Merkur Gaming Americas aims to expand its footprint in American markets north and south, and according to Merkur Chief Executive Charles Hiten, the path for the company is not unlike other large European manufacturers that have entered U.S. markets.
Those include the former Atronic, which, like Merkur, was owned by Germany’s Gauselmann Group; and Novomatic, Hiten’s former company.
Hiten was managing director of NovoChile, Novomatic’s Chilean subsidiary, for eight years, when Novomatic was led by the late Jens Halle. Halle left Novomatic to head Merkur Gaming briefly before his death in 2015.
Hiten now holds Halle’s former post at Merkur Gaming America. In targeting the Americas, Hiten has followed a path similar to the one Halle set both at Novomatic and at Merkur.
Like Halle, Hiten opted to set up shop first in Florida. He says the location of the office not only makes it easier for his travel—to Germany, and to customer locations in Latin America, where Merkur enjoys a strong and growing presence—but is in close proximity to South Florida’s casinos.
“For me, what’s most important is my ability, wherever I am, to actually walk into a casino and talk to players,” Hiten says. “I’ve been doing it for the last 20 years. It’s how I stay in touch with the industry, and what’s going on, on the ground.”
Once the Florida headquarters was established, the top priority was to launch a U.S. game design studio. Hiten first planned to locate it in Florida, but he says it was soon obvious that the essential pool of talent and skill set was in Nevada.
In 2016, Hiten chose veteran slot game designer and programmer Mike Halvorson Jr. to establish, staff and head the Las Vegas game design studio, dubbed Sunshine Games.
“Mike has a long game design pedigree,” says Hiten, “but also has a long exposure to technology in all kinds of different ways. He’s assembled a great team, and we’re expanding that team step by step with a focus on skill set. We’ve got great support and commitment from Paul Gauselmann, the owner, to do what is necessary so we build the right product.”
The fact that Merkur is owned by Gauselmann Group allows Hiten to enter the North American market the way he feels is right. “For me, the focus was always to make the product first, and do market entry second,” says Hiten. “The benefit of having one of the largest gaming groups in the world behind us is that we have the luxury of accomplishing (market entry) in what we believe is the right way. The other difference is that we’re private. I’m not driven by quarterly results; I’m driven by a strategy that ends in a long-term objective.”
The first several Merkur games for U.S. markets were expected to be certified by Gaming Laboratories International in December, after a successful showing at October’s Global Gaming Expo. “We had a great reception there, and that’s the next step toward full-blown market entry,” Hiten says. “That entry is based on product first.”
As Merkur products are introduced across the Americas in both Native American and commercial markets in the U.S. and Canada, Hiten says his philosophy will be to continue developing games strictly according to player preferences, with the team at Sunshine Games in Las Vegas working closely with programmers in Germany via a fully integrated, linked system, all working on the same platform and source code.
But the location of the Sunshine Games programmers in this setup is all-important, says Hiten. Instead of near the airport with the other slot manufacturers, Sunshine Games is across the street from Palace Station, a few minutes from the Strip.
“Yes, they’re programming games there, but ultimately, this is about players. Walk across the road. Go to the casino, have lunch there. Watch the players. See what they’re playing. Look at the new product. Let’s understand what this is ultimately about.”
And it’s ultimately about a successful American launch.