10 TRENDS: Skill Wave

As the first skill-based slot games arrive at casinos, the industry waits to see how the genre will evolve

In early November, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian joined executives of Caesars Entertainment and New York-based startup slot manufacturer GameCo, Inc. at Harrah’s Atlantic City to cut the ribbon on GameCo’s Danger Arena, the first slot machine in a U.S. casino on which the return-to-player (RTP) is variable based on the skill of the player.

Danger Arena is on GameCo’s patent-pending Video Game Gambling Machine, or VGM, which looks more like an arcade game than a slot machine. It is a first-person shooter game, played with an Xbox-style controller attached to the front. The object is to use the controller to shoot robots, or “bots,” in a video environment much like that seen in Xbox or arcade shooter games. Killing six bots earns the player money. Shooting all 10 bots on a screen yields the top win.

GameCo’s VGM, which won the Silver Medal in the Global Gaming Business Gaming & Technology Awards presented at Global Gaming Expo 2016, is the first example of a practical solution to the challenge presented two years ago by regulators in New Jersey and Nevada to the industry’s slot suppliers—to produce new types of slot games, including skill games that will appeal to the millennial and Gen-X customer that is the future of the industry.

New Jersey officials formulated new regulations under existing gaming laws to accommodate skill play, while Nevada lawmakers passed Senate Bill 9 to provide a legal path to the consideration of skill. The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement gave its final approval of the VGM in October.

The call from regulators was accompanied by a call for new game styles from the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers. AGEM officials, representatives of slot manufacturers and operators participated in workshops to determine the best way to solve the math puzzle of creating a game in which more skilled players receive a higher RTP, with the overall RTP still falling within minimum government guidelines.

GameCo’s VGM achieves this by creating “maps”—video sequences of varying difficulty in which the player battles robots of varying skills—and using a random number generator to choose one of the maps for each play session. The game has 10,000 maps, and the RNG picks which map the player receives on each play. After that, skill takes over to allow the player to receive the highest possible RTP. As for the other end, the programming of the maps provides a hedge against advantage play by professional-level gamers.

GameCo’s solution is only the first example of how manufacturers will ultimately incorporate skill. Moreover, it’s only one of many skill-game styles likely to crop up in the coming year. At G2E, several manufacturers presented their unique visions of the best ways to incorporate skill into slot machines.

Some showed shooter-style games that will appeal to customers from millennials to Gen X to even the younger baby boomers. Scientific Games showed a new skill-based version of Space Invaders that plays just like the legendary arcade game. Konami brought forth one of its own legendary arcade games in Frogger: Get Hoppin’—which brings the classic arcade activity of getting the digital frog across a traffic-clogged street into the casino environment.

Other skill games previewed at G2E seek to re-create the multi-level games played by millions on their smartphones. Gamblit Gaming showed several examples. Everi launched two casino versions of the mobile-game hit Fruit Ninja, in which players swipe at fruit flying across the screen to accumulate points.

International Game Technology showed Lucky’s Quest, a mobile-style matching game that will be available for play on the CrystalCore cabinet, as well as on a mobile device using IGT’s On Premise mobile on-property network. In Lucky’s Quest, players can unlock characters, win credits and advance to new levels based on performance in the title’s symbol-matching game. Players with more skill achieve more opportunities to win the prizes.

One element all the new skill games have in common is a carefully engineered and tested combination of skill and chance—a formula that rewards players with greater skill while maintaining a minimum RTP for the less-skilled players.

In the coming year, the industry will watch the skill trend play out, and slot suppliers will learn, by doing, the most effective ways to solve the math puzzle of skill-based gaming—and which games will result in incremental revenue gains and new players for casinos.

Frank Legato
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 recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.  

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