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Quickening the Pulse

Interblock banks on its quality e-tables

Quickening the Pulse

Casinos have always had table games and slot machines. Interblock is adding a third leg to the gaming stool—electronic table games—and is proceeding to redefine the meaning of that growing game genre.

And the genre is growing fast. Over the past two decades, multi-player electronic table games (ETGs), or e-tables, have been a fixture in European casinos. Since the late 1990s, ETGs have been ubiquitous in casinos from Austria to the Netherlands to Italy to Slovenia, Bulgaria and points east.

Starting with multi-player roulette, e-tables diversified in the early 2000s to include automated versions of craps, blackjack and other mainstays of the pit. Their primary benefits to casinos were obvious—more players in less space, without the labor costs associated with tables.

But from the beginning, other factors were at play. ETGs afforded a way to create new table players by letting customers learn the games in a non-intimidating fashion. Electronics could add not only precise accounting of wagers and play history, but bonuses, progressive jackpots and other features formerly exclusive to slot machines.

These days, casino operators in North America are starting to look at these same factors, and the automated tables are gaining fans everywhere they are placed. Electronic game pits are cropping up, as are lounges that bring the games to the millennial generation in formats designed to turn twenty-somethings into faithful casino customers.

There are several suppliers producing ETGs for worldwide markets, but one leading the charge in North America is the company that created the genre, Slovenia’s Interblock Luxury Gaming Products. Through subsidiary

Interblock USA, the company has launched ETG setups in U.S. casinos that are at once both radical and elegant in appearance—and superior in their technology, as Interblock continues to redefine the e-table genre.

Founded in 1997 by computer engineer Joc Pe?e?nik, Interblock Luxury Gaming Products pioneered a new segment of products for the casino industry with the first automated roulette wheels surrounded by electronic wagering stations.

“I began laying the foundation for Interblock in 1989 in Mengeš, Slovenia,” Pe?e?nik recalls, “building PCs for customers, then supplying POS systems for restaurants and bars. I saw a high-potential niche in the gaming industry—specifically, in classic casino games like roulette.”

Interblock made its international debut in 1997 at the ICE trade show in London with its first automated multi-player roulette product, Princess—“developed by me and a team of five in my own garage,” Pe?e?nik says. “After the enthusiastic reception for Princess, we launched Megastar roulette, dice and video, which set new industry standards.”

The product Pe?e?nik developed in his garage would spawn a host of competitors, particularly in his home country, where nearly a dozen e-table suppliers would crop up within a decade after Interblock’s founding. However, Interblock has remained the class of the industry.

“From the beginning, Interblock set the industry standards for electronic table games,” Pe?e?nik says. “We haven’t deviated from our original goals of bringing the traditional gaming experience to an electronic format, making operations easier for casinos, and creating an unparalleled experience for players.”

“Joc’s philosophy, historically, has always been a luxury product,” adds John Connelly, Interblock’s global CEO since January 2015. “The analogy I’ve always used is that Mercedes has an S-Class, an E-Class and a C-Class. But they all represent luxury. All quality. What we’ve been successful in doing the past 12 months is really taking what Joc created, which is this amazing S-Class Mercedes, and with his help, we are in the process of launching our E-Class, and by G2E in Las Vegas, we’ll be launching our C-Class.”

Connelly came to Interblock after 10 years with slot manufacturer Bally Technologies (now part of Scientific Games), where he was senior vice president of business development and interactive, and VP of international business—the latter a position in which he saw the European popularity of multi-player ETGs firsthand.

In North America, Connelly now sees a new frontier for e-tables. “Under 1 percent of the floor space in North American casinos has ETGs,” he says. “Internationally, you can find 15-20 percent of a floor with ETGs. So, the opportunity in North America is tremendous. Even if you just consider penetrating just a single percent, you’re looking at $100 million in EBITDA potential.”

“What’s exciting,” adds Pe?e?nik, “is that in North America, only 22 percent of the casinos have ever had an Interblock product on their floor. In Europe, we quickly established Interblock’s position as the luxury gaming electronic table provider. Now, we can offer our high-performing products at different price points to appeal to different demographics and types of casinos around the world.

“Unlike our competitors, Interblock is purely focused on electronic tables. We’re looking for the next revolutionary enhancement that will improve the user experience and revenue for our customers.”

Redefining the Genre

Interblock has made its name by consistently finding that “next revolutionary enhancement” in the ETG genre. Four active, stylish product lines (Organic, Diamond, Ministar and StarBar) supported by three generator types (Automated, Dealer Assist and Video) add up to compelling player experiences for roulette, bnaccarat, craps, blackjack, sic-bo, big six, Big 3 Six, keno and video poker.

Interblock is constantly experimenting with new ways to enhance the players’ experience with its products. These experiments have included use of holographic images—a concept Connelly says could come back soon—and new stadium-style setups that give a gaming area the feel of a sporting event—like, say, the eSports events currently drawing millennials in droves.

Interblock has packed all its technology into its latest millennial-friendly presentation of its ETGs, called the Pulse Arena.

Launched at last fall’s G2E show, the game presentation is billed as “a hybrid experience that combines gaming and social atmospheres.” Interblock designed it as a show that will attract all comers, but with a particular eye to the millennials. All of Interblock’s electronic gaming tables and player stations are arranged into a giant audio-visual experience, with live DJs, dealers and hosts manning dealer-assisted games intermingled with fully automated games.

“The Pulse Arena creates a nightclub atmosphere on a casino floor by blending the energy of Interblock’s electronic table games, interactivity and entertainment to create an exciting new gambling experience for established players, while attracting new players to the casino floor,” says Pe?e?nik. “People are talking, sharing winning experiences, participating together—it’s an entertaining wagering experience that players haven’t been able to find in most casinos.”

“You can get comfortable in your seat within the Pulse Arena,” Connelly adds, “and while you’re gaming, you have the ability to not only watch TV or interact socially; you have the ability, without getting up, to play virtually every game offered from a live table perspective. It’s all integrated, dynamic within the Pulse Arena.”

Connelly says the Pulse Arena takes the best of Interblock’s core ETG products and “wraps them in an environment,” one that attracts millennials and uses a variety of experiences to capitalize on just how hot the e-table genre is at present.

“We statistically know that the ETG segment of the casino industry is growing double digits globally,” he says. “It’s one of the few areas that we can say that about.

“So, we have intentionally integrated all of the leading products of Interblock inside. We have automated games, so at the slowest times during the day, rather than having to staff the Pulse Arena with 15 employees, we can go into an automated mode. The generators in the front are self-mechanical, meaning they will spin the ball, they will deal the cards. Or, we will have video blackjack up on the screen. So you can have very low infrastructure costs, and still maintain that environment.”

During peak hours, of course, the name of the game is as much action, and interaction, as possible, with both virtual and dealer-assisted games in which a live dealer spins the ball or deals the cards. “We have blackjack, roulette, craps, baccarat, keno, sic bo—all the main games that you’d find in the traditional table portfolio,” Connelly says. “But what we’re adding to that are additional features and functionality, as well as new types of tournaments.

“The concept is to take an area of the casino floor and really reinvigorate it,” he says, “not only with a leading product, in a segment that’s growing, but with an environment that will perhaps pull players onto the casino floor, whereas before they would have walked by.

“During the day, we can have Frank Sinatra, we can have keno going on inside. We can have a mood that is very much conducive to perhaps an older clientele. But then, with the push of a button, we can go into an evening mode, where the music gets louder, the lights are brighter, we have dancers, a DJ, a host—and incorporate a lot of different and new features of functionality on the ETG. That really makes it more of a social environment. So, you’re gaming while socializing.”

“When the players come back over and over again, they’re getting a new experience as they go inside,” says Pe?e?nik. “We’re adding progressives. We’re adding chat. We’re adding social media. This is not just a product that you can say is turn-key and stands as it is today. It’s something that’s going to continuously evolve into the future.”

Those future players, of course, have been the focus of many manufacturers. Pe?e?nik comments that Interblock’s Pulse Arena is typical of the social aspect to table games that appeals to the millennials.

“Interblock’s multi-player electronic table products keep the social aspect of play in mind,” Pe?e?nik says. “Our automated gaming devices use, for example, a real roulette wheel and ball, real dice and real cards. Our Dealer Assist gaming devices are real tables with electronic betting, offering players the ability to place wagers through play stations while a dealer conducts the game on the table.”

Future Vision

Interblock’s vision for the Pulse Arena and all of its ETGs is part of the company’s strategy to conquer new markets in North America and elsewhere, and to create new players along the way. Connelly’s appointment as CEO last year was one of many moves to add talent from the U.S.-based casino industry to a European staff that has been serving the sector for decades.

The company, for instance, brought in longtime WMS Gaming executive Rob Bone as president of North America, and longtime WMS and Scientific Games marketing VP Colleen Stanton Kakavetsis as global vice president of marketing.

“Obviously, you can’t replace 25 years of history in a private company, and Joc and the existing Interblock team that’s been here for decades, no matter who you bring in,” comments Connelly. “But we’ve brought in some great talent from around the world—from IGT, Aruze, WMS, Bally, Sci Games, you name it. What I’ve tried to do is really maintain that historical knowledge base within the company, and that innovation that existed within the company, and really complement it with people that know global gaming.”

He says the Pulse Arena is an example of how that combination of talent is being used to “evolve the ETG segment to the next level, using the best of both worlds.”

Another discipline being perfected by this combination of talent is finding innovative ways to add popular features to traditional table games that also increase the operator’s hold. “When it comes to ETGs, unlike in the slot business and other areas, the math behind the games is the math,” Connelly explains. “Roulette math has always been roulette math. Single, double zero. You really can’t touch that if you want be successful. You must mirror the play experience versus a traditional game, for all intents and purposes.

“If you want to add something, you can, provided it’s at the player’s discretion. You can’t force them. So, there is a huge emphasis being placed on side bets—trying to increase that hold percentage, and to make it a little bit more exciting and compelling to players who are used to playing side bets on live tables, and on slot game bonus features.”

Innovative ways to spice up table games has been one of Interblock’s hallmarks, and Connelly credits Pe?e?nik for orchestrating the plan. “He’s always looking to innovate, and take the electronic table game gaming segment to the next level,”

Connelly says of the Interblock founder. “So, I don’t see us ever really stopping from an innovation perspective and trying new things.

“Obviously, not everything can be a home run. But I think you’ll see, heading into G2E this year, that we have increased our roadmap and the resources supporting our roadmap dramatically in the past 12 months, specifically to try to bring the brand, and the look and the feel of Interblock, to the next level. Pulse is one example, but you’re going to see lots of other new things over the next six months as well.”

ETGs Soaring

Fueling this drive for innovation is the fact the electronic table game segment itself is soaring.

“Times have never been better for Interblock,” says Pe?e?nik. “We are seeing continual double-digit growth within the electronic table gaming segment around the world, and we attribute this largely to an ETG’s ability to extend across all

demographic boundaries and complement performing trends on the casino floor.”

Last year, Interblock commissioned the first-ever ETG player segmentation study, The ETG Player Portrait. “This report is the first and only study that defines who these players are and why they are critical to gaming businesses,” Pe?e?nik explains. “We found that ETGs attract not only slot players, but players from live tables and video poker as well—which makes ETGs the central conduit on the casino floor, the place where all the different segments of the market come together.”

Adds Connelly, “The more player research we do, the more we are finding that we seem to be a melting pot between slot players who have always wanted to try a table game but are afraid and table players who perhaps haven’t liked the environment of a traditional live table.

“What we’re finding is that the ETG product we’ve been offering seems to be really attracting a new dollar onto the casino floor. It’s not cannibalizing. And it’s attracting both existing and new players. Now, to the degree that’s going to sustain itself as the footprint expands, we haven’t gotten there yet. But so far, the indications are that the players really seem to be liking the fact that they have their own environment.

“In over 80 percent of the surveys we did, we asked, ‘What was your most compelling argument to go up to the ETG, other than the way it looked?’ Resoundingly, the answer was, ‘I had my own environment I could gamble from.’ If I felt like socializing, I was able to socialize.’”

Connelly adds that the new era of ETGs that Interblock is launching coincides neatly with the drive to please the next generation of casino players. “When you look at players’ online wagering, or even playing on social sites where they’re not winning any money, players over 50 are playing predominantly slots. In fact, over 90 percent are playing slots. But when you go to players under 40, it flips. Over 90 percent are playing table games. So there’s definitely been a cultural shift between the two generations, from slots to tables.

“When those players come out to the casino floor, they’re predominantly leaning towards tables, and because they’ve played online or are used to a touchscreen and a computer screen, having an ETG sitting there seems to be attracting a younger demographic.”

Connelly adds that this surge in ETG popularity is a worldwide phenomenon. “I’m very happy that it’s diversified across Asia Pacific, to Latin America, to North America, and even now, parts of Europe. We’re seeing growth and revenue increase across all our regions, in the double digits. And part of that is because, quite frankly, Interblock historically had not focused on several key areas of the globe—Australia; the Pacific Region; Latin America. We’re excited and pleased that right now the growth’s coming from across the board.”

In the Asia Pacific region, Interblock recently went live in Studio City Macau. “We’re proud to say that we’re the first ETG player, or supplier, back into the Macau market,”

Connelly says. “And that was several months ago. Since then, the demand for the Interblock product has been overwhelming. Asians very much have accepted the ETG product. I think it’s a great benchmark for what North America could be.”

For Asia, that’s 15 percent of the floor in Macau, 15 percent of the floor in Singapore and elsewhere. “It shows that there is definitely this third leg to the gaming stool,” says Connelly, “meaning it is no longer just slots and tables—it’s ETGs. Because of that, it’s an amazing opportunity for our company to expand. Although Macau may be, from a junket perspective, going through a transition, I can say from an ETG perspective, it’s full-steam ahead.”

It’s full-steam ahead in North America as well. Connelly says there is a “resounding appetite,” particularly from large casino groups, to create an area for the Pulse Arena. “Casino groups, especially the larger ones with a very large footprint, are trying to attract that energy and player traffic to the Pulse Arena,” he says, noting that the company is currently finalizing five Pulse Arena placements. “We’ve signed a very large deal in Quebec,” says Connelly, “and  we’ll be going live with the first Pulse Arena somewhere around the May timeframe.”

Meanwhile, the Interblock brand and product line stand to grow right along with player appetite for ETGs.

“The Interblock brand stands for luxury, player-favorite electronic table games,” says Pe?e?nik. “We’ve created a unique brand. It’s important that players recognize our products among all others on the casino floor for their style and beauty. Once we’ve drawn the player in, we follow up with one-of-a-kind, patented technologies that deliver unparalleled gaming experiences.”

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.  

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