There is a classic good news/bad news scenario currently in play as it pertains to skill-based slots and casino gaming floors.
On a positive note, although still very much a nascent concept, a growing number of skill-slot formats are finding their way into casino gaming environments, fostered along by operators seeking a market edge to attract younger clientele into gaming properties.
“Consumer demand for technology-enabled entertainment grows by the day, especially among the younger audiences that skill-based games are aimed to reach,” said Steve Walther, senior director, marketing and product management at Konami Gaming. “But because skill-based gaming is still in its earliest years of growth as product sector, the greatest advancements are still being pioneered in creative design, mechanics and math to a larger extent than new consumer technology trends.”
On the negative side, some of these skill-based devices have already been rejected by gaming operators, and skill slot providers find themselves having to explain machine profitability by stressing the value of “incremental revenue” as opposed to standard “win per unit” metrics. Pioneering skill-based gaming companies such as Gamblit Gaming points out that, so far, two-thirds of its casino player base are uncarded, meaning its games are driving new players into wagering properties.
Despite this challenge, manufacturers remain steadfast to the promise of skill-based game technology—that it is one of the best ways to attract and nurture an increasingly diverse player base as well as entice more gaming machine play from younger generations. “The desire among many in the gaming industry to expand the demographic of players who enjoy casino entertainment is the key driver of the recent interest in skill-based gaming,” said Dallas Orchard, chief product officer, gaming for IGT. “IGT is working closely with our customers to create products that help operators experiment with new forms of casino entertainment—even creating new ‘zones’ on their floors that are intended to appeal to a broader demographic of guests. Bringing these products to market requires a coordinated effort among suppliers, operators and regulators.”
Certainly when introducing a new market segment like skill-based gaming, success relies on partnerships between the operators and suppliers. “As skill games arrive to market, long-term success and profitability are contingent on working together to optimize product delivery, development, marketing and merchandising, based on monitored results,” said Walther. “Last year the Innovation Adoption Advisory Panel (IAAP) was formed by GameCo, Interblock and Konami in a collective effort to support gaming product innovation and commercialization on the casino floor. The importance of joint collaboration between casinos and suppliers was a key observation in the panel’s initial findings released last fall.”
Thanks to the IAAP and ongoing operator/consumer demand, manufacturers expect the acceptance rate for skill-based slots to grow, but at a measured pace. “Mind you, skill-based gaming is not a panacea, which will immediately take over slot floors,” said Mike Darley, CEO of Next Gaming. “It’s part of an evolution of any consumer-based experience, and as with any experience, there is something new being developed every day.”
Indeed, new skill enhanced slots include everything from first-person shooter style games to proven game play based on popular gaming apps to sports-centric game types. Technologies such as immersive display enhancements and connected mobile engagement are also impacting the skill games space. Below are some of the latest skill-based innovations from a growing number of traditional and new game suppliers.
For a number of years, IGT has offered “hybrid” skill-based games with a skill-based option in the bonus, and the company has also enjoyed its market leadership in video poker, which has an element of skill-based play as well.
“We are closely monitoring customer and player demand for skill-based products and are attentive to skill-based product performance in the marketplace,” Orchard said. “Our customers ask us to create new experiences that will attract an expanded demographic of players to their floors, and skill-based games can be one way to achieve that.”
To grow this segment of its portfolio, IGT has taken proactive, yet measured steps with strategic R&D investments, introduction of meaningful innovation to connect land-based and mobile gaming and developing a distribution agreement with Australia-based company that is focused on skill, Chill Gaming.
IGT’s most popular skill-based games are currently titles from its Video Reel Edge (VRE) game family, which is the company’s hybrid skill offering. This genre of games give players a traditional base game slot experience, and then the choice between free spin or skill-based bonus events. The company’s most recent VRE product introductions include the Texas Tea Pinball and Cleopatra Pinball games on the CrystalCore cabinet—titles that enable players to test their virtual pinball skills for the chance to win real rewards.
All of IGT’s skill-based games blend skill and chance, but achieve that in different ways. For example, in Lucky’s Quest, the award-winning omni-channel game, the player’s ability to identify matching symbol patterns will help drive their success. In the VRE game family, the base game plays like a traditional video slot, and then the player’s performance in a skill-based bonus event will influence the bonus reward. The Skillcade title Race Ace Arcade puts players in the seat of a physical car and their virtual driving skills will influence performance and rewards.
The company has introduced a diverse set of skill-based products, some that do not resemble a slot machine whatsoever, and others that do. For example, IGT recently launched Virtual Zone virtual reality (VR) product at The Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Although this is not a gambling experience, the Virtual Zone is a new form of casino entertainment where a player’s virtual archery skills will impact the standings within a tournament and potentially lead to monetary rewards. Similarly, Race Ace Arcade game, which was showcased at ICE and G2E, does not feature a traditional casino form factor. Instead, Race Ace Arcade puts players in the driver’s seat of a fully automated motion chair. Conversely, IGT’s VRE games that are in the field today are housed on the CrystalCore cabinet, a more traditional slot machine hardware.
Over the last 12 months, IGT has placed many of its VRE skill-based Texas Tea Pinball and Cleopatra Pinball games in U.S. and Latin America casinos. These games complement its existing VRE skill-based games in the field such as Blood Life Legends, Tully’s Treasure Hunt, Aladdin Prince of Adventure, Centipede and Race Ace.
For years, Konami’s popular Class III games and leading casino systems technology have provided ample support to global markets with the latest creative developments.
Since skill-based regulations and standards were approved beginning in 2016, Konami has worked to pioneer skill-based product and support markets that have legalized casino games with elements of skill. In February 2017, Konami became the first company to introduce skill-based games to market in Nevada with the launch of Frogger: Get Hoppin’—a for-wager twist on the arcade classic. Konami’s award-winning Beat Square is another skill-based game that’s planned for market. This rhythmic dexterity skill-based game allows players to select song tracks and compete for top scores by tapping synchronized rhythmic patterns across a series of colorful touch buttons. Konami has made significant progress through these products, and is actively exploring further concepts for continued development and exploration.
The skill-based sector is still an emerging category for the company, with strong growth potential as a new incremental revenue source for operators. Konami’s approach is to support the exploration of next generation skill-based product while maintaining a commitment to core slot product development to meet the demands of today’s market.
“As the casino gaming division of KONAMI HOLDINGS CORPORATION in Japan, we come from a steep tradition of innovative game entertainment and decade-long proven popularity,” said Walther. “Konami has tremendous mechanical, software, and hardware engineering resources available through its parent company, with vast video game and arcade entertainment legacies spanning everything from Metal Gear Solid to Dance Dance Revolution. Our leading R&D team here in the U.S. maintains close collaboration with top developers and engineers in Japan to leverage that longstanding infrastructure and innovation for the gambling space and bring that technology to the casino properties around the world.”
The company’s approach has been the development of original skill-based concepts as the primary game play experience. Games like Frogger: Get Hoppin’ and Beat Square combine proven development resources and technology from its casino division while leveraging concepts from digital entertainment division. They are inherently constructed from the ground-up as a skill-based gaming product.
“We believe competitive gaming elements are especially important for skill-based to help drive engagement, recurrent play and social interaction,” Walther said. Beat Square features comprehensive tournament functionality which allows up to eight players to simultaneously complete on the same song, either individually or in teams. Beat Square also has a connected leaderboard display that updates automatically to highlight daily and all-time high scores.
The primary challenge with skill-based development can be the of balance skill with chance. “There must be some element of chance to ensure profitability and provide the property with the necessary payout ranges to carry the product; but it also needs to appropriately reward skill in order to challenge players and meet their expectations,” Walther said. “That’s what we’re looking to accomplish with this segment—new skill-based gaming entertainment that is fun, fair and rewarding for players, while providing operators a dependable avenue to diversify their gaming revenue.”
Next Gaming, headquartered in Las Vegas, has put together a team of seasoned casino and gaming professionals, creative design artists and technical experts to create some of the most entertaining and compelling skill-based slot games. Tapping into decades of knowledge in multiple aspects of casino operations, the company has combined its game designs to be engaging, exciting, challenging and capable of meeting the performance standards expected for revenue generation.
“With the evolution of the slot gaming experience upon us, it demands inspiration, imagination and innovation, which are the tenants of the Next Gaming culture,” Darley said. “As the discussion of appealing to the Millennial demographic has become clearer, Next Gaming has chosen not to exclude the multitude of players who have been casino patrons for years. That valued group has both time and money and has an equal desire to elevate their gaming experiences.
Next Gaming is currently finishing its development cycle for its skill-based games. With IP partnerships with Taito for Arkanoid and Bust-A-Move and Atari for Asteroids, as well as the company’s own game ZForce, these games have a familiarity that transcends all age groups. The company utilizes specific actions such as accuracy, time, capturing power-ups, game play strategies and various other attributes that determine a skilled occurrence in its games. Additionally, the games offer three individual levels of skill choices. From easy to normal to hard, players can choose their entry point which allows them to experience the games in a manner that’s comfortable with their skill-set.
Additionally, Next Gaming has added Missile Command and Tempest from Atari, both highly recognizable games, to their skill-based gaming portfolio. Both the arcade game Asteroids and Tempest are featured in Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One and play a part in Steven Spielberg’s new blockbuster movie of the same name. Darley stated. “Appealing to an audience who has fond memories of these games, and also offers the desired attributes that appeal to new adopters, promotes diversity in the player base.”
“All of our skill-based games are entirely new,” Darley said. “We have chosen to create and design our new games based on some very popular and familiar titles. Our cabinet is utilitarian. It can accommodate skill-based games, our video reel games and be placed on the casino floor or in a themed area.”
“In order to appeal to all players and markets, we also have our core video games such as Mayan Thunder, Celtic Gold, Warrior Empress, Sunken Fortunes and many others. Our goal is to offer a diverse portfolio to meet our customer needs.”
As Next Gaming progresses, it is working on player-to-player competitions, tournaments and various aspects that utilize social interactions. “We have had considerable interest in our games throughout the U.S. and in Europe,” Darley said. “Our release will be with a major casino operator which we cannot disclose at this time.”
Gamblit Gaming was created to bring a new form of gaming to casino floors. Its founders saw that while the cabinets and graphics of video slot games were developing into fabulous sensory experiences, at the end of the day, the games were still traditional slot experiences and the company sought to change that.
“Our games are not exactly skill-oriented slot/line games,” said Marcus Yoder vice president regulated markets and business development for Gamblit. “You will see very little of anything that resembles a slot machine in our games. Our games are skill/chance hybrid experiences where some games rely more on the skill of the player to determine payback and some games rely more on chance to determine the payback. Our games utilize a spectrum of mechanics to achieve this.”
For Gamblit, 100 percent of its business is skill/chance hybrid games. It launched its first games on the Model G game machine about a year ago into one property in Las Vegas and to date, it is in 18 properties in Nevada, California, Oklahoma and a few cruise ships. The company’s second gaming machine, the TriStation, is currently in field trial in Nevada, and Gamblit hopes to bring that to the rest of the casino market in short order.
The TriStation presently provides five separate games accessible from a multi-game lobby. The game genres range from match three games to exciting endless runner games. “We’re bringing massive hit titles from the video game world, like Cut the Rope which has over a billion mobile downloads, Pac-Man and Deal or No Deal to the casino floor by adding a wagering experience into a traditional video game customers already know and love,” said Yoder. “This is unlike anything else on the floor, and so far customers are loving the Gamblit versions of mobile hit games like Into The Dead and Catapult King, as well as our own original titles.”
The Model G is a multiplayer experience for two-four players. In terms of games, the company has its own internal game studio which produces new original games for both the Model G and TriStation machines. Gamblit’s publishing team works heavily with third-party game studios such as Bandai Namco, Halfbrick, PikPok and Wicked Witch to gamblify some of the world’s most popular mobile games.
“We are proud to be working with Caesars, MGM, Station Casinos, Sands, Choctaw Durant, Downstream Quapaw, Route 66 and Carnival Cruise lines, with many more to be announced soon,” Yoder said.
Everi has a long-standing tradition of enhancing its TournEvent (TE) out-of-revenue games with interactive and skill-based elements.
In 2011, Everi launched a series of TE games with the Pop-N-Win bonus. This featured balloons which appear randomly on screen for players to pop for additional points while simultaneously hitting the play button to keep those reels spinning. This new skill-based feature set TE apart from other tournament systems and propelled it as one of the most popular systems on casino floors. Fast forward to present day, the popular Electric Diamond TE game utilizes Pop Frenzy, a bonus feature that challenges players to pop as many balloons as they can in a certain time frame for even more points. Everi took it even further in 2017 and made its first dive into the completely skill-based game based off of the popular mobile app Fruit Ninja.
TournEvent currently has 20 skill-based games in its portfolio across almost 400 TE placements. With the newest installment, Fruit Ninja, Everi’s goal is to leverage the existing footprint of TE to provide an avenue for the company to install Fruit Ninja in many locations across North America. The company also hopes to cross promote using the in-revenue non-skill based version, Fruit Ninja Juicy Jackpots, which is available on the recently launched Empire 5527 cabinet. This will allow players to potentially play in advance of the skill-based version being installed and further brand awareness for the Fruit Ninja suite of products, building excitement within the casino and leveraging casino marketing teams to want to make the shift to the latest TournEvent 5.0 system.
Everi is integrating the elements of skill into its games with its TournEvent skill-based bonus features such as:
- Pop-N-Win: At any point during TE play, a balloon or target may appear over or below the reels. Touch the balloon or target in the allotted three seconds, before it disappears. Once the balloon or target is popped, players will be awarded an extra 1,000 – 5,000 bonus points, which will be added to their total TE score.
- Jump to First: At any point during TE play, The Money Man may appear as a target. Players will have three seconds to touch him on the screen. If touched in time, the player’s score will immediately move to first place.
- 4 Reel Frenzy: A unique bonus that allows a player to play up to four sets of reels at one time. Players start off with one set of reels, then during the tournament bomb targets will appear, if the player touches with in the set time limit the game will temporarily give the player four sets of reels to play increasing their chance to win additional points. This bonus is frequent and can be received at any point during tournament.
- Reel Frenzy: In the Reel Frenzy bonus, a pink diamond balloon appears over the reels for five seconds. Once touched, the Reel Frenzy timer is set to 10 seconds. The reels will spin at a faster rate, in addition to other balloons appearing on the screen, including the Pop Frenzy green diamond balloon.
- Pop Frenzy: In the Pop Frenzy bonus, a green diamond balloon appears over the reels for five seconds. Once touched, the Pop Frenzy timer is set to 10 seconds. Balloons will appear and can be popped for additional points. As each smaller balloon is touched, another balloon will appear on the screen awarding up to 2,500 points per balloon.
Everi is continuously evaluating technologies that could be implemented into any next generation versions of skill-based slot games.