IGT’s Center Stage series gives you Wheel Of Fortune like you’ve never seen it before
by Frank Legato
If you’re a longtime slot player, chances are you’ve played International Game Technology’s Wheel Of Fortune slot machine. Chances are you’ve played several versions of the game, in reel-spinning and video, slant-tops and uprights, small versions, and maybe even the huge one with all the play stations and the horizontal wheel.
Well, get ready for the Wheel like you’ve never seen it before. Meet the “Wheel Of Fortune Experience.” There’s never been Wheel Of Fortune like this, and the reason is the IGT platform they call “Center Stage.”
Once you do see it, you won’t forget it. Center Stage is a bank of five machines under a display of video monitors like nothing else in the casino. The main video screen is a 103-inch LCD monitor. It dominates the wall of a casino, and it is flanked by two “smaller” 40-inch “portrait LCD” side displays. It is a game display that stops you in your tracks. Like a theater movie screen with slot machines in front of it, it lights up the entire surrounding casino area.
Casinos need a big wall to fit this behemoth, but IGT is also marketing a smaller, yet no less impressive, version with a 70-inch main screen flanked by two 32-inch monitors, one with four machines that can be placed anywhere in the casino. Both use IGT’s new “Mega FX” surround-sound chairs to complete the experience with immersive, vibrating sound.
And both versions provide a canvas on which is painted a version of the Wheel Of Fortune game that offers features like none before it. “Center stage is really a giant video wall with flanking LCDs,” comments Boris Hallerbach, IGT’s MegaJackpots product manager. “What that allows us to do is take that blank canvas and paint a theme onto it. It really becomes a vehicle for fantastic MegaJackpots brands.”
Few MegaJackpots brands are more fantastic than Wheel Of Fortune, and the most famous game-show slot in the world was made for this format.
The first base games will be classic three-reel slots in quarter and dollar denominations—familiar single-line themes like Red, White & Blue and Safari 7s which appear as the old reel-spinners but use IGT’s “MLD,” or multi-level display technology that is actually formed by two video screens.
But the bonus is what makes the game, and the bonus is what has crowds gathering around this game wherever it’s been placed.
If there has been one repeated comment from players over the dozen-plus years since Wheel Of Fortune ushered in the age of themed slot machines, it is this: Where’s the puzzle from the show?
Wheel Of Fortune has always got the audience chant and spin of the fortune wheel right from the show, but the other main part of the Wheel Of Fortune TV game show is the word puzzle that forms the main competition between contestants—those big letter boards replicating the old “Hangman” kid’s game; asking Alex to “buy a vowel.” It is a huge part of the TV show’s identity and culture that has always been missing from the slot machine, mainly because its play borders on elements of skill, but also because a normal-sized video screen can’t do the game-show puzzle justice.
Well, Center Stage changes all that, providing a group-play bonus on the big board that can be seen from across the room. Players even get to compete under their own names, which they key in at the start of play.
“The giant screen was made for the Wheel Of Fortune puzzle board,” Hallerbach says. “Using all that real estate for solving puzzles is a natural. Fans of the show love to solve the puzzles.”
In the case of this game, three players become “contestants” whenever one machine hits the bonus trigger symbol on the third reel. To be eligible, you must bet the maximum in the primary game. (They are three-coin reel-spinning games; you want to bet the max anyway.) The computer selects two other players on the bank at random. Each player will have a multiplier number above his name on the big board—this is earned during normal play. The more you spin, the higher the multiplier can rise. The multiplier applies to all credits won in the bonus game.
The bonus game is solving the word puzzle, by selecting letters. All the letters in the puzzle are displayed on each player’s screen before the bonus round begins, so there are no picks of letters that aren’t in the puzzle. The computer picks the first player who will choose a letter. Just as on the TV show, the more that letter occurs in the puzzle, the higher the bonus that the player ultimately will receive. The display over each name shows the number of letters collected by each player.
Unlike the show, every player gets a chance to pick. The pick goes to the next player when one player is done, and proceeds until the puzzle is solved. Along the way, some letters that occur only once in the puzzle are “bonus letters,” which automatically reveal another one-instance letter. That speeds up the bonus game, and gives some players free letters.
Once the puzzle is completely solved, the famous wheel appears on the video display and spins once. The value the wheel pointer lands on is multiplied by each player’s number of letters, and by each player’s multiplier. Every “contestant” wins with every bonus round, and players with the most letters are displayed on a “Hall of Fame” leader board showing the highest bonus awards of the day and of all time. It’s a very cool little extra for the game.
The puzzle round has been causing a lot of little parties on slot floors where the game is installed. “Tons of people line up to watch the puzzle round,” Hallerbach says. “People gather around and try to solve the puzzles. It attracts more people than playing the game does.” There is also camaraderie amid the friendly competition in the bonus round.
Most of all, people gather around to watch the game on the big screen—it’s an attraction all by itself. “It’s the biggest and brightest thing on the casino floor because of that large monitor,” says Hallerbach. “Crowds have been milling around waiting for the game to go live, and then they crowd around to get a seat to play.”
This game isn’t going to get stale any time soon—there are nearly 1,000 different word puzzles programmed into this thing. Puzzle bonus rounds happen around 10 to 12 times an hour, on average.
Only the Beginning
The best thing about Wheel Of Fortune Experience on the Center Stage platform is that this is only the beginning. The three-reel, three-coin version—which should be available in Louisiana, throughout Native American jurisdictions, and in field trial in Nevada by the time you read this—is the proverbial good first impression.
“We decided early on that we wanted to lead off with our best brand to make a big splash with Center Stage,” Hallerbach says.
The next game on Center Stage will be a five-reel, 50-line penny version of Wheel Of Fortune Experience, followed by a three-game “MultiPLAY” game called “Wheel Of Fortune Triple Spin.” The primary game on this will be have three reel-sets, and players will wager on all and spin all three at once. The community bonus in this version of the game is similar to the “Super Spin” version of the wheel, with several players entering into individual wheel spins played out on the big screen—players will be able to spin up to three bonus wheels at once.
What Hallerbach says is one of the most anticipated games on the Center Stage format is “American Idol,” slated for a fall release. It is a cinematic reproduction of the famous performance reality show. In the community bonus round, all the contestants from the reality show’s first season are features in “auditions,” and players receive bonuses according to how each Idol judge rates the performance. The video clips include the “clunkers from the show. If you thought the wheel drew a crowd, wait until you see this one.
Next year, you can expect the first Center Stage game to be “The Dark Knight,” based on the Oscar-winning Batman movie. Hallerbach won’t reveal the details, but with this format, you can imagine it’s going to be a huge game.
Beyond that, you can expect a steady stream of new releases for this format, which is really a self-contained computer server. Joe Kaminkow, the IGT game development vice president who came up with the concept for Center Stage, has described it as a “Cineplex, with slot games as the films.”
We can’t wait to see what’s playing next. •