Scientific Game

Unlocking the Box

Players have never experienced their favorite Aristocrat games like they will on the new Helix™

Friday, 09 January 2015 08:00
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The company that created the most popular games on Macau’s bustling slot floors has designed an exciting new environment for its players to enjoy them in.

It’s called Helix™—“a cabinet with a few amazing twists,” as Aristocrat cheekily refers to its innovative new platform—and certainly the description is apt.

“Very simply it looks better and it does more,” says Vincent Kelly, who arrived in Macau in October as the company’s new managing director–Asia Pacific. “One of my team described it as a graphics powerhouse.”

Helix™ is all that. Casinos in Australia and the US are deploying it as we speak. Asia got its first look at this striking application of Aristocrat’s technological prowess at the Macao Gaming Show in November, and Mr Kelly expects it will be on Macau’s floors by Christmas and then fan out regionally from there. 

“We’ve had some very nice feedback from customers around the world,” he says. “Early days, but all the signs are very positive that it’s doing what we hoped that it would do.”

What Helix™ does is reimagine the interaction between player and game in ways that have to be seen to be fully appreciated. New processors in a souped-up hardware package power a dual 16:9 LED back-lit interface. Both screens are a spacious 23 inches across (or better yet, sample the 32-inch optional Super Screen) and fully HD at a dazzling 1,080 pixels.

But here’s the “twist”—the displays are frameless, infinity-edged, so the action appears to float away from the cabinet surface in planes and proportions that are seamless, continuous, almost three dimensional. 5 Dragons’ lucky monster head talisman seems to leap into independent space in vivid, lifelike contours. Fortune King Choy Sun Doa showers his coins into an illusion of thin air.

Combined with quad sound boosted by a ported, enclosed subwoofer and rear-surface ambient lighting, the total effect is marvelous, completely enveloping from where the player sits. The lighting also can be controlled to draw attention when the game is idle—not that attracting players will be difficult given the market leading content that finds Aristocrat, a decade on, still firmly in possession of the largest share of Macau’s floors. 

Helix™ comes in three stylish models, Upright, Slant and Slant Super Screen, to accommodate any size floor, and each is distinguished by clean, curved lines finished with customizable edge and pinstripe lighting around a champagne-hued exterior that’s both elegant and reassuring. And players will instantly respond to the comfort that’s built into it, the culmination of some industry-leading ergonomic research that factors a range of male and female heights into ensuring that sight lines are effortless, that leg room is ample and the interactive LCD button deck is within easy reach, well-padded and just the right elevation from the floor.

“Players have told us in research, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but it’s when they have the opportunity to go into their favorite venue and play it, then we’ll know,” says Mr Kelly. “And, as I say, so far so good. In Australia, where it’s on the floor, it’s doing very nicely for us. And going through into the Americas, we’ll get the numbers from there, and we’re pretty confident we will see the same. And certainly the feedback from our customers … when they say to us, ‘Yep, this is good,’ it carries a lot of weight.”

The strategic thinking is no less exciting, for Helix™ not only solidifies Aristocrat’s status as a premier innovator in an intensely competitive industry rich with innovation, it provides the Australiabased slots and systems giant with one of its most compelling opportunities yet for injecting new energy into proven performers. Given the lead it enjoys across most of Asia, the approach to game development, particularly in Macau, where Aristocrat has the market leading position, relies heavily on leveraging the core portfolio and its vaunted math models, the formula that struck a chord that still resounds with China’s gambling-minded players and largely started machine gaming in Macau on the road to the US$1.7 billion-plus business it is today.

The Legends series—5 Dragons Deluxe, 50 Dragons Deluxe, 5 Koi Legends and Fortune King Deluxe—is a potent example. At G2E Asia last May we saw the addition of 5 Dragons GOLD with its improved graphical interface and mix of multipliers (up to 40 times in the base game) and enhanced Reel Power layout in which increased bets activate stacked wilds in reels 2, 3 and 4. It’s also fitted with a unique top box feature where full credits extend the middle reels up one to take the player from 243 ways to win to 576 ways.

We’ve seen Hyperlink’s Cash Express, an old favorite, reintroduced in the form of Gold Class. And last year, FA FA FA’s Choy Sun returned in another new Hyperlink, Good Fortune, which is supported by an exclusive version of 5 Dragons and a game called Dragons of The Easten Ocean, both integrated into the five jackpot levels with stacked wilds on any spin, both also functioning independently with their own standalone jackpots within the link.

To bolster the core, new games are selectively introduced that essentially exploit the same great maths: Hyperlink’s Dragons on the Lake, for example, and 5 Frogs and Sunset King in the Super Feature series. Sunset King, a 1024 ways Xtra Reel Power offering, incorporates the high-volatility formula that is working so well for Aristocrat in North America with Buffalo. The choice of games and multipliers in 5 Frogs, a Reel Power 243 ways, is similar to 5 Dragons with the addition of an optional 10-credit ante bet that triggers a bonus (the Super Feature of the title), which randomly adds as many as 15 games to the player’s choice. There’s more volatility behind that, because Super Feature might also burn off the two lowest multipliers in that choice. So, for example, a player who’s opted for the biggest gamble—10 free games and a multiplier up to 40 times—could end up with 25 free games, all times 40.

Standalone progressives provide an important third element to the mix. Aristocrat believes strongly in their wider regional appeal and has dedicated a lot of innovative thinking to them with series like Jackpot Streak, Gold Pays and Quick Fire. The company is particularly strong for Quick Fire and is supporting it with four medium-volatility titles: Golden Peach, Panda Paradise, Electric Boogaloo and Pharaoh’s Ransom. In Golden Peach, any three, four or five scatter symbols trigger the free games feature, during which stacks of symbols appear on reels 2, 3 and 4, and each game starts with the symbols on one of the reels randomly transformed into wilds. “Mini” and “Minor” jackpots can be won in the feature as well, and multiple jackpots can be won on a single spin. Panda Paradise and Electric Boogaloo offer similarly integrated jackpots in the base game for frequent awards, and players also enjoy a chance to play for jackpots in the feature with the “sticky wild” generating more five-ofa- kind pays. The 4 x 5 matrix in both incorporates heavy stacking of symbols and a jackpot qualifier on reel 5.

“At G2E our theme for the show was ‘The Next Level,’ and, of course, it’s always about that,” says Mr Kelly. “It’s always about taking it up to the next level, not resting on our laurels and saying, ‘Well, we’re as good as we’re going to be,’ because that cannot possibly be true. But you have to work hard at keeping that going. We invest considerably in doing that to make sure, for ourselves and for our customers, that we’re bringing new things to the market that will excite players and entertain them.”

It’s been a new experience for the UK native, and like most newcomers to the industry—he joined Aristocrat only last January after more than a quarter-century in executive roles in hospitality, pubs and beverage sales in Britain, Hong Kong and Australia—he finds it fascinating.

“It has more dimensions to it because we’ve got the massive investment that we make in our product through our creativity, through our technology,” he says. “I saw the size of our R&D spend compared to what I’ve been used to—it’s mind-blowing. But that’s something we have to do to make sure our product stays fresh, relevant and embraces all the creativity and technology that we see, and you’ve just seen, in the Helix™. And it makes it an exciting place to be.”

As a former general manager for Carlsberg HK, he’s no newcomer to the Pearl River Delta, and his years in Australia, most of them spent with Lion Nathan, the continent’s leading brewer (think XXXX, Boags, Tooheys), now part of Japan’s multinational Kirin group, frequently took him back to the Fragrant Harbour and occasionally to family outings in Macau, which amazes him still when he thinks about the massive changes that gaming has wrought on a city that still bore the sleepy trappings of its colonial past when he first set foot in it.

He recalls, “I’d been back two or three times with customers from Australia, and it hadn’t gotten much further than the first big casino you see when you get off the ferry, and I hadn’t seen the rest of the development that had taken place until I came up earlier this year. The thing that’s really bowled us over is the scale of what has happened, and the speed with which it’s happened, and the quality, and it’s really the quality thing that made us sit up and go, ‘Wow!’”

He’s joined Aristocrat on the heels of a banner year marked by an 11.5% surge in global EBITDA on revenues that grew by 7% over 2013 to more than A$870 million. The leadership the company enjoys in East Asia was a big part of the story, and when he looks across the region, at markets in the throes of transformation such as the Philippines, he’s doubly confident in the company’s prospects.

“As an Australian resident outside gaming I had no idea,” he remarks. “I knew about Macau, and I guess I’ve always had a special interest in Macau. But amazing things are happening in Manila, the development that’s happening now. There’s a lot going on.”

Which touches on something about the larger strategy discussion he finds especially appealing: the sizable investment the company makes in reaching across different market segments with games that embody a whole different development paradigm—lines like the E*Series—designed in partnership with the likes of Joe Kaminkow of IGT fame and Dan Marks, one of the founders of High 5 Games. The E*Series boasts six colorfully themed titles currently available on the workhorse Viridian Wide Screen, all graphically rich and engineered for fun, accessibility and time on device. They include Sky Rider, which takes Aristocrat’s popular Max Stacks technology—stacked symbols added to the reels on each spin, with both the symbol and stack generated randomly—and spices it up with a bit of 5 Dragons math in the form of selectable free games. Another is Storm Queens, which offers a less volatile experience that innovates on Max Stacks with an oversized block symbol that unlocks the feature when it appears on reels 2, 3 and 4 and can combine with stacked symbols on the ends to fill the screen.

“We’ve got this great collection of creative geniuses who produce this great content for us,” says Mr Kelly. “And we’ve been able to accommodate their creativity and their genius within the confines of a corporation, which is not always easy to do. I guess this is like, from my previous life, having your own in-house advertising agency.”

It’s a life he believes has prepared him well for ensuring at his end that the creativity rolls on.

As he puts it, “The older you get the more you realize that your success is determined by the success of your team. … You will undoubtedly not know as much about the product, the customers, the market, the players, as they do. But you don’t have to on Day 1. Because if you’re lucky like me and you’re surrounded by a whole group of people who really know their markets, really know their products, really know their customers, really know their players, really know their regulations, you can learn, and you can also concentrate on helping them to be the best that they can and do the job for their customers and their stakeholders in the best way possible. Hopefully, that’s something I can share with them.”

 

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