Konami Gaming entered 2020 with a plan to push its technological edge to the next level, in all phases of the business.
First, the hardware housing Konami games from core to premium levels was beginning a new era, a new cabinet series poised to evolve the company’s offerings after a decade of advances in the Podium and Concerto series. New games with innovative mechanics as well as tried-and-true game styles were ready to populate the new form factors. Meanwhile, Konami was prepping to move into new segments of the gaming market, namely Class II and central determinant lottery.
Everything seemed to be on track when the first in the Dimension series of cabinets, the Dimension 49J, was launched along with a potential monster game called All Aboard, at California’s Morongo Casino.
That debut occurred in mid-March. Within a week, the entire industry would be shut down.
With casino operations on pause, suppliers like Konami were in survival mode like everyone else. Costs were cut, furloughs implemented, extra marketing activity—notably, trade show participation—was suspended.
However, Konami was as quick as any company in the business when it came to taking a setback like the pandemic and finding opportunity. New energy was directed into diversification. The systems business gained steam as Konami tested its first “cashless markers” at Ellis Island in Las Vegas, using a module of its Synkros casino management system.
And game development didn’t miss a beat, pivoting quickly to remote operation.
“We obviously had our challenges like everyone else, but we’ve had remote work policies in place,” says Thomas Jingoli, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Konami Gaming. “We were fortunate the governor of Nevada deemed manufacturing an essential business, so we upheld operations throughout the shutdown.”
“In the initial days of the pandemic,” adds Senior Vice President & Chief Product and Strategy Officer Victor Duarte, “there were certain actions we took that were not dissimilar from other companies, but they were really very focused. We had a short furlough during the month of April, but then we came back full-steam-ahead in May, and we’ve just been working very hard at getting a roadmap full of different products and cabinets.”
Jingoli says it helped that Konami operates game design studios in three locations worldwide—the U.S., Australia and Japan. “One of the benefits is that we do have three essential studios around the world, which does allow us to keep moving forward. When the pandemic hit, (President and CEO) Steve Sutherland and I sat down and agreed that we would to use this as an opportunity to keep the company moving forward,” he says.
“As a company we’re very fortunate to have a very low debt structure. We pay rates of approximately 1 percent on our debt. That was an advantage we felt we had over our competitors, and we wanted to keep the company moving as best we could, obviously considering the health and safety of our team members.”
The overall effect is that Konami plans to launch more games this year than last year. “That’s in spite of our facing the issues with the pandemic and a short shutdown,” says Duarte. “But we’ve actually implemented, through (Vice President, Studio Operations) Jason Kremer and (Senior Director, Game Development) Ian Arrowsmith, a number of measures that have made us more efficient, plus the utilization of third parties, which is part of our strategy. I believe our roadmap is going to be increasing this year versus last year.”
“From a game design point of view, there had been an opportunity to take a little step back,” says Arrowsmith, “because we had some down time, to survey what was going on at Konami, what was going on in the market, and just take more time to innovate. The fruits of this little breather we had will be some excellent and compelling games.”
Forms and Substance
Konami’s most high-profile new game releases this year are inextricably linked to the three new cabinets in the Dimension series. “The roadmaps are chock full for all three of those form factors,” says Duarte, “and we’re continuing to support some of the existing product lines as well, so we’re definitely doing a good job of maintaining a high cadence of game development, while also supporting our platforms in a good way.”
The brief debut of the Dimension 49J picked up where it left off when casinos reopened, by which time Konami was ready to introduce the two sister cabinets in the series, the Dimension 27 core cabinet and the Dimension 49 flat-screen portrait cabinet.
As far as the new games, “we’re trying to have a blend of styles,” Duarte says. “We want to make sure we honor the legacy of Konami, and the strong-performing franchise titles like China Shores, with ports, derivatives, and evolutions; that’s a big part of our strategy. But we also want to make sure that we have an eye toward innovation to get non-traditional game types for Konami into the market.”
The Dimension 49J cabinet, targeted for premium lease games, features a 49-inch 4K ultra-high-definition portrait display with a “J” curve at the bottom. The design creates an immersive play experience, helped by customized LED sign displays, enhanced audio and optional premium LED chairs.
“We put a lot into the design of this cabinet,” says Molly Condron, Konami’s director of product management. “We wanted it to look sleek, so it has a nice 49-inch 4K monitor with a slight curve at the bottom. It has a 27-inch topper, and it has the two bash buttons, which has become a popular feature.”
Condron says the overall strategy for the Dimension 49J is to “create in-house brands with a slightly more gambler-style delivery, targeting that higher-volatility player.”
The first result of this strategy is All Aboard, the inaugural 49J title. Base games Dynamite Dash and Piggy Pennies feature a free-game bonus and a persistent hold-and-spin bonus feature, the latter tied to the linked progressive jackpot.
The main feature in both games, the All Aboard feature, is triggered by six or more scattered train symbols. When the feature is triggered, all the train symbols transform into credit awards. After the win is registered, the credit awards remain in place on the reel array and all other spots become independent reels, re-spinning for three free spins.
Each time an additional train symbol lands, it reveals a new credit award, and all of the credits on the board are awarded again. The free-spin count returns to three, and the feature continues, re-awarding the total credits on the board with each new train symbol.
The feature continues until no free spins remain, or until the entire screen is filled with credit awards. If train symbols are landed on all 15 reel spots, the player is awarded the linked Grand Jackpot.
“With All Aboard, you’re targeting that higher-volatility player, but we also want to make sure we’re bringing things that have that entertainment factor, which is what all of the premium products have,” says Condron. “All Aboard has multiple bonuses, different features, and the multi-level progressive. We’re really looking at it as a two-pronged approach with the player base we’re trying to attract.”
All Aboard took off when casinos reopened this summer, and is now returning good results. Two more titles for the Dimension 49J, Silent Hill and Ocean Spin, are set for release by the end of the year. Condron says their release was delayed as orders poured in for All Aboard—a brand which itself is slated for follow-up games from Konami’s Australia studio.
Initial results show win per unit upwards of 2.5 times house average, according to Condron. “It’s done fantastic for us, and we’re very excited to get it out there. Many of the best results were achieved in very competitive locations of casino floors.”
Duarte adds that big results from pent-up demand immediately after the shutdown ended remained for All Aboard after other games had returned to average earnings. “Week one performance after the pandemic (shutdown) was crazy, with 98 percent occupancy,” he says. “It was hard to see any given product separate from the pack, but All Aboard keeps going up. In one location, after seven weeks, it’s doing four times house average.
“We think we have a hammer here, and we’re going to do everything we can to roll it out in a thoughtful way.”
For the next few months, Konami will roll out games for the Dimension 49J from its series of games based on Konami’s own “Silent Hill” video game depicting a fictional ghost town; and Ocean Spin, an original linked progressive series, designed exclusively for the 49J.
Ocean Spin features synchronized animation effects, spanning into the topper and across multiple game cabinets. Throughout primary play, bubbles of potential bonus opportunities float seamlessly across game screens of every connected machine.
Konami’s Dimension 27 was designed as a new core for-sale cabinet. The company has identified it as the principal replacement product for the Concerto and Podium series of core video cabinets. It features three 27-inch high-definition displays, with all the modern capabilities of the Dimension 49J, like an interactive button deck, dual bash buttons, a USB port and a wireless charging pad.
“We really look at this as being our principal core for-sale cabinet,” says Condron. “When you think about what your strategy is for this cabinet, almost anything goes. You’re looking at ports, and clones, as well as evolutions of tried-and-true brands, like Mayan Chief, China Shores and African Diamond.”
The Dimension 27 also will host the SeleXion series of multi-game machines, “which has been incredibly popular for Konami,” Condron says. “It’s one of the best multi-game engines out there.”
Condron says the Dimension 27 will host Konami favorites like the Quick Strike series and Mystical Temple, but will also add new originals. “We’ll also look at new things, where we can try innovative game features that Ian’s team comes up with,” she says. “We can try them out on the dual-screen cabinets before we move them to the portrait screen formats.”
Games will also be offered on the cabinet in the Quad Spin Series, on which the player can play up to four reel sets simultaneously.
The cabinet is slated to launch by the end of the year featuring Konami favorites including SeleXion, China Shores, Ancient Dragon, Money Blast, Rawhide and Roman Tribune. The first calendar quarter of 2021 will see the release of Patrick O’Potts of Gold and the Dragon’s Law progressive link.
Also early next year will be the release of Dimension 49, the flat-screen version of the cabinet featuring a 49-inch 4K portrait monitor and an optional 27-inch topper, designed to give players “a premium experience with a for-sale product.”
“This will be the new portrait cabinet for Konami,” says Condron, “so we will really want to have a higher caliber of content on this. We’re trying to attract the gamblers and the jackpot-chasers, so most of the games will be bankable, and will have features common among the game series.”
Among the launch games for the new portrait cabinet are Guardians of the Aztec, a linked progressive series featuring Konami’s “Strike Zone” mechanic; Quick Strike Extreme, a link based on the Quick Strike series; and Treasure Ball Duo Luck, which takes the original Treasure Ball Extended ROM game to the next level with integrated progressive win opportunities.
“The Covid pause gave us time to plan, so it will be a robust launch,” Condron says of the Dimension 49. “We’re launching with over 11 games, so it will give the operator many different series to choose from—The Guardian series, the Fortune Mint series, more traditional Asian game groups. We also have the tried-and-true brand Triple Sparkle. We put the Triple Sparkle feature on both Lotus Land and Imperial Wealth—another pair of popular games.”
From Systems to Interactive
The pandemic has had the effect of actually boosting business in a few segments. As casinos have reopened, there’s been a new emphasis on pursuing cashless, contactless play at slot machines.
The company’s SynkConnect cardless player tracking system, part of the Synkros casino management system, includes a mobile application that enables a player to view the funds they have in their cashless wagering account, and pair their mobile application to the EGM either with NFC or by scanning a QR code on the player tracking display, to enable them to “card in” with their mobile application and download any of the cashless wagering funds directly to the slot machine via the mobile application.
In July, Konami went live at Ellis Island Casino in Las Vegas with Marker Trax, a patented system developed by Ellis Island CEO Gary Ellis that links with the cashless technology in Synkros to issue cashless credit markers to slot players.
“The early numbers we have seen doing business with Gary over at Ellis Island have been very encouraging,” says Jay Bertsch, senior vice president of North American games and global systems sales for Konami. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the product. Right now, we are looking at a major casino in Southern California to go live as the first casino outside of Nevada.”
It’s one more example of how the Synkros system is thriving, Bertsch says. “With all that’s going on with the pandemic, Synkros is experiencing a record year,” he says. “We just did the install at Morongo, 5,000-plus units, in July. We’re going live at San Manuel in October, and then Resorts World Las Vegas will be summer of 2021. Our systems group has really done a fantastic job, making our best-in-breed, best-of-show product we have right now, and we’re trying to capitalize on that.”
The other area of opportunity during the pandemic, of course, has been online gaming, where Konami has enjoyed wide acclaim for its library of games available to social casinos and real-money gaming sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Konami had populated its online footprint through an aggregation partner, but over the past year, the company developed a proprietary remote gaming server. “We’ve taken that in house, so we can control our destiny, and control our roadmap in a better way,” says Duarte.
“In New Jersey, we originally started with our partners. In Pennsylvania, we acquired the source code, and we’ve put our own servers into operation. We’ll convert all our B2B social and B2B real-money clients by the end of this year. The expectation is that we’ll be fully in-house with that platform. We have quite a bit of interest, and we’re monitoring whether Michigan will be the next big jurisdiction to go, and in all the Canadian provinces we’re also actively discussing Konami content.
“So if you’d looked at us a year ago from a real-money standpoint, it was New Jersey. By the end of next year, we’ll have four or five jurisdictions we’re operating in.”
Konami also has a partnership on the social gaming side with Playstudios to implement a strategic omnichannel release of games—starting with All Aboard. “We brought that game out in pilots to the land-based casinos—our first installation was right before the shutdown. But when we got back open in May, we rolled out All Aboard,” Duarte says. “At the same time, Playstudios did an active promotion on All Aboard, and they had really good play and good feedback and performance on that game.
“And then come this fall, we’ll have All Aboard in New Jersey and Pennsylvania online gaming, a relaunch with additional games on Playstudios, and the continued rollout of All Aboard in land-based venues. So, we’re doing a lot to make sure there’s synergy between all our channels.”
For the future, Konami is working on perfecting a central determination engine, which Duarte says the company will announce in the “near term.” That engine will open up Class II and other new markets to the company’s games. “Whether Class II, historical horse racing or traditional lottery systems such as Washington, we have made some investments into our underlying platform that will allow us to support those central determination systems,” Duarte says.
Meanwhile, the company will continue to work with customers to refresh floors at a time when capital budgets are strained. “The interesting thing about the pandemic is that on the game side of the business, we’re seeing a little bit of a shift,” says Bertsch. “Where it was direct sales before, what we’re seeing now is a reshuffling of participation.”
“We try to be a good partner, and be flexible,” adds Jingoli. “I think we’ve done some very flexible financing on both the games and system sides. We’re here to support the customer. We know they’re having a difficult time like we are. And in these tough times, I think that’s one great thing about working for Konami. We’re very flexible. And we’re trying to do everything we can to help our partners and our customers recover.
“We’ve always tried to be dedicated and support our customers’ needs, whether it’s on the game side or the system side. But the one great thing about our industry—if you have good product, product that performs, it’s going to find its way to the floor.”