In one of the very first installments of Frank Floor Talk, we looked at the changing face of video poker, and how the game’s dominant developer and supplier, International Game Technology, was bringing new players to a venerable product.
Since it’s been more than a year since that video poker snapshot, it will be instructive to do the first of what will be an annual update on the subject — as with the first entry, courtesy of IGT’s resident guru on the subject, Director of Video Poker Product Management Darnell Johnson.
First, a little author’s note, if you will: We normally seek out several supplier sources for articles about a particular game genre. However, in the case of video poker, realistically, the list pretty much stops at IGT, as it has since the manufacturer introduced the first casino video poker machines in the late 1970s—before IGT founder Si Redd’s company was even called IGT.
(For the record, it was SIRCOMA, which stood for “Si Redd’s Coin Machines.”)
IGT introduced and developed the game category, and still absolutely dominates the field. Over the years, its growing stable of games has created a video poker subculture — knowledgeable players who study the pay schedules and train themselves in optimal strategy to shrink the house edge down to near, or even below zero. Helped by the fact that it’s the only game in a casino on which the optimal return to player can be ascertained on sight, video poker devotees can study the odds and try to gain an edge on the casino, even in the simplest of games, Jacks or Better.
However, those in charge of growing the genre knew early on that more variety would bring in more players. Bonus Poker interested players with bonus payments for four aces and four of the otherwise least-valuable cards in a deck, 2, 3 and 4. That game spawned more volatile games like Double Bonus, Double Double Bonus, Triple Bonus and other variations. More variety ensued with Deuces Wild, Jokers Wild and one or two others that have been around for decades. However, for IGT, the reinvention of the genre has not stopped. With every fall’s big trade show comes another suite of video poker games with bonus features, multipliers and other perks borrowed from the slot side of the company’s business.
Several other manufacturers have tried over the years to use bonuses and other special gimmicks in attempts to loosen IGT’s stranglehold on the genre, but it has been IGT that has translated such features into games that actually grow the market for video poker. One reason has been the way the games pay for those specialties—the player pays for them up front, with what amounts to an ante on the traditional five-credit per-hand wager.
Even the diehard video poker players are ponying up the extra wagers, says IGT’s Johnson, because the manufacturer provides pay schedules similar to the traditional versions—the return of the base video poker game, with optimal strategy, is not affected by the bonus.
Johnson says the company makes the complete range of pay schedules available to operators for this style of bonus video poker, although because of the bonus payouts, operators are not picking, say, the top Double Bonus or Deuces Wild pay schedules, which each have optimal theoretical returns exceeding 100 percent. Many other high-return schedules are being utilized, though.
“IGT does not actively market the ‘full pay’ schedule for its video poker games with bonuses, but for a very good reason — people have differing views of what full pay in video poker should look like, particularly when bonuses are involved,” Johnson said. “That said, operators are typically aware that our bonused video poker products are available on a wide variety of pay tables, including ones which might be considered ‘full pay’ by players.
“Video poker genre purists are often aware of the new bonus features that IGT is putting into its product portfolio. Legacy games such as IGT’s Super Times Pay set the precedence that bonus features add variety to the casino experience and can still entertain and reward skilled video poker players.”
He adds that in an era where operators are experimenting with ways to bring skill to the slot floor, the fact that skill can improve one’s chances in video poker is often overlooked. “It is sometimes forgotten that video poker is the original skill-based casino game, which is an area often believed to be appealing to younger generations of players,” Johnson said. “As the gaming industry experiments with skill-based games, I think it’s important we learn from the success of video poker and the loyalty of its player base.”
Finding the Fit
Johnson said IGT works hard in research and development of the new style of video poker, from creation of new games to identifying which of those new games have struck chords with players. “IGT has a team of poker specialists that is in constant contact with our customers, who provide valuable insights into which IGT games are performing best in the field, and why,” Johnson says.
“In terms of recently launched IGT video poker games with bonuses, we consistently hear that titles such as Ultimate X Bonus Streak, Hot Roll Poker and Dream Card Poker are attracting and entertaining a broad demographic of players.”
Ultimate X Bonus Streak is a new version of a previous winner, Ultimate X Poker, which carries a simple formula: If the player doubles the per-hand bet to 10 credits, any paying hand triggers a multiplier of 2X, 3X or 4X to be applied to the subsequent hand. In Triple Play and other multi-hand versions, the mutliplier is applied to one or more of the hands in the subsequent deal. The Bonus Streak version extends the multipliers to a random number of hands in a “streak.”
Dream Card Poker also enables a bonus feature with the double max bet. For a 10-credit wager, the game will randomly give the player four cards and one “Dream Card,” which acts like a wild card to form the best possible hand.
In Hot Roll Poker, the extra five-credit bet activates a random feature in which dice appear after a winning hand and roll to award a multiplier of the pay equal to the dice total — up to 12X for boxcars.
According to the videopoker.com website, the top-paying versions currently in the field of all three games exceed 99 percent in theoretical return-to-player percentage with optimal play.
Of course, these new styles of games don’t make it to the floor at all without a thorough pre-release regimen of testing. “Internal and external focus group testing is a methodology that IGT deploys across all its product lines,” says Johnson. “It provides a valuable measure for whether a game will meet, exceed, or miss player expectations. IGT works with established, skilled video poker players to experience our games, pre-release, and provide feedback on a variety of factors such as if the games are entertaining, easy to understand, paired with the ideal hardware, etc.”
On the new bonus style of video poker, Johnson says the focus tests reveal one credo: Keep it simple. “We extract a wide range of feedback from our player focus groups, but as it pertains to bonus content on video poker games, the overarching opinion is simple: if the bonus features are easy to understand and players see the value in the bonuses offered, players typically accept them.”
Johnson says that while the bonus style of video poker is attracting new players to the game, the company applies a much broader stroke in its video poker game development. “Bonuses can be leveraged to attract new players to the genre, although that is not the only driver of IGT’s video poker innovation strategy,” he says. “We are focused on innovation in all levels of the organization, and in video poker, incremental innovation such as new bonuses or new hardware is exactly what our customers need to modernize their casino floors.”
The fact that IGT has been at it so long is the biggest reason the company is likely to continue to dominate. “We’re building upon our traditional video poker games and bringing them to life in new and exciting ways,” says Johnson. “IGT has a deep and diverse library of video poker game themes to draw upon, and we’re using that to our advantage.”