Phantom EFX founder talks casino game company’s history, acquisition
Aaron Schurman fell in love with casino gaming at a young age and decided to bring the concept home. His company, Phantom EFX, became known for creating casino games for home entertainment, especially for developing mobile and social platforms.
In June, Cedar Falls-based Phantom EFX was acquired by WMS Gaming. Schurman (left) answered some questions via email about how his company started from scratch and grew to be acquired by a longstanding leader in the casino industry.
Silicon Prairie News: How did you decide to start the business, and how has it grown over the years?
Aaron Schurman: It’s quite ironic. Upon coming of 'gambling age' and entering my first casino, I stumbled on a slot machine called 'Reel 'Em In.' This slot machine, which was the first video slot game with a bonus round, revolutionized casino gaming and had a profound effect on me. I thought, “Man, this game is cool!” I decided then and there that I had to learn more about these slot games and why they were so engaging. The game action in the Reel 'Em In game really captivated players, especially me. So I went to the video game store and looked for available casino games. I bought everything that was out there.
Twelve years ago, all the PC games were Golden Nugget Casino, Avery Cardoza's Casino, Caesar's Slots, and Hoyle Slots. None of them held a candle to the actual experience in the casino.
I saw the opportunity to try to bring an authentic experience to the player at home - something I would want to play. I talked to a childhood friend, Danny Stokes, and asked him to start a video game company with me. He was crazy enough to take me up on it, and so we began in 1998. With zero dollars in the bank, my Dad had to pay our rent and we put food on the table through loans.
Our first game, Reel Deal Slots and Video Poker was very authentic. It was a product compiled solely of two guys' passion with no licensed content. At the time, we had no idea what we were getting into. We had no official training – just a bunch of books to teach us how to code and make graphics. We were told repeatedly the space was too crowded and that with so many already large, recognizable names in the marketplace, there was no place for a new game with no brand following.
When no one would publish us, we brought on two partners to help us print copies. We hired Jim Thompson, who is still with us today serving as our President, to get the games sold. Guess what, no stores wanted it. We pushed and pushed. Eventually we sold one batch into Office Max, which sold so well they then made it a standing product. From there the game took its category by storm. Account by account, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and Fry's picked up the game. Year by year, we captured market share from competitors until we were number one. We also expanded into general card games and casino games with table, racing and bingo. We even released an MMO for the casino world.
Since then, we have released a portfolio that includes about any kind of casino product you can name on about every major platform. We reached number one on various platforms through our history, with tremendous unit sales, all stemming from playing that first slot machine.
The really crazy thing: That first Reel 'Em In slot machine that so captivated me – it was developed by WMS, the company that just recently acquired us. Whoever would have imagined that we eventually would be working for the very company that inspired us – WMS, the legendary pinball machine maker and igniter of the general video game industry with their Defender and Joust games. What a dream come true!
SPN: Why did you decide to build and stay in Cedar Falls?
AS: Both Danny Stokes and I grew up in the area. Since both of our parents lived in Cedar Falls and we needed their support, we had little choice but to stay. As time went on, people lined up to work at Phantom. We were able to recruit some of the ‘best of the best’ from each graduating class at the University of Northern Iowa. What talent we could not get locally we were able to recruit to the area. We believe this is just a great location that has helped plant all of our great colleagues here. Our focus on family and creativity has had the affect of zero turn-over. Our first employees are still with us all the way through our most recent hires, with the exception of just two individuals.
SPN: What does the acquisiton mean for the Cedar Falls staff?
AS: You bet we will stay in Cedar Falls. This is a huge boon for the area and we expect to see additional growth here. We will be adding jobs to support our goals and needs. We have lots of goals, lots of energy, and lots of exciting things to watch for.
SPN: Phantom EFX and WMS have worked together in the past, how did that come about? Was acquisition always the end goal?
AS: Early on acquisition was not contemplated. WMS had an interest in getting their products into retail and other popular, growing gaming channels such as Mobile and Social. We met and found we had compatible company visions. WMS told us we understood casino development far beyond what they had expected from a video game company. In response, due to our affinity for their products, we told WMS that we wanted to work with them, more so than any other company. We had followed their success and respected their work – ever since their first release. The people, the products, the vision … it all matched up.
We released our first WMS title, WMS Slots: Reel 'Em In, in late 2011. It quickly rocketed to number one in its category. Later, we released some classic WMS slot themes into the mobile apps channel, with an equally impressive performance. Our quality and our performance really impressed WMS, and then the possibility of acquisition was finally raised. We had not discussed selling before, but then again . . . this was WMS asking. We were huge fans of the company and the rest speaks for itself.
WMS game content has proven itself in non-wagering games, and they are strongly encouraging us to pursue those channels. We believe that WMS content is the premier casino content and we expect that we can put them in leading positions on various platforms. We have been WMS employees only for a matter of days at this point, but there is tremendous excitement from all employees on both sides. It’s like we have been together forever. The possibilities seem endless!
SPN: What qualities did your company have that made it attractive to a worldwide leader in gaming? How did you get to that position?
AS: Well, I think we surprised WMS with our intense slot-development focus. From our very beginning, we think of ourselves as a slot developer first and a video-game maker second. This causes us to pay closer attention to things most traditional video game developers do not consider.
SPN: What are your long-term goals for Phantom EFX?
AS: Our strategies are still being put into place. Last week was our first visit to WMS’ Chicago offices as WMS employees. It was incredible! WMS is such an innovator, and it’s amazing to see their operation. Working out goals, strategy, and roadmaps is exactly what we are doing right now. There’s a lot of opportunity here. We have a couple of ideas being worked, but obviously you will have to wait and watch. Stay tuned.
SPN: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who want to take on a big, established industry like casino gaming?
AS: What did that smart man that founded Apple say? 'Stay Foolish'! I would have to say dream something impossible. We were foolish and VERY hungry! Now we are one with our mentors. It can happen — just look at us small-town guys!
Credits: Photo of Schurman courtesy of Schurman. Graphic and logo from Phantom EFX on Facebook.