Joe Kaminkow Cultivates Slot Game Creativity

Walk into Aristocrat Technologies’ game development lair, and it’s clear this is Joe Kaminkow’s territory.

A long corridor painted turquoise on one side and tangerine on the other says SECRET SAUCE in bold black letters, each one the size of a small child. Posters along a cubicle wall reveal workplace insight into the creative atmosphere Kaminkow has fostered at Aristocrat, where he has headed game development for just under a year. “What Would Joe Say?” reads the heading on the posters, and listed below are a litany of Kaminkow one-liners.

They tell of “Cube drive-bys,” when Kaminkow pops up at a person’s cubicle to pose questions such as “Whatcha workin’ on? What do you know?”

They also hint at Kaminkow the coach. “I only want home runs! We are BETTER than our competition!”

But mostly they underscore Kaminkow’s philosophy of game design, which is to make fun games that are easy to learn and customers love to play.“Let’s hit it with the sparkle stick! We are not making heart and lung machines. We make games for a living, have fun! You only get one $20 bill to impress a player.”

As he sat down in his office at Aristocrat Technologies’ Las Vegas headquarters for an interview, Kaminkow moved his sparkle stick—yes, there is an actual sparkle stick, a small royal-blue wand—to the side so he could answer questions face to face about his current position, his career in the gaming industry, the evolution of slot games and changes he sees for the future.

One of the points Kaminkow made more than once during the interview was to express how proud he is of the Aristocrat team that includes game designers he’s brought in and those who were already here.

“It’s like we’ve been working together forever,” he said. “It’s funny to think it’s only been [less than] a year, but we spent so much time together and we had that whole baptism of fire getting those first games built. They kinda got into my philosophy of winning, of how we succeed and how we do fun stuff. And they were quick studies, and it’s just been great. It’s been maybe one of the greatest working experiences of my professional career.”

He also cited the strong support he has received from Aristocrat CEO Jamie Odell and other senior management since he joined the company as senior vice president of game development last May. “They’ve been kind of like, ‘We brought you in for a reason. We’ll get out of the way. We’ll support you with what you need. We’ll give you a runway. If you want to build a piece of hardware (which we did with Wonder Wheels), we’ll support it’, and they’ve just made it easy for me to do my job.”

Aristocrat is relying on Kaminkow to help boost the company’s North American market segment, particularly in the recurring revenue games sector.

Kaminkow appears to be well on his way, judging from the response to new games and products Aristocrat showed in its booth at the Global Gaming Expo in late 2013.

He and his team, along with the other Aristocrat game design teams, received an extremely positive reception to games such as Batman™ Classic TV Series Slot Game, The Walking Dead™ Slot Game and Buffalo Stampede™. “The company had a great reception,” Kaminkow said. “I’m just glad that I’m a cog in this big wheel.”

Aristocrat showed 200 games in its booth, which featured enormous widescreens showcasing not only “The Walking Dead” but also concert footage from The Rolling Stones, with a game based on the iconic band coming to slot floors soon.

Wonderful World of Wonder Wheels
A cornerstone of Kaminkow’s game plan for Aristocrat was the creation of Wonder Wheels with fellow designer Kurt Larsen. “Wonder Wheels is the first in a series of big impact products to be created at Aristocrat—defining, must-have games to keep the casino floor fresh and exciting,” Kaminkow said. “Wonder Wheels will be an industry-leading footprint that will stand for fun and innovation.”

Aristocrat’s new Batman™ Classic TV Series Slot Game features the Wonder Wheels, which include a 55-inch vertical display and three wheels, and he believes the package will resonate with slot players, particularly Baby Boomers who grew up watching the campy 1960s “Batman” television show. “Aristocrat did not have a wheel product, and we felt Batman was the ideal project to launch a whole new take on wheels—with the Bat Signal high overhead, who does not think of wheels?”

Helping the cause was Aristocrat’s great relationship with Warner Bros., which Kaminkow noted went out of its way to clear all the talent from the show and arranged custom voiceovers with Adam West. “The game has all the touch points the players love and remember,” he said.

He chose to use physical wheels instead of virtual ones. “I’m a purist. There is something exciting about a big wheel physically spinning overhead,” he said.

Wonder Wheels is unique because the wheels spin independently of each other. That allows each player to continue to play with little to no sharing or interruptions, keeping the wheels and the events fairly singular in nature.

Kaminkow fairly bubbled with excitement when he talked about the prospects for Wonder Wheels. “I hope to give our operators and players more joy and delight and have them coming back for more, the games using Wonder Wheels are incredibly fun and dynamic,” he said.

Batman™ Classic TV Series Slot Game marks just the beginning of Kaminkow’s wonderful world of Wonder Wheels.

“We have a whole road map of new products to keep Wonder Wheels on the floors with players in the seats for years to come,” he said. “We expect Wonder Wheels to be the game that people go to as their favorite place to play and to seek our game out—you can see them from across a crowded room.”

Next up after that game is Superman The Movie™, and don’t be surprised to see other big licensed brands follow. “We have a product that we also showed using ‘Superman The Movie,’ one of the most beloved movies of all time,” Kaminkow said. “It’s all in there. The action, the humor, the romance, and of course we expect to make a bang with future titles, which are a secret, but will keep Wonder Wheels at the top of the players’ favorite games to play in the foreseeable future.”

Kaminkow clearly is relishing his opportunity to create at Aristocrat.

“The vibe here is great,” he said. “The stars are lining up. We have good brands. We have good hardware, we have good math. We have a great sales team…It makes it kind of easy to wake up in the morning and go, ‘O.K., I’m excited about what I’m doing.’”

He noted his team is busy tweaking games such as Batman™ Classic TV Series Slot Game and is already hard at work on a new crop. “The team, now that we’ve got all these games under our belt, is functioning at a much higher level. Everything has improved, process and technique and the underlying underpinning system itself has gotten better this year. It’s been a great group effort.”

Kaminkow said his management style has always been one of empowering the team. “I always tell them that I’m the snow plow to get stuff out of their way so they can do a better job and get their job done and create the vision that we share,” he said.

In terms of his game design philosophy, at its core it’s all about creating fun games that are easy to learn and difficult to master. “That’s when you know you have a really great game. And even though our game is a game of chance, there’s still that feeling of I can do better, I’ll win more or I’ll succeed and really make the games fun,” Kaminkow said. “The best games are always the ones where you see it and you want to show your friends, right?”

Aristocrat’s goal is to make great games that are reliable and perform well on the casino floor, he said. “The one thing I really pride myself on, that I learned when I started making slot machines, and which I want to make sure is a hallmark of what we do here, is I don’t want a slot director to ever think he made a bad decision putting one of our games on their floor. I want them to feel confident they’re making the right decision that it’s the best thing they can put on the floor,” Kaminkow said.

Gaming in the Genes
Kaminkow spent the better part of two decades in slot game development at IGT, and he has received a variety of accolades, including being named one of the slot industry’s most influential people by Strictly Slots magazine, and he is also known for design prowess in the arcade games arena and is in the Pinball Hall of Fame. Kaminkow, who holds more than 130 gaming-related patents, is active in the social casino space as well.

But Kaminkow’s unique experience in the wider gaming arena stretches back to his early childhood. “Even though I’m probably one of the younger kids on the block so to speak, my lineage, my history is pretty deep in the business,” he said, noting his father was a vice president working under Bill O’Donnell Sr. at Bally Technologies.

“I grew up around the game business,” he said. “I started as a 5 year old in 1963. My father was a controller for General Vending in Baltimore, and I would go down there on weekends, stuffing envelopes and playing games and eventually fixing games and stuffing them in the backs of trucks so really through my formative, teenage years I was really always around games.”

After getting a business and political science degree from Curry College, Kaminkow, who once thought he might want to become a TV weatherman, started his first game development business called Logical Highs. He also worked for Williams and later started a pinball business that he and his partner eventually sold to Sega Games in 1994. Kaminkow was with Sega Games as executive vice president of game design until 1999 when former IGT Chairman Chuck Mathewson and CEO Tom Baker came calling, asking him to join the slot manufacturer.

“It was a great experience working for both those gentlemen,” Kaminkow said. “I’m very proud of my association with the company and my relationship with them from Chuck to Patti Hart, very respectful of it.”

During his time with IGT, Kaminkow led the creation of some 100 games, including popular products such as IGT’s Sex and the City™ and some versions of Wheel of Fortune™.

Kaminkow came onto the casino gaming scene at a time when the industry was moving a large portion of its player base from electromechanical slot machines to video-based product.“It was kind of interesting. For a long time the slot machine business was a decade behind the video game business in terms of technology, in terms of how to use technology, in terms of the amount of pixels,” he said. “When I first came to IGT, Sega was doing millions of polygons; we were doing 256 colors. So there was sort of learning curve that I had already gone through once in the past, and that made it a lot easier to make the transition and actually to kind of move the company along in that way.”

When Kaminkow first came on the scene, there were really only three major licensed slot products in the market—Wheel of Fortune™, Jeopardy!™ and Monopoly™.

“And we went back and looked at things that were a little bit more pop culture, that were a little bit deeper—The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched,” he said.

IGT, under Kaminkow, also developed a South Park slot game, which he noted was “really edgy in its day” and never won regulatory approval in Nevada, although it was certified for GLI jurisdictions.

Those heady years when slot manufacturers first turned to licensed entertainment brands on slot machines taught Kaminkow valuable lessons about which brands work and why.

“You need to have something people have an affinity for,” Kaminkow said. “You just can’t brand slap, and I think a lot of people are guilty of brand slapping. You want to take a brand and embrace it.”

Kaminkow cited an insight from Tony Schwartz, author of a 1970s book, “The Responsive Chord.”

“Tony talks about there is this responsive chord in each one of us as a consumer that we want to pluck,” he said. “So If you’re going to do an “Addams Family” game, you’ve gotta hear Da-Da-Da-Dum-Click-Click. Or if you are going to do “I Dream of Jeannie” you’ve gotta do the blinking and the bottle—those moments that we really remember and incorporate them deeply. It’s building those elements that we all remember that make us smile when we see them.”

Pushing the envelope didn’t always work, but it was important. “I think we sort of amped it up, and to this day, 15 years later, you have things like The Walking Dead™ [Slot Game], which is the new sensation on the casino floor,” he said.

Kaminkow now divides his time between Las Vegas and Chicago, having recently sold his home in Reno. He and his wife, Benita, an attorney, visit casinos frequently.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t hit a casino floor,” Kaminkow said, and he stops at all kinds, from mini-casinos to locals casinos to Strip megaresorts. “I think it’s really important. The other thing is I put my own money in games. Obviously there are some games I’m not allowed to play, our own, but I play competitors’ games. I want to feel like what it feels like to lose a $20, or my wife will play a game and I’ll stand over her shoulder and go, ‘O.K., I didn’t think that worked the way I thought it would work, or it could have worked better if I had done something differently.’”

Kaminkow also travels to other jurisdictions throughout the year because player tastes vary regionally. “It’s really important to know your audience,” he said. A player from the Midwest, for instance, may have “very different expectations about what they want from a game and how long they’re going to sit in front of a game” than a twice-a-year visitor to the Las Vegas Strip.

Kaminkow said he also spends a lot of time reading, especially books on design. “I try to expose myself to a lot of things that make me more rounded as a designer and as an individual,” said Kaminkow, noting for instance that he attended a design seminar at the Detroit Auto Show a year or two ago and learned some insights from designers for Airstream trailers.

The Future Really is Now
The gaming industry is evolving, and that’s something Kaminkow embraces.

“You hear people asking when is this convergence [of slot games and casual and social games] going to happen. I think the convergence has already happened. I think it’s already here,” he said. “We’re comfortable with it. It’s socially accepted.”

Gaming is a form of entertainment, just like going to the movies. “Do I want to spend $20 on movie tickets and pay $8 on a popcorn and $12 on soda pop and $10 on a box of Raisenets for my entertainment on a Saturday night or the same money and go to a casino floor, or am I going to sit at home and play a game on my Facebook?” he asked. “I think it’s just where your entertainment dollars go, and no matter where your entertainment dollars go, spend them in a responsible way.”

Kaminkow knows a little something about casual games too, having founded Spooky Cool Labs, a Chicago-based game studio recently acquired by Zynga, maker of Farmville and other social games, as part of its efforts to widen its social casino offerings. He remains at the helm of that firm, with both firms acknowledging his dual role.

Kaminkow believes slot machines will become more defined in the future as casual games. A great example, he said, is Candy Crush Saga or Farmville, casual games that millions of people have downloaded and play socially for fun, buying extra lives and extra play.

“We’ve entered the world of really casual play. Easy to learn, a little difficult to master, you can turn it on and off in a few minutes. And that’s the same experience on the casino floor,” he said.

For many people, he said, inserting $20 in a slot machine isn’t much different anymore than buying virtual credits for Candy Crush or downloading a bunch of songs from the iTunes store.

New channels and delivery mechanisms for games are also opening avenues to reach players, old and new, Kaminkow said.

“The media devices in our hands—our iPhones or iPads, our Android tablets or Android phones—are a gateway to playing games and games of chance,” he said.

That’s true for many demographics but particularly for younger consumers. “I think they say, ‘Can I be in line at Starbucks, order my latte and still get a couple spins in before it gets delivered?’ It’s a whole different consumer experience that we’re beginning to embrace,” Kaminkow said.

With Aristocrat’s Heart of Vegas games available on Facebook, “you can go and play and experiment and learn with less risk and understand that there’s a component of slot machines that has gone from being strictly gaming to much more entertainment,” Kaminkow said.

It’s time on device for the entertainment dollar, he said. “There are so many things we do that aren’t fun. Paying bills is not fun. Taking the kids up to school is not so much fun. But you can sit and wait for your kid and kibitz around for a couple minutes and spin 30 times,” he said.

And a player can go into a casino, see The Walking Dead game, put $20 in and know he will get X number of spins and that he’ll have a good shot at getting a bonus, Kaminkow said. “As game designers we’re trying to make sure a $20 bill still offers a good experience for the player. [That] they get time on device. [That] they get plenty of opportunity to get a spin at the wheel or a few spins.”

Kaminkow compared a casual slot playing experience to the $18 he spent recently to ride the roller coaster at New York New York hotel-casino. “And that’s just two minutes of entertainment,” he said, noting a slot player can stretch a $20 to a half an hour.

The games themselves are not the old three reels of fruit symbols, he noted. “Playing The Rolling Stones game, that’s almost like going to a Rolling Stones concert. You’re part of the experience,” he said, describing features such as the iconic tongue logo that licks the reels to reveal wilds, concert footage and various bonuses.

Kaminkow said Aristocrat’s batting average in terms of successful games is likely a little better than it was in the past “because we’re really deliberate in what we make.”

“There’s less spaghetti being tossed at the wall,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on the casino floor, [watching] players, looking at what’s succeeding and trying to envision what will succeed in the future.”

If something doesn’t work, Aristocrat devotes time to asking why in order to learn from the experience. “Without having any valleys, you never find the mountaintop, do you?”

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