LAS VEGAS – Atari’s 1981 hit “Centipede” is an antique in the video game world, but it’s the hottest new thing in the casino industry.
Slot machine manufacturers are rolling out a raft of games inspired by the penny arcade, hoping to attract middle-aged gamblers with a dose of nostalgia and the promise of finally cashing in on all those hours spent in front of a screen.
A “Centipede” slot machine to hit casino floors soon is more than just a clever licensing deal, or a sign of gambling’s cosmetic change from one-armed bandits to touch screens and digital music. It’s part of a new generation of models that let users show off a rare casino trait: skill.
The game, developed by International Game Technology, the industry’s largest slot manufacturer, converts points earned shooting digital insects directly into money. If two gamblers sit down at an identical machine, the better shot will walk away with more cash.
At the gambling industry’s annual trade show in Las Vegas this week, a stream of men in suits sat down to try out the new game. Bodies swaying around a joystick, they maneuvered their character on an overhead screen, dodging spider attacks and shooting at creepy insects amid a flurry of “pew pew” sounds.
Industry honchos hope the new breed of games will help slots beat their reputation as “day care for the elderly.” The games are normally marketed toward women ages 55 to 65.
“I grew up playing Atari and Nintendo, and I want to believe my skill in these games has some effect on the outcome,” said Geoff Freeman, the 38-year-old head of the American Gambling Association. “Let me play Madden football, let me play EA Hockey. We’ll put $20 down, the winner gets $15 and the house gets $5.”
It’s an appealing idea for gamers, but unlikely to come to fruition because casinos make far more money when gamblers play against the house, as opposed to each other.
Skill will still only take you so far even with the new brand of slots. The flashing, singing machines – sometimes called “beautiful vaults” because they are the most profitable game a casino can put on its floor – are only marketable if they can retain a consistent portion of wagers, usually somewhere between 5 percent and 20 percent.
Nevada regulators have seen an uptick in the number of slot machines incorporating skilled bonus rounds, according to Gaming Control Board engineer Joel Eickhoff. But the state will only approve games that are more slot machine than video game.
Advocates who work around gambling addiction worry the shoot ’em up bonus rounds could hurt “escape gamblers,” who use wagering as a narcotic to forget about real-world dilemmas.
“Any design feature that encourages increased play has the potential to affect problem gamblers,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
In 10 years, Millennials who played “Grand Theft Auto” in college dorm rooms in the 2000s might find their old favorite blinking on the casino floor, a miniature vice city.