nce upon a time, casinos liked slot machines about as much as they liked losing money. Prone to mechanical breakdowns and vulnerable to scammers, the devices invented in the 1890s were placed on the fringes of casinos' gaming floors, where they drew the more penny-pinching players reluctant to try their luck at blackjack or roulette. That changed by the 1980s, when International Game Technology reshuffled the deck by proving that using digital technology in slot machines could turn them into a safer bet for casinos. Thanks in part to the Las Vegas-based IGT's trailblazing role, the money makers popularly known as one-armed bandits (now often referred to more generically as gaming machines) account for almost 75 percent of the nearly $39 billion in gambling revenue American casinos generate, according to Dr. David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. No wonder industry insiders today call slot machines "beautiful vaults."
Now the world's largest maker of gaming machines, IGT's success came in part from infusing pop culture into slots, resulting in product lines themed after "Sex and the City," "Jurassic Park," and "Wheel of Fortune." IGT also introduced innovations over the years such as interactive video displays and multilevel progressive jackpots.
But even with IGT raking in annual revenues that topped $2.1 billion in 2012, the company wasn't hedging its bets. In fact, in 2013 it underwent changes that included revamping its logo, introducing more than 100 new gaming machines, and most importantly, debuting an online social casino (where the bets and winnings are virtual, not legal, tender) it purchased in 2012 called DoubleDown Casino.
BETTING ON SUCCESS
International Game Technology drew 25,000 visitors with an immersive environment that recreated elements of the movie "Avatar," and a spinning platform where contestants could play with $200,000
of virtual money.
From hedging in horse races to card counting at blackjack, every bettor has a strategy for shaving the odds so that gambling looks less like, well, gambling and more like a sure thing. IGT was no different. Partnering with the Milwaukee-based exhibit house Derse Inc., IGT felt the shrewdest strategy for winning this particular kind of wager was to put everything on one roll of the dice at the 2013 Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas. Established in 2001, the annual show would welcome more than 455 exhibitors from 32 countries promoting gambling-related games, products, and services to more than 16,000 attendees. Nearly 30 percent of those attendees are C-level or higher, according to Exhibit Surveys Inc. of Red Bank, NJ, a stat which meant that IGT would often be dealing with the head honchos of companies who buy the machines in bulk. "We were excited to share IGT's games, services, and brand positioning with everyone at G2E with a strong presence that really made a splash," says Phil O'Shaughnessy, the director of global corporate communications for IGT. "The show is an important venue for us to reinforce how IGT is transforming gaming entertainment."
Warming up the Dice
Rather than rely on luck being the proverbial lady at the show, IGT chose a strategy that would capture its target audience much the same way casinos corral their customers: create an environment filled with enough time-consuming distractions that attendees would be drawn to enter but feel reluctant to leave. Inside this biosphere of color and sound, IGT would focus most on manifesting the new color/logo, displaying the latest gaming machines, and most importantly, demonstrating the revolutionary DoubleDown Casino. "It was vital to expand people's perception of gaming through the booth," says Adam Carnes, Derse's experiential marketing creative lead. "G2E is dominated by hundreds of exciting machines that make it difficult to arrest attention. We wanted to create an experience showcasing the DoubleDown Casino that would disrupt the physical environment of G2E."
IGT also set goals that would require more than beginner's luck to attain. Besides needing to reach its core audience, it wanted to improve on a metric it calls "share of voice" (the number of media hits it calculates using a special software program), and naturally, IGT also hoped to drive sales.
So starting about two months before the show opened, IGT used email and snail mail to contact a pool of several thousand preregistered attendees, current and potential customers, as well as members of the media, investors, and financial analysts to set up appointments to discuss the new products. IGT's pre-show communiques teased the select audience like the celebratory dinging sounds its gaming machines do gamblers, with shout outs to the new branding, online DoubleDown social casino, and gaming machines based on the movie "Avatar." The company leveraged its website and Facebook page to tout the booth, and also ran ads in print media regarding the unveiling of the new logo and products. With its strategy mapped out and appearance at the show publicized, IGT was ready to roll the dice at G2E.
Some Like it Slot
Like a massive mirror, the silver plush booth carpet and white fabric walls reflected the sapphire light emanating throughout the exhibit, making the entire space gleam like the iconic Tree of Souls from the movie "Avatar."
To the attendees flocking into IGT's booth when the show opened last September in the Sands Expo and Convention Center, the $3.3 million, 21,600-square-foot exhibit glimmered with the intensity of a supernova illuminated by a disco ball. Lighting from an overhead truss washed the space with the corporate blue hue, underscored by wall-mounted graphics of the updated logo in dozens of areas, and taglines that read, "Be Bold. Be Blue." The white fabric walls and silver plush carpet reflected the iris-colored light onto the overhead convention catwalk area, making the structure shimmer. Over the main reception desk hung an 18-by-50-foot tensioned-fabric structure shaped like a minimalist version of the soaring banshees in "Avatar."
Once they filed past the reception desk, attendees entered a world as immersive as the casino floor itself. The 300-strong staff greeted visitors and escorted them through the gallery of 300 gaming machines that played a sonata of chirps and clangs in a terrain of cerulean light. The machines encompassed 125 different themes, including "Bridesmaids" and "Jurassic Park." At the center of this fantasy world, though, were the new James Cameron's Avatar Video Slots and James Cameron's Avatar Treasures of Pandora machines.
Basing the machines on the highest-grossing film of all time, IGT wanted them to kindle a spark of the same wonder moviegoers felt when they entered the cinematic world of 10-foot-tall Na'vi warriors on the planet Pandora. This was crucial to IGT's success at the show: Customers are understandably leery of buying machines that can cost as much as $13,000 each. So, instead of just stuffing attendees with buffet-size servings of product features, IGT staff instead escorted them on what it called "Flights to Pandora," which heightened their experience of the exhibit the way 3-D effects heightened the impact of the movie.
The exhibit's 300 gaming machines included IGT's newest additions: James Cameron's Avatar Video Slots and James Cameron's Avatar Treasures of Pandora.
The sojourn into space took place on a 1,300-square-foot platform covered in white vinyl flooring. Raised 14 inches above the floor, the platform was illuminated by blue halo lighting that defined the area, and the cobalt gleam reinforced the products' tie in to "Avatar" as well as the new corporate hue. On the platform, models painted to look like Na'vi warriors accompanied visitors to any of 12 "Avatar"-themed gaming machines and helped them discover the dozens of ways players can place bets on the units, as well as how they could explore innovative interactive content on their 42-inch screens. Towering over the scene was a 12-foot-high, 2,500-pound replica of the movie's Tree of Souls, which served as the alien planet's nervous system. Lit by more than 10,000 LED lights and powered by a duo of transformers mounted in the base, the alien flora sported tentacle-like branches. A few feet away from the Tree of Souls, a haze machine generated a veil of pearly mist that made the platform seem less like the inside of an exhibit and more like the interior of a great iridescent cloud.
While attendees roamed in the landscape and tested the machines, a photographer using an iPad camera snapped approximately 1,700 photos of visitors posed with the Na'vi models against a backdrop of Pandora. Made with anamorphic techniques that rendered it almost 3-D, the backdrop seemed to land visitors in the hallucinogenic terrain of the alien world. Staffers handed those who had their picture snapped a card that directed them to a site where they could download their photo, which would be a visual reminder of the "Avatar" machines. Staffers also posted the pics on IGT's Facebook page.
While it was impressive and engaging, the "Avatar" area was nonetheless a church-basement bingo parlor compared to the exhibit's centerpiece: the DoubleDown Casino.
A form of what's called "social gaming," DoubleDown Casino is like a virtual casino that users can play on a computer or mobile device. Moreover, it can also be integrated into other companies'
| Towering over the exhibit's massive platform was a 12-foot-high, 2,500-pound replica of the Tree of Souls from "Avatar" drenched in more than 10,000 LED lights.
websites, where gamers can play traditional and themed versions of games such as poker, slots, and blackjack. In its marketing crystal ball, IGT had peered into the future and saw online gaming the same way it once saw digital slot machines, as a portent of things to come. Thirty percent of all Americans play these social games, according to the Electronic Software Association's 2014 report, "Essential Facts About the Computer and Videogame Industry," with the genre growing by an astonishing 55 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone. Just 7 percent of IGT's 2012 income stemmed from online gaming, where it makes money primarily from players who buy virtual chips from the app itself. But with the massive growth factor of social gaming beckoning, IGT wanted its marketing of the DoubleDown Casino at the show to produce results that were the equivalent of hitting triple sevens on a slot machine.
Occupying a 34-foot-diameter section of the booth, the DoubleDown Casino area possessed an air of mystery that attendees would be unable to resist. A duo of 12-foot-tall frosted acrylic panels fronted the main facade where visitors entered and exited. LED lights placed at the base of each panel washed the structure with a corporate blue. After attendees passed through the shielded entrance, they stepped on a 14-inch-high, 26-foot-diameter rotating platform. Dubbed the DoubleDown Winner's Circle, the platform was divided into four areas of six seats each. Each area was partitioned by 3-inch-thick soundproofed wood panels with an exterior finish of flat matte black paint.
IGT had to convey DoubleDown Casino's most important features within a compressed 16-minute window of the platform's presentation times. The solution comprised theatrical lighting effects, a movie, and the adrenaline rush of game play. Once attendees settled into seats outfitted with integrated speakers and adjustable armatures holding high-def 30-inch monitors, the host pumped up the crowd with a scripted 60-second spiel. Then the lights dimmed, and the motorized, turntable-like platform began to slowly rotate clockwise. Every four minutes, the platform revolved one-fourth of the way around, prompting embedded sensors in each partition to trigger synchronized HD video and audio presentations that appeared on guests' individual screens and the 8-foot screens in each of the theater areas.
Once the lights went down, the screens lit up with a story about a couple, John and Becky, and their friends. The audience followed the twosome and their pals playing in a fictitious physical-world casino and then the virtual DoubleDown Casino as well. Running a total of 14 minutes long, and divided into three acts (one each for three of the stage's four rotations), the movie fused the excitement of a brick-and-mortar casino with the cyber one, so that both seemed to inspire equal jolts of adrenaline. Just as casinos pump in fresh oxygen, signature scents, and sounds to enhance players' enjoyment, IGT mixed lights and sounds to elicit a more visceral reaction. For example, when a character in the movie won a slot game called Wolf Run, surprise broke over her as the machine she played on displayed a show of fireworks. In that precise moment, flashing lights in the theater color coordinated with the frequency and hue of the fireworks, transporting the excitement on the screen into the theater.
But the videos were just the opening act, so to speak, for the convivial chaos of the fourth and last rotation. Each player was staked $200,000 on the screens at their chairs, and entered into a high-speed slots competition. Gambling their windfall with the devil-may-care attitude of Frank Sinatra and the Ratpack blowing a wad at a crowded craps table, the attendees vied to see who could win the most in a few frantic minutes of play. When the game ended, the three highest-scoring winners' names appeared on the leader board. And for a little extra Las
Hundreds of booth visitors posed with the Na'vi models against a striking backdrop reminiscent of the landscapes found on the planet Pandora.
Vegas pizzazz, intelligent lighting mounted to an overhead truss that was programmed to spotlight the top three contestants cast a beam onto the trio as the host congratulated them. While the first-place winner took home an iPod Nano, everyone received a 2GB thumb drive resembling a casino chip, loaded with information about the DoubleDown Casino.
The House Always Wins
If fortune favors the bold, as the ancient Roman playwright Terence wrote, fortune must have been head over heels with IGT. Creating a kind of Brigadoon of betting, the company says it realized its goals and much more at what it considers its most important show. While IGT is less eager to give out specific goals and results for the show than casinos are to give players their money back, it does reveal several telling metrics. The exhibit drew in 25,000 visitors â?" including many making repeat visits â?" at a trade show whose audited attendance was a little more than 16,000. And its share-of-voice metric (again, a calculation of media hits) was up 27 percent compared to the 2012 show.
Numbers like these suggest the company was on a winning streak, of course. But, like anything connected to Las Vegas and gambling, it always comes down to a few simple words: Show me the money. IGT wanted the number of DoubleDown Casino partners and individual monthly players to grow from 46 and 1.6 million, respectively, at the time of the show. Currently those figures run 60 and 6 million. Moreover, the company's total revenues for 2013 increased 9 percent to $2.34 billion from 2012, while its social-gaming revenues the same year jumped 151 percent to $219 million.
The numbers may seem like the company simply enjoyed a hot streak Nick the Greek would envy, but its ongoing success suggests there was more labor involved than luck. Expertly wielding a strategy mixing Las Vegas flash with immersive entertainment that communicated its products' uniqueness, IGT turned a bet on a multimillion dollar exhibit into a sure thing.