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GLOBAL GAMES 2009, Part X1: International Game Technology

Making a Statement: IGT prepares to complete its corporate makeover with a dazzling technology display

GLOBAL GAMES 2009, Part X1: International Game Technology

International Game Technology has a simple message for the industry: Never count the slot leader out.

The world’s largest slot manufacturer is ready to party like it’s 1999.

They would certainly love to. Precisely 10 years ago, IGT was at the crest of its meteoric rise to the top of the slot market, and in the meat of a period of unprecedented dominance in market share. Among the slot-maker’s introductions at that fall’s trade show were “The Addams Family” and “Little Green Men”-games that helped usher in the golden age of themed video slots.

At this fall’s trade show, IGT is looking to recapture that magic-a time when trade show attendees spent most of the show at the slot-maker’s massive booth-with a dazzling display of technology designed to dominate the annual slot showcase.

IGT has had a rough couple of years, to be sure-surging competition from rival slot-makers; flat sales as capital budgets dried up; a glut of costly litigation. A year ago, the challenges seemed large indeed as share prices bottomed out and layoffs seemed inevitable.

During the past year, though, the slot-maker has gone through a major corporate rejuvenation. Early retirement and voluntary separations took some of the sting off a force reduction that was only one part of across-the-board cost reductions. The management structure was revamped in an ongoing effort that saw Patti S. Hart replace TJ Matthews as CEO, and which peaked last month when Phil Satre took over as chairman of the board of directors.

Satre, the former CEO and longtime executive of Harrah’s Entertainment, brings an operator’s perspective to IGT’s board in a move that has been universally lauded on Wall Street. IGT’s stock price has rallied dramatically. In a trend that even a one-time write-down for the fourth quarter could not dampen, IGT’s shares have nearly tripled since their low point a year ago.

After this month, IGT’s comeback will be complete. Still the largest and by far most prolific slot-maker-nearly half the slot machines operating in the world were made by the Reno-based manufacturer-the company plans a product showcase at the Global Gaming Expo that promises to rival any of its previous displays, with an aim to recapture the mantle of technology and innovation leader that some of the company’s competitors have claimed during the past two years.

Dubbing its G2E theme “Taking Gaming To The Next Level,” IGT is planning to wow the trade show, just like the old days. It is no coincidence that one of the architects of this year’s IGT slot showcase is the very man that led the company’s slot development in the heady days at the beginning of the decade, Joe Kaminkow.

Kaminkow was brought back into IGT’s game design scheme about a year and a half ago, and is now vice president of game design for “Studio One,” the main team in IGT’s revamped system of design studios, each producing a different style of game.

“We put together our team the first of the year, with the mission to decide where to take gaming to get it to the next level,” Kaminkow says. “We’ve produced some great things, and one important note-all the products operators are going to see from Studio One are available before the show, during the show and just after the show. There is no preview of products that are a long way from sales; they are ready now.”

Kaminkow’s studio is producing the “wow” factor for IGT this year, in the form of a number of game groups that promise to dominate the trade-show floor-and the casinos.

Next-Level Display
The company’s game designers simply call it “the 103.” The technical name is the “MJ 103 Series,” and the number refers to an apparatus designed to grab attention from across a casino floor-an enormous, 103-inch video monitor flanked by two “smaller” 40-inch LCDs.

It’s like a theater movie screen with slot machines in front of it; it lights up the entire surrounding casino area. “It’s going to change the gaming floor forever,” says Kaminkow. “There’s that ‘gasp;’ it takes your breath away. This is a product that will be a staple on every casino floor.”

The 103 is the central feature in what IGT is calling the “Center Stage Series” of community-style slot games. Five machines-“play stations,” they’re called-sporting sleek new cabinet styles sit in front of the big display, each with a newly styled “Mega FX Surround Chair,” with built-in speakers booming audio effects to draw players into the game.

Kaminkow’s team has utilized everything the new technology has to offer in the inaugural Center Stage Series games, all with “MegaJackpots” wide-area progressive jackpots on top of different themed games.

First out of the gate will be “Wheel of Fortune Experience,” a new version of the venerable wheel slot that does what fans of the game have always asked about-a reproduction of the “hangman” puzzle game from the TV game show. Three players on the bank are chosen at random 10-12 times an hour for the big bonus game. Each chooses letters, and gets bonus awards for how many times the letter appears in the puzzle.

The next game on the Center Stage format is “American Idol,” a cinematic reproduction of the famous performance reality show. In the community bonus round, all the contestants from the reality show’s first season are features in “auditions,” and players receive bonuses according to how each Idol judge rates the performance.

“Wheel of Fortune Triple Spin” is a third game for the Center Stage format. The primary game in this one is in IGT’s popular new “MultiPLAY” setup-players wager on and spin four game screens at once, with bonus free spins playing out on the full screen. The community bonus in this version of the game is similar to the “Super Spin” version of the wheel, with several players entering into individual wheel spins played out on the big screen.

According to Kaminkow, the games on Center Stage are completely interchangeable. “Once deployed, it is a truly downloadable system,” he says. “Think of it as a Cineplex, with slot games as the films.” Any of the three initial games (and more later) can be downloaded to switch all monitors, LCD screens and digital signage, as well as the games themselves, to match the new game.

There is a smaller version of the Center Stage setup available-the “MJ 70 Series,” with a 70-inch overhead monitor and two 32-inch side portrait displays. It is a four-machine setup, designed for smaller casinos or for larger casinos to install more than one of the Center Stage banks.

MultiPLAY, Multi Progressives
Kaminkow’s group also injected life into new games into several other games in IGT’s MultiPLAY series, including some that also fall under the MLP brand, for multi-level progressive.

One of the most high-profile is already out in the casinos, and has been gathering multitudes of fans among women. The quintessential “chick game” comes from the quintessential “chick show”-Sex and the City. Kaminkow, referring to the popularity with women of a certain rival manufacturer’s game, calls this his “Oz-killer.”

“Sex and the City,” the slot game, wraps the MultiPLAY and MLP game mechanics around one of the most feature-rich games ever produced. The Mega FX chair adds to the experience, as do the pink-colored draping the cabinet and most of the bonus events.

The video slot, a MegaJackpots wide-area progressive available in banks of two with a common topper, has five different interactive bonus events, each allowing the player to pick one of the four main female characters from the show. “Mr. Big,” a.k.a. actor Chris North, hosts the bonuses, guiding players through each events.

The events themselves are made for women: “Simply Fabulous!” has the player open jewelry boxes to reveal numbers for a four-digit bonus award. “A Perfect Present” uses free games to award bonuses linked to champagne, chocolates or other gifts. “Change of a Dress Bonus” has the player picking outfits for one of the characters. “Hello Lover!” has the player shopping for shoes.

When all four screens are active, bonus events occur every 25 spins, on average.

The progressive uses a giant gift wheel to reveal a prize linked to one of the characters-Mr. Big is the top jackpot, followed by jackpots labeled Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte.

The MultiPLAY format also is used for a new version of the popular IGT/Barcrest slot “Top Dollar.”

“Top Dollar MultiPLAY” places the familiar, simple “stacks of money” light-box bonus game and places it on a tall, vertical LDC video monitor. The base game uses the traditional reel-spinning format, but in four sets of reels, using the “REELdepth” multi-layer display technology, or MLP.

The MLP technology, which uses overlapping LCD screens to create a 3D effect to represent spinning reels, has been improved of the past year, says Kaminkow. The images are more clear now, and little nuances such as reflective light have been added to increase the authenticity of the effect.

As with the other games, the Mega FX chair adds to the experience.

Another big MultiPLAY launch at G2E will “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.” Five unique bonus events follow Alice, the Mad Hatter and the rabbit through all the familiar events that happen in the legendary book.

Finally, the MLP series this year travels to another reality show with a community-play game called “The Amazing Race.” Each machine in a bank is color-coded to one of four continents-Europe, Australia, South America or Africa. A competitive group-play feature is triggered when one player receives scattered bonus symbols, and players use “miles” they have accumulated to race around the world. Each destination has a corresponding progressive, and awards five additional spins toward the next “leg” of the race. Each progressive can be won by several players during one bonus event.

“It’s an exciting event,” says Kaminkow, “and very attainable. A wager of 60 cents qualifies you.” It is part of what Kaminkow says is an effort to make special features of games available for modest investments. “We looked at the economy, and we made sure there is volatility, but sustainability of play as well,” he says. “These are games for the $100-wallet player.”

Core Products
IGT’s specialty progressives will be joined at G2E by a showcase of new core products for sale, including games in all of the manufacturers’ play styles.

Highlights include a REELdepth version of Double Diamond, also in the MultiPLAY format. It features the classic Double Diamond three-reel game, in the traditional single-line setup or in three-line, five-line or nine-line configuration. The traditional screen and paytable-the MLD effect makes them appear as spinning reels-is multiplied by four in the MultiPLAY format.

IGT is offering two legacy Double Diamond themes in the new format-Double 2X3X4X5X Times Pay and Triple Stars-in addition to the traditional game. On all version, up to eight progressives can be won-two per game screen.

Players are encouraged to play all four screens by a prominently advertised fact-the return is 97 percent with all four reel sets active.

Also in the core-product category is “Cougarlicious,” a comical take on “cougars’-middle-aged women seeking out young men.

Other for-sale core game highlights include “Blast Off,” a video slot featuring a unique seven-by-four reel display. The seven reels actually enact three separate five-reel games, with players betting to activate each. With all reels active, wins are evaluated based on reels 1 through 5; 2 through 6; and 3 through 7.

It is a scatter-pay game, with 1,024 ways to win on each spin with all reels active. The “Blast Off” bonus is a free-spin round, in which the player chooses the volatility-more spins with low volatility or fewer spins with higher volatility.

Another new way to play can be found in the 10th anniversary edition of “Little Green Men.” Called “Reelin’ & Dealin’ Little Green Men Attack!,” the slot offers a unique game screen that displays three reels and two vault doors. The player can pay to unlock fourth and fifth reels for additional wins and more frequent bonus events-the bonus symbols appear most frequently on the two extra reels.

There are many more core games to be shown in IGT’s mind-boggling slot display. “Little Shop of Horrors” uses 3D animation and a 3-4-5-4-3 reel configuration. A hilarious bonus event prompts the player to “pick a flower bud,” which grows into a hideous monster that offers one of three bonus prizes.

When a plant symbol appears on the bottom row, IGT’s “Tumbling Reels” feature kicks in, in which the symbols in winning combinations disappear and others tumble into their place. When a plant symbol appears, it grows each time a winning combination “tumbles,” covering reel spots as a stacked wild symbol.

“Blood Life” is a “Reel Control” game, which employs an element of skill in stopping and holding reels. According to IGT, it s the first approved skill-based game for reel-spinning players.

Video Poker
Video poker also will be well-represented for IGT this year. Standouts include “Super Times Pay Mega Progressive,” a multi-hand game produced in partnership with Action Gaming that features progressives for the 10-Play royal flush resetting at $50,000 in quarters and $200,000 in dollars.

Other variations on the Super Times Pay theme include a “Double Super Times Pay” game that awards a multiplier every 15 hands. “Super Times Pay is the most successful multi-hand video poker game since the original Triple Play,” says Mike Fields, vice president of Action Gaming and IGT’s resident video poker consultant. “We’re capitalizing on that with prudent games, and play models that work.”
Other video poker highlights include “5 Star Poker,” a compilation of the most successful multi-hand games, each in single-hand configuration. “Can’t afford 18 coins for Super Times Pay? This offers the same feature and the same excitement for six coins,” says Fields.

Finally, “Hot Pursuit” is what Fields calls the “first truly communal video poker game.” The game is based on the popular “Spin Poker” game. Every player landing a three-of-a-kind hand is qualified for a “lap” in a bonus hand, played out on a 70-inch common LCD screen. The bonus round occurs randomly-it is three stacked video poker hands, and players qualify for one, two or all three hands according to how many trips hands they have accumulated.

The most high-profile of the new poker games, though, is “Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up,” a single-player game that allows the player to compete against the computer. (See Man in the Machine, below.)

IGT also will have its server-based system products on full display at G2E. The company’s “sbX Tier One” server-based solution, which is a small-scale networked setup, is already in the field in several locations. Well over 200 game themes are now available for downloading to these systems.

IGT will show its Tournament Manager system, which provides a complete solution to instantly transform a group of games from revenue to tournament mode and back, along with overhead leader boards and kiosks where players can enroll and select tournament rounds in which they would like to participate.

IGT’s Advantage Bonusing product line also will be demonstrated, as well as the “Slot Analytics” system, an enhanced product line based on the Mariposa customer-relationship management technology IGT acquired recently.

In all IGT’s product lineup for G2E is designed to make a statement to the industry: The leader is back, and better than ever.

Man in the Machine
Ever since Texas hold ’em took poker rooms by storm earlier this decade, there has been speculation about creating a single-player video poker machine that can duplicate the experience.

It would not be easy: Texas Hold ’em is a competitive game, and part of the appeal is being able to outfox your opponent by bluffs and betting schemes. Still, many have speculated that some sort of artificial intelligence could be incorporated in a computer that would provide a poker player with a worthy “opponent.”

IGT’s booth will display such a product at G2E. It is a breakthrough game designed by Gregg Giuffria, co-owner of the Hard Rock Biloxi, who also happens to be a computer enthusiast (in addition to a Top 20-selling rock artist of considerable heavy-metal fame).

“Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up” employs a technology Giuffria calls “Neural Net.” He says it is the artificial intelligence factor that has been missing from normal video poker. The machine responds to bluffs; it bluffs and raises-it plays poker.

“Neural Net emulates human thought processes,” says Giuffria, noting that it is actually a step ahead of “Deep Blue,” the IBM computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in the 1990s. “This chip plays chess as well, but it also plays blackjack, stud poker, Texas hold ’em-any kind of game,” he says.

Neural Net, says Giuffria, was developed by one of the world’s authorities on artificial intelligence. He says the play function resulting from this program, called “Meta Action,” has actually been limited from what Neural Net can actually do-namely, adapt to its environment and to its opponent. “According to gaming regulations, it has to be fair and equal to all players,” he says.

Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up is initially available in a “Limit” version, with bets ranging from 25 cents to $100. A “No Limit” version will come later. “What I’m excited about is that people are going to win on this thing,” Giuffria says. “You have the ability to win if you play well. Test groups have been absolutely ecstatic about it.”

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.