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To License or Not?

Strong proprietary slot brands have transformed the market since the license-happy 2000s

To License or Not?

The Beverly Hillbillies. M*A*S*H. Gilligan’s Island. Betty Boop.

There was a period between the end of the 1990s and the mid 2000s when core video slots from all the manufacturers were heavy on licensed brands from popular entertainment. At one point, the competition for the next blockbuster licensed game was like an arms race.

That’s all changed in the ensuing years. Most of those early brands faded from the public consciousness as their fans aged and entertainment itself evolved. Each of the manufacturers has a handful of licenses that have stood the test of time, and are still yielding high-earning sequels year after year, but the licensed-brand race ended long ago.

What’s emerged in its place is a range of iconic proprietary brands from each slot-maker—game franchises that have held up unapologetically to the highest-profile of the licensed game families.

Among the largest slot manufacturers, there are four whose product libraries contain significant numbers of licensed slot brands as well as a thriving collection of internal brands.

For Aristocrat, it’s Buffalo versus Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. For IGT, it’s Wheel of Fortune versus Cleopatra or Wolf Run. For Light & Wonder, it’s Monopoly and Willy Wonka versus Blazing 7s and Hot Shot. For Everi, it’s The Mask and Smokin’ Hot Stuff versus Mega Meltdown and Cash Machine.

“I think trends in the market around art packages and brands are like a pendulum; they swing back and forth between licensed and proprietary,” comments Jon Hanlin, senior vice president, commercial strategy, Americas and EMEA for Aristocrat Gaming. “And we definitely, over the last couple years, have been much heavier on proprietary, as those games have evolved and we’ve been able to add more of the glitz and glamor that you used to add into those licensed games, and put them into a product like a Buffalo game.

“I also think that overall, the volatility of math in slot machines has gotten a little higher over the last few years, definitely since the pandemic, but even before that, things like Lightning Link, Dragon Link and Buffalo helped usher that in. Traditionally, those licensed products did not pair with that volatile math. So as the market moved more volatile, the licensed games became less impactful because people associated licenses with that less volatile math.”

“It has been a journey in the sense that licensed brands have evolved as well as proprietary brands,” says Domenico Pastia, senior vice president, global product for IGT. “At IGT, we have been extremely focused on our flagship brands, namely Wheel of Fortune and a few others where we have devoted a lot of investment focus and energy through hardware and content.

“And on the other end, we have increasingly focused on proprietary brands, where we probably have the deepest library of strong brands in the industry. In the past, we were not leveraging them enough.”

Pastia says IGT has been focusing on the best of those brands, Cleopatra and Wolf Run, with new releases. “That all happened in the last 18 months, with the idea that the players know them and appreciate the mechanic,” he says. “And the trick here is evolving them while respecting the original DNA of the game. I think that is our challenge today, but we are starting from a great baseline by having so many great IGT brands we can work with.”

“I’ve seen (licensed brands) reduce over time, but we still see them a critical part of the portfolio,” comments Nathan Drane, senior vice president, global product management, for Light & Wonder. “When we look at licenses, we really want those staples, those beachheads—those player favorites that are critical to our portfolio. But we’ve seen a decrease in the usage of licenses in land-based gaming over time.”

Everi has made its name with its proprietary content, but more recently, high-profile licenses have rounded out its product library.

“Historically, Everi has not invested heavily in third-party licensed brands,” says Caitlin Harte, senior director of product management, “but we have found tremendous value in utilizing certain licenses that have now become our flagship brands like Smokin’ Hot Stuff and Press Your Luck across our premium and for-sale products.

“These are brands we initially pursued as they appeal to a wide audience and lend themselves to a highly entertaining experience. The industry has trended towards leveraging internal IP to create premium gaming experiences, as has Everi—as we’ve now created a fan base for brands like The Vault and Cash Machine.”

Discerning Brands

Indeed, the majority of slot manufacturers live on these internal brands. Aristocrat had six Buffalo titles in its G2E booth last month. Light & Wonder displayed new games in the 88 Fortunes, Quick Hit, Dancing Drums and Gold Fish families, as well as a revival of Reel ‘Em In, the legendary video slot from legacy WMS. Everi featured additions to its Mega Meltdown series, a new version of The Vault, and a new entry in the unique Cash Machine family. IGT had new versions of practically all its internal themes.

In all these cases, the familiar brands are infused with the currently trending game mechanics, from hold-and-re-spin to pot collection features. Some are used to usher in new hardware with content that is already familiar to players.

“We recently identified a few key brands for different product verticals that will become the core pillars of development strategy,” says IGT’s Pastia. “We have key brands, like Cleopatra, Double Diamond and Fort Knox, that are supported with detailed roadmaps—we know exactly in which quarter we want to release the content and the product line pairing, and overlay the hardware offerings to ensure players of all types experience them.

“We are trying to engage multiple studios in evolving the brands, which means that we’re trying to have a common baseline of knowledge of the brand, but then we let the studio interpret them based on the market trends.”

“I think every manufacturer knows it’s about game design, talent and math, but it’s also about brand management,” says Aristocrat’s Hanlin. “We all have these brands that we need to cultivate, because players know them, they trust them. They see our Buffalo brand, and they love to play that game. You know our competition has the same thing. It’s similar to what you see in the entertainment industry on cultivating a brand.”

“Extending an internal brand presents a unique challenge,” says Everi’s Harte. “We want to keep the parts of the original game that players liked, while also changing it enough to make it feel like a new experience.

“As we build out our roadmap, it’s easier to plan for a brand extension, as the expectations from a game development side are clearer and there is a bit more creative freedom, whereas there can be certain restrictions when working with an external license.”

“The rise of proprietary has been largely player-led,” comments L&W’s Drane. “We’ve seen these brands evolve. We’ve seen players want to experience them on different hardware and with different mechanics, and we’ve been honing and investing behind that kind of player-led brand strategy.”

Discerning Licenses

While most executives of these companies agree that we may never again match the glory days of entertainment themes of the early 2000s, there is definite evidence that licensed themes are on the rise, with several slot-makers revealing premium slots based on freshly minted licenses.

Whitney Houston slotAristocrat unveiled the first six games based on a license with the National Football League that was signed two years ago. IGT unveiled Whitney Houston, featuring footage of the late superstar’s performances on a new large-format cabinet designed specifically for the new premium title.

Light & Wonder debuted Squid Game, based on the popular Netflix series. Everi launched a two-game set based on The Mask, the Jim Carrey comedy. Even smaller manufacturers are getting in on the act, such as Gaming Arts’ first licensed theme, Deal Or No Deal.

Meanwhile, the big slot-makers are milking their most popular licenses with the latest new entries into game families that have thrived for decades. Most notable is what is arguably the original licensed slot brand, IGT’s Wheel of Fortune. The manufacturer and Sony Pictures Television recently signed a 10-year extension on the exclusive slot rights, ensuring the 26-year-old theme will still be alive in 2034.

New games in the franchise this year are headed by Wheel of Fortune Diamonds Deluxe, which brings the famous wheel bonus into the modern era with a persistence pot bonus and chances for wheel upgrades.

Jennifer Fales, vice president of global licensing and social casino for IGT, says the company devotes ample resources to its top brand. “Given that Wheel of Fortune is such a franchise brand, we have dedicated hardware lines,” Fales says. “The hardware you see for Wheel of Fortune, you don’t see for anything else, primarily because of the wheel. So, for us, in the premium space, there is a lot of effort that goes into developments that are Wheel of Fortune only.”

“Wheel of Fortune brings diversity and brings new ideas to the table,” adds Pastia. “That is extremely important in this market environment. So, we are able to evolve the brand because we are able to extend the brand across different player segments.

“And our jobs in the product and licensing organizations are to make sure that the studio is aware of what needs to be part of the brand identity. But on the other end, we need to give them freedom to evolve and interpret the brand based on the most recent trends.”

While IGT continues to add to its licensed portfolio with game families that include Sex and the City, The Price is Right and the new Whitney Houston series, Light & Wonder maintains one of the most successful and longstanding licensed game collections in the business. The most prominent are three games originally released by legacy company WMS Gaming—Monopoly, The Wizard of Oz, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Light & Wonder, which released its latest Wizard of Oz game last year, displayed new entries in the Willy Wonka and Monopoly series at G2E. The new Monopoly game actually merges with the most legendary internal title from legacy Bally in the stepper game Monopoly Triple Blazing 7s. “We still have key licenses in our portfolio because players still enjoy Monopoly,” says Drane. “They still enjoy Willy Wonka and Wizard of Oz. So, those are still critical to us.”

Aristocrat’s most popular licensed games, in addition to Tarzan, have been the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead franchises, as well as Crazy Rich Asians. “What we’re learning now is that you’ve got to have great game math behind it,” says Hanlin, “and that accentuates the brand.

“A good example is Crazy Rich Asians. That game came out well after the movie left the theater, so you wouldn’t say it was at its peak of popularity or social awareness. But because it was a good game, and it mixed the brand, fun movie clips, and the great locations that movie was filmed in, paired with a great game by Joe Kaminkow and Dave Marks, you’re able to have the best of two things meld together. That’s when a licensed game takes off. If you just slap a brand on top of a generic math model and there’s no connection, you’re highly likely to fail.”

Resurgence?

Each manufacturer will continue to evolve the core internal brands that have become legendary in the industry, and, while nothing is likely to develop anywhere near the halcyon theme days of the early 2000s, there is definitely potential for new licensed themes, as evidenced at G2E last month.

“We’re always on the hunt for good licenses,” says IGT’s Fales. “It’s evolved; where formerly, once or twice a year we would do big evaluations and make decisions, now we’re taking an approach where we’re constantly looking and evaluating and understanding what our current partners have, what’s new and interesting in the industry, what’s been successful.

“There will always be a place for licensed brands. There will always need to be new licenses being introduced into the market.”

“Will we see the days of Hee-Haw and M*A*S*H?” says Aristocrat’s Hanlin. “Probably not. The entertainment market is fragmented. Before, there was a monoculture where 30 million people watch the finale of M*A*S*H. They made a slot machine out of that.

“That doesn’t happen anymore. You don’t see don’t see these monoculture or big brands. That’s why the NFL is so dynamic for us. But I do believe there are passionate fan bases around IP in the market, and I think there are opportunities for us to think outside the box.

“Do I think things like the NFL could usher in an era of increased licenses? Yes. I absolutely do believe that.”

Proprietary Fuel

While some manufacturers maintain a balance between licensed and internal slot brands, others thrive on the proprietary game family.

Some manufacturers rely chiefly on internal brands, many cultivated with brand refreshes multiple times. We asked several manufacturers the philosophy behind an emphasis on internal brands as opposed to licensed game families. Here are their responses:

Gerard CrosbyGerard Crosby Senior Vice President & Chief Games Product Officer, Konami Gaming, Inc. 

“Konami has some participation in licensed brands; however, we’re very selective in the license opportunities we pursue. Our focus is on entertainment value for the player and long-term operational value for casinos, and Konami has historically been most successful in achieving those objectives through its iconic original brands, such as China Shores, All Aboard and Dragon’s Law, to name a few. Konami’s internal brands have strong, global resonance and proven success in the market, and we want to transfer that value onto our customers, while also giving players the game experiences they love and recognize. Certainly, we will continue to consider licensed brand opportunities. But more often, we’re investing in new development around popular Konami brands—which already have proven success and a fan following across primary slot player demographics.”

Mike Brennan Mike Brennan Chief Product Officer, Bluberi

“Internal brands and carefully shepherding intellectual properly are essential to Bluberi’s content strategy, our portfolio risk matrix, and our mantra of ‘creativity within confines.’ We truly believe the value we can bring our customers, and essentially the value of our company, is highly dependent on our ability to not only sequelize and evolve our existing brands, but to create compelling new internal IP. One of our strengths at Bluberi is creating engaging characters, and the market has shown that players will gravitate towards well-executed slot characters. Add in the convergence of mechanics in our industry, and it becomes even more critical to stand out in a crowd with an engaging art theme, especially when there’s familiarity with that theme, by using internal game families.”

Jean VennemanJean Venneman Chief Operating Officer, Gaming Arts

“Branded games have been seen on the slot floors for more than 25 years. However, branded games have primarily fallen into the ‘premium/not for sale’ category, which tends to be given by the operator a small percentage of the floor. So for Gaming Arts, having just celebrated four years since our first machine was installed on a casino floor, it doesn’t make sense to for us to invest in often expensive brands, for a small percentage of the slot floor. We have recently tested the waters with two branded games. We are in a stage in our evolution where we want to appeal to the main floor as a core game. The other challenge related to brands is the longevity they might have versus the development effort needed. To create a dynamic experience that would be expected from the players using the brand’s visual and audio cues requires a larger development lift than a more traditional video slot-type game with a non-branded theme.”

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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