All his life, Ali Saffari has taken giant steps. His goal has been to leapfrog through life powered by his charisma, dedication and desire to succeed. And succeed he has.
Throughout his 24-year career with International Game Technology (IGT), he was responsible for many of the greatest gaming industry innovations of our time. He and his fellow IGT engineers created Megabucks. He laid the groundwork, led the development of the communication protocol, and facilitated regulatory approvals to bring the first bill validators in gaming machines to market. He helped create the standards used for ticket-in ticket-out (TITO) across the industry. And the achievement of which he is perhaps most proud: being a driving force behind the Gaming Manufacturers Association (GAMMA), which is known today as the Gaming Standards Association (GSA).
Although he left IGT just this past June, his desire to keep creating meaningful products for the gaming industry was not left behind. Today, he heads up his very own company, Leap Forward Gaming. When we spoke this past December, the name of Saffari’s fledgling company was to be Leap Frog Gaming. “It is a simple name that has stuck with me throughout the years,” Saffari explained about his choice of words. “When you have the ability to leapfrog, you have the ability to do wonders. And it is my hope that when everyone in our company sees the name every day, they buy into that name and accomplish big things. We cannot do ordinary things. That is my goal.”
Since that first conversation, the company’s name has changed from Leap Frog Gaming to Leap Forward Gaming, mostly to avoid potential confusion with other Leapfrog company names. But the vision, inspiration and company goals have not changed at all. Saffari believes that the new name retains the same positive connotations of constant progress and growth by “leaps and bounds” (not to mention the same LFG acronym that has already gained a foothold in the gaming world.)
Carving the Path
If you were to Google “Ali Saffari,” he said you would find almost 30 pages that highlight his gaming career. And it’s been quite a career. Before joining IGT in 1986, Saffari had already carved a path of success. His first degree, a Bachelor of Science in accounting, was from the University of Gillan, Rasht, in Iran. Soon after graduating he joined then-Shah of Iran Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi’s army. “I was a lieutenant tank commander right out of college,” he recalled. “I also helped own and operate a chicken farm while I served in the military.”
After leaving his business and military life in Iran in 1979, Saffari and his wife moved to the U.S. to continue their educations. “I came to the United States to receive degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno,” he said. “That’s how I came to work for the Nevada university system, which has two universities and five community colleges.”
At the university, Saffari was responsible for maintaining the complex computer and network architecture for the chancellor office system that controlled the endowment funding for the entire university system—a challenging task no doubt. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he leapfrogged through his career there, constantly creating more efficiencies and adding greater value to all he touched. Eventually, that value culminated in the creation of a University of Nevada System mutual fund in 1984, which is still a driving force of financial support for the institutions today.
“Mutual funds for a university system were not that common back then,” he explained. “I computerized the system for the universities and community colleges. All the funds accumulated and as such, the wealth of university systems grew so much because they now knew how to procure more and larger investments. Bigger money makes bigger money.”
After seven successful years at the university, he was ready to take on a new challenge. What he thought would be a new engineering career at a start-up company in California, soon changed into a very different, yet fateful, career move.
“I received a call to join a company in Palo Alto, Calif., and the office secretary sent my resume to her boyfriend, who at the time worked for a growing slot machine company,” he said. “The boyfriend gave it to somebody within engineering on a Tuesday. On Wednesday they called me for an interview, and by Friday they offered me a job. And my 24-year career began from that day forward.”
If you haven’t already guessed it, that growing slot machine company is now one of the largest of them all, IGT. And Saffari’s first task as a new software engineer for IGT was writing programs. “The first job I had was writing Megabucks,” he said nonchalantly. “Together I and a couple of my colleagues wrote the software for the entire system and ran it. Writing Megabucks was likely the biggest thing I did at IGT. It was IGT’s giant step. And that is how, by the way, IGT became the 800-pound gorilla.”
But how, by the way, did he and his team at IGT come up with such a genius idea? “When I arrived at IGT, we had about 30 video poker machines connected together,” he recalled. “We were testing the market at that time and wanted to bring real money in the door. So, we at IGT decided to go mechanical to widen the capabilities to have multiple levels of progressives. We also wanted to take it to the next level by connecting the system across an entire state or multiple states, or even multi-national.
“At that time, I pulled my sleeves up and went to work. And it was hard work. I remember the first year I worked for IGT I had over 1,400 hours of overtime. I used to go home, take a shower and come back. My wife was also busy with her life and career at that time because we didn’t have a child yet. I used to go home just to take a nap and a shower. I lived at IGT.”
Megabucks helped create a new sales model for the industry. “Nobody had a product like it at the time,” he explained of the revenue share product. “The concept was very foreign, but yet so lucrative that operators wanted to have it. It was one of IGT’s best winning hands.”
After Megabucks, Saffari and his colleagues went on to create even more hits for the company. “I developed software for the first bill validator in a gaming machine,” he said of his next task. “I set all the standards for it—all the criterion, metering, accounting activities and reporting—that are still in use today.”
Soon after, Saffari and his team helped create multi-denomination games with sliding paytables. “Sliding paytables mean simply that when you’re playing a quarter, for example, you get a 75 percent payback, which is exaggerating, of course,” he said. “And when you play a dollar, you get 92 percent back using that sliding paytable. Rewarding players for playing at a higher denomination is a very important feature for gaming operators.”
Not one to stop and relish his accomplishments, Saffari immediately began on the next big thing: TITO. “I’m very proud to say that I played a major role in implementing TITO throughout the industry,” he said. “I and a couple of my co-workers created the standards that are still used by all the companies today.”
During that project, Saffari worked closely with regulators and operators, following one of his mottos in life that “regulators are the best friends of gaming manufacturers because they are the ones keeping the integrity of gaming intact so that states, operators, workers and manufacturers can prosper.” And it was during the development of TITO that Saffari created something so big, so important, it was impossible to foresee the impact it would have on the industry to come.
Setting the Standard
“About 12 years ago, John Acres, Lyle Bell and I got together,” Saffari said. “John came to me and said, ‘Ali, everybody’s doing something different.’ John was creating a bonusing system. I was creating games. I was using SAS. Others were using their own protocols. So we started an organization that we called GAMMA. Of course, today GAMMA has become the Gaming Standards Association.
“The beauty of GAMMA was that its goals and objectives were simply to create and implement protocol standards for the industry, which would in turn open up the doors to more and more innovation. Standards are about helping every member, and letting the members differentiate themselves by their own creations and innovations. I’m very proud of what has been accomplished by GAMMA and eventually GSA.”
Today, SAS is still being utilized by an estimated 350 companies and will no doubt live on into perpetuity in legacy products. Yet with GSA’s recent announcement that it will no longer support SAS’s development and instead focus on evolving the G2S and GDS standards, SAS’s glory days are over. This evolution is something that Saffari is excited about. “Evolving to G2S and GDS will provide huge opportunities for our industry,” he said. “It’s like going from a car to an airplane. Big things will happen.”
It’s also part of the reason why Saffari will undoubtedly find success in his newest venture. “The opportunity to create valuable innovations is enabled by G2S and GDS and LFG is all about creating exciting new products,” he said. “Right now in our little company, we have over 200 years of gaming experience. We also have many patents between us. We are concentrating on creating value, and products on the cutting edge that no one has yet created, with one simple goal: to increase the value proposition for the entertainment of our players and profitability of our operators (and consequently tax revenue for states), and reduce the cost of operation for existing games in the field, thus maximizing operational revenue.”
With more than 1 million gaming machines between the United States and Canada, Saffari believes if his company is able to offer something both players and the operators can benefit from, “I think and I hope we will do quite well, and it will be a win-win for all involved.”
Leap Forward Gaming has multiple divisions of innovation. The first wing is game development. “LFG has aligned with five companies that are currently producing gaming content, patents and products in the field,” he said. “As a result, we are able to bring products to market that have a proven high success rate. We have a large quantity of patented and non-patented games. These game concepts and development are being offered to IGT exclusively.” Even after leaving the company more than six months ago, Saffari and many of his company’s executives retain close ties with IGT.
“We believe we can have a very extensive operation,” he said. “On the inside of 12 to 18 months we can produce many games from birth to submission. We’re going to run our operation very lean and mean. As a result of that, we’re going to bring value to our partners.”
The second wing of the company is a gaming gadget innovation tank. “The devices we are working on will help operators, gaming machine manufacturers and peripheral manufacturers by simply increasing efficiencies like they have never seen before,” he explained. “These devices, electronics, gadgets and inventions all have one thing in common: They aim to bring benefits and value worth the expense of acquiring them.”
Unfortunately, Saffari is not at liberty to divulge any details on these new products quite yet, or on any additional directions LFG may take in the future. “I can’t talk about it at this time, but the day will come soon enough,” he said. If these new products he develops are anything like the innovations he brought to market while at IGT, there is no doubt we have yet to see the last of Saffari’s innovations.
“Everything I aim to do in life, I look to see what value it will add to the world,” he said. “That is my motto in life, and that is how I believe I was and will continue to be able to contribute to gaming as a whole.”