Volume 7 | Issue 2 | Year 2004

Harry Williams would be proud of the newest slot machines that WMS Industries, Inc., is introducing to the marketplace.Williams was the one-of-a-kind American entrepreneur who founded the company back in 1943 to make and sell pinball machines with his revolutionary innovations to the game – most notably the dreaded “tilt” function that spared a generation of machines from arcade abuse.

Over six decades, the company had shown a keen ability to change with the times, and today the Illinois-based firm is an industry leader in slot machines and other gaming devices. But WMS Industries is still bringing the same spirit of invention to slot machines that once made it the pinball leader.

Consider its new Bluebird gaming cabinet, recently named one of the “Top 20 Most Innovative Gaming Products for 2003” at the recent American Gaming Summit, and has most recently been given top honors in a separate technology design competition. The Bluebird is the first cabinet for slot machines that is ergonomically correct – that is, it’s comfortable to sit at and play for long stretches as a time.

Ergonomic design
Thus, the machine features a bill feeder and a frequent gambling card that are both at waist level, so that players do not have to reach too high. The reel-spinning buttons are also close to waist level, aimed at avoiding repetitive-stress injuries for casino players. There’s space for a player to actually fit his knees under the machine. And the Bluebird comes with an 18.1-inch digital, flat-screen, non-glare monitor, so that the player won’t have to squint.

“Bluebird’s ergonomic design is a win-win for both players and operators alike,” said Brian R. Gamache, WMS Industries’ president and CEO. “The more comfortable design and enhanced video and sound packages should lead to a higher level of enjoyment for players which we believe will translate into longer playing time which clearly benefits operators.”
This fall, WMS Industries is completing its newest makeover, and its most dramatic one ever, developed following a roadblock three years ago that might have destroyed other companies. While growing rapidly, it turned out there was a software glitch that allowed some gamblers to cheat the casinos and play for free. In 2001, the company essentially called a time-out until it could release and develop an all-new, state-of-the-art
software package.

The result is the new CPU-NXT(tm) operating platform, with enhanced video, more color capability and vastly improved resolution. The new high-tech system allowed a team of creative specialists that came from top animation studios like Disney, to take game play to another level, a sign of just how dramatically the video slot machine has evolved in just a few years. If you haven’t been to a casino in a few years, you’ll find that the most innovative machines are as much like TV sit-coms as traditional games of chance.

From pinball to slots
It all started with a silver ball and a couple of flippers. In the early 1930s, before founding the company, Harry Williams had devised a new system of mechanical gates for what was then a crude arcade game. When he noticed that players were trying to maneuver the ball by pounding the heck out the machine, he first hammered fine nails through the bottom of the machine. Said Williams years later: “Anyone who tried to affect the play of the game by slapping the flat of his hand against the game’s undersurface would now think twice before trying it again.” But the pinball innovator felt guilty about his cruel and unusual punishment, and so he went back and developed the play-stopping mechanism known as “tilt.”

By the 1970s, his company, known as Williams Manufacturing, was the industry leader not just in pinball but also in other arcade games as well as home and arcade video games. But by the 1990s, the industry was changing rapidly, and the company, which became WMS Industries, changed with it. Pinball was fading fast in the face of the onslaught from Nintendo and other home computer and video games. But casino gambling, lotteries, and other forms of gaming were taking off across America.

In 1992, the firm’s subsidiary, Williams Gaming, introduced its first video lottery terminal in Oregon. Two years later came reel-spinning products, which are the traditional type of slot machines, and then the newer, high-tech video slots two years after that. Its Reel Em In(r) video slot machine — one of the newer multi-coin, multi-line games in which there are a wide range of ways that a player can win and in the amount of money that he can bet – played an integral part in the development of a new gaming segment and has been one of the most successful themes of this segment to date.

One reason that the slot-machine business is so attractive is that casinos must constantly add and change games to keep players coming back. By 1999, the company had dropped pinball altogether to make gaming the full focus of the company. The name was changed from Williams to WMS Gaming. The company moved its headquarters to Waukegan, Ill., and opened two state-of-the-art technology campuses in Chicago and Las Vegas in order to draw the highest level of talent to the organization. WMS Gaming has offices in all major gaming jurisdictions in the United States and has an international division that includes offices located in Barcelona, Spain; South Africa and Australia.

The aggressive way that WMS Industries dealt with its software problem in 2001 has impressed both customers and Wall Street, where shares of the company’s stock have risen in the past year; even media industry giant Sumner Redstone became a major investor.

“We’ve been laying low but we sold more machines this year than last year,” said Gamache. “Our company has always been very innovative and very creative.” He said the new software not only eliminates glitches but also will allow WMS Industries to introduce more multi-coin, multi-line games more quickly.

One area in which the company has excelled is in developing gaming machines based on TV shows or other icons of American pop culture. Among the most popular games in the WMS library are the MONOPOLY(tm) branded slot family that has recently unveiled its 14th installment. Also in development are Hollywood Squares, and Pac-Man and Men In Black gaming machines. In addition to the branded products, WMS has a full line of new multi-line video products and is expanding its product lines to include mechanical slots and
video poker.

In other words, WMS Industries is ready to pull the lever again after a short break. And this is one slot-machine endeavor where the winning seems guaranteed.