Electronics are taking traditional table games to new heights—and creating a new game genre for North America

They call it “Synergy Table Games,” and it paints a picture of one of the hottest trends on today’s gaming floors.

Synergy is a unique attraction on the floor of Greektown Casino-Hotel in Detroit. It is a customized version of Pulse Arena, a product developed by Slovenia-based Interblock Luxury Gaming Products—marketed by its U.S. subsidiary Interblock USA—that has all but redefined the potential of the electronic table game, or ETG.

First introduced at the 2015 Global Gaming Expo, the Pulse Arena takes the hybrid “dealer-assisted” game—a live dealer on a central table, with video of the game beamed to potentially hundreds of individual electronic player stations—and transforms it into a multimedia nightclub experience. Live DJs, giant video displays and pulsing dace lighting surround both dealer-assisted and fully automated versions of several different table games.

The Pulse Arena has been drawing new players to the casino floor—many of the coveted millennial demographic, which generally prefers table games to slots and is drawn to the nightclub atmosphere. However, the company reports that players of all ages are drawn to Pulse Arena, if only because of the unique presentation of time-tested games.

“For decades, operators and suppliers have been discussing what new killer applications will drive incremental growth to the casino floor,” says Interblock CEO John Connelly. “The Pulse Arena has demonstrated it is the perfect solution. We’re finding that is it not only attracting new players, but it is pulling in existing players who are ready for an exciting new experience.”

Greektown owner JACK Entertainment was one of the operators on board early with the Pulse Arena, and enlisted Interblock to work on a version custom-made for its Greektown Casino-Hotel in Detroit. Greektown officials and Interblock developers worked on the project together, and on November 18, 2016, unveiled the Interblock-powered Synergy Table Games.

Located on the upper level of Greektown Casino, Synergy features automated, video and live-dealer generators for four different game options: blackjack, roulette, craps and baccarat. It boasts 48 connected play stations with 27-inch video display screens and multi-game capability, all situated in a space reminiscent of a stadium. A massive video wall displays each game’s progress and statistics. Players have the option to play socially with friends while messaging one another from their electronic play stations, or they can enjoy a solo electronic table game experience.

“Synergy is an industry game-changer,” says Jason Gregorec, chief executive officer and general manager of Greektown Casino-Hotel. “We were the first casino to combine Interblock’s electronic table games technology with live dealers for a brand new gaming experience. Our guests love this. We are seeing our loyalty club members spending more time playing, and we are seeing an increase of new club members.”

 

ETG Era

Interblock’s Pulse Arena is the latest creation in a game genre that has been on fire for the past few years, particularly in the Americas. Electronic table games have their roots in the late 1990s, when Interblock and another pioneering European supplier, Novomatic Group, almost simultaneously launched a new style of casino product—a completely automated electronic roulette game.

First introduced at the ICE trade show in 1997, Interblock’s Princess and Novomatic’s TouchBet roulette products, for the first time, placed several players around a central automated roulette wheel, each player at a slot-like betting terminal.

Throughout the ensuing decade, the genre grew, particularly in space-challenged casinos throughout Europe. Interblock, Novomatic and other suppliers constantly worked on improving the genre.

The rise of the Macau gaming market in the early 2000s led to the popularity of stadium-style setups, which extended the potential play stations beyond strict table-game capacity limits. A single table game could now be extended to hundreds of players.

Meanwhile, pioneers of the genre continued to refine the product model. Interblock penetrated new markets with its modular Organic series of ETGs—stylish black units that fit together to allow operators to configure their own electronic pits. The ETG game library grew to include both fully automated and dealer-assist versions of virtually every table game in the pit.

Interblock’s standard Arena ETG setup and its Pulse Arena are both operator-configurable as far as number of games and the design of the customized stadium. Interblock arena systems offer “dynamic settings,” which allow operators to switch seamlessly among a variety of gambling-enhancing themes to attract and target specific demographics based on the time of day, or day of the week. With the press of a button, the Arena can be transformed from a high-energy, club-like “party environment,” which may be appropriate for a Friday or Saturday night, to a much smoother “VIP setting” that features soft lights and low music designed to target core gamblers who play early in the day, or on the weekdays.

The Arena can even be themed as an educational environment to teach beginning players about the product, allowing them to feel more comfortable in the space.

As Interblock developed its expertise in the ETG space, so did the other supplier that launched those first automated roulette games in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, Novomatic Novo Multi-Roulette and Novo TouchBet Live-Roulette installations numbered more than 2,000 terminals operating in casinos around the world.

Before long, it would be joined by Novo Unity II, Novo TouchBet Live-Roulette (semi-automated), Novo Multi-Roulette (automatic mechanical wheel) and Novo Flying Roulette—the products that fuel Novomatic’s ETG business today.

Major suppliers of both slot machines and table games have joined the original pioneers in what is perhaps the hottest growth area in gaming supply. And all agree that the success of electronic table games in Europe and Asia has led to a worldwide surge in electronic table games as a casino offering.

“There has obviously been a surge from a global perspective,” says Steph Nel, general manager for the Americas at London-based table-game supplier TCSJohnHuxley. “Having worked closely with Novomatic to introduce and distribute the first electronic roulette systems (TouchBet Roulette), we have a long history of suppling ETGs to casinos all over the world. We decided three years ago that we wanted to develop and produce our own ETG product in-house, and launched our Qorex Electronic Gaming Solutions (the company refers to the product as an “EGT,” for electronic gaming terminal) at G2E last year.”

Other suppliers have similar stories. “ETG games are up globally,” says Tom O’Brien, senior vice president of sales, electronic table systems, for Scientific Games. “For the ETG sector, we’re probably up to around one-third of the market share, just in North America alone.”

“The IGT customers in all parts of the world continue to express interest in our ETG offering,” says Matteo Carli, senior vice president of product marketing for IGT. “When we completed installation of the 150 ETG units at Sands Bethlehem (in Pennsylvania) last spring, we sent a strong message to the industry, that IGT is committed to this space.”

“The level of interest in the past six months for ETGs in North America has been exciting,” says Kathleen McLaughlin, head of marketing for North America at Novomatic Americas. “People want new ways to spend their gambling entertainment dollars. They are constantly seeking new experiences and new products. It is currently the perfect storm for the ETG segment.”

 

Worldwide Surge

Suppliers are meeting new markets with a flood of new ETG products. As with slots and traditional table games, each supplier brings its own set of specialties to the marketplace.

Scientific Games has been in the ETG business since the former Bally Technologies acquired Shuffle Master in 2013. Shuffle Master had blazed trails in the U.S. for automated table games with its Table Master series of table games, multi-player units in front of a video dealer which gained popularity in Indian casinos in Arizona and other markets that did not allow traditional table games. Table Master games were a staple of Pennsylvania casinos for the five years before table games were authorized by the state.

The Table Master series evolved into what is today the Fusion series of ETGs, new technology developed by Scientific Games with complete access to the Shuffle Master library of proprietary table games and other intellectual property.

“Fusion’s come a long way,” says O’Brien. “We offer pretty much all games, from Ultimate Texas Hold’em to baccarat, fully automated roulette and virtual roulette. We just came out with Stadium Blackjack, which is phenomenal. It’s going very well for us. And that’s all part of the Fusion series.”

Popular Shuffle Master titles like Let It Ride, Mississippi Stud and Ultimate Texas Hold’em are holdovers in Fusion from the Table Master days. The company recently added the themed Playboy Bonus Blackjack, drawing on a Bally title from Scientific Games’ slot division.

“Table Master was a super product that held its own for years,” O’Brien comments. “We went with bigger screens, going from a 73-inch screen to a 75-inch, 4K big screen, as well as a new 22-inch wide-screen cabinet. We added more side bets and more games to it. We added more signage. When we put the Fusion terminals into the Table Master product, business doubled for us.”

Fusion has won big contracts for Scientific Games, including the Resorts World New York property. This is added to longtime customers like California’s Barona Casino. “We started out, believe it or not, at Barona Casino probably 10 years ago,” O’Brien says. “It’s a stadium-style setup. They’ve got 44 of our units there, working well for years, and we’re currently in the process of adding more. We took out the old product and put in the new Fusion product. Since then, we’ve offered roulette and Stadium Blackjack in that product. We’ve also been able to take Fusion to West Virginia, Ohio and Las Vegas, where we’re in the Venetian with 44 seats of Stadium Blackjack.”

O’Brien adds that Scientific Games ETGs are also still present in casinos across Pennsylvania, where the company is preparing to install additional units at Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.

O’Brien says the ETG model also is being folded into PRIZM, Scientific Games’ four-player video gaming table. “The screen is 4K, with 100 different touch points on it,” O’Brien explains. “We’re starting off with Lightning Launch Roulette, which will debut in Q4 of this year.” He says the game adds a couple of twists to roulette, like allowing people to bet on the other players in the game. “When they’re all releasing the ball at the same time, based on where they land, players can win progressive amounts,” he says.

 

Keystone Stadium

Pennsylvania’s Sands Bethlehem property is the site of an ETG milestone, courtesy of IGT. In mid-2016, Sands became the first property in the East with stadium-style ETGs, when it opened the largest live-dealer stadium in the U.S. The Live Dealer Stadium Gaming attraction at Sands offers dealer-assisted ETGs in the form of 150 terminals offering roulette and baccarat.

For the Sands, it was a nod to the casino’s substantial Asian clientele from New York City, who have made it the most profitable table-game casino in the state. Stadium-style ETGs are familiar to them because of their popularity in Asia.

The games are from IGT’s Dynasty series, the company’s first ETG game series developed based on a patent and license assignment agreement with Paradise Entertainment, a leader in ETG sales in Macau, where it operates as LT Games. “That agreement enables IGT to develop a portfolio of successful ETG intellectual properties and patents, in markets around the world, excluding Macau,” explains Carli.

“IGT’s entry into the ETG space has enabled the company to be a total solution provider for our customers. In the time since we entered the segment, we have augmented, refined and enhanced our ETG offering.

“Additionally, we have partnered with our internal PlaySpot development team, to deliver an ETG solution that seamlessly integrates with our award-winning PlaySpot mobile technology. PlaySpot players can enjoy live or electronic table games from their mobile devices, from any location within a casino.”

Carli says feedback from recent trade shows, from G2E and G2E Asia to Ice Totally Gaming and the NIGA show, has been overwhelmingly positive, and the rollout of the Dynasty product has landed units in Pennsylvania, Nevada and California.

“Dynasty ETGs’ strongest differentiator is the ability to accommodate as many live outcomes as an operator wishes, in a concurrent session,” Carli says. “It is an attractive feature to operators, because it empowers them to be in control of their casino floor, and optimize their patrons’ rate of play.”

Carli says IGT will continue to apply its substantial R&D resources to developing products in the ETG space.

“IGT is certainly committed to our ETG product offering,” he says. “We apply our industry-leading R&D measurements to ensure that we are developing unique, relevant products that are resonating with players, and help our customers achieve their desired objectives. We’ll soon be launching our new blackjack game, and further side bet products.

“Through player and customer service, gaming trade shows around the world, and our regular cadence of customer interactions, I believe IGT’s ETG product strategy is aligned with our customers and their needs.”

 

Natural Transition

TCSJohnHuxley has been a leading worldwide supplier of table games for decades, and was instrumental in establishing the first ETGs through its global distribution network, so moving into the ETG segment with their own product was a natural. “The ETG market is such a vast market, but we’ve had a lot of experience and gained a great deal of knowledge regarding what works and what doesn’t,” Nel says. “As we are a privately owned and operated family business, we are nimble when it comes to the development of certain products to meet a casino’s needs. Also, if you look at our Gaming Floor Live platform and the way our products connect to the system, a Qorex terminal is not just an EGT; it’s a powerful terminal.”

TCSJohnHuxley’s Qorex product and EGTs represent its first fully owned and developed electronic table games. “Qorex is our in-house-developed electronic table game product, which we designed and built from the ground up in little over two years—a major achievement for a product like this,” says Nel. “Our product is extremely flexible and can be configured to fit any gaming environment. With three operating modes, you can either have it playing off a live table, an automated roulette wheel, or via a podium in a stadium-style setup, which you see in different parts of the world.”

Nel says Qorex is the result of an intense R&D effort at TCSJohnHuxley.

“A lot of passion has gone into developing this product. And although we are known for our live gaming products, this is just the next step in the evolution of TCSJohnHuxley.”

In addition to the standard table games roulette and baccarat, Qorex includes an entirely unique baccarat derivative called Game Ball, which the company launched at G2E Asia this year. Nel says the company is developing additional games for the Qorex system, in both dealer-assist and automated versions.

The Qorex product runs on the TCSJohnHuxley Gaming Floor Live platform, a software system that draws real-time data from table games on the floor to allow operators to optimize revenue from the pit. “Gaming Floor Live is our essential platform,” Nel says. “Everything we manufacture now connects to GFL, allowing even our proprietary products such as wheels and displays to communicate with each other, to provide information that can be utilized and controlled from the central GFL server.”

Nel says TCSJohnHuxley is ready to pursue the U.S. market, not only in Nevada but in all other jurisdictions. “We are currently undergoing approval, and as soon as that process is completed, we’ll hit the ground running, as we’ve had a lot of interest in Qorex,” he says.

 

Novo Marches On

Novomatic, meanwhile, has continued its own product development, launching the NovoStar SR1 product line, already a big success in Europe, in North America.

“Novomatic Americas quietly launched the Executive SL cabinet in North America, which significantly heightens the electronic table games experience,” McLaughlin says. “The box is incredibly designed and gorgeous. Sexy. This leading-edge terminal can be displayed with virtual ‘Flying’ versions of Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat, Sic Bo and Poker 3.

“We offer dealer-operated Novo TouchBet Live-Roulette, together with automated Novo Multi-Roulette and Novo Flying Roulette, as well as baccarat and blackjack games, sic bo and slots, custom-designed and connected on the terminals to demonstrate Simultaneous Betting functionality.”

“The level of interest in our ETG business for the U.S. has been exciting,” says Rick Meitzler, president and CEO for North America at Novomatic. “Novomatic has experienced success with the NovoStar S1 product line outside of the U.S., and we are leveraging that experience, data and design here in North America.”

McLaughlin notes that Novomatic has been in a unique position throughout the evolution of ETGs, because the company operates casinos as well as supplying them. “Novomatic has been focused on anticipating and enhancing player experience globally because they are also operators,” McLaughlin says. “They design products for their own players. They understand players’ expectations and are continually looking to anticipate the ‘what’s next’ to expand the player entertainment expectation.”

 

On to America

All suppliers agree that the surge in ETG sales in the near future will be in North America. “Within North and South America, the ETG segment has only in recent years become a focal point for both suppliers and operators,” says Interblock’s Connelly.

“Taking into consideration that less than 1 percent of the North American casino sector is composed of ETGs, we expect this momentum to continue.”

“North America is an immense territory on its own,” says TCSJohnHuxley’s Nel. “So, due to that, there are a lot more people moving from other territories—a lot of Asian players moving out of Asia into the Americas. And they bring certain playing styles they are used to in that market and would like to see in the different markets.”

Nel and other suppliers agree that ETGs in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Americas are drawing not only new players including the millennial generation, but players of all ages seeking something different on the floor, or seeking a way to move from the slot floor to the pit without the intimidation of learning on a live game.

“There are new players coming into casinos that like to try different ways of playing,” Nel says. “Sometimes a live table can be intimidating, especially if you look at different games like baccarat or roulette, which might seem easy to someone used to being in casinos, but for a complete novice player, you’d rather sit and figure it out on your own before you join an actual live table with seven or eight people.”

He says this makes for a good mix of new and existing players contributing to the newfound ETG popularity. “There are new players, but traditional players also,” Nel says. “Outside of Asia, you don’t really find just a table player. You’ll find a table player that also plays slots, so they are used to electronics. That table player may migrate to an ETG. Alternatively, their favorite table may be too full, so they may as well go to the ETG, which is effectively a live table game anyway, as it’s linked to a live wheel.”

IGT’s Carli agrees that ETGs are attracting far more than just the millennials. “Some of our customers view ETG as one genre for attracting younger and expanded demographics of players to casino floors, but ETGs are often viewed as a less intimidating environment than traditional live tables, offering a more private experience and eliminating the peer pressure element—and often played at a lower price point.”

“These are exciting times,” says TCSJohnHuxley’s Nel. “Although the casino industry is quite traditional in lots of ways, the rapid pace that technology is moving is enabling us to make our ideas a reality. The sky really is the limit.”

“I believe that we’ll see continued innovation and experimentation in this space,” says Carli, “with operators designing more themed ETG environments—that include more elaborate signage packages, for example—similar to what you would see in Macau.”

Scientific Games’ O’Brien says the ETG genre in the U.S. is still in its infancy. “I think it’s still immature; they’ve taken so long to catch on,” he says. “But we’re getting there now. We’re starting to see how well ETGs are being received across the U.S., for us as well as our competitors.”

“Electronic table games such as Interblock’s Pulse Arena technology have become the place where all the different segments of the market come together,” says Connelly at Interblock.

“Based on current trends and performance, we can easily see 10 percent to 15 percent of every casino floor sustaining a form of electronic table games in North and South America.

“ETGs are moving into the mainstream, and casinos are featuring them more prominently on their gaming floors. For Interblock and its customers, ETGs are a bridge to the future of gaming.”

Frank Legato

Author: Frank Legato

Frank Legato is editor of Casino Connection and also 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 recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.