There was a time when Phil Gelber thought slot machines with mechanical reels were on the fast track for extinction, a beyond-endangered species about to go the way of T-Rex and Iguanodon.

“I’ve been here 13 years, and when I walked in the door I had the naïve attitude of, ‘Oh, it’s all going to go to video, why are people playing mechanical? Everybody plays video,’” said Gelber, senior vice president for product development at WMS. “But there’s something pure about a three-reel mechanical experience. They just give that true mathematical experience, you know what you’re looking for and if you design in the right anticipation in the bonus events you have a wide variety of outcomes. I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”

Reel-stepper slots’ share of the casino floor has been declining ever since video slots started to make an impact in the late 1990s, but there remains a corps of players who are loyal to the reel spinners. Slot manufacturers know they need products to cater to that corps in addition to games for the video-playing majority.

“Both game performance and industry research indicate that there is a very strong demand for reel slots,” said Joe Sigrist, vice president of game development and global product management for International Game Technology (IGT).

Mike Brennan, director of product management at GTECH, agrees. “Every couple of years, we hear predictions about the imminent demise of reel slots, but mechanical reels account for more than a quarter of the average-sized slot floor, and more if you include hybrid and emulated versions. Vendors are also realizing that there is less competition in the arena and that this chunk of the market is still mostly dominated by obsolete legacy products.”

The preponderance of legacy products on the floor has led to pent-up demand from players, according to Gelber.

“The operators tell us some of their core players are mechanical-only players,” he said, “and they get a lot of complaints like, ‘You have all these new video games and I get nothing new to play.’”

But designing a new game for the stepper market isn’t as simple as taking video concepts and applying them mechanical reels. Video players and reel players demand different things from their games.

“I think reel slot players demand a certain symbol set, flow of motion and spin stop speeds that hold true to what they appreciate and expect from traditional spinning reels,” said Steve Walther, director of product management at Konami Gaming. “Everything from the sound of the reels stopping to the pulse of their spin is all part of the feeling and experience they get, and it contrasts with video because it is a distinctly physical representation of the game outcome.”

Volatility also is part of the attraction, said Brad Johnson, vice president of marketing and product management at Multimedia Games. “The classic mechanical slot players want ‘easy-to-understand’ play features and high volatility games, because they’re here to win big money. These players usually have their favorite games and don’t stray too far from them.”

Beyond that, Gelber said, “I think it’s simplicity. Video slot players, they don’t mind confusion. Some of the games that we’re bringing out and other manufactures are bringing out, it takes us a few times to figure out what’s going on, and we’re doing this for a living. But I think we’ve found through the research process that video players will deal with a little bit of confusion because they want the challenge of learning the game, where mechanical players spend a little bit more, they play higher-denom games, and they kind of expect a little bit more simplicity.”


DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

Each manufacturer that caters to mechanical reel players puts its own spin on the games. IGT has long been the leader in reel steppers, with traditional favorites such as the Double Diamond series and the megahit Wheel of Fortune.

“At G2E 2014, IGT will debut several new innovations in the spinning-reel segment,” Sigrist said. From progressive products to a classic core scenario, IGT continues to place a substantial emphasis on this part of its portfolio. “A perfect example of the evolution of IGT’s spinning-reel portfolio is what we have done in our soon-to-launch Hot Roulette series,” Sigrist added. “In Hot Roulette we have taken top-performing spinning reel IGT titles like Pink Diamonds and Triple Red Hot 7’s and added a bonus event that initiates a touchscreen game of roulette in the top box. We are preserving the key play mechanics that have anchored player loyalty for decades, yet adding some new innovations that keep the gaming experience fresh.”

Beyond that, IGT continues to develop its hardware, mechanics and content with a reel-stepper future in mind.

“In terms of the future, IGT looks to evolve with the players of today and innovate for the next-gen player of tomorrow,” Sigrist said. “A great example of that next-gen focus is our Atari Centipede spinning-reel game. It’s the perfect marriage of the classic spinning-reel experience coupled with a theme that resonates with a younger demographic. Simple mechanics like our ‘rocking reels’ in several of our Wheel of Fortune titles add just enough of a boost of surprise to keep players on the edge of their chairs, but stillremain true to the essence of the three-reel experience.”


FEATURE FOCUS

Bally Technologies is also taking steps to augment its line of reel slot options.

“We’re introducing some really exciting new features this year with Lightning Lines, which features independent random multipliers for each payline, and Lucky Arrow with its virtualized nudge symbols that turn losses into wins while dramatically enhancing anticipation,” said John Vallejo, vice president of game development for Bally Technologies. We are also introducing new variations of our BullseyeBonus series and adding some new rotating pointer products to our portfolio.”

“At Bally we’ve been at the forefront of a lot of change and innovation in this segment and we are continuously evolving our Curve and Pro Stepper hardware to help create more exciting experiences for the player,” Vallejo added. “This year we are extending our products even further with new accent lighting packages, edge-lit reel glass, and our high-energy Super Pro topper.”

Part of Bally’s approach is to bring the reel-stepper format to video through the Curve cabinet.

“While Bally remains very committed to the classic reel slot platform, looking forward one of the biggest changes is how the category will continue to expand its definition to include products like our Bally Curve, which essentially replaces the mechanical reel bundle with a high-definition LCD formed into an arc with the exact radius of a classic stepper bundle,” Vallejo said  “Using the latest 3D authoring tools, we can provide a complete simulation of a mechanical reel with all the lighting and physics associated with a rotating basket but without the physical limitations and service issues common with reel tapes.


EDGY

WMS is rolling out new themes for its Blade Stepper cabinet, powered by the CPU-NXT3 processor, for quick reel spins and halo-effect emotive lighting. Top boxes bring HD touchscreens for stepper games that incorporate video bonusing.

“Last year at G2E we debuted the new Blade three-reel mechanical, which has now been in the field for a few months,” Gelber said. “That product really was designed to bring modern technology to the three-reel player. But we’re also trying to make it look a little retro, going back to the round top, and trying to keep the initial game designs kind of old school—multipliers, bars and 7s. It seems like we’ve definitely found a sweet spot. Performance has been strong on the product and a lot of casino operators are thanking us for delivering new three-reel mechanical, high-denomination product—quarter and dollar product that they just haven’t seen a lot of in the last three or four years.”

Among the new games are Aftershock, where the reels shake, quake and take the player into a repeat win mode, and 777 Wheel Hot where wins on sevens combinations take the player to a wheel spin. On the premium side, there’s MONOPOLY Luxury Diamonds, WMS’ first three-reel mechanical with a mechanical wheel on top.

“We’re also bringing back a lot of our Bluebird I three-reel games, like Diamonds of Dublin, and we just launched Reel ‘Em In: Catch the Big One 2, which is a new lower-denomination product,” Gelber said. “So we’re trying to appeal to stepper players in the high-denom space and the low-denom space. The penny stepper products from our Bluebird I days 10 years ago are still some top performing games and they have a lot of legs, so we’re bringing those over to the Blade as well.”


LAND OF THE PHARAOHS

GTECH is rolling out distinct products for the high-denomination and low-denomination segments of the reel market.

“We are continuing to bring new and fresh content to our Passion Slots cabinets, which have been in the market as a premium product line for more than seven years,” Brennan said. “At this year’s G2E, we will show two new games—Queen of Egypt and Return of the Sphinx 2.”

Queen of Egypt is a low-denomination game that incorporates video screens to trigger a sixth reel bonus mechanism. The game also showcases immersive video bonuses in order to enhance the familiar mechanical reel experience.

“In the high-denomination sector, we’re debuting the Return of the Sphinx 2 game, a sequel to what has been one of our strongest and longest-lasting products,” Brennan said. “The game brings some enhancements and an updated look to its buy-a-pay bet structure and binding play experience. The combination of features gives the high-denomination player a
value-added journey up
a pyramid, increasing rewards during an extended play session, with large potential prizes at the top.”


SKY HIGH

Multimedia Games is freshening its mechanical reel product with a premium series called Skyline.

“It takes the classic mechanical reel game and pairs it with an eye-catching top box inspired by the golden days of Las Vegas,” Johnson said. “Our players really love a classic mechanical reel experience, so we’re giving them that plus the added multitier progressives. The traditional mechanical reel players are an important segment to us, and we want to cater to them by giving them that traditional, high-denom gambling experience.”


TAKING ADVANTAGE

Konami Gaming has made a big splash with its Advantage 5 steppers, with its over-sized symbols to go with an eye- and ear-catching package of lights, sounds, interaction and bonus events.

“This fall during G2E we will be unveiling the next evolution of Konami’s Advantage 5 stepper, called the Advantage 5X,” Walther said. “With the increased processing and visual design capacity of our KP3 platform,  Advantage 5X includes greater interaction between the video screens above and below the reels, and synced through the brightly illuminated mechanical reels with rainbow-colored LEDs to captivate players’ interest. Around the outer edge of the game cabinet is also a unique chrome accent that magically turns into illuminated LEDs during different events on the game and as part of the game’s attraction.

“In addition to the Advantage 5X, we’re bringing our new Rapid Revolver cabinet to the market, which is unlike anything else currently available. Rapid Revolver has both a video screen down below and six vertically-mounted spinning reels on its oversized top box, surrounded by synchronized high-impact sound and lighting. So it takes a new twist on favorable mechanical elements that players will enjoy, combined with video-based games which are becoming so popular.”

What all this adds up to are reel slots that are evolving, but always with a degree of familiarity to keep loyal players coming back.

‘We believe that stepper slots provide a level of uniquely tangible engagement thatcan only be found in traditional casinos and not online casinos,” Walther said. “So we will continue to see a need for that mechanical quality because it appeals to players based on nostalgia. But at the same time, people are highly accustomed to video-style gaming components that we can emulate in a spinning reel implementation to help ensure continued relevance.”