Gamblit surface table game
Gamblit Gaming
Gamblit Gaming creates surface tables that enable groups to play head-to-head or against the house with touch-screen tablets for solo play.

How 'Gamifying' Slot Machines May Help Casinos Engage Millennials

Kristin Butler

It's the hot topic du jour in the industry: how do casinos attract millennials and occupy them on the gaming floor?

The conversation is dominating gaming conferences from G2E to the National Indian Gaming Association's (NIGA) annual trade show to, most recently, the Northwest Indian Gaming Conference & Expo, June 20-22. (At NIGA's 31st Annual Trade Show and Convention in Phoenix, March 13-16, alone, there were at least five panels on reaching this demographic: Marketing to Millennials, Learning From Arcades: Getting Millennials to Gamble, Food Sovereignty in the Millennial’s Age: The Benefits of Promoting Tribal Goods and Services in the Gaming Food Industry, The Play for Millennials, and Millennials and Integrated Resort.)

This coveted clientele seems to be the most elusive group to capture. They are quickly bored by the randomness of slots, and seek games of skill over chance, as well as interactive, reward-oriented experiences. Millennials are also masters of multi-tasking, honing in on several screens at once.

RELATED: Indian Country's Future Will Be Shaped By How We Use Technology

Generation X is defined by people born 1960-1980 (ages 34 to 54 now); they account for approximately 84 million people in the U.S. Millennials, born 1981-1996 (ages 18 to 33 now), number approximately 77 million, accounting for roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population. Currently, slot machines don’t have traction with the younger half of the Gen-X group and are basically ignored by millennials.

For slots to appeal to millennials, companies need to add skill and social elements to the mix, according to Gamblit Gaming, LLC, a leading technology provider in the emerging interactive entertainment meets gambling space.

Gamblit, based out of Glendale, California, is devising a new generation of casino games for a new generation of player, inspired by arcade classics to current mobile gaming fads like Angry Birds. The company is bridging the vivid graphics and user experience of popular mobile games with the random experience of slots in an effort to draw in a generation that "gamifies" everything, even dating, with apps like Tinder that trigger feelings of reward when participants swipe right ("yes") and get a "match".

"These casinos, they're palaces of finery; they're fun place to be. But 21 to 49 year olds are not playing slots. Some play table games, but that's skewed toward males," Marcus Yoder, vice president at Gamblit Gaming, told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Gamblit's Lucky Words blends a turn-based multiplayer word game with pay-out rewards. (Gamblit)A consensus estimate for 2015 puts millennialls' purchasing power at a total of $200 billion, with $500 billion in indirect spending. "By 2025 Bank of America estimates that Millennials will have $8 trillion in annual net income at their disposal and they are expected to far outspend Baby Boomers," wrote Gene Johnson, CEO of Gaming Knowledge Partners, in the op-ed The Myth of the Millennial.

"Millennials, or tech savvies, they're on your property, and there is money in their wallet to play, but no games they want to spend it on," Yoder said. Gamblit is enabling a wide range of video game genres to accommodate wagering experiences — both online and at on-site machines. "That's what we're trying to bring to tribal operators now," Yoder said.

Yoder picked up the term "tech savvies" from Pat Hutchins, the director of slot operations at Snoqualmie Casino, near Seattle, Washington. "Tech savvies" is not limited to millennials, per say, but refers to people, of any age, "who are so well-versed on the newest technologies that the prospect of  playing a slot game is absolutely boring," Yoder explains.

At the recent Northwest Indian Gaming Conference & Expo, Yoder spoke about how casinos can take advantage of skill-chance hybrid games. (Chance games, in which the outcome is primarily or entirely based on chance, dominate casino floors today. Skill games are games in which the outcome is primarily or entirely based on skill. Hybrid games are games in which the outcome involves significant chance and skill elements — such as poker.) The annual Northwest Indian Gaming Conference, held this year at Tulalip Resort Casino in Tulalip, Washington, is hosted by the Washington Indian Gaming Association (WIGA), a non-profit trade organization with a board comprised of the state's tribal government leaders.

Millennials are still flocking to casino resorts, but spending their money at its nightclubs and restaurants, sometimes wagering on sports or placing the occasional bet at table games. Slot machines are like antiquated desktop computers to them — they wouldn't waste their time. "The games are too simple, and yet trying to figure out the outcome — if you won — is incredibly complex. Even some people in the industry don't understand how to tell when you win or lose. Then there's the mechanics of playing the game — just one button, no thinking involved, no strategy, no nothing. Frankly, it's boring," Yoder said.

A common misconception among gaming industry veterans, Yoder said, is that millennials will play slots as they age. Casinos can't hold out for that, according to Roberto Coppola, director of Market Research & Consumer Insights for YWS Design & Architecture, a design leader in hospitality, gaming, retail, dining, & entertainment:

The gaming industry has put itself in a bad situation, whereby you have the largest demographic in US history with huge future spending power completely uninterested in legacy casino games (slots especially) — and they won't just wake up one day and change. Gaming operators, manufacturers and regulators especially need to move fast to catch up before we end up with an entire generation that doesn’t gamble and not because they don't want to make bets but because we haven't offered products that compel them to act upon their desire.

Yoder agrees. "Some of these slot machines, these 3D consoles, are beautiful and they cost a lot of money," he acknowledged. But the lure of slots won't make a comeback when millennials "settle down," he stressed. Millennials are interested in games of skill, like the video games they were raised on, and immediate, clear rewards.

What Gamblit does is turn popular mobile games into opportunities to wager and win. "Look at the explosion of casual games on mobile phones and consoles —  that is what this age range, both male and female, are doing. We thought, 'Why can't we put these two things together and 'gamblify' it?'" Yoder said.

For instance, Gamblit released an interactive gaming machine called Smoothie Blast that combines the familiar Candy Crush style matching of mobile gameplay with the excitement of real money gambling.

Meanwhile, its "surface table" Grab Poker puts a fast-paced spin on the ubiquitous game of poker, turning it into a highly social, head-to-head interactive table experience that can be played by up to four players. Each player starts with two cards; then cards are shown in rapid succession. Players have to quickly grab the cards they need in order to complete the best poker hand they can. The winner takes the pot.

Grab Poker puts a fast-paced spin on the ubiquitous game of poker. (Gamblit)

Gamifying, Social Interaction and Rewards

Gamblit is making digital gaming less like the bulky slot machines of the 1980s, and more like the video games of today, through gamifying and increasing social interaction.

Tech savvies want to connect to the real world digitally and through social media. "I have a millennial buddy in the Silicon Valley, and he wants to do everything via messenger — check into the hotel on his iPad tablet, order food via WhatsApp, etcetera. Maybe that's an extreme case," Yoder said. 

To enhance player interaction and digital connection, Gamblit posts scores and achievements on social graphs, so players can see how everyone else is doing. Players can also switch between real money and virtual money, depending on location and regulatory requirements. "Surface tables" that generally sit up to four people also remove walls between competing players. 

There's a flip side to removing face-to-face time with a middle man, like a card dealer, for some table-inspired games like Grab Poker (featured above), Yoder says. Gamblit believes casino personnel and human interaction are more vital than ever. Yoder supports the idea of having "somebody there to explain the game, cheer them on," establishing a "more clubby" atmosphere with "waitstaff who activate and accentuate the experience, like when you go to a club."

Las Vegas clubs like the Cosmopolitan are succeeding by harnessing the power of a "social hot zone," which is essentially a hybrid space of gaming, food and divserse entertainment, featuring table games, free billiards and shuffleboard and a large central bar offering food 24/7.

Casinos can also opt for skill-based slots to offer cash prizes and/or property comps or discounts — on a drink, meal or club table service — to keep money circulating within the resort. Gamblit also recommends casinos extend play to mobile phones and consoles, because millennials consume multiple streams of entertainment, oftentimes simultaneously.

Foxwoods Resort Casino, for instance, recently released its reinvigorated FoxPlay, its online social-gaming platform.

RELATED: Foxwoods Partners With Irish Software Company for FoxPlay, Free-Money Gaming Site

"It’s much more interactive and creates exposure to our brand here at Foxwoods. We find it brings people into our physical property, as well," Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, told ICTMN. The Connecticut-based Foxwoods is now planning to break into the Mississippi casino market with a Biloxi waterfront-based property. The play-for-fun site FoxPlay, Butler says, will help drive millennials to the new Biloxi location through property incentives. Because there's no real-money wagering involved, FoxPlay ties in offerings at brick-and-mortar casino locations. "Instead of winning cash, players can win various prizes – like an overnight stay at Foxwoods, or dinner at one of our fine restaurants. Or even go to a show for free," Butler said.

RELATED: Mashantucket Pequots Set Sights on Casino Venture in Mississippi

The Millennial Buzz

All the talk about millennials may get exhaustive, but it's a necessary conversation to have. "I was recently in a Las Vegas operator's office, and he said if I said the word 'millennial' one more time, he was going to kick me out of his office," Yoder said.

According to Johnson: The problem with Millennials is not WHETHER they will gamble or not. Risk taking is a fundamental human behavior without which we as a species would never have evolved to become the dominant life form on this planet. Gambling is hard wired into our DNA and has been documented in virtually every human culture on earth. Today more than two-thirds of all Americans routinely wager on some type of gaming product. The question is HOW Millennials will gamble, not only the types of games and platforms but also the way betting itself is conducted and even the nature of the rewards for winning.

Still, here's another perspective from one popular blogger Vegas Fan Boy: "Now’s the time to expand your food and beverage offerings. Establish more differentiation in your bar and entertainment options. And, most importantly, offer something of value. Note, that doesn’t necessarily mean cheap or inexpensive. We’ll pay a good price for a good time, but we don’t like to feel like we’re being had. The fact of the matter is, Millennials don’t like to gamble. It doesn’t matter how fancy the slot machines get, it’s not likely to change. But, what do I know? I’m just a Millennial."

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