There’s little doubt that today’s slot floors are dominated by video slot machines, a product whose inherent technology allows it to be constantly innovative and fresh, qualities that appeal to a large segment of slot playing public. But it really wasn’t all that long ago that the casino floor was ruled by a different type of gaming machine—the mechanical reel slot.

For years, these mechanical or stepper reel slot machines were thought to be in a state of decline, passed over by the majority of slot gamers who were looking for the next big thing in video play. Sure, mechanical reel slots where still in the game mix at most casinos, but few in number and relegated to the backwater area of the gaming floor for older customers who were still loyal to the concept and willing to seek the games out.

Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional reel-style slot machine products, thanks in large part to these older customers who still religiously play the games, and a growing subset of younger players who eschew the increasingly complex game mechanics of video slots for the less antic and easier to follow thrill of spinning reels. Manufacturers, in turn, are stepping up to the plate to meet the needs and demands of traditional-style slot players, while also incorporating new technologies and enhanced aesthetic features.

“I would say the competition within this space is the largest I have seen it,” said Loren Nelson, vice president game development and executive producer for Multimedia Games, which is part of Everi Holdings. “The reel slot populates less than half of the casino floors. In the late 1980s when I started in the industry, basically 100 percent of the casino floors were basic three reel slots with a handful of manufactures. These days there are at least twice as many manufactures producing reel slots competing for a smaller footprint.”

While the resurgence is apparent, some manufacturers aren’t so sure that the traditional reel slot market is actually on the rise. “I wouldn’t say it’s growing,” Nelson said.  “I would say it’s a space that had been neglected for a long time, and over the last decade there has been lots of effort to enhance the player experience of the reel slot machine. Traditional reel slots are inherently more volatile since you couldn’t win less than your bet. Evolution has added more lines to tone down the volatility but they still remain the highest volatility games on the floor. We embrace that aspect and try to stay true to the core audience.”

Who’s demanding more from, and of these games? Manufacturers say it is the older generations who have appreciated them in the past, who not only enjoy them but need the bright cabinets and easy to read and understand reels in order to be able to play. But they’re not the only ones; every generation can appreciate the traditional experience, especially the less-frequent casino-goer who still craves that familiarity.

“I think there is a customer base that still likes the simpler, easier to understand games,” said Nelson.  “They can easily validate if the machine paid them correctly. If three like symbols line up on the center line they get paid. With the video games having so many lines—20, 40 or more—the player just has to trust that the machine is paying them correctly.” 

“I think that they’re attractive to different people for different reasons, said Jay Sevigny, president of Video Gaming Technologies (VGT), which is part of Aristocrat Technologies. “For some people there is a certain amount of simplicity to a stepper game. Where they can understand why they won and how the won, and its pleasant to play because many of them are quite straightforward.”

This traditional reel slot sentiment is echoed by other gaming machine manufacturers. “The players that are playing these types of games are just looking for a simple experience… they’re not looking for an over-complication,” said Allon Englman, senior vice president and chief designer, line officer for Scientific Games. “They’re looking for a fast, simple gambling experience so it’s very important that when you make these types of games, that you’re doing that.”

TRADITION EVOLVES

Designers and manufacturers continue to keep the traditional reel slot experience alive, valuing and sustaining the simplicity of reel slots, while also technologically refining them to keep up with a developing market… and to better compete with video slot formats.

“Reel slots have evolved in a couple of important ways. One is that the math behind the games has become very developed in terms of the kinds of personality that the games have,” said Sevigny. “If you go back to the early mechanical reels, they were very limited by essentially the number of reel steps. They’re effectively computers now with enormously large pay table cycles. So they’re capable of a great variety of jackpots and personalities to enhance the player experience.”

The big thing that stands out to Nelson in terms of evolution is the integration of new technology within the reel slot. “This integration has allowed manufactures to enhance the player experience from an entertainment standpoint [and] a payout prospective.  All of the wins from an old reel slot machine would come from line wins, these days a big percentage of the wins/payouts are coming from bonus games.”

According to Englman, the three-reel mechanical and the five-reel mechanical experiences are different, attract a different audience and therefore have evolved differently. “The three-reel games attract the crowd looking for a simple experience, the five-reel games are usually slightly more complicated and probably have some jackpot features attached to them and they too attract a different audience,” he said. “They’ve all evolved in different ways. I would say on the three reels it’s pretty stagnant on the types of games that they’re doing. As manufacturers, we’ve definitely added things like lighting, video screens, video wheels, so there’s been a lot of top box innovation, but the games have stayed kind of the same. For the five reels, there’s been a lot of development by manufacturers to add a lot of lighting and in-depth sounds, anticipation spins and things that kind of take the experience to the next level.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Whatever the future holds for traditional reel slot machines in terms of overall popularity, it is clear that there is still a taste for games and manufacturers will continue to develop accordingly.

“Player preferences will really dictate where the spinning reel market goes next,” explained Victor Duarte, chief global product officer, gaming for International Game Technology (IGT). “For years, there was a hesitation to innovate in this segment for fear of losing the interest of the genre purists. We’ve observed, however, that innovation in the reel game segment is welcomed. More player interactivity during game play, progressive technology and operator flexibility are all natural next steps in the evolution of the mechanical reel player experience.”

Indeed, the general understanding is that there is most definitely still a market for reel slots, although some, such as Englman, believe the games themselves will remain fairly static in concept.  “Static meaning, three reel games are simple,” he said. “We can change the hardware, but the core gaming experience is going to stay the same. I think what you’ll see in the next couple of years are the additions of new technology where the games are very simple, but the peripherals things like wheels and screens keep getting more enhanced, better, brighter and standing out on the floor more.” 

Here is a look at the latest and most noteworthy traditional reel slot developments from some of the leading gaming machine manufacturers:

INTERNATIONAL GAME TECHNOLOGY (IGT)

Reel games have long-played an integral role in IGT’s product portfolio, according to Duarte. The most recent development in the reel segment is the introduction of the S3000 cabinet, but IGT’s roots in the spinning reel segment go back decades to the S+ and the S2000 cabinets, which inspired the S300. Many of the games on the S3000 are actually legacy titles, introduced previously on the S2000 15 to 20 years ago.

 Launched at G2E 2014, IGT’s S3000 cabinet is redefining both player and operator expectations of the spinning reel slot experience. “Over the last 11 months, we have placed thousands of S3000 cabinets in gaming markets around the world and performance has been strong across the board,” said Duarte. “When we introduced it at G2E in 2014, I think IGT surprised many people in the industry—there had been such a keen, industry-wide focus on video slot innovation in recent years that spinning reel slots had not evolved much in the last decade. When we created the S3000 we were confident however that we developed a cabinet that would appeal to spinning-reel genre purists when coupled with specific game content, and also appeal to video slots enthusiasts who are open to trying varied gaming experiences. That vision has proven to be successful, with strong global cabinet sales and performance.”

Popular titles on the cabinet include Triple Double Diamond, Triple Gold, Triple Red Hot 7’s Free Games, Gold Bar 7’s and Triple Strike.

Part of IGT’s mechanical reel strategy moving forward is to leverage their proven legacy titles on the S3000 while also innovating and creating new and unique experiences for players, said Duarte.

IGT also incorporates reel mechanics into numerous other games, including many variations of the popular Wheel of Fortune theme, Megabucks, recently introduced Hot Roulette series and others.

SCIENTIFIC GAMES

It’s impossible to talk about mechanical reel slots without mentioning the impact of Bally’s legendaryBlazing 7s franchise. 

“When most people think about mechanical slots they think about the Blazing 7’s brand, it’s very powerful,” said Englman. “Specifically, Blazing 7’s on Bally’s Pro Stepper and Blazing 7’s on the Curve cabinets.”

With a sleek and modern look, the ALPHA 2 Pro Series Stepper platform is the rightful heir to Bally’s long line of spinning-reel products. The ALPHA 2 Pro Stepper shares all of the significant improvements that make Bally’s family of ALPHA 2 products one of the industry standards. These include a state-of-art dual-core processor, accelerated graphics, expanded memory and iDeck touch-enabled video button deck.

A key product on the WMS side of Scientific Games in this category is the BLADE Stepper cabinet with its two latest and games being Triple Golden Cherriesand Diamonds of Dublin.

According to press materials, the cabinet was inspired by their best mechanical games. This new platform has all of the character and features that stepper players seek. The BLADE Stepper themes are offered in both high and low denominations and provide a pure gambling experience centered on winning jackpots. Easy-to-understand one to five pay-line games, familiar reel symbols and exciting new bonus games resonate with gambler slot players.

VIDEO GAMING TECHNOLOGIES (VGT)

Forming a strategic acquisition with Aristocrat Leisure Limited last year, VGT is a leading provider of predominately Class II gaming machines for the leased tribal gaming market in North America. VGT has the largest Class II platform of installed gaming machines in North America and manufactures both mechanical and video Class II gaming machines

Available in VGT’s revolutionary C6 narrow cabinet as well as a sit-down, slant top cabinet, the VGT mechanical game terminal is available in dozens of popular game faces. With proven game characters and reliable components, the mechanical game terminal combines features of the Live-Call Bingo platform with some of the most appealing paytables in the Class II marketplace.

The latest from VGT is their first ever Wide Area Progressive (WAP) game, Mr. Money Bags Easy Money Jackpot progressive, which has a life-changing jackpot of $250,000. Easy Money Jackpot is a 3-reel mechanical WAP and appears on top of eight player favorite VGT game titles: 777 Bourbon Street, Crazy Cherry, Hot Red Ruby, King of Coin, Lucky Ducky, Mr. Money Bags, Reel Fever and Smooth as Silk.

“Looking forward we’re very committed to the stepper product, that’s really what brought us to the dance,” said Sevigny. “However now that we’ve joined Aristocrat…we are looking to grow and continue our success with steppers and also take what we’ve learned about player experience and translate those into video as well.”

EVERI

Everi’s Multimedia Games also recognized the significance and importance of simplicity in today’s reel games. To rise above competition, Multimedia now devotes 20 percent of their game releases to reel products; an increase from previous years as they observed other manufacturers dedicating fewer resources to the product, according to Allison Pope, Multimedia’s vice president of game development & executive producer.

 “We have typically respected the player who appreciates the simplicity of reel slot products by providing minimal distraction from the game,” Pope said. “Some small innovations we’ve included have been designed to help celebrate large wins and emphasize features, like our integrated lighting on Skyline cabinets. The lights can animate and change color based on events in the game.”

Multimedia Game’s latest popular reel products include nine-line games; Wild Wild Gems for the Player Series, Double Jackpot Gems for the Skyline cabinet with a five-tier progressive and Black Diamond with a unique betting structure and 27 coin max bet.

Wild Wild Gems is full of timeless BAR and 7 symbols. According to press materials, the 2X Wild Rubies Symbols will serve up glittering rewards and are wild and substitute for seven and bar symbols to complete winning combinations. One 2X Rubies symbol landing on a winning pay line multiplies the line award by 2X. Two 2X Rubies symbols on a winning pay line will multiply the line award by 4X, and three of them will award the top jackpot of 10,000 credits.

Double Jackpot Gems’ winnings kick off when one or two Diamond symbols land in a winning combination with 7s or bars, with two Diamond symbols landing awarding 4x the prize value. The game also features a five-tier progressive, players can win the top progressive tier when three diamonds land on pay line nine while playing at max bet.

In Black Diamond, when two or more multipliers land on a pay line, they multiply together and multiply the winnings combination, up to a 30x multiplier is possible. It doesn’t stop there, at max bet, three Black Diamond symbols on pay lines one through eight awards the second tier jackpot, while three Black Diamond symbols on pay line nine award the top jackpot.

KONAMI GAMING

Konami also offers traditional style mechanical reel games on their Advantage 3, Advantage 5 and Dynamic 5 stepper cabinets.

According the company website, although traditional, the Advantage 3 is not your average slot, featuring  multicolor backlit reels, one-of-a-kind lighting effects and a 19-inch LCD touch screen. The multi-color backlit reels display up to 256 colors to create one-of-a-kind lighting effects along with a clearly-lit belly-plex that is illuminated with a rotating color display. A mirrored row of lights in the top box adds a dimensional lighting attract feature, while a unique LCD fourth reel is used for bonuses or to display game information.

According to company press materials, Konami has the industry’s first full-size backlit mechanical five-reel machine. This five-stepper offers big fun with a multicolor LED behind the reels, a large VFD for displaying game information, a clear belly-plex with rotating color display, forward and reverse spin player options and more. Advantage 5’s combo of the latest technology with innovative play will make players want to give everyone a high five.