Is Skill-Based Gaming Really the Future of Slot Play?

You might have missed it, but Nevada’s gaming industry just passed a milestone. The first skill-based slot machines debuted in late March at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, and they provide a window into one possible future of casino gambling worldwide.

Machine manufacturers and casinos are keen on extending the range of what a “slot machine” is and does because slots have not rebounded from the recession. Not adjusting for inflation, since 2007 the Nevada slot win is down 15 percent. Some of that is due to the general sluggishness of gambling in postrecession Nevada—at the same time nongaming spending is at its highest level ever—but slot machines have lagged behind tables and other games, which have shrunk only 6 percent since 2007. They still bring in considerable money (raking in more than $7 billion last year) but not the revenue they once did.

Some are afraid that younger potential gamblers are not attracted to slot machines like their parents were. There are two schools of thought in the industry: One believes that millennials will age into enjoying traditional slots as much as older patrons. The other feels that, in order to appeal to millennials, casinos will have to offer something more engaging and exciting than one-armed bandits, which, despite their flashy bonus rounds and immersive graphics, offer little variety in play: push and spin, push and spin, push and spin.

This is where skill-based games come in. Fixtures at the Global Gaming Expo for at least the past three years, they purport to combine the money making potential of traditional slots, the challenge of video games and the playability of social games. The first skill game approved for an American casino floor, GameCo’s Danger Arena, debuted in October at Caesars Entertainment’s Atlantic City properties. Now Caesars is introducing the next generation of gaming to Las Vegas in the form of Gamblit Gaming’s Cannonbeard’s Treasure and Gamblit Poker, which premiered at Planet Hollywood late last month.

Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Attendees try out the skill-based “Phoenix Realm” during the Global Gaming Expo in September.

So what’s it like playing the games? I decided to give them a try.

Some background: I’m a Generation Xer who couldn’t be less interested in playing slot machines but spends too many hours a week playing video games. In other words, for the metaphorical lions of skill gaming, I should be the equivalent of an antelope with a bad leg wearing a sausage-and-gravy tuxedo. On a recent Tuesday morning, I headed over to Planet Hollywood to give the games a shot.

The three Gamblit games are easy to find, just off the main table games area and adjacent to a bubble craps game that had a few players. “Play video games, win cash!” advertised a poster nearby. “The future of gaming is here.”

The future, perhaps, was slow in coming this morning—no one was on the skill games. I circled around a Gamblit Poker game, completely unsure of what to expect, and put in a $20 bill, though I could not find a slot for my Total Rewards card. I hit “Bet: $2” and hoped for the best. “You’re in!” An animation box popped up, announcing, “Please wait for others to bet …”

And that was the rub. I waited a few minutes for a new friend to magically appear, then hit the “call staff” button. An extremely polite staff member confirmed that, yes, I had to wait for another human being to join in before I could try the game. Seeing no likely candidates in the area, I cashed out.

End result of my first real-life encounter with the future of gaming: I broke even—and gained a new perspective on alienation. There are few people more isolated than someone in a casino with the cash and desire to gamble who can’t find someone to enable that gambling.

It could be that, as a kid who grew up in video arcades (Spaceport at the Shore Mall and Playcade on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, specifically), I’m conditioned to equate “skill gaming” with pitting my quarters against a game rather than betting against other people. Maybe the fact that I didn’t come to “skill game” with a friend in tow just means that I don’t get it.

No new game is going to entice everyone, but skill games, as my experience showed me, are a step away from traditional slot machines, which try to be as playable as possible to as many people as possible. Maybe appealing more selectively is one way to move ahead.

In that case, I really did come face-to-face with the future of gaming at Planet Hollywood.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center  for Gaming Research.