Reel ’Em In
Entertaining characters, a great bonus and a new kind of slot game put WMS Gaming in the big time
by Frank Legato
Once in a while in the slot business, all the stars align for one manufacturer in a single game that changes both the manufacturer and the gaming industry itself.
It happened in 1997 at WMS Gaming—then still known as Williams Electronics, the name which had identified the Chicago-based company from its founding by Harry Williams in 1947 through its first glory years as one of the two kings of pinball (the other being Bally, at the time Williams’ neighbor on Chicago’s North Side).
The game was Reel ‘Em In, and it would change the slot business.
Reel ‘Em In represented the Americanization of the multiline video slot—the first video slot with multiple paylines and a bonus event that was without an Australian pedigree. It also represented the first game in the multiline genre that would reach Nevada’s casinos.
But most of all, Reel ‘Em In established the identity of the company that would in 1999 change its name to WMS Gaming, to reflect how far it had come from its pinball days. It would establish WMS as the king of video gaming in the U.S., a development that would send all the other major slot manufacturers scrambling to improve their own video slots, and ultimately would lead to the revolution in video game themes using entertainment, story lines, animation and everything else that would take the genre into the 21st century.
The genesis of Reel ‘Em In was part necessity, part opportunism. The game was the brainchild of brothers Al Thomas and Ben Gomez (Thomas was born Al Thomas Gomez), and software engineer Joel Jaffe, with an assist from salesman John Nicastro, Jr.
All are still with the company—Gomez and Jaffe each head one of WMS’ modern-day game design “studios” under game design VP Larry Pacey, and Thomas is executive director of advanced game R&D.
In the mid 1990s, Williams had just begun to make a name for itself in the slot-manufacturing business. It had built its first slot machine in 1991, and, like all other mid ’90s slot-makers, was playing to the crowd—which is to say, building classic reel-spinners.
Williams had made its name by bringing the flash of its famous pinball games to the creation of reel-spinning slot machines. Williams slots had back-lit reels that shook when a winning combination hit. They had great game concepts—many created by Thomas and Gomez—that added fun bonus extras to the basic reel-spinner. They had unique sound effects and original music coming through stereo speakers.
They also were, by and large, based on a variation of the Telnaus virtual-reel system—the payout system that permits large jackpots by delegating decisions on each outcome to a selection of numbers in a computer program by a random number generator.
IGT had purchased that patent in the mid 1980s, and owned it through 2002. In the mid ’90s, IGT sued Williams for patent infringement in the reel-spinners. IGT succeeded first in gaining and injunction preventing Williams from producing new reel-spinners using their original technology, and ultimately won the lawsuit.
According to Thomas, the thinking in game design at Williams, even after the lawsuit was filed, was innovation in mechanical slots. Officials at Williams wanted to transfer their expertise in amusement games like pinball to the gaming market.
“Everyone was into mechanical slots; video slots were not viewed as being that popular at the time,” Thomas recalls, “but we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we had a lot of people involved in pinball and amusement games. The focus was on mechanical slots.”
Thomas says the IGT lawsuit combined with an external factor in planting the seed to create an entertaining video slot. That external factor was Aristocrat Leisure Industries, the Australian company that had been having success in the Native American markets with a radical new style of video slot. Far different from the unsuccessful single-line video slots that had tanked in U.S. casinos in the late 1980s, these games had multiple paylines and a game-within-a-game, in the form of a second-screen bonus event. And, they were making money for casinos, even in the nickel denomination.
It was Nicastro who brought the attention of Williams officials to the newfangled Aristocrat games. “He said, ‘Hey, a lot of my customers are asking about these nickel video slots—do we have a video offering we can produce?’” recalls Thomas. “We decided to look at some of the video slots out there, and none had the kind of entertainment value we were striving for.”
Since the IGT lawsuit had brought Williams’ reel business to a halt, at least temporarily (Thomas says Williams officials fully expected to win the lawsuit), the need was ripe for a new product. The bonus was that Aristocrat had not, to that point, been able to secure Nevada licensing, which Williams already had. Opportunity was knocking.
The company called a meeting of the minds in game design—Thomas, his brother Ben Gomez, Jaffe and other game designers and artists met with officials from the pinball division, and from the video arcade game company Midway (then a Williams subsidiary) to discuss the possibilities.
One of Thomas’ own early reel-spinning game designs had been a fishing-themed game called “Reel ‘Em In.” It was one of the less successful games designed by Thomas, who was the creator of such runaway reel-spinning hits as “Piggy Bankin’,” “Jackpot Party” and “High Speed.”
“My brother said we should have more interesting characters in the game,” Thomas recalls. “The idea was to have you, as the player, become the character, like you have in a video (arcade) game. He pitched two ideas—the theme idea we had for a video version of Reel ‘Em In, with players fishing for prizes, and another where players would pick frogs to compete in a frog race. Believe it or not, the frog idea was the one people at the meeting were gravitating toward!”
Gomez, who was a senior graphic artist, decided to illustrate his idea with a screen shot of how the bonus event would work—fishermen characters (with one fisher-woman) on a lake, who would catch a fish to win bonus coins. “People were saying it was far too complex,” Thomas recalls. “For some reason, in a world where bars and cherries dominated, they didn’t think people would understand it, and we’d be embarrassed.”
At a follow-up meeting, Gomez called in a sales assistant and asked her to look at his drawing and explain the game. “She looked at the screen and explained it perfectly,” Thomas says. “She said it looks like you catch a fish to get a bonus, and the bigger the fish the bigger the bonus. She thought that you wouldn’t always get the big fish—mostly small fishes, and maybe even a can.
“If there hadn’t been this mockup put in front of somebody who would actually play it, we probably would have put together a very bland video slot. It wouldn’t have resonated with the players the way it did.”
Given the green light, Thomas, Gomez and Jaffe refined their concept. They gave unique identities to the fisher characters (they even had names, which few know). They created an animated bonus sequence, triggered by a reel combination, that would switch the screen to these cartoon characters in a boat on a lake. The player would select a character, who would cast a line in the water while the other characters made wisecracks. They even did the voice-overs for the wisecracks in a comically exaggerated Chicago accent.
Players flocked to the game, and WMS quickly followed it up with more new video slots, including “Filthy Rich,” “Boom!” and other games that placed the Australian style of game play in distinctly American themes, all with entertaining and sometimes lucrative bonus sequences.
For the first few years after the introduction of Reel ‘Em In, Williams, soon to be WMS, had a virtual monopoly on video in Nevada. IGT went back to the drawing board with its own Australian video, and wouldn’t see success for a couple of years. Bally would take even longer, as would other, newer entries to the U.S. slot market like Atronic and eventually Aristocrat, after it got its Nevada license.
None had the impact in the U.S. of Reel ‘Em In, which has seen sequels including a re-release of the original game in WMS Gaming’s new CPU-NXT video format.
“Reel ‘Em In was an alignment of the stars,” says Thomas. “We were very fortunate in that everything worked out—the name, the theme, and the math, which worked well with the theme. I think Reel ‘Em In was more important to the company than even Jackpot Party, because it allowed us to find our identity—fun characters, entertainment, and more interactivity than other slot machines.
“To this day, we follow those kinds of principles.”