Video poker game makers are breathing new life into the steady-as-she-goes sector by adding bonusing, extra volatility and HD technology

Bally Technologies’ GameMaker bar-top video poker game

Video poker players are ready to gamble more. The leading game manufacturers have been working hard to accommodate them.

The video poker world, perhaps in the past a step behind the always-evolving video slot machine market in terms of variety and volatility, has been infusing more excitement into the game with added bonusing options and a chance at bigger payouts.

According to John Daley, director of video poker at International Game Technology, the video poker maker based in Reno has been finding success bringing to market games with bonuses that don’t affect base pay tables, where players fund the action by betting an extra coin.

Introductions at IGT that address demand for added bonusing include Super Times Pay, where players are offered a bonus multiplier with an extra credit bet per hand. Without taking away from the base pay table, players bet six credits per hand, like a traditional buy-a-pay, for a shot at a payoff multiplied from 2X up to 10X the standard win. The card appears automatically every 15 games on average.

“Players could get it and get no winner, but it stills comes up often enough that it’s exciting,” Daley said.

Another IGT recent release is Quick Quads, where if a player gets three-of-a-kind from cards from 2s to 10s, and the remaining fourth and fifth cards add up to the same numeric value as the three-of-a-kind card (three 8s and the other cards are 3 and 5, for example), the player gets paid like a four-of-a-kind.

“The four-of-a-kinds are slightly bonused in all cases, too, so they actually get paid a little better than an actual four-of-a-kind,” Daley said.

The trend toward more volatile play at the video poker machine is very similar to where the industry has moved in recent times with video slot players, says David Schultz, director of video game development at Bally Technologies in Las Vegas. Traditionally poker pay tables haven’t had a lot of room in them to offer these types of bonuses. Not unlike video slot game players, Schultz says, video poker patrons are showing a willingness to exchange their bankroll for some time on the game and are now looking for the big win. For the video player the opportunity to win significant hands of 800, 2,000, 4,000 credits is more important than ever, he says.

“What the players seem to be gravitating toward is more volatility, more big hits, and they are willing to pay a little more for that or wait a little longer for that,” Schultz said. “Bally will look more to these types of games in which the players are given a specific benefit for putting a little extra money in. That benefit translates to a large-win opportunity, so maybe they get Royal Flushes more often or maybe they get four aces more often-the things that they really want.”

Driven by its Alpha gaming platform that was unveiled about three years ago, Bally re-established its position in the video poker world by revisiting its popular GameMaker series, introduced in the mid-1990s, in high-definition. Released last year, GameMaker HD is a high-resolution wide-screen format that plays in Bally’s 20-inch LCD screen.

Aside from a cleaner and crisper appearance from the player’s viewpoint, GameMaker HD has allowed the company to reintroduce popular games such Triple Trouble Poker, Triple Trouble Keno and Pick ‘Em Poker. The technology of the Alpha platform combined with the high-definition GameMaker also provides flexibility for operators.  

“It put Bally back in the game as far as video poker,” Schultz said. “GameMaker HD has the ability to have the same game in different configurations from the same cabinet. For instance, if you have a Double Double Bonus Poker from the same cabinet you can have it as both a 10-coin quarter and a five-coin dollar. That gives the operator a lot of flexibility in setting the games up to best suit their players.”

Both Bally and IGT have recently begun installing high-definition wide-screen video poker terminals for bar tops as well. Along with the rather-dramatic bigger screen surface, modifications to the IGT bar-top model include a new screen angle and advanced operator candles, the lights on the back of the machine, which now have a wide range of uses including an indicator of the denomination that is being played and candle races, or players playing against each other, with the candles monitoring a tournament and lighting up when a person hits a winning hand

IGT’s Super Times Pay Poker

IGT’s new bar-top wide-screens are now hitting the market and will be the standard moving forward as the older model has been discontinued. When side by side, the difference between the new IGT bar-top wide-screen and the older version is a visually striking improvement. The company is, however, sensitive to making too many changes to the established functionality of the video poker game that players have become so familiar. For example, dynamic buttons- buttons that can change in appearance as well as function that are a big part of the new technology behind video slot machines for server-based systems-will also be available for video poker, but Daley says he doesn’t expect them to be widely used, at least in the short term. Once players start accepting and getting used to dynamics buttons on other products, he thinks they may also want them in video poker.

“We find that players like what they are used to when it comes to video poker. We try and maintain what they are used to getting so there aren’t a lot of changes to the buttons and functionality of the games,” he said.

Manufacturers such as IGT and Bally spend many hours and resources monitoring player habits, likes and dislikes when it comes to introducing new games, game features and game presentation. In some cases, a return to the past is the answer. IGT is brining back its 17-inch upright cabinet, powered by its new AVP platform, because their research found that players liked the look and feel of the older model.

“We are trending back to the old,” Daley said. “We found out that the players really prefer that 17-inch cabinet. So you can offer the latest greatest look, feel and features, or you can go to the old, more retro feel and look, but still have all the capabilities and power of our new platforms.”

As video poker in the U.S. moves forward, and in some instances backward to revisit past successes, both leading manufacturers have an eye on emerging geographic markets. Most notably, interest in video poker in Asia, where so far there is a stronghold for regionally traditional table games such as Pai Gow and Baccarat, is beginning to thaw as the market matures.

“We’re starting to see a strong interest in video poker in the Asian markets,” Daley said. “Regular video poker tends to grow as the market matures. In a new, young gaming market, video poker is, generally speaking, a pretty low percentage of the play, but as the market matures players realize that it is a game of skill and that they can increase their opportunity and chances of winning.”

The worldwide popularity of live table poker and international events such as the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker could be influential in the growth. 

“I think we are all benefitting from the mindshare in the popularity of poker, but I think everybody is still challenged to find a way to take advantage of that popularity with a product that is interesting,” Schultz said.

Schultz hinted that capturing, at least, a sliver of the market created by the Texas Hold’em craze is on the radar by saying that he would be surprised if the major manufacturers weren’t looking at different ways to take advantage of community games and how that would translate to a successful poker product.