There have been a few evolutions in the history of slot machines, although, considering Charles Fey began selling his Liberty Bell three-reel game in the late 1890s, a few isn’t many.
Fey’s design of three reels with payouts for matching symbols remained unchanged for a century, and even when machines evolved in the 1990s to include more reels, more pay lines, and animated features never imagined by Fey, it has largely been an evolution of sameness. Players are still matching symbols on reels that spin and stop, whether the games themselves are mechanical or video.
Variations like video poker, video blackjack, and the new skill games appeal to different audiences, but for the basic slots player, the spinning reel still dominates.
Lately, several slot manufacturers have been testing the waters on games that differ from that long-established norm. Examples abound this year on the trade-show circuit, but some of the largest slot-makers have been experimenting with non-traditional formats for years. International Game Technology has had Deal Or No Deal: What’s Your Deal on the market for eight years, with one unit featured prominently at MGM Grand’s Level Up Lounge.
In place of the normal reels, the What’s Your Deal version of the game-show slot game incorporates one giant wheel, which players spin to land on bet multipliers or the popular Briefcase Bonus from the TV show.
IGT also has a long-term hit in the “Ultra Wheels” version of the Wheel of Fortune game. Launched three years ago, it features concentric wheels instead of spinning reels, for credit awards, multipliers or the signature Wheel of Fortune bonus.
Rival Scientific Games also has dabbled in non-traditional genres, notably with its Hexogems series, which replaces the reels with a diamond-shaped field of nine hexagons. Wins are registered via any of 1,796 winning patterns, and a re-spin feature can lock in progressive awards.
More recently, Everi has arrived at the trade shows with several non-traditional games, including what is now a franchise theme in Lightning Zap and intriguing titles like Cash Machine and Crush.
The three slot suppliers are among a handful of companies experimenting in non-traditional formats.
“SG is always exploring new ways to pay the player and figure out what resonates in terms of new mechanics,” says Rosa Zhang, director of product management, Class III, for Scientific Games. “You don’t know what’s going to stick until you try something new. We’ve seen promising performance since the launch of Hexogems in both low-denomination and high-denomination configurations, which is really exciting.
“We believe this is because the design of the game is very unique and stands out on floors, drawing the player in initially, but ultimately is also easy to understand… Hexogems makes the chase very clear to the player.”
Mike Brennan, senior director of product management for IGT, says the supplier has maintained a space in its R&D budget for non-traditional game styles for several years. “We’ve had some (non-traditional formats) historically, and we have some currently,” he says. “We might have been an innovator in this space. What’s Your Deal on our Titan Jumbo cabinet is still at Level Up at MGM, and it has done really well for us. We get (the) impulse play, but we also found that a lot of gamblers check it out.”
The Wheel of Fortune game has also been a success, and IGT has devoted a portion of its R&D efforts to new play formats. “We have a special group that works on this type of product,” Brennan says. “Anything to be different, and out in front of trends and technologies.”
Everi also has a special carve-out in its product road map for non-traditional game styles. “With all the games we make – 75, 80 different games a year – we have to take some swings,” says Brad Rose, senior vice president of game development for Everi. “We can’t keep making the same free-spin, pick, or progressive games, over and over again.
“Our strategy at Everi is that we’re going to take a couple of swings every year on what we’ll call these outside-the-box, unconventional slot machines. Once it starts there, our designers come up with a lot of different ideas, and we do test them with players.”
That effort was what resulted in Lightning Zap, a concept so popular it is already spawning new versions. Lightning Zap displays an orb suspended in the air to which the player sends electrical charges to trigger “zappable” prizes. Players hit the bash button repeatedly, trying to send electrical charges to hit the orb and increase the payoff.
Released last year, Lightning Zap would soon be followed by Lightning Zap Jackpot, which adds four linked progressives to the prizes that can be zapped out of the orb.
Coming up later this year will be the launches of Cash Machine and Crush. Cash Machine is a simple game that displays reels with digits as the exclusive symbols. The player wins the exact amount the digits form. Crush displays the head of an Aztec-style statue, the Stone Crusher, suspended in air. At the bottom of the screen, chutes on either side distribute stones for the Stone Crusher to crush, as well as coconuts and gold bars. The player bashes the button to send the Crusher slamming to the ground, sometimes taking several tries to crack the object for a prize.
Taking on the Risk
While there are already a few success stories, these non-traditional styles are being pioneered by manufacturers willing to devote R&D dollars to an unproven model, with the end goal being to inject some variety into the product library.
“It does introduce some risk into the process,” says IGT’s Brennan. “For a long time in the industry, we’ve been perfecting the rhythm of three reels, four reels, five reels, whether it’s three seconds, three and a half, four seconds, with the player’s eye traveling from left to right. That rhythm is definitely disrupted by these games.
“But it can be disrupted in a good way. It provides a differentiator, some sort of attraction to a different demographic or age group.”
One way to minimize risk is through player testing. IGT places all its new games in test banks for live reaction and subsequent tweaking of features, as well as frequent player testing.
Everi also does extensive player testing, and Rose says the tests for Lighting Zap and the other non-traditional games have had “polarizing” results. “I was at WMS 16 years before Everi – I have 20 years (total) in the industry – and WMS was really big on player testing,” says Rose. “I’ve sat through probably 200 player tests in my life… the Lightning Zap game was the most polarizing game I’ve ever seen.
“Players say, ‘I’ll play anything.’ You hear that a lot. ‘I’ll play anything once.’ Not with Lightning Zap. They came in and either loved it – thought this was the coolest thing; ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ – or hated it: ‘Why did I waste my day coming to talk to you guys?’
“And that’s kind of what we’ve proved with some of these other games. They’re very polarizing. But… at some point, we have to break through the noise. And if these games can get someone to say, ‘Oh, what’s that?’, come back and try it out, that’s the successful formula we have right now.”
He adds that the development team perfected the game by concentrating on what some players loved aboutit. “For those players who loved it, we really dug into what they liked about it and built off of that,” he says, “and made sure that for this group that liked it, we were really hitting what they wanted.”
The Math’s the Thing
One of the reasons so few manufacturers are developing games in non-traditional styles is the challenge of working the program math to ensure the games are at least as profitable as a traditional slot machine.
“The metric for success of any gaming machine is still win per unit,” says IGT’s Brennan. “We’ve still got to be competitive, and our customers are willing to partner with us and take some chances on things, but it still needs to perform and make right on the investment that’s made.”
Brennan says return-to-player percentages on IGT games like What’s Your Deal and Ultra Reels mirror the RTP/operator hold of more traditional games. “Our RTP models are definitely similar; some of these games have been introduced as ‘take a risk,’ and some of them do have a range, especially if there’s an element of buy-a-pay, or some skill. But we always have to fall into the traditional jurisdictional models, so that it is approvable, it fits within month-to-month variances for a property. I’d say these fit right in there.”
“Hexogems still fundamentally follows a slot math model,” says SG’s Zhang. “In terms of RTP, base/bonus RTP breakdown, and volatility, it’s still designed like a traditional low-denom slot, so we expect that time on device to be comparable to a traditional low-denom slot.”
Rose reports a similar philosophy at Everi for the non-traditional games. “They hold like standard slots, but they’re specifically designed to hold at a lower level—what you would typically design for a high-denomination math model,” he explains. “When you’re making a quarter or dollar slot, you don’t have these paybacks of 84 percent or 86 percent, because you’ll kill the player; they’ll go through money so fast.”
He says games like Lightning Zap hold at around 6-8 percent, with the original version featuring middle-of-the-road volatility. However, the new progressive version, Lightning Zap Jackpot, is offered with three base games, with varying levels of volatility. Everi also is encouraging operators to place multi-denomination versions of the game, as a way to get wagers up.
While the industry is still some distance from seeing an actual trend for these non-traditional game styles, IGT’s Brennan says there has been an uptick of late in the market. “I get excited when I see these types of things,” he says. “Especially in international markets, in other jurisdictions, there have been requests over the last five-plus years to do non-traditional things.
“It’s something we’re looking at. It creates interest in some sectors, but the jury’s still out on consistency in this… At the end of the day, does a player go back to that game?”
Brennan says player focus groups have taught IGT developers that the challenge is in getting players past the trial stage on these games. “From a lot of our research, a lot of people, especially penny players, will try something new,” he says. “They love trying new stuff. But they go back to their favorites. And I haven’t quite seen these innovation games fall into the latter (area), where they become that reliable game.
“I think that’s the missing thing—getting some of these one-off, non-traditional games to become a staple of a player’s repertoire, whether impulse play is something that spikes or settles into extended play.”
SG’s Zhang adds that games like Hexogems offers novice players a format that’s easy to understand. “This game was not designed with the millennial in mind, but since it might be easier to understand than a video slot with 50-plus pay lines, this should still draw in millennials,” she says. “I believe there will be a trend of more reel-less slots in the slot-manufacturing sector in general as manufacturers experiment with new mechanics to see what works.”
Everi’s Rose says he expected more manufacturers to go this route by now. “Going to G2E this year, we were joking about how many competitors were going to have a version of a game just like Lightning Zap. I was surprised that I didn’t see anything.”
He says the reason is the difficulty in getting the math correct in a completely new game format. “That’s the key – it can’t just be no reels, and off you go. The math model still has to be there. We spend a lot of time at that. There’s something to be said that every game that is successful in the industry is due to a good math model.”
And of course, it has to be fun. “We have something called a Brain Trust here at Everi, where we show our games,” says Rose. “There’s a group of about 10 of us. We get together every week and look at everyone’s games from the different studios. When we showed Lighting Zap there, they said, ‘No one’s going to play this, Brad. Good idea, but they’re not going to play it.’ But we put it out, and now, when we go out to the field, we absolutely seeing players smash that play button. They’ve got this illusion that the faster I play, the closer I get to that orb, and eventually, bam, I’ll hit it.”
In other words, it broke through the noise.