There was a time not that long ago when the video gaming experience was not all that different than the one found at a slot machine. Both essentially involved a player in a one-on-one match with a machine; the computer/counsel in the case of the video game aficionado, the slot machine and random number generator for casino patrons.
But over the last 10 years, the evolutionary path of these two devices radically diverged. Spurred by an influx of new computer and communication technology, the video gaming experience became more complex in terms of actual play, and more stimulating in terms of game design, visuals and overall experience. Internet and wireless technology also freed the video gamer from reliance on a set location and a one-to-one experience between player and machine—indeed, the modern video gamer can play over the web any time of day, from any location and against fellow competitors located elsewhere in North America or the world. Customers off all ages, but especially those of Gen X, Gen Y and younger, have flocked to the improved games and content, and the worldwide market for video gaming is expected to surpass an astounding $111 billion this year, according to Gartner Inc.
“There has been a big technological evolution in the past 10 years that has involved server technology, IP technology, Cloud utilization and using the Internet and mobile devices to connect players,” said Richard Hilleman, executive director, Electronic Arts (EA), a video gaming company that created Madden NFL, Sim City and other groundbreaking franchises, at last October’s G2E show in Las Vegas. “These advances, especially those involving mobile technology, have democratized [video] gaming and brought it to where people can play wherever and whenever they want.”
Also, player can now compete against player, and this multiplayer aspect has really driven our business,” Hilleman added.
Technology has impacted the casino gaming industry as well, and today’s casino patrons can also access slots play through a host of media devices and enjoy the experience from home and other locations, depending on the wagering regulations within their jurisdiction, of course. Still, at its core, the slot experience remains as it has always been whether at the casino or over the web or through a mobile device—one player interfacing with one machine. And while this type of experience still appeals to the slot machine’s core customer base—people 50 years or older—it is far from what younger generations seek in play and entertainment.
“We all know what the issue is; the customers of today are more social,” said James Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International during a keynote session at G2E. “They interact, they are gatherers. They are not set on their itineraries, which is why there will be parks and outdoor environments [at casinos resorts going forward] because I cannot tell them what to do, and the manufacturers cannot tell them what products to play. We have to adapt to the customer. Las Vegas and other resort markets have been traditionally been great at that.”
“Twenty years ago, our best slot players hid in the corner…the true slot gambler was in the middle of nowhere away from everybody,” added Steve Walther, director of product management for Konami Gaming. “Today, the younger player is in the middle of the aisle—they want to be seen and recognized when the get a jackpot; they want everyone to know they have won.”
SLOTS OF CHANGE
This trend is not lost on slot community, and at G2E machine vendors large and small mostly agreed that more video gaming-like experiences needed to be incorporated into upcoming generations of devices. Adding video gaming skill components to the slot game mechanic was a much discussed topic, as were the regulations that keep manufacturers from pursuing this type of improvement.
“It’s really important that we do not think of [video gaming inclusion into the slot experience] as an age bound situation,” Patti Hart, then CEO of International Game Technology (IGT) said during the suppliers keynote at G2E. “There is a new, connected generation that transcends age and the consumption of content has changed dramatically around the world. If you look at the immersive slot machine today, the audio and display technologies are different from anything we had in the past, but there is a regulatory fence around it that often keeps us from going any further. Being able to push as far as consumers would like us to push is not yet possible.”
“The key word is the “s’ word that we are all so afraid to use…. skill,” said Pat Ramsey, CEO of Multimedia Games during the suppliers keynote. “In a casino, I see good poker players beating bad poker players and good blackjack players beating the bad. But when contemplate bringing the same skill experience to a bank of slots, everyone freezes.”
Fortunately, there now appears to be a thaw within the regulatory community when it comes to adding some skill-based play to slot machines.
“The very good news is that we have seen some recent examples where the regulators are very much open to skilled elements, and even pure skill-based gaming, throughout the entire slot experience,” said Joe Sigrist, vice president of game development and global product management for IGT during a G2E session. “It’s encouraging…the industry has already taken steps to add skill-based elements to our games and at some point very soon I think we are going to have a pure, skill-based slot game.”
To ultimately provide slot players with the true video gaming experience however, some sort of multi-player, gamer-versus-gamer play mechanic will need to be developed, something that may be easier contemplated than done.
“We recently worked with a company to develop a skill-based casino game with the ability for two people to play against each other,” Hilleman said. “It is a business we wish was more successful, but what we saw seemed to work pretty well. We saw people enjoy the gambling experience when they thought they knew how to play the game successfully. People were expressing their skill and confidence in their ability to bet against other people; there seemed to be opportunity there.”
PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION
Even if allowed to develop player-versus-player, true-skill slot machine concepts, manufacturers realize they will have to tread lightly and not ruin the core experience that makes a slot machine a slot machine, something brought home during the recent conversion of land-based slot concepts to the online gaming space.
“We recently launched our first Wheel of Fortune online slot machine on our DoubleDown social casino site and it has done phenomenally well,” said Sigrist. “It is the exact same three-reel, one-line game you experience at the casino. If we had messed with the game, tried to adapt it to the online environment to the point it no longer provided the type of experience players have at the land-based casino, it definitely would not have been as successful.”
Any movement toward more video gaming-like slots will also have to pass muster with the operator community, whose attention is often more geared toward what will be successful on the slot floor today as opposed to worrying about tomorrow.
“I recently met with an operator whose primary interest was the property’s loss of business from 65-year-old females,” Ramsey said. “This person agreed that we need to eventually fill that funnel and need to think about the industry in the next 30 years, but where they really needed help was with the 65-year-old woman that used to come 20 to 30 times a year, and are now only coming half that. We get obsessed about Millennials, but more important to operators is offering products that can re-engage customers.”
That said, operators do realize both games and the gaming environments need to change going forward to ensure land-based casino survival.
“I think it is a combination of becoming social and adapting to the fact the gamers like skill-based games,” Murren said. “The social environments are critical and the manufacturers and the operators need to work together. Otherwise, we are going to be irrelevant down the road and none of us want that.”