Slot manufacturers innovate to create new, entertaining wheel-bonus games

Long a subject of contentious intellectual property battles, the slot machine wheel has proven to be a winner when it comes to attracting players – with Exhibit A being IGT’s Wheel of Fortune.

Now Bally Technologies has invested heavily in its own new line of games with spinning wheel features, and others also may consider moving into the space, after a recent patent ruling.

In the October 2009 ruling, a federal judge issued a summary judgment that upheld the dismissal of IGT’s wheel patent case against Bally. IGT wheel patents in that case were deemed invalid due to obviousness.

(The judge also affirmed the dismissal of a separate case filed by Bally against IGT involving Bally’s Planet Arcade patent. Still to be decided are the enforcement of one IGT player tracking patent, called the Criss patent, and antitrust and unfair trade practices claims asserted by Bally. No trial date has been set as of press time.)

“We had felt very strongly that we didn’t infringe [on the wheel patents]; we felt very good about that. We are very good corporate citizens and respect other people’s intellectual property,” Mike Mitchell, Bally Technologies vice president of game development, said of the patent ruling.

IGT has created many versions of Wheel of Fortune over the years, but none as arresting as The Wheel of Fortune Experience, the debut entry in IGT’s Center Stage Series.

Competitive wheels turning

The ruling, Mitchell noted, paves the way for additional innovation to occur on the wheel. With all the legal wrangling between IGT and Bally over the wheel patents, other manufacturers had stayed out of the fray, Mitchell said. “It’s not something you really wanted to get in the middle of,” he said.

Now, Mitchell said he believes Bally and IGT may find company in the wheel business.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if other manufacturers started developing their own wheel games. In fact I’d be surprised if they didn’t,” Mitchell said.

But longtime gaming industry insider John Acres wasn’t so sure that other manufacturers would rush to build new wheel games. Acres said he believes many will adopt a wait-and-see attitude to see if the investment is worth it.

“The interesting thing is that it [the ruling] is at a time when the popularity of Wheel of Fortune is certainly declining. No one knows how much of the ultimate popularity of Wheel of Fortune was due to the game show, and the brand name or how much was due to just a wheel on a machine, and how much of it was due to IGT’s marketing,” Acres said.

Acres noted that, to some extent, gamblers tend to be creatures of habit.

“At first a gambler comes in and says, ‘What do I want to play?’ When they find something they like, they’ll tend to stick with that. So even without the patent protection now, IGT still holds customer trust, customer familiarity and brand, and those are obstacles that anyone else that wants to build a wheel game is going to have to overcome,” Acres said.

In addition to game content, another way to compete could be through price, he said.

“The thing another wheel manufacturer can do is offer a lower price and to some extent IGT will have to respond,” Acres said.

In the meantime, both Bally and IGT continue to innovate and create new wheel products.

“It’s my sense that there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the wheel and its design for some time,” Mitchell said. “We think there’s lots to do on that, and we look forward to expressing ourselves in that arena.”

Bally Technologies is making a concerted effort to bring out wheel games. Its SpinNation series of games includes Cash Spin, which incorporates Bally’s proprietary U Spin feature allowing the player to “spin” a virtual wheel.

Bally’s newest wheel products, part of its SpinNation series of wheel-featured games, mark just the beginning of that innovation, Mitchell said.

Bally’s Cash Spin game on Bally’s V32 slot platform features a spinning wheel on the top two-thirds of the video display above the mechanical reels. The game offers Bally’s U-Spin technology, allowing players to spin a virtual wheel on the touch-enabled display backward, forward, slow, or fast as if it were an actual physical spinning wheel.

“U-Spin allows the player to be involved in the outcome of the wheel and control how fast it spins and how it spins and when it spins,” Mitchell said.

“We feel really good about it. We’ve had really good response to it,” Mitchell said of the new games, noting players seem to want more choices and more interactivity from their games. The wheel, he noted, offers the ability to not only attract initial play, but reward players with recognition from their peers as they watch the wheel spin and with the variable repeatable bonuses that they desire.

One extra touch included in the Cash Spin game is the use of a voiceover from actor John O’Hurley, who played J. Peterman on the “Seinfeld” television show and also played the lead role in “Spamalot” when it was at the Wynn hotel-casino.

Another new SpinNation game is Hot Shot Progressive Cash Wheel. Hot Shot Cash Wheel offers an eye-catching top-box bonus wheel, with each” slice” of the cash wheel featuring a bonus amount. There are no “losers” on the wheel, guaranteeing a win for the player during the spinning-wheel bonus event. This bonus feature is triggered by a “Wheel” symbol appearing on the third reel of the Blazing 7s Seven Times Pay mini Game-In-Game. When activated, the brilliantly colorful wheel spins around, creating excitement and anticipation as the player awaits the bonus prize. Hot Shot Cash Wheel is a five-reel, 40-line, penny-denomination video slot with a 200-credit max bet and is available in two cabinet configurations: the V20 upright or CineVision widescreen platform.

Among the other wheel games developed by Bally is its Vegas Hits double-wheel game

Other SpinNation games include Vegas Hits, Big Money and Monte Carlo Spin & Win.

Boris Hallerbach, IGT MegaJackpots product manager, said IGT continues to invest in creating new wheel-featured products, including, but not limited to, Wheel of Fortune.

“We’re still deeply devoted to developing wheel products and wheel play,” he said.

“We think we have a good recipe for making successful wheel games, and we’re going to keep going with it and keep innovating. We know our competitors in the past have put out wheel games, but certainly not with the same success we have had certainly with Wheel of Fortune.”

Hallerbach noted that the Wheel of Fortune brand itself offers a lot of content and game play dynamics that lend themselves to creating a good game, and the television game show, beaming its way into living rooms almost every night, helps keep the product top of mind with players.

For instance, he noted that when the game show recently filmed at The Venetian, the slot machines were prominently shown on the stage. “They’ve been very, very supportive of what we’ve been doing. There is a good crossover there,” he said of Sony, which owns the show and the brand.

A more classic version of IGT’s Wheel of Fortune, which has reigned supreme on casino slot floors since it was introduced in the mid-1990s

IGT has spent a lot of effort innovating on Wheel of Fortune. “We’ve pushed the envelope with the brand,” he said, citing as an example the Wheel of Fortune Super Spin, the new multilevel progressive, and the Wheel of Fortune Experience, which is the first game to debut on IGT’s new, MegaJackpots Center Stage Series.

With Wheel of Fortune Experience is designed to deliver more of the game show atmosphere. “That game really plays up the puzzle solving aspect of the show,” Hallerbach said.

The game is offered in two footprints – one, the MJ 103, provides a high-resolution 103-inch LCD screen flanked by two 40-inch portrait LCD screens and includes five player stations, creating an arresting focal point on the slot floor. The other is the MJ 70 offers a smaller footprint with a 70-inch, high-resolution LCD screen flanked by two 32-inch portrait LCD screens and includes four player stations. The player stations feature the Game King AVP G23 widescreen machine and include IGT’s new MEGAfx Surround Chairs with high-performance sound that creates a rich, immersive game experience.

Wheel of Fortune Experience is designed to deliver provide high entertainment value. The Big Board Bonus offers group play action in which players work together to solve puzzles similar to the Wheel of Fortune television game show. Where available, the game be linked to the Wheel of Fortune quarter or dollar wide area progressive systems. 

Other games include the Wheel of Fortune Secret Spins, in which a wheel pivots on its axis to reveal a bonus, and the Sex and the City Multi-Level Progressives game. In the Sex and the City game, Chris Noth, “Mr. Big” on the television show, talks players through the bonus play steps and congratulates players on their wins. Bonus play is initiated when three Sex and the City scatter symbols appear in any location on the reels in any of the four base games. The 12-stop virtual wheel appears in the top box, and Mr. Big tells players to spin the wheel. When the wheel stops, the bonus game launches and plays out on the base game screen.

Hallerbach said IGT has no plans to slow down its wheel development efforts.

“We’re always looking at ways to make that experience more exciting for the players so they want to come back,” he said.

Golden beginnings

Before IGT’s Wheel of Fortune, another wheel game had captured players’ imaginations – Anchor Gaming’s Wheel of Gold, a major hit in its own right.

Mitchell, a former executive with Anchor Gaming (now part of IGT), remembers the day Anchor’s game was introduced at Foxwoods Casino Resort back around 1994.

“It was a huge success right out of the gate,” Mitchell said of the game pioneered by Anchor developer Randy Adams. “We were overwhelmed by the reaction.”

As the games were going in, Mitchell said his first instinct after seeing the crowds was that “we might get trampled by players.” And he recalls a phone call with then Anchor Gaming Executive Vice President T. J. Matthews. “I remember speaking to T.J. (about the game’s draw) and going, ‘This one’s different.’”

But when the Anchor’s Wheel was married to the Wheel of Fortune television game show brand under IGT, the resulting game became the most successful slot game ever, Hallerbach said.

“For IGT, I think the real magic occurred when the wheel was married up with the Wheel of Fortune brand,” he said. That combination, Hallerbach said, created “the top-earning slot machines of all time.”

And, he noted, “we’ve been trying to recreate that magic ever since.”

Mitchell noted that there’s a certain mystique to the wheel spin. Players like that sense of acknowledgement – “for just that moment to be the center of attention.” And that’s what happens, he said, when the player is spinning the wheel.

Wheel of Gold and Wheel of Fortune, he said, can be considered two of the first community games, he said. “What had been a solitary experience became a shared environment,” as nearby players would root for the player spinning the wheel, he said.

One of the smart things IGT did with Wheel of Fortune was place it on top of familiar, popular base games, such as Double Diamonds. Players already had the association with the base game, and with the wheel bonus on top, that helped players get interested in the game.

Hallerbach noted that the wheel bonus’ attraction has to do with players being able to look at the array of potential win amounts on the wheel. “You can see what the possibilities are,” which builds anticipation and excitement. In “pick” bonuses, you might be presented with three hidden choices and just pick one. “With the wheel bonus, for a dollar player’s $2 bet, they could have a crack at a thousand,” Hallerbach said, drawing the analogy to the roulette table and the lucky cash wheel in the table games pit.

Mitchell said the wheel has shown itself to have enduring appeal and will continue to do so.

“Never underestimate the power of the wheel,” he said.