For years—an entire decade, actually—no one in the gaming industry could have questioned the uncanny ability of International Game Technology to discern what slot players like, and to deliver it in the form of the highest-earning games in the business.
From the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, IGT’s dominance of the slot sector was complete, and it was a fact of life for all other manufacturers. However, what followed was a surge of competition from WMS, Bally, Konami and others, and as the recession took hold, IGT was one of the companies most affected.
By the time of last year’s Global Gaming Expo, IGT still was the leading slot manufacturer, but its market share had dwindled from a peak of more than 70 percent worldwide to less than 50 percent. However, IGT’s theme for last year’s G2E, “Taking Gaming to the Next Level,” was more than just a slogan. It was an announcement that things had changed for the Reno-based manufacturer.
Last year’s G2E was the culmination of a corporate makeover that had injected IGT with new blood at the top—from board Chairman Phil Satre to CEO Patti Hart and a number of executives from the high-tech industries brought in by Hart. The new executives decided a complete re-examination of the manufacturer’s research and development culture was in order.
IGT actually took the first step in its turnaround just before Hart took over as CEO. Late in 2008, Joe Kaminkow, the former game development VP who was one of the chief architects of IGT’s former market dominance, was brought back as vice president of game design for “Studio One,” the origin point of the manufacturer’s new premier games in the MegaJackpots line and other high-profile slot groups.
But Studio One was only the first cog in what has become a revamped studio system of game development, one that is combining the best of what made IGT the dominant force in game design a decade ago with a new approach, based on fresh research into the players populating casinos today.
Heading up that effort is Harold Zeitz, brought on last year by Hart as senior vice president of core and specialty markets. Zeitz, formerly a 10-year AT&T executive, came to IGT from Seattle-based Real Networks, a pioneer in streaming digital media for internet-based games. One of his roles at IGT has been to retool processes to accommodate today’s player preferences. Game design is one of those processes.
“We’re adding more science to the art of game design,” Zeitz says. “My background has been in products and consumer services technology the past 25 years, most recently in the online casual games business, where we have a tremendous amount of information on customers. Last year, we stepped up our research on players—quantitative and qualitative research.”
Zeitz says IGT’s R&D team did everything from intercepting players after they played IGT games, and those of competitors, to holding large focus groups to determine “usability” factors of the games. “We identified the key player segments we are designing our games for,” he says. “One of them is the evolving and emerging younger audience.”
IGT is targeting the younger market segment with a new series of games called “Reel Edge,” which adds an element of skill to the slot experience not unlike the hand/eye coordination involved in home video games. “Skill is the key in this game, instead of just luck,” says Zeitz. “Instead of how lucky are you, it’s, ‘How good are you?’ It caters to the young demographic very well.”
That’s not to say IGT is abandoning the entertainment-based games that appeal to the broadest spectrum of the slot-player audience; far from it. The new “Player Affinity” series concentrates on interaction, much like millions enjoy in casual online games. “Several million people every day play casual online games, and we see people going from story-based entertainment games to deeper, richer game play,” says Zeitz.
Of course, that factor plays right into the nature of most recurring-revenue games from IGT. And the high-profile MegaJackpots games have never been stronger than this year’s new crop from Kaminkow’s studio.
This year’s G2E collection will be mind-boggling as usual, and will merge the new game groups into strong core products, new multi-player experiences, new video poker and new networked applications. It’s a collection of offerings that touches all the hot points in the modern slot market.
As always, IGT this year will excel in the “wow-factor” games, many utilizing the “Center Stage” format launched last year with “Wheel of Fortune Experience” and “American Idol.” Since those introductions, Kaminkow’s team has refined the Idol game, along with “Wheel of Fortune Triple Spin” and a new version of the “Experience” game.
Center Stage—a bank of community-play slots in front of a massive, 103-inch main monitor flanked by two 40-inch LCDs (there’s a “smaller” version with a 70-inch main screen)—is designed to “stop traffic in a casino like nothing you’ve ever seen,” says Kaminkow.
American Idol has been given new features, along with 100 video segments from the famous reality show. In the community bonus event, each player picks one of the American Idol judges for a performance by one of the amateur idols, and players are paid according to how the performer does—if two of the three judges give the thumbs-up, the award is higher.
What makes the game unique, says Kaminkow, is more than an hour of video from the show. “You can sit in front of this game for a whole day and never see the same thing twice in the bonus,” he says.
The next big show on the Center Stage is “The Dark Knight,” a remarkable adaptation of the 2008 Batman film starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. The bonus on the big screen in this one is the movie’s race around Gotham between Batman and the Joker. Players pick either character and get the bird’s-eye view of the super-vehicle race, thanks to the surround-sound speakers and vibrating chair, which take them right into the chase-and-crash scene from the film.
It’s a memorable experience, to be sure, but IGT has plenty of stand-alone MegaJackpots games this year that will demand attention in the casino.
“For our MegaJackpots lineup, we’ve been doing more player segmentation, and matching the games to the players,” says Tom Mikulich, senior vice president of MegaJackpots. “Also, our MegaJackpots lineup presents a much more balanced and diversified portfolio. We have games that skew older and games that skew younger, but the bulk of the portfolio has mass appeal, targeting the 55-year-old who is our typical slot player.”
Already going gangbusters in the market is “Star Wars Droid Hunt,” which Mikulich says is likely to end up being the most popular slot in the Star Wars series.
Another one of IGT’s most popular MegaJackpots games from last year, “Sex and the City,” gets a new take this year with “Sex and the City Big Diamonds;” and the game that started it all for MegaJackpots returns with “Megabucks Wild Sapphire,” a three-reel game with a 13-level progressive in addition to the top wide-area award.
One more reworked game is “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland,” originally introduced last year. “You’ll see a much more refined game this year,” Mikulich says. “The game has a lot of on-screen bonuses, base game bonuses and major bonus events. It was originally confusing to the player. We put the game in front of players and got feedback, and it is now much simpler for a slot player to understand.”
But the big news this year with Megabucks all comes from the movies.
For the first time since “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” IGT delves into the 1950s science-fiction genre with “Godzilla.”
The new video slot—a reel-spinning format with IGT’s MLD, or multi-layer display—is in the “MultiPLAY” series, with two sets of reels, which the player pays to activate for simultaneous spins. Bonus events play out on a single screen.
At random points, “Mothra” flies on to the screen to add wild symbols to the screen, or Godzilla appears to breathe fire on the base game to add wilds. The bonus sequences have Godzilla fighting tanks and helicopters on his famous destructive walk through a city as Mothra flies down. The big bonus event is “Godzilla vs. King Ghidora.”
The 1950s film genre is only the beginning of IGT’s cinematic achievements this year. Hollywood is a recurring source of inspiration:
“Ghostbusters” mines the 1984 film for all of its legendary comedy, from “Slimer,” the ectoplasmic character from the film—he picks from four different bonus events for the player—to the main “Ballroom Bonus,” which re-creates the chase for Slimer in the hotel ballroom, the first test for the Ghostbusters in the movie. The player shoots the Ghostbuster weapons at various points in the room, aiming for phantoms, and corresponding bonus credits.
According to Kaminkow, 150 video clips from the film were used to create hundreds of on-screen events in the richly themed game.
Another 1980s film is resurrected in slot-machine form with “Dirty Dancing,” a video slot transforming 175 clips from the iconic film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey into a slot game carrying new play mechanics like “Spin Magic,” a feature that turns minor symbols into wild symbols.
One of the most creative and entertaining games in this year’s IGT trade-show lineup is based on a movie released just last year, The Hangover. IGT’s game designers mined the most hilarious scenes of the 2009 film for the MultiPLAY slot, for interactive bonus events depicting the “Deal in the Desert” (the player has to find the “real Doug” for the higher bonus); the “Stun Gun Bonus,” depicting the scene in which Zach Galifianakis’ character is used for a police demonstration on stun guns; and the “Photo Bonus,” in which the player chooses from the photos of the lost evening of debauchery that was the subject of the film.
The game captures the hilarity of the film, a fact of which Kaminkow says he is particularly proud. “Of all the games I’ve done in my career, this is the one game I feel has to be in every casino,” he says.
Quite an endorsement, considering Kaminkow’s career.
IGT’s core games for G2E reflect several new play mechanics and refined technology that is creating new ways to play. Perhaps the most revolutionary is the “Reel Edge” series, which adds an element of skill to the slot game.
Launching the new series is the vampire-themed “BloodLife,” which presents a microcosm of what the new game style offers. In the base reel-spinning game, the player has the option to control the reels, stopping each reel with an eye to gaining the best possible result. After the player stops the first reel, the computer calculates the best possible combinations for the second and third reels.
IGT pioneered the “skill-stop” feature several years ago so its games could be introduced at Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina, where a skill factor is required in gaming machines. With this game, the skill feature goes to the mainstream.
The skill-based bonus round is even more revolutionary. There is a joy stick mounted on the button panel, and when the bonus is triggered, the top screen becomes a maze, with bats chasing the player’s icon in a “Pac-Man”-style bonus event. Players use hand/eye coordination to achieve the highest possible bonus.
“This is our first market-approved skill-based game,” says Ryan Griffin, senior manager for core product management at IGT. “The maze bonus is 100 percent skill-based. We put this game in front of 120 customers, and their response was to ask us to expedite delivery.”
Other highlights in new IGT core games to be launched at G2E include the “Hot Roll” series, in which the bonus sequence is launched by dice “thrown” through an interactive touch-screen; “Wild Reef,” a reel-spinning base game in the MLD format (it is a multi-layer-display video); and “Puppy Stampede,” which features a funny interactive bonus event.
All the core games utilize both the bottom and top screens for the bonus features. For instance, in “Hot Roll” games, the dice fly from the bottom to the top screen, in the direction the player launches them.
Tapping Online Play
As Zeitz notes, this year’s launch of the “Player Affinity Suite” presents several core games that tap the graphics, interactivity and story lines found in online games played by millions every day.
Heading up this category is “Slingo Advance,” a new game in the series based on the most popular free online game in the world. Two new play experiences in the series are “Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus” and “Wild Bill.”
The Ringling Bros. game uses live-action video gleaned from classic historic circus performances to create a compelling entertainment-based bonus event. It is hosted by Jonathan Lee Iverson, the famous Barnum & Bailey ringmaster. In the bonus, the player picks a circus act, which launches the video as the player tries to match symbols—until a pie symbol is revealed, which sends a pie toward the player that seems to splat against the video screen. “The multi-layer display technology really shines in this game,” says Zeitz.
“Wild Bill” features a bonus round in which Wild Bill Hickock shoots at symbols to transform them into wild symbols, after which the reels re-spin.
“This new series features familiar themes for which players have a real affinity,” Zeitz says. “It’s our take on experiences people know and love.”
IGT is ready for G2E with new games in each of its other game categories as well. In video poker, the slot-maker has two big introductions. “Build A Wheel” is a video poker game that awards slices for a video wheel for certain hands, giving players a chance to spin the wheel for an extra award when the spaces are filled up. “Texas Hold’em Heads Up” is a refined version of the game introduced last year that pits the player against the computer in a poker game, in the industry’s first use of artificial intelligence in a game program.
For the manufacturers’ MP Series of multi-player games, IGT is re-introducing “Triple Towers Greyhound Racing,” which has a community-style virtual dog race featuring a 3D stereoscopic display that presents some of the most stunning visuals of any large-screen LCD. The company also is launching a horse-race game utilizing similar technology.
On the system side, the company will demonstrate new applications for its sbX server-based gaming package, the most notable being a “Taxable Accrual” application that eliminates the need for a player to stop playing for every taxable jackpot. The application automates the whole process—players who have signed up and given the casino all pertinent information generate an automated W2G. When a taxable jackpot hits, the player simply enters a PIN, which serves as an electronic signature. He can simply keep playing after that.
Other new applications include “Intelligent Bonusing” that gives operators more control over parameters to set for automatically rewarding customers for play; a “Passport” system that allows targeted messages through the IGT Service Window portal; and “Tournament Manager,” which totally automates all tournament functions on a bank of machines.
More surprises are sure to come from IGT. As the slot leader uses research in its effort to gain back market share, players stand to benefit from new ways to play slots—ways we have yet to imagine.