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Atlantic City welcomes GameCo's skill-based games

3 Nov 2016

By Clare Fitzgerald
A Danger Arena cabinet

A Danger Arena cabinet

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – The notion of skill-based gaming has been kicking around the casino industry for a few years now, but at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the first skill-based gaming machines officially went live at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City.

The game is Danger Arena, the first offering from New York-based company GameCo. Three three-seat carousels have been prominently placed along one of the major walkways on the gaming floor; the middle one bearing a "New Game" sign perched atop the cabinet.

Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian; Rick Mazer, president of Harrah's Resort; Kevin Ortzman, president of Caesars Atlantic City and Bally's - Atlantic City; and GameCo CEO Blaine Graboyes were all in attendance at the ribbon-cutting. Behind them, two professional video gamers — Vanessa Arteaga and Manny "Master" Rodriguez — quietly shot robots.

Mayor Guardian welcomed GameCo to Atlantic City in tones of thundering enthusiasm, declaring "If you think slot machines are boring, you've got to check out Danger Arena!"

All four executives who spoke expressed confidence that Danger Arena represents the first step in the next evolution of the gaming floor, and that it will appeal to younger audiences who aren't showing up to play slots — millennial and Generation X gamers "who grew up playing X-box instead of Pong," as Rick Mazer put it.

There was also a great deal of Atlantic City pride and optimism on display. Graboyes spoke fondly of spending his summers growing up playing arcade games on the Boardwalk; the other executives emphasized that the games were an investment in Atlantic City's future.

The games come at a time when the casino industry generally and Atlantic City in particular is in pretty dire need of revitalization. The struggling seaside resort town is less than 24 hours away from a state takeover due to its financial woes, and five of its casinos have closed since 2014 — most recently the Trump Taj Mahal, which shut its doors only last month. Debuting these new machines in Atlantic City demonstrates a belief in the city's ability to recover and bring in new customers.

Slots revenue, which for the past several decades has made up 75% of total casino revenues, has stagnated or declined over the past several years, even as the land-based casino industry has been expanding aggressively in the U.S.

Graboyes was working at an eSports company bringing eSports events to casinos when he learned about "the slots problem." In 25 years of doing game development, he says, he'd never seen a solution so obvious.

This solution was to combine the ability to win money with the sorts of games that were already familiar to and well-loved by younger customers, putting the gameplay of arcade games within the luxury-oriented settings that the casino industry excels at.

The familiar game controller

The familiar game controller

Despite being the newest thing on the gambling scene, Danger Arena's arcade-style cabinet and comic book graphics give it a charmingly retro appearance, and the black controller, with its two thumbsticks for navigation and aim, will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played on a PS2, X-box or, frankly, almost any modern two-handed console system.

"It's very approachable," Manny Rodriguez told Casino City. "The controller especially, it's something that you can be like 'Hey, I've seen that,' so that's kind of the beacon for everything."

The pay scale also lends itself to a low-risk approach, with a minimum bet of 50 cents for a round of play that lasts about a minute and a half.

"If somebody's kind of scared, they can test the waters that way and be like, OK, I spent a couple cents," Rodriguez explained. "After a while, I'm sure you get used to it, the controller's familiar, and you can try for (up to) 20 dollars."

The game itself is a pretty straightforward "first-person action" game, where you play as either Basil or Thyme — the game's male and female avatars — and try to kill as many robots as you can in 90 seconds. Some of the robots are invincible, and shooting them only stuns them, making the minimum six kills needed to cash just a bit more difficult to achieve. As the player, however, you're also invincible, so the robots can't kill you before the clock runs out.

There's also chance to hit a randomly generated bonus payout, which takes the form of a power ball lurking within some of the maps.

"Let's say you're not good at the game, right," Rodriguez explained, which turned out to be an extremely safe assumption. "All of a sudden you happen to be put in the map with the power ball. That will automatically give you money — it'll tell you right here what they are based on the pay scale. So even though you didn't take out any bots, you may still win 50 dollars. It kind of gives you that balance for anybody that's coming in and isn't a professional like myself."

Confession time: Despite being smack in the middle of the target age range for this game, I did not grow up playing console games and have somehow managed to avoid learning to play them through at least 10 years of primarily living and socializing with gamers. I have dabbled with varying degrees of interest and competence in approximately five million board games, card games, tabletop RPGs, PC games, puzzles and gamified workout regimens, but hand me a console and I will just randomly mash buttons until you get tired of me mashing them wrong and let me give it back to you.

According to Mike Giancaspro, one of the game's product developers, I instinctively play as if I'm using an inverted controller, which is why I continually get disoriented and walk into walls. Despite generous coaching, I was unable to break this habit of thought, and the most robots I was able to kill in any round of the game was three.

All the same, though: The game was a lot of fun, and people who can use a non-inverted controller competently will have a pretty good shot at making some money.

Graboyes tells Casino City he's working with partners through a number of different marketing channels in order to bring in new customers.

"I don't expect gamers to know it exists on their own, of course," he said. "And they're not here, or they're here but they're in the nightclub."

In addition to working with the casinos on traditional marketing — there's a billboard on the road into Atlantic City, and advertisements for the machines are prominently placed throughout the nongaming sections of Harrah's — Graboyes says he's working with video game and eSports companies to advertise the games and to further cross-pollinate the casino and video gaming markets. Some of GameCo's upcoming games will be developed in partnership with existing video game franchises.

Graboyes is clearly committed to a vision of the gaming industry that seamlessly integrates the best aspects of the currently disparate group of industries that all refer to themselves as "gaming," and GameCo has hit the ground running in its attempt to make this vision a reality. At the Danger Arena launch party, held in Harrah's Eden Lounge, I met a number of recent hires, several of whom seemed slightly dazed at how rapidly the company was expanding.

I also found this cake, because it's impossible to get through an entire day of millennial-oriented marketing talk without at least one selfie joke:

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