Driving Forward

Top slot supplier Aristocrat continually grows and diversifies its business

Aristocrat Leisure Limited was founded in 1953. Aside from the primal version of the Bally brand, it is the oldest slot supplier in the gaming industry.

Yet, so much about this company seems brand-new. Its CEO, Trevor Croker, has been at the helm less than two years, and only last fall became the first Aristocrat CEO to relocate from the company’s home base in Sydney, Australia to Las Vegas, home of the company’s U.S. subsidiary Aristocrat Technologies, Inc.

Before the end of the year, that subsidiary will be in a new campus in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin that will serve as the headquarters for all North American operations.

The heart of those operations, of course, is another element of Aristocrat that seems forever young—a game development staff that is the envy of the casino supply sector. Already strong from additions in the past decade that include game design legends like Joe Kaminkow, Ted Hase, Dan Marks and Scott Olive—now in a stellar second stint with the company—this month, the company adds Allon Englman, a longtime game design leader for Scientific Games and WMS Gaming, as senior vice president of game development, in charge of a new studio focused on North American gaming content.

It’s part of what the company calls its design and development force (D&D, or RD&D, to include research) that has grown from the original Sydney studio into an operation extending to studios around the world—from Las Vegas to Reno; from Atlanta, Georgia to Austin, Texas; from Noida, India to Franklin, Tennessee, the latter the result of the acquisition four years ago of distinguished Class II supplier Video Game Technologies (VGT), which has been instrumental in the development of RELM, Aristocrat’s latest stepper slot series.

“We’re spreading our production and D&D across a growing number of tech hubs around the world,” says Matt Wilson, Aristocrat’s managing director for the Americas. “Wherever there’s great talent, let’s go there and get them to join the organization so we can continue to make great games. And I think from a consumer and operator perspective, the bar is getting higher and higher.”

Aristocrat has a knack not only for drawing talent, but for cultivating that talent to the benefit of the entire organization. That goes right to the top. In the past 18 months, Croker has evolved the company with new acquisitions—notably the integration of VGT which was purchased four y ears ago, and acquisitions including social game company Product Madness and Seattle-based interactive gaming supplier Big Fish Games—but has continued to bolster the core business of developing slot games that continually top industry surveys such as the Eilers-Fantini report.

 

‘What’s Inside’

At this year’s Global Gaming Expo, Aristocrat encapsulated its recent success under the slogan, “It’s All About What’s Inside.”

“What we’re saying there is that the industry recognizes us for our great product,” Wilson says, “but it doesn’t happen by accident. It really comes back to hiring great people, and creating the right environment for them to do their best work. It’s what’s inside the organization, in terms of our culture. The key differentiator for us is the culture that we’ve built at Aristocrat, and we’re proud of that, and we’re spending a lot of money to continue to invest in our people and develop them.

“We want to be the employer of choice in the gaming sector. We’re expanding quickly, and we’re looking to take on people who aspire to the same vision that we do, to be a market leader and a great partner for casino operators.”

Perhaps the most visible evidence of this effort can be found in the new 180,000-square-foot North American headquarters. “We wanted to bring many of our teams in Las Vegas under one roof in Summerlin, with the exception of our slot assembly facility,” says Wilson, “and so we have 1,100 employees here locally, across all different functions, from HR to finance, accounting, sales, marketing, game design and supply chain. We wanted to bring everyone together in an environment where we could create the right amount of collisions between all those different functions, to spark the energy that you need to be a true market leader.”

Along with the company’s original studios in Australia, the new Las Vegas headquarters is the epicenter of a growing network of talented staff which contributes to the company in their own area of expertise. “There are a lot of different market segments out there for games and systems, and we have innovators in each of these different categories that are the best at what they do,” Wilson says. “That’s one of the keys to our success—finding the best talent, and then creating the right structure for them to be successful.

“It’s our customers that are our inspiration, and they are the enablers of our success, and we are thrilled that customer response has been so supportive and positive.”

The evidence is there in Dollar Storm, Olive’s follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade in the slot market, Lightning Link, and its much-copied hold-and-respin game mechanic.

It’s there in Buffalo Diamond, the 10th anniversary edition of the industry-topping Buffalo video-slot brand, on the unique flame55 cabinet with its double-curved 55-inch monitor.

And it’s there in the RELM stepper series, Aristocrat’s newest mechanical-reel product suite that was developed thanks to the expertise that came to the company with the VGT acquisition. VGT has been one of the top Class II suppliers with a product line dominated by stepper-style games.

“The journey of VGT has been a journey of continuing to integrate into the Aristocrat family, and one of the early ways we did that was by taking our RD&D staff that works on the games and the steppers, and moving them under Aristocrat oversight,” says Jay Sevigny, president of VGT. “VGT has a lot of pride in the development of that, but really, that development continued under the oversight of Aristocrat developers.”

“That was one of the beautiful things about the VGT acquisition,” adds Wilson. “We had complementary skill sets—at our core, we’re a Class III video company, and at VGT’s core, they’re a Class II stepper company. So when you bring those two together, with very complementary skill sets, underpinned by very common core values, I think it’s a been a merger of great success.”

Aristocrat is taking that success to new levels with the RELM XL premium cabinet, which takes the RELM platform and adds a 43-inch curved monitor above the reels, topped by a bonus wheel. The latest branded game on the new format is Motown, a reel-spinner that features player-selectable music—a jukebox of sorts, allowing the player to select songs to accompany the reel-spinning, accompanied by a video of the song being performed on the top monitor.

And of course, the RELM series at Aristocrat complements the continuing success of VGT in the company’s Class II markets. “We have an amazing lineup of Class II products, which is something that VGT and Aristocrat have been working on for quite a few years now, since the acquisition of VGT,” Wilson says.

Adds Sevigny, “For VGT, this reflects a commitment of about 45 games that are going be introduced to the market this year. We’ve got about 70 different games on the floor (at G2E), and that’s record-setting for us, to be able to come to the market with that kind of an inventory, and the quality behind it.”

That includes porting Aristocrat’s winning strategy in gaming operations over to the Class II arena. “The licensed category is still a big and important category for us, and a good example of that is PBR,” Sevigny says.

PBR is the first high-profile brand designed for the Class II space, a linked progressive Class II slot based on the culture and stars of the Professional Bull Riders organization, which stages nationally broadcast professional rodeo competitions across the U.S. “It’s the first time that we’ve really come out with a licensed brand,” says Sevigny.

“It’s a great theme for us, and we’re able to do this because now that we’re part of the Aristocrat family, we get to take advantage of the linked technologies that Aristocrat has to offer. We couldn’t do that before.”

Aristocrat also is moving full-speed into the interactive space, but again, Wilson says it all goes back to creating new avenues for its core business, which is the creation of great games. “When you look at Aristocrat at its foundations, we’re a games company,” Wilson says. “And so, we look at the digital categories, and we realize they’re aligned to what we do as an organization.

“We started that journey with Product Madness in 2012. We bought that company for a very small amount of money, and we’ve seen the value you can create in the digital segment. So, we’ve had some success there; we’ve built some great capability in the digital arena.”

The acquisition of Big Fish Games, a developer of casual games for PCs and mobile devices, closed earlier this year, and along with last year’s agreement to acquire social games company Plarium, the development has added new strength to the company’s interactive division.

“We’re working hard to bring the (Big Fish) business under the umbrella, and we’re excited about that,” Wilson says. “We’ve also made a significant acquisition in Plarium, which focused on a very different market segment, in terms of the consumer base. The traditional Class III casino customer skews very heavily female; it’s the older demographic. If you look at the Plarium business, it skews male, it skews younger. And so, it’s an adjacent market that makes sense for us to enter.”

 

New Horizons

The new Class II entries and growing interactive business are examples of new horizons being pursued by Aristocrat as it enters the next phase of its North American expansion. At G2E, the company introduced its first bar-top multi-game unit, built after numerous requests for a bar-top version of the hit game Buffalo (according to Wilson, some operators were even cutting holes in their bars to fit in upright Buffalo units).

Wilson notes that the new Aristocrat bar-top includes a full contingent of the traditional video poker games, but the inclusion of the Buffalo brand adds a way for operators to hold more on their bar-top units.

“Our strategy is very simple—focus on the customer,” Wilson says. “Bar-top units constitute a footprint on the operator’s floor and we’re trying to bring great slot content into that category. We’re taking our favorite brand in Buffalo into that space—Buffalo Gold, which is the No. 1 game in the Class III video space, to sit alongside poker and keno.

“Customers have been looking for innovation in that category for some time, and they’re happy that we’re delivering it. It’s been well-received, but it’s early and we’re taking nothing for granted.”

“What’s important to our customers is important to us,” Wilson says. “We’ve just gone live in Washington state, in the Class III video lottery space. Tulalip, our casino partner up there, is our launch partner in Washington. That’s a huge market that we haven’t participated in before.

“We’re also opening up in the VLT market; we’re live in Atlantic Lottery Corporation casinos in Canada. We’re going live in Manitoba in the next month, so that’s another huge growth opportunity for us. We’re also looking at many other adjacent opportunities where we can take our core competency and move into a market segment where operators want us to be.”

Wilson says Aristocrat’s way forward lies in never being complacent with its success. “First and foremost, we’re a supplier to the gaming sector, so as a market leader, we are making sure we make products that help grow the market, and help our casino partners grow,” says Wilson.

“Making sure that that business is vibrant is important to us, and complacency is always a danger. We can’t just be happy with the success we have; we have to continually raise the bar.

“The analogy I use a lot in our business is that we’re trying to climb a mountain, and we’re only halfway up—and no one climbs a mountain to get to the middle. So, we’ve got a long way to go, and the things that got us halfway up the mountain are different than the things that we need to get us all the way up. And so, we have to continually look inside the organization to how we strive for excellence, and keep being ambitious and trying to drive the business forward and help our customers succeed.”