Community gaming gains momentum as developers seek to draw in more players seeking shared, interactive experiences

Bally Technologies' Two for the Money games allow couples or friends to share the experience of playing together.

From the very beginning, community-style electronic gaming has drawn comparisons to the table games experience. And one specific table game has been the model.

“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 there and it looked like a craps table, only with a slot machine in it,” said Brad Rose, director of game studios at WMS Gaming. “And I’d tell people, sure, we staged that, it was an ad, but what’d 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. So there was this paradigm shift on the casino floor.”

It’s that old craps camaraderie, right? Winning together, cheering together, pulling for a common cause.

Not so fast. Jason Seelig, executive vice president of sales and marketing sees a different table game as a better model.

“When we looked at community gaming, we looked at blackjack as an example,” he said. “It’s the most popular table game in virtually every casino you go to. The reason you feel lucky when you play blackjack is because some player at the table won. Now if that person who won had to hand every person at the table a dollar, he wouldn’t stay on that table too long. That’s kind of when you look at our game, that’s common through all the platforms. You’re playing a shared device, you’re playing a shared event, but your win is your win. You don’t have to share that with anyone else sitting at the unit.”

You can see the difference in philosophy when you look at the games the companies are producing. In WMS’ current hit, 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 plasma display. Those who land the biggest fish will collect the biggest bonuses, but everyone is going to win something.

On AC Coin’s newest community game, Phat Cats, a two-pack with two machines under a plasma display, it’s the player who triggers the bonus who 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,” Seelig said. “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. And that’s very similar to when you watch all the games, whether it’s Bankroll with the Big Roller or our other games, people are pulling for each other at that bonus round.”

They’re competing approaches, but both are designed to attract the player who’s ready for the slots to be something more than a solitary experience.

“It’s opened a lot of communication,” said Frank Kennedy, vice president of slot operations at Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., a new enough operation that it has had community-style slots on the floor from the time 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.”

It seems there’s more than one way to build a community event, and as the niche for play-together slot games grows, gamemakers are going all-out to put their own stamps on the genre and carve out a place in the market.

AC Coin's You Bet Your Ass community game is part of its Advanced Video Series of games.

For starters:

**AC Coin continues to put out community games both large and small. There’s the two-pack Phat Cats, with its cartoon felines and bonus event that plays out to the sounds of the Stray Cats’ “Stray Cat Strut.”

And there’s the six-station Empire, harkening back to the classic Empire game that featured a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building. In the community version, the tower is six-sided and each side has its own ape, so players can collect their own bonuses.

In addition, AC Coin offers several other new community games, including from its Community Roller Series, QH Super Bankroll; from its Advanced Video Series, Slingo Community and You Bet Your Ass (a takeoff from the popular Facebook game Farmville; from its Double Play Community Series, Rock n Roll Legend (which is the second in the series, following Phat Cats.

“Our new two-pack series has just come out,” said Jerry Seelig, executive vice president and general manager. “Our first release on that is a game called Phat Cats, which the early results are amazing on. It’s only a two-player game. The players share the experience, not the wins. My belief in community gaming is if I’m sharing my win with you, that’s communism. If you’re watching me win, that’s capitalism. We live in a capitalistic society.”

**Aristocrat Technologies is debuting Beijing Bonanza, the first Aristocrat Community/Tournament game on its connected gaming system. When a bonus feature is coming on a bank of four machines, plaers go to either a community bonus feature, where one player is responsible for selecting a number of free spins and a multiplier. All players then enter the free spins as a team. In the tournament feature a new set of reels will be displayed on each machine containing only “GOLD INGOT” symbols – players are now competing against each other in populating a pyramid with ingots, with prizes then give for first through fourth places.

Also coming soon is Crazy Taxi, combining linked progressives and community bonuses in partnership with Sega.

“Our games are evolving by adding elements previously not seen in the community space,” said Dallas Orchard, director of gaming operations at Aristocrat. “With Beijing Bonanza we have a base game feature, a community feature and a tournament feature –we are very excited to see the dynamic of players working as a team and then seeing players compete against each other. We are also toying with different formulas regarding the community or tournament trigger – this consists of finding different ways for players to be engaged and different ways for them to win and have an exciting experience. Another important element for community gaming is how the player becomes eligible – we feel as though we have a good formula for this and will continue to tweak it for future community products.”

Atronic/Spielo has developed a community game based upon the wildly successful Deal or No Deal game show.

**Atronic/Spielo turned to its most successful license in going the community route with Deal or No Deal Join ’n’ Play, this time using TV game show host Howie Mandel as well as briefcase-opening models from the show. The bonus event can be a win-together experience, and it can be competitive. Players choose a briefcase that hides a credit amount – they can choose different cases, or they can choose the same case. As cases are opened to reveal bonus amounts to be eliminated, onscreen calls are made to the Banker, who offers deals. Each player can accept the deals, or reject and play on until they’re left with the amount in their chosen case – so it’s possible for players who choose the same case to have different results.

“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,” said Mike Brennan, product marketing manager. “So we’re incorporating risk, timing and entertainment to take care of the gamer who enjoys the social aspect of community gaming. Deal or No Deal just lends itself to the social aspect of community gaming.”

**Bally Technologies has a community of two in mind with its DualVision games featuring separate screens for players, but one common bankroll. A couple playing together draw credits from their bets from a joint credit-meter, and when either wins the credits are added back onto that same meter. For a more competitive take, there’s Blazing Hot Tournament. During play, a thermometer-like reading tracks eligibility for the big bonus. Then, when the tournament event is randomly triggered, the overhead display switches into tournament mode, sound effects trumpet the tournament and players compete for bonuses.

IGT's Wheel of Fortune Center Stage lets players feel like they're part of the game show action.

**IGT, a big player in community gaming since the super-sized Wheel of Fortune Super Spin, has gone a competitive route with the Wheel of Fortune Experience on its new Center Stage line, available in four- or five-machine configurations. The Experience seeks to emulate the game show. When one player triggers the puzzle-solving bonus, two more are randomly selected to mirror the TV game-show experience of picking letters. Each player gets only one pick at a time, so no one can run the board and everyone gets a bonus.

“That game basically turns players into contestants on the show, where players were in the bonus together and had the opportunity to solve puzzles on the big puzzle board overhead,” said 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 is a community experience, with players accumulating their own number of free spins, then playing them out together as the bonus initiates. The upcoming Dark Knight game, 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 Triple Towers racing game offers the thrill of rooting for your horse.

IGT’s MPS games also figure here, with individual betting consoles sitting around a central screen with computer-generated game images. First in line were table games such as roulette and baccarat, but now Triple Towers brings horse-racing action to bettors. Players can bet on favorites, underdogs, bet win, place, show or two-horse quiniellas or exactas, just as at the track. Then they become a community of cheering race fans, rooting for their favorites among the 300 CGI horses and 140 jockeys in the pool.

**Konami went for a horse racing theme in its community slot, Beat the Field. Horses are associated with different levels in a four-level progressive jackpot. The winner in each race wins a progressive, while other players get a consolation bonus. “We’re having great success with Beat the Field,” said Four Winds’ Kennedy.

Multimedia Games’ first foray into community games is Sport of Kings. It has since followed up with its new Slot Car Speedway community product.

**Multimedia Games, which first entered the community gaming market with the horse-racing themed Sport of Kings, came 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 from the flashy sports car with an attitude to a flirty little pink car. Chief marketing officer Ginny Shanks said research found players liked characters with personality, so instead of more realistic looking cars, Slot Car Speedway uses cartoony autos that let their personality 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,” she said. “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 play 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.”

**WMS, which introduced Monopoly Big Event in 2006, now is rolling out Monopoly Big Money Spin Bigger Event, the opening game in what WMS calls “Collaborative Gaming.” The choices players make affect all others in community bonus events. In one event in which players pick Chance cards, a player who draws a 20-credit card might draw a collective groan – like a craps player who sevens out – while a 500-credit draw might bring cheers and high fives – like a craps player making a point.

“The operators keep asking what’s next, what’s next,” Rose said, pointing to another game that’s coming soon. “Pirate Battle, that’s what’s really next. That’s really taking community gaming and now actually dividing into teams. You get the red team vs. the blue team in a battle. First we had the community event in Monopoly Big Event, people are going to win together. Then we added interaction, picks to be made in Press Your Luck. And then came that competitive element. And now we’re taking that to the next level, competitive and really separating it one team vs. another team.”

All those different takes on community gaming seem to be growing the market, but in the United States, we’re just scratching the surface, according to Brian Folger, senior product line representative for IGT’s MPS line.

“I just finished a trip to Asia, and right now in the United States, we’re lucky if we’re getting 3, maybe 4 percent of the casino floor as those style games,” Folger said. “But 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.”

That big overseas percentage applies mainly to more table-like games like the MPS series, but even for community slots that are more slot-like, if you will, WMS’ Rose is confident.

“Definitely it’s going to grow,” he said. “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 like a table game, where everyone could play together and root for some greater good.”

The key, said Ryan Grant, director of R&D game development at Spielo, is in marrying changes in technology to 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? Right now, that seems to be up to manufacturers and their designers’ imaginations, where community gaming continues to mean different things to different people.