Skill-based slots in casinos have at least two problems: Location and branding

Skill-Based Games Are Getting Into Casinos, But Customers Still Not Sold

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Is skill-based gaming really the wave of the future for land-based casinos? The jury is still out.

In a previous column I talked about the ushering in of a new slot machine, thanks in large part to the proliferation of skill-based slot machines. Skill-based games are making inroads and finding space on the casino floor, but they’re not exactly setting the world on fire with casino patrons.

GameCo‘s skill-based gaming terminals made their casino debut at Caesars‘ three Atlantic City properties last fall. Since then, the machines have spread to Tropicana AC. More recently they’ve begun their trek up the eastern seaboard, as two GameCo titles — Nothin’ But Net and Pharaoh’s Secret Chamber — are now available at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Out of some casinos, in some new ones

Unfortunately, after just six months, Caesars recently removed all of the GameCo machines from its AC properties: Harrah’s, Caesars and Bally’s.

At the East Coast Gaming Congress, Melissa Price, the senior vice president of Caesars Entertainment, said the casinos removed the games were removed because they weren’t generating enough revenue to cover the vendor costs. In laymen’s terms, Caesars’ customers weren’t playing the games.

The setback hasn’t dissuaded GameCo.

GameCo is readying several other titles for release, and is working on partnering with more casinos across the country. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. And in the case of GameCo, the door that opened is just down the road from Harrah’s AC.

The next casino that will jump into the skill-based gaming arena is a big one: Borgata.

Borgata is about to introduce two GameCo games (Nothin’ But Net and Pharaoh’s Secret Chamber) as soon as this week, according to GameCo CEO Blaine Graboyes.

The future of skill-based games in casinos

The success of skill-based gaming won’t be its availability. In the end it will likely come down to the casino industry’s willingness to embrace the new product, and skill-based gaming developers’ ability to properly package them.

Graboyes is big on touting the benefits of incremental revenue. That is, bringing in new players instead of simply shifting a current player from one game to another. Graboyes feels his company’s skill-based titles can do just that. That makes the traditional measure of “win per unit per day” somewhat shortsighted.

But as noted above, in order to bring in incremental revenue, casinos and skill-based game developers need to package the product properly.

What’s in a name?

One of the “packaging” concerns I have is a seemingly simple one: Branding.

At ECGC I had a conversation with an industry veteran about skill-based games. We both agreed that the current verbiage used to describe them — skill-based games, skill-based slots, video gaming terminals, and so on — isn’t doing them any favors.

Presently the games lack a designation that is both easy to understand and differentiates them from traditional slot machines, without eliciting a “what is that?” response.

The name I personally like (even though it’s historically linked to kids) is “arcade gambling” or “arcade gambling machines.”

Skill-based games are video games. Video games that have a gambling component to them.

GameCo’s machines appear in what most people would identify as an arcade game cabinet. So why not make it crystal clear what they are and what people can expect when they use them? The benefit would be, whenever you say “arcade” people realize that you’re talking about a video game.

Whether its arcade gambling or something else, I think skill-based games need a better tagline.

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Location, location, location for skill-based gaming

How we refer to these games is only the first step. The second problem is where they are on the casino floor.

When I first went to Harrah’s to get a look at GameCo’s Danger Arena games last fall, the games were difficult to find. This, despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

In a sea of 500, 1,000, or upwards of 2,000 slot machines, finding a handful of skill-based games can be quite frustrating. I can’t imagine too many younger patrons (not known for roaming the slot floor) are just stumbling across them as they rush through the casino on their way to the club.

This is why I think casinos dabbling in arcade gambling could learn a lot from the casinos that have successfully integrated esports.

As Seth Schorr, the chairman and CEO of Downtown Grand Casino is fond of saying, successfully integrating esports requires a level of commitment from the casino. Schorr stresses the point that in order to realize the potential value of an esports customer, the venue has to provide an authentic experience.

Simply hosting an esports event doesn’t guarantee they’ll stay at your hotel, eat at your restaurants, or gamble on your casino floor. In addition to hosting the event, you have to give them a reason to stay. You do this by creating an environment they want to be part of.

In my opinion, the same holds true for skill-based games. If you want them to be magnets for a younger audience. you need to put them where younger people tend to go, or make the space appeal to them. Slapping them in the middle of the slot floor isn’t going to get the job done.

Fixing the location problem for skill-based slots

One idea would be to put them in a dedicated area on the slot floor, and make it obvious where and what they are, with signage. And more importantly, casinos should surround them with the right environment.

As an example, the games could be in a semi-enclosed space that mimics an arcade.

Or, casinos could place the machines near a bar and maybe have some seating nearby. If a group of 20-somethings decides to play they can sit and have a drink, order food, and trash talk their friend about how terrible they are, and how they’re going to do better when it’s their turn.

This would solve two problems.

First, it helps remove the stigma of the games being on the slot floor. That’s an area of the casino younger casino-goers look at as “not cool” and the domain of middle-aged 9-5’ers and seniors. This is one of the reasons why you don’t see too many 20-somethings on the slot floor. Most don’t even want to cut through it, fearing someone will see them.

You don’t have to displace slot players

Second, it allows the casino to build a gamer-friendly environment around the arcade gambling machines without displacing its current slot players.

As Blaine Graboyes said in a Global Gaming Business column back in February:

“Imagine a casino experience that finally allows a gamer to feel like the cool kid they have become with the treatment generally reserved for high rollers and nightclub patrons. From their first discovery of the gaming experience to their interaction on social media to travel and check-in to gaming on the floor, dining, betting on eSports, and winning prizes—these types of experiences would be highly appealing to gamers hungry to be treated in an authentic manner that validates their enthusiasm for video games.


“Casinos can generate valuable new revenue, and attract an entirely new audience, by building dedicated, multi-purpose spaces to conduct 24/7/365 programs targeted specifically to gamers.”

Final thoughts

Casinos are experimenting with skill-based games, but it definitely feels like one of the products that requires a full commitment to realize its potential.

Like a poker room, you can’t just throw some tables on the floor and expect people to show up and play. You have to welcome poker players. But, when you do it right, when you commit to it, people go to your casino because of the poker room and hopefully stay for other reasons, or spend money on food, beverage and entertainment.

If skill-based games are going to bridge the millennial gap, it will be because a casino commits to the product and creates an area that feels right for the games.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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