Skill-Influenced Slots Proving Their Value To Casinos, Next Gaming Chief Says

Skill-influenced slot machines are evolving into an essential component of the gaming floor, veteran gaming executive Mike Darley says.

“We’re highly confident,” declares the CEO of Next Gaming, a Las Vegas-based manufacturer that is putting the finishing touches on its second generation of skill-influenced games. “There’s a lot of demand. We’re still fielding calls (from Global Gaming Expo attendees) who want our games.”

A key reason behind the interest is the audience attracted by slots offering the allure of classic video game mechanics such as Asteroids, BUST-A-MOVE, and Arkanoid. While many fans are 50 and older who grew up playing the games in arcades or on home consoles, Darley said, younger adults make up most of the fans of the skill-influenced slots.

“What we’re finding is that (age) 50 and below are the ones gravitating to it, and the 25- to 35-year-olds – (who) want engagement, socialization, all those things that our games provide – tend to be the larger population that become loyal to those games.”

“Skill-influenced” or “skill-based” slot machines became a hot topic in 2016, after Nevada and New Jersey approved the use of variable payback percentages, in order that players’ ability in shooting targets, for example, could increase their payout. With traditional slots, payouts are purely random. Next Gaming’s titles incorporate a random number generator as well as a “skill” component, so casino operators are assured of their long-term return even with a player’s skill influencing some payouts.

Multiple entrepreneurs have tried their hands in the new field, with GameCo, Gamblit, Synergy Blue, and Next Gaming placing games in casinos. All but Next Gaming hit significant roadblocks early this year from the COVID pandemic and other factors. Synergy Blue’s founder and CEO resigned in January, a month before most of its workforce was laid off and the company hired an investment bank to assess “strategic alternatives.” Gamblit’s CEO said in February that the company was “focused on a pivot to online gaming.” GameCo had to appoint a new CEO after its founder and former CEO was denied a Nevada gaming license in February.

Darley sees the shakeout as an opportunity for Next Gaming, a privately owned company founded in 2006 by Terry Caudill, owner of Four Queens and Binion’s casinos in Las Vegas.

“There’s a void to be filled,” said Darley, who has more than 35 years of experience in the casino industry. “We’re sticking with it. Honestly, if we don’t do it, who’s going to? Big manufacturers … may have dabbled in it, but because there wasn’t a lot of skill-based gaming acceptance, I don’t believe they’re going to make a measurable effort.”

Noting the relative newness of skill-influenced slots, which are so different from traditional slots machines, Darley acknowledged that operators and players are in a longer-than-expected learning curve. “It’s taken a while to have a large population play those games, (but) we will get there, no doubt. They’re in limited casinos only because we’re fairly new to placements in the market.”

Next Gaming machines are on the floors of Binion’s Gambling Hall in downtown Las Vegas, as well as in casinos in Durant, Okla., and Blue Lake, California.

The company’s newest skill-influenced titles – Missile Command, Tempest, and BUST-A-MOVE Adventure – are close to gaining certification to be placed in casinos, he said. Centipede, based on the classic Atari video game, and Space Invaders, from Taito, are slated to follow. In addition, Next Gaming has licensed “Grumpy Cat” and has created video reel games to follow.

“We have enough variety to keep the games coming,” Darley said. As with other slot developers, feedback from players and operators lead to modifications that improve each generation of machines, he added.

“We’re continuing to listen to the players so we can fine tune skill-influenced gaming,” Darley said. “We have to make sure that it is appealing to a large demographic, that it continues to be popular on the floor, and that it achieves the average win-per-unit-per-day that is the benchmark of every casino. That’s what our desire is, and that’s what we work toward every day.”

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