Manufacturer Maladies

At the conclusion of the most recent G2E, one analyst was reported to have said, “The future for manufacturers looks bright. There are many great games, but no home run.” Although this is a general and broad statement intended to cover the future, based on the products that were displayed, there is a certain broader truth to the statement, particularly as it applies to the products on the casino floor during the six months prior to the convention. While it is true that there were several new games introduced by all of the major manufacturers—many of which are very good—the most definitive truth of the analyst’s statement is that, indeed, there are no “home runs” in the current batch of games.

While it is true that many iconic brands were introduced—such as Sex and the City, American Idol, Star Wars, new versions of Monopoly—along with a plethora of Bally game titles, including several in the redesigned Cinevision cabinet, nothing has stuck in players’ minds as an “it” game. Yet the future does look bright, particularly if the promise of new games, technology and gaming innovations—particularly SBG—is realized and brought to the casino floor in a timely manner and—most particularly—in a manner that makes the playing experience under actual in-casino conditions responsive and answerable to the players themselves, meeting their needs and expectations. This, of course, remains yet to be seen. But the prognosis is good. To echo that analyst, the future looks bright.

As far as game content is concerned, another interesting trend has to do with the games’ entertainment value—more specifically, the “bang for the buck” that players desire the most. Although it is true that many players continue to play video slot products, including reel products, primarily for entertainment purposes (which is generally the case among older players), there is an increasing groundswell of opinion that indicates that players are becoming tired of gimmicks that don’t actually pay anything. They are longing more and more for slots as they used to be—namely, a product that will actually award them a valuable pay. The concept of “frequency” is often as misunderstood by manufacturers as the concept of “value” is when it comes to the actual awards that the players receive. Manufacturers—and game designers, for that matter—tend to think of frequency and value in ways that appear to be diametrically opposed to the meanings that players actually ascribe to them.

Perhaps the most significant improvement in hardware cabinetry is the Aristocrat Viridian cabinet and the company’s soon-to-be-launched new design, which was presented at G2E last November. This new cabinet retains the styling of the Aristocrat product, which had become signatorily identifiable on the casino floor, but provides much-needed improvements not only to the look and feel of the cabinet but also to the button deck and other interactive elements, thus making this cabinet design much more player friendly. This change had been a long time coming. Up to this point, Aristocrat was known for the excellence of its content, not for the design of its cabinetry. With the new cabinet, it is clear that Aristocrat is focusing more directly on upgrading all of its equipment, not just the games that the equipment contains. The Viridian and the “new” cabinet were the first steps, and they have already been followed by great improvements in Aristocrat’s stepper slots and slant-top design.

Another technological innovation that players have noticed is the introduction (in some casinos) of video components and touchscreen technology for player-tracking systems. While players generally appreciate this addition to the playing experience, what they absolutely do not like is the constant stream of commercials and announcements that now flash in front of their eyes as they are trying to play the game. This usage of the technology is extremely bad, and it should be discontinued immediately. It distracts the player from doing the one thing that they came to do in the first place—to actually play the slot machine. Instead, they spend half their time watching streaming commercials on the video components of the player tracking systems.

Casinos and manufacturers are doing themselves a great disservice by permitting this technology to be used as a means of delivering commercials and announcements. Casinos and manufacturers should remember that they are trying to attract the player to play that particular slot machine—to commit their funds and attention to the slot machine—and not distract them from the act of gaming. This is an ongoing problem for players everywhere. It still mystifies me that casinos and manufacturers continue to go to such great lengths to distract their customers from actually playing the game. After all, manufacturers and casinos spend millions of dollars creating the game, and all of its content and technological components, yet when the game is actually placed on the casino floor, the casinos and the manufacturer both do everything possible to distract the player from actually playing it. The more time the players waste looking at all the intrusive messaging that is streamed to their machines, the less time they spend putting money into the machine, which, in turn, means fewer spins and less money for both the casino and the manufacturer.

Instead, allow the customer to “hide” those components and only access them when they want to. It is so simple, yet both casinos and manufacturers are still blind to the sheer value of simply leaving the player to play the machine. Why is this so difficult to understand? The answer is simple, too—in today’s casinos, and in today’s market, the manufacturers, the people creating the games and the casinos managers are no longer gamblers themselves. They don’t seem to be asking themselves this vital question: If it was your money, would you play this game?

Another component of slot games that has perhaps not kept pace with players’ expectations includes the deteriorating conditions of currency validators in existing products and the apparent failings in these crucially important components among new designs. While player complaints regarding this particular component have been steadily decreasing over the past several years, this has not been the case recently. Many of the older slot machine models now habitually reject currency, requiring the player to insert a bill anywhere from three to 10 times—or more—before it is accepted … or completely rejected. Many of currency validation components have been so neglected that they only accept tickets. Sometimes they do not function at all and remain unrepaired for extended periods of time. As far as casino personnel is concerned, the solution to these problems seems to be to simply take the entire unit from that particular slot machine and replace it with a unit taken from a different slot machine. While this is a quick fix, it does not actually repair the problem; it simply moves it to another machine. In turn, this causes the casino—and the manufacturer—to lose money, as the casino, and the technical and repair personnel, are not actually repairing the problem; they are relegating it elsewhere. This phenomenon appears to be growing, particularly as casinos trim their workforces and cut back on replacement unit and component orders. Naturally, this is entirely the wrong approach.

If a customer is angered and walks away from a machine because he or she cannot insert money into it, neither the casino nor the manufacturer benefits. Further propagating the problem, in these cases the players do not blame the casino—instead, they blame the machine, and thereby the manufacturer and the game. This is indeed a terrible situation, and all manufacturers should immediately address it with their clients. Additionally, many new designs are being released with currency validators that seem to have inherent problems similar to those described above. Even the newest models with the freshest currency validators often exhibit an inordinate number of failures under actual in-casino usage conditions. This directly results in lost income for these machines and, thus, lost income for the manufacturers as well as the casinos.

As manufacturers continue to struggle for the placement of their products on the casino floor in an increasingly competitive market—while also facing a slowdown in the economy—it seems unfathomable that manufacturers would so blithely ignore such a major failure of such a critical component of the slot machine, whether new or already on the floor. If the objective is to attract customers to a slot machine in a manner that convinces them to insert currency and begin play, and then continue to play it once they have lost that money, would it not make sense to make the component that accepts currency function flawlessly? If manufacturers are wondering why players are not reinserting currency into their models, perhaps a greater focus on more efficiently functioning components in this area is warranted.

Similarly, distracting players from playing the slot machine is equally as bad as not permitting them to easily and quickly insert their money. Creating gaming environments where multiple sensory inputs are doing everything possible to distract the player from playing the slot machine is not the road to financial success for the slot machine, the manufacturer or the casino. And, ultimately, not for the player either. Using player-tracking components to bombard the player with a steady stream of advertisements is like forcing the player to watch endless late-night TV infomercials, all the while asking them to spend their hard-earned money in the slot machine product that the manufacturers have provided and that the casinos have installed. I cannot overemphasize the utter silliness of this idea and am therefore reiterating it. Don’t force commercials on your players at the game.

Of course, these problems are not confined only to this particular component. A trend in manufacturing and design seems to have resulted in bombarding the player with an endless stream of sensory input, from loud noises and music to delayed reels, top-box and in-game animations, and endless distractions auditory and visual, all of which are doing the one thing that slot machine manufacturers and casinos should never do—stop the player from playing the slot machine.

While the players are being distracted by these multiple inputs of sensory distractions, they are not doing the one thing that they should be doing—putting money in the slot machine. In recent years manufacturers seem to have forgotten that slot machines are serious gambling devices and that they should be treated as such. Slot machines are not kiddie games for juvenile enjoyment; they are adult machines for adult games for adults. And by this I don’t mean that multitasking opportunities are a detriment. On the contrary, I believe that multitasking-multistation gaming—and even multitasking-single-station gaming—is absolutely the future of slot machines. But that is different from all the distractions and useless fluff that is clouding the gaming experience for the gambler, who is, after all, the goose that lays all those golden eggs—and has done so for as long as there have been slot machines and casinos.

Keep the player playing. Make it easy for them to spend more money. They will like it a lot better. So will the manufacturer, and so will the manufacturer’s client, the casino. And that is perhaps the single most important perspective to bear in mind when creating new hardware and cabinetry designs, game content and machine components. Manufacturers should think more about the multitasking opportunities that new technology makes possible and should not forget that slot machines are serious gambling devices for adults. While the entertainment experience is indeed entertaining, it is the experience of actually winning some decent money—or at the very least something meaningfully valuable—that is the force and factor behind most players’ playing decisions.

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