You can always learn quite a bit from James Maida, president and CEO of Gaming Laboratories International (GLI). His independent game testing lab has been in business for 25 years now, and that has given him plenty of time to reflect on the technological trends that have influenced the gaming industry both for the better and for the worst.
Yet when I sat down to talk to him for a feature on gaming labs that is running in this issue of the magazine (see page 40) and asked him which of these trends would have the greatest impact going forward, part of his answer was somewhat surprising in that it did not involve gaming products or technology. “The past five to six years have been very tough economically for both suppliers and operators,” he said, “so much tougher than the previous 15 years.” The gaming industry is still trying to cope with this and it continues tohave a major impact on technology development, he added.
At first I was not sure what any of this had to do with new gaming technologies but, in retrospect, this observation makes imminent sense in that funding is key to any substantial technological advance. When funds are tight, manufacturers are unlikely to go all-in on risky, yet potentially revolutionary technologies, and it is doubtful operators have the economic wherewithal to purchase such expensive products. To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid;” which in this instance can apply to new technologies as well as politics.
Also underlying Maida’s observation is the unspoken thought that the U.S. gaming marketplace may take longer than expected to return to the days of substantial year-over-year growth, if it ever does. Gaming revenue have grown less than 5 percent a year for the past five years and has yet to recapture its pre-recession high of $37.52 billion, according to the American Gaming Association’s State of the States reports. And according to Fantini’s National Revenue Report, 2013 was a less than aspiring year for U.S. gaming, with commercial casinos and those tribal casinos that report revenues publicly showing a mere 0.02 percent increase over 2012 results (see page 8).
It feels like the U.S. gaming marketplace is stalled, and it appears this mindset is starting to impact gaming executives, who are normally a pretty optimistic bunch. A recent Gaming Executive Satisfaction Survey conducted by Bristol Associates and Spectrum Gaming Group showed the impact slow to non-existent gaming growth was having on operators, most of whom view the future of their regional gaming markets as neutral and are less optimistic about individual career growth.
“The latest annual survey of gaming industry executives demonstrates a series of mixed results consistent with the uneven overall economic recovery,” the survey stated. “Evidence of optimism is slight, while evidence of pessimism is only slightly more apparent.” The authors of this report called this the “Goldilocks metaphor,” meaning those gaming executives surveys showed not too much enthusiasm, but also not too much pessimism.
What all this means going forward is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain, at least for the short term, or until some new form of wagering becomes widely accepted and boosts profits for all (I’m looking at you, eGaming), the U.S. gaming industry had best prepare itself for a period of diminished expectations and small victories. There is nothing wrong with this—sometimes it’s best to hold steady, not get too caught up in slight growth or declines, especially when the economy is in fluctuation. This approach may be unpalatable in today’s Wall Street-centric world where a company is a failure if it doesn’t show double-digit year-over-year growth, but for the gaming industry, that ship has sailed, if only for the time being.