Changing the Game

The newly merged International Game Technology works on crafting the future of gaming-and reinventing the Wheel

IGT is in the future business. Always has been, actually.

In fact, the future was the reason the company was founded in the first place. Gaming legend Si Redd formed the Reno-based company that would be incorporated in 1982 as International Game Technology because the former Bally Manufacturing did not buy into his vision of the future—that video poker, his invention, was actually going to be a profitable product.

Redd, of course, proved Bally wrong on video poker, and proceeded to reinvent the reel-spinning slot machine business that Bally had dominated for decades. Progressive slots, themed games like Wheel of Fortune, video slots that brought icons of popular culture to life, volatile penny games… They are all examples of how IGT reinvented gaming technology and created a new future for the industry.

For the past year, the newly merged International Game Technology Plc.—the combination of the former suppliers IGT and GTECH—has been back at work reinventing the slot sector, and the nature of the industry itself.

IGT’s legendary R&D prowess still means new experiences for the traditional casino slot machines—which, by the way, IGT still sells more of than nearly all other major suppliers combined—using the latest technology to create vastly entertaining games in ways no one has ever encountered on a gaming machine. However, while serving the massive audience IGT games have built over the years, the company’s executives, headed by CEO Marco Sala, are continuing to set the company up for the future with new ways to deliver content.

Sala, who was CEO of the Rome-based former GTECH parent Lottomatica, has spent much of the eight months since the newly merged IGT rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange developing a strategy that takes full advantage of everything both legacy companies brought to the table.

It’s a job Sala’s done before. GTECH itself was a product of mergers, having absorbed highly regarded slot suppliers Atronic and Spielo, creating a diversified business of lottery and gaming long before last year’s mega-mergers. Now, IGT’s huge game development operation is combined with the sophisticated network of online, retail and gaming channels of GTECH’s lottery business, which Sala’s team is looking to exploit to full advantage.

For the North American casino market—land-based and online—Sala is aided by Renato Ascoli, who is CEO of North American gaming and interactive.

Combining the Best

The arsenal of content at the command of IGT’s research and development teams is remarkable by any measure. Each legacy company had its own distinct personality, innovative game styles and groundbreaking technology. Time-tested Spielo games have been popular in Canada for decades. On the U.S. casino side, GTECH had already incorporated the pioneering games of the former Austrian company Atronic into a new generation of games.

It all blended seamlessly with the vast game library of leading slot manufacturer IGT.

“The legacy companies brought highly complementary product portfolios and technologies to the new IGT,” says Sala. “Both companies also brought unique experience as operators in gaming and lotteries respectively, which we leverage to inform our product roadmap. Our combined content and systems solutions encompass best-in-class offerings for our customers across the B2B and B2C spectrum of gaming, lottery, interactive and social. Each platform can share content, data, channels and payment tools.”

Sala says the company’s strategy moving forward is centered under the banner “Customer First.”

“In addition to our industry-leading R&D investment and innovative technology across all platforms and regulated segments of gaming, we have a distinctive market strategy,” Sala says. “Our longstanding customer and government relationships are reinforced by our strong local market presence. We offer our customers the industry’s most compelling portfolio of games, systems and solutions from a single point of contact.”

“We’re trying to build a new success story for IGT,” adds Ascoli, “on specific pillars, and as I always remind my team, the first pillar is ‘Customer First,’ which is not just a motto; it’s a day-by-day attitude. We began with a very important process that legacy IGT had in place, which is called CAB—Customer Advisory Board. We listen a lot to our customers.”

And customer feedback, says Ascoli, will be vital as IGT merges the complementary technologies of its legacy companies.

Combining Forces

September’s Global Gaming Expo provided the first forum to display the capabilities of the new IGT’s combined R&D forces. The showcase of legacy IGT and GTECH games was as spectacular as ever, including a sea of new steppers in the S3000 series, intriguing new high-profile brands like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, and a thorough line of new specialty video poker.

But one standout at G2E was the first product that is a combination of those complementary technologies Sala mentions. It uses what is easily the most innovative slot technology of the former GTECH, True 3D. The award-winning technology was launched at G2E two years ago with the game Sphinx 3D, a slot that dazzled with the most realistic 3D effect ever seen on a slot machine—or anywhere else, without the aid of 3D glasses.

GTECH followed up the hugely successful Sphinx 3D last year with several other True 3D titles, but after the merger, it was IGT’s turn to exploit the technology. The choice of theme wasn’t hard—the most famous IGT theme, the legendary Wheel of Fortune, along with its most legendary base game, Double Diamond. Wheel of Fortune Double Diamond 3D replicates the classic stepper game in video 3D, with symbols popping off the reels, and a fourth bonus reel leading to full-HD video sequences.

“True 3D certainly provides us with an excellent opportunity to expand the technology into other popular titles from the legacy IGT portfolio,” says Sala. “We experienced very favorable customer response to our introduction of Wheel of Fortune with True 3D at G2E, and our True 3D portfolio now includes 10 different games. Our roadmap includes a number of other True 3D titles. As we work to develop these games, we will work closely with our operator partners to make sure our game development for True 3D is aligned with the interests of their players.”

The new Wheel of Fortune game is only the first inkling of the things to come as the legacy platforms, play styles and themes merge into a whole new force in game design.

IGT will continue to refine products like TournExtreme, a feature-rich new instant tournament system, and new skill-based bonuses—like the Centipede and Texas Tea Pinball games, which allow players to dust off their old arcade skills to gain an edge in a bonus game.

The new TMZ game, a hit at G2E, plays off the celebrity tabloid show with an innovative “photo booth” feature—the player snaps his picture, which is animated into the bonus rounds, making the player part of the TMZ “crew” traveling to various celebrity locations.

“This type of innovation appeals to the millennial, yet we believe it also has broad appeal among all slot machine players,” says Sala. “This universal appeal is important to our customers, who still want us to focus a great deal of content creation on their core players.”

IGT will continue to serve those core players, but what’s coming in the future also will apply the gaming and lottery skills honed by the legacy companies to serve a completely new generation.

Millennial Madness

Game development experts at IGT are among those currently advising regulators in Nevada and New Jersey as they formulate the rules for skill-based games—new games envisioned with variable return-to-player percentages according to the skill of the player.

No one knows the games that ultimately will result—be they Candy Crush-style multi-level games, video shooting competitions or other new experiences. It is hoped the new games will appeal to the millennial generation that will soon be of prime spending age but do not go for traditional slot machines.

“We will work closely with our customers to determine which types of games in the skill-based category are of interest to them and their players,” says Sala. “We preceded Texas Tea Pinball with other games that feature skill-based elements in the bonus event, such as Atari Centipede and Race Ace, so we bring great experience to the concept.

“We are watching closely how the regulation evolves,” adds Ascoli, “and we are more than ready to introduce more skill-based content into the core game, should our customers confirm this is what they like.”

Skill is only the beginning in IGT’s exploration of what may appeal to the emerging millennial generation. The company has been at the head of the curve in creating new outlets to capitalize on what millennials love, beginning when the company realized the potential of social casinos before anyone else, landing on the ground floor of a new way to spread content in its DoubleDown social casino.

Gaming in the social space aside, a product launched last year at MGM could offer the best glimpse yet at how casinos in the future will need to accommodate millennials. OnPremise, which debuted last year at MGM properties in Las Vegas, capitalizes on the one trait that is common to and essential for any millennial:

They never put down their mobile devices.

OnPremise enables mobile sports betting and casino games on players’ mobile devices, anywhere in a property. MGM is adding the capability to lounges already offering interactive tables with social casino games. The OnPremise product won  first place for “Best Consumer Service Technology” in GGB’s 15th Annual Gaming & Technology Awards.

“The quintessence of the company coming together is the OnPremise product,” says Ascoli. “At MGM, it is offering the opportunity for players, sitting in a bar or in a restaurant, a pool, a spa, in any time of the year, to place a bet, or to play a casino game on the iPhone.”

“The OnPremise solution will evolve to connect to any casino’s application so players can receive loyalty rewards by playing slots in the property’s social casino,” adds Sala, “extending the entertainment experience after they have left the casino property.”

While OnPremise provides a functionality that will get both social and casino game content to millennials in their own language, so to speak, Ascoli says casinos and manufacturers are studying new ways to present the games utilizing the unique preferences of the demographic.

“Millennials usually like some features that perhaps a standard casino player would not like that much,” Ascoli says. “They like leaderboards, for instance. They always want to know where they stand, compared to someone. They want to be in control of the game; they want to tweak and change the color or the functionality. So, we need to provide these kinds of things. We need to start from there to, let’s say, introduce fresh blood into our business.”

“We recognize the need to create new game styles and distribute them to players where they want to play them,” says Sala, “so mobile is an important area of focus for us. With DoubleDown Casino and OnPremise, we have established good momentum distributing content to the mobile space.

“OnPremise brings together the interactive technology that we brought with GTECH with the mobile technology that we brought with a recently acquired company, and our sports-betting capabilities, that we developed starting from Italy—combined with the distribution of casino games, and connected to a central system, which is the legacy IGT’s true capacity.”

Doubling Down

Whether on mobile, online or land-based distribution channels, one other way IGT is changing the way business is conducted in the casino industry’s slot sector is in the social gaming arena. Sala says the company is using its DoubleDown social casino, acquired in a pioneering move in 2012, as a way for customers to improve business in the land-based arena.

“We are now leveraging our Advantage system technology to provide our casino partners with marketing and promotional opportunities to DoubleDown Casino players as an extension of casino loyalty programs,” Sala says.

“DoubleDown’s recent success is strongly dependent on the quality of the games that were taken from the land-based operations into the social gaming space. But now we’re doing something on the opposite side. We are taking successful games developed for the interactive market, or for the social market, and we are sending them back to the land-based side.”

At G2E, the 50 new core games displayed included two taken from the internet space. “We chose the most high-performing (social) titles,” says Ascoli. “This can be reassuring to customers. Imagine you are an operator and you’re about to invest your cap-ex on a new machine. If you’re allowed to see the track record of content in a similar environment, which is the interactive space, it’s much more instructive.”

“The success of DoubleDown Casino is built upon our commitment to offering the authentic IGT slot play experience over desktop and mobile devices,” says Sala. “The content on DoubleDown Casino creates affinity for the games in casinos, inspiring players to look for their favorite games in casinos to expand the entertainment experience. DoubleDown Casino also serves as a valuable resource for us in terms of testing new content. We can observe a game’s performance in online and mobile play, which provides insight as to how well it may perform in a casino.”

Combining Disciplines

Going forward, Sala and Ascoli will continue to explore ways to combine resources to improve products on both the lottery and gaming sides.

“This combination of legacy organizations is highly complementary, resulting in a balanced business with the industry’s largest global footprint and a diversified product mix that can cater to any global customer need,” says Sala. “If a customer wishes to enter a different segment of gaming, we have the experience and portfolio to support them.

“The new IGT is well-positioned to transform the gaming industry by leveraging our strong competitive positions across growing global market segments of lottery, gaming machines, systems, solutions and interactive.”

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.