IGT’s Darrell Rodriguez: Creating World-Class Games

Entertainment is nothing new to IGT’s Darrell Rodriguez, considering his strong career history in the entertainment industry. He’s only been in the gaming industry since 2010, but is continuing to bring his unique perspective and experience to IGT as he works to deliver world-class games and concepts.

His entertainment experience started as a Walt Disney imagineer, where he first worked with rides and attractions, and on the online business where he produced the Disneyworld.com website. After that, he had a short stint at Earthlink, running QA organization for its client software group. When he moved to Electronic Arts, he worked on big game titles like SSX, NBA Street, FIFA Street, Command & Conquer and Medal of Honor. “I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most creative and influential people in the industry,” Rodriguez commented.

Then he was tapped to be the president of Lucas Arts, where he worked on more titles such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Monkey Island. From there, he shifted his gaming focus slightly. As he explains: “I saw that gaming and gambling were where the future was heading. I’ve always worked for the biggest and the best companies in any given industry, so IGT was a natural fit for me. And, the role that I play is a natural fit as well.” Management of a creative organization and strategy setting is where Rodriguez seems to thrive.

He started at IGT as the senior vice president of global game studios. Then very shortly after G2E last year, he was promoted to chief creative officer—a relatively unique title in the industry, but one that fits him perfectly.

In this role, he oversees all of IGT’s studios across the globe—studios for both online and land-based games. They have about 600 people making games in 12 studios on four different continents. “IGT makes more than 550 games a year,” he said, “and that’s online, mobile and land-based games, with about 300 of those being brand-new titles.”

Throughout Rodriguez’s experience, he’s certainly learned lessons about building a brand and running a team, which he says comes through openness and honesty. “Openness and honesty breed integrity and trust, which allows us to build a world-class team that can continue to make the world-class content that IGT is famous for today and well into the future,” he said.

“IGT has a legacy of innovation,” he shared. “We have more than 3,000 patents that have been granted over the years, and we spend about $220 million a year on R&D. With all that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility, and the only way to live up to those expectations is to surround yourself with great people who can execute on a day-in, day-out basis. Constructing an organization that is built to last is my proudest moment and greatest accomplishment here at IGT.”

Rodriguez says that this team-building is a major responsibility of his new role at the company. “It’s about maintaining the organization and growing different leaders within the organization so we can continue to execute and deliver that world-class content.”

But he always stays focused on innovation. “IGT is famous for innovation, whether it is TITO or wide area progressives. So I’m always asking what that new game, product or system is that will redefine the industry yet again,” he says.

One of his major initiatives on this front was the implementation of something IGT calls “Innovation Week.” He started it last year and, since it was such a success, it is quickly becoming an annual tradition. During Innovation Week, the idea is that everyone is a game maker. Rodriguez says that even just walking down the halls at work, he is often approached by other employees wanting to share a new idea for a game. Innovation Week, he says, bottles that magic and gives permission to every employee to create new ideas. “Within a given week, we will break the company up into different teams of about 10 people,” he explains. “We’ll seed them with an artist, an engineer and a designer, and fill in with various other positions—team members might be from finance, IT, legal, etc.—and we give them basic tools and tell them to make a prototype, a game or solve a problem for us. Then we’ll present these new ideas to our executive team and board members to judge which concepts we’ll actually make. I can easily see our portfolio in future years containing ideas that were generated from Innovation Week.”

Rodriguez says IGT’s next Innovation Week is planned for this March. Last year, this practice generated 19 patents that are in the process of being implemented into IGT’s games. DoubleDown is even going to be making one of the ideas that won!

Despite a focus on innovation and best-in-class staff, it can be challenging to deliver the best products when technology changes constantly, as does the whole face of gaming. But Rodriguez doesn’t seem too concerned. He says it is simply about maintaining those two concepts, combined with securing licenses to attract players to those games. “We are the leading producer of licensed pop culture games,” he explains. “Wheel of Fortune has been the best-performing game since 1996 and continues to be popular on floors today, and will continue to have more popular iterations in the future.. We are building on that success with other great titles like Sex and the City, Ghostbusters and new games that are a lot of fun like Family Guy, CSI and others.”

Integrating new concepts can also make a big difference, he says. Over the last few years, IGT has been working on, and just released, skill-based gaming with the Reel Edge Tully’s Treasure Hunt and Blood Life Legends titles in particular. “These video slots have a skill-based component to them with a joystick in the bonus round. They bring familiar game play from other types of gaming, like arcades or social gaming, to the casino floor and are going to be extremely important in the future. Games such as these are going to help IGT continue to differentiate its portfolio,” he says. “After seeing those great games’ success at G2E, and now on the casino floors earning more than 4X house average in some locations, is a lot of fun; these games are doing extremely well.”

Finally, content is king, Rodriguez says. He’s always looking for content that is going to resonate with players and that people are familiar with. “It’s not just movies; it can be TV like the CSI slot or Family Guy. Games that combine popular characters, new game play and elements like music, comedy or suspense will help us revolutionize the casino floor and continue our position as a leader in the industry.”

A great example of this is another hit game that Rodriguez is extremely proud of, Judge Judy. It just came out, and early indications are that it is going to be a gigantic hit, he says. “Judge Judy is the No. 1 daytime TV show, so there’s clearly a lot of attraction and recognition with the show. We’ve been able to interpret that experience and people’s familiarity with that TV show into a successful slot experience.”

Going forward, Rodriguez says a priority of his is to protect the core business by continuing to innovate and build a world-class organization, while leveraging the legacy of IGT as an innovative game leader. “That is really the strategy,” he states. “The execution of that will bring in other types of gaming and new styles of game play to the casino floor. We’d like to extend the core player demographic to new players, like those who are used to more social styles of play or those who like table games. We realize that we’re going to have to offer different experiences that will attract these new players.”

Last, he also says it’s important to maximize IGT’s development platform. Pulling from his experience with companies such as Disney, which delivers content on multiple platforms—think theme parks, movies, TV and more—he says IGT, with such a large library of world-class products, must develop and expand that library on an annual basis. “We have online, we have mobile, as well as land-based and social. So truly being able to converge our content and deliver it seamlessly across all of those channels is a competitive advantage and a major focus for us every day.”

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