I’ve held a number of different positions in my casino career and have learned a great deal about the industry along the way, but there are still a number of gaps in my gaming education, one such area being the process by which entertainment brands are incorporated into gaming machines and placed on the slot floor. Often I’ve walked by a themed slot machine such as The Walking Dead and wondered what it took to get it on the casino floor—how did that brand became a popular slot title? What are the benefits of working with a brand to enhance gaming floor performance?
In my search for answers, I turned to Russell Binder, founding partner of Striker Entertainment. Striker Entertainment is a full-service global licensing agency dedicated to maximizing licensing opportunities and building brand equity for its clients. Striker represents some of the biggest global entertainment franchises including The Walking Dead, Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Umbrella Academy, Ozark, Good Omens, Creepshow, Trivia Crack and more. Licensing programs created for The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games and Angry Birds move franchises have garnered Striker several Licensing Industry Excellence Awards. The company’s roster of customers currently includes AMC, Universal Cable Productions, Media Rights Capital and several others.
I recently sat with Binder to get his insight on the licensed slot machine trade. What follows are some excerpts from our conversation:
How does a brand get selected by a gaming manufacturer and eventually become a slot machine title?
BINDER: This is a bit of a dance between intellectual property (IP) owners that are excited about the space and want to have their brands translated into physical slots, and slot machine manufacturers that desire to associate with well-known brands properties and personalities that can bring eyeballs and attention to their products on the casino floor. From our experience, there have been a myriad of ways properties ultimately get licensing deals done and games developed. These deals run the spectrum, and can involve highly rated television series such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, classic/evergreen properties such as Betty Boop and Batman, or global celebrity musicians like Michael Jackson and Madonna. There are also lesser-known niche properties that appeal to a specific slot machine manufacturer or development studio—something they are so passionate about that they’re willing to spend 18 to 24 months working on translating that IP into a dynamic gaming experience.
We have done all types of deals where we have represented high-profile IP as well as niche series and motion pictures. The key to a successful partnership is having an IP/property that speaks to the player, combined with a deeply engaging and satisfying gaming mechanic. A great IP with a bad game mechanic will not last and vice versa. There have been plenty of failures that highlight the fact that just the IP or game mechanic alone will not automatically fuel success.
What do you feel are the missed opportunities for casino marketers who may want to take advantage of doing a slot launch at their property utilizing an entertainment brand?
BINDER: As an agency, our point of contact is typically the slot manufacture as opposed to the casino directly. The slot manufacturers have typically been the gatekeepers of that relationship and rely heavily on us as the agent, and our clients (the rights holders) to provide them with all of the relevant information and details that will hopefully influence the casino to bring our titles into their locations.
Under the right set of circumstances, and with the engagement of our client, we would welcome the opportunity to explore unique and fun ways to sync up directly with the casinos to amplify the message that there is one of our games being released on their floor. It benefits all to help market the opportunity and drive mutual benefit, bring more players to the game, and ideally extend the life of the game on the floor by inspiring fan appreciation.
What should casino marketers know about the potential limitations of talent and the brand when considering a slot title?
BINDER: By the time the slot machine is first introduced to the trade, and then made available for distribution/the casino floor, the talent and brand considerations have already been vetted, negotiated and agreed upon. It is standard in just about all contemporary talent deals that the actors reserve their likeness rights when it comes to the promotion or commercialization of select products most often associated with the wagering, sanitary and adult products, alcohol/tobacco and firearms categories. Whereas these reservations are contractually pretty black and white, in some cases the door remains ajar to negotiate specific terms with talent as they pertain to their likeness being used in something like a physical slot machine. Based on what you see on the floor today, there are actors and actresses that are willing to let their likenesses be used, but that use might come with an additional negotiation between the talent’s representation and either the rights holder or the slot machine company.
Is there an appetite for licensors to license their brand to anything other than slot machines within a casino?
BINDER: I anticipate that the door is likely open with most rights holders to explore other products on the floor for licensing consideration as long as it is a positive representation of the brand in question, and that there is a monetization method in place that compels the rights holder to negotiate a deal in said category.
Are there any requests that are off the table with most licensors by casinos? Branded slot tournaments, becoming a casino’s spokesperson, etc.
BINDER: Not that we have come across in our travels. In other words, most licensors tend to be both good marketing partners and reasonable when it comes to opportunities that afford their brand additional positive exposure and financial upside. The trick is that all licensors want and need to be part of that conversation early. Where licensors are going to be most difficult to work with is when their rights aren’t respected—where there are violations that put the license in a less than attractive light, or where licensees are leveraging the brand to their own financial benefit without participations flowing to the right’s holder.
How do you see the entertainment brand licensing partnership evolving?
BINDER: It is clear that bringing well-known entertainment and pop culture brands into the casino experience provides reciprocal benefit to the rights holder, slot machine company and casino owner. The challenge is that when one property ends up shining brightly, it tends to act as a beacon for the rest of the industry, and a lot of content gets licensed that either doesn’t service the slot demographic well or that leans too heavily on the IP and less on experience, which in both cases will be perceived as unsuccesful. The more failures, the more the slot companies pull back on their licensing initiatives… until the next big hit, and then the cycle repeats.
It is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor to license the rights to a property for a slot machine, develop the machine, market the machine, get placement for it, and hope that it has the engagement and retention that will make it a hit. There is no science to what will work and what won’t; but as we stated earlier, strong IP that aligns with the gaming demo tied to competent and innovative game developers will more often than not yield a satisfactory, if not significantly positive, result. The trick is really mining as much user data as possible that can help both the licensor and slot machine company take some of the guesswork out of what might be a hit, and what will not.