It’s no news that WMS Industries—along with its slot-making subsidiary WMS Gaming—is in the process of being acquired by lottery giant Scientific Games. The combination of two companies that have always been leaders in their fields is expected to create a new powerhouse in a gaming industry where the lines between formerly diverse sectors like lottery and casinos continue to blur.
Some in the industry had opined that WMS was on the decline after a heady couple of decades of success. But the leaders of Scientific Games knew better—particularly in light of the some of the innovations the slot-maker’s game developers have wrought over the past couple of years.
One of the most successful has been “Gamefield xD,” one of the most creative slot formats of the past decade. The format places one 32-inch portrait monitor in front of the player horizontally—not unlike a pinball machine—with another 32-inch screen forming the vertical top box, to create a giant, interactive “game field” on which animation can extend seamlessly between top and bottom screens.
It’s a format that was used to great effect last year with two new blockbuster versions of the company’s franchise “Wizard of Oz” brand, and another new game in the slot-maker’s other longtime franchise brand, “Monopoly.”
“The cabinet style has resonated with players of all varieties,” says Allon Englman, WMS Gaming vice president and design chief. “The two ‘Wizard’ games have been among the most successful games that have hit the floors this year, from any manufacturer. It is a completely different form factor for players that allows a whole new game experience, thanks to having the 32-inch screen at that angle.”
As the process of its merger with Scientific Games continues—the deal should close by the end of the year—it is clear that for 2013, WMS is on a creative roll. Part of that can be traced to the next generation of its operating system. Known as CPU-NXT3, the latest edition of the slot-maker’s OS provides a horsepower that is fueling yet more new game innovations that set WMS apart from the competition.
That horsepower comes with a new cabinet, the “Blade,” which will be the company’s new standard for core video and mechanical reel games—a successor to two generations of “Bluebird,” the ergonomically friendly cabinet that has won WMS accolades in markets around the world.
“Bluebird 1 was released in 2003; Bluebird 2 in 2008—so we were due for an upgrade to our look,” says Englman. “We took a very different approach than we normally would take, and it is doing fantastically well.”
Blade incorporates two seamless 23-inch monitors, angled in such a way that the player can view the top monitor easily, with no neck strain. It incorporates what the company calls “emotive lighting,” with a “Halo” concept that “combines direct and indirect illumination.” That quote is from marketing materials, but when playing a game on the cabinet, the lighting effect creates a unique vibe, and certainly a different feel than the Bluebird. Premium digital sound and a programmable button panel complete the effect.
“We started rolling out this cabinet in March, and have 3,000-plus in the field already,” Englman says. “All of our major customers have bought them, and all are performing very well. We launched six games in the cabinet at the outset, and all six games are performing at a significant premium to house average, which is very unusual.”
“This year’s G2E is all about leveraging the breakthrough platforms we’ve just begun shipping with Blade and Gamefield xD,” says Larry Pacey, executive vice president of global products and chief innovation officer for WMS. “With the wonderful success of Gamefield, we have really doubled down on the breadth of games, taking advantage of this first-of-its-kind form factor for the casino industry.”
“Our slogan for the show is ‘A Whole New Game,’” says Englman. “With the new cabinet, new technology and new brands, we’re firing on all cylinders.”
The new technology inherent in CPU-NXT3 and Blade has resulted in a lot of new game features—some obvious improvements like faster processing speed and better graphics, but also more subtle features designed to make the game experience more pleasant for the player.
It is all the result of a careful, empirical approach to how the new power of CPU-NXT3 was to be maximized. To achieve this, WMS went to the source, bringing players in for focus sessions to ascertain what was important to them in a slot game.
“We did a lot of research—more than we’ve ever done before,” Englman says. “We really talked to our players about what they wanted. Normally on a game, you do one prototype test (with players). On this format, we did three. We focused more on player feedback than ever before; we’re more focused on the core player than ever. As a result, we changed a lot and came up with some really great game-play elements.”
The fruits of this research can be found in some groundbreaking new features in CPU-NXT3 games which address some of the most common drawbacks players have expressed about the modern slot machine. For instance, games now feature a “Bonus Guarantee,” to relieve players of that all-too-familiar experience of reaching a bonus only to get a pay that’s less than the original bet.
“What we found talking to players was that people were getting really annoyed with getting bonuses and not winning anything,” Englman explains. “So, we put this Bonus Guarantee in all of our new games: If you win less than 10 times your bet in the bonus, we’ll make you whole to 10 times your bet. The minimum you’re going to win on a bonus is 10 times your bet. It’s very simple, but no one has done it before.”
Another new idea to come from player research is “Wager Saver,” which addresses the effect of minimum bets when the player is done playing. “With forced minimum bets, you may end up cashing out a ticket for 28 cents or 30 cents,” says Englman. “Players told us they are sick of these tickets. The operators are sick of these tickets. Say you’ve got 32 cents left on the meter. Wager Saver will give you an opportunity to wager that 32 cents for one spin at whatever level you last wagered.”
When the amount left on the meter is less than the minimum bet, the player gets the option of betting it on one spin of a video wheel with a 64 percent chance of winning a free spin at the minimum wager. “The good news is fewer tickets for the operator, and shorter lines at ticket redemption machines,” Englman says. “It’s a seamless way to fix a problem.”
Other player-based improvements include a customization feature in the next suite of Blade products that allows the player to dispense with all the bells and whistles like anticipation spins and free-spin music.
“These are little tidbits that players have suggested, which we are incorporating quietly into our product,” says Englman. “At the end of the day, they pay all of our salaries, so they’re the most important people in the equation.”
While players are sure to like seeing the small changes that make all WMS games more enjoyable, the full measure of the new technology is, as always, in the games themselves. WMS arrives at G2E riding on the momentum created by that new technology with innovative entries in all categories.
Nowhere does this apply more than in the Gamefield xD format, which will host three new premium games to be launched at G2E.
Each uses the format to get the most out of a new licensed brand. In “Iron Man,” based on the series of films starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Marvel Comics hero, footage from the movies is worked intricately into the mechanics of the game. Downey’s Iron Man character appears to manipulate various aspects of the base game.
The character (an engineer named Tony Stark who creates a powered suit of armor after kidnappers try to force him to create a weapon) appears in his laboratory to throw wild symbols onto the reels, or to expand the reels until they are 12 spaces high—a feat made possible by the tall game screen. Other raw footage from the films is cleverly manipulated into various bonus features of the game.
In “Clue,” the second WMS game to be based on the famous whodunnit board game, the player is again rewarded in bonus events for solving a mystery by guessing which character used which weapon for a murder in which room of a mansion, but each room of that mansion also appears as a separate reel set on the top Gamefield xD screen.
When a symbol representing one of the four mansion rooms lands on the main game screen, the corresponding reel set on the top box spins with from two to 15 wild symbols guaranteed. In the free game round, all five of the reel sets spin.
“Beetlejuice” uses the Gamefield xD format to bring to life all of the most memorable moments from the quirky 1988 Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, a whimsical look at what happens after death.
In a play on the film’s main character, a poltergeist who comes to life when you say his name three times, a picking bonus yields credit amounts until you pick his name three times, triggering the scene from the film in which Beetlejuice rises from his coffin in a grand gesture, only this time to award a prize. It’s a sequence that could only be done with the Gamefield xD format.
Other bonuses include a free-spin round based on the famous scene in which the mischievous spirit causes the snobby family to go into a dance to Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.” (“DAY-o!”)
The base game is unique in itself, with six reels that are 10 symbols high. “Beetlejuice was such a unique movie that we wanted to do a unique game,” says Englman.
The new Gamefield xD slots are part of a collection of high-profile brands that use the CPU-NXT3 technology to its fullest.
One of the best is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” based on the 1986 Matthew Broderick film that is consistently mentioned as one of the fan favorites of the decade. The main bonus is a picking bonus that depicts the “race” at the end of the movie as Ferris Bueller tries to make it home before his sister Jeanie (played by Jennifer Grey) or his hapless high school principal, Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), so no one will find out about the sick day he faked for a day of fun.
As with other games using the new operating system, scenes from the film merge seamlessly with the game features, and the comedy of the film—it was voted one of the 100 funniest movies of all time in one survey—comes through in a hilarious game. Helping things out is a collection of fresh voice-overs from Edie McClurg, who played high school secretary Grace. (“They all adore Ferris. They think he’s a righteous dude.”)
Other premium brands at the show will include new-and-improved versions of “The Price Is Right,” featuring host Drew Carey in a new batch of freshly recorded video and audio; “Yahtzee,” a new take on the classic board game; and “Wizard of Oz Ruby Slippers 2,” a new game in the Sensory Immersion 2.0 format that uses the WMS motion chair to take the player once again into the classic film in a virtual-reality experience.
The latter game is a sequel to one of the most popular games in the Wizard of Oz series. “Ruby Slippers was one of the most successful games we’ve ever done,” says Englman, “and that was a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, which was the most successful game we’ve ever done. We’ve kept the game mechanics that really resonate very well with players, and added new elements.”
Also featured will be premium games that have just been introduced to the market to rave reviews, including “Spider-Man”—featuring one of the most effective uses of the motion chair yet, duplicating the sensation of the hero leaping from building to building—and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” the final game in the trilogy based on the Peter Jackson films depicting JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy of fantasy novels.
The new Blade cabinet gives a fresh look to all of WMS’ new core video slots. The reel symbols have a decidedly different look than previous WMS video slots—the reels are larger, expanding to the entire screen; the reel sets use royal symbols now; some reel sets expand to eight symbols per reel.
The new cabinet combines with the new CPU to offer a backdrop for many entertaining bonus events. One standout is “I Love Lucy,” which weaves clips of many of the legendary sitcom’s funniest bits into an extensive picking bonus.
Among the new features in some of the other core video games is “Reel Intensity,” a feature in which the range of multipliers for free-spin rounds goes up as the bet is increased. In the new game “Hot Molten Money,” for instance, multipliers for free-spin rounds are determined by a wheel spin—there is a different wheel for each bet level, which offers an incentive for higher wagers.
Also in the core video category is “Goldfish 3,” a new version of the video slot that has been one of the top internal brands for WMS over the years. The new Goldfish uses a reel set with three symbols on the second and fourth reels and four symbols on each of the other three reels. “We’ve kept the features of the original Goldfish in a game that offers good value for the money,” says Englman. “This version has a beautiful top box, a beautiful marquee and all of the game-play elements that people really like about Goldfish.”
There is also a three-reel mechanical version of the Blade cabinet, housing several new games that will be on display at G2E. In the Blade 3RM cabinet are games including “Reel ‘Em In,” a new take on the WMS classic; and “Willy Wonka 3RM,” which places what has thus far been one of the company’s biggest hits in a three-reel mechanical format.
Finally, the WMS booth at G2E will have a section devoted to Williams Interactive, the new subsidiary dedicated to spreading WMS content to online and mobile channels. “The key focus for Williams Interactive at G2E (and EiG) will be displaying the breadth of unique, differentiated game engines we’re bringing to online casinos integrating with our Remote Game Server in the next six months,” says Rory Shanahan, head of marketing for Williams Interactive.
Among the games Williams Interactive is taking to online channels—following up successful online launches of “KISS: Shout it Out Loud!” and “Spartacus Gladiators of Rome”—will be titles on display at the show including “Li’l Red,” “Giant’s Gold” and “Bruce Lee Dragon’s Tale,” powered by the new “Super Multi-Pay” game engine.
“We’re also bringing the land-based casino proven performer ‘Double Money Burst’ game engine to the wagered online gaming space with an all-new AAA brand we’re debuting for the first time at the trade show,” says Shanahan, “and we’re introducing the land-based player-favorite ‘Bier Haus’ to our game server content library.”
G2E, along with the EiG show, is one of the official launch events for the company’s new mobile platform for online games, “empowering online casino customers integrated with our Remote Game Server to offer our unrivaled casino content to their players in the extremely important tablet and mobile device channels,” according to Shanahan
Online or on land, the focus of WMS this year has been to capitalize on the momentum begun last year. “We’re taking the technology product we released last year and making killer games,” says Englman. “That’s been my focus—to listen to the players, and to listen to our customers.”