Aruze’s rapid rise as a casino game supplier isn’t an accident
Once in a while an industry produces a standout personality—someone not only capable of organizing the finance of a business, but also with a passionate belief in and understanding of that company’s products.
Kazuo Okada, the Chairman of Universal Entertainment Corporation and ultimate boss of its unit Aruze Gaming America, is one such person. He has worked his way up from the parlour floor of the amusement and gaming sectors—initially via the highly competitive world of Japan’s pachinko industry. It shows in the innovation achieved by Mr Okada’s electronic casino games manufacturing unit Aruze Gaming America in just six years of its existence.
It would do a disservice to Mr Okada to draw too close a comparison with Steve Jobs. History hasn’t yet had time to sort hype from hyperbole when it comes to the late co-founder of Apple Inc. But both men have demonstrated a passion for product innovation borne of close observation and understanding of their respective markets. And both have put great emphasis on gathering around them the best possible research and development team who share that passion.
The passion in Aruze’s case has given birth to gaming industry products that Mr Okada’s rivals often wish they’d thought of first. They include the now-famous ‘bash button’ on Aruze’s electronic table game Lucky Sic Bo. It gives players the feeling that they—and not an electro-mechanical wobble plate—are in charge of the dice.
“Mr Okada is a genius,” says Takahiro Usui, Senior General Manager for Aruze Gaming America, with responsibility for major Asian markets including Macau and Singapore. Japanese people are not noted for their fondness for either giving or receiving overelaborate compliments. So when Mr Takahiro uses the ‘g’ word, it makes an interviewer sit up and pay extra attention.
“He has a technical background in hardware and software and of course has deep knowledge of managing the company,” adds Mr Takahiro. He also points out that Mr Okada is good at applying cultural lessons across product categories. An example was his insight that if Asian baccarat players like to squeeze the cards for luck, giving them a feeling of control even after a hand is dealt, then they might also like the sensation they were in charge of how the dice fall in a game of sic bo.
“The ‘bash’ button on Lucky Sic Bo came from him,” explains Takahiro Usui.
“He already knew that baccarat players want to touch the face-down cards to make a good result. That’s why he wanted to put the button on Lucky Sic Bo.”
Mr Takahiro adds that other innovations were also down to the boss.
“Using huge dice for the [Lucky Sic Bo] game was his idea. Other manufacturers use smaller ones compared to us. On the slots side, the big unique top box series also came from him. We launched a stepper reel product series this year, and these are also very attractive, with flashing lights and a variety of reel-spinning combinations. There are other strong stepper reel slot manufacturers in the market. But I believe that our stepper reel series offers the most innovative products in this category at the present moment. The ability to create attractive games and build the anticipation and excitement of the players comes from the success story of our historical parent company Universal Distributing of Nevada. That was thanks to Mr Okada’s passion for innovation; based on his technology background and interests as an engineer.”
At this year’s G2E in Las Vegas, Aruze exhibited its now large range of electronic casino gaming products. They included the just-mentioned stepper reels, video slots and multiple bonus slot games like Great Eruption, and Raging Eruption. The latter two have been an especially big hit with players at Galaxy Macau. Inside Asian Gaming spoke to Takahiro Usui at G2E and asked him to explain the background to Aruze’s rapid rise in the competitive world of casino equipment supply.
IAG: Please remind us of the history of Aruze Gaming
Takahiro Usui: Aruze Gaming America was formerly Universal Distributing of Nevada (UDN). The company had a large market share in Nevada with some strong performance stepper reel products such as Magnificent 7s in the 1980s. UDN was renamed Aruze Gaming America in 2005. We then spent a couple years consolidating the new business and catching up on market trends while also standardising our platform. We achieved that through trial and error. The technology Aruze calls ‘Hybrid Slot’—transmissive liquid crystal display plus stepper reels—was born during this period. Currently we have a full product line-up not only of video/stepper slots, but also multi-station products such as sic bo and craps, and even slot machine accounting and monitoring systems with peripherals.
Gaming technology has changed a lot since the 1980s. Would you say the company has changed its approach to the casino business in that time?
The technology that has made us successful today was born out of the approach to technology we began in the 1980s. The 1980s was a dramatic and innovative period among the slot machine manufacturers. It brought in computerisation, random number generation, electronic motors for stepper wheels and the concept of variable volatility on the maths of games. UDN always made sure it was at the centre of those innovations. So, I would say that Aruze Gaming has UDN’s ‘DNA’ flowing through it in terms of its track record for innovation and meeting challenges in this industry.
Do you design products specifically for the Asian market?
Our R&D [research and development] is located in Japan, Australia and the Philippines. The Japan R&D team is developing new concept products such as Paradise Fishing as well as stepper reel and big top box games. With the video slots such as Lucky Samurai and Best Fortune, we’re working with True Blue Gaming in Australia. Philippines R&D is mainly compiling software to let them run on our platform. These development teams are focusing on not only Asia, but also the USA, Australia and other regions.
How soon are we going to see your latest products in Asia?
We exhibited 80% of them at G2E Asia. So we can deliver more than 50% of the products on display at G2E in Las Vegas before the end of this year. We have launched Shoot to Win Craps, Roulette Angels, and Lucky Big Wheel in Macau as well as Great Eruption, Wheel of Pharaoh, Chinese Queen and Japanese Oiran. This time we have brought an additional important linked product—Fortune Festival. It has a typical performance math model popular with players in the Asia-Pacific region, so we are very excited about this product.
Please tell us more about the Fortune Festival link. What’s the background to this product?
It’s going to be in the market next year. Some of our Macau customers saw it during G2E Asia in the private showroom at our booth. True Blue Gaming in Sydney, led by Scott Olive, is the creator for our video slots—especially for the style of game Aristocrat has made successful. He has the creative background into how to create successful math models for video slots in the market, and now he’s working with us on developing video slots. Our competitor in the video slots market—especially in Macau—will continue to be Aristocrat, with strong games such as 5 Dragons or the FA FA FA link game.
Was it your idea to ask for a dedicated Aruze zone in The Venetian Macao? And what was the process that achieved that?
Aruze came to Macau in 2009 in order to do business face to face with our customers. But we started with some setbacks. At the time we brought out two typical 50-lines video slot products. We put them in several casinos, but they failed—they were returned. After that we brought out Shen Long and Legend of The Qin Dynasty [both five-reel video slots]. They were successful in the same venues and so the casinos started to believe in us. Then in 2009 we introduced Lucky Sic Bo [a multi-station electronic table version of sic bo] into the market just before the Macau show [G2E Asia in June 2009]. We asked The Venetian and Mocha Clubs to take Aruze’s Lucky Sic Bo just before the show based on our confidence about this product. They agreed and it was successful.
Then at the end of 2009 I asked if Aruze could have the floor space in front of Morton’s [restaurant on The Venetian’s main gaming floor]. It was an area that at that time didn’t have much activity. And I also asked if we could put all our products in that one area. They were excited about that idea and actually gave us another space in front of the high-limit area. That was the start of the Aruze zone.
Did you make some suggestions to the management about marketing that part of the floor?
We offered them our new concept big top box product, with the multiple bonus game; Story of Cinderella; Bow Wow Bucks; Vampire & Beauty—those types of games. It was the first time they were in Macau.
What reception did those products get at G2E Asia?
Some people thought those games wouldn’t work in Macau. They thought they were too fancy, too loud, and too bright—or had too much cartoon animation. But the market took to our ideas and these games were successful beyond our expectations. The news of their performance ran through the market and many people went to look at what was going on.
Why do you think the Aruze zone at The Venetian became so successful?
One thing I can say is that the customer [the casino] gave us a good opportunity to place the product. That decision was a difficult one for them on the operations side. All casino managements have the responsibility to maintain their current revenue and then to boost it with good products and careful use of their budget—sometimes on the basis of a product trial. They always have to be careful when choosing a product to try and ensure it will work.
Aruze’s R&D department is good at researching what kind of product will work in certain markets. That’s a very challenging part of our business. It’s hard to find out what product will do well. But with good communication between the supplier and the customer and good market research, good things can be achieved.