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Innovators on the Move

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New owners have creative trio in Bally, IGT, WMS

By John Grochowski

 

When the Break the Bank symbol landed on the payline, a hammer animated on the screen would bust open the piggy, coins would fly out and you’d collect the amount that had been displayed. It was new, different, fun, innovative and led to a Dotmation sequel that would become even more popular on video—Jackpot Party.

 

Today, machines that give players a choice of games and/or coin denominations are scattered throughout the casino, from multiple manufacturers. But when the Bally Game Maker hit slot floors in 1994, it sent a shockwave through the casino industry.

 

What happens when rival slot manufacturers trade innovative jab for innovative jab, giving players everything they can muster in the name of gaming fun and increased market share?

It seems sometimes they become corporate brothers. That seems to be the case with WMS Gaming and Bally Technologies. WMS has been under the Scientific Games corporate umbrella for a year after a $1.5 billion sale in 2013, and this August the same company announced a $3.7 billion deal to buy Bally.

The Bally deal came just two weeks after Italian lottery giant GTECH announced it was acquiring International Game Technology, the world’s largest slot maker, in a $6.4 billion deal. GTECH already has a presence in the U.S. slot market with games such as Sphinx and Deal or No Deal, originally produced under the Atronic brand, then Spielo International before a merger with GTECH.

There’s no way to know yet what effect all this will have on players or the games people play. We do know that IGT, WMS and Bally have been creative forces to reckon with, having made far too many innovations to make a list that even scratches the surface. Let’s check out four innovations from among the dozens each company has made.

 

INTERNATIONAL GAME TECHNOLOGY

Video Poker: IGT was born of innovation when Si Redd, working for Bally, devised video poker. Bally didn’t want the game, but gave him its blessing to take video poker and form its own company. First, he partnered with Fortune Coin to form Sircoma, then took the company public under the name International Game Technology.

 

Wide-Area Progressives: For an innovation with a lasting impact, how about Megabucks? The first of the wide-area linked progressives that enables players at different casinos to go for the same lifestyle-changing jackpot, Megabucks is the granddaddy of today’s IGT MegaJackpots games such as Wheel of Fortune, Avatar and The Twilight Zone.

 

Wheel of Fortune: Here’s an example of IGT’s eye for innovation by others, something it has used to its advantage often by licensing or buying concepts such as Triple Play Poker (Action Gaming) and Multi-Strike Poker (Leading Edge Design).  The prize wheel rising atop slot machines was devised by Anchor Gaming in the mid-1990s as Wheel of Gold. When the prize wheel symbol landed on the payline, a tone would sound, and there was magic. Other players would stop playing and watch for the wheel spin. Passers-by would stop in their tracks to see what was going on. This was an innovation IGT could run with—and it did. IGT licensed the wheel, then licensed rights to a TV game show favorite, and voila! Wheel of Fortune was born for its continuing run as America’s favorite slot game.

 

Enhanced Content: Here’s one pick from among a number of recent innovations, such as Center Stage with its giant overhead screens screaming for attention and Reel Skill, where your skill makes a difference in bonus events. With Enhanced Content, IGT plans ahead, anticipating demand for a sequel game. Video slots’ peak popularity usually lasts only six months or thereabouts, so with Enhanced Content, the sequel is built into the original release. With the first game, Back to the Future, only the Marty’s Game was available on original release. But after six months, the machine would unlock Biff’s Game, with fresh graphics and gameplay. You might say it looks forward into the future.

 

WMS GAMING

Bonus Screens: When WMS, a descendent of the old Williams pinball company, branched into slot machines in the 1990s, it produced three-reel games with a difference. Slots came with a black screen animated with orange dots—Dotmation. The first Dotmation hit was Piggy Bankin’. As you played, coins were added to a piggy bank, depicted in orange dots on a screen in the top box, above the three spinning reels. When the Break the Bank symbol landed on the payline, a hammer animated on the screen would bust open the piggy, coins would fly out and you’d collect the amount that had been displayed. It was new, different, fun, innovative and led to a Dotmation sequel that would become even more popular on video—Jackpot Party.

 

Video Bonus Slots: WMS wasn’t the first company to make video slots, nor the first to have video bonuses. The inspiration came from overseas, especially Australia’s Aristocrat Technologies. But when WMS put a pick’em bonus on a game with five video reels and five paylines, it had the right game at the right time to take U.S. casinos by storm. The game was Reel ‘Em In, and the bonus event involved the reels fading out, a scene of fisherman of the pond fading in, and you trying to pick the fisherman to reel in a bonus fish—the bigger the fish, the bigger the bonus.

The original hit caught other U.S. manufacturers by surprise, and they scrambled to get in on the sudden video madness. This innovation was a hit that reshaped the way we play, a milestone that pushed along the move for three-reel domination to video’s reign over slot floors.

 

Sensory Immersion: In 2006, Sensory Immersion Gaming was launched as one of what WMS called its Tri-Innovations, along with Transmissive Reels, which transmits video images on the clear glass in front of physical reels, and Community Gaming, with its win-or-compete-together bonuses on big screens above banks of machines.

And Sensory Immersion Gaming, with special chairs for motion effects and Bose speakers in the chair back as well as in the game for 3-D sounds, offered a full sensory experience that began with the thrills of being in the cockpit, shooting down bonuses in Top Gun. Next came a journey through a storyline in the Wizard of Oz, and WMS has never looked back, using Sensory Immersion by itself and combined with other creations to spark even more innovation.

 

Unlockable Bonuses: In a line that started with Star Trek and continued with Lord of the Rings, WMS melded the casino world with the social gaming world by enabling players to create screen names, unlock graphics and bonus packages with free play online, and log back in at the casino to take advantage of everything they’d unlocked both in cash play and free play. That’s an innovation for a brave new slot world.

 

BALLY TECHNOLOGIES

The Coin Hopper: Bally is the oldest of the three recently sold slot makers, and its innovations go all the way back to the 1930s. But for a quick snapshot, let’s start in the mid-1960s, and the coin hopper.

Before the hopper was invented, coins inside slot machines were loaded into coin tubes. The hopper, which circulated coins from a pool and at first enabled payouts of up to 500 coins at a time, was introduced on Bally’s Money Honey slot. That was a huge step forward, and capacity later would grow past 1,000.

 

Blazing 7s: Developed in the 1970s by Bally engineers Bob Manz and Terry Daly, Blazing 7s was designed as a rapid-hit jackpot game. It has had amazing staying power. You still can find Blazing 7s machines in today’s casinos, and its iconic flame-surrounded 7 symbols have been re-used often by Bally in games including the popular Hot Shot progressives.

On a Blazing 7s dollar machine, the top jackpot starts at $1,000. In the early days, Daly once told me, operators would put 10 or 20 games on the floor, and the jackpot would hit about every 15 minutes. That created positive feedback that drew, and continues to draw, players to the game. The rapid-hit feature not only increased player excitement, but the $1,000 start and frequency of jackpots meant it usually paid off before reaching the $1,200 threshold that requires IRS paperwork.

The Game Maker: Today, machines that give players a choice of games and/or coin denominations are scattered throughout the casino, from multiple manufacturers. But when the Bally Game Maker hit slot floors in 1994, it sent a shockwave through the casino industry. For the first time, players could choose blackjack, video poker games and slot games at the same machine. In Triple Trouble, it had one of the first slot games to carve out a loyal following on video, anticipating the video revolution by about three years. The influence of this innovation can be seen throughout modern slot floors.

U-Spin: Introduced in 2009 with a game called Cash Spin, U-Spin has become one of the hottest commodities in today’s casinos. It’s a fun use of touch-screen technology, with an on-screen bonus wheel that you can touch to drag backward or forward, move it along and let it fly for fast and slow spins. On some versions, the on-screen spin is mirrored on a physical wheel on top of the machine, showing the same spaces fly by with the same results.

U-Spin has resonated so deeply with the public that it’s become a Bally fundamental now, with a virtual wheel used to determine bonuses in Michael Jackson: King of Pop and one designed to look like an engine order telegraph used in Titanic. The technology has been adapted as U-Play so you can touch the screen to play musical notes in All That Jazz and as U-Aim to align cannons on target in Pirates Quest.

It’s adaptable, popular and creative—just the kind of innovation new owners no doubt will want from these major gamemakers.

 

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