VR, skill-based games hitting casino floors in Nevada and beyond — but are gamblers asking for them?
December 17, 2018
RENO, Nev. — You're perched high on top of a castle — your castle — as hordes of faceless warriors storm its walls.
You're flinging flaming arrows at the attackers.
You're a knight, nobly defending your kingdom.
OK, it just feels that way. You're actually sporting goggles and gripping controllers, playing a virtual reality game. But you're transport to a medieval battle isn't taking place at home, or at a friend's house, or even at an arcade.
These VR experiences are taking place on casino floors, where the VR games may be fantasy, but the money on the line is very real. This game, "Seige," is a product of International Game Technology (IGT), the Reno-headquartered company that develops, manufactures and distributes gaming technology.
This past spring, IGT developed The Virtual Zone, booths for players to try their hand at archery-themed VR games, as the company and casino industry as a whole look to evolve with changing gambling habits.
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So far … 'a mixed response'
Indeed, the days of yanking down on a levered slot machine that rattles and rings are deep in the rear-view. On the horizon — for a certain demographic of gambler, at least — are immersive experiences with 4D, VR and skill-based gaming machines.
But are these cutting-edge games being embraced by casino players, from millennials to Baby Boomers? Gaming tech companies like IGT and casino executives in Northern Nevada are still trying to figure that out.
"It's received a mixed response, in all honesty," Nick Khin, IGT chief commercial officer of gaming, told the NNBV regarding the company's VR gaming solution. "We're still looking at the technology and how to best use it in a gaming context."
This begs the question: How do you gamble real money while playing a virtual reality game? For "Seige," two players shoot virtual arrows toward attackers to earn a combined score, with the goal of notching a prize-winning place on the leaderboard, according to IGT.
"We've certainly had a solution and we put it out there and tested it," Khin said.
IGT said it did not have any metrics to share on the virtual zone, which is currently no longer in any Nevada casinos; according to media reports, the company initially rolled out a pair of competitive VR archery games at The Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
"I think there's still work to be done on refining the product before we look at a mass launch of it," Khin continued. "But we're certainly not afraid in terms of experimenting with the technology and trying to come up with something in that space."
The innovation happening in casino games, Khin said, is being driven, in part, by millennials, a generation raised on video games and smartphones.
According to a 2016 study done by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University, only 8.5 percent of a millennial's budget is spent on gambling, compared to 23.5 percent spent by non-millennials.
Dinner, drinks and entertainment is where people in their 20s and 30s enjoy spending their money, the study found.
Eldorado Resorts CEO Gary Carano said the low number of millennial gamblers doesn't surprise him — or concern him, for that matter. The Reno-based company owns and operates 28 properties in 13 states, including The Row (Eldorado, Circus Circus, and Silver Legacy) in Reno.
"We don't prescribe to thinking that the industry needs to succeed in attracting millennials to the casino, or else the casino is going to dry up and blow away," he told the NNBV. "When I was growing up, I didn't have a lot of spare money — or time — to go out and gamble. Time and discretionary income comes with age."
To that end, Christopher Abraham, senior vice president of marketing at Grand Sierra Resort in Reno and SLS Las Vegas, doesn't think skill-based games targeting millennials have hit the sweet spot yet.
"I think there is still a very wide chasm between the existing platform of slot machines and great content and a new generation of players," Abraham said. "I think we've seen much less than anticipated crossover of millennials to skill-based gaming. And if you're a 'gamer' (who doesn't gamble), there really isn't anything right now that appeals to you on current platforms. I think as an industry we're a ways away from engaging that demographic in a typical slot machine experience."
Khin, however, said IGT has seen some success with its hybrid skill-based games. He gave the example of a video slot called "Texas Tea Pinball." It includes an optional skill-based bonus round in which the slot turns into a pinball machine, whereby players use plastic flippers to play a pinball round and earn bigger prizes.
In addition, Khin revealed that the company is working on a hybrid skill product that hasn't hit the market yet called "chill" (combining "chance" and "skill"). In the bonus feature of "chill" games, players use an "Xbox-type" controller to be a warrior in a battlefield, he said.
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With VR and skill-based games lacking in revenue boosts for casinos, Carano said he sees the most opportunity in electronic table games, or ETGs.
"That, to us, is one of the exciting things in table games," he said.
Specifically, ETGs give casinos flexibility in their game offerings, giving players an expansive rolodex of games from which to choose. What's more, some ETGs are "dealer assisted," he said, meaning, live dealers can operate multiple tables at a time.
In other words, they enable casinos to cut labor costs and maximize revenue.
Here in Reno, Carano said the Silver Legacy is looking into replacing some of its table games with dealer-assisted ETGs in the near future.
"Almost every casino has too many table games on weekends," Carano said. "Now electronic table games come in and you eliminate labor and the win per unit when you take all the labor and benefits out. These are doing a lot better than those tables that are spread on the weekends."
IN EVERYONE'S WHEELHOUSE
One casino game that only continues to gain popularity with age, meanwhile, is IGT's Wheel of Fortune, the first-ever "branded" slot machine. To date, the company has made more than 230 versions, the latest being 4D — players can spin a mid-air wheel through gesture recognition technologies, IGT explained.
According to IGT, gamblers have won more than $3 billion on Wheel of Fortune slots, and more than 1,000 people have become millionaires while playing.
The game, in fact, was conceived more than 20 years ago at the IGT headquarters in Reno. Khin said Reno is the company's hub for manufacturing, servicing and game development. Currently, IGT has 1,755 employees in Reno alone.
When IGT merged with Gtech in 2015, Khin said the company made a "conscious decision" in choosing Reno as the best location to bring the two companies' manufacturing operations together.
"Reno has been, and continues to be, one of our biggest offices, globally," Khin said. "It's our manufacturing hub, service hub and R&D (research and development) hub for us, with a number of our game and systems studios based there."