The new buzzword in the slot machine industry is skill.
Slot-makers, regulators and operators are convinced that we baby boomers are dropping like flies, and that pretty soon, the entire world will be populated solely by people born after 1980.
Those people, of course, are known as the “millennials,” or alternatively, as “people who used to live in our houses and play games in our basement.” And as you may have heard, they’re not wild about sitting in front of a screen, watching reels spin and hoping for luck. (Yes, I know. How could you not like that?)
No, millennials want to use coordination, dexterity, knowledge or some kind of skill to influence the outcome of their game, just like they used to do with those video-game consoles that we’re still waiting for them to remove from our basements. Therefore, there is a drive—bordering on panic, really—among slot-makers and casino operators to have games for the millennials in place before all of us boomers croak.
All of this assumes that there has never been skill involved in a slot machine, other than the silly “stop the reels” thing in North Carolina. But that is simply not the case.
I recently was chatting with Ira Warren, owner of California-based Coin-Ops, LLC. Coin-Ops deals in antique slot machines, and Warren’s own collection of antique games is astounding. He is currently talking with casinos about adding displays of antique games as an attraction at their properties, which I think is a great idea.
Warren pointed out that even the “skill-stop,” the feature on the games in North Carolina, was nothing new when someone, somehow, convinced regulators that you could influence the outcome of a spin by watching the symbols whiz past and stopping each reel with a button. He says the skill-stop was used as early as the 1930s to get slot machines past local authorities as skill games—each of three reels had a button over it, and each reel would spin until the button was pushed.
Yes, it was as silly then as it is now.
But Warren also has these catalogues from early slot-machine makers like Mills Novelty Company and the Cowper Manufacturing Company, and they’re loaded with skill games. I believe today’s manufacturers can find a lot of helpful hints looking through these catalogues.
For instance, Mills had an entire line of machines that were “lung testers.” They all had towers, and you had to blow into a tube to try to light up the highest score on the tower. There was a “Searchlight Grip and Lung Tester,” a “Balloon Lung Tester,” and my personal favorite, the “Hat Blower,” with an “attract mode” sign that read, “Who Blows Best?”
I’m guessing a few lung-tester skill slots in the casino smoking section would rake in the revenue.
There also were a lot of machines that awarded money for feats of strength, like the “Dumb Bell Lifter” and the “Bag Punching Machine.” That one had a punching bag and a meter, and you stood in front of it flailing away. There was another version with more advanced technology called the “Pneumatic Punching Machine.”
As cool as that is, I don’t think the millennials will go for it. You can’t play it on a phone while swilling Red Bull and checking your Twitter account. But hey, it’s worth considering.
The Mills Company was formed not long after the very birth of the slot machine. Herbert Mills was a contemporary of San Franciscan Charles Fey, who in 1899 released the “Liberty Bell,” the three-reel slot machine on which all other slots would be based (which was a surprise to his wife, since Fey had been trying to build a toaster).
Fey, by the way, was known as the “Thomas Edison of Slot Machines.” (Thomas Edison himself was known as the “Charles Fey of light bulbs.”)
Cowper Manufacturing was around in the 1890s as well. An 1898 sell-sheet for Cowper slot machines proudly announces, “All machines are made by skilled mechanics and not boys.”
Wow. That’s a relief. Why don’t today’s slot-makers make the same promise?
In the end, skill games for the millennials are probably going to involve smart phones, video game contests, or something else that replicates sitting on the couch with a joystick.
But there may indeed be room for lung machines, punching bags and the like. Let’s get creative. Hey, how about a task-oriented slot game for millennials? We’ll call it “Move Your Junk From Your Parents’ House Since You Haven’t Lived There For Years.”