In 2005 the world’s biggest gaming company, IGT, embarked on a nationwide search for an Industrial Design firm that could design a brand new slot machine. After interviewing more than twenty firms, they narrowed it down to a few finalists, including Whipsaw. Whipsaw was a peculiar choice because they had no experience in gaming design, they were not into gambling, and they were better at original innovation versus conventional refinement, which is what the industry had been doing for the last fifty years. When asked by IGT’s Board of Directors what Whipsaw would do if they got the job, Dan Harden of Whipsaw replied “ground-up rethinking of what a slot machine is,” realizing this would either scare IGT away or really excite them. It excited them, and Whipsaw was granted the challenge.
Joe Kaminkow, the Chief Creative Officer at IGT in 2005, recently quoted: “I met Whipsaw in 2005 and knew at “hello” that they were the right firm to help IGT. Their passion and their philosophy of innovation, where every element is in just the right place while exuding tons of emotionality, was exactly what we needed. When I look back at those first machines we collaborated on ten years ago it’s remarkable how timeless they are. Those machines took off in the market and changed the course of the whole industry because they were the first properly designed slot machines.”
What started as a single product for a single client a decade ago, has now grown into a Whipsaw portfolio of eleven slot machines for four different gaming companies including IGT, EGT, AGS and Aristocrat. These eleven designs helped establish the look and feel of the current modern day slot machine: clean, sleek, high-tech, comfortable to use, and – most importantly – a blast to play. Moving away from the mostly gaudy wood-grain boxes with poor ergonomics that were still in play in 2005, the new Whipsaw design direction catapulted the traditional gaming industry into the 21st century. As seen at the recent G2E Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, Whipsaw’s design influence on the industry has been profound and ubiquitous. The designs continue to collect praise by players and casino owners alike, while garnering impressive business success for our clients.
How was Whipsaw able to accomplish this? What was the inspiration and the process behind the creation of these eleven machines? Sieglinde Van Damme, Strategic Communications Manager at Whipsaw, interviews the design team to find out.
Q: Why design slot machines?
Dan Harden, President Whipsaw: Whether you believe in gambling or not, slot machines are part of our culture, with millions of people around the world playing them. This category desperately needed design thinking because a typical slot machine was rather ugly and even painful to use. We saw a huge opportunity to alleviate both of these problems. We also recognized that slot machines were comprised of all the things we were already good at designing. A slot machine is like an all-in-one TV, sound system and computer; complete with control panels, printers, bill acceptors, signage and lighting.
Q: Was there an overriding inspiration behind these designs?
Dan Harden: Yes, we wanted people to feel SO entertained by these machines that even when they lost they would at least feel like they won an amazing experience!
Q: How do you make people feel like they have “won an amazing experience”?
Dan Harden: By fully immersing the user inside the game. That immersion needs to be multi-sensory so we integrated cutting edge surround sound and razor sharp, towering displays that really draw you inside that game. We made sure all surfaces are comfortable to touch and we topped it off with cool lighting effects to bring even more excitement. The key to success here, is making the machine hardware as engaging as the gaming software.
Q: The Whipsaw designs look sophisticated yet fun. What is the philosophy behind that?
Elliot Ortiz, Creative Lead: We thought slot machines deserved to be as cool as any other product. We all love our gadgets like big screen TVs and slick smartphones, why expect anything less from a slot machine?
During our first design round for IGT a decade ago we stripped away all the outdated visual noise until we were left with a basic form that was still familiar to gamers. After that, required features were built back in with a focus on intuitive design that was fun to watch and fun to play.
Since then we’ve gotten more expressive with the design as the market has become more competitive and users are really responding to the emotional rush of the excitement. I like to tell my friends that a slot machine is like an ATM machine from The Fast and the Furious action films (laughs). Its base form is still a console money machine, but then we add fantastic lighting, surround sound, a chair that resembles a racecar driver’s seat with speakers and shaking movement. All these elements work together to pull the player in and keep him mesmerized.
It’s interesting, almost every other industry today wants clean and subdued design. We also enjoy clean and subdued design, but in slot machine design that doesn’t work. Slot machines entertain, and they need to pop. We go crazy with form, color, light and details but still ground it in good design principles. Maybe that’s why I really like designing slot machines. There’s creative freedom to apply my favorite design notions in an intelligent yet totally novel way.
Q: How important are human factors in slot machine design?
Ari Turgel, Director ID/UX: Traditional slot machines were an ergonomic nightmare! Users sit for hours on end pressing keys and interacting with the machine. There are so many touch points that can turn into pain points very quickly. We set out to fix those. All features needed to be optimized for comfort and minimal fatigue. Physical interactions like sitting positions, arm reach, sight lines to display, point and peripheral visibility all needed to be worked out. Mental human factors such as simplifying operational tasks are also important to get just right. And let’s not forget we have a broad user group to appeal to, ranging from young to old, men and women, East and West.”
Q: Can you share some examples?
Ari Turgel: Absolutely. We are talking about a full proof human machine interface, which involves a whole lot more than great ergonomics. When you sit in front of a slot machine it is a whole body and mind experience. Knee clearance, armrest, footrest were all improved to maximize comfort and overall satisfaction. Comfortable sitting positions also means comfortable viewing positions so we placed displays at just the right angle and height and put important interface elements like bill acceptors and receipt printers closer to the user. We implemented all the features you expect from a platinum experience to encourage longer playtimes and undistracted fun. We even added a purse hook underneath!
Information architecture and user workflow influenced our ergonomic innovation too. For example, let’s place buttons where hands are likely to be! This sounds obvious now that user experience is a driving force in the design world, but back then it wasn’t. We also grouped financial and transactional elements together in an intuitive way so players wouldn’t spend time wondering how to start or stop their play.
There was a need to innovate ergonomics for casinos too. Casinos service and clean machines frequently so quick and easy access is critical. Would you believe that casino employees used to crawl on their hands and knees under the machine to retrieve money and refill printer rolls? We totally rethought that process and added mini doors and clever door movements that offer lightning fast access to the internals”.
Q: What are the latest machines the team has done and what makes them special?
Ari Turgel: The Aristocrat product line and the AGS Icon machine. The Aristocrat Helix machines feature thin floating displays hovering above stainless steel slabs. A soft glowing light under the displays enhances this floating effect. On the new Aristocrat Arc machines, two huge 42” curved displays stacked vertically wrap up and over the gamer. This makes you feel like you are inside the game, which is especially effective on their new Game of Thrones game, where a massive ice wall and ascending dragons spellbound the user. We also designed a retro-future spinning reel machine complete with a pull arm for Aristocrat. It’s reminiscent of old machines while being downright modern at the same time.
Our new AGS Icon design is cool too. It integrates three peripheral speakers on each side of the display, so that game objects on the display and their associated sounds are now together and therefore realistically portrayed. In between these speakers are multi-colored lighting pods that especially look good in a bank of machines.”
In both of these new product lines for Aristocrat and AGS, sales are off the charts.
Joe Kaminkow, now Chief Innovation Officer at Aristocrat continues: “When I moved to Aristocrat in 2012 we needed Whipsaw again. They designed almost our complete line of cabinets including the hugely successful Helix line and the new Aristocrat Arc series, which stole the show at G2E. Arc is the most radical and fun machine in the industry today, reaching almost nine feet tall as it curves to the ceiling. Again, Whipsaw’s unique iterative process and tireless pursuit of perfection has had a massive impact on the industry. Not only does their design play well but it sells well too, and competitors are even copying their designs.”
AGS Chief Technology Officer Sigmund Lee shared his thoughts as well:
“Today’s Slot floor is filled with a sea of products from 800 lb. gorillas, pioneers of the Gaming Industry and fast moving innovators. As a relative newcomer in the ultra competitive Slot Machine space, our company must offer products that excel in customer acquisition, engagement and retention. The Gaming cabinet is a critical part of the equation and we engaged Whipsaw to help us design and engineer our next generation Gaming cabinet. What we got was an expert partner that had a proven track record of success and the confidence to inspire our imaginations in design. The process for ideation, human factors & ergonomics, modeling, prototyping, and production was a highly enjoyable, efficient and collaborative experience. Dan and his team are rich with talent, process and dedication to the project. Our new ICON cabinet is distinctive, comfortable and reliable. Players and customers love it. We couldn’t be happier with the outcome and the dramatic increase in product performance is fueling our rapid expansion.”