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Howard Stutz

Nevadan at work: Veteran game designer is always creating

4 November 2013

LAS VEGAS -- One thing you can say about Joe Kaminkow is that he’s always creating.

Since the 1980s, Kaminkow has designed more than 100 pinball machines and amusement games, some of which reside in Las Vegas’ Pinball Hall of Fame.

He’s played in a role in creating more than 1,000 different slot machines based on pop culture and entertainment, including “Wheel of Fortune,” “Sex in the City,” and “Ghostbusters,” which are some of the casino industry’s best-known and most well-received games.

Even when Kaminkow took a hiatus from gaming, he was still creating.

He developed and sold concepts for several reality-based television shows and worked on several Broadway shows. He even bought a minority interest in a minor league baseball team, the Harrisburg Senators, the double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. A signed Senators’ jersey from current Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg hangs in his office.

“Time away allowed me to catch my breath and gain a better perspective,” Kaminkow said. “Sometimes you grind yourself into the trees and you can’t see the forest.”

In February, Kaminkow began the third phase of his gaming career when he joined slot machine manufacturer Aristocrat Technologies as its senior vice president of game design. One of his first moves was to give everyone in his new department the title of game designer.

“That’s what we do,” he said.

Kaminkow began his gaming career in the 1980s with WMS Industries, but is best known for his work in two stints with International Game Technology, where he created the “Wheel of Fortune” brand and brought hundreds of games to casino floors around the world.

Before joining Aristocrat, Kaminkow co-founded a Chicago-based design studio, Spooky Cool Labs, which was creating social games for the Internet, including a city builder based on the “Wizard of Oz.” He sold the studio to social gaming giant Zynga when he joined Aristocrat, but still consults with Zynga.

Kaminkow announced his return to the casino industry with a bang during the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. Aristocrat unveiled five games designed by his team — “Flashdance,” “Tarzan,” “The Rolling Stones,” “Superman,” and “Batman.” Kaminkow even brought along his vintage Batmobile from the 1960s television series for display in the Aristocrat booth.

“Most people expected us to show up for the show with one game,” Kaminkow said. “We made a statement, and as a company we displayed other great work by other designers, such as ‘The Walking Dead,’ as well. With the exception of ‘Flashdance,’ four of the games didn’t exist as of May 1. It was a wild and woolly summer.”

Kaminkow said the licensing agreements for two other games weren’t completed in time for G2E. They will be unveiled during the 2014 show.

Question: What was the status of the Aristocrat game design department when you arrived?

Answer: I brought about five or six people with me and we did a couple of new hires. But the thing about Aristocrat was that the department had some great talent. I think it just needed a little different coaching. It’s now organized differently.

Question: How did the job with Aristocrat come about?

Answer: Literally, the night I resigned from IGT, Aristocrat called. (Aristocrat CEO) Jamie Odell and I had lunch about a week later. I had a one-year noncompete and I spent the time working on social games. A couple of companies were interested in having an affiliation, but this was the best fit. Around the same time, Zynga purchased Spooky Cool. I kind of look at this as third phase of my career.

Answer: After starting up Spooky Cool, did you think you would land back in the casino industry?

Answer: Sure I did. If you get seven years in working for a publicly held company these days, that’s probably a lot — especially in a style business where changes happen rapidly. Look at the 14 years from when I first started with IGT. The technology has changed, the monitors have changed, the sophistication of the players has matured. For me, I’m just really fortunate to be able to have created games during that stretch.

Question: What excites you about creating games?

Answer: I still get a great thrill out of people loving something that I create, or seeing magic and delight of the players. (G2E) was a thrill for the whole team because we connected with the operators, the players and the gaming community as well as we did. I still have a whole bunch of new ideas that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Question: Is the gaming industry slow to embrace technology?

Answer: I think the industry is slow to embrace entertainment. I remember trying to get companies in the early ’90s to let us put sounds or dot matrix displays on a slot machine. I think people are always looking for more entertainment. Think about how people today watch television at home, sitting on the sofa with a laptop or tablet, checking Facebook, playing games, shopping, checking Yahoo or Twitter and messaging. People just want to be connected.

Question: Do you have a favorite game that you created?

Answer: That’s like asking who is your favorite child. There are different games at different points of my career that I created that have different meanings to me. There is always the first game made, such as Defender Pinball, or the pinball games based on “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” In the casino business, there’s the first “Wheel of Fortune.” Of course, I’m very proud of the new “Batman” game and “Flashdance” game that we unveiled how quickly the team worked to produce those games.