There’s a saying in Major League Baseball that helps hitters to succeed in an era of shifting defenses: “Hit it where they ain’t.”
The saying definitely could apply to the maturation of Las Vegas-based Gaming Arts as a supplier of slot machines. A well-known supplier of bingo technology and equipment that only began producing casino slots four years ago, Gaming Arts has found much success in departing from the expected route.
“We like to do things that we have a strong feeling of success behind, but then the other 40 percent of the time, we want to do something that is completely out there,” says Keith Kruczynski, vice president of game development and design for Gaming Arts.
Games like Hamster Libre, which features a bonus wheel spun by hamsters on a treadmill. (Animated hamsters, of course.) Or the Dice Seeker series, with its persistent feature involving a video roll of the dice.
Kruczynski—formerly one of the top game designers at Bally—along with other veterans, from Chief Commercial Officer Jean Venneman, an IGT veteran who in the 1990s headed the team that created the iconic Wheel of Fortune game, to Product Marketing Manager Jason Babler and company President Mike Dreitzer, both veterans of Ainsworth, certainly know how to produce games with familiar features that stack up to any slots from long-established suppliers. Game groups like the fun Pop’N Pays series and the Da Fa Ba series of Asian games are still popular in the marketplace.
But what has distinguished this veteran team are the products that are outside of the box. Take Casino Wizard, a multi-game unit that includes electronic versions of four different table games. After being introduced at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when some casinos had not yet restarted table games and many players still were uncomfortable crowding around live felt tables, the game has endured to remain popular long after casinos reopened all their games, and has logged outstanding performance from coast to coast.
“Casino Wizard is a super unique product because there’s truly nothing like it out there,” comments Dreitzer. “Obviously, there are electronic table games, but this is the only multi-game ETG in a slot cabinet that’s in the field.”
Kruczynski comments that Casino Wizard was a surprise hit. “We were never an ETG company,” he says. “We never came into this thinking, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a great ETG.’ It happened by accident. But as we learn, we’re getting a ton of feedback from our customers, and we’re taking that feedback and putting it into the next iterations of games.”
The Next Generation
While those games, offered on the legacy upright Phocus U104 and the hybrid Phocus S104, got the company where it is today, this year, the company adds what is a must these days for any supplier, and something that fosters ever-more creative game design: a portrait cabinet.
The Vert-X Grand, unveiled in July at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow, features an ultra-bright, 4K 49-inch portrait monitor, theater-quality sound, an ultra-bright LCD button deck, programmable LED play buttons, and attention-grabbing LED side lights.
Kruczynski says the Vert-X Grand is the product of intense R&D efforts that continued during last year’s pandemic shutdowns.
“During the pandemic and during the shutdown we were lucky enough to keep R&D going completely throughout that time,” he says. “You have to learn a new way of doing work and doing business, but because we didn’t slow down, we were able to make huge advancements on our platform side and on our hardware side.”
Gaming Arts’ first portrait cabinet is actually the product of nearly three years work, notes Kruczynski. “We’re really proud of how far we’ve come with the Phocus, the dual-screen product, and that we’re able to compete with that. But we know that in this space, the portrait is where it’s at. And that’s where you’re really going to make some inroads and then really show some extremely good performance.
“And with the dual-screen performing above house average and even close to two times house average, that leads us to believe that on the portrait, performance is going to get exponentially higher.”
Handily, the first approval of games for the Vert-X came a week before the Indian Gaming show. “That was a nice champagne-popping moment in the office for us,” Kruczynski says.
That first approval is of a game series that will feature prominently in Gaming Arts’ booth at the Global Gaming Expo—headed by the games Let’s Spin and Let’s Spin Vegas.
At the core of the games—they are similar, except for the Sin City theme in the latter title—is a new kind of wheel-spinning bonus.
“You have concentric wheels, and a really powerful gambler game featuring bars and 7s,” says Kruczynski. “It is a great, eye-catching art package, and we added a level of level of persistence with the symbols and the trigger.”
The base game on each title is a five-reel, 243-ways-to-win game, which Kruczynski says he favors because the wins are easy for players to understand. The reel symbols are classic—cherries, 7s, card suits and fruit symbols, with icons such as dice and slot machines added in the Vegas version.
On top of the reel set are four concentric wheels, each with slices showing multipliers from 1X to 5X, plus icons representing four levels of progressive jackpot—a Mini, a Minor, a Major and a Mega, the top prize resetting at 100,000 credits times the denomination—$1,000 on the penny version of the game. The jackpot values go up as more wheels are activated. (The Mini is available on the first wheel, the Minor on the second, the Major on the third, and the game’s top jackpot, the Mega, on the outermost wheel.)
The wheel is triggered frequently, by a simple combination on the reels—a “Let’s” symbol on the first reel and “Spin” symbols on any of the second through fifth reels. When a player hits “Let’s” on the first reel and “Spin” on the second, it activates the first concentric multiplier wheel. If that first symbol is landed and “Spin” symbols land on reels other than the second, those symbols stick on the screen for three spins, giving the player extra chances to land multiple wheel spins.
The “Let’s” symbol on the first reel displays a credit amount. Up to four “Spin” symbols on adjacent reels cause the corresponding wheels to spin, and multiplier symbols that land are multiplied together and applied to the credit amount. For instance, a 300-credit “Let’s” symbol with wheel multipliers of 3X, 2X and 5X would yield a bonus of 9,000 credits—three times two times five, for a 30X prize. According to Kruczynski, the frequency of the wheel spins increases in the free-spin bonus.
Kruczynski says the idea for Let’s Spin actually came from one of the company’s artists.
“One of the things we do here is every year we do a game summit, and everyone—artists, testers, engineers, even product managers—is allowed to contribute ideas. And I’m really proud of the fact that, of the 30-odd games we have out there and approved, I only came up with two of the ideas—and that’s more than OK by me.”
Of course, the idea doesn’t need to be fully developed. The artist pitched the idea with a drawing of concentric circles. That sparked discussion, and the development team took it from there.
“The persistence came in and the multipliers came in—because he originally just had credit values on the wheels. We thought the idea of multipliers multiplying multipliers was really powerful,” says Kruczynski.
Next up on the Vert-X will be a game group called the “Pub Series,” a fun group of games themed according to styles of pubs around the world.
First up will be Kaleigh’s Pub, celebrating the Irish bar; and Anastasia’s Tavern, with a Russian vodka theme. Then will come Isabella’s Tequileria, with the Mexican tequila vibe, and Sophia’s Cellar, depicting an Italian wine bar.
Each game includes clever features centered around the main character, who does things like filling up your glass for four spins in a persistent wild feature. Up to 12 wild symbols can land in the feature, and stick until the glass is full.
In primary and free-game spins, shot glasses randomly pop up to award multipliers up to 20X or one of four progressive jackpots.
Each of the games also features custom-written, toe-tapping music appropriate to the nationality showcased in the theme.
Of course, the creation of the new portrait cabinet doesn’t mean development has stopped on the legacy Phocus dual-screen cabinets. At G2E, new game groups will be featured on the dual-screen format, headed up by the Quick X series.
Launch games Quick X Old Glory and Quick X Clear Cut both reprise the idea of “multipliers multiplying multipliers.” Frequent wild multipliers on reels 2, 3, 4 and 5 in a 243-ways-to-win format multiply wins at 2X, 3X, 4X and 5X, with a maximum potential of 625X.
Each game also features a fast-hitting progressive, beginning with one Quick X symbol on the first reel, which triggers the lowest of five progressive jackpots. This is followed by anticipatory spins as the player climbs up a progressive ladder toward the top jackpot, resetting at $3,500 on the penny version of the game. (It is available in denominations all the way up to $50, with progressives rising accordingly.)
“Quick X is a very hardcore gambler style,” says Kruczynski. “There are no free games. There’s no bonus. There are progressives triggered off the the symbols on the reels, and there are multipliers.
“And what’s funny is that the reason that you have Quick X was because of Let’s Spin. We really liked those multipliers that were interacting with each other and multiplying each other, so we said, we can do a dual-screen game that has a similar mechanic—but let’s make the focus the progressives, and not a wheel.”
He adds that the jackpots are super-frequent. “The lowest progressive is going off every 44 plays,” he says.
Two other sister dual-screen games are Rise of the Pharaoh and Rise of the Queen. The games incorporate orbs in a unique feature. A pyramid on the reels triggers a blue, red or gold orb to drop to the screen—“the blue being the lowest values, the red being the middle values and the gold being an astronomical value,” Kruczynski explains. The orbs stick on the screen and move to the left with every spin. If a pyramid lands to match up with an orb, that credit value is awarded with a multiplier or a chance of winning free games. “It’s a really different mechanic, in a five-line game, so the vast majority of the wins are coming from these orbs and from the free games,” Kruczynski says.
Another new game on the Phocus dual-screen format is Fortune Flip, which features the HaloTop virtual wheel. In a frequent feature triggered by winning spins, the wheel will display an interactive coin flip to reveal a multiplier ranging from 2X to 50X. A free-game bonus features more frequent and higher-value coin flips. A match-three progressive picking bonus can lead to one of four jackpots.
And then there’s Cyber Dragon, an extremely volatile dual-screen game featuring eight animated 3D “Chinese Beast” characters. Three Beast symbols in one of 10 free games trigger a persistent “Super Free Games” feature, in which the reels consist only of Beast symbols and blanks. Three or more Beast symbols within three spins awards a bonus and resets the spins to three. After five successful spins, the next-level Beast is awarded with a higher pay table. The player can advance up to eight levels.
During primary-game and normal free-game spins, the player can be awarded a “Pa-Fu Wedge.” Once eight wedges are awarded, a wheel spin is triggered that can grant one of three progressives, credit awards or free spins.
“The biggest thing with our games is the innovation,” says Babler. “One thing we get complimented on the most is that we are doing things differently. We look different, our game styles are different. It’s not reiterations of former games that are already out there.
“We’re trying to carve our own lane as opposed to trying to follow in the footsteps of everybody else.”
So far, it’s been a successful formula, with around 700 units and climbing on the dual-screen format as the Vert-X hits the market. “From my perspective, that shows the compelling nature of the content we’ve created for the dual-screen cabinet,” Babler says.
Dreitzer adds that there is a ton of green space ahead for Gaming Arts. That includes not only the U.S., but Canada, where the company is about to go live in Ontario, to be followed by British Columbia and the rest of the provinces.
“We want to keep penetrating the market,” Dreitzer says. “We have 135 licenses and growing, and in North America, there’s probably more than 300 to secure. So there’s a whole lot more opportunity to get our product out.”
Meanwhile, Kruczynski says the company will maintain a “small group mentality” as its footprint grows. “It’s really tough to steer a giant ship,” he says. “It’s really easy to move the smaller ones a lot faster and be more nimble.”
“We’re a smaller company in a very competitive, mature space,” says Dreitzer. “We always ask ourselves what our customers might be asking: ‘Why Gaming Arts? Why do we need Gaming Arts games on our floor?’ That is a challenge for us to try harder and to be unique. Keith always uses the term ‘fun for the gambler.’ So, that’s the ethos upon which we build a lot of these games.
“How can we offer something that doesn’t exist that creates its own path? That’s really what we’re going for. At the end of the day, we’re in the content business. The players have to choose to play the games, and so far they’ve been choosing with their their dollars to play our games.”