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Darnell Johnson

Director of Product Management – Video Poker, IGT

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When Si Redd founded IGT back in the mid 1970s, video poker was the company’s cornerstone. When it went public in 1981, IGT dominated the video poker market. Not much has changed 40 years later. IGT is still the 800-pound gorilla in the video poker market. Darnell Johnson, the director of video poker product management, explains why video poker is one of the staples of the casino gaming market. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros via Zoom from the IGT offices in Las Vegas in January.

GGB: People forget that video poker was really the first skill-based game, and people enjoy it because they have some sort of control over whether they’re going to win or lose. How do you keep interest in video poker with the new skill games hitting the casino floor?

Darnell Johnson: The casino industry as a whole is constantly expanding. So, sports betting, casual games, skill-based games, all these things are just additional offerings that we as casino manufacturers provide as a means of entertainment for the player. We don’t really see poker as anything less, now that more of those games or venues are starting to expand. We just want to continue to provide the best type of content and product offerings for our customers that we can. We want to make sure that the player’s experience is the best experience that they have when they go on their casino floor. We want to make sure that it’s memorable, so that they can come back and play again.

IGT has a really diverse lineup of games. You are always introducing new versions of video poker. How do you decide how to tweak them, and what kind of other options to give to the players?

When we first introduced video poker several decades ago it was very straightforward. And we started to do a lot of evolutions, working with internal resources that we have, and other partners, where we can create a lot of different types of opportunities for more favorable experiences to the players. Introducing a triple/five/10-play game mechanic, where a player now has the opportunity to play not just one single hand, but three hands, five hands, or 10 hands, at any given time just creates a lot more excitement from a player’s perspective.

That’s what we continue to try to do. We look to see how we can innovate things, but we also have to be very mindful that poker players are very loyal, and they don’t like to see a lot of change. We understand that and we respect that. We’ve seen those Jacks or Better players start transitioning over to different game families, whether that’s a Bonus Poker play, or Double Double Bonus, or even Triple Double Bonus, depending on what type of volatility they’re looking to get out of their experience. We also talk to the operators, because they know their players way better than we do, as to what they’re looking for, and continue to drive content that meets that need.

The hold percentage on a video poker game is really pretty low, when it comes to the casino, and pretty high for the player, if you play the correct strategy. The better they learn the strategy, the better they’re going to do at the game. But I’ve noticed a lot of players don’t really know this strategy.

There are a few players out there that play really, really well, but there are not many that play perfect strategy. It takes a very disciplined player to be able to do that. Though there are definitely some advantages, I think the properties are well-versed in understanding how to leverage that to their benefit as well.

One of the great things about video poker is that you can sit at a bar and play it. And that was really a lot of the attraction of it in the beginning, especially here in Nevada when they had the small casinos. IGT has just introduced a new PeakBarTop cabinet that is doing very well. Explain the strategy behind that.

A few years ago, we started the exercise to look at creating a new type of form factor for the bar area. We were getting a lot of feedback from customers, that they believed that it was time to start looking at a new form factor. So, we took the challenge to create something.

We wanted to create something that is definitely going to resonate with today’s players, but could also resonate with future players as well—something that can evolve over time, to offer everything that video poker offers today. I think IGT is a clear leader in that space of innovation. I think we’ve shown over the last couple of years now that we’re looking to continue to push the envelope.

We introduced a curved monitor to the bar area. That was not something that had been considered previously. There are a lot of issues with the bars from a glare perspective, where a curved display, positioned the right way, can absorb that glare and not redirect it back into the player’s eyes.

Ergonomics was a big part of this. We wanted to create a solution that is much better ergonomically for the player as well, where the customer can play and be comfortable. The buttons are a key element of our bar-top as well. Players love those buttons, and know those buttons, so we want to make sure that we would keep that same interaction, while, at the same time, try to create more innovation to make it more appealing, from both a hardware perspective and a software perspective. And thankfully, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.

Roger Gros
Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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