IGT Doubles Down on Gaming Now and For the Future

I have no doubt that if you’re reading this magazine, you’re very familiar with International Game Technology (IGT), which is without question one of the top—if not the top—slot machine manufacturers today. But it’s been a while since you heard the complete IGT story, which is why we sat down with the woman at the helm of it all, CEO Patti Hart, to talk past, present and future.

Before we get to that, though, let’s take a trip down memory lane and refresh you on IGT’s history. It started out as a private company in the ‘50s, but went public in 1981 with help from one of our industry’s legends, Si Redd, and a little thing called the video poker machine.

Most of the ‘80s meant reinvention for this company and pioneering technologies such as player tracking, spinning reels, wide area progressives and the debut of hit products such as Megabucks®, Red White & Blue® and Double Diamond® slots.

Next was expansion, offering its machines to Native American and Japanese casinos, and opening offices in Australia, Europe, South Africa and South America.

A big year for IGT was 1996, when it established a new headquarters and debuted what is still one of the most popular gaming machines of all time: Wheel of Fortune®. The ‘90s also saw some key acquisitions that led to expertise in wide area progressives (WAP) and video poker lines.

More milestones occurred in the new century, including explosive growth, numerous honors and awards, installations and anniversaries, production of its 1 (and 2) millionth gaming machine,  the first electronic table game product, and the launch of major game-changers such as ticket-in/ticket-out technology, 3-D and Multi-Layer Display® technology. With the merging of IGT’s online and mobile gaming subsidiaries, together with more than a decade of experience, 2010 saw the creation of IGT Interactive, signaling its move toward new technologies and its readiness for the rise in social, online and mobile gaming.

We first visited with Hart in 2010 after she was hired as CEO in 2009. And, what’s remained the same is her intense focus on entertainment, technology, and most of all, IGT’s customers.

IGT’s Ticket to Play
Gaming has become such a prolific part of people’s lifestyles around the world, according to Hart. “That’s a great opportunity for us; at the same time it’s a great responsibility,” she wisely said.

A great responsibility indeed, but one that IGT seems to face without any hesitation. Despite offering such a wide range of products and services, IGT can always be counted on to deliver, and Hart says it’s just the result of a lot of hard work. “We’ve really been the company that has been at the front of innovation,” she commented. And though having the right products is important, it’s about building a culture that puts the customer first, which she calls your “ticket to play.”

“It’s easy to put the products and the technology together,” she continued. “I think sometimes the bigger challenge is the processes and the culture that has to be driven around the capabilities to make certain that performing for your customer is the No. 1 priority.” That, she says, is something every IGT employee thinks about every day coming in the door—herself included, as she reminds us that it has to stem from the top.

“We have five values that we believe in at IGT, and putting our customer first is No. 1,” she explained. “We talk about it a lot; we use it on our decision making. When push comes to shove, it’s really the work and the investment that you prioritize, that you will do whatever for your customers. It’s blocking and tackling every day and reminding yourself that your customers are the reason you exist. Without your customers, there is no such thing as an IGT. Wrapping all of that around the terrific products, innovation and changes that we’ve introduced to the marketplace has to be our culture and our prioritization.”

It also helps having proven products delivered by proven people. As Darrell Rodriguez, senior vice president of global game studios at IGT, said, “IGT attracts the best, has the best, and makes the best.”

A true partner to its customers, Hart says that part of how IGT continues to meet the needs of its customers is by remembering what operators do on a daily basis. It takes a lot to run a slot floor, satisfy player demands and drive revenues to maintain property goals. Hart added: “We respect the operators’ daily demands from customer service to overall casino operations. We want to be their source for innovation as well as research and development. Our deep understanding of the market allows us to design the new slot products needed to deliver on the day-to-day operations. We want our customers to be successful. Giving them every minute of productivity back is very important for us.”

Gaming Around the Globe
Just open up your news reports and you know that gaming continues to grow in popularity around the world. You can bet that IGT is there and always evolving to address these new players in new locations. “Localization” is the key word that describes how the company does it—going into each region with games that are appropriate and focused on that marketplace.

Hart says it’s about pushing the edge of the comfort zone of the industry. “When you think about how people play in addition to the geography shifting, there’s also shifting of devices people use to game. Gaming, at the end of the day, is an entertainment experience for people. How do we make certain that we are displaying entertainment experiences and opportunities on devices that people have become so accustomed to using? A lot of the work we’re doing there is to be disruptive, to move the industry.” Not at a pace beyond what the industry can feasibly handle at the time, but by investing in technology and innovation, Hart further explained.

The same principles that IGT was built on, and continues to make a priority today, are applied in markets the world over. “It starts first with understanding your customers,” Hart said. “We have invested a significant amount of time in research at the player level to better understand what is interesting, what is motivating and what is inspirational to those players. You really have to start with your foundation of research information, and then it comes down to a prioritization process in the company.”

She also says that it’s important to have a few early successes. IGT did this in Latin America with its Huevocartoon® and Day of the Dead products, both of which are relevant and recognizable in their respective markets and gave IGT the confidence to continue to prioritize for the Latin American region.

“It has to be more than just a face or symbol that people recognize,” Hart noted. “It goes as deep as the math and creating game play and performance that is appropriate for the player given the marketplace locally. We’ve gone beyond just taking our games and cutting and pasting brands and symbols that people recognize. We have taken it into the math models that reflect the style of play that these sort of local players enjoy. It’s really about having faith and trusting the process, research and leadership in many cases. We’re excited about the early impact that it’s having, and think that it can have a much greater impact over time.”

The New World of Gaming 
According to Hart, IGT has done a lot of the right things and has assembled the right pieces of the puzzle to get where it is. “As the industry evolves, it’s putting those pieces together day after day until the puzzle is fully assembled,” she noted.

One major part of the puzzle that IGT has capitalized on is pop culture brands that are recognizable to players. Today, those are brands such as Sex and the City™ and Ghostbusters™. While entertainment values will naturally change over time, players love to see icons that they know and love. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a generation that is as brand-centric as the generation of young people growing up in the United States,” Hart said, “and having brands that they relate to and that their friends recommend and relate to, we believe is a critical component to getting ready for the new world of gaming.”

In a major move, IGT recently purchased DoubleDown Casino, and Hart attributes it to “just a continuation of our company’s history of being innovative, pushing the envelope and creating new forms of gaming.” She continued, “When we look back in 10 years, it will just be one point in a long timeline of innovative changes we’ve brought to market.”

But it’s also a move to follow the trends of today’s player and be future-ready. As gaming around the world, including the U.S., moves online and everyone has a smartphone or iPad, IGT has found new ways to offer gaming experiences. Off the bat, IGT launched the popular Da Vinci Diamonds® and Cleopatra® games on the DoubleDown Casino, which has proven to be a success for the company. “It’s about building a game once and distributing it to as many users as possible around the globe,” Hart explained. “This really has eliminated the impediment of not having an outlet for social gamers, because social gaming with casino-style chance-based games is the fastest-growing component of social gaming today. It’s important for us to be there like it’s important for us to be in every form of gaming that’s growing rapidly.”

Of course, IGT had customers in mind even with this social gaming move, as the company has announced an initial set of agreements with three casino partners that will embed DoubleDown on the operators’ website. “It really allows our casino operator customers that have chosen not to develop their own social gaming sites an opportunity to extend social gaming experiences to their customers, by simply leveraging our innovation and technology,” Hart said. “We think it’s terrific for them, and it allows us to introduce casino-style gaming to a new generation of players. We think it benefits everyone, and we think it benefits the industry.”

Another extension of IGT’s strategy involves making its game library available on as many devices as possible in as many currencies as possible. This includes the Argentinean dollar, the euro, as well as virtual currency. Hart explained, “Extending our content to this emerging market that consumes gaming experiences using virtual currency as its metric, along with many more social features on top of it, is a critical place for us to be.”

What’s in the Cards
With such a big company that has so many products and services, what are Hart’s future plans? “I think the most important initiative we have underway at IGT is all the work we’re doing around convergence that allow over time, our customers and players to move seamlessly between devices and geographies,” she explained. “Do I think that’s the most important thing for 2013? No, it’s not, but it is the most important thing we’re working on if you look at the company and industry in five years.”

Gaming, Hart says, will not be immune to the trend of consuming entertainment at the players’ convenience, not the convenience of the content owner. It’s a wave that no one can stop. “We need to be a part of that wave,” Hart stated. “Pushing ourselves to more devices than just a machine is a very critical piece of the work we’re doing. And pushing our content to multiple devices without restricting it to one cabinet will be a critical part to everyone in the industry. Or else, we’re going to have to tell everyone they have to go back to bookstores and libraries to get books and they can only watch movies in the theater, and that trend is not going backwards.”

A good observation, as usual, from this powerful woman holding the reins of one of the biggest gaming companies in the world.