Derek Webb once described selling table games as “pulling teeth.”
In the 1990s, the U.K.-based inventor of Three Card Poker schlepped to Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City and Tunica, Mississippi trying to interest casinos in his new game concept. After a grueling road show, Shuffle Master bought the U.S. rights to the game, which became one of the most successful games ever.
In the gaming industry, table games are a harder sell because they’re a bigger gamble. Unlike the slot floor, table pits are finite spaces; before a new game can move in, a proven performer has to move out.
“The biggest fear for operators is that a new game won’t be as successful as the game that was replaced,” says John Glaser, executive director for Empire Technological Group, an innovator in table-game technologies. “Unlike slots, there is a limited number of table games in properties. One bad-performing game can have negative consequences for both the property and table game management.”
According to Roger Snow, senior vice president of Scientific Games, the number of new table games launched in a year is “underwhelming—maybe four or five, including new side bets or progressives.”
“Everybody underestimates how difficult it is to break through,” says Snow, who’s created a few killer games of his own, including Four Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold ’em. “It’s brutal.”
Luckily, some early adopters aren’t afraid to roll the dice to discover the next blockbuster.
“You’ve got to find properties that see themselves on the cutting edge, that want to partner on innovative new content,” says Tim
Caffarelli, SG’s executive director of product management. “That’s where you get the early placements and start tracking the metrics.”
Strong performance in field trials helps games find a wider audience.
A Progressive Party
The big trend in recent years: progressives.
“In pits seven or eight years ago, there was a lot of apprehension about electronics—people wanted to touch chips and see the cards—but that’s evolving,” says Caffarelli. “Now about 80 percent of pits across North America have progressive content.”
Though progressives aren’t entirely new, Glaser notes, “suppliers have been adding them to all table games and poker, which didn’t exist before. New progressive controllers and equipment allow for the progressive award to increment immediately as additional bets are made—not dissimilar to how slot progressives have operated for years. This is driving player excitement, with the opportunity to win a significant progressive award by placing an additional bet on each hand played.”
John Hemberger, senior vice president of table products at AGS, has built his division on proprietary offerings such as Criss Cross Poker, Jackpot Hold ‘em and Buster Blackjack. AGS specializes in side-bet and progressive products, notably the STAX Progressive product, which adds a must-hit-by progressive to tables, and Bonus Spin, which adds a wheel bonus. The big star is Bonus Spin Xtreme, a progressive side bet system that lets operators link every table on the floor to the same jackpot pool.
“So baccarat can be linked to blackjack, can be linked to your specialty games, to craps, to roulette,” says Hemberger, who calls Bonus Spin Xtreme “a true community progressive.
“Everybody at the table, regardless of game type, is winning together, and that generates a lot of excitement.” And a progressive for roulette “really generated a whole bunch of interest, because there’s not really anything out there that’s had any level of success on roulette in the form of progressives.”
EZ Does It
Table games have a mystique and aura of complexity that keep some players on the sidelines. But games don’t go over big unless they’re easy and intuitive.
“There’s some learning curve, but we have this adage that to be successful, you have to be able to learn it in 30 seconds or less,” says Caffarelli. “If you need to explain how the base premise works, you’ve probably lost the attention span of folks who might have adopted that game. And if it’s intimidating, that’s going to drive people away.”
If a game is too intricate or confusing, it’s stacked the deck against itself.
“It’s especially important for the dealer to understand, as the dealer becomes a pseudo-ambassador for the game,” Glaser says. “And if the game is successful, that turns into more financial rewards (gratuities) for the dealer.”
Nowadays, he adds, there are fewer groundbreaking inventions than fresh takes on existing winners.
“Unfortunately, it’s more about copying or rebranding successful games in the marketplace, side bets and different pay tables for existing successful games. For instance, baccarat. The baccarat game has basically two bets and tie. However, several suppliers have added new bets on top of the basic bets described above, based on specific card combinations that can happen. Today, baccarat can have as many as four additional bets on top of the basic bets.”
Empire table games include Golden Frog Baccarat, Pai Gow Royals, Pai Gow Poker Dragon versus Tiger War, Vegas 6+ Hold Em Poker and others. The most popular and successful by far is Golden Frog Baccarat, due to its additional, configurable side bets, which increase the hold percentage for operators, who can choose from up to five unique side bets. Such products have allowed Empire to establish itself as a premier supplier of tables games in several of the largest California card rooms.
Shortly before G2E, Galaxy will launch its Empire’s Golden Frog SMRT Progressive, says Glaser, “and there’s currently a waiting list of customers to have this progressive installed.”
In the Pits
For all these companies, Covid-19 had zero impact on creativity.
“It was a bit of a standing eight-count for a while, with so many casinos closed,” says Snow, “but behind the scenes, our R&D department was working overtime.”
At G2E, Scientific Games will focus on the next evolution of games in the progressive market, says Caffarelli. “We’re going to show a new augmented reality attachment that adds more digitization to the table and more excitement for the player. We’re going to introduce a wide-area progressive—a very big deal for us. You’ve heard about it in the slot arena, but this is a first in the table games space, basically linking across multiple properties as well as multiple game content within a property.”
According to Snow, the WAP “has a higher jackpot than anything we’ve offered before, with more casinos and more tables linked to it. It hits faster and it hits bigger. That’s why people play progressives.” The company is proving out the product at several casinos in Atlantic City.
Another big shift, Snow adds, is “a Netflix pricing model, where you can get all the content or a big chunk of it for a fixed monthly fee. Ours is called VALT, and we already have 400 customers in North America under this program. Whereas five, six, seven years ago it was a la carte pricing, now it’s sort of all-you-can-eat pricing, which creates tremendous elasticity for customers. It’s an innovation that’s changed the industry.”
With more than 70 different games and side bets, VALT offers exclusive and original game titles, classics and new. VALT membership also includes discounts (excluding EZ Baccarat and EZ Pai Gow), and discounts on progressive equipment and utility products.
Asked what he considers the gold standard in table game play, Caffarelli cites two.
“Historically when you look at what has the most placements, it’s Three Card Poker. The game has been around for 15, 18 years; it’s a staple within a lot of game content. But when you look at the evolution of table games and getting some compelling mechanisms in place, as well as the ability to offer people the volatility within a felt game, we have to talk about Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em (created by Snow). That is very quickly becoming the standard by which we measure the success of a game.”
Snow knows better than most the challenges faced by new games in the market. “Individual inventors can wander around hopelessly for years, like Diogenes with the lantern, saying, ‘Someone please take my game.’”
He once told the story of a five-card poker game he created called Rabbit Hunter. “It tested really well. We thought it was going to be really successful, so we had all these promotional T-shirts made. Now people are washing cars with them.”
But out there, some inventor has something great up his sleeve, something to rival the popularity of Three Card Poker or UTH. In a 2009 interview, Webb told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Success for me is defined by knowing that when people walk into a casino, mine is the game they want to play. Really, in my profession, there’s nothing better than that.”
Jeff Hwang (r.) is a game developer, president of High Variance Games and the best-selling author of Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy.
Hwang acknowledges the challenges faced by table game developers with products to pitch. “This is a very small industry with a handful of distributors with the reach to put games in casinos across the country with any amount of scale. This in itself is a challenge for an individual developer.
“I would also posit that, aside from the headache of small developers trying to get licensed in multiple jurisdictions—a complete non-starter for all but the most determined or insane—the ability for established distributors to utilize progressives across their game lineups in any given casino, a given market or beyond is a considerable competitive advantage. A small independent developer trying to create a new table game will be hopelessly challenged.”
Another obstacle in today’s market is that game content is no longer patentable, Hwang adds. “So if all you have to offer is a game idea, you’re already toast by default.”
Covid-19 has played a part, in that room for table games on casino floors has shrunk, “though in reality this area is ultimately small potatoes anyway compared to the potential opportunity that exists for electronic and online application.”
All that aside, he says, “the biggest reason games fail to make a dent is that—once you understand both game math and how these games are designed—most everybody after David Sklansky developed Casino Poker (the precursor to what became known as Caribbean Stud) has mostly just been throwing darts.”
Hwang says his own High Variance Games portfolio “occupies uncharted territory, delivering the highest-action, lowest-edge casino card games, while maximizing playability and win frequency.
“In Super Blackjack, the player can split any two cards and double down for up to 4X, with unlimited pair re-splits; in game development terms, the result is that the player averages nearly four units wagered per hand, essentially delivering craps action at blackjack game speed.
“Super Texas Hold’em features two progressively larger betting rounds, playing the way a poker player expects a hold’em game to play. And with an average wager of over seven units per hand, it’s also the highest-action casino card game ever devised by that measure.
“In Super Pai Gow, the player shows a net win on ties instead of pushing as in regular pai gow, and shows a net win on 57 percent of hands, making this the first casino game in which the player is actually a favorite to show a net win.”
Any new table game concept must vault Olympian obstacles on its way to market. According to Hwang, the successful game offers “the highest action possible while giving gamblers the lowest theoretically achievable house advantage per unit wagered in their respective classes—and creating room for them to make mistakes.
“In short, where virtually all casino games are designed to be sold to the casino, these games are designed to be marketed directly to the gambler—but in a way that makes sense for the casino operator.”
Big Game Hunt
What makes a table game great? Steve Cvetkoski (r.), Galaxy Gaming director of product development, says it’s “that perfect balance of uniqueness, volatility and excitement—a tricky recipe to master.”
In August, Galaxy acquired the rights to Jeff Hwang’s High Variance Games, including Super Blackjack, Super Texas Hold’em, Super Pai Gow, Three Card Stud Triple Draw and Super Omaha Poker.
“Super Blackjack and Super Texas Hold’em, in particular, really heighten the most exciting parts of blackjack and poker by offering unique mechanisms, multiple betting rounds and opportunities to raise,” according to Cvetkoski. “Players can gamble and be aggressive, but with a house edge that will keep them in action longer.
“That’s the case with all of these games and a big reason why we’re so excited to get them into the land-based and digital spaces quickly. We expect high action while maximizing time on device—certainly a real win-win for both players and operators.”
P3 talked to Cvetkoski about success in table games, and returning to G2E.
How important is simplicity in a table game?
Too complex, and players will lose interest from the start. Likewise, you want enough volatility to keep the excitement but maximize their time on the table. And you certainly want them coming back. Gaming is entertainment, and it needs to be fairly immediate. It can’t feel like you need to take a class to get started.
What are some of the best new table games?
That’s tricky, because the standards have changed; I don’t believe any recent game has truly pushed out the mainstays that dominate the market. My best answer is the proliferation of progressives. With some of the new and interesting things you can do with them, they’re probably the most important land-based idea happening now. While not new, progressives are a support product to both new and existing games that brings a tremendous amount of value to the table and excitement to the player.
What does Galaxy have on tap for G2E, in addition to the High Variance games?
We have anew premium game in Daredevil Poker, where players are awarded for taking some risks. And as for progressives, we are doing some really cool things with Bonus Craps.
Why is it so hard for a new table game to break into the market?
In reality, many reasons. Floor space is one. What game do you remove to place a new game, unsure if it will perform, unsure of player acceptance, especially if you feel you’ve optimized your game mix? However, we’ll never stop innovating, because it’s up to us to find that new game that players demand and ask for by name. That’ll make it an easier decision for operators.