For most of the mid-to-late decade of the 2000s, game manufacturers and operators held their collective breath as debate raged over proposed technical standards for Class II games in Native American casinos. And when the National Indian Gaming Commission published its Minimum Internal Control Standards in October 2008, it might not have been a sigh of relief you heard, but it at least signaled a period of relative regulatory stability.
At last, manufacturers had some clarity of direction for their bingo-based electronic games and could push ahead. It’s perhaps not a permanent equilibrium, though George Skibine, acting chairman of the National Indian Gaming Council said late last year there would be no change in regulations on his watch, and that Native American operators needed the availability of Class II games as they negotiated compacts.
“The Standards provided the guidelines that all vendors must follow,” said Jim Coleman, Class II product manager for International Game Technology. “For IGT it signifies that by being GLI certified, that our product is everything we claim it is related to the game of bingo. Furthermore, it certainly adds credibility to this form of gaming across the board. We are pleased to have 100 percent of our bingo product certified to the new Standards.”
Added Gavin Isaacs, chief operating officer for Bally Technologies, “The NIGC Technical Standards have helped to establish some pretty clear parameters that a Class II game must meet, which has resulted in a more level playing field and a better, more consistent product for operators and players.”
Still, the possibility that the NIGC could revisit the issue of a more marked line between Class II products and Class III random-number generator games worries some.
“The challenges for Class II continue to be the efforts of regulators to narrowly define the permissible games under IGRA; the efforts of states to include limitations on Class II games within compacts, and overcoming the misperception of many operators that ClassII does not compete with Class III machines,” said Ron Harris, chief executive officer of Rocket Gaming.
The current state of clarity has led to a new challenge. As manufacturers seek to get their products approved by Gaming Laboratories International, a bit of a logjam has been created.
“Adhering to a new regulatory process caused backlogs in obtaining game approvals for Bally, as well as other manufacturers of Class II games,” Isaacs said. “Bally has since worked through the backlog, and we have a strong lineup of games just released as well as in the development queue for the upcoming months and year.
“It took some time, but the regulatory process is beginning to flow much more smoothly as we have worked with the regulatory bodies and our customers to iron out the kinks. Going forward, we believe this has positioned Bally to be able to efficiently develop new products that players want, while falling within the regulatory guidelines that have been laid out.”
The slowdown isn’t all bad, said IGT’s Coleman.
“One new challenge is to ensure that we have the same product rollout schedules prior to not having to submit to GLI for approvals,” Coleman said. “This has slowed us down slightly, however we believe this added step benefits all companies by truly legitimizing Class II Bingo as being the electronic form of bingo it was always said to be.”
The challenge is different in the Class II markets of Latin America, where Cadillac Jack is especially strong. Class II games in Native American casinos in the United States use bingo as their base, putting a bingo logo and small numbers building a pattern on a small screen within the screen while the result is transferred to a full-screen interface that shows slot reels spinning. Players are competing for shares of a common prize pool as in bingo, rather than for house-banked paybacks as in Class III games.
Such games exist in Mexico and other Latin markets, but the game on the big screen is actually bingo. It’s bingo with a difference, with extra bets on close-call hands bringing extra chances for the player to win, but it’s bingo that brings the play. Mexico represents half of Cadillac Jack’s business, so special effort has gone into designing bingo games with a bingo interface.
But Cadillac Jack is also a player in Native American markets including Washington, Alabama, Oklahoma and California. There, the Duluth, Ga.-based company is rolling out its 40-line games on its new Genesis dual-wide screen cabinet, along with the Mega Money Maker, bringing multi-level progressive jackpots to a Class II format.
Director of game development Jarred Torres said the high-definition dual-screen games are particularly important to Cadillac Jack. “In some markets that will compete against regular standalone single-screen cabinets. So this is something that is extremely important to us, because it provides to our customers something they didn’t have before, a viable dual-screen product.”
WMS Gaming, long a tangential player in Class II markets by licensing content to other manufacturers, is confident enough in the Class II future that it’s making a push to distribute its own games. Washington and Alabama are the primary initial markets, along with markets that already have WMS Class III games but also have Native American casinos that offer Class II.
“We’ll try to leverage our knowledge, coverage of those markets, with our existing team and look for Class II opportunities there,” said Bob Hays, WMS director of Class II central determination. “The one thing it does do, it allows us to grow from a revenue standpoint. In a licensing arrangement, you don’t control that, and you gain in a revenue standpoint based upon fees paid for licensing. Now we have the opportunity to dictate how much of our product is purchased in the market based upon our sales effort and our commercial launch.”
With game themes including Jewels of the Night, Thai Treasure, Lucky Meerkats, Samurai Master and Village People Party, WMS is looking to transfer popular G-Plus titles to a Class II format, all in the ergonomic Bluebird I cabinet.
Other Class III giants such as IGT and Bally also are forging ahead in Class II. IGT is taking its MLD - multilayer display - technology for three-dimensional images to Class II after its initial success in Class III. Title insects seeming to fly right out of the back of the screen in Magic Butterfly, pay lines pop off the screen in all MLD games and stacked wilds bring up to 20x multipliers in games including White Swan and Passion Flowers under the Dynamite Blast Bingo line.
At Bally, Isaacs said, “We are excited about, including the recently approved and popular Quick Hit Platinum on our V32 cabinet, our new penny million dollar jackpot game 1,000,000 Degrees, Hot Shot Winning Times, and multiple free-spin games from Bally and our content partners.”
Multimedia Games also straddle that Class III/Class II line. To some extent, it takes product that has drawn attention in Class III and ports the themes and interface to Class II. The TournEvent tournament system, originally called Casino Commander, was originally developed for Class III and is being adapted. It enables rapid conversion of a bank of machines to tournament play, with standings and real-time video of players in an overhead plasma display as an eye-grabber.
“We built out the good functionality that allowed you to go in and out of tournament right on the floor, and turned it into much more of an interactive player experience,” said Chief Marketing Officer Ginny Shanks. “Cameras are embedded in the machines themselves. When people are playing, we show their picture. It’s Web cam, so you have a leader board on one side, picture on other. Now it’s a system that people can see touch and feel, and operators can see how it’s transformed their casino floor because it showcases in a very big way what happens in the casino area.”
But Multimedia works the other way, too, with some themes developed directly for Class II. Smokin’ Hot Devils is one of those, a five-reel, 30-line video reel game in Multimedia’s Player HD cabinet with high-resolution 23-inch LCD video displays and a premium ‘focused sound’ system with three-way speakers.
Most Class II games use a video interface. That’s different at VGT, which emphasized games with a mechanical-reel interface, both in three-reel and five-reel configurations. There are low-denomination games typical of popular five-reel models, but also higher-volatility three-reel games such as The Almighty Dollar, designed as a high-end, $25 game.
All VGT games are available for lease, something marketing director Jim Nulph sees as important with rapidly changing technology. A small operator doesn’t have to buy new equipment as the technology changes, just lease the new games.
“Because operators can quickly and easily change games under the lease model, their floor remains fresh, current and more exciting for players,” Nulph said.
Rocket’s Harris is an enthusiastic proponent of Class II, saying that the games have been downloadable from the start and that Class II technology has always been ahead of that curve over Class III gaming. The Gold Series, with multilevel wide-area progressives starting at $1 million, has been particularly exciting to Harris, both with the possibilities for the games and through a sponsorship program that shares revenue with the National Indian Gaming Association, representing 180 tribes.
With the innovative math of the games, Harris said, “ Rocket games are designed to award prizes far more frequently than Class III games, which are designed to hit at a statistical norm. Rocket’s Gold Series math model has solved the problem of players perceiving large progressive jackpots as being unattainable. This allows us to offer a progressive prize payout methodology that translates into more bonus rounds, multiple progressive prizes and a $1 million top prize.
“ In short, our games are designed with the player and the facility operator in mind. We give the player more entertaining ways to view their winning prize and thereby encourage a longer play time. The operator likes the long play time, which normally translates into ahigher win per machine.”
Those different takes on Class II games and systems leave plenty of room for healthy competition in this period of relative regulatory calm.
“The new NIGC Technical Standards has been an evolving process, presenting some challenges for many operators and manufacturers,” noted Bally’s Isaacs. “The growth of other forms of gaming and increased competition has also added to the complexities in this market.”
Harris relishes the market prospects. “The future,” he said, “is bright.”