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A Seat at the Bar

Bar-top machines see a new surge of innovation amid increasing competition

A Seat at the Bar

As gaming industry news goes, lost somewhere in the turmoil of casino shutdowns and reopenings and restrictions last year was a monumental event—the rollout of the PeakBarTop by IGT, the first of a new generation of bar-top gaming machines, and a complete modernization and improvement on IGT units that have been dominant in casino bars for decades.

For years, most players sitting down at bar-top gaming machines have been in front of IGT Game King and Super Star Poker game themes, on the standard G20, 80960 or other IGT legacy cabinets. Last year’s launch of the PeakBarTop was the result of intense research into how to improve the basic bar-top platform.

A curved monitor was implemented to get rid of the glare from overhead bar lighting that is all too familiar to video poker players. Everything from the player’s viewing angle to the positioning of the button panel and bill acceptor was examined. Modern conveniences like a wireless smartphone charger were added.

The PeakBarTop is a major overhaul of the bar-top machine from the dominant manufacturer in the sector. But the milestone status of the product launch was overshadowed by the Covid-19 crisis.

With the pandemic finally receding, and pent-up demand quickly filling casinos, IGT is resuming its rollout of the PeakBarTop. The rollout comes amid growing competition in the bar-top space. As casinos began reopening last year, Aristocrat resumed marketing its own bar-top unit, the multi-game Winners World. A big selling point is that the game menu—at the bar, traditionally the sole purview of video poker and keno—includes multiple versions of the multiline video slot Buffalo, consistently the highest-earning slot game in the industry.

While the other top-three slot supplier, Scientific Games, is still considering whether and when to develop a bar-top unit, the game format may be seeing one other growth area—electronic table games. Interblock is including its own bar-top, called the StarBar, in multiple different configurations of its ETGs, including RNG-based units at casino bars and live-dealer versions included as part of one of the Interblock stadium configurations, or in the Pulse Arena club-style ETG attraction.

Competition is healthy, but at IGT, engineers have remained focused on feedback from current customers to make sure the PeakBarTop addresses all their needs. “We appreciate any competition that comes into the space, but we are going to concentrate on making sure we continue to have the right product for our players and for our customers,” says Darnell Johnson, IGT’s senior director of product management and commercialization.

“We truly want to make the bar-top the best product for our customers going forward. So far, we’ve done an admirable job at that. We launched the PeakBarTop during the Covid period, so it had a little bit longer of a ramp-up time, but it’s achieved strong adoption and positive feedback from our customers up to this point.”

Meanwhile, Aristocrat—which also launched its bar-top just before the pandemic in January 2020—introduced the latest version of its bar-top software, Winners World 2.0, in California the week of June 28.

“There is a big excitement behind this latest version, with all the new technology and game additions to Winners World 2.0,” says Sony Syamala, vice president of commercial strategy and game sales for Aristocrat. “We leverage our biggest brands, and mechanics that Aristocrat has been so successful at in the industry, to make this game pack the most exciting one yet.”

Interblock, which is in the middle of a huge sales surge in all its ETG groups, is increasingly adding its bar-tops to its most popular ETG setups.

“We’ve had some incredible success tying that type of product to our stadiums, where there’s an integration between a bar-top and a stadium environment,” says Interblock Global CEO John Connelly.

Legendary Follow-Up

Aristocrat’s Winners World 2.0 features 48 poker games, 14 keno games, 10 slot games and one double-deck video blackjack game

For IGT, developing the company’s first new bar-top in 14 years—not to mention marketing it during a pandemic—was a tall task, given the fact that players across the country have come to know the company’s legacy models as the accepted standard.

“The industry has been faithful to the G20 and 80960 bar-tops for quite some time,” says Johnson. “But we believe this new PeakBarTop addresses a lot of the wants and needs of the buyers out there right now.”

He says many of the innovations in the PeakBarTop are the same advancements as seen on the parade of new cabinets on the main slot floor. “A lot of new features that we truly did borrow from the core video and mechanical reel world have been very well received by players and operators,” he says.

“The curved screen was one of the big things we brought over. The curved screen has the ability to address and absorb some of the natural glare you see on the bar based on the lighting and positioning it had, either in a bar or the casino area. It really disburses the light so it’s not blasting right back in the player’s eyes.”

The screen also is larger, 23 inches, compared to 20 inches on the legacy screen. “The old saying that bigger is always better isn’t always the case, but in this case with the bar-top, it seems to be resonating well with our players, and thankfully, we were able to do it without having to change the footprint of the existing bar (unit). So the operators really appreciated that as well, because they didn’t have to make any modifications.”

Other features resonating with players are the cellphone charge port, allowing players to charge their phones as they play. For operators, a feature just being rolled out is a play-level indicator that gives bartenders a simple signal of when customer play has reached a predetermined threshold that allows for complimentary drinks.

“A lot of insights we got from our customers and bartenders

really spoke to the fact that they do have some real challenges in figuring out how to properly comp players,” Johnson says. “So, what we are looking to do is to make their lives a little bit easier. The first thing that we’re doing right now is giving them more means to understand how much play is taking place on that machine, and in a very simple matter notify them that they’ve hit certain thresholds that lead to comps. If they hit those thresholds, they have the ability to make a choice of how they want to compensate that player.”

Johnson says the launch of PeakBarTop does not mean a pending phase-out of the company’s legacy bar-top units, which remain popular. “They just last forever, which is a fantastic thing, and we definitely have the expectation that the PeakBarTop will do the same,” he says. “But we continue to support that cabinet from a content perspective. We’re making it so that a lot of content that we create now can still be ported onto that particular box.”

More Player Choice

“The question is how you get those people to understand that the bar-top, which they’ve been groomed to view as a poker product for decades, now offers something else—and to really cater to the next generation of players.” —John Connelly, CEO, Interblock

The PeakBarTop also is offering more diverse content than previous versions—namely, slot content. “We continue to evolve the offering that we have,” Johnson says. “Slot content is extremely popular in the casino world today. A lot of players who sit at the bar are players who like to play slot content, so it makes sense for us to leverage some of our most popular slot content onto our bar-top.”

Aristocrat has made slot content one of the main marketing points of its new Winners World bar-top. In addition to the familiar games in the original Buffalo franchise that consistently draw players to Aristocrat games on the main slot floor, for the 2.0 version of its bar-top, the company has applied the Buffalo brand to one of the bar mainstays, video keno.

“A new addition to the Buffalo family, Buffalo Herd Keno—single and four-card—will be a rock star in this multi-game suite,” says Syamala, who adds that perhaps Aristocrat’s most important slot game mechanic, the Hold & Spin feature, is being brought to bar-top keno in the form of the new game XTRA $$$$ Keno.

These games join a total of 73 game choices in the game pack for Winners World 2.0, which can be integrated into existing bar-top units with no hardware changes.

“In the video slots section, we added Gold Stacks 88 Dancing Foo and Mighty Cash Dragon Flies (Hold & Spin),” Syamala says. “This Winners World 2.0 software suite has games that will appeal to a broad array of players. We have a total of 48 video poker games in this new suite. The most significant additions are five-hand and 10-hand variations of the popular poker games. We have also added stand-alone and single-site progressives to the majority of our poker games.”

In all, Winners World 2.0 features 48 poker games, 14 keno games, 10 slot games and one double-deck video blackjack game.

Aristocrat engineers, like those at IGT, took special care in making the Winners World unit ergonomically friendly with a large, easy-to-view monitor and special attention to button spacing and feel “meticulously developed to present a familiar interface,” says Syamala. Other modern features include the now-standard cellphone charger and a “Bar Keeper” button to alert the bartender when a player has earned rewards for play.

For the operator, the Winners World bar-top cabinet is designed to fit into existing bar opening/holes, “so operators have a straightforward effort to install should they invest in the Aristocrat bar-top,” Syamala notes. The cabinet also is designed for easy serviceability, with a button deck that can be replaced in a few minutes, easy access and curved corners for easy cleaning.

The ETG Connection

While electronic table games never were traditionally pegged for bar-top applications, Interblock has found them to fit quite nicely into stadium setups like the R Bar attractions at Cordish Companies’ Live! casinos, which arrange dealer-assisted ETGs including bar-tops in front of a 40-foot-long video screen.

According to Connelly, the bar-tops also are being used in the Pulse Arena ETG/nightclub attractions. RNG-based electronic table games also are being placed in bar-tops away from the live-dealer areas. The Interblock unit, called the StarBar, is being placed in multiple international jurisdictions.

“We started the initiative to create a bar-top about four years ago,” says Connelly. “The concept was to take the traditional poker bar-top concept and expand it into more of a table game portfolio. I believe very strongly that there is a much larger demographic nationally relative to traditional table games than there is for poker at a bar-top.

“The question is how you get those people to understand that the bar-top, which they’ve been groomed to view as a poker product for decades, now offers something else—and to really cater to the next generation of players. We launched the product, we learned a lot from it, and we’ve had some incredible success tying that type of product to our stadiums, where there’s an integration between a bar-top and a stadium environment. It really connects the players from a bar to that type of distribution.”

The R Bar installations have been well-received as well. “At Maryland Live!, the numbers are crazy,” says Connelly. “They doubled the amount of bar-tops and the net win per day, and that didn’t drop when they went from 16 to 32 units.”

Connelly says Interblock is planning a next generation of its StarBar product, including a wider selection of games, but its perfection will come once the company has successfully addressed the “hyper-growth” of its overall stadium and Pulse Arena offerings. “We’ve signed over 21 stadiums since January in Downtown Las Vegas and on the Strip,” he says.

Meeting the Demand

As customers continue to give feedback to the manufacturers, the evolution of the bar-top will continue. At IGT, Johnson says they are evaluating whether to incorporate their own ETG portfolio into the PeakBarTop, but one feature already rolling out is the incorporation of a sports betting function—an addition it introduced at G2E 2019.

“We had our sports betting team showcase making wagers at the bar through the bar-top, utilizing our Service Window technology,” Johnson says. “That’s definitely something we’re trying to leverage. IGT is in a position that it’s fortunate to be in multiple different verticals, and we want to make sure that we can support those, so we can continue to be an all-encompassing solutions provider.

“There is definitely more we’re going to be doing over the next several months and years to continue to evolve the (sports betting feature). A lot of that is going to be in coordination with feedback we get from operators. That’s a big feature that a lot of operators were really happy to see introduced when we released it at G2E, and now that we’re starting to roll it out, we’re hearing a lot of positive feedback about that as well.”

IGT and the other manufacturers will continue to evolve the bar-top—although few see the kind of rapid dynamics typically seen in general slot-floor hardware. “We don’t believe our bar-top is going to flow the same way some of our floor cabinets do when it comes to evolution from a hardware perspective,” Johnson says. “We just don’t see the same type of need or desire because of how the floor market is leveraged. However, if that’s something that players and operators are looking for, we’re more than willing to support that need and that desire.”

Functionality like cashless technology is likely to be more rapid than hardware, Johnson says. “We were able to partner with our Systems Development team to ensure our cardless and cashless solutions would work well and function properly on our bar-top products and cabinets.”

As far as the bar-top competition, suppliers are seeing the overall pie get larger with industry developments such as expansion of distributed gaming markets throughout the U.S.

“We expect continued demand for bar-tops as the combination of gaming and the direct interaction/contact with the bartender creates a unique experience for the player,” says Aristocrat’s Syamala. “Additionally, several distributed markets are already looking to expand the game offerings on bar-top instead of having the machines tucked away in the corners of their venues.”

“There is demand across the industry,” says Interblock’s Connelly, “whether it be distributed gaming or a casino environment, for a new generation of bar-tops.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.