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R&D Power: International Game Technology

IGT marshals its forces for its strongest G2E collection in years

R&D Power: International Game Technology

You may have heard that leading slot manufacturer International Game Technology was slipping, or that the gains of competitors in market share spelled a company in decline.

IGT will have none of that notion.

If attendees to this year’s Global Gaming Expo learn anything, it will be that IGT still leads the slot market, and still has the R&D power to totally dominate the floor. Since Patti Hart took over as CEO in 2009, most of the high-level executives she has brought on board at IGT have not been gaming industry veterans—they have come from IT, telecommunications and other tech-heavy businesses.

However, when it comes to game development, Hart has left the function to those who have done it best in the past, and has given those engineers and artists—the best in the business—all the support they needed. While initially downsizing in some areas, IGT has boosted its game development staff by hundreds.

Consequently, IGT has regained the R&D dominance it enjoyed a decade ago. And it shows in the products. With Global Gaming Expo 2011, IGT has a message to send, and that message is simple: The slot leader isn’t about to fade away.

“Our big message is that it’s all about performance and player experience,” says Darrell Rodriguez, senior vice president of global game studios for IGT. “We’ve got a product portfolio no one can match to help operators optimize their floors. For the player experience, we’ve got a great balance of volatility and entertainment.”

“We’ve got a much broader portfolio of games than others for operators to use to target the various segments they have,” says Tom Mikulich, senior vice president of IGT’s MegaJackpots division. “We’re hitting all different types of demographics as well—skewing male with ‘Big Buck Hunter,’ female with ‘Sex and the City,’ even an older demographic with ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ In all the categories, we’re bringing a lot of new game mechanics and bet mechanics.”

The game design studios overseen by Rodriguez now number seven—two in Reno, two in Las Vegas, one in Australia, an interactive studio in San Francisco, and a studio in Beijing that does systems work. All have been very busy, a fact that will not be lost on attendees at G2E, as a typically dominant IGT booth will feature a mind-boggling array of games, a total system solution, and new offerings in the online and mobile areas.

Back to the Core

The big news for the past few years has been in eye-popping offerings like those in the theater-style “Center Stage” series. While more big things are coming in that area this year, perhaps the bigger IGT news lies in a wealth of new core products—games that may not be seen from across the floor, but which provide the bread-and-butter earnings that keep a slot floor going.

Ryan Griffin, director of product management for IGT’s core game group, says his staff has been concentrating on two areas the past year—bringing back variety in traditional reels, and capitalizing on a video platform that is second to none.

“One of our biggest strategy points in the core group is a real resurgence of concentration on the mechanical spinning-reel player,” Griffin says. “The three-reel, single-line market is still out there, and really has been neglected for years.”

According to Griffin, IGT will show six new game concepts at G2E in single-line, three-reel stepper slots. There also will be a group of five-reel steppers featuring “Fast-Hit Progressives,” which Griffin says is the first community-play bonus to be placed on a five-reel mechanical format, and the first communal game that includes shared progressives.

The series has five progressive levels, and in the community bonus, if someone hits a progressive, the other players on the linked bank each win half of the progressive. “Instead of competing against each other, it’s a more cooperative effort against the house,” Griffin says.

The new spinning-reel games are available in the S AVP cabinet or the new premium Universal Slant, with special features like back-lit, color-changing reels, with new titles including “Blue Blazes,” “Win Zeros,” “Classic Sevens OnCore Progressives” and “Haywire Multipliers,” a modern version of the classic IGT Haywire game, in which the reels randomly re-spin several times to repeat winning combinations, with the reels vibrating and spinning in opposite directions—going “haywire.”

Haywire Multipliers can re-spin a winning combination three, six or even eight times, with a Haywire feature happening every 37 spins, on average. It also adds a multiplier to Haywire events.

The refocus on the video product is resulting in both new games and new versions of old favorites. “Right now, IGT has the best video slots in the industry,” says Griffin. “Led by ‘Golden Goddess,’ ‘Black Widow’ and the new ‘Lucky Larry,’ these are the best video slots we’ve done in 10 years. We’re building off those classic game families, and in many cases, these core games are outperforming our premium games.”

One of those classic games is “Wolf Run,” one of the most popular IGT video slots of all time. IGT’s core group gives the classic game a makeover with “Wolf Run 2: Into The Wild,” a game that uses the AVP platform to mix beautiful artwork and graphics with actual photographs of wolves in the wild. In attract mode, the LCD screen on top alternates among several wildlife scenes, and the entire backdrop scene for the primary game changes every five minutes.

Other than that, it’s classic Wolf Run—high hit frequency, stacked wilds and free-spin bonus events.

Classics join new games like “Vivaldi’s Seasons,” which uses the classical-music reference (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos) as the starting point for a showcase of elegant graphics and artwork highlighting the four seasons; “The Mighty Atlas,” a stacked-wild-symbol game with a body-building theme; and “Swan Lake,” a ballet-themed game designed for female players.

The Mighty Atlas and Vivaldi’s Seasons follow the math model of “Black Widow” and “Golden Goddess,” two of the most successful video slots in IGT’s history.

There also will be a new version of the game “Barnum & Bailey,” which Griffin says has been earning up to twice the house average in many markets.

IGT has added several new play features to many of its core video games. Vivaldi’s Seasons and The Mighty Atlas both feature “Super Stacks,” a feature that guarantees a stack of the same symbol in each base game spin. Swan Lake and the Barnum & Bailey game each include “Reveal A Wheel,” a bonus feature in which one of the reels transforms into a horizontal view of a fortune wheel for a bonus.

A number of other new IGT core video slots being launched at the trade show demonstrate the perfection of the company’s “MLD,” or Multi-Layer Display technology. The innovation, which involves two LCD video screens layered to create a realistic 3D effect, was initially used to simulate the look of mechanical reels in a video format. However, it has blossomed into a technology that produces perhaps the most authentic three-dimensional effect in video slots anywhere.

IGT’s engineers and designers have used the effect to create a whole new class of 3D video slot.

“Sky Pilot” is one of the games making the best use of the 3D capabilities of the MLD technology. Based on the math of the successful game “Whale Song,” the Sky Pilot game includes a double progressive jackpot, stacked wilds and a free-game bonus. But the most compelling aspect of the game is the 3D animation made possible by the MLD format, with animation seeming to pop out of the reel stops in winning combinations.

“Voodoo Vixen” is another game based on the Whale Song math, with the 3D graphics used to perfection to convey the voodoo theme. “Red Hot 7s ReSpin,” in the “Super Times Pay” series of multiplying-wild-symbol games, uses the MLD technology to move symbols from the screen toward the player. “Boingo Beans” re-creates the popular internet game with animated bean characters seeming to jump around on the screen.

Finally, the “Reel Edge” skill-based video slot series continues this year with “Atari Centipede,” a skill-based slot that replicates one of the most popular shoot-em-up arcade games of the 1980s. The bonus round is a game of Centipede, with the player using a joystick mounted on the button panel—introduced last year with the vampire-themed “BloodLife”—to shoot lasers at the centipede as it squirms through the familiar field of mushrooms on the game screen.

Premium Play

The MLD technology also is one of the many technology options contributing to the continued strength of games in IGT’s Premium category, including a new batch of games from “Studio One,” the design team headed by Joe Kaminkow, VP of game development and one of the main architects of IGT’s surge in branded video and other high-profile games a decade ago.

The “Center Stage” series, introduced in 2009 with “Wheel of Fortune Experience” and “American Idol,” includes games designed for a community-play experience, with bonuses played out on a 103-inch LCD monitor, with players seated in “immersive” chairs in front of five player stations.

“The 103,” as designers call it, is flanked by two 40-inch LCD monitors to complete the display and place the player “inside the game.” However, since the full display required an entire wall of space in a casino, IGT also offered 70-inch versions of the original Center Stage games.

The Center Stage game introduced at G2E 2010, “The Dark Knight,” arrived in casinos this summer. At this year’s trade show, it is “Texas Tea Center Stage,” another revival of one of IGT’s most popular video slots, introduced more than a decade ago and still popular in casinos.

The Center Stage version of Texas Tea has four separate bonus events based on the hugely popular video slot themed on Texas oil wells and oil millionaires, including the original second-screen bonus of finding oil wells that pay off and the new “Houston, We Have A Bonus” feature, in which rockets launch on the big screen and players in the bank race each other in space.

But perhaps the bigger news for the Center Stage series is the game IGT is launching on the new “Center Stage Duo” series—two machines in front of a 70-inch LCD monitor. It is an interactive video-slot version of the legendary arcade game “Big Buck Hunter.”

In fact, the bonus in “Big Buck Hunter Pro” is pretty much a replication of Big Buck Hunter. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are two plastic rifles holstered at this game. When the bonus is triggered, the big video screen goes into a high-definition, animated 3D video sequence that inevitably leads to the appearance of a trophy elk, white-tail deer or big-horn sheep. You know what you have to do.

Players aim the rifles to bag as much game as they can, and consequently, the highest bonus. The perceived skill is there—it seems to the player as if he or she is bagging the game through shooting skill, bringing the arcade shooting experience to the slot floor. “It’s more fun than anyone’s ever had on the slot floor,” says Kaminkow.

The other new Center Stage Duo game is a new entry in the series based on the Ghostbuster films. “Ghostbusters: Who Ya Gonna Call” includes community bonus events tailored to reflect familiar sequences from the original 1984 comedy.

But the community games are only the beginning of IGT’s Premium offerings this year. Stand-alone games from Studio One play to every taste and demographic, and apply powerful new technology to classic slot themes.

Take “Elvis The King,” a super-charged new version of IGT’s Elvis Presley-themed series. It is the most bonus-packed of all the Elvis slots, with six bonus options that can appear during a base game that includes stacked wilds and other innovations. Five random bonuses, “The Song,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog” and “Viva Las Vegas,” are accompanied by the “Jukebox Bonus,” which involves picking an Elvis record for a song-related bonus event.

Elvis history scrolls across the screen while the player decides on the song bonus. “This is probably the best Elvis game IGT has done yet,” says Mikulich.

Other stand-alone video highlights include a new 3D version of “The Twilight Zone,” with Rod Serling hosting a selection of classic Twilight Zone episodes presented as bonus events; and “The Joker’s Heist,” a new slot based on 2009’s The Dark Knight, only this one with theme and bonus events presented from the perspective of the Joker, as portrayed in the film by Heath Ledger. (IGT has even gotten a spot-on Ledger impersonator to do the voice-over.)

An interactive “Big Wheel Bonus” has the Joker awarding one of several bonuses. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek game,” says Kaminkow. “There are lots of jokes, mostly from the perspective of the Joker making fun of Batman.”

While mining the mass market with the Joker, IGT’s developers are once again going after the female demographic so masterfully captured last year with “Sex And The City” with a sequel in that series, accompanied by a slot aimed at women of another generation, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

“Sex And The City: Fabulous” is the first game in IGT’s MultiPLAY series—there are four reel-sets, played simultaneously—to also use the “Tumbling Reels” play mechanic, in which symbols in winning combinations disappear to allow new symbols to drop into place on the game screen. (This keeps occurring until no more winning combinations appear.)

The sequel game itself includes everything that has made other games in this series among IGT’s biggest hits of recent years. There are bonus events themed after each of the HBO series’ main characters, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. Chris Noth is back as Mr. Big to host the bonus rounds, which include an “Art Collection Bonus,” a “Bag Pick” bonus and of course, a “Shoe Bonus.”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s mines the legendary film starring Audrey Hepburn as café society girl Holly Golightly. There are two base games—“Holly” and “Paul,” the other main character in the story, played in the film by George Pappard. Five bonus games re-create scenes from the movie. Players search for Holly’s lost cat in the “Alley Cat Bonus;” the “Five and Dime Bonus” includes clips of Holly and Paul shopping at the five-and-dime.

It’s all wrapped up in a MegaJackpots game complete with the “MegaFX Surround Chair,” a device also used in another Premium G2E launch, the MultiPLAY game “Pinball.” This game includes a “gesture-controlled plunger” for the bonus game, which replicates a pinball game on the top screen.

Systems Go

The resurgence of IGT’s game prowess, of course, is accompanied by a pioneering role in server-based gaming technology. The company’s sbX networked system will be on full display at G2E.

According to Richard Yim, vice president of systems products for IGT, the manufacturer’s systems division has been working on refining its casino management system—including control, monitoring and player rewards in both the slot and table areas—but a concentrated effort has been made in perfecting the capabilities of sbX.

One aspect is the sbX Floor Manager, which allows access to the entire IGT library to change content in games according to the preferences of players in the casino. “Think about a floor manager being able to have live access to more than 300 games, to be downloaded to any EGM in two minutes,” Yim says. “Imagine a NASCAR weekend, when you know you will have a certain profile of customers in the casino—you’ll be able to make sure you have the right mix of games on the floor.”

In addition to the scheduling and floor management functions, IGT’s systems team has created a number of applications that can be channeled to any or all slots on a networked floor. “We’re really talking about delivering live, rich content that connects to every EGM,” Yim says, “bi-directional content to enrich every player’s experience.”

One of the floor-wide applications being developed is “Team Challenge,” a random bonus that separates players into teams and allows them to use the touch-screen for a video game that builds points for the team. Another is “Auction Action,” which allows the operator to “auction” discounts and freebies to fill show seats, offer a spa session, or auction off rooms at low prices during a slow period. “Gamblers love this,” says Yim. “It’s like a side bet.” Another networked game has players assembling parts of a monument or landmark in “Build the Wonder.”

The system also allows operators to customize bonus games for any player or group of players.

Earlier this year, IGT released its “Universal Game Adapter,” an add-on to legacy games that creates the picture-in-picture capability on a video screen to enable any of the networked games.

Other applications are being added to the system every day. In the near future, social networking applications will be part of the network, says Yim—for example, a “Friend Finder” that can allow a player to find a friend anywhere on the floor and text him on a pop-up keyboard.

It’s one of many new media IGT will be exploring at its G2E booth, which also will include the fruits of the manufacturer’s recent moves into online and mobile gaming applications.

In all, it’s a G2E display that could portend a return to the dominance IGT has enjoyed for much of the past two decades.

“The portfolio we are offering will allow operators to find solutions to enhance the player experience, drive performance on the floor and deliver entertaining content on any device, anywhere,” says Rodriguez.

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.  

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