Frank Floor Talk: Fantasy slot vendors

October 24, 2022 9:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
October 24, 2022 9:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

Whether or not you made it to G2E in Las Vegas last week, everyone can probably list the “Big Five” slot manufacturers. In case you’re living off the grid, that august group consists of Aristocrat, Everi, IGT, Konami and Light & Wonder. Right behind them, and always looking to move up, are some serious second-tier contenders: AGS, Ainsworth, Aruze, Incredible Technologies and European giant Novomatic.

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G2E 2022 proved that there are countless good choices for slot machines from these top providers. Nonetheless, it is still prudent to ponder “Who’s next?” It’s a lot like Fantasy Football. You’ve got 11 positions to fill on each side of the ball. And in slots, you simply can’t go to wrong with the choices listed above in Groups One and Two. But what if (like me) you started Trey Lance (of the San Francisco 49ers) as quarterback this season on your Fantasy team? Out of the blue (aka a Seattle Seahawk linebacker), Lance suffers a broken ankle and is out until next fall. It happens! Likewise, Dak Prescott, the great Cowboys savior, suddenly is also out for a month or two with a broken thumb.

In real football, you look at the “bench” or “free agents”. In Fantasy Football, the backup plan is the “waiver wire,” where the replacements lie in waiting. It’s not that dissimilar in slots. We seldom see injuries, but the big players can stumble (anyone remember the Aristocrat “Viridian” or the IGT “sbX” promise?). Or perhaps a good vendor can get overly arrogant, let service decline or start raising prices. In Slot Ops, the “waiver wire” are those vendors with promise who may have a better than average chance to make your roster.

I’ll argue (totally subjectively, but based on their G2E showings and some early results from the field) that there are three candidates ready to start and play right now: Bluberi; Sega Sammy Creations and Zitro. Before you start shaking your head because you tried these guys years ago with no results; each one of these companies has been reborn in the last few years with new management and new product concepts.

Remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that MGAM was unknown outside of the Class II world. Suddenly, with new leadership and innovative designs, they rose from obscurity to the top level in Class III, rebranded as Everi. With that premise, here’s some background on my three picks.

Bluberi – It’s rare for a third level manufacturer to place any game in the Top 25. In an amazing feat (with exceptionally good timing), the Number One “Top Indexing Game – Core Overall” in the respected Eilers & Krejcik report was from Bluberi: “Devil’s Lock”. The September report is always critical, since all the major players use it to brag at G2E. While Devil’s Lock only had a small sample of games in the new report (32), it is still a remarkable achievement.

Even more amazing, the game is a Class III traditional machine. That’s notable since Bluberi has been around for years, largely as a middle-of-the-road provider of Class II, bingo-based machines. Launched in 1994 from Quebec, Canada the company had an occasional promising game. But, while they also saw a number of prominent sales folks come and go, overall their games seldom garnered serious traction.

That all changed when they hired Andrew Burke away from AGS in January of 2020.  As CEO, he quickly built a solid team from veterans of his former company and several others from across the industry. For Sales, he brought in Casey Whalen, a former executive at both Konami and Bally Technologies. Whalen recruited two other Konami veterans: Steven Kohon and Mesa Whitehurst.  Burke also named Christian Smith (from IGT) as manager of Product Marketing.

Bluberi’s Burke and Brennan

Perhaps most importantly, he landed IGT veteran game designer Mike Brennan. He had worked on games with GTECH, Spielo, Atronic and IGT at the VP level, before becoming Bluberi’s Chief Product Officer (CPO). Burke gave Brennan high praise at the show saying, “He brings the ideas, and I bring the enthusiasm to support them.”

Countless operators stopped by the booth to offer congratulations (and some surprise) about the company’s strong performance on their floors. One new feature was a demo screen on Devil’s Lock that could be configured at G2E to show a breakdown of game mechanics, volatility and other performance indicators reflecting their design philosophies. The demo was intended to show that they have a strong lineup of games targeting a broad range of player preferences.

For now, the company is not licensed in Nevada, but does cover most of the other   major venues from California to Florida.

Sega Sammy Creations – Here’s a claim that may surprise you. No one has produced as many gaming devices as Sega Sammy. The Big Five combined would probably still fall short. Those millions of devices include Sega’s long history with arcade and video games and Sammy’s background with Japan’s popular pachinko machines. The two companies merged in 2004 to form Sega Sammy.  At one time, Sega’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” went head-to-head with Nintendo’s iconic “Mario” for video game supremacy.

USA CEO Scott Winzeler

In 2013, Sega Sammy Creations, Inc. was created to focus on traditional casino gaming machines. Unlike both Bluberi and Zitro, who have not obtained Nevada licenses, USA CEO Scott Winzeler (a former IGT executive) said his team focused on Nevada licensing first, largely to meet obligations in Japan. They completed that long, difficult and expensive process in 2017. They now are also active in Florida, Oklahoma, California and Arizona, but are “just getting started in other markets.”

Winzeler said one of their strengths is game and cabinet reliability. As referenced above, he noted, “We’ve built millions and millions of consumer gaming terminals. As a result, our engineering is super, super solid. We have a virtual zero failure rate today in the field. Not everyone can say that.”

He was enthusiastic about their new “Genesis Crest” cabinet, which features a 49-inch 4K monitor with a 27-inch topper and a 13” input monitor. It will replace their earlier “Star” model, and several Southern California operators visiting their booth claimed the new games were doing well on their floors.

They placed four games in the Top 25 listing of “Emerging Suppliers” with the highest being No. 8: “House of the Dead Scarlet Dawn”. It may be an even better performer during Halloween next month. At the show, Winzeler and others in the booth were optimistic about “Empress of the North” on the new cabinet.

With their strong background in video games and solid leadership, it would be a mistake not to take Sega Sammy Creations seriously in the casino world.

Zitro’s Derik Mooberry and Johnny Ortiz

Zitro – Johnny Ortiz and his family got their start running Bingo halls in Brazil as early as 1994. In a story much like the first U.S. Native American casinos, Brazil did not allow traditional slot machines. But they did permit “Bingo-based” games. In the U.S., they were known as Class II. The Ortizes became premiere manufacturers of these bingo games worldwide, especially in Brazil. However, in 2004, Brazil outlawed Bingo. They re-focused their efforts on Mexico, Argentina, Spain and others.

In 2017, Johnny broke away from his brother and formed Zitro. Alejandro Ortiz maintained the Ortiz brand. Both companies failed to gain market share in the Class II market in the U.S.  However, Johnny and Zitro saw strong growth and growing popularity for their Class III machines, especially in Mexico. He thought that success deserved a relaunch in North America.

That came earlier this year in February of 2022. Derik Mooberry was named CEO of Zitro USA. Before recently retiring, he spent the last six years as Executive Vice President of Gaming at Scientific Games. It was during his tenure when that company saw some of its greatest successes with core game hits like “Dancing Drums” and “88 Fortunes”.

Another popular industry veteran, Mike Magrisi has joined the team and will report to Mooberry as VP of Sales and Service.

Zitro landed one game on the Eilers September “Emerging Suppliers” Top 25 list with “Koinobori Party”.  However, the game attracting considerable attention at the recent show was their “Mighty Hammer” theme on their “Allure Glare” cabinet. They also showed the larger “Altius Glare” with a 4K 55-inch vertical screen combined with a second 27-inch screen set off with LED halo effects.

As mentioned above, the company is not licensed in the Nevada market, but will compete in most other key jurisdictions, including California, Oklahoma, Arizona and Florida.

So, if you’re looking for new options, there are three promising players anxious to make an impact on your slot floor.