Monday, Oct. 13, 1997 | 10:10 a.m.
The "Year of the Game Maker" is about to begin.
Hoping to turn creativity into cash, scores of casino game designers will introduce hundreds of new table and video products as the World Gaming Congress & Expo begins Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The game makers should find a receptive audience among casino operators facing increased competition, slow customer growth and limited domestic expansion opportunities.
The new products will allow casino operators to differentiate their offerings from competitors' without spending billions on new buildings, and could help attract a new breed of customers looking for more entertainment while they gamble.
Not all the new games will find their way to the casino floor. But those that do will help transform traditional gambling halls into entertainment centers offering a full range of options to excitement-seeking customers.
"We're in the business of making memories," MGM Grand Inc. President Alex Yemenidjian says about casino operators. "If you come to Las Vegas, you can see pirate ships fighting, volcanoes exploding, Barbra Streisand or Elton John performing.
"And when you're sitting at a blackjack table or a slot machine, we are, in effect, renting you 3-by-3 feet of entertainment space. People don't come here to gamble, per se, but to be entertained, to be swept off their feet, to be left gawking. It's all entertainment."
The entertainment space metaphor isn't lost on Las Vegas-based gaming analyst Dave Ehlers, who likens the current trend in gaming to one that hit the movie industry decades ago.
"At one time," Ehlers says, "the movie houses held the power, because there weren't that many for people to visit or for studios to exhibit.
"Now there are cineplexes on every street corner, and the only way to get viewers is by offering a blockbuster film.
"If you're a studio that's produced a blockbuster, you dictate who gets it and how much they'll pay. The power shifted to the software creators."
A similar trend is under way now in gaming, as the market capitalization of the top casino game designers has climbed sharply this year, while most operator stocks have stagnated.
Many analysts expect that trend to continue, at least until the openings of Bellagio, Project Paradise, Paris, Venetian and other themed Las Vegas megaresorts create what operators hope will be a resurgence of Las Vegas visitor growth.
But megaresorts take years to develop, while a hot new game can be installed in a casino as fast as a manufacturer can churn one out.
For the past decade, most of the innovations have been in slot and video games. As computer technology advanced, high-resolution graphics, stereo sound and interactivity became features in many successful introductions.
With the exception of a handful such as Caribbean Stud, Let It Ride and Pai Gow Poker, few new table games have enjoyed widespread success. But that may change this year, as game makers have come up with some intriguing new offerings.
Shuffle Master Inc., for example, will debut five table games and nine video games, most of which will be distributed by industry giant International Game Technology.
The company's "Let 'Em Spin" game unites table and video games for the first time, creating an interactive adventure that the developer, Mark Yoseloff, says brings "an unbelievable level of sociability" to the game.
Up to eight players take turns spinning a four-reel slot inset into a blackjack-styled table that offers two betting rounds and lets the "active" player stop the last two reels by hitting a button.
"If I hit, every other player at the table wins, as well," Youseloff says.
Shuffle Master's "Let 'Em Roll" game is a simplified version of the casino mainstay craps that takes place around a blackjack-type table.
"The object is to let people shoot dice without having to learn craps, but still retain the most exciting parts of the game," Yoseloff says.
His "Pai Wow" poker game is similar to the popular Pai Gow, but pays up to 800-to-1 for a royal, rather than even money, and cuts the number of "pushes" -- no-contest hands -- to 12 percent from Pai Gow's 46 percent.
"Maverick Blackjack" pays up to 1,000-to-1 on 21 and is likely to become one of the expo's biggest draws.
Shuffle Master will also introduce "Video Mah Jong," a simplified version of one of the world's oldest and most popular games, in a format that video poker players will have no difficulty learning.
And its "Doors to Riches" video game has at least three matching symbols -- thus a potential prize winner -- behind five closed doors on each hand dealt. All you have to do is touch the right doors.
IGT will officially unveil its new Vision Series slots, which have wowed the company's biggest customers in preview showings over the past month. Anchor Gaming will debut new multicoin, multiline, multi-event video games that expand on its successful "Wheel of Gold," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Totem Pole" themes.
Silicon Gaming will offer new games for its high-resolution "Odyssey" platform, while Bally Gaming will unveil its own family of 3-D graphics games.
Casino Data Systems will offer video poker games incorporating reel-spinning bonus features, and Williams, Sigma, Mikohn, VLC, Sega. Aristocrat and others will display their latest innovations.
This year's World Gaming Congress & Expo, sponsored by International Gaming & Wagering Business magazine, will wind up Thursday with more new games introduced than at any other time in the industry's history.