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Skills for Tomorrow

A small niche today could be just the beginning for skill-based slots


Slot machines are not known as games of skill. You pay your money, push the button or pull the handle—remember handles?—and take your chances. No muss, no fuss, no strategies to learn or skills to master. No trying to control your roll, a la serious craps players, or memorizing when to stand on soft 18, a la basic strategy players in blackjack.

For many, that’s part of the attraction. There’s the potential for big wins, fun on the bonus rounds and lots of entertainment.  And the newbie has every bit as good a chance as the experienced player.

But wouldn’t it be fun to have slot games where skill DID make a difference? Games where the practiced player could get a little something extra? The thought has occurred to slot makers. Younger players who grew up with Nintendo, XBox and PlayStation might enjoy something more than random results in their casino games. So there are a handful of games with elements of skill available today. None of them have exactly been megahits.  At this point, skill-based slots are very much a niche market.

But it’s an intriguing niche. Bally Technologies was an early adopter, going to skill-based bonus events with Pong, first shown at the annual Global Gaming Expo in 2004, followed a year later by Breakout. Both were based on classic video arcade games, two of the earliest hits when video games first made an impact.

On either game, if you went to the bonus event, you had the option of playing a round of the title game, batting the ping-pong-like ball back and forth on the bonus screen, or deflecting the electronic ball against a wall of colored rectangles to try to break through in Breakout. If you didn’t trust your skills, you could choose to have the machine play out a round for you. Some kind of bonus was going to be coming, but skilled players had the best chance at the biggest bonuses.

The games carved out small, loyal followings, but didn’t make a big impact on the masses. Bally checked off skill as something available in its toolkit, and put skill-based events on the shelf as something to explore further when more skill-seeking, thrill-seeking players are in the casinos.

Today, Bally offers a variety of games that use perceived skill, rather than actual skill. Perceived skill games include Skee Ball; All That Jazz with a mechanic called UPlay; Pirate’s Quest with UAim; and Total Blast with UShoot. It does take skill to roll the skee balls into the holes, play the notes on an onscreen piano, aim the cannons or shoot down spaceships with UShoot weapons. But in the end the credit award is determined by a random number generator.

For games that use actual skill, there are two main players in today’s casino world: International Game Technology—if there’s a niche, you can be sure IGT will try to occupy it—and GTECH.

IGT has used a couple of different iterations of skill in its Reel Edge games. In the initial rollout, there were two levels of skill. You could touch the glass to stop each individual reel in the main game, and the bonus event used a joystick to navigate a Pac-Man-like maze.

For the Reel Edge games now in casinos, the skill element has been discarded on the main games. In Centipede, Blood Life Legends and Tully’s Treasure Hunt, the main game is strictly random number generator stuff, like any other slot game. The video reels spin, and you win, lose or trigger a bonus event.

It’s at bonus time that you can put your skill on the line, whether it’s guiding a bat through a cave to swoop through gems for bonus credits as in Blood Life Legends, guide a sea turtle through the ocean in Tully’s Treasure Hunt or taking aim and trying to shoot down the Centipede while avoiding other creepy crawlies.

If you don’t trust your skill—well, you can choose a free-spin bonus instead.

Similarly, players can choose skill or non-skill bonuses on GTECH’s games developed under a license with social games developer PopCap Games.

In Zuma, GTECH offers physical skill events in a bonus with elements from video game “boss battles,” where players who achieve a certain level need to fight a “boss.” In one Zuma bonus game, the player takes the role of the Zuma frog to shoot colored balls at the Kahtiki Khan boss as he moves side-to-side. There is an element of timing, and players with good timing can achieve higher returns.

Instead of physical skills, GTECH tests strategy in its Bejeweled slot games.  Players who choose the skill game rather than a free spin bonus must think ahead and strategize to make gem matches for payoffs.

How much of a difference can the skill make? Every jurisdiction has its own regulations on whether skill elements may be used on slots, and how much difference they can make. In Nevada, up to four percent of overall payback may come from elements of skill. So skill is not going to take you over the top into profitability. On a low-denomination video slot, something closer to 89 percent payback for the unskilled player, 92 percent for the expert would be one way to fill the bill.

I like the skill-based games, but then again I like the strategy in video poker and blackjack, too. The feeling that I have some control over the outcome is one of the things that keep me going. That’s very much a minority viewpoint among slot players right now. There’s no imminent reign of skill. But the first inroads have been made, and for any fan of increased player options on the slots, that’s a very good thing.

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