While episodic and persistence features have been mainstays of casual and console gaming, casino patrons may have to search far and wide on their favorite slot floor to find the few games now offering such capabilities.
Waukegan, Ill.-based WMS Gaming has been ahead of the pack of slot machine developers in developing such games, releasing its first, Star Trek, in 2008. Since then, it has followed with several more, including The Lord of the Rings, Clue and its most recent entrant, Super Team.
Now, however, WMS is finding new competitors in that space. The success of WMS’ games as well as the exploding popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook, with millions playing Farmville and other popular casual games, have casino operators more interested than ever in such products and slot developers scrambling to deliver new ways to make their gaming products and the overall gaming experience more engaging to social media-savvy clientele.
That’s because this type of gaming experience holds great promise for the casino gaming industry at large.
“This is something I’m actually extremely passionate about. I see this as a great opportunity for IGT and the casino industry in general,” said Darrell Rodriguez, senior vice president of IGT’s Global Gaming Studios, and a former president of LucasArts. “We are aggressively pursuing this by bringing on talent from outside the slot industry. We strongly believe in this realm and will continue to pursue these games.”
Rodriguez said he sees a convergence of platforms building out to an ecosystem that includes bricks-and-mortar casinos as well as mobile, social and online gaming. “Our research is showing us that the lines are blurring and that the typical player is more and more interested [in episodic and persistence features] as they adopt the iPad,” he said. “They adopt the smartphone, and they play casual games. People’s appetites are evolving and we as an industry need to evolve as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, IGT has added leaderboards to some of its MegaJackpot games such as Wheel of Fortune 2 and Ghostbusters, he said. “It was really our first step to connecting our slot machines and the Internet.”
The foundation for episodic gaming is having a login that will allow a casino to identify a user over and over again in order to reward players for their achievements. “Casinos have been doing this for a long time as well, creating a virtual economy through player cards,” Rodriguez said. Moving forward, with these advanced offerings will enable the industry to extend this virtual trade beyond the casino walls to old and new customer demographics, Rodriguez said, noting IGT’s recent purchase of Double Down Interactive, the developer of Facebook’s Double Down Casino.
Aristocrat Technologies is also taking this virtual casino approach with its nLive product. nLive is a virtual casino solution that supports operators, taking a casino’s brand and putting it in an online space where customers can play on any mobile device and earn points. nLive launches in a play-for-fun-mode until regulation allows for real money gaming, giving players a wide range of games to choose from including poker, table games and Aristocrat slot content.
The nLive virtual casino solution played a key role in the pre-opening strategy of Maryland Live! Casino, which launched a play-for-fun site ahead of the land-based casino’s opening. That site allowed the casino to communicate its brand to potential customers and build a database, ever before opening its physical doors.
SUPER STARTWMS also has been on the leading edge of this trend, having offered episodic/persistence games since 2008. Its most recent entrant is Super Team, designed for players seeking continual random bonus action, a persistent state game, state-of-the-art technology and a customizable gaming experience.
Players can switch between two teams of eight heroes that can randomly interact before, during or after any base game spin to award credits, extra WILDs, multipliers and more. Players seeking a more volatile gaming experience can play with Team Ruby, while players seeking a less volatile slot game can choose Team Emerald. Mr. Maximum, a member of both teams, can randomly award one of two standalone progressives on any spin. In addition, players can customize their personal hero, both at the casino and online.
WMS’ Chief Innovation Officer Larry Pacey said the company realized early on that while player loyalty cards recognized customers with rewards based on their patronage, “there was nothing that uniquely identified the player and recognized the player, nothing that allowed them to get more invested in the gaming experience itself.”
WMS launched its Players Life Web Services in 2008 with a goal of providing casinos with a tool to allow players to become more invested in the gaming experience. Its first episodic game was Star Trek, which launched that year at the Las Vegas Hilton. The game allowed players to create an ID, save their progress, and then pick up where they left off on their casino visit.
WMS then began to integrate Players Life with casino operators, including Caesars Entertainment, Ameristar Resorts and MGM Resorts International. “Corporations are definitely early adopters in order to move this technology forward,” Pacey said. “They’ve seen that players spend more time on the floor, and they come back far more often.”
Episodic/persistent games, he said, cut across demographic lines, appealing both to younger players and core slot players. “What we have found is that this persistence, this episodic gaming has to really add value inside the game itself to justify doing it. It can’t just be slapped onto a game. It has to have real meaning to really resonate with the player and get the success metrics we’re looking for, which are high-earning, high-performing games.”
WMS got an inkling of that success almost immediately after introducing the Star Trek game at Las Vegas Hilton. “The game had been there a day-and-a-half when the casino called to say they needed more games. The one game had been played nonstop by one player for 36 hours. We kind of knew we had something,” Pacey said.
In launching that game, WMS was careful not to pile on too much information, Pacey noted. “We made it super simple. It was an educational ramp up with just a login name, no password.”
WMS’ next foray was its Lord of the Rings product, which offered an even more personalized experience and instituted a password in addition to the username.
As more products roll out, WMS continues to ramp up more personalization, Pacey said. Describing Clue and Super Team, he noted, “both of them have different value propositions that are really integrated into the product itself.” For instance, with Clue, players can go online to a casino Web site and play a Clue casual game that unlocks special areas for a period of time so that when players return to the bricks-and-mortar casino, they can start at the new level.
With Super Team, players also can go online to unlock achievements, including those that permit players to customize unique outfits for their superhero.
WMS also has ventured into the Facebook world of casual gaming through its partnership with Large Animal Games to offer Lucky Cruise, which allows players to move from destination to destination, playing for-fun versions of slot games. Pacey notes that Lucky Cruise players are split almost evenly between newbie and avid slot players. “There’s an interesting opportunity to really reach out online to players who have never played [slots] before,” he said.
Part of WMS’ core vision is “this social kind of convergence of products,” he said. Players want to have that secondary level of accomplishment, unlocking achievements, seeing their names on leaderboards, and receiving other forms of recognition. “At the end of the day, it’s about making the player experience at the property more meaningful and providing operators with the tools to drive players to the property,” Pacey added.
CUSTOMIZED EXPERIENCEAnother manufacturer investing heavily in this area is Bally Technologies.
Bally Vice President of Technology Bryan Kelly said the company is committed to developing products that promise to leverage the power of episodic/persistence gaming. “This year has been a year of building teams and starting on the ideation on different game platforms. You’re going to see those products in the marketplace within the next 12-18 months,” he said. “You’ll be able to unlock bragging rights, collect objects. You’ll be able to unlock trophies.”
Leaderboards and game board-type features around the base game are among the other developments.
Bally’s goal is not to compete with a casino, but to “enable our casino customers to offer Internet, mobile and social games that will have episodic and persistent capabilities,” Kelly noted. “We’re really focused on a B2B strategy and trying to return play to that particular casino, that casino brand.”
The key is getting players to return to the game, giving them bragging status or more perceived value, he said. As regulations in the market evolve, he said, its possible perceived value eventually could translate into real value.
Bally, Kelly said, may benefit from the Raining Diamonds game and related intellectual property that it acquired when it purchased Sierra Design Group. Players of that game, which enjoyed a popular run in the early 2000s, could collect prize points that earned them coupons that allowed them to achieve and unlock new levels that eventually could be traded for actual diamond jewelry.
Kelly said that IP as well as other patents Bally holds could lead to new and different products that keep players engaged and excited. “We think we can do a lot of innovation on top of what we did with Raining Diamonds. We think we can do a lot with that with things that have real, tangible value.”
He envisions opportunities with Bally’s systems products to deliver persistence products across an entire casino floor, or building a player’s own personal play space around the base game.
Kelly believes the Bally iDeck is well-suited to deliver some episodic-persistent gaming features, as well as give players the ability to create a more personalized gaming space. “The megatrend today is to build out your own space and personalize your own space,” he said. “Right now the casino decides what you’re going to see. As we go forward, it’s going to be more your personal space, your favorite games, favorite layout, favorite bet configurations.”
GOLD STANDARDSpielo International also has entered the episodic/persistence gaming space with its Egyptian Gold product. It combines a number of factors that Spielo International believes will appeal to players-a popular Egyptian theme, a progressive link and episodic gaming.
As players progress through the game during one session, they can save and reactivate their achieved status during the next play session. The player unlocks more features, and additional bet options for more action become available. When a player reaches the highest status, an additional award can be randomly revealed by Tutenchamun. Egyptian Gold also offers a five-Level Progressive Playoff, in which players are able to win multiple progressives.
The product is soon to debut internationally-first in Latin America and then in Europe, a Spielo International official said. Following the rollout in international markets, the company will decide whether and when to launch it in the United States. In the meantime, Spielo International hinted that it is close to announcing a product tailored to North American players. While not an episodic-gaming product, Spielo International is convinced that it will appeal to social or console game players.
First shown at the ICE show in January, Egyptian Gold generated a lot of interest from casino customers as well as the signing of several deals, officials said.
Spielo International has been paying close attention to trends developing in social gaming and how these trends could be applied to slot machine products, said Sonja Fritz, a Graz, Austria-based game producer responsible for development of Egyptian Gold.
“When we look at social gaming, we see that unlocking features is well-accepted,” Fritz said. She added that “…many players like to save a certain progress that they already have made. It’s motivating to reach a certain status. They’re interested in what happens next.”
In Egyptian Gold, players will take a journey through Egypt as they play the five-level progressive link. “While playing, the players will find magic icons, which will be revealed in a map,” she said. “Players can save their current status in one session, and they can reactivate the status on the next play session.”
Moreover, “the higher your bet, the faster you move along in this journey,” Fritz noted.
Spielo received positive feedback during player focus groups, Fritz said. “They were very excited to see the journey through Egypt. They were interested to play it in real life.”
Asked whether slot players are ready to take to new concepts such as persistent and episodic gaming, Fritz said most people are familiar with saving progress and creating a username and password. She also noted that, although the younger demographic is quite used to episodic gaming, signs indicate older players also are open to the concept. “We had one man in our focus group, and he was really absolutely excited about this system-and he was 82!”
One important factor with episodic gaming is to ensure continued play even after players have conquered the highest level, Fritz said. “I think the challenge with episodic gaming is that you still offer an exciting concept once they reach the highest status, and that players stay loyal to the product.”
In the case of Egyptian Gold, that challenge is answered partly by well-received base game features and by the big-win amount that is randomly released to players who have reached the highest status, Fritz said.
Spielo International also has taken pains to ensure that players who do not wish to create a username and password also have access to Egyptian Gold’s episodic gaming features. “We just wanted to make it possible for players to play anonymously and that they are also able to save their progress,” Fritz said. In addition to cash-out tickets, status tickets with a status code also are awarded that anonymous players can use at a later session.