Incredible Technologies is used to getting things done, and getting them done at its own creative pace - something it’s been able to do as a leader in the coin-operated games segment for bars, restaurants and on the Internet. Now the company is crossing over into designing and manufacturing slot machines, and it’s learning a great deal about the pace in the more heavily regulated casino world.
“I think we’ve gotten through the process as fast as we possibly could,” company President and CEO Elaine Hodgson said. “People hear that we got through GLI in four years - actually we got through in one year, but we went from having nothing but an idea to having games ready to sell in four years - they go ‘Only four years?’ To us, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! Four years!’”
With trials coming up at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., and California locations, including Barona Resort & Casino near San Diego, Arlington Heights, Ill.-based Incredible Technologies is treading a path that’s almost a tradition for Chicago-area amusement companies. Bally has its roots as a Chicago pinball manufacturer, and WMS Gaming can trace its lineage back to another pinball and arcade game maker, Chicago’s Williams Manufacturing.
The signature game for Incredible Technologies is Golden Tee Golf, the most successful video amusement game in history with more than $3 billion worth of play since its 1989 debut. Enormously popular in bars and restaurants, Golden Tee blazed a trail in 2005 with Golden Tee Live, the online version featuring head-to-head competition and tournaments, all reported through IT’s servers in real time. Videos of holes in one are posted on YouTube.com, with a recent check showing more than 5,000 hits for “Golden Tee hole in one.”
That success in creating a game that’s lasting, fun to play and showing creativity and technical capacity to use the Internet to advantage has caught the eye of casino operators.
“I think what they bring to this is a couple of things. One is the ability to look at the Internet, which links all their Golden Tee Golf games together, so they’re maybe on the front edge of development in that realm,” said Chuck Hickey, vice president of slot operations at Barona, which is waiting to start its trial of IT slot games until a revision of its automated funds transfer software is approved by GLI.
“What I really liked about them was the fresh look at gaming that they were applying,” Hickey said. “I don’t think that they took too many things at face value. When they went to research slot machines, they did some real research, they talked to a lot of people, they didn’t accept some of the truisms where people have said you have to do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
IT game creators think a little outside the box in offering players a choice of volatility under the same game themes. On each Incredible slot game, with themes including Money, Fish Store and Cars, the player is asked, “How would you like to win?” The player then can touch the screen to choose “Often,” “Steady” or “Big,” corresponding to math models of the same game with low, medium and high volatility. An animated “Prize Guy” - an inverted top hat with a cane - appears on screen to explain it all, keeping it all easily understandable and avoiding words like “volatility” and “math” that might intimidate the customer.
“Right off the bat, we’ve attracted a wide berth of players simply by asking this question,” said Larry Hodgson, IT director of development. “It’s going to take time for players to get what we’re talking about here. We’re not banging them over the head with it. They’ll get it over a period of time.
“We’re just trying to peel back the layers of the onion so the player can see under the hood just a little bit. Not to the point where they’re confused or intimidated. Just enough that they can say OK, I’m not a high roller I’m more of a low roller kind of person and so I can choose that play experience.”
At Horseshoe Hammond, which expects to start its trial in March, vice president of slot operations Penny Parayo is intrigued.
“That’s one thing, I think, that is a primary driver about how they think differently about the business,” Parayo said. “I really, really like their sliding pay tables that give players the opportunity to select their volatility. One of the things that we always wanted to get across was this notion of luckiness. Some people like to play for the bigger jackpots, some demographics like the smaller pays. So in offering those types of options to the player, from a perception standpoint, it tells them, ‘I can affect my luck one way or the other.’”
Along with the volatility options, IT strives to keep its games easy to understand. Pay lines consist of easy to understand, adjacent symbols. On Money, lining up three $10 bills brings 30 credits - 10 plus 10 plus 10 - multiplied by bet size.
“One of the things we’re trying to do here is take a lot of the mystery out of it, taking the mystery out of the word math, without ever saying the word ‘math,’” said marketing manager Dan Schrementi. “Math is a magical thing to players and most of them don’t even know it exists. We teach you just a couple little nuggets that make you feel you know.”
At the same time, Incredible’s games add an extra incentive for customers to stay in their seats, with bonus games within the game. In Money, that consists of collecting coins. Each coin adds to a bonus jackpot, with a dollar coin adding more than a quarter and a quarter more than a nickel. When five coins are collected, the bonus event starts, with the opportunity to win all or part of the jackpot. If the player doesn’t win it all, the remainder carries over to the next bonus event.
There are cues to bet more pay lines - a thermometer that shows winning potential rising as more lines are played. In Fruit, an eight-line, three-reel video game, a single drum plays when playing one line, with instruments added until a full band with Caribbean rhythms plays with all lines in action.
Cars brings yet another difference. Lining up automobiles from high-end sports cars to basic scooters bring corresponding payoff levels, with a police car for double-or-nothing action. The cars move along a road from left to right, so essentially the reels spin from side to side instead of top to bottom. It’s a different look, but not a distracting one as the cars’ movement looks and feels natural.
Even in Magic Touch Poker, IT’s video poker product, there’s a subtle reward for the player. Play proper strategy for the hand, and there’s a little chime, win or lose. More overtly, there’s ProTip - each winning hand brings a letter, and after “ProTip” is spelled out, the player can redeem to see an expert play on the hand of their choice. In Magic Touch Keno, with clever graphics showing balls dropping into numbered boxes, players are given options to Play Hot - numbers that have hit frequently in recent games - or Play Ready - numbers that haven’t hit so often.
In Nevada, where “Play Ready” doesn’t fly with regulators, the option is called “Play Cold.”
With its NEXUS hardware system and solid-state USB technology, IT’s units look clean and simple on the inside. Tools needed for service are minimal.
“We want the techs to love us,” said Nancy Hodgson, “because they can also make or break a manufacturer.”
Getting to this point, with GLI approval and games ready for the field, has meant a steep learning curve and dealing with the ins and outs of licensing and lab requirements. It’s a more time-consuming process than bringing out a new game in the coin-op realm where Incredible Technologies has been so successful.
“In coin op, a large percentage of time is spent on the game design and the game play, and everything that goes with that, and a smaller part goes to marketing and sales, and nothing else, pretty much,” said Elaine Hodgson. “Now we come into gaming, and I still believe that the game is the most important thing, we all believe that. But a lot of the time as we try to design things that make us different from our competitors is trying to get through the regulators and convince them that these things are not designed to cheat the players but to give them entertainment value. It has been somewhat of a challenge already, and with all the things that we would like to do, it’s going to be a big challenge. I also think it’s necessary to take this industry beyond where it is today.”
The pace of getting product to market is slowed. Executive Vice President Richard Ditton pointed to the immediacy of feedback in the coin-market.
“The testing is very different,” Ditton said “In coin-op we can have one phase of a game done, put it in the truck, wheel it over to a bar, set it up and just test it, even though it’s nowhere near done. Here you have to be all the way through GLI with a complete product before you’re allowed to see if anyone’s going to play it.”
“How time moves is really the hardest part,” Larry Hodgson noted. “We were used to moving at a pace that we set, and we didn’t have any external influences on how time moved for us. And here time moves by a myriad of external influences and has very little to do with what we want and how we set it.”
But Incredible Technologies is used to meeting challenges in its 25-year history. When Golden Tee Golf was developed, the first thought was to market through a larger distributor. Golden Tee approached WMS Industries, a pinball and arcade giant, about the game.
“There were a myriad of golf games before us,” Ditton said. “WMS turned us down because they said, ‘Oh, it’s another golf game. We don’t want to market that.’ So we left hat in hand without someone to sell our golf game, so we did it ourselves. And now people have tried over and over again to touch the feel of our game. Larry did a great job with the feel of the game. And now Williams, WMS, tried a golf game themselves and failed. Sega came out with a golf game. So did Konami.”
But Golden Tee remains the reigning champion. Now Incredible Technologies is looking for its piece of the casino market.
“We want to look for those features that really resonate, so that every casino HAS to have at least one bank of our games,” Elaine Hodgson said. “We’re not going to take IGT out of anybody’s casino, but they simply just have to have a bank of our games in there because they wouldn’t be complete without it.”
Operators ready for testing are eager to see IT in action.
“When they have a meeting with us, they have the marketing guy, the product development guy, the president of the company,” Parayo said. “They’re a smaller company in terms of getting things done, there are fewer approvals needed on the way through the pipeline. They really want it.”
Added Barona’s Hickey, “They’re excited about the business, which is good. They want to be in, and they’re putting their resources behind it.”
It’s the start of what could be an Incredible journey.