Slot makers explore delivering next-generation elements to drive excitement in new games.

Bally Technologies is one of the latest slot manufacturers to add skill-gaming features to video slot machines. Among its first games are Pong and Breakout, through a licensing deal with Atari.

Slot machine designers’ tool kits have been expanding ever since the advent of video slots in the 1990s, with the collection of free spins, second-screen bonuses and mechanical bonuses augmented by community-style games, 3-D effects, ever-sharper graphics and sound effects and much more.

To that list, add one more tool: tests of skill.

Bally Technologies opened a new range of possibilities last year with the release of its Pong game, to be followed with Breakout. Under Bally’s licensing agreement with Atari, both games test physical skill in their bonus rounds, with the customer playing the familiar 1970s arcade games for a chance at a larger bonus.

They’re different from previous games that have offered elements of skill in that physical skills, reactions and coordination are being tested, as opposed to the mental skills or strategy tested in video poker and in former Mikohn games, such as Battleship, Yahtzee and Clue, in which proper strategy could lead to larger bonuses.

“Bally’s Pong game is currently deployed in select casinos across the country,” said Mike Mitchell, vice president of product management for Bally Technologies. “Bally is testing the game in our CineVision video platform and our reel spinning S9000 platform. Both games were developed in partnership with Atari and employ the traditional game paddle controller familiar to arcade fans around the world. These games represent a multiyear development effort from both the technical and regulatory perspective. As we worked our way through the various regulatory environments, we encompassed modification of existing regulations and in some cases creation of new standards.”

Soon to join in offering slot games that include elements of physical skill is Cyberview Technology, with titles including Glaxium and Pinball. The initial releases, due later this year, will not reward skill, though versions to be released in 2009 will. In addition to the skill elements, the games use Cyberview’s Time Gaming concept, in which players buy blocks of time on device rather than credits.

Cyberview, which is in the process of being acquired by International Game Technology, prefers not to call them skill-based games.

“We prefer to use the term ‘action games’ or ‘next generation action games’ instead of ‘skill games,’” said Thierry Brunet de Courssou, Cyberview chief systems architect and manager of IP and security. “The word ‘skill’ is misleading as there are numerous variations of skills - no skill, perceived skill, instant-reward skill, deferred-reward skill, time-penalty skill, etc.”

Regulatory complexity is one of the issues facing Cyberview and anyone else adding elements of skill to games. What remains must still be a game of chance.

“Within the regulated games of chance industry,” Brunet de Courssou said, “the notion of skill games has not truly been defined yet, but would tend to indicate game software that can yield, for example, a 98 percent return for very skilled players and a 92 percent return for lousy players.”

Cyberview is working in stages, starting with adapting arcade games into a no-skill slot setting, followed by a step it calls score-skill with deferred reward, and finally full skill with instant reward. At the final stage, Glaxium, a space battle theme adapted from an arcade game, and Pinball are released in their later versions, and skilled players will be able to improve their results.

That’s the case in Bally’s Pong, because the players who can move the virtual paddle to return the ball and score against the machine’s defense will wind up with larger bonuses than those who can’t.

Still a base game of chance

That doesn’t make it a full-scale game of skill. The base game remains a five-reel slot game with a high enough hold percentage that even the most skilled Pong players will not fully overcome the house advantage.

“Bally believes there is an interested audience of players who desire the ability to have some direct control over the outcome of their gaming experience,” Mitchell said. “Pong and Breakout provide players the benefit of knowing that when they get the maximum award in the feature, it’s a direct result of their interaction with the game and not simply a random outcome. Some players will see the skill element as a challenge to be met and overcome; others will be attracted to the increased interaction with the game.”

Mick Roemer, founder of Roemer Gaming and who, while at Bally, was instrumental in landing deals with Atari for Pong, Breakout and Asteroids and also in a licensing agreement with video games giant Electronic Arts, points to the control factor. “Using skill in a game makes the experience more interactive and more personal,” he said. “You have a perception of skill in some slot machine bonus games today. Players believe that they can ‘pick’ the right fisherman or choose the right symbol. These elements just make it more fun for the player because of the feeling of some control. Skill, however, uses a different part of the brain versus a purely random slot machine experience. The game developers who can blend those most effectively will be the big winners in the future.”

John Acres, a pioneer in progressive jackpot systems and bonusing, sees potential for using elements of skill in slots.

“It gives operators the opportunity to reach a pool of players they haven’t reached before,” said Acres, co-founder with Rich Fiore of Acres-Fiore, a game content development firm. “Of the U.S. adult population, only about one-quarter gamble at least once a year. Clearly, a lot of people don’t find what we have in casino games terribly exciting.

“The question is how many skill elements will attract. Pong is an interesting first step. It opens lots of room for new design. It’s a whole new tool we can use.”

It’s a tool not everyone is ready to use. Manufacturers such as WMS Gaming are sticking with video poker as their skill-based products.

“If a clear preference for skill-based is confirmed, WMS will respond accordingly,” said Rob Bone, WMS Gaming vice president of marketing.

Nonetheless, Chuck Hickey, slot director at Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino in Lakeside, Calif., sees potential.

“I think there will eventually be a place for skill-based games,” Hickey said. “Once regulators are on board and any legal hurdles have been overcome, I think that operators will have to rethink the way they look at revenue. Charging a player for time on device may be one way to look at the revenue. There is certainly a generation of players out there that have been raised on skill-based games. Slot machines have traditionally been on the forefront of technology, and I can’t perceive that the manufacturers, some of who cut their teeth on skill-based arcade games wouldn’t jump at the chance of developing these games.”

The use of skill is new enough that it’s not yet clear who will play. One thought is that they might attract younger players, but Bally clearly added a nostalgia element in opening with arcade favorites from the ‘70s.

“Younger generations who have grown up playing intense video games will desire more interaction,” Mitchell said. “When combined with the added element of gaming, the jury is still out. Bally designers targeted a somewhat older generation who grew up playing these comparatively mild (by today’s standards) Atari video games. We feel the target player will be the slightly adventurous video player looking for something different and challenging.”

Added Roemer, “You would think that younger players would be the primary market, but I’m not sure that is true. It will appeal to more adventurous players in the beginning for certain because there will be a learning factor involved.”

The learning curve concerns Hickey, as does the idea that someone could take advantage of the games.

“If you don’t have the skills to play a game and the cost is high, then it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. If the games are built more as ‘time on device’ games, then this is less of a concern,” he said.“ Casinos are in the ‘for profit’ business, so I would think we would all be wary of persons of extremely high skill level taking advantage of the game.”

With a slot game such as Pong, in which the skill-based bonus is a small component of the game’s overall hold, players getting an advantage isn’t a concern. it does have a major plus, said Acres.

“Players want to feel they deserve to be a winner,” he said. “That’s why they pay the price for an Xbox 360. When they purchase a game, they not only get the 50 to 100 hours of entertainment, they get the social value of being able to tell their friends ‘I’m a winner.’ That’s what we need skill elements to do for players in a casino - make them feel like a winner.”