Traditional reel-spinning slots survive in a gaming world filled with sexy video devices, whiz-bang bonuses and interactive features

Bally Technologies’ Blazing 7s game continues to be one of the best performing traditional slot machines.

It wasn’t so very long ago that the death knell was being sounded for the traditional reel-spinning slot.

Players seemed more enamored of multiline, multicoin video gaming machines with enhanced graphics and interactive bonuses, and the traditional slots seemed like relics from another time.

But the game invented back in 1895 by San Franciscan Charles Fey proved resilient, and its cadre of fans has grown as manufacturers devoted more attention to the reel sector.

“I thought for a long time that reels would go the way of the horse and buggy,” said Buddy Frank, vice president of slot operations for Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif. “I would have sworn to you three years ago that they were dead.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash heap. The manufacturers put more effort into innovating with reel spinners, and their efforts showed results. Five-reel games and higher coin configurations helped, Frank said. “I think reels have really been reborn,” he said. “They’ve kind of recaptured the magic of the reels – they were first threatened by technology, and now I think reel games have been saved by technology.”

Moreover, for many players, reel games offer a simplicity that players appreciate. “For many people, reels still have a stronger trust factor than in video. It’s a game that an experienced player likes but a beginner can figure out really quickly,” Frank said.

Plus the games have pay tables and math that appeal to the gambler, he said. “I think it’s more popular than ever.”

The reel-spinning slot will continue to find its place on the slot floor, other slot executives and manufacturers said.

“I think there will be some version of a spinning reel game even in a server-based gaming world. I think the appeal is there for a spinning reel game, and I think the manufacturers know that,” said Todd Deremer, vice president of gaming operations, at Excalibur hotel-casino.

Jerry Roed, director of slot operations at Ellis Island, said the traditional reels have endured despite the onslaught of video product.

 “They’ll be around for some time,” he said. “People still love to play the Bally Blazing 7s game, and that game is 15 years old plus.”

Bally, he said, also helped swing the pendulum back from the focus on video product when it came out with its four- and five-reel products.      

Konami Gaming’s Advantage 5 slots, including Pele Hawaiian Goddess, have proven to be popular performers.

Most recently, Bally introduced the world’s first seven-reel game configuration to the gaming industry. The platform’s unique “micro-stepping” technology provides a new level of rhythmic game play, including an industry first: “reel-stop” functionality designed for unsurpassed player control. “After initiating a spin, a player can then tap the “Spin” button to instantly stop all the reels, thus permitting them to establish their own personal rhythm of game play,” the company said in a release.

 “There’s been a resurgence of the spinning reels usually in the three- and the five-reel. There are a lot of good-looking games out right now,” Roed said, also citing as other examples WMS’ Transmissive Reels, Aristocrat Technologies’ games with the backlit reels, and Konami Gaming’s Advantage 5 reel games.Traditional reels still have a hold on players because of their simplicity, trust, and past experiences, said Rob Bone, vice president of marketing, WMS Gaming.“Many players like the escapism of gaming and don’t want to to spend the time to learn new games that have what can be considered to be more complex features, video animations, and high line configurations. Also, players tend to trust physical moving reels and physical reel symbols compared to video graphics and a pure ‘computer-driven outcome,’” Bone said. 

Players also tend to gravitate toward those products that they associate with great experiences and memories.

“With the large majority of floors still being mechanical in nature, this nostalgia and memory factor is key to mechanical slot demand,” Bone said.

Moreover, the mathematical experience draws people to mechanical products. he said. “Cycles on traditional mechanical reel products are more condensed, thus allowing players to feel the true ‘ride’ of the game a bit easier than others with virtual reels and larger cycles.”

 “They’re a true gamblers’ game. People understand what’s going on,” agreed Chris Strano, vice president of marketing for slot developer, AC Coin and Slot Service.

The games also tend to have a longer life span, he said. “We see stepper product doing very well. They have longer legs in the field,” said Strano, who noted AC Coin has been putting more focus, for instance, on dollar five-reel product.

IGT is employing Multi-Layered Display technology from PureDepth in its REELdepth video slots to offer the look and feel of traditional mechanical reel slots.  

Building on success

Today, these slots are being enhanced to add more features that promise to deliver more satisfaction to players and even higher performance for casinos.

WMS has successfully commercialized its Transmissive Reels technology solution to allow for mechanical products to enable the same level of benefit that video reel and poker product can provide. “In fact, the whole conception of Transmissive Reels was geared around this very goal, how to enable mechanical products to facilitate server-enabled gaming,” Bone said.

Konami Gaming, for another example, struck gold with its Advantage 5 slot machines, a five-reel stepper slot featuring oversized reels and eye-catching lighting, as well as additional bonuses. Advantage 5 games such as Vibrant 7s and Diamond Spinner offer a four-level progressive with an extra bet feature that when used offer access to an extra bonus adding to bigger wins.

In addition, video product is being enhanced to appear to look like traditional reels. IGT, for instance, has come out with its REELdepth product, a video product that mimics the look and feel of traditional reels.

IGT’s REELdepth offers real opportunities, Frank said. “It leads them well into the server-based world with a game that looks like a reel,” Frank said.

IGT’s Brenda Boudreaux noted that the company’s latest cabinet offers operators the ability to buy them with traditional mechanical reels but then later change out the games with the REELdepth video product. “That really gives the operators flexibility,” she said.

IGT has already released some 70 titles for the REELdepth format, as well as several new AVP (Advanced Video Platform) themes, that uses virtual reels to mimic the look and vibration of their mechanical counterparts.

“It really lets the player have some comfort level but yet it added some additional pizzazz and dazzle to it,” she said, noting the company is just scratching the surface of what REELdepth, powered by PureDepth’s Multi-Layered Display technology, can do.

Bone said he sees a polarization of mechanical players with those who continue to want simplistic multipliers or free spins awards and those that want more of an interactive video-like experience. “At WMS, we cater to both groups with various product executions that may target on side of the spectrum without alienating the other side.” 

WMS intends to employ the same feature-rich technologies, such as community gaming, 3-D visuals, Bose audio, Adaptive Gaming, and bonus bets, that it has successfully employed with its video lineup on the mechanicals, Bone said. Already, WMS has deployed Bigger Bang Big Event in the field, the first mechanical product in its Community Gaming category.

 “This is important as the industry must reach out to a younger generation weaned on home gaming consoles and technologies, such as Nintendo Wii,” Bone said. “We have to realize that the entertainment entry point for the younger players has been raised and we need to show them how slots, in addition to table games and poker, can be an engaging aspect of the casino floor where they can feel great levels of anticipation and winning potential.”

A popular IGT five-reel slot machine

Moving beyond reels

One veteran gaming innovator offers a different take than others on the reel game.

“Our goal is to kill the reel because we think we can come up with a whole new paradigm,” said John Acres, chief executive officer of Acres-Fiore, a gaming company that has a development agreement with Bally Technologies.  “But, that said, since people like reels I think they’re going to be around for a long time.”

Acres said his big gripe is that when the industry talks about innovation, it is in terms of whether the future is in mechanical reels or video reels. “As opposed to could the future be something else entirely,” he said.

Acres acknowledged that a segment of the population gets a greater sense of security from seeing something mechanical rather than video. “But I think that number is going to get smaller and smaller,” and the industry will need to move in new directions.

Acres offers this food for thought.

 “What are the chances that when Charlie Fey designed the slot machine he got the best gaming device possible? That 100 years ago with the tools and technology that he had that this is the epitome of what can be done, the most fun, the most compelling game that’s possible in this universe?”

And, Acres said, “if that’s not the most compelling game, why do we take this ever increasing screens, Pentium processors, stepper motors and bill validators and keep mimicking what he did?”

“I’m not saying never make another stepper motor game, but let’s take some of our resources and try to rethink it from the ground up,” Acres said. “Start with the player, and not with the game. Look at this player and say, ‘Why is she here? How much money does she have to spend?  How can we give her an enjoyable time, so she will spend her discretionary money, not overspend her money and want to come back again next week?”

The industry, Acres said, has got to find a sustainable way to offer a recreational gaming experience. “This is really about catch and release fishing. It’s about I hold it for a while and you know I don’t like fish that much so I’ll just let it go.”

One focus, he said, should be on developing products that aren’t one size fits all.

“We’ve got to learn from the ice cream store have lots of flavors that are easily recognizable. We have flavors but there are no labels on them. There’s nothing that says, ‘here’s what this tastes like,’” he said. “It’s got to be customized.”