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New Frontier

The new Axcess platform takes AC Slots where no slot manufacturer has gone before

New Frontier

Over the coming year, AC Slots will be flooding the gaming machine sector with product that plays differently than anything out there. Many of the games will look different, as well.

But all of the product on “Axcess,” the new platform released this year by the Pleasantville, New Jersey-based company formerly known as AC Coin & Slot, will be based on a credo that operators have come to expect from the company: they will be games that make money for the casino.

Axcess is the platform on which AC Slots is building a new identity as a slot manufacturer—a process that began more than two years ago when the company announced the end of its previous arrangement with leading slot manufacturer International Game Technology.

That arrangement—an exclusive distributorship of IGT games in Atlantic City and the Caribbean, along with a partnership to place proprietary bonus games on IGT base games for lease—had defined the supplier for years. To a great degree, it also limited what could be done, creatively, by the game design team headed by Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Seelig. The former AC Coin produced bonus games exclusively for IGT’s S2000 stepper platform—as the title suggests, it is a 12-year-old platform—and only for games placed on a lease basis.

With IGT’s buyout of the distributorship, AC Slots was free to sell games totally developed in-house. It was also an opportunity for Seelig to begin creating games from the ground up. But first things first—the newly independent slot-maker needed a platform.

In the ensuing two years, efforts to find and perfect a new slot-machine platform concentrated on both hardware and software, with one overriding requirement: flexibility. What ended up as Axcess uses a collection of cabinets, the video version ergonomically styled with either dual 22-inch monitors or a 32-inch, portrait-style display; the stepper version like nothing that’s ever been seen before in the market. (More on that later.)

As for the game math used for the content, Jerry Seelig and brother Jason, the executive vice president of sales and marketing for the company, worked together to come up with a wish list for the engineers. Because both the brothers happen to be avid slot players themselves, they knew what they wanted their new slot games to do differently than other manufacturers.

“I don’t know how many nights Jason and I have spent playing slot machines in Las Vegas, but we do it constantly,” says Jerry Seelig. “When you get out there and spend hours playing, and you watch other people—and get a good feel for winning or losing with your own money—you understand what the player is looking for.

“There are a lot of features in these games that, frankly, are just better than what’s out there. And that just comes from hours and hours of playing.”

“One advantage that we have is that we don’t have to support a legacy brand,” adds Jason Seelig. “So, when we developed the platform, we were able to look at it from a true blank screen. A big part of what we did was to look at each product category and decide how we want to compete in that category.”

 

Player’s Design

Perhaps the most notable result of the Seelig brothers’ long hours of slot play is a basic difference in how the math is formulated for the average Axcess slot game compared to typical slots.

Jerry Seelig relates a recent experience of being in a bonus round on a video slot for several minutes. He counted the free spins—27. “At the end, the bonus was 350 credits,” he recalls. “The machine then celebrates the bonus win, and when I looked at it, I was celebrating $3.50. It was aggravating.”

These are the exact experiences he says the Axcess platform strives to avoid. “Celebrating a loss is something we made sure not to do,” says Jason Seelig. “If I bet $3 and I win $1.50, don’t put confetti on my game and celebrate for 20 seconds, because I just lost half my money.” The Axcess games amp the volume up according to the win—the bigger the win, the bigger the celebration.

He says the design of Axcess games began with making sure people will enjoy playing them, and that means assuring good wins in both the primary game and the bonus. One way this was done is through a novel principle in formulating the math of the games.

Where many video slots may have several possible bonus events, the payback percentage is typically divided between the base game and each bonus event. Jason Seelig offers the example of a standard game with an 88 percent return and several bonuses—or several progressive jackpots. “Typically, the base game may be 50 percent, then you’ll put 20 percent to the top award or bonus, 10 percent on the second, maybe 5 percent and 3 percent to each of the others,” he explains. “We’ll take that same type of game and run 68 percent on the base, and 20 percent to the event, regardless of what that event is.”

On an Axcess game with two bonus events, he says, that 20 percent switches along with the bonus—whether it’s a free spin or a picking event, in the above example, it will be afforded 20 percent of the total payback. “The overall percentage is not higher than the other manufacturers, but when you hit one of the events, you’re getting its entire payback percentage,” Jason Seelig explains, “so you don’t have one person out of 10 getting up and saying, ‘I love the game.’”

“When you get into the bonuses, you actually get bonuses,” says Jerry Seelig. “And the bonuses aren’t meek—they’re good-sized awards.”

“Even if you don’t hit a bonus,” says Jason Seelig, “you’re playing a base game with a percentage that is way higher than other base games. People say players can’t tell the difference between a couple of percentage points, but we’re talking about 18 percent as the difference in the math. The base pay table on ours is going to be much, much looser than others. Every one of our new games follows this same philosophy, and it’s a big philosophical difference.”

 
Content, Content, Content

As this philosophy was being formulated, the search for a base platform was ongoing. “We pretty much scoured the globe,” recalls Jerry Seelig, “and met with probably 20 different companies to talk about what the options were. The idea was to always keep an open architecture.”

During the search, the Seeligs enlisted the help of customers—the operators—to make sure the end product would fit their particular needs. “We spent a lot of time with our key accounts,” Jason Seelig says. “We said, ‘Tell me three things you would never do on a slot machine. Tell me thee things our competitors do that you would like to change.’ Later, at the demos, some of our customers were saying, ‘Oh, someone finally made a game that doesn’t do this or that.’ Or something that does things never seen—like providing 27 different languages, or having variable reel speeds, so when the casino is busy, the reels can spin a second faster.

“When you’re talking about a five-second reel spin, and you’re spinning a second faster, you just made me 20 percent more money when my game’s 100 percent occupied.”

Ultimately, the new platform would open a world of new possibilities in game design. “The open architecture allows us to build games at a very fast pace,” Jerry Seelig says. “Because we have the open architecture, we’ll bring out an unheard-of number of games for a manufacturer. We’re going to bring out 50 games this year, all brand-new ideas.”

The first 30 or so will be what he calls “meat-and-potatoes kinds of products,” meaning, they will look like games with which the industry is accustomed—five reels, multiple paylines, free-spin and pick bonuses—but with the new approach to program math. Beyond that, another piece to the Axcess puzzle will be to utilize the open architecture to bring content to the market—and to the AC Slots math model—from a variety of outside sources in addition to the in-house design team.

In fact, this strategy was formulated while the search for a new platform was ongoing. Because the plan was for an open-architecture platform, the Seeligs knew they wanted to ramp up production and flood the market with new game content—more content than could be created in Pleasantville, New Jersey.

A Las Vegas content studio for AC Slots is headed by legendary artist and graphic designer Benny Sum, founder of Global Gaming Group. Two content studios were created in China, one on the mainland and one in Hong Kong. By the time the platform was complete, content for new games was pouring from all four studios.

But one other source of content was to be tapped, one that later turned a lot of heads in AC Slots’ private display room at the Global Gaming Expo—the internet. After its initial core of “meat-and-potatoes” games are released, the market will begin seeing slots applying the company’s math model to any number of video games that are popular right now on the internet.

The company has already licensed 106 internet games from a variety of companies—games that already garner millions of plays on line—for possible transformation into slot machines. Many don’t even look like a slot machine. Games with no reels, says Jason Seelig, could be used as base games, or bonus games, but they will be games that players around the world are already enjoying.

“In discussing the platform, this becomes very important,” he says. “What you are looking at today are games like everybody has. There are a couple of unique twists on the games and the graphics, but they’re all Class III slot machines. We see the future of this platform as going far beyond the standard Class III slot machine.

“Ultimately, where is the next great idea going to come from? It may be a unique reel spin, or a unique way of using a multiplier. One of the things we wanted to do was to find the content we felt was going to be the future of the industry. That’s why we used a Windows-based Flash platform, so the porting of these games to our platform is very quick. Some games we picked can literally be put on our platform in a matter of weeks. Which is going to be great? I don’t know. What I do know is that just about everybody else is doing the same old thing.”

“It was obvious to me that there are a lot more great ideas out there than are actually being brought to market,” adds Jerry Seelig. “With the closed architecture currently in place for other manufacturers, it can be very difficult to (tap those ideas). With our current strategy, we can use everybody’s great ideas. We may have four studios, but really, we’re also utilizing companies from all over the world that are producing games for the internet.”

When the Seelig brothers presented the ideas to their father, AC Slots founder and CEO Mac Seelig, he was impressed. “Some of the stuff Jerry and his team went out and found, patented stuff that’s on the internet, actually made me say ‘Wow!’ when they showed it to me,” Mac Seelig says. “It was so unique and so different, and when you add the right math model to that ‘wow’ factor, you’ve got something you’ve never seen.”

 
The Rollout

In addition to drawing content in from multiple sources to a platform on which games can be placed and switched out very quickly, a third prong to AC Slots’ new strategy is a very operator-friendly business model—namely, low cost.

In addition to the search for content, the Seeligs’ worldwide travels over the past two years included a quest for low-cost materials and production. The model for bringing in content from around the world means the company doesn’t have the R&D costs of the larger manufacturers, and the open architecture means titles can be switched out to new games in a matter of weeks.

The result is a unit price for Axcess games that is half the cost of many production games out there.

“We’re going to make a slot machine that makes more money than others, and we’re going to do it for less,” says Jason Seelig. “Our strategy is to be able to get product to market more quickly, to be able to get it to market cheaper, and to make it earn more than everyone else’s product.”

It is a formula that has resonated so far with operators. After a successful G2E show, notable early adopters of the platform include Paul Tjoumakaris, senior vice president of gaming operations for the Seminole Tribe of Florida; and Bob Sobczyk, vice president of slot operations for Ameristar Casinos.

Tjoumakaris ordered 134 units of the first three Axcess games for the Seminole casinos across Florida. Sobczyk is placing Axcess games in the new slot areas found in the front of all of Ameri-star’s properties, where games of only a few manufacturers at a time are sampled by eager players.

The initial rollout consists of three titles—“Inca Cash,” “Freak Show” and “Fish Party.” All are video slots which Jerry Seelig places in the “meat-and-potatoes” category, with frequent animated bonus sequences, great artwork—the Freak Show game, in particular, has intricate art recalling 19th century circus posters—and the novel math model that is designed to assure players have a good time while playing.

According to Tjoumakaris, all three models are “doing extremely well” on the floors of the Seminole properties. “We’re extremely happy,” he says. “The design is really good; they are doing over house average competing with the big manufacturers’ games.”

Tjoumakaris credits both the video format and the math for the popularity of the games. “The games are exciting,” he says. “Even in the idle mode, you have movement and animation. Customers seem to gravitate to the graphics. The bonuses are good—simple, and with good frequency.” On the program math, Tjoumakaris adds, “the frequency between the base and the bonus seems to be good for the player. I see staying power in them. I’m impressed with AC Slots’ first crack at a proprietary video format. They are no longer just a niche supplier; they compete with the mainstream manufacturers.”

Sobczyk says AC Slots “did a great job aesthetically,” which he says passes the first test. “The proof’s going to be in the math,” he says. “We’re a company all about testing.” He says the fact the games are succeeding with players in Florida and other early locations is an indication they’ll do well in Ameristar’s new-slot showcase, where games are rotated every 90 days, with good player reaction leading to increased orders for the main floor.

“Ameristar is anxious to begin testing the new AC Slot video product,” Sobczyk says. “If the revenue per box meets expectations, AC Slots will shake up the industry with its aggressive machine and conversion pricing model.”

Of course, the Seeligs have been doing research of their own, playing their own games with their own money, and watching how the players around them react, to see if and how the games need to be improved. “When we’re on the floor, we watch player behavior,” says Jason Seelig. “We know that $20 in six minutes is average. When I sit at one of my banks and play one of our games, and when I sit at a competitor’s game, the first thing I do is look at my watch. And I watch the people who sat down around me. Are they playing $20 for six minutes? Then, it’s an average game. If we’re all sitting there for 20 minutes and have only put in $40 or $50, it’s a pretty good game.”

In the case of Axcess, he says, the players are all sitting there for three times the average game for that $20 bill. At Seminole, he says, one revealing fact has been that players are sitting at each of the games in a three-game bank—even the middle one. “An incredible amount of time, that center game was being played.”

Another thing Jason Seelig says has been very pleasing is that players appreciate all the special features of the platform, including some that are not even advertised—like the fact that players can stop the reel-spinning on each reel by touching the screen. “Players discovered that on their own,” he says. “I sat down next to a lady who was running both hands across the screen on every spin. I asked her what she was doing, and she said, ‘You can touch it for luck! I think I’m winning more because I’m touching it!’”

Mac Seelig has been in Florida watching players as well. “On our games, people stayed and stayed and stayed,” he says. “I watched the competitors’ games, and they sat down for two or three minutes and left. It’s interesting to see Jerry’s design theory working live, and to watch the players. I’d say, ‘What do you think?’ They’d say ‘Wow! This is so different!’ or ‘Wow! This is fun!’ This is in the middle of games from all the big guys.”

Another revealing fact, says Mac Seelig, is that players are moving from one AC Slots game to another of the same title. “People were moving from one Fish Party game to another Fish Party game. I sat and watched this for two nights.”

Sean Evans, the veteran sales and marketing executive who helped Aristocrat break into the U.S., is helping spread the word about the Axcess games as AC Slots’ vice president of sales. “People are excited to see something new,” Evans says. “This is an industry that hasn’t had a lot of new companies coming in. We’re not a new company, but where we’re going is totally new.”

Evans says the next releases on the Axcess platform will be more video slots, such as “Karate Pig,” with its unique—and funny—three-level bonus round featuring a Samurai pig. Shortly after that, the same game will appear on the company’s new stepper application of Axcess.

Karate Pig will be the first release on that stepper format. Called “5X5 Mechanical,” it is a stepper game that is configured like a video slot, with five reels and five rows of symbols on each reel, and multiple paylines. “The options you have with hit frequency on these games is a frequency never before available in the reel-spinning market,” says Jerry Seelig.

The 5X5 accomplishes its pay window with novel, oblong reels, moving on strips that almost resemble conveyor belts. A 22-inch video screen in the top box hosts the bonus rounds, and a second touch-screen monitor underneath the reels allows the same interactivity in bonus rounds on the reel-spinning version as the video version, using the same program math.

 
Tried and True

In addition to enabling unique new video slots, the Axcess platform will enhance what AC Slots has always done best—the mechanical bonus game. Starting with the long-popular “Bankroll” series of mechanical bonus top boxes, the company plans to launch Axcess games in each of its popular legacy bonus groups, from “Empire” to “Slotto.”

“If you look at the industry over the past two decades, we’ve been able to dominate the top-box technology business,” says Mac Seelig, “so it’s great to now be able to have the bottom box feed the top box, with value you couldn’t do before. Jerry and his team now have all the freedom to create a much better top-box technology. Because of Axcess, he’s going to have the ability to make games that are twice as good as he has ever made, since he’ll have control of the base.”

Jerry Seelig agrees. “It was a lot harder to make top boxes on a 10-year-old platform, and try to figure out how to bring people to that machine, than it is to do this,” he says. “This is a lot easier, and it’s a lot more fun.”

Besides the mastery of top boxes, the other thing that won’t change for AC Slots is the company’s legendary dedication to service. It’s one reason seasoned slot executives like Tjoumakaris are willing to order hundreds of units of a game that has yet to be tested on the floor.

Jason Seelig illustrates this with a story from Iowa involving the first delivery of Axcess games on Christmas Eve. “We had a truck break down going to Iowa on our first install, 200 miles from the casino,” he recalls. “The executive had to have the games in by the end of the year. We put a tech on an airplane, rented him a truck, and he drove eight hours to pick the games up so the guy could get his games when he needed them. Do you think that’s normal for a manufacturer in this industry, during Christmas week? I love it, because that’s a customer for life.”

“Every customer has each of our home phone numbers and each of our cell numbers,” says Mac Seelig. “We’re a family who loves the business we’re in. It’s actually a passion.”

Besides dedication to the customer, operators know one other thing about AC Slots from working with the Seeligs over three-plus decades: “Every customer we’ve ever dealt with knows that we make games that make money,” says Jerry Seelig. “The one thing we haven’t done is made bad games. What we don’t want to do is make a game that will make a ton of money for 90 days, and then have the customer call us up and say, ‘What do I do with this machine now?’ I want to make a game that sits on the floor for six, nine, 12 months or more, making money.”

Adds Jason Seelig, “We’re not worrying about our internet strategy, our iPhone apps strategy, our player tracking strategy. We’re worrying about the floor. When a customer buys your product, all the added-value features are great, but at the end of the day, there’s only one bucket they look at. And believe it or not, even if you have no special features, if you have the most money in the bucket at the end of the day, you have the best product.

“We’re only concerned about making our customers more money—for less money.”

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.