Frank Floor Talk: The overlooked firecrackers

October 25, 2023 8:00 AM
Photo: Photo: Gimme Games
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
October 25, 2023 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

For many months, the cutting-edge vendors of AI-based analytics programs like QCI, Gaming Analytics and ReelMetrics have been urging operators to take a second look at their strongest games and make sure they have enough of them. They’ve all cautioned that if you don’t, you’re literally “leaving money on the floor.”

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But G2E has never, ever followed that philosophy. It is unlikely that anyone exhibiting in Las Vegas ever followed the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Indeed, everyone who attended the annual show this October probably got a demo of, or at least heard the buzz about, Aristocrat’s NFL themes; Light & Wonder’s “Squid Game;” or even IGT’s new “Whitney Houston” game. There was also optimistic talk of breakthroughs by the smaller vendors debuting exciting games, vendors making comebacks or everyone on the edge of revolutionary releases. While many of these titles demo’d at the show may make it big, none have done so yet. The historical odds are that more than a few of those promising titles will probably fail.

Sports betting continues to generate positive chatter early in this football season, with some chuckling in Las Vegas on whether to bet the over or under on how many days before Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift break up. While that may be a difficult proposition to predict, I have one sure thing for you: Bet your money that not one of the 25,000 G2E attendees were urged to buy more of Aristocrat’s “Bao Zhu Zhao Fu” games!

Why do I find that so incredulous? Let’s start with a few facts. When the game was introduced in 2021, it almost immediately captured the #1 and #2 positions in the important “Core” game category in many surveys. “Core” are those games that you can buy outright without having to share revenue or lease them from the manufacturer. Just last month in the critical “Pre-G2E” Eilers & Krejcik September 2023 Game Performance Report, “Bao Zhu Zhao Fu” (in its four variants) took four of the top 15 positions in “Core Overall” category. No other game had more than one on that list.

If you search Aristocrat’s U.S. web page, it is dominated by the new “NFL” brand (which is logical since they probably paid a fortune for those rights). That is followed with features on “Jackpot Carnival,” “Hunt for Neptune’s Gold,” “Mo Mummy” and “Buffalo Diamond Extreme”.  Those are all great games, but not one of them can match the performance of “Bao Zhu” yet.

If you research the excellent From the Floor G2E posts from CDC Gaming Reports, the releases from show sponsor AGA or coverage from Global Gaming Business, you won’t find a single mention of the Bao Zhu Zhao Fu game.

Why should we care? Because the most basic principle of slot management is “add more good games and get rid of weak games”. That’s why.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, there are now several corollaries to that simple guideline which can make a critical difference. With the introduction of advanced analytics, identifying “good” games is no longer simple. We must consider and quantify game lifecycle, min/max bets, time-on-device, return play, player demographics and devotion scores. Likewise, “weak” games must be carefully evaluated to make sure they are not an item on any specific player’s “market basket,” appeals to certain targeted demographics and/or plays a role in maintaining the strongest and most productive “below average” products. Carefully managing your “losers” is just as important as having enough winners.

But even if you don’t have great analytic software (you should get some), the evidence on this game series is a no brainer. It was developed by Gimmie Games, one of several design studios working exclusively with Aristocrat. The studio was founded in 2012 by Daniel (Dan) Marks. Before Gimmie Games, he managed High Five Games for 12 years and co-founded and managed Spooky Cool Labs for two years.

He is the creative force behind the development of Bao Zhu, but is quick to note that any game takes a whole team working together. Marks says, “I may come up with a game concept, but it takes Hua and his mathematicians to design the math, Mauricio and his artists to illustrate and animate, Dan Lee and his music-makers to build the soundscape, Dinesh and his engineering squad to make it work, and then the support of our U.S., India and Poland teams to bring the game to market.”

Hua Xu is the VP of Game Design at Gimmie Games and concentrates on the math side of the product. He said that the process of building a new game takes about 15 months. Both he and Marks vividly remember the launch of Bao Zhu, which was doing over three times house average at Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway and Rampart Casino in Summerlin, NV, when released about a month or two before G2E 2021. “Rampart placed it in the back, back corner on the way to the bathroom, facing away from everything and everyone. It was almost impossible to find unless you wanted a quiet space to have a phone call.” But it took off in that weak location, and the team knew they had a hit.

Xu explained that the Chinese name “Bào Zhú Zhāo Fú” literally translates to Firecrackers Bring In Fortune (  ). The first generation of games were sub-branded “Red Festival” and “Blue Festival.” They each featured three strings of firecrackers hanging above the main screen with the headings: Ultra Spins, Double Up, and Extra Spins. Once any of these bonuses are hit, the screen transforms to a popular Hold and Spin mechanic.

Hold and Spin is the most widely adopted bonus style in slot machine design today. Aristocrat credits the origin of this successful method of bonusing to Hall of Fame-designer Scott Olive of HRG Studios in Australia. Like Gimmie, HRG works exclusively for ATI. The recent Hold and Spin breakthrough was on the wildly popular Lightning Link games and its many follow-on products.

Today, almost every vendor has copied the Hold and Spin design. The concept is to display a few winning symbols, have them stay in place (“Hold”) while there are more chances to add winners (“Spin”). Historians may point out that the basics of this concept were born in the very early 20th Century with “skill stops” on mechanical reel games. Players could push a button to hold or freeze reels with winning symbols, and then spin the rest. The trend was revived in the mid-1990s when another Hall of Fame-designer Ernie Moody created “Triple Play Poker”, which allowed players to hold certain cards on multiple screens and then draw again.

The team at Gimmie Games combined the Hold and Spin mechanic with a triple, overlapping bonus feature used in an earlier Aristocrat game called “Fu Dai Lian Lian” (that mechanic was developed by their Oz Studio in Sydney, Australia). As a result, “Bao Zhu Zhao Fu” allows players to play one, two or all three different bonuses at once. These bonuses are triggered by skyrockets which explode from the reels onto the colored strings of firecrackers.

The “Double Up” bonus is clearly shown on the right-hand screen. Photo courtesy of Aristocrat.

When the “Double” bonus is hit, the base game duplicates all of the cash-on-reel symbols in to a second game. From that point forward, the player gets to collect more cash-on-reel symbols in each of the two Hold and Spin games.

When the “Extra” bonus is hit, every new prize symbol resets the bonus free spin counter to four (4) spins remaining instead of the regular three (3) spins.

If the “Ultra” bonus is hit, an anonymous phoenix or turtle (both creatures are Asian symbols for good luck) randomly comes across the screen, increasing some of the cash-on-reel amounts held on the screen.

If two of these features are hit, the game combines them together. For example, if the “Double Up” and “Extra” features are hit, the player gets the extended 4-3-2-1 spin cycle on both Hold and Spin games instead of just one. And, of course, if all three features are hit, the player gets everything described above plus some rewarding random visits by the bird and turtle.

Checking out any of the slot influencers on YouTube and they will show you plenty of video clips of these bonuses hitting for big wins. Most of them will also mention a few Bao Zhu myths. Here’s one: “If a string of firecrackers is sparkling, the bonus is ready to hit.”

That’s false, but also a bit true! Like any slot machine, this game is controlled by a random number generator (RNG) which ensures that every pull is independent. In other words, you can hit one or all three bonuses even if there is not a single firecracker sparkling. However, the partial truth of this myth comes from the fact that the strings do flicker more the longer the time elapsed since the last bonus was hit. Many players will swear that this means “the bonus is overdue”. These types of myths are what make our industry great.

Another rumor is that “fast tapping” the game produces more skyrockets. Again, this is not true, but “tapping” does make it appear that there are more rockets since they visually appear quicker. Again, all the features are truly random.

Why doesn’t everyone buy more of these games? Reliance on Win Per Unit Per Day (WPUPD) metrics may be one reason. As QCI’s co-founder Andrew Cardno often points out, this metric can be deceiving.

Oversimplified, consider the example that your six existing Firecracker games may be doing $300/day, or three times the House Average of $100/day. If you added six more games, there’s a chance that the WPUPD would decline. Worst case, it could even drop to just $200 day. That’s a 30+ point decline. Many operators find that hard to accept.

But the bottom line is that even if that occurred, you’d produce $2,400/day with those 12 games versus just $1,800 per day with just six. That is still double the house average for each game. While that may seem obvious, it is not unusual for many operators to overlook this simple math to avoid declines in WPUPD.

The other reason for not adding more makes even less sense: the manufacturers have a tendency to promote new games over existing strong titles (G2E, as noted above, is my case in point).

In full disclosure, Aristocrat did not totally ignore Bao Zhu Zhao Fu at G2E 2023. Gimmie Games Sr. Portfolio Manager David (Dave) Kaminkow did preview a third-generation game called “Bao Zhu Zhao Fu Blast” at the show. With all four existing Bao Zhu variants (Red, Blue, Purple and Jade Festivals) still dominating the polls, it will certainly be wise to take a look at this new “Blast” variant when it is released.

When asked why most of the featured items were seemingly in groups of “threes,” the studio designers hinted that we might see some four-level Bao Zhu Zhao Fu games soon.

But as mentioned above, no need to wait for “Blast” or the quad mechanics. The smart move would be to order more existing Bao Zhu Zhao Fu games for your floor now.

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P.S. Despite how it sounds above, I have no financial or consulting interests with Aristocrat or Gimmie Games. CDC Gaming Reports, which is kind enough to publish my rants on a monthly basis, has never given me any specific direction on how I cover a topic. Rather, I am a true “fan boy” of great games and feel a need to “pay it forward”. My hope is that I can help folks avoid my many mistakes, and that I’ll be able pass along some of the wisdom that others have been kind enough to share with me over the years. – BF

P.S.#2 – Early reports from Southern California casinos are that Aristocrat’s NFL-themed games are doing very well so far, but time will tell. One promising note is that the same team that created “Bao Zhu Zhao Fu” (Gimmie Games) also did these football-themed participation games.