First, let me just say that I am what you would call a “gamer.” I remember standing in front of a Pac-Man™ arcade machine when I was 11 years old, at the height of the ‘80s arcade phenomenon, wondering to myself: “Well, Mr. Pac-Man, I don’t know what drives you to eat those little dots, but someday I’m gonna find out.” And so began my career in the world of programming video games.
Throughout my 15 years in the game industry, I’ve been lucky enough to bear witness to several watershed moments in game technology. But it wasn’t until I started my career at Multimedia Games, a manufacturer of casino slot machines, that I stumbled upon the realization that I’ve been here before!
Some of the same technological innovations that have revolutionized the game industry are occurring in the gaming industry as well, but at a slower pace. So this begs the question: Can we use the history of innovation in games as a “crystal ball” for what’s to come in the future of casino gaming?
Can Mario and Luigi really predict the future?
First, let’s cover the more obvious examples of how the game and gaming industries have shared a technology progression through the years.
I, being a hardcore gamer from birth, fondly remember spending hours playing pinball at the local arcade. It wasn’t long after the pinball craze started that the first video games were introduced, and pinball’s popularity started to wane. In the gaming world, we saw the same progression from the standard mechanical reel configuration to the more modern video slots.
Though there may be some debate as to which industry made the switch first and why, it’s safe to say that the video game industry gained significant popularity well before the video slot machine started seeing the same popularity with players.
As players became more and more accustomed to playing video games, they began to demand an increasingly immersive environment. As players became more sophisticated, so did their content requirements. Video games became more and more complex with more in-depth story arcs and more intellectual game play. We transitioned from blocky, 2-D graphics to stunningly realistic 3-D characters and environments.
Again, we saw the same progression within the casino, where games were clamoring to deliver more engaging bonus games with different themes and story content. We started seeing more and more engaging content with 3-D bonus games and surround sound.Suddenly, it wasn’t good enough to just spin three reels and wait for a bang-up.
Reach Out and Frag Someone
One of the more powerful moments in video game history for a lot of people was when the game went from being a largely solitary experience to one where players could reach out via a dial-up modem and play against another living, breathing human being. The sudden ability to access a large community of opponents created an unlimited supply of challengers, giving even the most expert players the opportunity to show off in a very public forum. Add to that the advent of the Internet, where the pool of potential opponents went from the contents of your address book to the entire planet, and you’ve just traveled into a whole new dimension.
In the video game world, this feature is all but ubiquitous now. Games that otherwise wouldn’t have had a multiplayer feature now have them simply because players demand it. The casino gaming world, meanwhile, is just now witnessing the genesis of this same transformation.
While we can stretch and say that things like “community games” and “wide area progressives” are similar in concept, they still do not generate the same visceral appeal that their game industry counterparts do. Manufacturers are now starting to expand the area of skill-based gaming as a first step into a more “competition oriented” gaming experience, and it’s reasonable to expect it to expand even more.
Soon, we’ll be seeing a proliferation of more direct, one-on-one competition-based experiences within the casino that more closely match similar experiences on a typical game console. We’re already seeing an increase in various slot tournament products, like Multimedia Games’ TournEvent™, which give players an opportunity to compete directly in real-time with other players seated next to them. Players can see how well they did against their opponents by looking at their standings on a leaderboard and thus receive an immediate recognition of success or failure.
Of course, a little gloating and trash-talking never hurts either.
Save Your Game Often
Even though, at the time, the ability to link up and battle it out with a friend inside a video game was commonplace, the world changed again when game developers made the next logical step in the evolution of the connected gaming experience: Make it massive, and make it stick around.
While playing against your buddy from work might be fun and all, it’s a whole lot better when there are hundreds, or even thousands, of players involved. Some of them might want to help you; others might want to kill you and take your stuff. Regardless of the eventual outcome, players pay their subscription fees and return over and over again to games like World of Warcraft™ and Everquest™.
Why do these players return? Perhaps the reason is because competition can be a very strong motivator. Players are given an opportunity to build up their virtual arsenal, slowly biding their time until the day they can seek revenge on that 14th level wizard who blasted their virtual butt into virtual smithereens with a virtual spell of obliteration. It’s not just the competition aspects of these types of games that bring people back. Another very strong motivator to the player is the real, tangible attachments that people form to these wholly intangible items. When a player plays for hours to earn the Golden Sword of Damocles, we’ve created a very strong attachment to that item because the player has invested a non-trivial amount of time and effort to achieve it.
The casino gaming world can certainly learn from the success of these technologies. We’re already seeing the first examples of slot machines with the ability to save your progress and recall it later. While these implementations are very rudimentary in comparison to the video game equivalent, it’s easy to see how these technologies will play an increasing role in innovation within the casino slot machine.
Most important are the opportunities presented when an operator is able to create a strong attachment between that player and their property indirectly through the use of this phenomenon. This will eventually have a great impact on player retention and time-on-device for operators that utilize these technologies to their advantage.
In the game industry, there’s an “ancient” colloquialism: “Game play is king!” It has been proven time and time again that no matter what technological breakthroughs your game contains, at the end of the day (and at the bottom of the balance sheet), it’s the game play within your game that primarily determines its success. In other words, if your game looks incredible but is really boring to play, the game will usually not succeed based on looks alone.
So as much as we’d like to think that a particular new technology in a game is the key to its success, it ultimately boils down to how that technology is implemented—and to the end experience that is given to the player. While we can look at the game industry for hints of things to come within the gaming industry, we can’t guarantee the success of those things without a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.
Of course, we could also just ask Mario and Luigi, and see what they think …