With more than 20 years at slot manufacturing giant International Game Technology, Ali Saffari participated in many of the big technology ideas in the gaming industry. From Megajackpots to ticket-in/ticket-out to server-based gaming, Saffari has been a part of the growth of the industry that has been spurred by this technology. After leaving IGT two years ago, Saffari launched Leap Forward Gaming, a company that continues those technological advances. His clients include his former company, IGT, as well as many of the other suppliers of slots, printers, bill acceptors and more. Based in Reno, Saffari spoke with Global Gaming Business Publisher Roger Gros during a business trip to Las Vegas in February. To hear a full podcast of this interview, including Saffari’s views on the future of technology, visit ggbnews.com/podcasts.
GGB: Explain how your experience at IGT—the creation of Megabucks, the EZ Pay system for ticket-in/ticket-out—led you to form Leap Forward Gaming.
Ali Saffari: In 1986 I started at IGT. Through the years, we created cutting-edge products that the industry needed to transform—wide area progressives, bill validators, bonus machines, and finally, ticket-in/ticket-out. I noticed that every time you launch a product, there are three components of the ecosystem of the gaming industry. The first is the actual player. You have to offer some benefits to the players. Then come the operators; operators must surely see some benefits, whether it is a cost reduction or revenue increase. And finally, but very importantly, the regulators. They need to see better controls for the revenue, better controls for monitoring the health of the products, and most importantly, being on the cutting edge so everybody safely can offer this innovation.
IGT has been a grand opportunity for me for 24 years. But when I left, I looked at the industry. The economy was bad. There were 1.2 million machines out there, and most were impossible to replace in that economic environment. So that meant we were in a transition time. With a 3 percent to 5 percent replacement cycle of each machine, from each corporation and operator, I figured, why not bring a product that allows these operators to use their existing investments—very crucial—yet allow these operators to be able to transform to their floors to the level that beautifully satisfies the desires that players have now?
Players have changed. Everybody has an iPhone, everybody has a smart phone, everybody is into texting. So changing that world, I wanted to create a catalyst to allow the operators using their existing investment, transform it, allowing them ample time to go replace one machine at a time. Leap Forward Gaming was designed to satisfy all the three components of this ecosystem to benefit from our technology.
You were instrumental in forming what is now the Gaming Standards Association. Tell us how that work is now leading to the world of networked slot floors and protocols that surround other kinds of technology.
I am very proud to say that I am one of the founders. My close friend John Acres and I called it GAMMA, and we started to gather a team, along with Lyle Bell, my partner from IGT. We had a protocol called SAS. As you know, SAS started many moons ago.
We created this infrastructure with a consortium of the manufacturers, then operators, then regulators. We really brought a common language, to accommodate a gaming protocol. We made the common language, the common protocol and common standards that accommodated a platform ecosystem that now every machine is connected to multiple systems. So GAMMA, then GSA, became crucial to have a foundation of this industry to move forward, versus staying antiquated, and the regulators are embracing it.
Explain Leap Forward Gaming, and the various types of development with which you’re now involved.
In our industry, we have fantastic manufacturers—very competent, with huge organizations. In the world of operators, everybody has huge infrastructure in place. Our product is an ecosystem that is simply agnostic with anybody’s machines or anybody’s system. I brought best of the best from the nation. In fact, my CTO is a Ph.D, and his expertise is in security and information systems. We are working with multiple countries, from different continents, with our wireless technology. I brought a team of experts to create the ecosystem, and our ecosystem is a simple one. We come in to the casino and transform all the machines to communicate wirelessly. Our company is a green company. As you know, there are millions of wires, either in the form of copper, or Cat 5, 6, or fiber optic connected to each machines. We’re eliminating that altogether, re-creating this agnostic wireless system. If you are IGT, Konami or Williams, we can only provide the wireless links between your components.
Is LFG helping casinos prepare for the next wave of play— mobile devices, online, etc.?
Let’s talk about mobile. With our ecosystem, we have the wireless connectivity to everybody’s devices. If you are connected to the casino system as soon as you arrive, we are connected all over to your mobile devices, and immediately we have all the capabilities to transform your casino experience. Then, once we are there, the rest is quite easy.
Are third-party companies like yours—the technology and content providers—the future of the supply side of the casino industry?
Due to the economy, many companies were downsizing internally, bringing in resources from the outside to complement their products. Everybody wins with this. I believe it’s going to be the wave of the future; I strongly believe in that. Due to this bad economy we had, everybody learned to be more efficient in their overhead, more efficient in the operation; and the best way to get there is to go find the technologies that complement you as a manufacturer, bring them in, and use their creativity.