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Global Games 2009, Part II: WMS Gaming

Changing the Game: WMS continues to help create the future slot floor

Global Games 2009, Part II: WMS Gaming

Early this decade, WMS Gaming set out to show casinos and players what digital technology could do for slot games. Today, several manufacturers are offering “networked” games, casinos are finally looking at installing Ethernet on at least portions of slot floors… and it is becoming clear just how far ahead of the curve the Chicago-based manufacturer was back then.

WMS has specialized for the past few years in slots that take advantage of what server-based gaming can do for casinos, without the casinos having to rewire or retrofit the floor. They are games that come with a localized server-a bank of server-based games that are linked together, that can be changed to new games (or new “episodes” of the same game), and that often can give experiences that redefine the slot machine.

The progression of WMS products has been remarkable indeed. There was “Monopoly Big Event,” the first game that brought players into a bonus event at the same time. Then came “Sensory Immersion,” which placed players inside games like “Top Gun,” “Dirty Harry,” and most successfully, “The Wizard of Oz,” the slot-maker’s latest mega-hit.

There was “Transmissive Reels,” which put video features on a classic reel-spinner thanks to a transparent video overlay on top of the reels. There was the “Innovation Series,” with new game styles like “Cascading Reels,” “Spinning Streak” and “Money Burst.” There was “Adaptive Gaming,” which burst on the scene last year in the form of “Star Trek” and “Reel ‘Em In Compete to Win,” games that are still drawing crowds around the industry.

This year’s Global Gaming Expo will provide additions to all these series, along with plenty of new WMS innovations that promise to redefine the slot floor.

WMS officials say it’s all part of the plan that began early this decade.

“This was always a journey for us,” says Larry Pacey, executive vice president of global products and “chief innovation officer” for WMS. “There was never a single product or platform that has defined this exercise. We continue to chase what has been our evolved vision of what the casino will look like in the future. Now that we have all the platforms in place, our customers will see how all the pieces and parts go together.”

Rob Bone, vice president of marketing for WMS, says the company’s efforts for the past decade have been focused on changing the very nature of the slot machine. In fact, “Changing the Game” is the official theme of the slot-maker’s G2E display this year. “We are changing the game entirely, from the operator’s perspective, the player’s perspective, the industry perspective,” Bone says. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.'”

While the overall change the company has brought to the slot floor has been gradual, all the new game styles have made WMS the hottest slot-maker in the business. According to Bone, as slot manufacturers plan to launch a flood of new technology this year, the pace of innovation at WMS is about to kick into high gear. “We know our competition is coming with new technology; we know we’ve got a bull’s-eye on our back,” he says. “Instead of waiting, we’re taking it to another level to stay out front.”

Bluebird Singing
That new level of technology will be evident in the WMS offerings this year at G2E. “This year, you’ll see not a linear progression of what we’ve introduced previously, but an acceleration,” says Pacey. “These are some pretty radical leaps in capability, translating into whole new player experiences-which is what it comes down to every time.”

It all starts with Bluebird2.

The ubiquitous Bluebird cabinet gained popularity around the world after its introduction early this decade, but WMS is calling Bluebird2 its “cabinet of the future.” A slimmer version of the original, Bluebird2 will provide one hardware package for all of the slot-maker’s game styles. The slot glass of the original is replaced with a second high-definition LCD panel, meaning it will be the cabinet of choice for server-based, downloadable content.

The Bluebird2 cabinet has wider LCD monitors, and the dual-screen presentation allows for content that is exclusive to the new format. “The game ‘Lucky Penny,’ for example, is one we could never have offered in Bluebird1,” Pacey says. That game features the bonus system WMS calls “ARIA,” for “Advanced Random Intelligence Algorithm.” In plain terms, it means players never get the same bonus experience twice. There are literally trillions of possible outcomes in a given game, and a bonus feature can trigger on any spin. “I call it organized chaos,” says Pacey.

Stepper Surprise
The dual LCDs in the new cabinet apply to both video slots and steppers, thanks to the Transmissive Reels format. Pacey says all of the company’s new stepper slots going forward will use the Transmissive Reels technology, which means there will be video-style animation featured in all of the company’s new spinning-reel games.

It is one recognition of the resurgence of stepper popularity among players, says Bone. “Steppers constitute well over 35 percent of our shipments now,” he says. “Everything uses Transmissive technology now, and we’ve used steppers for a lot of different areas of innovation.”

Those steppers are available in just about every game category, including a new high-denomination category-classic reel-spinners with video animation added on top of the reels. “There’s something about moving mechanical reels that is special, as opposed to two layers of video,” says Bone, referring to simulated 3D presentations of reel-spinning formats. “Mechanical reel players have definitely moved over to playing them, which is why we created the new high-denom category.”

Two standout games in this category, according to Pacey, have the first four-by-five reel presentations (five reels, four active symbols each) of any stepper games in the business. “Max Win” employs multiple bonus events-a “bonus-bank” setup that awards random events in return for an ante wager-and stacked wild symbols in a classic reel-spinning setup. “A wide range of outcomes is possible because you have the Transmissive setup,” Pacey says, “married to the bonus-bank feature.”

“Max Win” is a cartoon character that ushers in free-spins and other bonus events, by the way. The Transmissive Reels video overlay allows effects such as spinning reels that change colors, and of course, “Max” flying over the reels.

The four-by-five reel interface also appears on “Hot Hot Super Respin,” a 50-line version of the popular “Hot Hot” game style. Whenever stacked symbols appear on the first reel, that reel is held and all others re-spin twice.

The company’s other big introduction in the stepper category is a five-reel mechanical series of games in the “G+” series. This is the series which, a few years ago, offered a back-to-the-basics approach in the video category. Games in this series feature simple, free-spin bonus events, stacked wild symbols, and the same sights and sounds as the video versions of the same games.

Video Prowess
The emphasis on steppers may have grown, but that doesn’t mean WMS isn’t capitalizing on its status as the dean of the video slot. The manufacturer is launching a wealth of new video titles this year, both in existing and completely new game groups.

The G+ video series is being extended to include a new category of 50-line and 100-line titles, with stacked wild symbols replaced by a single wild symbol that covers an entire reel. There also is a new “G+ Deluxe” category, targeting the high-denomination market with a four-by-five interface. “G+ was all about the real gambler experience; this ramps that up to the next level,” says Pacey.

New twists on classic WMS video come in the form of games like “Jackpot Block Party,” which takes the legendary gift-package pick-a-tile bonus game and multiplies it by four. There are four separate screens of packages in the bonus round-a “block party.” The player picks packages, matching bonus amounts until “Pooper” characters are revealed on all four screens.

The classic proprietary theme is joined by several new versions of branded themes in revenue-sharing games: “Monopoly Planet Go” places the classic board game theme into a 3D space scene. Monopoly icons turn into planets and aliens in six separate bonus events played out on the top-box video screen. “Press Your Luck” is a new video slot with an interactive bonus that remains true to the TV game show of the same name.

Other new video slots include “Great Wall,” a local-area progressive in which the incrementing progressive is actually a number of free spins instead of a dollar amount; and “Hercules,” a multi-level progressive game in the Hot Hot Super Respin
category that switches the player to higher jackpot levels according to how many of the “respin” symbols land.

The Innovation Series (Money Burst, Spinning Streak, etc.) adds two new game styles this year-“Super Multi-Play” and “Win It Again.”

Super Multi-Play presents a grid of four reel sets. The player wagers to activate all four sets, but plays on one larger primary screen. With all of the screens active, any special symbols-wild symbols, bonus triggers, etc.-carry over to all four screens. When you hit the bonus, the free spins carry through on all four screens. The first game in the series is called “Silver Sword.”

Win It Again is a super-charged version of WMS’ pioneering “Cascading Reels” game style. In Cascading Reels, symbols in winning combinations disappear, and new symbols drop into the empty spaces, often forming new winning combinations, and more cascades. In this version, the player is awarded for four cascades in a row. When this happens, the player wins the accumulated value of all four, plus the amount of the next cascading win. “A small win can manifest itself into a very large win,” comments Pacey.

The first theme in this new game style? “I Love Lucy.”
    
Show-Stoppers
While most slot-makers would love to have any of the previous games, Pacey and Bone say the real WMS show-stoppers this year will be two new versions of the smash “Wizard of Oz” theme, new games in the Adaptive Gaming series and several Community Gaming slots.

The franchise based on the classic film The Wizard of Oz, which has had players lining up to play for nearly two years, gets two new entries. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is a Transmissive Reels game with a four-level mystery-trigger progressive, wide-area where available. Bonus events follow Dorothy and Toto toward Emerald City, as they meet the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion along the way, triggering free spins and bonus awards.

“The Wizard of Oz Ruby Slippers” is in the “Sensory Immersion” style of the original “Oz” game. Each character from the film triggers a different bonus event while appearing, in a feature-rich sequel to what has been WMS’ most successful slot game in years.

The Adaptive Gaming series gets Episode 5 of the “Star Trek” game, “Live Long and Prosper.” It joins the four other “episodes,” which players can move through by earning “medals” from Star Fleet in various game events.

The series, which links games on a wide-area network-and uses log-in codes to allow players to pick games up where they left off at later dates-also includes the hot game “Reel ‘Em In: Compete to Win,” which features a national “leader board” for its community “fishing contest” bonus events.

This year, the game group gets an entirely new franchise with “Lord of the Rings,” a series of Sensory Immersion video slots based on the recent film trilogy depicting the classic novel of the same name.

Instead of “episodes,” games in the Lord of the Rings series will reflect spots along the journey of the film’s hobbit characters. Instead of medals, players will earn “miles” to unlock new bonus events. There will be eight different bonus events at the launch of the series, featuring clips and characters from all three of the films. As with other Adaptive Gaming slots, players will be able to stop games and pick up later where they left off on their “journey through Middle Earth.”

“We think it’s going to be the killer of the show,” says Bone.

It’s not the only “killer” Bone and Pacey think they have for this year’s G2E. “Goldfish Race for the Gold,” one of several new games in the successful Goldfish brand, is a community-style game that features a competitive seahorse race between all players on the bank. The prize for winning the race is one of four progressive jackpots.

Because of the popularity of the Goldfish franchise, Pacey says he expects this slot offering, complete with a giant overhead video display for the competitive race, to be the manufacturer’s featured attraction of the show.

The Goldfish game is one of an array of new community-style games being launched at the show. One of the most high-profile is a modernized version of what once was a slot license owned by rival IGT. WMS is launching a community-play version of “The Price Is Right,” its game show theme updated to reflect the popular show’s current incarnation. TV host Drew Carey provided ample video and audio contributions, guiding the player through bonus events based on the show, including a video “Cliff Hangers” bonus.

There also is a new Monopoly community-style game called “Monopoly Bigger Event.” This features a huge overhead video display-twin 52-inch high-definition LCD monitors, forming the largest-ever Monopoly display. There are four new community bonuses, with a new type of qualifying mechanism for the bonus and new games like “Big Money Spin,” offering what WMS calls “true, meaningful interaction between players.”

Server Solution
Finally, WMS is launching a complete networked solution at G2E that allows progressives, community bonuses, mystery events and even proprietary promotional merchandising to be integrated into one group of games.

The system includes remote-configuration download, a central game controller, an administrative server and an ultra-hit progressive controller that can be used with multiple themes. The bonus from “Piggy Bankin’,” or “Jackpot Party,” for instance, can be added to any game at the operator’s discretion using this system, with merchandising for the bonus channeled to the base game. Operators can mix and match progressives or bonuses to any downloaded base game.

“This is industry-changing,” says Pacey. “By enabling mixing and matching of games and bonus events at the operator’s discretion, we give them the tools to customize their floors as they see fit.” He says that eventually, the solution will feature portals to extend the functionality to games from any manufacturer.

“Now, you have a reason why you want networked gaming on your floor,” Pacey says. “This is in the labs already, and through the next calendar year, you are going to see our portal technology widely distributed throughout the gaming space. This gives the operator a new level of control. Initially, it will be bank-by-bank via this portal technology, but ultimately, we see this as an enterprise-wide technology.”

Pacey says the portal technology is the culmination of a race that began earlier this decade. “The good news,” says Pacey, “is that we’re not really chasing anyone. We’re chasing a vision.”

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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