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Best of John Grochowski

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A visit to WMS

23 November 2010

Looking back over their nine-plus years at WMS Industries Inc., Larry Pacey and Phil Gelber can recall a certain resistance to change in the casino industry.

"Everybody kept telling us what we couldn't do," Pacey, executive vice president for global products and chief innovation officer of WMS Industries, said before he and Gelber took me on a little tour of WMS' plant in Chicago. "We heard that the players didn't want it, that the customers — that is, the operators — didn't want it, and that the regulators wouldn't approve it."

Gelber, WMS' vice president of game development, added, "It finally got to the point of, 'We're going to try all this stuff and see how it goes,' and luckily it caught on.

"I sat in on countless meetings for our three-space chair, the 3-D surround chair that we partnered with Bose on. Everybody looked at us like we were crazy. 'Why are you going to create a slot machine with 3-D sound? No one wants 3-D sound on a slot machine.'"

Added Pacey, "As a matter of fact, they even told us that 3-D graphics had been done a couple of times, and there'd never been a successful product. And then we, of course, brought out Top Gun followed by Wizard of Oz, both of which have been phenomenal successes and that whole product line since."

Something else WMS heard was that no one could beat slot giant International Game Technology at its own game, that all other manufacturers were just competing for niches.

Yet in the quarter ending Sept. 30, WMS led all slotmakers in share of units shipped in the North American replacement market.

That's partly due to hot new games like Lord of the Rings, an Adaptive Gaming line adventure with unlockable features, and even a chance to unlock features while playing for free online. As with Star Trek before it, Lord of the Rings allows a player to create an identity and pick up where they left off on their journey through Middle Earth the next time the play.

It's the kind of thing that would have shocked naysayers in 2001, when WMS was being told what it couldn't do. Over the years, even players have suggested they didn't want some the features WMS was adding. But the company does extensive testing and use of focus groups to get a better sense of what will work once the product is ready for market.

"That Lord of the Rings product is probably the most complicated slot machine ever made. It's got power spins, save where you are, go on line and unlock new features. And so the great news is for us, we just have a vision, we're marching to that vision and that's what drives us."

WMS, recently selected by Forbes as one of America's 100 best small companies, was getting ready to showcase its latest and greatest games at the Global Gaming Expo starting Nov. 16 in Las Vegas when Pacey and Gelber took time from their busy schedules to show me some of what's new at their home base.

One stop was to check out Monopoly Bigger Event, first in the Collaborative Gaming line. It's an extension of Community Gaming where players win together and sometimes compete with each other in shared bonus events, but in the Collaborative line, players' actions have an impact on each other's winnings.

In a bonus trip around the Monopoly game board, players take turns rolling the dice, touching them on the screen, dragging and letting 'em fly. Land on Boardwalk, and you're a hero. Or in Community Chest and Chance bonuses, players take turns touching the screen to flip over a card and reveal a bonus amount. Your neighbors are rooting for you to flip over a big-money card, and you're doing the same for them.

The entertainment roots run deep at WMS, which can trace its history back to the old Williams pinball company. It's still in the building Williams built in 1946, though a new building under construction on the Chicago River is part of expansion plans. WMS has become a global company, with labs in Las Vegas, London and Sydney, Australia, as well as the home base in Chicago. And even during difficult economic times, the company has continued to grow and hire.

"What's great is we have such a storied history," Pacey said. "There's this great culture. A lot of companies try to have an innovative culture. For us, it just kind of flows out of the business. It's pride of heritage.

"We've been able to attract a lot of really talented people. If you have to make the choice between making something really cool, fun new game versus some more pure technology-based or capability-based thing, it's kind of fun. So we tend to be a destination for a lot of people."

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski