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September 20, 2019

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Why some slot machine themes just don’t work

2013 Global Gaming Expo

Steve Marcus

A zombie looks on as people try out the new “Walking Dead” video slot machine by Aristocrat during the G2E convention at the Sands Expo Center Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. While that theme has proven popular, seemingly sure-fire themes for slot machines, such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, have frequently not resonated with players, gaming experts say.

You would think it would be a sure-fire hit in Las Vegas: a slot machine with a Frank Sinatra theme.

It was unveiled in 2001 when then-Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, along with Sinatra’s daughter, Tina, made Dec. 12 Frank Sinatra Day.

But sometimes, what seems like a great slot theme just doesn’t pan out, industry experts say.

“A theme game like Frank Sinatra?” says Steve Walther, senior director, marketing & product management for Konami Gaming. “How much more Vegas can you get than a Sinatra machine? And it did poorly. It’s really a shame. The music was good, but people just didn’t identify with the game.”

There are a variety of reasons why some slot themes using celebrities with ties to Las Vegas just don’t catch on, says Brooke Dunn, who directed marketing at the Las Vegas Hilton, managed slot operations at the Reno Hilton and was vice president of marketing for Shuffle Master.

“Sinatra and Elvis looked like naturals,” Dunn said. “So did Elizabeth Taylor, but it just didn’t seem to work.”

In cases where the actual play of the game matches the theme, Dunn says, a theme can be successful. He noted that the “Sex and the City” game’s bonus rounds involved shopping for dresses, shoes and diamonds.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ is also a good example,” Dunn said. “That game always had something outstanding that would bring you back, whether it was flying monkeys or Glinda the Good Witch in the bonus rounds.”

“Sex and the City” and the “The Wizard of Oz” aren’t the only successful themes. Dunn named “Wheel of Fortune” as one of the most successful games ever. And “The Walking Dead” seems to be breaking across demographic boundaries and appealing to older and younger players alike, Dunn said.

Those kinds of fun features and good gameplay keep players coming back, Dunn said. “To me it’s all about the gameplay and the theme is secondary.”

Olaf Vancura, vice president of game development for slot maker Mikohn Gaming (which eventually became part of IGT) and other gaming companies, said gameplay is paramount. To be successful, a slot machine must offer players entertainment and escape, Vancura said. If it doesn’t, no theme will save it, he added.

“To take a brand and put it on a slot because the brand is strong, I would argue, is a mistake, and that game will ultimately not make it,” he said. “The reason is the slot machine. Every time someone makes a wager of a dollar on a slot, we’re taking 10 to 12 cents from the player (the hold percentage). So, that means every time a player spins he is in essence reinvesting in that game.”

When he worked at Shuffle Master, Dunn said a big reason for using a theme was to prevent other companies from copying some unique feature of the game.

When features are couched in images from a licensed theme, other slot manufacturers can’t use the images without a licensing agreement with the owner of the themes, the celebrities or media companies.

The other, more obvious reason for using themes, Dunn said, was to get players to try the game in the first place. And some themes, despite being known worldwide, couldn’t get the job done.

“‘Gone with the Wind’ was the No. 1 movie of all time, and it didn’t make a good game,” he said. “The theme didn’t translate well. Both ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Godfather’ were slot machines that didn’t work.”

Dunn said other themes that didn’t perform well include:

• Superman: “He flew across the screen, but gameplay didn’t take advantage of it.”

• Batman, both “The Dark Knight” and the campy TV version. “Both struggled.”

• John Wayne: “Just didn’t work.”

• And, sadly, a Monkees-themed slot machine. “It didn’t work. It was terrible.”

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