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PAUL'S POINTERS: TOMORROW'S CASINO EXPERIENCE, TODAY?

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

They say objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear. That applies to topics besides driving an automobile. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. Based on a few seminars I attended, what I saw on the trade show floor, and what I am seeing in Las Vegas casinos, the future isn't far away. In this month's Paul's Pointers, I'm going to examine what the ever evolving casino experience might look like for you and me in the not so distant future.

IT'S NOT THE ENTRÉE, IT'S THE SIDES

It's no secret that casinos are in business to make a profit. There's a battle on the casino floor to maximize profits per square foot of gaming space. That's a big reason we are seeing the move to short-paying player blackjacks, higher table minimums, and tightening of the player-friendly rules, while trying to speed up the number of hands dealt per hour on blackjack tables. Unfortunately, I expect this trend to continue until players start demanding a certain amount of value, and casino decision makers realize that empty chairs don't produce much profit. Most of those chairs aren't empty because people don't like playing blackjack as some might have us believe.

Expect the numerous side-bet options on the blackjack tables to remain and new options to appear. Pair Square, Lucky Lady, Royal Match have been around for several years now. Bet the Bust, Bonus Spin Blackjack, and Lucky Lucky are being introduced on more blackjack tables and appear to be growing in popularity. Despite lousy odds payouts on these side bet games, players seem to like them. The house absolutely loves them as these bets increase the "hold" or amount of profit each table makes. The opportunity to bet a little to make a lot gives even small-stakes bettors hope for a big payday and plays on long-established gambler psychology. I used to view these side bets as a nuisance that chopped up the flow of my blackjack experience, but if they mean the house can afford to deal good blackjack games with good rules then I can accept them. However, many casinos want to have their cake and eat it too.

The number of "carnival games" will continue to increase and take up a larger percentage of the table game space. Like side bet games on the blackjack tables, many of these games offer a "homerun" payoff and bettors have the chance, however small, to bet a little to win a lot. Poker and blackjack derivative games are being invented and tested constantly. Some of the stuff introduced at the Global Gaming Expo borders on ridiculous in my eyes and hopefully will never see the light of day in a real casino. Don't get me wrong, some of these games are quite creative and semi-fun; but not with real money in a real casino. Some should be boxed up and given as Christmas gifts to be played around the kitchen table on family game night. Oops. Nobody does that anymore, do they?

RISE OF THE MACHINES

Have you noticed the electronic craps and roulette games on your casino floor? What about the electronic blackjack with a sexy dealer? There's even a Playboy version that has Playboy bunnies dealing the cards. The preponderance of electronic table games (ETG) on the casino floor will continue to increase. These games never call in sick and you don't have to pay dealers. The small space and limited seats seem to make these electronic versions of traditional casino table games popular with groups and emphasize the social aspect of the casino experience; another trend.

The "experience" is going to become an emphasis as casinos try to attract new players, especially Millennials. The idea of being able to select your favorite "dead dealer" via hologram is being talked about. Imagine Elvis or Marilyn Monroe dealing blackjack to you. In addition to their likeness, you might even be able to carry on a conversation with them thanks to work being done in the artificial intelligence realm (AI). These types of interactions could be closer than you think. These ideas were discussed in a panel session I attended at G2E.

Skill-based gaming is another trend that is moving fast. In fact just this week, Planet Hollywood announced it would add three skilled-base stations to its existing three. This is another attempt to attract Millennials, who collectively haven't embraced slot machines like preceding generations of gamblers. California-based company Gamblit is one of the industry leaders in skill-based gaming. I played an interactive version of Pac Man with three other players at their G2E booth recently. Thanks to a controller that stuck whenever I tried to move "down" a path, I didn't fare to well. That's a potential big negative in playing these games for me. All the equipment will have to be maintained properly to prevent any player from having an unfair advantage. How many times have you sat down at a video poker machine and had a stuck button, or one that didn't stick without extra effort that prevented you or made it difficult to select a desired hold? It's way too frequent, at least in my experience.

The Gamblit stations and those of other companies in the skill-based space are evolving. For example, Gamblit's initial Model G tables, some of the first to hit the market, require at least two physical persons. The latest model, TriStation, allows for individual or group play, with each terminal screen offering six skill-based video games. The subjects vary greatly and the players make their bets and compete for a payout. This is certainly an interesting concept and in its early stages with regards to player interest, regulation, and profitability. Speaking of regulation, the Nevada Gaming Control Board's New Innovations Beta (NIB) program allows casino floors to test new games with real gamblers. NIB affords games to bypass certain regulatory standards during the testing phase and the skill-based games are being "live-tested" under this regulatory umbrella.

Traditional slot machines are still the casinos primary profit center and look to be for some time still. However, "traditional" isn't so traditional any more. Technology has enabled 3-D video screens and embedded videos from popular movies, television programs, and musical performers into the bonus rounds. Multiple play lines and enhanced "bells and whistles" give the player more chances to win something on each spin, while creating a unique experience. The catalog of slot machine themes is like a library of Western pop culture. Current subjects, as well as, retro themes to include everything from super heroes to sitcoms, dramas, movies, rock bands, entertainers and more are out there or on the way. While visiting the Aristocrat booth I couldn't help but notice a new iteration of Tarzan slot machine. It was next to the new Mariah Carey slot. She has a nice voice, but her own slot machine, really? How about Mariah as "Jane" in a future Ape Man project? Hmmm...

LEAVING THE CASINO FLOOR OR WE'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN

Just because you leave the casino floor doesn't mean you can't make a wager or play your favorite games. Most Las Vegas race and sports books offer mobile betting. Nevada residents, as well as visitors, can open an account, deposit funds, and download an app to their smart phone. Mobile applications are also available that allow visitors to play their favorite games anywhere on the property. Admittedly, I'm a big fan of the mobile sports betting apps, but I'm not sure if I visited Las Vegas or another casino jurisdiction where this type of betting was allowed that I'd need to play slots or video poker on a handheld device while waiting in line at the buffet or checking out the sites and catching rays poolside. Then again, that's just me. The betting opportunities are endless and it will continue to increase.

Another aspect of your casino experience will be increased virtual reality (VR) experiences. Parachuting while getting a massage? That doesn't sound relaxing, but that one is already possible according to one panelist. Remember the hologram mentioned earlier? Paris Hilton "personally" greets visitors to her boutique hotel. Cool; creepy; or just different? You decide. Tomorrow's casino will be more and more about the experience. I uttered the phrase "that's something you won't see at home" more than once in my younger days visiting Las Vegas and not leaving many stones unturned in the process. Now thanks to VR and AI if you can imagine it, chances are you will be able to see it and experience it during your casino resort stay.

A growing trend that isn't necessarily on the casino floor is eSports. In another attempt to lure Millennials and a younger demographic to their properties, many operators are hosting video game tournaments or carving out square footage for permanent video game play areas. Players pay to play these games or to enter the tournaments and compete for prizes. The Downtown Grand in Las Vegas has dedicated space for video gaming separate from its casino floor. Many of the larger Las Vegas Strip properties have hosted eSports tournaments. The early results are that participants aren't really spending time and money gambling, but they still pay for hotel rooms, food and beverage, and often participate in nightlife and day-life entertainment options when not enjoying their version of "gaming." Professional gamers already participate in eLeague sanctioned events. Sponsors are paying big money to be a part of this action and casino operators will be no different; eSports is big and getting bigger.

BIG DATA OR I ALWAYS FEEL LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME

We live in the information age. Data analytics is the hot movement in the business world and the casino world is no different. Casino resort properties are collecting a lot more data than just your name and mailing address. They want your email address and cell phone number too. They also track your wagering, spending habits, and more. Why? To hear their side of the equation it's all about creating a better experience for you. Certainly there are privacy concerns in the age of Big Data. You'll have to make your own decisions with how much you are willfully going to provide. I remember renowned gambling author Jean Scott saying many years ago that "Any casino mail is good mail." She was referring to marketing offers. Now casinos want to send you offerings and advertise directly to you via text messages and your email account. Pros and cons; and I leave it you to form you own opinions. However, this individual direct marketing is a trend that will only continue for the foreseeable future.

Another growing trend involves social media as a form of interaction. Your casino resort visit begins before you check in and continues after you depart. Casino marketers are using platforms like Facebook, Tweeter, and Instagram to develop and nurture relationships with their customers, and prospective customers, that extends into cyberspace. While on-site you're encouraged to take photos and post to your social media sites and are bombarded with "like us" on Facebook messages. Marketers are also playing to individual egos by rewarding virtual prizes that belie status in the "community" in addition to actual rewards that mean something in the real world. How much is too much? We're nowhere near there yet. Social media interaction between you and your casino will continue to be encouraged and won't be dissipating anytime soon.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

In this month's Paul's Pointers, I presented some current and future trends that are, and will, shape your current and future casino experience. It's no secret we live in a high-tech age, and thanks to technology, casino marketers and decision-makers can impact our experience like never before. Social media interaction is on the rise and our promotions and player benefits are more dependent on how the house tracks our play; not only in how much we play, but what games and even our abilities at our favorite games. Speaking of abilities, skill-based gaming is gaining in popularity. Opportunities to play arcade or video game style machines will increase and your abilities at these games will impact your net results.

Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence will influence our gaming experience on the casino floor, as well as, throughout the property. It also has the potential to enhance our entertainment experience like never before. More carnival games will be introduced in the table-game areas and we'll see more side bets than ever on the blackjack tables as gaming operators try to increase profit margins; sometimes at the behest of reducing player count and actually diminishing profits. In addition to skill based slot machines, we'll see more and more exotic and pop culture themed slots. Eventually everyone or everything that ever had close to 15 seconds of fame will have a slot machine deal!

As the great Bob Dylan mumbled long ago, "The times, they are a changin'." Personally the technology is amazing, but I'm not so sure the post-modern casino is necessarily the right place for it. My casino experience was most excellent many years ago and I didn't really need it to be enhanced. Now that I think about it, my casino resort experience has been eroding for about the past 15 years and I don't really see all the things I've mentioned above changing that. How about you? Are you "experienced?"

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