Community slot games have been around for several years now, but as the reality of online and mobile gaming becomes ever more clear, so too does the present and future importance of this niche category of machine gaming.

“People ask me, ‘How are we going to keep the casinos relevant in the future as mobile and Internet gambling comes?’” said Bryan Kelly, senior vice president of technology, Bally Technologies. “These kinds of games where there are human beings right next to you and a whole resort-full of people are screaming for their racer to win, that is the true definition of community. You have multimedia signage; an announcer calling off the race; you create this whole ambience that makes being on-person at the casino extremely relevant.”

Of course, that’s one view of community gaming, from Bally, which has made a big splash with its DM Tournaments-fuelled floor-wide events such as virtual racing and largest-ever slot tournaments. Other suppliers are approaching this category of gaming in their own way, but the basic point holds: Face-to-face human interaction is what differentiates the physical from the virtual. Be it two people playing a game together side-by-side or 2,000, manufacturers are continuing to add value to community games. A summary of three different approaches, and the growing importance of social media as an underpinning to community gaming, follows:

MULTIMEDIA GAMES: GOING NATIONAL WITH TOURNEVEN

Multimedia continues to build on the initial success of its popular TournEvent product, taking a statewide tournament concept that it used in California and Washington last year national, said Brad Johnson, vice president of marketing and product management.

TournEvent moved tournaments into more of a community feel with cameras on the game; so as people are playing, they get to see videos of other people playing. “It’s not just you at the slot machine and everybody at the end looking at one central display for a prize; while you’re playing, you get to see who’s in first place,” said Johnson. “We’re the only product that keeps a running score so players can see how far they’re out of first place. To add excitement, we have the interactive part where players interact with the screen as the tournament’s going on.”

Multimedia’s national TournEvent of Champions kicked off in early March and involves over 70 casinos and 14 states. After rounds of qualifying events, the company’s TournEvent of Champions bus, M Girls, and an announcer visit each casino for their final event. One winner from each casino goes to the championship finals, which will be held in Las Vegas during G2E. There will be 80-plus finalists as some casinos paid to have two people represent them.

“Last year, we really wanted to understand how to do this nationally so we did two statewide tournaments at 13 casinos in California and at 15 casinos in Washington,” said Johnson. “Based on what we learned there we kicked off the national tournament. Last year, seeing all their top slot players come in for one or two days, casinos saw their revenue skyrocket those days; all those players were at the property at the same day and they stayed there. All the properties that signed up for the tournament last year signed up again because of that. From the players’ perspective, we have received a ton of e-mails and thank-you notes on how it’s the best time they’ve ever had in a casino in the way of fun and entertainment. The casinos are making money and the players are really enjoying it, so it sounds like we have the right ingredients going forward.”

Beyond the national championship, TournEvent is evolving in other ways. A lot of the casinos are creating “slot leagues,” where players get divided up into teams and they have a points system and that goes on for multiple weeks. The people who get the most points gain a spot in their own property tournaments. On the social media side, Multimedia will be kicking off a new initiative in the coming months. “Currently, we have a micro-site of our website that lets players see upcoming tournament dates, pictures of where we’ve been and results, but we want to take that to another level,” said Johnson.

Multimedia, which has over 2,500 slot machines in 150 locations connected to TournEvent across the country, is also working on ways to expand the community experience of prize-based gaming. “We want to take the same tournament-style experience and have people compete for prizes when they are just playing regular games on the floor,” said Johnson. “So that’s where we’re going; not just to have the game as a marketing tool out of revenue but an interactive, competitive tournament experience while it’s in revenue.”


IGT: BANKS WITH BRANDS

IGT’s community games are very often licensed brands sitting on the company’s Center Stage platform with Duo, 70 or 103 configurations seating two, four and five people respectively. The most current game products are Star Wars and Judge Judy. They each have very interactive bonus rounds, some of which are community-based where players can choose to play together. One of the first games IGT did on the Duo platform was Big Buck Hunter, which was really targeted at a much younger demographic and started to test the boundaries of what was possible to bring in the next generation of gamers, said Jacob Lanning, director, product management, gaming operations.

“We’ve seen some strong successes recently with our Wheel of Fortune Triple Extreme Spin, which gives the player the option to sit down with another player on a Duo experience and spin on three very over-sized wheels,” said Lanning. “This leverages the power of that great Wheel of Fortune brand with the fun of spinning the wheel and provides the traditional Wheel of Fortune customer with a new and unique experience that they could share with another player. Community games are a part of our portfolio that satisfies entertainment experiences that our customers are looking for. We definitely look for themes and brands that are well-suited to community aspects and playing together and sharing a casino experience.”

Lanning added that there’s a certain segment of players that really likes to play with others. They are approaching the gambling experience as something that is meant for entertainment, cheering each other on and having a good time. “There’s nothing like the opportunity to spin the wheel on a Wheel of Fortune game and share that with somebody,” he said. “So we approach community games as creating experiences that can be shared. One of the reasons why we use the brands that we use in this space is that players identify with brands like Judge Judy and Sex in the City, and they the experiences they get out of the bonus round in the Star Wars portfolio.”

The Center Stage platform gives operators an opportunity to merchandise these banks of games in ways that they couldn’t before. The large 103’s and 70’s definitely have a presence on the floor. Operators can put them in locations that really help drive traffic and showcase what a shared experience is like. The Duos add more flexibility because there are many different places on the floor where they can go. They help drive traffic to areas of need on the floor and to the property in general; wall configurations, end caps, against columns that might not have been well-suited for large banks of devices.

The platform, as well as IGT’s marketing power, have also helped sales-wise. “In a capital-constrained environment, going into a revenue-share model is often an attractive way to get the latest and greatest product on your floor,” said Lanning. “With our more flexible configuration with the Duo we have seen a lot of success. On top of that, we bring additional value with full marketing kits that really help operators leverage the full value of the merchandise.”

Elsewhere on the marketing front, IGT is “doing a lot” to find ways to leverage its acquisition of DoubleDown, “to find ways to create the social experience that younger generations of players expect. You want to find ways to learn from those social networks and find the best ways to infuse shared experiences to all of our products,” said Lanning.

BALLY: BETTING ON FLOOR-WIDE EXPERIENCE

Bally’s key focus on the community gaming side has been floor-wide events. “We have a couple of games where two people are in the screen at the same time, but it has not been a key focus on the EGM side,” said Bally’s Kelly. “We’ve really focused on the systems side with our virtual racing and now with NASCAR. Everyone’s playing at the same time. If you win, you split the prize pool with other winners. That might be 2,000 players at the same time or a $10,000 jackpot being divided floor-wide.”

Bally has found these kinds of events are highly profitable for casinos to run,such as a virtual racing event held earlier this year at South Point that drove a 28.5 percent increase in coin in.

“Casinos do marketing campaigns to create product awareness and people come in from all over; we’ve seen lines out the door for some of these tournament-type products,” said Kelly. “If it starts at 9:00 a.m., they’re sleeping out the night before. While the event is going on, the entire casino floor is engaged and the excitement is just amazing. What properties are finding is that there is a residual effect on revenue. You would think that while you’re entertaining people with all this multimedia that revenue goes down. But it turns out that revenue goes up on the casino floor for that day because people are hanging around to see who won as these are multi-session events and they reward prizes at the end of the day. Players don’t just immediately go home; they tend to gamble for a longer period of time because they like the excitement of the venue. Some of our casinos that are running these games tell us that they get New Year’s Day-type numbers in the month of February, which is an extremely slow month.”

Bally is in the process of contemplating the types of games it will offer on its tournament system going forward. “Our next wave of floor-wide events, we’re really thinking about brands and how a brand can help draw the attraction,” Kelly said. “The casinos often create their own brands and they use, say, NASCAR as a sub-brand. A horse race is very generic, so casinos will put their name in front of ‘race night.’ But when you have NASCAR, it’s so known by consumers and it helps draw them in especially in regions where people are really fans of NASCAR.”

Bally has a couple of new initiatives in the floor-wide event space. The company is currently developing large-scale community wager games. “What we’ve talked about so far are marketing promotions, where marketing dollars fund these types of events,” said Kelly. “As we go forward, Bally is working on wagering-type solutions where we can wager across the floor on these large-scale community events. There are some brands involved with that. We have Michael Jackson, for instance, and you put three or four of those games on the floor; what we’re talking about is putting a brand on the floor and accepting wagers across the entire floor. We’ll be showing some of this at our user conference in Mohegan Sun next month.”

DM Tournaments’ new Bonus Tournament product, which is going live next month in Reno, will offer individual players the chance to compete in group events at their convenience. “What we have learned is the group tournaments are great, but marketing has to do a lot to get people on the floor and get them all started at once; it’s a lot of effort to make that happen,” said Kelly. “Casinos also want to say, ‘We’re doing a tournament, come down any time today or any time this week, put your card in, wager $20 on your favorite slot or poker machine, then you get to play the tournament game and post a score.’ That’s our Bonus Tournament product. You post your score, it pops up on the leaderboard and you can go home. If the tournament closes on Friday, you come back down to the property and see if you’ve won. I may be working at night, at 8:00 p.m. when they run the community tournament, but I can come in at lunch and go post my score. If you didn’t do well and are behind on the leaderboard, you can go back to the casino and try to post another score. With that product, we don’t have to take the machine out of normal play mode; the base game is still running in its normal wager mode, accepting wagers.”

Like its competitors, Bally is working to tie social media into the gaming experience, with community twists. The company’s new Challenge Connection product, which is expected to launch in Nevada no later than June, weaves Facebook into player acquisition and team-building.

“You’re at a regular slot game by yourself, play the bonus round and that creates what we call a skill score,” explained Kelly. “That score posts up to the casino’s Facebook site, and you can play the game at the Facebook site of the casino for top prizes for the week or month. You can then go grab your Facebook pals and create a team score. You can create a team and we all have to go back down to the casino and build our team scores. It’s a way to acquire customers to come back down to the property and to play a Bally slot machine using the viral channels of Facebook. We’re working to get people to use mobile, social and .com to come back into the brick-and-mortar facility. We’re going to figure out how to round-trip those customers back-and-forth between all those channels; that is the definition of community.”