This month’s Global Gaming Expo could easily be mistaken for CinemaCon.
The casino industry’s annual trade show and conference is where slot machine makers unveil their new games and products. However, the Sands Expo and Convention Center is going to look a lot like Caesars Palace during the annual theater owners’ convention, where the movie industry uses star power to preview the year’s coming attractions.
With slot machine companies going full-bore into games named for licensed brands and pop culture themes, last year’s G2E floor was overrun with members of the rock band Kiss, Stewie Griffin, Oompa Loompas, Judge Judy, the Pawn Stars and NASCAR drivers.
This year, get ready for zombies, bridesmaids, time travel, David Copperfield, the original Batman and ZZ Top.
The slot machine industry has gone Hollywood.
Over the past few years manufacturers renewed an interest with licensed brands that began in the 1990s.
The familiar names and themes — coupled with technology that allows for movie clips and music to be played as part of bonus-round features — is considered a vehicle to restart slot machine sales slowed by the recession and casino operator reluctance to spend money on new products.
This year’s G2E is pushing all-in with the concept.
International Game Technology will display slot machines themed after the movies “Back to the Future,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Bridesmaids.” Bally Technologies, in addition to an update of its “Michael Jackson: King of Pop” game, has new machines based on the “Magic of David Copperfield,” Texas rockers “ZZ Top,” and the Academy Award-winning film “Titanic.”
Not to be outdone, Australian slot machine developer Aristocrat Technologies will unveil games using the movie “Flashdance,” the AMC television series “The Walking Dead,” and the TV “Batman” of the 1960s. As an added bonus, Aristocrat plans to have Adam West, the original “Batman,” and his Batmobile in the company’s G2E showroom.
WMS Industries will display slot machines based on the “Iron Man” film series, as well as the classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
But is this what casino operators — and more importantly slot machine players — want from a game?
Every company wants the next “Wheel of Fortune,” the slot machine created by International Game Technology in the 1990s that was based on the popular television game show. The game remains a casino floor standard and spawned a multitude of similar machines under different titles and brands that use the patented bonus jackpot spinning wheel technology. IGT updated the product a few years ago to include images of Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
In a recent Eilers-Fantini Slot Survey of slot machine floor managers, “Wheel of Fortune” still ranks as the top-performing game.
But gaming analyst Todd Eilers, whose Eilers Research produces the survey with Fantini Research, said the lack of a strong No. 2 title in IGT’s portfolio hurts the company.
IGT’s game based on the television series “Sex and the City” has fallen out of favor in the past year, slot floor managers say. The game has been supplanted by “Wizard of Oz” slot machines from WMS Industries, and the “Michael Jackson, King of Pop” game, which was unveiled at last year’s G2E by Bally Technologies.
“We believe it is critical for IGT to deliver a strong premium title at this year’s G2E show, or we suspect the trends will continue,” Eilers said.
When the G2E trade show floor opens Sept. 24, Eilers said, IGT could blow away the competition if it confirms rumors it has acquired the license for the futuristic film “Avatar.”
IGT Chief Financial Officer John Vandemore isn’t tipping his hand.
Vandemore said the company views G2E as more than a preview for a single slot machine and title. Having a great brand is one part of the process. Offering a game with the proper mechanics with the potential of long shelf life that draws the interest of players is key.
“We have a responsibility to take care of the brand and be respectful of that brand,” Vandemore said. “There is a tremendous amount of research that goes into that brand before we move forward on that product.”
IGT has had experience — good and bad — in themed slot machines.
For every “Gilligan’s Island” game, which bombed, IGT has found success with “Star Wars,” “The Hangover” and “American Idol.” At last year’s G2E, the company unveiled slot machines based on Judge Judy, Dolly Parton and “Family Guy.”
Vandemore admitted the company, like the competition, is looking for the next “Wheel of Fortune.”
“It’s a challenge that everyone is seeking,” Vandemore said.
IGT’s other challenge is finding titles usable across multiple platforms, such as its free-to-play social gaming product DoubleDown Casino.
Eilers said titles and themes will often run their course, as is the case with “Sex and the City.”
Other titles will catch the interest of casino operators. WMS’ “Willie Wonka” slot machine, which the company previewed last year, is one of the most highly anticipated games about to hit the market, according to the survey.
Oftentimes, a game that would seem to have a large reach is actually favored by a targeted audience.
Bally’s NASCAR game is hugely popular in casino markets where the sport is popular. Outside the United States, however, the game doesn’t have much gas. Still, Bally is producing a second version of the NASCAR slot machine.
“The brand can build a following, but it’s the game that also builds the brand,” Vandemore said.
Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.