by Andy Holtmann
Years of technology innovation and pushing the gaming industry envelope earn John Acres Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award accolades
For John Acres, innovation comes naturally. During his 25-plus years of inventing, refining and enhancing products and technologies for the gaming industry, he has experienced both supreme failure and sublime success. But while few can remember Acres’ failures, his successes have played a dramatic role in the creation of today’s modern-day casino floor.
Acres was an early pioneer of industry revelations like progressive jackpots and bonusing. And he is largely viewed as the father of player tracking systems and technologies in the industry. He has either helped to found or played a significant leadership role in some pretty noteworthy gaming companies: Electronic Display Technology (EDT); Mikohn Gaming; Acres Gaming; and today, a new venture that combines Acres’ latest company—Acres Concepts—with Rich Fiore & Associates (RFA) to create Acres-Fiore.
Throughout the years, Acres’ central strategy has been to provide products and technology innovations that are player-centric and improve the patron experience. It’s an end-goal he said the entire gaming industry should embrace if it wants to enjoy continued success.
“Gambling is really not about gambling. It’s about making the player feel special,” Acres said. “Part of the way they feel special is by the wins and losses they experience on the game. But another part is the relationship they enjoy or regret with the casino in which they’re gambling. We’ve always seen in the high rollers how important it is to treat people with extra respect, to make them like they’re one in a million and exceptionally important. That’s where things like private jets and things like that come into play. When we come down to slot machines, there’s not the money to provide those kinds of amenities to players, so we need a lower-cost way to help people feel special.”
That’s where technological innovations like progressives (offering players a chance for life-changing payouts and building excitement in casinos); bonusing (giving the player numerous chances to win more or increase their play without spending more); and player tracking systems that help the gaming properties really learn about the players’ personalities and desires, and be able to cater specifically to them, have all proven more than their weight in gold.
And Acres’ long-running role in this player-centric innovation approach has earned him the Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Casino Marketing Conference July 17-19 in Las Vegas, which is co-produced by Raving Consulting and Ascend Media. Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist for Raving, said the award is long overdue.
“Bonusing, player tracking, new slot concepts—John has been a pioneer in all of this, and truth be told, received too little credit for it,” Conrad said. “Acres is one of the true gaming innovators in our business, joining such luminaries as Steve Wynn, Phil Satre, Don Speer, Bob Luciano and Randy Adams. And at a time he could be basking in a well-earned retirement, he continues to push us to be better, different and more customer focused.”
His peers and friends echo that sentiment:
“I think a lot of people that know him or are aware of his accomplishments would agree with me that you can sum up his accomplishments with one word—legendary,” said John E. Taylor Jr., CEO of GameLogic—a company Acres has helped shape, and which he now serves as a member of its board of directors. “From a casino technology perspective, he is one of only a few true casino industry entrepreneurs. Look around any casino floor, anywhere in the world, and you can see his innovations. Clearly, this industry wouldn’t be the same without John Acres.”
“The irony is that I see John’s career just starting,” said Rich Fiore, his current partner in Acres-Fiore. “This award is such an honor and he’s so deserving of it. However, John is a very young man—not only in spirit, but he looks young. He acts young. He demands respect when we walks into a room. And fortunately for me, when we walk in, he has all of these things he has developed in his career of which are very successful.”
Acres, for his part, said he was touched by the recognition. “It’s a big honor and it’s nice to have other people look back at your life and think that you’ve accomplished something—especially when you look at the other people who have received this award.”
Acres said he became involved in the gaming industry by accident. He and his wife got married right after she graduated from high school, and he joined the Air Force. From his sleepy town of Elwood, Ill., Acres was transferred to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
“My parents were wondering where we could possibly buy groceries since the town had nothing but casinos in it…we got there and found out that there were indeed places to live and places to buy groceries. But on Air Force pay, there wasn’t enough money to do either. So I started working in a casino part time to make some extra money,” Acres said.
He went to work for Norman Little at Mr. Sy’s Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. “The one thing I really learned from Norman was that games should be built from the outside in not from the inside out. What he meant by that is that you should start with the player and what they want and build a game that matches that instead of starting with a handful of components and seeing what you can make of it,” Acres said.
After a couple of years, Acres returned to the Midwest where he got his degree in computer science from Ball State University. Then, he spent about a year each working for General Motors and Hewlett Packard. But Acres found those jobs boring, and he couldn’t adjust to the staunchly corporate lifestyle. In 1981, he returned to Las Vegas, where he dabbled in technology—doing mostly sound system designs for casinos. It didn’t take long, though, for Acres to make his mark with game technology.
When a couple of California businessmen began touting their idea for a new progressive jackpot system, Acres suggested to his original boss, Norman Little, that he felt he could do it better. Little suggested Acres start his own company, and EDT was born. He was moderately successful with selling his own progressive systems to Las Vegas casinos. Then he knocked on the door of the Golden Nugget.
“They didn’t like the idea too much the first time I showed them,” Acres said. “But a couple months later I got a call from a guy when I was sitting in my office, and this guy says, ‘hi, this is Steve Wynn. I’d like to speak to Mr. Acres.’”
Wynn wanted Acres to put his progressives into Wynn’s Atlantic City casinos. Wynn even helped Acres get licensed and operating in New Jersey. Soon, six links were operational.
“When I set them up, I asked him where he wanted starting values to be. He said, ‘I want this one to be $500,000 and this one to be $600,000 and this one to be $800,000.’ I said, ‘geez, what do you do if one of these things hit?’ Because the largest jackpot at the time was $250,000 and most were in the $10,000 range. He said, ‘that’s what I’m hoping for. When it hits, I’m going to get a lot of publicity.’ Sure enough, about two months later, one hit for $1 million, and it was on the CBS Evening News because that was back at a time when $1 million was a huge jackpot. The machines got incredible play and all of a sudden we had orders coming in from everywhere. Everybody wanted to put in our progressives.”
Acres sold part of EDT to International Game Technology, and then hired a number of professionals that, under Acres’ direction, began looking at player tracking systems. Eventually, Acres sold all of EDT to IGT and co-founded Mikohn Gaming with Mike Stone. There, Acres and company refined and enhanced earlier player tracking and progressive efforts—complete with multicolored displays. In 1989, Acres and Stone sold Mikohn to Dave Thompson. After exploring a couple of other options, Acres Gaming was born.
It was at Acres Gaming where player tracking ideas and systems thrived. It was also where bonusing was essentially born. The company created numerous bonusing concepts that attracted the industry’s attention. After taking the company public, Acres sold again to IGT in 2003.
Acres’ penchant for selling successful ventures left some scratching their heads. But For Acres, the answer is simple—he’s a creator, not a caretaker.
“I have the ability to come up with new ideas and make them reality. What I’m not so good at is showing up for work every day on time, all the time, forever,” he said. “Once the excitement of creating an idea is done, I’m not so good at managing that idea and its growth. I’m more of a creative person than a caretaker person. There’s great skill in being that caretaker, don’t misunderstand. There’s tremendous skill, and I don’t have it.”
The industry’s notoriously slow track record of adopting new technologies and intellectual property battles were also factors.
“When you come up with something new—like player tracking for example—it’s not instantly recognized as a good idea. We had lots of people that said players would never go for it, they’ll never carry a card, it’s too expensive or it’s too complicated,” Acres said. “[Acres Gaming was also] involved in a pretty significant patent lawsuit with IGT and we were hurting. They ended up buying the company, in my view, as a way to settle that lawsuit. But the larger answer is that when we step back and look at ourselves, we’re a bundle of abilities and limitations—each of us are. You’ve got to recognize what those are.”
Acres’ storied career alone could warrant receiving countless awards and enjoying a healthy retirement. But he’s nowhere near ready to take a seat.
Acres left the gaming industry for a couple of years after selling Acres Gaming. He became involved with bicycle and laser design for BigHa in his hometown of Corvallis, Ore., among other projects. But around 2004, he was drawn back. After spending time away, he felt he needed to catch up.
“I was looking around to see what was different. I quickly came across GameLogic,” Acres said. “They had a connection with the Internet that I thought was really important. I’ve always believed it’s important to reach out to players and get them to come back to visit the casino again—that’s what bonuses were all about. I saw in GameLogic an opportunity to use the Internet to reach into the homes of players—not with an absolute gambling activity where they spend money—but I encouraged GameLogic to alter their offering so that players could play free games at home on their computer and win free play or free buffets that they could redeem by revisiting the casinos. It’s using the Internet as a way to entice people to come back to a particular casino, to further reach out and enhance that bond of loyalty between a known player in a casino or offer free games to people that maybe haven’t been introduced to a particular casino and be able to start a relationship with them.”
The company, which had largely been exploring the tenuous Internet gaming space, found Acres’ approach and his ideas a good fit, naming him to its board of directors.
“As is John’s way, he was not afraid of pushing us hard to refine our thinking, to provide value-adding products that casinos felt comfortable with today,” Taylor said. “He encouraged us to explore opportunities with bonusing, something that he knew a lot about, and how we might use the Internet as the enabling technology for the next generation of player loyalty and bonusing systems. Because of John’s work with us, today we are very clearly a casino player loyalty company and delivering value to a number of casinos.”
At the same time, Acres was getting yet another of his own companies—Acres Concepts—started, which ultimately led him to Rich Fiore.
“John actually visited my office about 14 months ago, and I think he was very interested in what I was doing because I was one of the leaders for third-party development,” Fiore said. “We had somewhat perfected developing games for Bally on the ALPHA platform, with a third-party development procedure in place. Nevada Gaming approved it [the development agreement]. He [John] wanted to see how our process worked. Well, it didn’t take very long after John and I started talking to realize that he was the other half of me, and vice versa. We realized we could create a very powerful team in gaming.”
The combined Acres-Fiore talents are today producing new intellectual property and game design for the industry. Acres and Fiore are looking at ways games can be designed to improve player experiences. One of the first fruits of those efforts is a game concept called Spin Star, where a bonus feature can be won simply by coin-in. “The idea was, ‘let’s make a wheel, but let’s make it be triggered by an event other than the base slot machine,’” Acres said. “So you can have a winning event without winning. That’s was always important in mystery jackpot progressives.”
And the game’s top box changes color to denote how close or far the player is from hitting that bonus spin.
“Our goal is to get a person to reach into their pocket and pull out one more $20 bill because this color starts off as an icy blue when you’re far away [from hitting] and it turns into a cherry red when you’re really close. When it’s there, that thing is just too close to walk away from and I’ve got to keep going until I win,” he said.
Acres said concepts like these give players a sense that they are personally involved with and able to impact the games.
In creating new game concepts, Acres-Fiore’s process begins with exploring the market and studying the players, then developing the game, putting the game in the field and testing it, and, if successful, licensing the game back to manufacturers. Acres-Fiore already has a deal to supply game content to Bally Technologies, and will eventually license to other manufacturers as well, Acres said.
“When John and I get into a room, I can only tell you that certain people would pay to sit there. It’s exciting,” Fiore said. “When I say a word, he makes a sentence. When he makes a sentence, I make a paragraph. When we make a paragraph, there’s the story. The story turns into a board. The board turns into an idea. That idea then turns into intellectual property. That intellectual property is then drafted. It’s just fascinating.”
While modest about winning awards or receiving accolades, Acres admits he does smile when he thinks about how many of his ideas have become industry standards.
“There’s something special, for me anyway, about having an idea and swimming against the current to prove that idea and see it come true and being right about it, and having it be successful,” he said. “To me, those ideas are like children and it’s just great to see them grow up and stand on their own, whether you have an economic interest in them anymore or not.”
Stated sentimentAdditional gaming industry viewpoints from John Acres
On the current state of game design:
“The boat will still be there. I think in 10 years there will absolutely be legal Internet gambling. This whole thing is really going to be solved by figuring out how to tax and regulate it. Where is the nexus of the casino resort? Where are the servers located or where are the players located? And who gets that money? Is it the state that the players are in? Is the state the servers are in? Or is it the federal government? I think a lot of the federal government’s opposition will be solved by some sort of federal tax.”
On problem gambling:
On dealing with failure:
On his relationship with IGT: