Amid the torrent of electronic communications that is shaping this new millennium, the relevancy of the casino experience is coming to depend more and more on how well it succeeds in bringing people together in places other than the line at the buffet. What it comes down to are the games. It’s always been about the games. That’s where the gambling hall will best reflect technology’s increasing ability to conjure shared experiences for us (virtual ones and, yes, that other kind, too), and already it’s making for slot floors that are a little noisier than they might have been once, a little brighter and livelier and a lot more interesting.
“I always tell people when I talk about community gaming, we had this first press publicity shot [for Monopoly Big Event], where we have everyone around, and it looked like a craps table, only with a slot machine in it,” recalls Brad Rose, director of game studios for WMS Gaming. “And I’d tell people, ‘Sure, we staged that, it was an ad.’ But what we’d then see was that people, complete strangers, when they’d trigger this bonus they’d start looking at each other. There’d be some high fives. There’d be this interaction that you’d never seen before.”
Jason Seelig, executive vice president of sales and marketing for AC Coin & Slot, likes this table game analogy, somewhat modified in form. “When we looked at community gaming, we looked at blackjack as an example. The reason you feel lucky when you play blackjack is because some player at the table won.”
This is how he describes AC Coin’s new Phat Cats game: two machines under a single plasma display, the player who triggers the bonus goes to the overhead screen for the bonus event, the other player shares in the experience, but the winnings belong to one.
“It’s very similar to sitting at a blackjack table,” he explains. “When the guy next to you gets dealt an ace, you’re excited. You could be sitting there with a 2. You see the guy next to you dealt an ace, and you’re excited for that guy. You want him to get the face card. You’re pulling for him.”
In WMS’ hit game Reel ’em In: Compete to Win players at a bank of machines all go to the bonus round at the same time and compete in a “fishing derby” on the overhead display. Those who land the biggest fish will collect the biggest bonuses, but everyone is going to win something.
Which is where comparisons to blackjack end, you might say. But it’s all good.
“It’s opened a lot of communication,” says Frank Kennedy, vice president of slot operations at Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., which has been stocking community-style slot games since it opened in 2007. “People talk. People get into them by sitting around them and observing the community bonuses. People have become intrigued by what’s happening, the sense of competition. It’s all been a positive for us.”
ARUZE GAMING: COMPETITIVE FUN
Aruze Gaming staked its first claim to a piece of the community gaming floor with the competitive tournament feature built into a game called Jackpot Battle Royale. Available in six or 10-game configurations, it’s a networked concept that links proven Aruze titles around a “Battle Royal Award,” a mystery-activated bonus round that pits players against each other in a tension-filled race that unfolds in a stream of rich graphics and sounds, each player’s progress charted in the video top box for the other players, and passers-by, to see.
The follow-up, Paradise Fishing, made a big splash at G2E. It’s packed with single- and competitive community bonus features built on six base games, the special hook, if you will, being Aruze’s innovative “Reel Feel” technology, which puts the action (literally) in players’ hands. Paradise Fishing’s three 60-inch high-definition overhead screens employ arresting visuals designed to transport players into a world under the sea. The thrills begin when one of five bonus games is triggered and players get the opportunity to go “fishing” for extra awards, taking their “Reel Feel Fishing Rod” into their hands to snag their prey. They feel the rod shake and actually feel the “bite” when they’ve landed a live one. The bigger the fish, the bigger the reward.
Community gaming is “a huge focus for us,” says Vice President of Marketing Steve Walther.
“Nowadays you have to have more than an RNG. People want entertainment value for their spend, an entertainment component to go with the gambling component. It’s a very strong segment, and will be a growing segment of the market.”
Also new is Title Match, a multi-level penny progressive slated for its first installations this month. The progressive round is randomly triggered during base game play. That’s when the real action starts: Players take their places in the ring and land punches to receive points. They even choose what kinds of punches to throw. Each punch reveals a value or a “Belt” symbol, which pays an even higher value, leading to bigger awards. And all the while spectators are gathering to watch the fight on the top box, enriching the shared experience.
ATRONIC: THE DEAL IS ONAtronic’s Deal Or No Deal “has evolved so much,” says Product Marketing Manager Mike Brennan, “the only thing that is the same as the original game is the name”- and now with Join ’n Play, the popular title is entering the burgeoning community space in a big way.
Comedian Howie Mandel, who hosts “Deal Or No Deal” on U.S. television, is on board with a new merchandising package that features a five-screen “wall” of 54-inch LCD monitors to broadcast players’ “briefcase” picks. Of course, it’s just about impossible to miss from anywhere on the casino floor. And a community bonus has been added with a guaranteed launch every 11 minutes, almost every player get to participate (“stress-free eligibility,” Brennan calls it). Here’s how it works:
On-screen clocks at each station count down the seconds to “Briefcase Bonus” time, heightening the excitement for the players who’ve collected a minimum of 18 “golden briefcases” during the base game and have moved to the next level. (There’s a bonus multiplier for additional cases.) In the bonus round each player selects a briefcase on their machine. Everybody’s picks are displayed on the five-screen “wall”. Some of the cases are randomly opened to reveal their amounts. The “Banker” appears, offering players a credit amount based on an average of the hidden amounts in the remaining cases. The player then chooses “Deal” or “No Deal”. This continues until either all the players choose “Deal” and accept the offer or until only one case is left. As the round closes, players have the option of selecting the remaining case, staying with their original case or switching to another player‘s case. The elected cases then open, and the individual credit amounts are increased by the player’s own multiplier. Final results are ranked on the giant screen.
“It’s very well thought-out, very sophisticated,” says Brennan. There’s a social element for the “entertainment” player, as he terms them, and a competitive element the “gambling” player craves.
“Everyone in the industry is jumping into community games, and we’ve been kind of sitting back and looking at what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” he says, so Join ’n Play “represents a lot of firsts for us, and we feel it will be one of the key community games out there, and one of the top recurring-revenue products.”
BALLY TECHNOLOGIES: EXPANDING THE COMMUNITY
Last year when Bally was installing its first Two for the Money DualVision games the basic pitch was “A Community of Two” - two players side by side on a single bench, two separate games, but a single bankroll, the same wins, same losses, the same highs and lows - a true shared experience.
Says Director of Gaming Operations Mark DeDeaux, “We felt that slot players were perceived as players who like to play together; table games were for people who like to play with other people.”
DualVision and its high-frequency bonus math model have proven so popular, especially with recent enhancements to the cabinet’s dynamic “celebration effect” lighting and sound package, Bally now is customizing its original “five-pod” configuration for casinos that want the flexibility of providing Two for the Money (and its brand-new brother, Meet Me in the Middle, based on the popular board game and just launched in December) in sets of three and even in single placements.
As for Two for the Money, Quick Hits was its inspiration, it employs the same free games feature and seven-level progressive, and therefore Bally was confident it couldn’t miss.
“It’s the trend with all the manufacturers,” explains DeDeaux, “using proven games we know players like.”
Meet Me in the Middle, which will see its first installations in the next couple of months, derives its parlor game fun - like a free games feature that’s triggered when both player pieces land on a “Meet Me in the Middle” symbol at the same time - is a “natural fit for community gaming,” he says.
As is the new five-reel, 40-line Hot Shot Yours, Mine and OURS!, which takes its math and its unique Game in Game and progressive features from the hugely popular Hot Shot. Either player can enter their own Game in Game bonus separately. But there are an extra three symbols that will admit both players into the bonus together.
For a more competitive take, there’s the new Blazing Hot Tournament, available as a “three-against-the-wall” or as a free-standing six-pod with two sets of three linked players. Its random bonus rounds can be triggered simultaneously, and a thermometer-like reading tracks and broadcasts eligibility for the big bonus. What’s really unique is that once you get into the bonus you’re playing a slot tournament, the overhead display switches into tournament mode, sound effects trumpet the tournament, and players are then competing for prizes.
INTERNATIONAL GAME TECHNOLOGY: MOVE OVER, VANNA
IGT, a player in community gaming since its super-sized Wheel of Fortune Super Spin hit the market, has gone a competitive route with Wheel of Fortune Experience, available in four- and five-machine configurations.
Experience is designed to more closely emulate the game show. When one player triggers the puzzle-solving bonus, two more players are randomly selected to pick letters. Each player gets only one pick at a time, so no one can run the board. And everyone gets a bonus.
“It basically turns players into contestants on the show,” says Boris Hallerbach, IGT’s MegaJackpots product manager. “It added not only the puzzle-playing aspect, which we’ve done in games in the past, but it added that community aspect where players were trying to solve the puzzle for themselves.”
House of Nine Dragons, with nine progressive levels, also provides a community experience by allowing players to accumulate their own number of free spins then playing them out together as the bonus initiates.
Dark Knight, released under IGT’s Batman license, has a nifty little feature for those who come with their own community. If you earn a bonus round entry you can save it to play when your spouse or friend has also earned an entry.
IGT’s MPS e-table games also figure here, with their individual betting consoles configured around a central screen flashing computer-generated game images. The first games in the series were those stalwarts of the conventional pit, roulette and baccarat. And now there’s Triple Towers, which brings horse-racing action to the slot floor. Players can bet on favorites, underdogs, they can bet to win, place or show, two-horse quinielas and exactas, just like at the track. Then they become a community of cheering race fans, rooting for their favorites from among 300 animated mounts and 140 jockeys.
INTUICODE GAMING: WHAT'S YOUR SIGN?Intuicode Gaming, which also has experimented with electronic tables, was looking for something entirely new when it joined forces with Ingenio, the R&D division of Loto-Québec, to come up with Zodiac Revolution, a colorful multiplayer game that’s part slot, part table.
GLI-certified and approved in six states and in Canada, Zodiac Revolution’s action takes place on a roulette-like “celestial wheel” displayed on an eye-catching 50-inch screen which is ringed by six individual touch-screen betting stations. Again, kind of like electronic roulette except that instead of one spinning ball there are six, each representing a planet, each circling and destined to come to rest on one of 12 signs of the zodiac. The wheel turns, the planets fly across the big screen. How you win and how much depends on what the planets do and on the bet or bets you’ve made. There are six different bets.
On their personal screens players can monitor the results of their wagering as each planet comes to a stop and multipliers come into effect.
“You look at the community aspect of table games: developers have always wanted to bring that element to the slot machine. The challenge is to find game concepts that are exciting, attractive and new, with that community element,” says Jeremy Stein, CEO of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Intuicode.
The company was created precisely with the goal of uncovering the next big thing, Stein says. It started with new platform ideas for Class III slots, that’s been the technological foundation, and then came development of an automated multi-station mechanical roulette game, a blackjack side bet concept called RandomX TwentyOne, a blackjack variant, Red Dog Blackjack, an array of Class III and Class II slot titles, even an in-house SGB system.
Says Stein, “We’re engineers that have been in the industry for quite some time and founded our own company. We know the good and the bad from experience and we’re developing accordingly.”
What Intuicode’s expertise means for Zodiac Revolution and the games yet to come is highly flexible and modular designs, multiple player configurations, multi-denominational and multilingual play, support for the leading peripherals and any number of platforms and cabinets (including wireless tablets) and of course TITO compatibility and SAS compliance.
Zodiac Revolution, the offspring of this technological know-how and Ingenio’s game smarts, is just the beginning.
Stein vows, “We’ll be coming out with games that the industry has never thought of.”
MULTIMEDIA GAMES: CHARACTERS WITH PERSONALITYMultimedia Games, which first entered the community space with the horse-racing themed Sport of Kings, has come back with another racing game, Slot Car Speedway.
The auto race is timed to run about every five minutes, and players cheer on their cars. It could be the flashy sports car with an attitude, it might be that flirty little pink number.
Chief Marketing Officer Ginny Shanks says research found players liked characters with personality, so instead of more realistic-looking cars, Slot Car Speedway uses cartoony caricatures that let their individuality show in competition.
“Fostering a greater sense of community is both where things have changed recently and where we expect them to continue to evolve going forward,” Shanks says. “With the overwhelming growth of social media we can see the day where players can share their gaming experience real time via Facebook, Twitter and photo downloads, creating games that foster the sense of community - ‘We like these games, we play “together” and share in the outcome.’ When players experience these emotions, than a community has been formed, and game loyalty is likely to result.”
There you have it. Or rather a part of it. Outside the United States community-building is well along.
“If you go overseas to Europe or South America, or especially to Asia, they’re up to 25 to 30 percent of the casino floor,” says Brian Folger, senior product line representative for IGT’s MPS line.
That big overseas percentage applies mainly to e-tables like the MPS. But even for community slots that are more slot-like, if you will, the smart money is feeling pretty good.
“Definitely it’s going to grow,” says WMS’ Rose. “You can always tell by what your competitors are doing, and they’re all coming out with their versions of community gaming. When we first came out with that Monopoly Big Event, we always felt that there was a market for players who wanted that excitement of a table game, where everyone could play together and root for some greater good.”
The key, suggests Ryan Grant, director of R&D game development at Spielo, is in marrying what the 1’s and 0’s can provide to what the player needs.
“When you look at the trending of this, it really flows into how the technology has been trending. There’s always been that sense of group play with low- to no-tech games like poker or roulette. I really think that what you’re going to see with community games as we define them today is that it’s really going to align with how technology advances and how technology can provide environments for players for group play.”
And the form those environments will take? We’re seeing only the beginning of what’s possible.
Chicago-based gaming journalist and author John Grochowski contributed to this report.