If the slot sector has proven anything over the years, it’s that an amusement pedigree is a valuable asset in the casino slot-manufacturing business. So it is with Aruze Gaming America.
The company, taken private in 2009 by owner Kazuo Okada, began life as Universal Entertainment, a company that made its name in the Japanese pachinko/pachislot business. In the 1980s, Universal became the first real challenger to the former Bally Manufacturing for market share in the casino slot business.
By the time the Tokyo-based company was reborn as Aruze Gaming America in 2007—establishing a central sales and marketing headquarters in Las Vegas—the company had established its own signature style in a rapidly changing slot market.
That style is not unlike the pachinko and pachislot machines which Okada developed for decades. Look at a bank of Aruze machines, and you see action before a reel is turned. Dancing lights, back-lit reels moving at varying speeds, shiny, elegant and elaborate top boxes—the games are a show in themselves.
“It goes back to our chairman’s philosophy of being innovative and entertaining,” says Kelcey Allison, chief operating officer of Aruze Gaming America. “That’s his strongest philosophy—that we are an entertainment company. That brings together a lot of different elements: It means entertaining visually and physically, appealing to all of the senses.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a chief executive of any slot manufacturer that pays more attention than Okada has to make sure every product meets his established company standards. “Historically, Mr. Okada has been very involved with our game development,” Allison says. “He made sure the colors were perfect. Every game passed through Mr. Okada as a final pass. He likes a lot of bells and whistles, and likes a lot of excitement in the casino. We don’t want it dull and boring.”
It’s no accident that these attributes are the same factors that drive the Japanese pachinko/pachislot business Okada’s companies have dominated. “In the pachinko/pachislot business, machine utilization is about 99 percent, almost 100 percent of the floor, for 24 hours a day,” says Allison. “When someone gets off a seat, the next person gets on. These machines are much more visually stunning than games in the Class III and Class II markets in the U.S.”
Maybe that’s why Aruze has never been a company to rely on big pop-culture brands. Other than a single 2009 game carrying a theme based on the rock group Queen, Aruze has never launched a game with a licensed brand. As other companies have spent fortunes the past five years securing the rights to everything from major motion pictures to TV game shows, Aruze has not spent a penny on licensing.
“Licensed brands are very expensive, and somebody’s got to pay for that,” says Allison. “Ultimately, a licensed theme is intended to build player loyalty. Aruze’s approach is to build player loyalty by creating our own brands.”
Aruze has indeed created its own stable of popular brands—Aruze brands. And, for the past several years, many of those brands have become cemented in the minds of slot players around the world.
No Aruze game group has struck a stronger chord with players than the Ultra Stack series, a franchise consisting of video games with a sole, simple central feature—clusters, or “stacks,” of matching symbols, generating multiple wins on a single spin.
Ultra Stack has been huge. “We have had a runaway, No. 1 hit with our Ultra Stack series,” says Allison. “They’re just doing gangbusters everywhere.” At the recent Global Gaming Expo, the company expanded the series with new versions of the Ultra Stack brand, from “Stackin’” to “Mystery Stackin’” to a 100-line version. “Ultra Stack is the tree trunk of that video series, and we have a whole group of branches that come off that trunk,” Allison says.
“The concept behind the Ultra Stack games is a pretty simple math model,” explains Rich Martinez, senior product specialist for Aruze. “If someone who never gambled before were to step into a casino, they could sit down and play and understand where their wins are coming from—the more opportunities to fill the screen with the same symbol, the more opportunities the player has for wins. Ultra Stack is simple; people understand it, from beginners to experienced players.”
The Ultra Stack series, though, is only one in a collection of product lines that have distinguished Aruze over the past five years. Never a me-too slot manufacturer, Aruze has injected something unique into each of its product areas. Allison says one reason is that its game development team is based in Japan—with a 150-strong team in Tokyo (there is another team in the Philippines).
“We have a unique advantage in that our game development is not in the United States, so we don’t copy competitors’ games,” says Allison. “We try to be very innovative and out of the box.”
While its studios are in one region, the company has nonetheless concentrated on producing games that will appeal to each of its markets—particularly North America, where its ship share has soared over the past few years. The reason? Aruze’s product development team travels well.
“On a quarterly basis, our product development team sends developers throughout different markets in North America,” says Allison. “Our team just finished a tour of Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario and Connecticut. They visited all the casinos and actually played the games to gain a player’s point of view. They do a lot of analytics looking at the demographics in that region, which games play well, what the demographic looks like, what they are attracted to, how our games play vs. competitors’ games.”
It’s a strategy that has worked well—resulting not only in features like Ultra Stack, but in slam-dunk successes like the Innovator stepper series, the G-Link community-play series, the G-Station line of e-tables, and the workhorse G-Series line of core video products.
Each of those game groups was strengthened with new entries at G2E.
In the stepper area, the Innovator and Innovator Deluxe reel-spinning groups were augmented with new games. The Innovator series is a prime example of Aruze’s “out-of-the-box” game design strategy. With the largest reels in the industry backed by multi-colored LED lighting and variable reel speeds—not to mention elaborate top-box bonuses in the hybrid Innovator Deluxe series—the Innovator steppers are a new take on the traditional reel-spinner.
Allison says it is a take that has been emulated by other slot-makers. “We like to say we’re forging a path that others have followed,” he says. “I walked around the G2E show and saw a lot of manufacturers coming out with new five-reel, multi-lighted steppers. We know we are having a positive impact on the industry when we see the competition following our lead.
“Our strategy is to keep strengthening that line. It does very well for Aruze. We’re very proud that in the next couple of months, we will strengthen it even further by introducing a three-reel Innovator series.”
Youth Be Served
While the Innovator series is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of reel-spinning fans, Aruze innovations in other product groups are designed to broaden the company’s audience to include the elusive younger player.
One example of a game designed with millennials and Gen-Xers in mind is the new iteration of the company’s “G-Link” series of community-style games.
Four years ago, the company made what was its biggest splash in the market with its mega-hit community game “Paradise Fishing.” That game and its follow-up “Amazon Fishing” launched the G-Link series with an innovative tactile functionality called “Reel Feel.”
In the community bonus, players would “fish” in a massive video “pond” made up of three adjacent giant LCD monitors, using joysticks that reacted with a tug when a fish was caught for the bonus. The award-winning technology still has people flocking to both of those games wherever they are placed.
For the third generation of G-Link, “Player’s Party,” Aruze went after a younger demographic with a multi-tasking community bonus. “Our game development team did an exceptionally good job of incorporating three different kinds of game play in one game,” explains Martinez. “You have the basic kind of video slot play within Player’s Party. You have a four-level progressive with a wheel spin. And then in the random bonuses, you have an electronic table-game feel with a hi-low, a craps bonus and a roulette bonus. It adds an entirely new dimension to the G-Link product line.”
“Paradise Fishing and Amazon Fishing served a very broad demographic,” says Allison. “Most people like to go fishing. You could be 90 years old and love fishing, or you could be 21 years old and love fishing, female or male. One of the things our game developers wanted to specifically target (with Player’s Party) was that younger demographic.”
Allison says the community aspect of Player’s Party was designed for younger players. “When younger players enter a casino, they come in packs—five, six, 12 people,” he says. “This product provides them with a game where they have their own player’s party.”
Martinez adds that the bonus events were expanded to maintain the interest of the younger player. “Paradise Fishing and Amazon Fishing have communal events in the linked game,” he explains. “With Player’s Party, there are communal events in the linked game, but you also have ones where you’re playing with the players sitting next to you—so it’s almost like you’re at a live craps table. When one person wins, everyone wins, and you advance to the next level. It’s a team concept.”
Aruze’s effort to serve the new generation of players also appears in a new hardware format launched at G2E. Called “CUBE-X,” the platform features high-definition 24-inch LCD monitors, an ergonomically friendly cabinet, and one of the fastest processors in the business.
“With CUBE-X, our strategy was to develop a platform that would be comfortable for a player used to the look and feel of a home entertainment device, and they hit the nail on the head,” says Allison. “We used some really innovative technologies. The button panel, the lighting, the sound—all very important to the development team. The strategy was to aesthetically target the younger demographic.”
Of course, the social nature of the younger gambler also makes table games a natural choice, which fits in nicely with Aruze’s expansion of its G-Station line of e-tables. Launching within the next few months will be “Virtual Craps,” which uses a central 3D holographic effect to display dice bouncing around a chamber. The game, which was introduced in prototype at G2E, is designed to provide an authentic craps experience, even in jurisdictions that do not allow traditional physical dice.
“It has 3D imaging with the cityscape of the Strip and Las Vegas,” explains Allison. “The feedback (at G2E) was overwhelming. This will allow us to present our virtual craps product into non-traditional craps markets.”
He adds that Virtual Dice is complementary to the company’s Shoot to Win Craps product, an electro-mechanical game using an automated roll.
Play of both games is similar to live craps, without using traditional hand-held dice, Allison says, noting that the product is even successful where live table games are offered. “It’s been a launching pad for players who are intimidated by live craps,” he says. “This is a kind of training ground where the novice can come in and play Shoot to Win Craps, and then graduate to the live format.”
Finally, targeting the younger demographic could not be successful without an effort to take content online in for-money and social channels, an area Allison says Aruze is approaching with caution.
“We want to be very intelligent about the path we choose for social and online gaming,” he says. “By that, I mean I don’t want to compete with Aruze’s customers. That’s very important. I don’t want to have an online casino that competes with the casinos or customers that I’m selling machines to. I think a lot of companies have gone down that path mistakenly, and have seen that it does affect the relationship. So, we’re very selective with the partners we are talking to so that our online games are complementary to the brick-and-mortar casino games, and not competitive.”
Aruze is still in the process of spreading its presence across North America, with licensing to date in about half the casino markets on the continent. “We’re working day in and day out to bring more jurisdictions on line,” says Allison.
Meanwhile, the company continues to gain market share. “I’ve been with the company since 2009, and the first year, we shipped fewer than 500 units,” Allison recalls. “In 2013, we exceeded 4,000 units, and in 2014, we’ve already exceeded our 2013 target.
“We’re in approximately 50 percent of the North American markets, but we have an 8 percent ship share. That’s a phenomenal number for a private company. We’re very proud of that.”
In this era of M&A in the slot sector, Allison anticipates there will be more consolidation among manufacturers—but quickly adds that Aruze is one company that will continue to make its mark without the help of outsiders.
“If the next five years are anything like the past three, we are optimistic that we will maintain our trajectory of success,” he says. “We’re a very strong company, and we’re basically debt-free.” He adds that the company’s smaller size is an asset that the mega-suppliers lack. “We can turn on a dime,” he says.
“We’re very customer-centric. There are a couple of things that differentiate gaming companies today. One is customer service, and two is performance. Performance really dictates everything, and that’s been our success driver. Our distinctive games perform well for the casinos.”
Allison adds that Aruze has made a big effort over the past year to open its information infrastructure to customers, launching a new website on G2E week, with features that give operators access to wealth of company information.
“Customers can quickly drill down and easily find what they are looking for,” he says. “For example, if a customer needs a service call, we have a 24-hour monitoring service that can be accessed through the website portal. You can also order parts. It’s all very seamless. You can gain access to our game information if you need brochures or other marketing materials.”
It’s a nod to the fact that the company is serving many different time zones. “As a global company, we want to make ourselves available to our customers worldwide at all times—we wanted to be very customer-centric,” he says. “We have a uniquely elastic website. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter actually all feed into one portal, so a customer can just go to Aruzegaming.com and see all social media links.”
Customers can even write on the Aruze blog, “so they can tell the world how awesome our products are!” laughs Allison.
Fact is, more customers these days are making that exact comment.