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Age of the ETG

Electronic table games have grown from simple automated roulette machines into a genre that is steeped in innovation.

Age of the ETG

All things considered, this is the golden age of the electronic table game.

According to Verified Market Research, the global ETG market, valued at $1.8 billion before Covid hit in 2020, is projected to reach $3.3 billion by 2028. Some of the largest slot manufacturers now have ETG product libraries, and new competitors are entering the market.

New players are discovering the ETG genre for a variety of reasons, from privacy to learn table games without the intimidation of the live pit to lower minimums, to ergonomically friendly cabinets and 4K monitors offering the ability to play four roulette rolls or baccarat hands at once.

That the ETG genre is constantly being reinvented belies the fact that the genre has only existed for 25 years, having been pioneered by the very company those big slot-makers and newcomers have been chasing, Interblock Gaming.

Innovation in the ETG space traces back to the creation of the genre in the late 1990s in Slovenia, when Interblock founder Joc Pečečnik invented what is regarded by many as the first ETG, an electro-mechanical roulette game, which placed player stations around a central automated physical roulette wheel. The wheel was surrounded by a polished wood cabinet, so that it looked almost like a piece of furniture.

John Connelly, Interblock’s global CEO, notes that Interblock’s first auto-roulette game was built in a back room at the house of Pečečnik’s high school friend. “As the story goes, when they were done and attempted to move it out of the house, it wouldn’t fit—they had to disassemble it and then get it up to London for the (ICE) trade show. The rest is history.”

Automated roulette was a hit in Europe, where smaller casinos used the units to offer the popular table game without having to fit a live table into limited space, or pay the labor costs to run a live wheel. By the early 2000s, Slovenia was the epicenter of automated roulette, with several homegrown Slovenian manufacturers edging in to compete with Interblock.

By then, though, Interblock was already working on a reinvention of the auto-roulette market into what would eventually become today’s ETG genre. Interblock’s R&D during the 2000s resulted in the 2009 launch of the Organic Roulette line. The multi-game setups surrounded a domed wheel with comfortable, slot-like player stations that fit well into casinos. The RNG-based wheel spin greatly speeded up the game, and the technology behind it allowed for Interblock to produce a lot of the games quickly.

“Back then, the mechanical roulette was very innovative, obviously, but the technology, and the method by which it was made, was not conducive to mass production,” Connelly says. “So, they had to redesign it. The Organic product line was much more conducive to the mass Class III casino market.”

It was also sturdy enough to withstand 24-hour casino action. “It was built for longevity,” says Connelly. “We still have Organic products in the field around the world today, still producing, although we end-of-lifed the product around 2020.”

The Organic line was beloved by players, and in some parts of the world, players are enjoying new versions of the product, built to look and play like the old Organic, but with modern technology. “The new Diamond Platform looks like an Organic, due to the players becoming so accustomed to the look and feel of the product,” Connelly says.

He adds that the Organic line was revolutionary because of the multiple configurations available to casinos—six-seat, eight-seat and 10-seat versions—and because of the speed of play, at one minute, 40 seconds per spin. “We’ve come a long way, but back then a minute, 40 seconds was quite good,” Connelly says.

Early Competition

By the time the Organic was introduced, Interblock had new competition in the ETG space, as U.S. slot and table-game suppliers began to explore the genre. Some of that competition came from Connelly’s former company, Bally Technologies (now Light & Wonder), and from another company that Bally eventually acquired, the former Shuffle Master.

John Connelly

John Connelly

At Bally, Connelly, along with then-head of game development Mike Mitchell, was behind the project that resulted in the launch of V32 Roulette, a single-player, RNG-based video roulette game presented on a then-unheard-of 32-inch portrait monitor. It became one of Bally’s biggest hits of the period.

Meanwhile, Shuffle Master—like Bally, now part of Light & Wonder—launched the Table Master series, with not only roulette, but card games like blackjack, baccarat an Three Card Poker presented in an RNG-based multi-game format. With slot-style play stations in front of a large monitor and a computer-generated video dealer running the game, the entire product comprised a footprint similar to a live table.

Table Master setups were popular in U.S. jurisdictions that permitted slots but not table games. Light & Wonder has retained the Table Master brand, and has evolved the technology offering. “Our TableMaster Quartz offering is still the No 1 blackjack ETG product on the market,” says Victor Blanco, chief technology officer for Light & Wonder. “TableMaster Quartz can be configured as a single game offering with traditional blackjack featuring our market-leading side bets like Royal Match, Kings Bounty and Bet the Set, or as a multi-game offering with up to nine different games, including our hottest title, Roulette X.”

IGT also joined the ETG genre in 2000, with a suite of automated and virtual table products called the M-P Series, out of which the auto-roulette was the most successful. Launched exclusively in the domestic Class III market, it was refined over the years with modular play stations, operator-configurable game speed, and optional large-format LCD results displays.

Luigi Cacciapuoti

Luigi Cacciapuoti

“Over time, (the M-P series) moved in a different direction, to differentiate itself and try to address certain needs through an innovative product,” comments Luigi Cacciapuoti, IGT’s vice president, specialty products and ETG. “IGT launched the M-P Series in the second half of 2000 with a different approach—not as a way to replace the table games, but to offer a different experience.

“And from that product—by the way, still very popular—15-plus years later we moved to the more modern ETG experience.”

The Modern ETG

By the time Connelly took the reins at Interblock in January 2015, the ETG competition was heating up, and innovations soon poured forth from Interblock and others.

The competition yielded the ETG format that exists today. Interblock again led the way, launching radical products like the “Hologram Gaming Lounge,” and a variety of stadium setups, including the Pulse Arena, a combination of ETG stadiums and single-player units in an ultra-lounge design that is customized for each casino.

Newer products featured multiple-game setups and live dealers hosting games for collections of player terminals that could reach into the hundreds.

“In 2015, we were just beginning to understand what an electronic table game was,” says Connelly. “Who plays it? Why do they play it? What is the market potential? From then until now, what we’ve learned is that there is a reason we see vast numbers of slot machines on any given casino floor; there are dozens of different player demographics. You need variety. Table game players are no different; they also need various forms of distribution and variety.”

Competition over the past decade has yielded multiple innovations, not the least of which were the stadium setups. Interblock led the way in the creation of live-dealer games equipped with cameras beaming the action to multiple player stations.

Stadium setups served a variety of needs. In markets like Macau, where physical tables were limited, stadiums served demand that couldn’t be met through live tables. But Connelly notes that the stadiums, and in particular setups like the Pulse Arena, also served the desires of many players for a community gaming environment.

“As a frequent visitor to casinos, I often noticed that my wife and I, or my friends, would go out together, and the minute we walked on the casino floor, we were separated,” Connelly says. “Even if I was with my friends wanting to play blackjack, there were never enough blackjack seats either at a table or together. Casinos floors were, for the most part, designed to be more solitary in nature.

“With this in mind, we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to create a more social area of the floor people would accept? The answer was unmistakable—many people would like to socialize and remain together within casinos. This is where the stadium really resonated and attracted a very different player than you found at a live table game or on a mechanical roulette wheel.”

Since the mid-2010s, Interblock has continued to refine its stadium setups in response to player feedback. “Now, we have love seats in virtually all of our stadiums,” he says, “which allows friends and couples to experience that social aspect, allowing them to sit together.

“We learned that there were different demographics and various ways to distribute a roulette or blackjack game. We just needed to come up with new ways to distribute the same games for different types of players, while trying new methods of distribution.”

Meanwhile, IGT and Light & Wonder have each built up their own ETG product lines, with IGT launching the Dynasty series in 2016 and the former Scientific Games—fresh off its acquisitions of Shuffle Master and WMS Gaming and still five years from its rebirth as Light & Wonder—continued its proprietary brand with TableMaster Fusion, Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Auto Roulette.

The Cutting Edge

All three suppliers are still reinventing their ETG lines. As the competition has increased in the space, the top suppliers continue to innovate.

For Interblock, two more recent innovations are the Smart Pit and the Universal Cabinet.

The Smart Pit is a hybrid system designed to integrate into the live pit. A single dealer can operate two synchronized, color-coded wheels in the Dual Roulette game for the Smart Pit, with automated wagering. Removing physical chips from the equation increases the spins from the traditional 35 to upwards of 120 spins per hour.

The Smart Pit system also includes single-dealer Dual Baccarat, Blackjack Xtreme, and three specialty craps games, all designed to replicate traditional live tables, but without physical chips, and with automated wagering speeding up the game.

Connelly says the Smart Pit was conceived as a way to reconfigure the pit for comfortable live table-game play post-Covid. Removing the cash and chips from the games made them attractive to players who were still skittish to crowd into live tables post-Covid, but Connelly says the increased game speed and player convenience makes the system a long-term solution.

“We really want to be synonymous with table game technology,” Connelly says. “No matter what method of distribution you’re talking about, we need to do something to complement the traditional table game pit.”

Connelly says outside of shufflers, there has been limited innovation within the live pit. “So we came up with the concept of the Smart Pit. We began by innovating a new form of a traditional live table, but utilizing chip-less technology. The minute you remove chips from a table and go to a more automated format, the number of advantages to a casino and a player is substantial. For the first time in history, you can rate players in real time, due to the ability of tracking every single wager. It’s electronic, which then indirectly allows casinos to use their marketing spend emphatically better. We are able to greatly reduce the ability of dealers and players to either have collusion or make mistakes.”

He adds that the Smart Pit addresses ongoing labor shortages in the pit. “One of the biggest challenges the casino operators are facing today is staffing, primarily of craps and roulette. Our ability to utilize fewer dealers on craps—we can go from four to one—is tremendously beneficial to a lot of casinos that are unable to open all of their games concurrently.”

The Smart Pit is now live on the Las Vegas Strip. Connelly estimates that half of the major operators in North America, which have already signed contracts, will be installing Smart Pit systems before the end of summer.

Other new innovations at Interblock include the Universal Cabinet, a single-player setup offering a solitary environment to counter the community environment of the stadiums. Connelly says it’s the fastest-growing product in the company.

And finally, as of last year, Interblock has incorporated the ETG products of the former Aruze Gaming America, and in fact, hired all the engineers formerly employed by Aruze. This adds hits like the fully automated Shoot to Win Craps and the hybrid dealer-operated Roll to Win Craps to Interblock’s lineup.

Light & Wonder has launched its latest ETG stadium setups with Quartz Hybrid, an innovative software product that allows casinos to switch games between live-dealer and ETG mode. This addresses labor concerns with stadium setups—though live dealers can’t be available for all games at all times, the Quartz Hybrid system ensures no play stations will sit idle.

Blanco notes that another benefit of the system is its multi-game setup. “One of the most important advancements (in ETGs) has been connectivity,” he says. “Originally, all ETGs were standalone pods, where a player could only play the game in front of them. Now, thanks to innovations like Quartz Hybrid, all ETG terminals can be configured to offer players multiple game types from a single terminal.

“Most casinos have a stadium or at least an ETG area that can drive retail play, saving the truly live play for higher minimums. Today’s ETGs connect to live tables in the pit (offering an alternative to live dealer play), have progressive jackpots and allow access to data to improve/augment the player experience. In the Northeast, dealer-assisted ETGs are dominant because of the table tax implications. For customers looking for it all, our Quartz Hybrid software offers all our games in both live-dealer mode and RNG mode, so they don’t have to sacrifice game variety when choosing whether to add dealers to their ETG stadiums.”

Blanco says Light & Wonder also is making investments in the artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) space across all its product groups. “As we go deeper with AI technology into ETGs, we will be able to reduce the time of bringing new games to market, improve the realism of our virtual dealers, and gain greater insights into real-time player behaviors and trends.”

IGT, meanwhile, has rebranded its new ETG line as Game Ace, successor to the Dynasty line. “We wanted a new brand name because we spent nearly the last three years completely redesigning our offer,” says Cacciapuoti.

“The key focus was to create the best possible experience for the players. Personally, I don’t believe in creating completely new experiences, because if you look at the past, in the last 30-40 years, there were no real new games, aside from games like Three Card Poker and Pai Gow Poker—very niche, but in the big scheme of things, the most popular table games have stayed the same. Table players, of both live and electronic games, have their game and stick to it. So you need to be respectful of traditional games because changing them too much doesn’t have much success with the players.”

IGT, says Cacciapuoti, has focused instead on improving how players interact with the game. “We launched a new cabinet, the Mesa 4K, because of the ergonomics of the cabinet—positioned so players can see the wheel and follow the game. We focused on renewing the user interface. Now it’s super-responsive. It’s fast. The pace of the game is crafted in a way that is very easy.”

One other strong feature of the Mesa 4K is that its monitors clearly display the full statistics of all in-play tables. “Having access to the statistics is very important, so we honed every aspect of the game through multiple rounds of market research,” Cacciapuoti says. “We made sure we implemented all feedback we got from players and casino operators.”

Cacciapuoti says IGT will be introducing what he says is a major advancement in the stadium ETG offering later this year.

New Players

While the big players in the ETG space have continued to innovate, the Covid-19 crisis created an opportunity for new suppliers to move into the genre. The first was Gaming Arts, which happened to have its unique multi-game Casino Wizard, a single-machine electronic table game with four individual table offerings, ready to ship when Covid hit.

Casino Wizard was precisely the right product at the right time, and flourished after casinos reopened following the crisis, as it took a while for players to comfortably return to live tables. In 2022, the company launched Casino Wizard VIP on the new VertX Grand cabinet. The enhanced version features new side bets and extra games, adding Pai Gow Poker, Super Big 6 Wheel, Swap’Em Poker and Triple Card Poker to the original four selections, most featuring high-hold side bets, special bonuses and/or progressives.

Next, slot supplier Incredible Technologies entered the ETG space in 2022 with roulette and craps multi-player setups in the Grand Crystal series. This year, IT launched the Grand Crystal 2 line, the first ETG series designed exclusively for Class II markets.

Debuted at the recent Indian Gaming Tradeshow. Grand Crystal 2 offers two games—multi-player roulette, bringing all the Class III features of standard ETGs to the Class II market, and the innovative True Pick Fastball, which has a compelling way to pick roulette numbers.

Fastball uses a bingo-style ball blower in place of a physical roulette wheel, allowing all the normal roulette wagers with a super-fast game speed.

Shawn Cassatt, director of product management at IT, comments the product is made for the Class II bingo world. “This is as bingo as bingo gets,” he says. “We want to find if it’s adopted well in these Class II markets, because it speeds up the whole game cycle almost double. So we can literally get about two times as many game decisions per hour as (live) table games.”

Launched recently at Tulalip Resort Casino outside of Seattle, Cassatt says the company plans to expand it to tribal markets across North America.

As for the growth prospects of ETGs, North America offers the most greenspace. In U.S. casinos, ETGs currently make up around 1 percent of the floor, whereas in Europe, they can occupy up to 10 percent of the average floor.

(This excludes New York, where the two slot-only racinos include ETGs on 10 percent of the floor—which may change if they are awarded full downstate casino licenses in the coming years.)

While few are predicting 10 percent, most expect the footprint of ETGs in North America to grow in the coming years.

“Over the next five to 10 years, this area will only get bigger,” says Blanco at Light & Wonder. “We’ll see the adoption rates of ETGs grow as more players embrace the excitement, convenience and expanded connectivity of ETGs, and as operators realize the total benefits that ETGs have for their operation.

“This includes offering multiple games, attracting new players with a fun, youthful experience at a price point that makes sense, and scaling their existing dealer labor across the casino—all of which should lead to major revenue growth in the years to come. We’re excited to see more games replicated on ETGs, as well as a more innovative data approach that enables us to continue to improve the player experience and casino operators to best capitalize on those experiences.”

“I believe that ETGs will be a cornerstone of the gaming floors as ETGs are more and more established,” says IGT’s Cacciapuoti. “The benefit of labor optimization is very important. We have this fully hybrid configuration, where the operator can offer live dealers, automatic and virtual tables at the same time. We can even connect our Mesa 4K terminal to existing traditional tables, allowing live players to bet at the same time as ETG players.

“Solutions like this will help ETGs become more and more popular. I believe that North America is going to see a further increase in the ETG installed base.”

Interblock’s Connelly says it’s the connectivity of ETG systems that will solidify them on casino floors. “Ten years from today, I think we’re going to have a much more integrated gaming environment between online gaming and traditional casinos,” he says, predicting an omnichannel future in which players will move seamlessly between online and live channels.

Connelly also predicts technology like that of Smart Pit will make physical gaming chips obsolete. “My personal feeling is that 10 years from now, traditional table game pits will not exist as we know them today,” he says. “You’re going to wager without chips, you will have the ability to play online and on a casino floor simultaneously.”

Meanwhile, as more players and suppliers enter the ETG space, the genre will continue to evolve.

 

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.