It has been an article of faith among slot floor skeptics that if the industry didn’t do anything to capitalize on the growth of mass-market casual gaming it could go the way of race track wagering.
It looks like the first part of that prophecy of doom is being addressed.
Slot games that incorporate skill into bonus rounds, or at least perceived skill, were among the most talked about products at last October’s Global Gaming Expo. And what’s clear, as conversations with top game designers at a number of the leading manufacturers reveal, there’s plenty more where that came from, especially if the initial round of games delivers in the coming year.
RULES OF THE ROADThere are a number of powerful winds at the back of skill games, and regulatory clarity is probably a good place to start. The industry had a substantive go at the category about five years ago, when Bally Technologies introduced Pong, which incorporated a pure skill component of the old Atari game into its bonus round. Pong never caught on as a game, but it did lay a regulatory foundation for future games, acknowledges Mark Lipparelli, chairman, Nevada Gaming Control Board, who was with Bally at the time.
“Pong was the first true skill game beyond video poker that was allowed in Nevada,” said Lipparelli. “The Gaming Commission agreed that as long as skill was in the bonus portion of the game, not the base game, and there was sufficient disclosure that the skill of the player could affect the outcome of the bonus payout, it was allowed. There have been a couple of other attempts that had dexterity skill elements in the base game itself, but that doesn’t comport with our statute which says any player has to have an equal chance of winning.”
Beyond clearing the way for skill to be incorporated into bonus rounds, Pong compelled regulators to address the question of how determinative player skill could or should be relative to reward. “It was one of those slippery slope things with the lab; the more the skill impacted payout, the less comfortable they were,” said Lipparelli. “If it was marginally different for someone that had the skill, that was more acceptable than dramatic differences. I don’t know if that was ever quantified, but the discussion was if skill made a marginal difference, but not enough to make a huge difference, that was acceptable.”
Among other discussion points was that the entertainment option shouldn’t materially affect payback-to-player. The game itself had to do some self-diagnostics about the skill element, be it a joystick, a button or a spin ball. And there had to be a tilt mechanism so that the player couldn’t somehow manipulate the device.
It was also decided that the help screen needed to indicate that you could affect the amount you are getting paid back by not being good in the bonus round. “You could have someone playing next to you who has better manual dexterity but, again, if the difference was very marginal, the feeling was, hey, it’s a form of entertainment, we have to think about these things in the bonus round,” said Lipparelli. “Any individual who walks up to these games and plays it should have the same individual chance as the guy sitting next to him.”
Lipparelli said the door isn’t permanently closed on skill for base games, mentioning pachi-slots in Japan, which has served as a creative inspiration for a number of domestic game developers. “It’s a topic of conversation that developers and regulators could have,” he said. “Maybe there’s a way to get to a model where we’re OK with skill-based games, but rules would have to be written, criteria would have to be established. The last thing you want is a reputation that games become deceptive. If someone becomes skillful at stopping reels or stopping events of hitting things or whatever the skill is, can the public and regulators be comfortable that is actually occurring? That the skill is really matched by the technology and someone is acquiring skill and doing it successfully, or is it faked? That’s not to say that you couldn’t create some sort of success pattern and skill that, like video poker, when you become proficient at a brick breaker game or something like that you win more money.”
The current boundaries are not impeding the creativity of game developers, many of whom have already done a lot of heavy lifting in the area of skill games and are looking at 2012 as an important year in this category. Manufacturers are confident that the games will attract younger players, or at the very least deliver compelling and necessary new form of entertainment to the core market. They also see themselves leveraging new game technologies and current development efforts to add more skill games and to get deeper into the area of skill. A summary of their respective outlooks follows:
BALLY TECHNOLOGIESBill Wadleigh, senior game producer, wasn’t around for Pong, but he knows why it failed. “The level of reward was so narrow between doing nothing and perfect play, it kind of played flat,” he said “You didn’t win a whole lot or lose a whole lot. If we were to try to do a game in the style of Pong today, I’m sure that we could widen that range a bit and through our mathematical bag of tricks come through with some better outcomes for the player.”
Bally’s two big skill game titles at G2E were SkeeBall and Total Blast, which are projected to be ready for distribution in May and July respectively.
“I was absolutely floored by the reaction to SkeeBall,” said Wadleigh. “Our team had been playing it for months, trying to up our scores, but we weren’t prepared for how well it was received. I’d stand and watch the prime player demographic walk by, stop and mouth the word, ‘SkeeBall,’ and immediately start to play it and having a positive experience.”
SkeeBall’s bonus round is 100 percent skill-based. You bowl nine balls, those balls give you tickets, which are dispensed from the left of the main playing field. The higher your score, the more tickets you get (from one to five tickets). Those tickets are then used in the pick-a-prize shelf, each shelf corresponding to a ticket quantity. The underlying math conveys a strong feeling of difference between the different levels. On the one-level shelf, four numbers would be at the lower range, one is significantly higher. In the five-level shelf, all the numbers are higher and there’s less of a differentiation between the highest high and the lowest lows.
Bally’s new Alpha 2 platform with its real-time 3D and physics engines enhances the game play of SkeeBall. Total Blast is also on Alpha 2, so it has the 3D engine, but with a 2D sprite face. “The interaction is more about trying to get that directive corollary between player input on the iDeck, which is our control panel, and having that interaction affect something on the screen,” said Wadleigh. “Fish’n for Loot and All that Jazz does that as well, but the strategic and the more skill-based portion with Total Blast was to provide the player with a real similar experience to, say, Galaga, from the old slot days, when exactly where and how they pushed would propel two different sized objects.”
Just tapping on the screen with Total Blast sends one sized photon toward enemy spaceships. And when you hold your hand down that smaller one grows in size and power and can take out a bunch of different ships. So there’s a decision point for the player; do they want to go for a lot of little hits that would take a certain number to destroy the ship or so they want to go for the juggernauts. “That gives more of a twitch feel, a more modern gaming aspect to it, like a shooter in a classic space arcade,” said Wadleigh.
The games are aimed at two different sets of players, with SkeeBall being the mass-market title.
“If you go by the rule that the prime demographic is 40 and up, slightly more female than male, SkeeBall hits that directly,” said Wadleigh. “It also has strong pull for men as well because everyone played it as a kid. I remember when I was a kid I played it for an entire summer so I could earn a set of five beer glasses at the bowling alley I lived near. SkeeBall has been around for 100 years; the oldest of the old players and the youngest of the young players have seen it; so it’s a wider net that is being cast.
Among the new things Bally is working on in the skill area is achievement recognition. “You play this game, you do certain things within the game and, just as with PlayStation and xBox titles, you would get an achievement award,” said Wadleigh. “Right now we’re working out a method by which we can also reward credits for those achievement awards. Through a variety of different bonuses, some skill-based, some outcome-based, we will offer the ability to have some skill associated with the player being able to feel better about their connection with that particular title.”
INTERNATIONAL GAME TECHNOLOGYBuck Hunter and Reel Edge were the top two skill titles introduced by IGT at the show last fall, with the former title creating quite the stir. The show results represented the fruit of about two years worth of labor, said Ryan Griffin, director, product management.
“With Reel Edge, we’ve been testing that product a lot for the last two years; everything from what we call usability testing, which basically asks players if they understand what they are doing and why they want to do it to basic likeability,” said Griffin. “This product has some similarity to the pachisuro products over in Japan. Players are hammering those games 24/7 and it’s 100 percent skill. That’s where we got the idea. We brought it back to the U.S., put those concepts in front of our corporate customer, and every single corporate customer couldn’t get off Reel Edge; they didn’t care about any other concept in the room.”
Reel Edge has two base game themes, Blood Life and Red, White & Blue Falling Stars, which are designed to collectively appeal to all age groups. When the player stops any of the three reels with the press of a corresponding button, the remaining reels flicker with light with potential winning symbols. The bonus round is played with a joystick, with content related to the base game theme.
“The base game is not 100 percent skill; the bonus game is,” said Griffin. “On the base game, you can increase your odds of winning if you use the hints that we give you. They can increase their probability, but they cannot guarantee it based on skill. When you stop the reels by hitting the buttons for each reel, we had to make sure that they were inward enough so that players could rest their wrist on the machine. It’s not a fatiguing experience, but it’s something we had to consider. We also had to consider the level of the reels so that they are eye-level and comfortable because a lot of players are going to time those reels and symbols as they play the game. We ended putting the joystick on the left-hand side, which has been very popular. All skill-based games today if you’re playing Nintendo, Wii, PlayStation…all the directional controls are always on the left-hand side and you’re controlling that with your left thumb.”
Griffin divides the target markets for skill games into two: The “Emerginists,” or the untapped 21- to 35-year-old player for the slot floor portion of the casino floor. “They play tables because all of those games have an element of skill and control,” he said. “If we can provide them a product that gives them a sense of control over their gaming experience, then we can provide operators access to this untapped demographic. If you look at a game like Buck Hunter, a typical table game has young males at it. They grew up playing video games. He may have played Buck Hunter or even Atari Centipede (another of IGT’s skill games) if he is 35 years old.”
The Evolving Traditionalists are the other target. “They are the people who like Hot Roll; the base games there are Triple Double Diamond and Super Times Pay, two of the most iconic games in the industry,” said Griffin. “Now you can play those iconic games as part of a more interactive experience. It’s perceived skill but it’s a new type of experience that is interesting for the evolving traditionalist.”
IGT has plenty of new skill-based products in the pipeline. More interactivity will be added to Hot Roll, which is posting twice the national average for win-per-machine, according to Griffin, and uses IGT’s physics engine to correlate the bonus mechanism with the player rolling the dice and ricocheting throughout the machine. Reel Edge has been positioned as a game category that will incorporate other gamers with skill-based elements. “Right now you see that in Centipede and other games, but at G2E next year we’re going to be unveiling a new iteration of skill-based gaming,” said Griffin. “Everyone’s looking at futuristic technology and it’s going to get a lot more fun. Look at all the technologies out there in the broader gaming industry, from Kinect to Wii and the rest. Don’t be surprised when IGT rolls out slot games with capabilities such as that.”
MULTIMEDIA GAMESBrad Johnson, vice president, product management, has been thinking about skill on the slot floor for a long time. “Video poker has some of the most enthusiastic loyal players there are,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of, if you come up with the right game, you can offer something that involves skill and gives casinos the chance to make the kind of money they expect to make. There are a lot of games out there that people enjoy and would like to try and make money at playing. Games like AngryBirds; if it’s $1 or $2 a game and all of a sudden there’s a chance to go on a leader board and win $100,000, maybe you take the person who is just playing those games at home and they come to a casino. We want players who are more engaged in the product, more interested in the outcomes, so occupancy time goes up and they even raise the average bet on the game because of other features that are available.”
Multimedia has stepped into the skill market in a couple of ways, one by adding a skill component to its successful TournEvent product. “We have bonus prizes that pop up on the screen that the player has to touch in a certain period of time or they lose that bonus,” said Johnson. “They play it really fast; it’s a baby step in the direction of having players make decisions that have an impact on results. Slot directors demand the skill feature. We have a lot of different versions such as the player who hits the balloon first actually jumps to first place, a ‘you’re never out of it’ type of thing.”
Leader boards will play an important role going forward. What players win with skill-based bonuses will register on a leader board and that total will be matched with other players in the casino and across the country, generating secondary prizes that will rise based on point totals.
“We’re also looking at building up credits with a main game that you can then take and play in a potential skill game,” said Johnson. “So it’s still a secondary-type product. You’re playing the prime game at full speed but at a certain point you’re able to take a build-up of credits or bonus points and go into other types of games and you’ll have a choice of what those games are. We’ll translate how much they’re playing on the base game to know how much we can give away on these other games. We’re hoping to have something we can demo at next year’s G2E.”
WMSAllon Engelman, chief designer, sees an irresistible pull between what’s happening in the broader world of entertainment and casino gaming. “Technology is the driver of a lot of this; you see most people with a smartphone in their pocket and they’re playing a lot of casual games using different kinds of apps using different kinds of gesture control that are really making people more accustomed to interacting with devices on a different level,” he said. “I think that’s going to slowly find its way into the slot machine market. As players interact with other devices, they’re going to want to interact differently with devices in the casino. As multi-touch technology becomes cheaper and more available, I think you’re going to see that come into the way we design our games and our products. We’re always focusing on new technologies and new types of game play; at the 2012 show you will certainly see a number of things from us in this area.”
WMS has quasi-skill games; where performance affects the result of the game but not the expected value. Much like Jackpot Party where you pick a present and a prize is revealed. (“That prize is behind that present, so your pick did affect it,” said Engelman.”). Super Team, which debuted at G2E, has a bonus round called the Fortress Bonus, in which the player navigates a superhero through a training scenario, where he’s being shot at. Credits accumulate as the superhero is navigated through a maze type of tunnels. The player is in complete control, selecting where the superhero goes. The game is integrated with WMS’ Players Life Web Services function, which allows players to save their hero and pick up where they left off.
• Has more than 650,000 current users,
• Adds more than 43,000 user per month,
• Has users spending , on average, 55 minutes per month playing games,
• 1,072 Player’s Life games are in the field today,
• 330 casinos are running Player’s Life games today,
• Three to four new Player’s Life games are introduced every year.
Skill has been part of Players Life since it started in 2009. On the Lord of the Rings site, WMS offers skill-based casual games that allow the player to unlock miles so that when he or she goes back to the casino, more bonuses can be unlocked. “We’re going to have something similar to that with Clue, which is coming out in the fall, where that player will be able to unlock bonuses by participating in some online games,” said Engleman. “There’s definitely a skill component to that, but it’s designed to affect the in-casino experience without affecting the expected value of the game.”
Engelman notes that, 10 years ago, no one thought a slot screen would be a touch screen, which WMS was one of the first to use. Now, “it’s unheard of to have a screen that you can’t touch and interact with. Now that it’s come into the mainstream, our customers when they come up to our games really want to interact with them. We do a lot of research with players and operators, and that’s something we want to be at the forefront of.”