Among the more important topics addressed at the annual Global Gaming Expo, held earlier this month at the Sands Expo Center, focused on an industry in transition. Even as the number of casinos where people can gamble is increasing, the interest of millennials—those born more or less after 1981—may be waning. So those running casinos and those who make the machines that currently fill them have a dilemma: How do they reach out to new customers—without alienating their existing ones?
The casino business has always evolved, of course. When modern casinos emerged in Las Vegas and Reno in the 1940s and 1950s, they emphasized table games, particularly craps. In the ’60s, blackjack soared in popularity, and in the following decade, slot machines began their rise—and since the ’80s, they’ve dominated American casinos.
Even though slots only generate about half of the total win on the high roller-heavy Las Vegas Strip, in other markets, they can generate 90 percent (or more) of total win. So if younger visitors are avoiding slot machines—and many in the industry are convinced they are—that spells trouble for the future of casinos.
What to do? There are two schools of thought.
The first is to make slot machines as we now know them more appealing to younger gamblers. That’s why you see such titles as Game of Thrones and Mad Men moving onto slot floors. In the best Las Vegas tradition, they have something for everyone: the gameplay that gamblers know, immersive bonus rounds and current pop-culture references. This, some believe, will whet the next generation’s appetite for casino gaming. There’s been some success already: Aristocrat’s The Walking Dead slot is this year’s Global Gaming Awards Casino Product of the Year.
The second approach is to fundamentally change how machines and players interact. For instance, instead of putting a new skin on existing games, or tweaking those games, offer something entirely new. Case in point: NanoTech Gaming Labs unveiled Vegas 2047, a game that, at first glance, looks like your average high-end steampunk digital pinball game. But as players rack up points, their expected value (the amount they theoretically should win over time; nearly all casino games have negative expectations, hence the phrase “the house always wins”) increases, and can even flip from negative to positive—meaning, over time, the player will win more than he loses. After the last ball has been played, the game’s wager takes place on a wheel. As in slot machines, the result is determined by a random number generator, but unlike most slots, the player can gain an edge. And, at the very least, he’s blown off some steam with a challenging game of pinball.
There is a risk to the house, though: Casinos that offer even a slight advantage are notorious for losing large amounts of money quickly as skilled players mercilessly exploit them. But, as casinos court players who are used to leveling up and improving their play, it may be a necessary risk.
Another company, Gamblit Gaming, is meeting the gamblers of tomorrow where they are now: playing 21st-century games on their smartphones and tablets. Injecting gambling elements into popular social-game genres forms another bridge from what millennials are doing now to where casino operators would like to see them go.
Each approach has benefits and drawbacks. Casinos have limited floor space and limited budgets, so there is less room to experiment than there was in the past. Casino bosses are also hesitant to alienate their core customers; it is an oft-repeated truism that the average slot player is a woman in her 50s. But snubbing millennials—a segment whose buying power is growing—is a bad bet for long-term viability.
The upshot? Expect to see slot titles with more youthful appeal—and a few games that play in radically different ways—mixed in among the Ellen DeGeneres and Wheel of Fortune machines. And, if things go the way developers hope, in a few years, the upstarts will be the new majority.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.