Twenty five years ago, Elaine Hodgson and Richard Ditton were programming games at their home, living from project to project and building a company that today is known across the world for its innovation and success in the coin-operated amusement industry. Now, the company can’t wait to show the casino gaming industry what it can bring to the floor.
Hodgson and Ditton began working on consumer video games together in 1983. By 1985, the small company they worked for closed its doors. But Hodgson and Ditton weren’t done. Ditton, executive vice president of Incredible Technologies, explains: “Elaine and I were committed to completing the projects we were working on so we continued on at our home. Once those commitments were met, it just seemed like a good time to start our own company.” At one point, Ditton stayed at home finishing up a project and Hodgson hit the road, selling their services. When Hodgson was home, she would work on programming as well. The couple did it all as co-owners and founders. Hodgson says she also “kept the books, took out the garbage and robbed Peter to pay Paul.” Ditton was the self-proclaimed “geek” in charge of original projects.
Incredible Technologies was incorporated on July 1, 1985. In the first year as a business, Hodgson, president and CEO, recalls hiring three people they had worked with in the past. “We all put in extremely long hours and committed ourselves to the belief and desire that we could make great games. With no investment capital, we grew by spending less than we earned. We bootstrapped ourselves to bigger projects and hired the best people we could along the way. The only business plan we had at the time was to secure the best jobs we could, and produce quality products and survive until the next one.”
One of Incredible Technologies first products sticks out in the co-founders’ minds. It was the software for a game cartridge called “101 Philosophical Sayings.” “It was inserted in to the Heathkit Hero Jr. Robot (which you built from a kit) and he would speak the 101 philosophical sayings in random order in his ‘charming’ robot voice,” Hodgson remembers. “Part of the payment for this job was our first computer (which also had to be built from a kit).” The Heathkit robots are now considered collector’s items for their rarity.
One of Ditton’s early milestone memories had to do with a controller system for a laser game to be installed in Japan by another company. Ditton says they got a call two days before the system was to go live. The other company was having “a few technical difficulties” and asked if Ditton could come over for a couple days to fix it. Ditton says: “I packed three days of clothing and headed to Japan. After 19 hours of travel, I arrived somewhere in Japan that I still can’t quite pinpoint to find the lead technician rocking back and forth on the floor mumbling to himself. For the next three weeks, I worked 21-hour days rewiring the system, while getting frozen by a CO2 dragon, and electrocuted in a giant spider. It was great fun and one of my better experiences in life.”
Elaine Hodgson and Richard Ditton in 1985
As the co-founders hired more people, the business got a bit more complicated. Hodgson says she realized things were serious when they hired their fifth employee. “He told me that he was so excited because now he could get married. That is when it hit me that the company had to be really responsible to the people it hired. We had to support families—long term.”
The seventh employee to join the team was Scott Morrison, who is still at Incredible Technologies today as vice president of marketing. In 1987, Morrison jumped at the chance to work with Ditton and Hodgson. He first met them in 1982, while on a small team that developed video arcade games for Bally/Midway. In the beginning, Morrison worked as an artist, animator and game designer. Morrison recalls, “As projects matured it became clear that there was a need for a lot of ancillary components beyond game design, such as cabinet graphics, game manuals, sales flyers and ads, press releases, etc. There was no one else around at the time so I dove in and accepted those responsibilities.”
Also in 1987, Incredible Technologies started making coin-op games. Hodgson says: “I can remember going back to the warehouse in our earlier days and seeing a large dispenser for Styrofoam packing peanuts hanging from the ceiling to help keep up with the demand for our coin-op products. I thought to myself, ‘Wow we are a real manufacturer now.’ ”
Incredible Technologies’ wildly successful coin-op games can now be found in bars and taverns around the world. Their games include Golden Tee® Golf, Target Toss Pro and Silver Strike bowling. The company is the largest manufacturer of pay-to-play video games in the U.S.
As the company was celebrating its 10th year in business, Morrison experienced one of his favorite moments. Ditton approached him with the idea to connect Incredible Technologies’ amusement games to phone lines. The goal was to collect data and host national tournaments. The idea was well ahead of the networking curve at the time, but Morrison says he knew the team could make it work technically. The question was: How would customers react to such a “radical concept”?
After sleeping on the idea—or lying in bed thinking—Morrison says a procedural implementation began to form that emphasized the benefits for operators and players. Morrison recalls: “The next morning I asked Richard if he was sure he wanted to take this path, because once we embark on an online system, we will be committed to it for years and years. He assured me that IT was ready, and 15 years later ITNet is still in operation with more than 10,000 terminals transmitting data and earning money.”
One of Incredible Technologies’ famous implementations of this technology in recent years includes the company’s ability to put video of Golden Tee players’ hole-in-one shots on YouTube for the world to see.
The Incredible Technologies team at G2E 2009
Going from a home-based operation started by two people to a company that now employs more than 135 people did provide growing pains. Since the first employees were mostly work-for-hire game designers, they had to quickly learn other aspects of the business including engineering, manufacturing, production, sales and marketing. “The new corporate structure challenged us to be managers and mentors to a larger team, and set the tone for our ability to react to trends and act on them quickly and efficiently,” Morrison says.
For Ditton, keeping the development process up to date has been challenging. For example, Ditton used to do some of the game artwork using graph paper. Then the games evolved and professional artists did the work, leaving him the ability to go in and “tweak” their artwork where necessary. But, “These days the tools are so specific and complicated that I can no longer ‘assist’ the artists,” he says.
At one point in its 25 years, Incredible Technologies came close to not having enough money to continue and had to lay off employees. Hodgson says this was terribly difficult. “It’s one thing to let someone go because they’re not performing; it’s another thing to let someone go when they are performing but you can’t pay them. It was very emotionally wrenching for me.”
The deep-rooted sense of responsibility to their workers and respect for customers has always been a part of Hodgson and Ditton’s work culture. Nowadays, Hodgson oversees an entire staff of people who create, test, produce, market, sell and service games. At any given time, there are dozens of projects in various stages. Ditton focuses on future projects, trying to determine where the market is going and how to position the company. He does get to do a little programming every now and then as well.
Morrison says the diversity of projects and employee loyalty are the best parts of working at Incredible Technologies. “The challenge of continuous creative decision-making and the forward-thinking nature of our products and practices make every day an adventure,” he explains. Morrison also admires his bosses’ ideals and values, which foster a comfortable work environment. “They are both very loyal to their employees and treat us like family,” he notes.
Ditton says from the beginning, they wanted to create a place where they would have wanted to work as employees. “And I think we have succeeded.”
Hodgson says the company really is made up of people who enjoy a challenge and are willing to work hard. “IT is a work in progress that gives us purpose, friends and the means to raise a family and enjoy life. The future is sure to bring change and challenge, but our core philosophy will remain constant.”
Hodgson and Ditton are proud of their ability to change with the times. Hodgson says the company’s path has meandered like a river diverted by the economic climate and fickle nature of the entertainment industry. Neither one could have imagined 25 years ago where the company is today. Ditton explains: “Back then, we weren’t even sure if we should even get an office or just continue to work out of our houses. I am just happy that we have made payroll every pay period for 25 years.”
Morrison believes the team truly has a knack for spotting emerging trends and altering plans to take advantage of them. Ditton adds: “We also have never lost sight of the player, who is the ultimate customer and we need to give them what they want, too. It’s our job to understand what they want before they even know it.”
The constant, through all the changes, is that Incredible Technologies has always been made up of game makers. They have produced products on PC, Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, specialized virtual reality simulators, handheld games, pinball machines, video coin-op, PlayStation, Wii, iPhone and Magic Touch®, to name a few.
The company’s recent business move is what brings them to the pages of this magazine. About five years ago, the team decided to make slot machines. Hodgson says, “We took some of the hardware ideas that we had from coin-op and totally revamped it for gaming and made it as current as could be and robust as could be.”
Morrison says it’s a perfect fit. “We were pioneers in bringing social, interconnected skill games to the amusement pay-to-play industry, and our efforts have proven successful and lasting,” he says. “The basic philosophies that make an amusement game compelling for adults all translate to the casino audience.”
Ditton says they realize entering the new environment comes with a cost. “The process of development, licensing, and compliance approvals was a long road. It didn’t help that we introduced our new slots line in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. But we were prepared for the journey and will be very well positioned when the economy begins to improve.”
Incredible Technologies’ office morphed once again to follow the rules and regulations governing the creation of casino products. Ditton explains: “With amusement products, we can finish a product, throw it in a truck and test it at a local bar. If we tried that with a casino product, there would be some unfortunate consequences.”
Today, the company’s Magic Touch games are officially for sale. The games include keno, poker and video slot machine themes of cars, money, fruit and a fish store. Each slot game gives players the chance to choose how they want to win: big, often or steady. The Prize Guy is the player’s way to interact with the innovative Versatile Volatility™ system.
Hodgson says they plan to learn from customers and players and make their games better and better. “We will try things that no one else has tried. Some things won’t work as well as hoped and we won’t try to sell them. Some things will be phenomenal and we will gladly sell them.” The company is also keeping the operator in mind, putting serviceability and reliability at the forefront of its products.
There’s no doubt, the team at Incredible Technologies will be bringing new and clever game innovations to the market. “I hope that we can make an impact in the casino market and that players will have a really fun time playing our games,” Ditton says. “I believe that in 10 years, we will still be making great casino products.”
The team of dreamers is looking forward to what the next 25 years will bring. And so are we.