Keeping players engaged, in their seats and coming back for more has always been a prime challenge for slot designers, who have met it with an ever-increasing toolbox filled with bonus events, mystery awards, community play, high-definition graphics, animation and sound effects.
Skill-based play seems like a natural for that toolkit. Younger players have flocked to skill-based social games via apps on their computers and portable devices. And game suppliers such as Bally Technologies, International Game Technology (IGT), Multimedia Games and GTECH, through its affiliate SPIELO International, have experimented with layering either true skill or perceived skill to bonus events on slot machines.
“The goal is ideally to drive in a slightly younger demographic than the traditional slot play demographic, the 30s, maybe 45-year-old player,” said Bryan Kelly, senior vice president of technology for Bally Technologies. “Our customers are saying they’re interested in that type of content to fill that niche player group because they believe that is going to be the future gamer. That younger player was raised on that type of experience, and now with the online involvement in Facebook games, it’s becoming even more predominant.”
Guenter Bluemel, vice president of content management at GTECH, noted that skill on electronic gaming devices can take two forms. It can involve strategy, where Bluemel pointed to video poker along with slot games with strategic bonus events, such as Deal or No Deal. Or it can involve physical skill, made possible by the growing capabilities in modern game interfaces.
Player acceptance, he said, is mixed.
“A certain segment of our player base definitely accepts skill, and GTECH has heard interesting responses from players directly,” Bluemel said. “For instance, at a 2012 focus group, we were testing a game where the bonus gives players the choice between skill-based bonuses or chance bonuses. When asked which they would choose, players were almost evenly split down the middle. Around half of them enthusiastically said that they would pick skill, since they’re always looking for an edge on the house. The other half responded that they didn’t want to ‘ruin’ their chances with any mistakes they might make, and they’d rather sit back and enjoy watching their bonus game without influencing the outcome. So we think that whenever you’re introducing skill-based slot games it is important to afford players a choice.”
Along with player acceptance, skill-based games have to satisfy regulators. Each state has its own regulatory requirements, with Nevada limiting skill-based components to a maximum of 4 percent of total payout.
Bally Technologies was early to test skill-based bonus events with Pong, first shown at Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in 2004. Another take on a classic arcade game, Breakout, followed. Both had true tests of skill affecting bonus pays, and both had limited success.
“It was very early bringing skill into the casino world,” Kelly said. “The controls were very immature. They were literally almost like a roller on the button deck. Teaching a gamer how to use that … they would look at this user interface and they were a little bit scared. There’s still some learning by consumers to get used to it.”
Bally’s response has been to shelve true skill for the time being, and produce perceived skill games, including Skee Ball,All That Jazz with a mechanic called U-Play, Pirate’s Quest with U-Aim and Total Blast with U-Shoot. It does take skill to roll the skee balls into the holes, play the notes on an onscreen piano, aim the cannons or shoot down spaceships with photo weapons, but in the end the credit award is determined by a random number generator.
“Skee Ball used a mechanic like this,” Kelly explained. “You get nine balls you roll down the alley, and if you go in the hole you get a score. That score converts into a number of tickets just like in an arcade. If I get a lot of points by rolling the balls accurately, that is a skillful thing, and it maps to a number of tickets on screen. Then you have to go to the virtual ticket redemption counter. That counter shows small, medium and large prizes. Let’s say you go to the large prize shelf. You pick one, but the system has already decided what the credits are beneath those prizes. The prize is not skill dependent.”
International Game Technology, on the other hand, has gone a true skill route in bonus events for the Video Reel Edge games Blood Life Legends and Tully’s Treasure Hunt, while engaging the player with the perception of skill in Hot Roll and Little Green Men: Cosmic Blaster.
The Video Reel Edge games include a physical skill-based element in the bonus round.
“Tully’s Treasure Hunt gives players the opportunity to guide a cute sea turtle named Tully along the ocean floor during the skill-based bonus rounds with the goal of collecting credits along their undersea journey,” said Joe Sigrist, vice president, product management, global products at IGT. “Blood Life Legends tackles the mysterious underground world of vampires and works in the same way as Tully does, allowing players to use the joystick on the slot game to guide their bat through dimly-lit caves to collect credits during bonus rounds.
“Both of these hugely entertaining slot titles are found in both domestic and international markets. We have found that players are taking a strong affinity to the product line, as they have the choice to play skill-bonusing or standard free games. Players appreciate the choice of the two different bonus elements, as it gives them control for their bonus rounds. Tully’s Treasure Hunt is an operator and player favorite, with strong performance numbers to back it up.”
As for the perceived skill games, players touch the screen to roll dice on Hot Roll, and shoot down alien invaders in the latest Little Green Men title. Both give the player the feeling of control, but awards are determined by an RNG.
“Anytime we can immerse the player in their play session experiences, it becomes more memorable and they feel as if they have an opportunity to influence outcome; whether perceived or actual,” Sigrist said.
At SPIELO, its license with social game developer PopCap Games has opened opportunities for skill-based play.
“In Zuma, we present physical skill in a bonus with elements from video game ‘boss battles,’ where players that achieve a certain level need to fight a ‘boss,’” Bluemel said. “In one of our Zuma bonus games, players can do just that: They are the Zuma frog and they shoot colored balls to hit the Kahtiki Khan boss as he moves side-to-side. It isn’t extremely challenging, but there is an element of timing and there is payback associated with doing well. When we see how players and the market react to this, we’ll adjust our usage of skill in future games accordingly.
“On the strategy side, our Bejeweled slot games feature bonuses where players choose between skill and free spins. In the skill games, players must employ strategy and think ahead when making gem matches, and they can receive credit-producing achievements if they reach various goals. Bejeweled was recognized as one of Casino Journal’s Top 20 Most Innovative Gaming Technology Award recipients, due in part to its skill bonus innovations.”
Multimedia Games refers to its offerings as “skill-like,” with its feedback indicating players prefer perceived skill.
“Skill-based slot games haven’t been in great demand as of late, because players have shown they enjoy interaction with the game, but don’t want to have to worry about strategy or optimum play,” said Brad Johnson, vice president of product management and marketing for Multimedia. “Video poker is the closest thing to a skill game that has a loyal following on the casino floor. I feel like the current trend with slot machines though is to have more game interaction and friendly competition.”
For game interaction, Johnson pointed to Multimedia’s TournEvent tournament system. As for perceived skill, the company offers the MoneyBall bonus on three games in its premium High Rise series.
“This bonus features a proprietary skill-like component that allows players to aim in which direction they want to release the MoneyBall from the top of the video screen,” Johnson said. “Players are able to feel like they are in control of their bonus award with this ‘skill’ component, as they try to target their shot into on-screen prizes.”
A MATTER OF FEEL
Aruze Gaming also has gone the perceived skill route while sensing an uptick in interest in both perceived and real skill.
“Skill-based and perceived skill-based slot game play is becoming more and more popular within the gaming industry,” said Paul Omohundro, director of marketing for Aruze Gaming America. “The ability to take new technologies and replicate familiar game play with exciting graphics and themes has helped to advance the acceptance by all generations of players.”
For Aruze, the perception of skill extends to its popular Paradise Fishing and Amazon Fishing games, where players feel simulated fish strikes through a fishing rod handle-shaped controller, as well asRich Life and the new game Sinbad.
“Both Paradise Fishing and Amazon Fishing offer Reel Feel technology via a Rod Controller on each machine that simulates the thrill of catching and reeling in a fish,” Omohundro said. “While Amazon Fishing also allows you to choose your own bait and the ability to feel like you are maneuvering your bait to ‘lure’ the fish in.
“Rich Life bonus rounds include horse racing, fishing and predicting a stock’s performance, to name a few, and that the press of a spin button, provides great entertainment by affecting the animations but not the outcome of credits awarded.
“Sinbad’s Adventure Time bonus rounds include battling the monsters via pressing the spin button as fast as you can. The faster you press the button, the more times your character will engage the monster.”
Sinbad includes River Run and Roc Bird Fortune Flight events, and in both, the player can affect the animation, but not the resulting credit awards.”
For actual skill to really take off, Bally’s Kelly said, it’s going to take a breakthrough game.
“We hold regular customer panels [with casino operators], and skill is always one of the key questions,” he said. “We keep hearing that they’re interested. They’ve not found any one killer title to date that’s done it, and I frankly think that once a killer title has all that math right; has all the skills just right; has the art, sound, everything else spotless; and the game earns crazy… once you get one of those in the industry, then you’re going to have a lot more people going for it.”