These days, it pays to be a nerd. As the gambling industry looks to skill-based gaming to attract millennials, there’s a major push for video games on the casino floor. One company executing this especially well is GameCo, a New York–based startup responsible for creating the world’s first video game gambling machine (VGM). I got a chance to demo the machines at the Global Gaming Expo in October to see just how well they appeal to a younger crowd. Here’s what I found.
Standing on the Shoulders of Gamers
Recognized as the first skill-based gaming company to be regulated in the United States, GameCo launched its VGMs last fall in Atlantic City. Its roots in gaming, however, go back much further than that. CEO and cofounder Blaine Graboyes started working in the video game industry 20 years ago, collaborating with big-name clients such as Blizzard Entertainment (Overwatch) and Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed). A longtime gamer brought up on Atari and PlayStation, Graboyes says his experience with startups, video games and esports led him to create GameCo.
One thing’s for sure: The VGM ain’t your daddy’s gambling machine. Assuming the likeness of arcade cabinets, the machines sport joysticks and video game controllers manufactured by Suzohapp. Upcoming additions include flight sticks, steering wheels and light guns. Graboyes has witnessed the effect of these designs firsthand: “We’ve seen people at the casino who have brought their Xbox to play up in their room, and then they see our games and say, ‘Finally, something for me at the casino.’”
Play for Pay
I can’t believe I can make money doing this. That’s all I can think of as I blast exoskeleton A.I. under a freeway underpass in GameCo’s variant of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Suzohapp’s controller holds up well to my erratic trigger pulling and thumb stick swinging, a feat that Graboyes says comes from “designing a controller that was rugged and robust for the casino. Proud to say that in almost a year, we haven’t had a single one break,” he adds.
Each round lasts around 60 seconds, making racking up high scores more difficult. Different bet amounts grant different guns. For instance, $10 gets me a rifle, $20 gets me a railgun. Bet size also affects your progressive level, which can result in a higher payout. The levels break down to mini, maxi and mega. Each is programmed to occur depending on how much time has passed. For instance, a mini progressive jackpot might hit once or twice a day, Graboyes says, and a mega might hit once or twice a month. “All of our [generation two] games include this ‘Standalone Progressive’ feature,” he says. “‘Standalone’ refers to the fact that each individual VGM has a unique progressive jackpot pool which is not linked locally or in a ‘wide area’ across properties. Local or wide area jackpots are features we’re considering for future,” he adds.
Specs aside, gambling on a first-person shooter is incredibly fun, if not a little surreal. I won, and I won often. Thankfully, this was just a demo, or I wouldn’t even be writing this right now. I’d be on a yacht sipping a glass of 1943 Moët and Chandon Brut, or whatever rich people do.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day resonates with me because I’m a first-person shooter fan, but Graboyes ensures there’s something for every kind of gamer, no matter the age or the skill level. He breaks it down into three categories: core, mid-core and casual. “A core game will appeal to a younger audience, a mid-core sports game will appeal to a broader audience and a casual game will appeal to an older audience,” he says, adding he’s noticed a lot of interest from poker, roulette and blackjack players.
GameCo’s Candy Crush–like titles, such as Cosmic Candy Heist, appeal to casual players. But the company’s Multiplayer Challenge Mode panders to a more competitive audience. I tried a prototype of the feature in Nothin’ But Net, a game where well-timed basketball shots help you score, and I’ve got to say: Competing against a real person adds more incentive to win. Playing for money is already motivation enough, but the chance to rub it in someone else’s face is even better. Graboyes assures you’ll be able to do that with all of GameCo’s game library in 2018, with the option to play with up to eight, and eventually 64, players in esports-like tournaments—brackets and all.
Another standout was Steve Aoki’s Neon Dream. Using the VGM joystick, you’re tasked with collecting coins while avoiding obstacles on an endlessly moving racetrack. Resistance from the joystick requires incredibly precise movements as the treadmill track gains speed. Relying on reflex is key. Surprisingly, this is the game that made me forget I was gambling the most.
Graboyes says more immersive titles are in the works, including a VGM edition of Bandai Namco’s fighting game Soulcalibur. “One of the things that’s really unique about GameCo is we don’t actually make the games. We make the platform. We’re like the Xbox or app store of the casino,” he says. “With Soulcalibur, we’re working with the original creative engineering production team of my favorite game of all time. For me, it’s like working with celebrities.”
The CEO says this business model allows GameCo to stay in its casino gaming lane, while developers focus on what they do best: creating great games.
“The Casino of the Future Now”
Graboyes and I are nearly done with our conversation when he explains to me the theme of his G2E booth.
“The casino of the future now. We’re showing our names, slot machines, table games, even games from other skill-gaming manufacturers, along with music, entertainment, cosplay, esports, [food and beverage]. We think all of these are coming together into a new seamless experience,” he says. “The reason we call it ‘casino of the future now’ is because there’s the ability to implement this today.”
And GameCo already is. While the company’s still in the process of getting licensed in Nevada, about 60 of its VGMs are operating in other states, such as New Jersey, Connecticut and North Carolina. Another 250 are expected to go live by the end of the year, with licenses being processed in California, the Caribbean, Florida and Alberta and Ontario, Canada.
Based on my experiences, GameCo shows immense promise in the industry. The prospect of winning is reason enough to try any skill-based game, but the New York firm makes gambling fun. As a millennial whose fondest gambling memories include an epic hand of poker in Red Dead Redemption, VGMs might just make a gambler out of me yet.