Rocket Gaming’s Rise: Focus on Innovation and Player Value has Served Company Well

Rocket Gaming Systems is not a company that’s going to grow moss anytime soon.

In fact, the Class II game maker is driven to innovate.

“If you don’t embark on reinventing yourself every three years, so that by that fifth year, you’ve morphed into something new and improved, you’re out of business,” company President/CEO Ron Harris said.

It’s a mantra Harris and the company take seriously and have put into practice over nearly two decades in business.

Rocket provides linked interactive electronic gaming systems and player stations primarily for the Class II gaming market. Today, Rocket Gaming has licenses in more than 100 casinos in 19 states, a Las Vegas game design facility, development offices in Texas and Vancouver, British Columbia and manufacturing and systems network facilities in Oklahoma.

In September, Rocket celebrated its 18th birthday, and the company’s reinvention is well underway once again, with two new products that Harris promises will break new ground in the industry.

“After [more than] 17 years with Rocket, I wake up more excited today than I did when we first started,” he said. “The industry is beginning to see the convergence of marketing technology and gaming technology, and Class II is best positioned to capitalize on that trend. I’ve always said when it’s all said and done, when all the smoke clears, Class III gaming cannot compete with Class II for entertainment value because of the versatility of Class II’s math model and the creativity offered by Class II’s entertaining display of the outcome of that math model.”

Harris has seen a lot since he first left a banking position to go into the gaming industry in the 1990s, to join Multimedia Games. In 1996, he was one of the founders of Worldlink Gaming. In 1999, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Business Development Authority became a strategic partner, and Rocket merged with the Authority.

Serving tribal Class II gaming has afforded the company more opportunity to be innovative. “Gaming isn’t known for its rapid changes,” Harris said, noting that the regulatory environment can be a barrier to innovation. “That hasn’t necessarily been the case for Class II gaming, though. Tribes, during this whole period of time, have proven to be very innovative, technology-embracing, savvy entrepreneurs. I think if you go around the country and look at what’s on the floor of a tribal casino and look at what’s on the floor of a nontribal casino, you’ll see more innovation at the tribal casino.”

Tribal casinos, both in Class II and Class III markets, he said, seem more willing to try a variety of products. “I was at a casino in Southern California that had 24 different manufacturers on the floor—24!—they are innovators.”

Tribal Sensibility
One key Harris learned early on about doing business in Indian country was a piece of wisdom from one of the tribal leaders in Oklahoma.

“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I want you to understand, I’m Indian first, and I’ll be your partner second, and I’ll always be that way,’” Harris recalled.

“And that’s the direction we’ve taken our business. It’s always the tribes first and business second. You have to take care of the tribe first and worry about all the other things behind that,” he said.

That direction carried the company through a tough period when a state compact went through in Oklahoma in 2000 and major Class III manufacturers jumped into Class II gaming.

“When we first started doing business, tribes thought it was cool to do business with other tribal businesses. But then, all of a sudden, when the major manufacturers got into Class II gaming, it wasn’t so cool anymore,” he recalled.

“One of the manufacturers said, ‘We appreciate you guys for blazing the trail, but we’re here to pave the road,’” Harris said. “It was funny, and I laughed, but I just knew that it would take time for others to understand what we had learned … They can pave the road, but we like to drive on it too, so we let them pave it and we coexist.”

Today, he said, tribes operate some of the world’s most state-of-the-art casinos. “They’ve proven to be tremendous operators, and guess what’s happened over the last two or three years? It’s all of a sudden cool to be an Indian-owned business again. Indian country produces some of the best products in the world and now tribes want to do business with other tribal business.”

Rocket, he said, has been able to win their business by not only providing great service and delivering strong value to the player, but through great products such as its Gold Series Class II games that offer a chance for a more than $1 million progressive prize. Rocket has just had its 29th million-dollar winner, helping to prove that Class II gaming can go head-to-head with the best Class III gaming has to offer.

Delivering More Value to the Player
Competing in today’s market is more difficult than ever, Harris said, noting that the gaming industry is still suffering in the wake of the Great Recession.

“It’s become very, very competitive for the gaming dollar. To get that discretionary buck is tough,” Harris said. “I travel a lot, and there are a lot of boarded-up businesses still. I think from what I see out there, there’s a lot of apprehension because average Joe is still hurting out there and wages are down.”

Complicating matters, he said, is the fact that players’ appetites for manufacturers’ games have a shorter shelf life than ever—some at less than three months. “Players want the latest, the newest, and if you can’t stay up with that development curve, you’re in trouble, which is why, in large part, you’re seeing a lot of these mergers,” Harris said. “We’re beating each other up, trying to figure out new and innovative ways to deliver payouts.”

To address this situation, Rocket focused on how to deliver more entertainment value than ever to players. Its new Xtreme Rewards, first shown at the National Indian Gaming Association’s 2014 Tradeshow, creates a way to deliver more goods and services and certainly cash prizes than a normal pay table would support, Harris said.

“You’ve got to give back more to the player than what the player’s ever been able to get before and offer them prizes that they can’t get from any other competitive venue,” Harris said. Moreover, the players should win these prizes above and beyond the game’s normal payout, Harris said.

Xtreme Rewards accomplishes this through partnerships with local businesses and casino operators to supply prizes to casinos, he said. “People with goods and services, who want to market these items to players through a casino outlet, are now able to award those items as prizes to the player.”

What makes this product unique, Harris said, is “the player gets the thrill of a win, not just this perception of, ‘Oh, I’ve just been given another promotional award, a reminder of how much they’ve lost.’”

“We give you something to play for on top of your normal game, whether it be a trip to Las Vegas, golf for two at the local golf course or a hamburger at the coffee shop. The key is, Xtreme Rewards makes it a winning event. An exciting aspect of this is that since Xtreme Rewards monitors game play, it can make awards to players that are based on the casino’s own pre-selected qualification criteria. As one of our casino customers recently told us, ‘Xtreme Rewards literally has the ability to make winners out of losers.’”

Harris explained, “If you give something away, people perceive it has no value, but you let them win it, it’s theirs and they’re going to collect it. And that’s what we’re offering here and it’s magic. As Paul Newman says in The Color of Money, ‘Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.’”

The product has been in field trials for about a year and a half, and it’s showing plenty of promise, Harris said, noting, “We underestimated the power of this.

Beyond the thrill of a win for players, Xtreme Rewards is helping casinos target play to different demographics based on the rewards offered, and also increasing play during slow periods.”

For instance, when Rocket offered a trip to Las Vegas as one of the prizes, “What we found out was, it drew the young male to play those machines to try to win the trip,” he said. “Then we found out what the games did with different types of products, such as appliances, coffee pots, crockpots… We found out that you can change the demographics based on the prizes you award—that’s the holy grail for all the operators.”

Casinos also can use Xtreme Rewards to help get more play on lower traffic days, Harris said. “We found that not only can you change the player demographic, but you can change the day of the week that they gamble.”

Moreover, he said, casinos discovered that they could offer not only Rocket-supplied, nationally-sponsored prizes, but also locally-sponsored prizes they source themselves. That has proven beneficial to both the tribal casinos and local businesses because the casino is now buying goods and services from local businesses, and players are being exposed to that business while also having the opportunity to win that prize. “We were surprised at how important it was to many tribes to be able to embrace community-sponsored prizes in their casino operations.” Harris said.

Rocket realized early on that for Xtreme Rewards to meet its true potential, it would need to be available on any manufacturers’ slot cabinet, not just Rocket’s. This led to the development of Xtreme Technologies, which includes hardware that connects third-party slot cabinets to Rocket’s system. Xtreme Technologies allows Xtreme Rewards and the company’s other groundbreaking product, Xtreme Game-N-Game™, to be offered on any manufacturers’ slot cabinet.

Xtreme Game-N-Game resizes the main game display so a player can play the main slot game, on the same screen and at the same time as one of Rocket’s Class II games. Rocket’s Class II entertaining display can be in the form of a scratcher ticket, pull tab, lotto ticket, keno, or some other game that complements the play of the main slot game.

That’s something groundbreaking, he said. “Rocket’s first Game-N-Game introduces a Class II scratcher to the casino floor that, for the first time, taps into the appeal of a game that generates over $36 billion in annual sales to state lotteries. Scratchers and Pull tabs are perfect games for players to enjoy during long, free spin bonus rounds of the main slot game and increase the hold-per-unit for the casino,” Harris said.

Xtreme Game-N-Game promises to be valuable to tribal casinos with state compacts that require tribes to pay a fee for Class III games. Those casinos can practice better yield management of their floor by offering the Class II Game-N-Game. “There are no fees in Class II gaming. Practically every dollar spent on Game-N-Game play will go straight to the bottom line.”

The reaction to the products so far has been positive, Harris said.

“I cannot tell you how many very respected industry people who have seen Xtreme Technologies say it could change our industry,” he said. “And this is not just in tribal gaming but in non-tribal gaming, as well.”

What makes the product even more powerful is the possibility of adding advertising right on the game screen in different, innovative ways to help make the games even more profitable to both the player and to the casino, he said.

“This to me is the true future—how you can get more into the hands of the player than ever before, in terms of good and services or if we’re generating advertising revenue, we’re putting that money back in the players’ hands,” Harris said.

Seminole Gaming consultant Charlie Lombardo said he sees strong potential with both products. “First off, it’s on anybody’s game. And you’ve got the side bet and the main game, and you can play them at the same time,” he said.

What he’s most excited about is the potential on the marketing side for partnerships with area businesses or events. “That makes a lot of sense, besides partnerships within your own property,” Lombardo said. “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s something that can really take off.”

One idea he mentioned was a partnership with the state lottery, so for instance, a casino could buy scratch cards to give away as prizes, and could even possibly explore a deal to help ease the burden from compact fees. “They’re just scratching the surface as to what can be done with that product,” he said. “There are a lot of options.”