Are Skill-Based Casino Games Ready To Take The Next Step?

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Global Gaming Expo (G2E) is the perfect place for gaming companies to show off their latest, greatest ideas and their glitziest products.

From year to year, this mostly means aesthetic changes. There aren’t many alterations to game mechanics or the introduction of new gaming genres.

Like the latest iPhone, the new features tend to be improvements to existing features, or largely inconsequential bells-and-whistles tweaks. A good example of this is the 4D technology or curved slot machine screens showcased at G2E 2017.

But every now and then, there’s a pleasant surprise.

Skill games take centerstage at G2E

Several exhibitors — from giants like IGT, Scientific Games, and Konami, to startups like Gamblit Gaming and GameCo — prominently displayed their skill-based games to G2E’s 20,000-plus attendees.

The slow march of skill-based gaming

This wasn’t the first year skill-based games were on display at G2E.

Scientific Games brought Space Invaders to G2E 2015, and in 2016, skill-based games were in multiple booths. However, they didn’t appear to be finished products. They were more of a curiosity, a glimpse at the casino floor of the hazy future.

Despite this characterization, multiple casinos have added skill-based games to their casino floors in the last year.

GameCo gets a jump on the competition

GameCo machines were the first to appear on casino floors.

First introduced at Caesars three Atlantic City properties in November 2016, GameCo machines can now be found in nine casinos: from Foxwoods, Tropicana AC, and Borgata, to casinos in the Virgin Islands and Chile.

Konami hops into the market

In February, Konami’s Frogger: Get Hoppin’ game debuted at the MGM Grand’s Level Up Lounge in Las Vegas. Several iterations of the Frogger game found a home at other Vegas casinos, even though the game hasn’t been officially launched.

Gamblit joins the party with skill-based tables

A month later, Gamblit Gaming’s multiplayer skill-based gaming tables went live at Planet Hollywood. Like GameCo’s products, Gamblit’s tables can now be found in multiple casinos all over the country.

Scientific Games goes old school with Space Invaders

Caesars took a second bite of the apple in Atlantic City with Scientific Games’ Space Invaders. The title landed at Bally’s and Harrah’s in June and has since popped up in a few other locations.

A look at the skill-based games at G2E 2017

Thanks to the proliferation of skill-based games during the past year, the offerings at this year’s expo looked quite different. No longer a mere curiosity, they are now seen as casino-ready products. I suspect many agreements were reached between skill-based gaming providers and casinos.

For my part, I had a chance to try a number of the skill-based games on display at G2E. Here’s a look at what I found.

Match 3 games were underwhelming

Multiple companies have developed Match 3 (think Candy Crush) puzzle games, which are powerhouses in the mobile app world.

Match 3 games transcend most demographics, and the game mechanics are the same for the most part. Unfortunately, just like switching from Candy Crush to a competing app, each skill-based Match 3 casino game has its own nuances and wrinkles.

Because of this, the first few attempts at each game were more of a learning process. For example, I didn’t know what each special power did until I used it, and I often found myself trying to make an illegal move or missing a lot of value while staring dumbfounded at the screen.

The most glaring example of this uncertainty was Lucky’s Quest. IGT’s game allows you to make diagonal moves and directional changes so long as the icons match. Those rules are not the traditional way a Match 3 game is played.

There’s also the problem of misclicks.

Not to pick on IGT, but its game possessed a major, off-putting flaw.

Rather than quickly swiping one piece into place to create a match, the game requires you to move your finger across the screen like you were unlocking a cell phone. Of course, your finger doesn’t always move perfectly, so on several occasions I was punished for moving my finger too fast or slow, or crookedly. I knew the move I wanted to make, but executing it on an unfamiliar screen at an awkward angle was an issue.

Bottom line: Intuitively, Match 3 games should be the most transferrable skill-based casino game, but nobody has figured out a way to reduce the learning curve.

GameCo’s Nothin’ But Net gets everything right

GameCo’s Nothin’ But Net is in the mold of Golden Tee. Players are tasked with selecting the sweet spot on a slider in order to sink basketball shots. There are actually two sweet spots, including one on the pass that determines how big your sweet spot is on the shot.

Nothin’ But Net has a lot going for it:

  • It’s simple and easy to understand. Unlike the Match 3 games, even the most novice player will have Nothin’ But Net figured out within a shot or two.
  • It can be played single player or head-to-head with another machine.
  • The pacing is good, with little downtime between shots but not rushed either.
  • Everyone understands its content: basketball.

Of all the skill-based games, Nothin’ But Net is my personal favorite.

Gamblit’s tables are high energy

Gamblit’s games are highly polished. The gaming tables are sleek, and the games are really well designed. But the most impressive aspect of Gamblit’s games is the atmosphere they create.

Gamblit has pulled off the impossible with PacMan, and even more so with Deal or No Deal Poker. The games can generate the excitement and energy you usually find only at a hot craps table, or from the roar from the sports book during a major event.

For instance, not only is there a winner for every hand of Deal or No Deal Poker (a “grab it” poker game), but after the hand is over, the computer shows the potential money in several cases. This includes the one the player selected at the beginning of the hand.

The winner then decides if he or she want to open the case or take the deal offered by the machine. Once decided, the computer reveals the case, and the player is either relieved or there is collective “oh!” that erupts from the table.

One issue the company will need to sort out is its games as currently deployed are multiplayer-only.

Gamblit is expected to launch something called “TriStation” by the end of the month. TriStation solves the multi-player problem by offering a selection of single-player skill-based video games that are a blend of Gamblit-created original content and partner games.

The current list of TriStation games are:

  • Cut the Rope
  • Jetpack Joyride
  •  Into the Dead
  • Doodle Jump
  • Catapult King
  • Playboy Pinball
  • Breakneck
  • Road Redemption
  • Smoothie Blast
  • Match3volution
  • Lucky Words
  • Slice of Cake
  • High Orbit

Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see single player versions of its Pac Man and Deal or No Deal Poker games, with CPU players filling in for humans, in the not too distant future.

Thoughts on startups vs. the big boys

With some exceptions, the larger companies’ skill games reminded me of a blockbuster movie converted to 3D; whereas, the startups’ skill-based games were originally shot in 3D and feel less forced.

To continue on with my movie analogy, as skill-based games gain more traction, it will be interesting to see if it’s the blockbusters made by IGT, Konami, and Scientific Games, or the critically acclaimed products of GameCo and Gamblit, that win out.

So far, the startups have spurred the spread of skill games in casinos. But that success has now attracted the attention of the gaming giants, who might be looking at increasing their skill-based budgets or simply acquiring their upstart competition.

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Steve Ruddock

About

Steve Ruddock is an avid poker player and a veteran member of the gaming media. His primary focus is on the regulated US online casino and poker markets. He writes for numerous online and print publications, including OnlinePokerReport.com, USPoker.com, and USA Today.