as partnerships—and in building the team that would be required to further develop Bluberi’s U.S.-based game library.
Burke had a head start with respect to Bluberi, and was familiar with the Canadian firm’s products—AGS had been the exclusive distributor for Bluberi in North America. But his experience in helping build AGS into a force in the gaming market would also serve him well at Bluberi.
For one thing, his experience taught him that real growth comes from gathering the top talent available. From his own former company, Burke brought in former AGS finance and data analytics executive James Prince as director of analytics and insights for Bluberi; Lesley Hodges, former AGS senior director of events, as senior director of marketing; and Cullen Wood, former AGS regional field service manager, as service director for his new company.
In June 2020, Burke brought in Casey Whalen, the former vice president of North American game sales for Konami, as Bluberi’s new chief commercial officer. By January 2021, Whalen’s sales team consisted of two other Konami veterans—Steven Kohon, who had been senior director of sales for Konami’s Western Region for 10 years, was brought in to handle Bluberi sales in the same vital region, including Nevada and California. Mesa Whitehurst, who had handled sales in the eastern U.S. for five years at Konami, was named Bluberi’s sales VP for the East.
This year, Bluberi again strengthened its management team with veterans, this time from IGT with Manager of Product Marketing Christian Smith and, most recently, Mike Brennan, who was IGT’s vice president of product management.
Brennan, whose pedigree in product management with IGT extended back through legacy companies GTECH, Spielo and Atronic, is now executive vice president of product management and game studios for Bluberi.
Brennan says Bluberi’s influx of veteran industry talent is a definite advantage to the company’s growth as a supplier. “Add it all up and you have perhaps 150 years of experience,” he says. “Everybody has experience with these myriad companies, focused on all areas, knowing things that worked well and things to avoid. We’re all learning from each other, and we’re each bringing something a little different to the table.”
The other advantage Bluberi has in its growth path, and one reason for the company’s ability to attract top talent, is another similarity to Burke’s former company—a well-financed parent firm. Bluberi is owned by Catalyst Capital Group, Canada’s largest private equity firm.
“They’ve got $5 billion in assets under management, they own Gateway Casinos, with nearly 30 properties in Canada, and they just acquired Cirque du Soleil,” notes Brennan. “So we’ve got big pockets from our owners, we’ve been around for 28 years, we’re ready to grow into Class III, and we’ve got strong Class II roots.”
Bluberi currently has more than 7,000 units of their design in the field, split between Class III and Class II. Brennan says the quality of that product speaks to the strength of the R&D team in Drummondville, which, in addition to current Bluberi slots, is responsible for hits like Royal Reels and Diamond Lotto, which are distributed under a different brand.
Brennan says all that talent will be used to fulfill the company’s mission, which he says is to become a world-class supplier of slot machines. “We want to have world-class games, and we’re working really hard on that,” he says. “In the meantime, we want to be the easiest company to do business with, so when customers are looking at all their options, they’re choosing Bluberi because we’re going to focus on customer service. We’ve got aggressive metrics on delivering product, turning around contracts, field misconfigurations, and having a flexible approval process.”
Bluberi is evolving its R&D efforts along the way. According to Brennan, the company has ramped up product research through focus groups, honest internal assessment and market-specific breakdowns, and has instituted its first test banks.
“Test banks are something that’s worked in the past,” Brennan says. “We want to be rigorous in testing because that’s part of a content improvement program—you put your product out there and see how the players react. It allows you to identify your hits, and take risks under less market exposure.”
While the development process is refined, he adds, the company is concentrating on spreading its footprint of licenses to new jurisdictions, prudently. “We had our first-ever placement in Arizona,” Brennan says. “New Mexico is coming up, and Ohio, and we’re very big in Alabama with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians—we have over 600 games live with them. Miccosukee in Florida is a big partner of ours too.
“We’re plotting responsible growth in North America.”
Building the Library
That growth has already begun—Bluberi is diversifying its product mix for all its customer areas. According to Brennan, the company currently develops 20 to 25 games a year. “Just about everything is available in Class III, Class II and TLS, the Tribal Lottery System in Washington state,” he says.
“Not everybody makes all their games available across those different verticals. We’re putting up some development gates to make sure that we can maximize our at-bats. Every single one can’t be a hit, but we can ensure that we’re stressing the good, along with the fast, when we bring product to market.”
Last year, Bluberi launched a new cabinet, the Novus b49, with a 49-inch portrait monitor. This complements the 3-year-old, 10.5-foot b.POD, which features dual 23-inch screens topped with a 55-inch portrait monitor. All new b.POD game content will also be available for the Novus b27 series.
This year, a new cabinet is added to the mix, a product completely different than anything Bluberi has offered. It’s the result of another of Burke’s industry connections, a relationship with industry legend Steve Weiss and his bZillions game studio. While at AGS, Burke tapped Weiss’ studio for its Colossal Diamonds game and giant Big Red cabinet.
Weiss and bZillions are now reprising that role for Bluberi, with a new cabinet they’re calling Big Mech. It is a giant cabinet that fits on a standard base. “It’s got the same button deck as the Novus b49,” says Brennan, “and we’ve added these barrel reels that allow the players to actually see the reel mechanism.”
Brennan says they’re still perfecting the Big Mech, improving the lighting and other visuals in the see-through mechanical show, leading up to its debut at G2E and an expected Q4 release.
The launch game will be Reels of Steel, a traditional three-reel, single-line game. Brennan says the reels themselves are fully stenciled metal, as opposed to Mylar or other plastic compounds used in modern slots. It will be available in high denominations.
“We’re hoping for three-pods and caps, really going after that high-denom player,” Brennan says. “But I also think we’re going to get a lot of impulse play on this. It’s got a higher hit frequency than you usually get out of a three-reel, one-line game. And there are some surprises behind these reels.”
There are wild symbols, and pays in the traditional pay table start at a single cherry. (Thus, a single wild symbol returns the single-cherry win.). There are LEDs behind the reels that allow more modern mechanics, like cash-on-reels in the free spins.
Free spins are triggered by a bonus symbol on the third reel, transforming the color of the LED-framed reels to blue and launching a free-spin bonus.
While Reels of Steel on Big Mech is Bluberi’s first premium, lease-only game, the company will arrive at G2E with standouts in its growing core library on the cabinets launched last year.
On the Novus b49 is Colossal Dragons, recently certified by BMM Testlabs and currently in the market.
The game features many of today’s most popular game mechanics, from cash-on-reels to expanding reels in a ways-to-win format, to a wild feature that leads to a progressive jackpot.
The base game is a ways-to-win format played out on a reel array with three rows of symbols on the outer two reels and four symbols on each of the three middle reels. In this configuration, the game offers 576 ways to win on each spin. Colossal Dragons symbols on the outer reels are wild.
Randomly, the middle reels expand to eight rows, boosting the potential to 4,608 ways to win on a random number of spins.
Also randomly, a Wild Feature will trigger on expanded reels to spin one screen-length reel, to a credit award or one of the four jackpots.
There are two different cash-on-reels features. In the primary game, special reels appear loaded with cash-on-reels prizes up to 50 times the total bet. In the Dragon Bonus, the player collects cash-on-reels awards with the potential of winning one of three progressive jackpots. There is a free-spin bonus in which the first reel is completely wild for four spins.
The hold-and-spin feature brings a new twist to the mechanic—instead of cycles lasting three spins, the feature continues as long as at least one cash-on-reels symbol locks in place with credit values increasing from reel 2 to reel 4.
Another standout, to be released around the time of G2E, is Devil’s Lock. The base game is played out on 15 individual reels in a five-by-three array. It is a 40-line game featuring frequent stacked symbols, with a unique unlocking prize feature. Symbols with Devil prizes, reaching up to 100 times the bet each, can all be unlocked and won if the wild Devil symbol lands on the center reel. The wild Devil sticks on the center reel for up to six free spins.
One other new game featured on the Novus b49 is Waves of Fortune, which includes a frequent mystery wild symbol that can appear on all five reels, during regular play or free spins. The game can award up to 100 free spins, with multipliers of 2X, 3X or 5X.
Brennan says there also will be new games for the b49 cabinet unveiled at G2E.
“The development process is long, but this is the type of fun stuff that we want to come together,” Brennan says. “We’re 115 employees, so we have to do things differently. We have to be agile. We’ve got to take some chances in order to stand out.”
Brennan says one of his goals is to develop a distinctive identity for Bluberi games, implementing characteristics that are unique to the brand. “Hopefully we’ll have some Bluberi signature items,” Brennan says. “We want to create not just a game here or there or hit here or there, but something that’s across our portfolio—that’s iconic, that makes players and operators think, ‘Oh, that’s Bluberi.’”
“G2E will represent the culmination of over a year and a half of hard work, rebuilding the company and rebranding to celebrate the culture and the history of Bluberi,” said Burke recently. “And while a culmination often signifies an ending, at Bluberi, we are just getting started.”