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Playing Together

New technology emphasizing "community play" creates camaraderie on the slot floor

Playing Together

One of the characteristics of slot machine play has always been a man-against-machine air of solitude. But that reality may be changing.

One of the side benefits of the upcoming move toward networked, server-based slot floors is that the Ethernet-equipped, digital slot floors will enable all sorts of competitive play. On a fully networked floor, players will be able to enter ongoing tournaments any time. There will be areas where twenty-somethings can get together and play Xbox or PlayStation-style games against each other for money.

What is now known as online poker may even make its way to the slot floor in peer-vs.-peer contests, either in special areas or in floor-wide, on-demand play.

These server-based applications all are being developed based on the understanding that many slot players these days prefer human interaction to the old man-against-machine routine. It’s not an assumption. Several slot manufacturers have already tested the waters of what is called “community” or “communal” slot play, and have thrown substantial R&D dollars behind the creation of multi-player experiences on the formerly solitary slot floor.

The manufacturers breaking the most ground in the community-play area with slot machines are WMS Gaming, International Game Technology and AC Coin & Slot.

Big Events
WMS Gaming introduced its community-play genre with the “Big Event” series, consisting of Monopoly Big Event, Press Your Luck Big Event and, most recently, Bigger Bang Big Event, a version of the classic “Piggy Bankin'” game.

The Big Event games are microcosms of a networked floor-a single bank of slots connected to a dedicated server, with several players participating in a common bonus event. “They are unique in that they combine powerful social brands with a communal bonus round from which all eligible players benefit, as opposed to a communal event that only has meaning for one player,” says Rob Bone, vice president of marketing for WMS Gaming.

During primary game play, coin-in causes a multiplier number to increment on each individual screen. When the server chooses a time to go into the random bonus round, all players on the bank go to the bonus-each with bonus jackpots multiplied at the level achieved during primary game play.

Each of the “Big Event” games has multiple bonus events tailored to the theme-the Monopoly board game, the Press Your Luck TV game show, and the cartoon pig character made famous by Piggy Bankin’. They vary between free spins and second-screen events, all played out on a giant screen above the bank.

The second two Big Event installments each choose from five different bonus games when the server picks the time. The Bigger Bang game is the most outwardly competitive of the bunch, with a comical “pig race” as one of the events and an even more comical “Pig-A-Pult” Olympic-style event as another.

Bone says the ability to earn multipliers in the primary game gives the player an individual experience within the community event. He says the slot-maker will soon expand its Community Play series with other Big Event games, including a poker game and a mechanical reel-spinner. “If you can take the focus off just winning money and focus it more on enjoying the gaming experience, you have many more ways of pleasing the customer,” he says.

“When a gaming experience transcends the extrinsic benefits of just winning money and capitalizes on more intrinsic attributes like camaraderie, social interaction and community play, players tend to develop an affinity and loyalty to that product. We believe we have done this with our first Community Gaming executions, and we think this will bode well for our upcoming debuts in this category.”

Super Spin to eBay
Slot market leader IGT has built one initial game into an entire series of “MP” or multi-player games, including both traditional video slots and electronic versions of table games.

For IGT, it started with the “Super Spin” version of Wheel Of Fortune, a circular bank of nine individual Wheel of Fortune video slots surrounding a giant, horizontal version of the fortune-wheel replica used for the stand-alone version of the game. The wheel on this game looked a lot like the wheel on the actual TV game show Wheel Of Fortune, which made it that much more popular with players.

Last year, IGT released smaller, five-player “Mini Spin” versions of the unit, with banks of five individual slots up against a vertical wheel that disappeared behind the bank. In both cases, players’ individual results are independent of the results on other games in the bank, but the bonus rounds are timed so several players are entering the bonus at any given time. Indicators in front of each machine show each player the bonus amount, based on where the big wheel lands.

Though each player got an individual result, the game still created an air of camaraderie, says Tom O’Brien, IGT’s director of MegaJackpots products. “It created the player interaction we had hoped,” he says, “when everyone saw what everyone else was getting on their spins.”

IGT would soon produce other community play-style games, with more common experiences in the bonus round. “Star Wars,” “Ancient Chinese Secret” and “Imperial Dragon” are each microcosms of server-based gaming, in which several games are linked to a dedicated server.

The “Star Wars” game features a common bonus round in which players on the bank engage in a race. Players make a side bet in the primary game that lets them accumulate points with certain symbols, and then everyone goes into the progressive bonus game at once-it happens every 10 minutes. Eligible players are each assigned a “speeder bike” similar to the one in the Star Wars films, and they race on the overhead screen (and on each individual video screen) for one of the various jackpot levels.

Ancient Chinese Secret and Imperial Dragon both have common bonus rounds in which a main player triggers the bonus and secondary players enter later.

The most spectacular of IGT’s community-play games, though, is surely the latest, “eBay.” The game, based on the famous auction website, features five machines linked to a giant bonus round that plays a free-spin round on five 40-inch video monitors, each representing a reel. Players earn multipliers during primary game play, and everyone enters the bonus at once.

“With everyone sitting close together, there is a lot of interaction,” says O’Brien. “They’re going to see the person next to them is going into the free-spin bonus at a higher multiplier (which will encourage higher coin-in). If the bank is full, every six to eight minutes, you’re going to see a free spin bonus.”

O’Brien says IGT is expanding some of its community-play games this year to add consolation prizes to the mix. “For example, in Indiana Jones, when one person wins one of the progressives in the mystery free spin, everyone would get a consolation prize,” he says.

Common Play, Private Prize
IGT’s Eastern distributor and frequent development partner, New Jersey-based AC Coin & Slot, has been getting into multi-player, community-style slots in a big way of late. The company recently released the multi-player version of its “Bankroll” game, called “Super Bankroll Bonus.”

Super Bankroll Bonus is a follow-up to last year’s “Super Slotto,” a giant, multi-player version of the lottery-style game the company popularized. At last year’s Global Gaming Expo, the company introduced a new multi-player version of “Empire,” the game that simulates King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building toward a bonus zone. This version features a mock building with an individual slot on each side.

According to Jerry Seelig, AC Coin’s executive vice president and general manager, the company takes a different approach to community play than some other slot-makers, emphasizing that prizes are not shared among players. “One of my beliefs in designing video games is that I don’t like to have to share one person’s win with everybody else,” he says. “I believe that if you win, you’re the winner. If people win with you, they’re winners also, but to share a win with somebody who didn’t win isn’t something I like to incorporate in games.”

That doesn’t detract from the shared experience of the bonus round, he adds. “The multi-player format is comfortable, and people get to see you win,” Seelig says. “It plays a lot to the psyche of the gambler. As players get to play these games, they realize how much fun they are.”

The Table Community
The original manifestation of communal play in a casino, of course, was the table game. Casinos these days are devoting an increasing amount of floor space to electronic versions of table games-giving players the interaction and common experiences they seek without the increased labor cost to the operator or the intimidation factor for new players.

One of the most successful manufacturers in this area has been Shuffle
Master, which has placed its “Table Master” electronic table games at
racinos in Delaware, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and is still expanding the
market for those products.

Even today’s slot manufacturers devote a lot of R&D resources to recreating traditional table games. IGT, for instance, has developed a complete line of automated roulette, baccarat and other games using technology purchased from the Austrian Gaming Industries subsidiary of Novomatic Industries, one of the giants of the European gaming industry.

According to Tim Richards, director of table game marketing for IGT, the manufacturer has combined the Novomatic platform and intellectual property with IGT’s platform to create a new automated roulette product using the Game King hybrid slant-top cabinet. Both automated roulette wheels and live roulette games are beamed to the Game King terminals, at which players can wager just as if at a live table.

IGT also is releasing multi-player games using the technology of a company it recently acquired, Digideal. Blackjack, Texas Hold’em, baccarat, pai gow and other table games are offered in a completely automated format. According to Richards, IGT has garnered interest not only from racinos and other obvious markets that do not allow live table games, but from traditional casinos as an alternative to offer lower limits and more liberal rules to some players. “Casinos can use these to offer better games because there is no overhead,” Richards says. “For example, there are a lot of 6/5 blackjack games on the Strip now. With the automated setup, you can go back to 3/2 blackjack.”
The automated table game market is well-established in Europe, where AGI/Novomatic offers a complete range of multi-player games such as Novo Multi-Roulette-eight player stations linked to a fully automated roulette wheel-Novo Multi-Keno and a complete line of Novo Touchbet Live products.

Novomatic’s automated table games compete with a group of well-established Slovenian producers of multi-player, automated roulette products. Elektroncek’s Interblock division was the first Slovenian supplier of multi-player roulette games, with its MegaStar, Supernova and Queen brands firmly entrenched at the high end of the market.

Among Interblock’s hottest new products is “G4 Organic Blackjack,” an innovative electro-mechanical blackjack product that shuffles and deals real cards from eight physical decks in a completely automated operation.

Because all cards are bar-coded, all information from the game can be recorded through player tracking and accounting systems. According to Elektroncek CEO Thomas Zvipelj, the game is capable of delivering 30 percent more hands per hour than live blackjack. He says the company plans to use the product as a basis for expanding its market presence into North America. “Elektroncek’s Blackjack takes casinos to a new level,” he says, “toward implementing a whole range of traditional games on an electro-mechanical platform.”

Slovenia also is home to two of the world’s leading suppliers of automated roulette and other table games, Alfastreet Gaming Instruments and Gold Club d.o.o.

Alfastreet offers top-of-the-line automated roulette, in addition to some of the industry’s most innovative individual terminals, including its “Table Top” line, electronic touch-screen units that resemble laptop computers, that can be placed in any configuration in modular setups to fit the space requirements of any operator.

The company’s newest product is an automated craps game that Marketing and Sales Manager Matjaz Petek calls “the new generation of multi-player dice machines.” The game employs a new platform that Petek says will form the basis of multi-player units of other games, including roulette and baccarat.

Gold Club also offers an enviable auto-roulette line, including models that can accommodate five, six, eight or 10 players, and a single-player roulette terminal that can be linked in any configuration up to a total of 128 playing stations.
Gold Club this year launched a new 10-player, touch-screen roulette game called “Vega,” and new multi-player table games in its “Omega” line that use larger 19-inch touch-screen monitors. It also is expanding the market for its “Neon” satellite roulette system, which can link individual player monitors to both electronic and live roulette wheels at the same time.

Whether dealing with automated table games or the newer multi-player slot configurations, community play is definitely on the rise in casinos around the world.

“A lot of companies are coming out with this community style of game,” says IGT’s O’Brien. “It’s already gone beyond being a novelty or niche product. I think you’re always going to see this kind of game out there. And, with player tracking and server-based gaming coming, that’s not going to change. It will become typical to see six or eight players at a time enjoying each other’s company.”

“We see our community gaming product line as having a full continuum of design opportunities,” adds Bone at WMS. “We also see great opportunities for collaborative and competitive community gaming products that will further push the boundaries of how players can interact and engage with each other on the casino floor.”

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.