New Era: American Gaming Systems

Colossal sizes, quirky games and legendary talent signal a new day for AGS

Supplier AGS (originally known as American Gaming Systems) got a jump-start in the slot market under former CEO Bob Miodunski, who used his experience as head of Bally to groom what was mainly a Class II supplier into a manufacturer carving itself market share in commercial casinos across the country.

Late last year, Miodunski—who had been lured out of retirement to recharge AGS—re-retired with the arrival as CEO of David Lopez. In his three years as CEO, Miodunski led efforts to break the supplier into Class III markets and engineered the December 2013 acquisition of the company by affiliates of Apollo Global Management, LLC.

Lopez, formerly head of Global Cash Access and COO of Shuffle Master, has initiated a new era at AGS, one that is seeing new formats, unique game mechanics and, in general, a new direction in game design.

The company’s breakout product in the commercial casino market has been the “It Pays To Know” series, the knowledge-based bonus slots led by “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” that award the highest bonuses to those who answer general-knowledge quizzes correctly. The knowledge-based slot bonus game has been popular with players, and has earned well above house average everywhere it has been placed.

By the end of the year, there will be three knowledge-based AGS slots out in the market, with “Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?” having launched shortly before G2E and “Family Feud” to follow shortly after the show. If early indications from the Ripley’s game are any indication, the company could soon have three hits in the market.

“We’ve had a lot of success with the trivia-based product,” says Ken Bossingham, chief operating officer of AGS. “A lot of casinos across the U.S. already have the Ripley’s experience, and we’ve got two more games in the series coming out.

“The skill-based games seem to connect very well with players. The human species likes to be challenged, and in the slot space, most games don’t challenge you. When you play a video reel game, you press a button and it tells you whether you won or lost. You don’t have an opportunity to impact your outcome. That’s what’s neat about the trivia games, and that’s why they are part of our portfolio.”

Under new CEO Lopez, though, that portfolio is beginning to take on a very new look. In addition to normal changes that can be expected under new senior management, a new product direction for AGS began with two strategic acquisitions. Last spring, the company announced the acquisition of Colossal Gaming, the company founded in 2003 by former Casino Data Systems founder and CEO Steve Weiss which specializes in super-sized slot games such as “Colossal Diamonds” and “Hot at the Top.”

Then, this summer, the company announced its entry into the table game market with the acquisition of Casino War Blackjack, Inc. and its portfolio of table games—most notably “War Blackjack.”

“We couldn’t be more confident in the quality of War Blackjack to kick off our inauguration into the table games business,” said Lopez after the July acquisition. “Blackjack is the most popular table game in North America and War is a fun, widely recognized game that is easy to learn. War Blackjack elevates the traditional blackjack experience by empowering the player to engage in an optional game of War prior to the blackjack game.”

Colossal Addition

The AGS lineup of new games for G2E will be dominated by those from its new Colossal Gaming division. Weiss, who has taken the role of central game developer for the new AGS, is known not only for creating the highest-earning of the giant slots, but for a collection of Colossal games both in large-format style and traditional style that each present something unique to the market.

“(Colossal) has had lot of documented success in large-format gaming, which we weren’t focused on,” Bossingham comments. “We believe that with Colossal, the number of bullets we have to be a better partner with our customers expands. In this case, one plus one does equal three.”

The advantage of diversifying game development operations, he adds, is that it creates a very healthy internal competition. “There’s a collaborative nature that comes with game design, but there’s also a competitive nature,” he says. “We have talented designers at AGS who have a certain design philosophy. Steve’s design philosophy is different, but that creates competitive design studios.”

It starts with the biggest current hit from Weiss’ former company, “Colossal Diamonds.” The game sits on a giant cabinet—AGS calls it “Big Red”—that measures eight feet across, with three separate 42-inch LCD monitors each serving as an independent super-sized reel. The game itself is a classic volatile high-denomination, single-line, three-reel stepper, available in dollars only, with a max bet of $15.

Andrew Burke, vice president of product management for AGS, says Colossal Diamonds is unique among the giant slots, because it earns like a workhorse game rather than a novelty product. “Colossal Diamonds is one of the hottest games we’re rolling out,” Burke says. “It’s the No. 1 product in California, and pretty much in every other state where it’s introduced.”

Burke says he realized that Colossal Diamonds was different when California’s Pechanga Resort ordered a second unit, placing them back-to-back on the floor. “I thought this was a one-per-property product, but Pechanga has proved differently,” he says. “We’re now placing two at a time.”

Colossal Diamonds joins other large-format games such as “Hot at the Top” as games that are unique in the genre—Hot at the Top, for instance, displays three reel sets, each a full-size game screen. It’s an old-school, totem pole-style game.

“It’s indicative of the way Colossal thinks about game design,” Burke says. “Colossal thinks way outside the box. They want to do something unique and different with every game they do. They have a great creative process that’s very collaborative—when (the engineers) are working on a game, everyone is encouraged to comment and give feedback on the game.”

That’s been the case with what will be the highlight Colossal game to be launched at G2E, “Dynamite.” (It was a working title at press time; it may change by show time.) With this game, Weiss’ team has built a specialty cabinet around the theme of the game itself.

The base game—a five-by-three, ways-to-pay video slot—is housed in what looks like a giant wooden dynamite crate, complete with labels like “TNT” and “Danger—Explosives.” Sitting atop the game is a single giant bonus reel, wrapped around sculpted sticks of dynamite. And the final hook? There is a dynamite plunger in front of the player. To launch the bonus reel, you get to depress the plunger like you’re blasting rock out of a mine shaft.

But it’s not just the novelty items like Colossal Diamonds and Dynamite that distinguish the new AGS game design team. The low-volume novelty games are accompanied by a complete line of stand-alone slots, each offering something unique in the marketplace.

“Birds of Orion” and “Ancient Embers”—from third-party studio Crazy Tooth—both employ what is known as the “Uni-Reel” play mechanism. Instead of five spinning reels, the screen’s paylines or ways-to-win configurations are built around a single reel that snakes around the screen, similar to what one would see in an arcade game. Players see symbols enter at the top left-hand corner and travel through the play field, stopping to form winning combinations. It’s a compelling visual that departs from humdrum reel-spinning.

Birds of Orion features a beautiful graphical display of neon colored birds on a black, celestial background.

Ancient Embers features fiery animal symbols such as a soaring eagle, diving whale and howling wolf to provide a colorful presentation. The Totem Symbol Upgrade and Ancient Color Feature transform symbols into wilds and multipliers. The experience is augmented by high-quality sound and 3D animation.

Rounding out AGS’ trade show lineup will be its freshly acquired table games, including a variety of traditional games in addition to the specialty Blackjack War.

According to Bossingham, the coming months will see a merger of technologies, as the Roadrunner platform perfected two years ago is combined with the Colossal platform into what will be introduced as a new technology platform at G2E 2015. Along the way, the company’s executives will gauge the success of play mechanics such as the trivia-based bonuses that are seeing great success now, and the Colossal attributes, and how all can be combined into a new direction.

“When two companies come together, it’s very difficult to run multiple platforms,” Bossingham comments. “So, we’ve used this as an opportunity. We’re looking at the strengths of Roadrunner; we’ve learned a lot as we’ve introduced that product into the Class III space. Colossal’s platform has been out there a little longer than Roadrunner, and continues to improve. We’re working toward the new-generation platform that is going to incorporate everything we’ve learned from both platforms.”

He adds that the size of AGS is an advantage when it comes to trying out-of-the-box ideas for new slots. “As a smaller manufacturer, we have a lot of freedom to do things never seen in gaming channels before,” Bossingham says. “We take that opportunity very seriously. Our new-generation platform is going to bring some elements forward that have never really been seen in the brick-and-mortar space before.”

The agility that comes with being a smaller manufacturer also will help AGS compete with the new behemoths of the slot market that are being created with the mega-mergers.

“It’s an unprecedented time,” Bossingham says. “I like where AGS stands right now. We’ve got an unencumbered view of our windshield; we have nothing in our way. With these large companies coming together, it becomes very challenging to hold and grow their market shares—which sets up the smaller manufacturers quite nicely to figure out their best niche opportunities to grow.

“It’s nothing short of exciting, and we’re looking forward to winning.”

Frank Legato
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 recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.