Foxwoods, 'skill-based' gaming target millennial crowd

Professional gamer Angelea Rapp demonstrates how to play
Professional gamer Angelea Rapp demonstrates how to play "Nothin' But Net" on Friday, June 9, 2017, at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The game, created by GameCo Inc., is one of two skill-based video game gambling machines available at the casino and they are the only ones of their kind available in New England. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Mashantucket — Attention millennials, the generation whose oldest members are about 35 years old: Casinos want you.

They’ve heard you like to be doing stuff, that you like interactive games, a little physical adventure, some control over your environment. Tapping buttons on a slot machine is not your thing.

So, it’s no wonder at all that Foxwoods Resort Casino, the biggest casino in North America, is sticking its toe in the pond of skill-based gaming and working to string a zip line from the top of its Fox Tower to the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. And, Felix Rappaport, the casino’s president and chief executive officer, revealed in an interview last week, plans are underway for a “go-karting experience.” Details, he said, will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, Foxwoods’ experiment with skill-based gaming is about to enter its fourth week.

“It’s really early in the process — too early to draw conclusions,” Bryan Hayes, Foxwoods vice president of analytics and slot operations, said Friday during a demonstration arranged by GameCo Inc., the New York-based manufacturer of video game gambling machines, or VGMs.

GameCo installed six of the machines at Foxwoods — two banks of three each — on the Fox Tower gaming floor, outside Shrine nightclub, after introducing them in three Caesars Entertainment-owned casinos in Atlantic City in November. The company has since removed them from the Caesars casinos, though they remain at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. GameCo, seeking regulatory approvals for the games in Las Vegas, says it plans to be operational in most major U.S. gambling jurisdictions by the end of the year.

“What I like about it is the interaction,” said Angelea Rapp, a gamer GameCo hired to demonstrate “Nothin But Net,” a basketball-themed game that involves some hand-eye coordination and timing. “You’re not just putting money in a machine and waiting for three things (cherries? pineapples?) to come up in a row.”

Other skill-based machines in place at Foxwoods feature a so-called “match three” game, “Pharaoh’s Secret Temple,” which rewards a player’s ability to identify patterns on a fast-changing screen.

The key to the games’ appeal is that players can improve their chances of winning — and win bigger payouts — the better they play, according to Rich Maryyanek, head of global business development for GameCo.

“There’s nothing random about it. It’s a real skill,” he said. “These games attract not just millennials but gamers in general, and gamers come in all ages.”

Maryyanek said GameCo’s “exit” surveys show that 50 percent of the casino-goers who played GameCo games wouldn’t have otherwise gambled. That’s why, he said, GameCo doesn’t see slot machines as competition.

“We’re creating new business,” he said.

Jury is out

The company’s research has pegged the average age of the skill-based gamer to between 35 and 40 years old, far younger than the typical U.S. slots player, a female 65 or older, Maryyanek said. Just five years ago, the average age of the slots player was 55.

He said the games have a social aspect, too, with people gathering around them to watch the “competition.”

“After the clubs empty out, you see people getting together, standing behind each other, calling ‘next game,’” Maryyanek said.

From the casino industry’s perspective, the jury is out on skill-based games, said Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine.

“They’re still in their infancy,” he said. “It’s not even understood yet how players will respond to them. How will the very skilled react to not winning all the time? How will the unskilled like losing? It’s been tried before in various forms and didn’t become popular.”

Casinos judge the success of their slot machines on the daily “win” each produces, meaning the amount of wagers the casino keeps after paying out prizes. By that standard, skill-based gaming machines could have a tough time measuring up, Gros said.

“You can play six games a minute on a conventional slot machine,” he said, while a skill-based game can take from 45 to 90 seconds. “If you put a new machine on your floor, you expect it to earn as much as the machine you took off.”

Foxwoods, of all casinos, has the space to try things out.

“It’s way too early to have a good understanding of how they’ll perform over the long haul,” Rappaport, the Foxwoods CEO, said of the skill-based games. “We don’t have the same expectations for them that we would for other slots. I’ve asked Brian (Hayes, the slot operations head) to do a little more comprehensive job calling attention to them. When you come down the escalators (leading from Foxwoods’ Grand Pequot Tower to the Fox Tower) and you’re heading for the Tanger outlets, you might miss them if you’re not looking for them.”

The online world

Foxwoods, which rolled out an online “social casino” in 2013 and upgraded it last year in anticipation of the eventual legalization of online gaming beyond Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey, announced last week that it was teaming up with a Canadian venture capital firm to develop and market new gaming technology.

“As they develop content, we can showcase it,” Rappaport said of Foxwoods’ deal with Vancouver-based Victory Square Venture Capital. “In Connecticut, real-money gambling online isn’t available yet but we hope it will be. We’re all interested in the online world — some Atlantic City properties have had success with it.”

The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, the Mohegan Sun owner that manages Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, introduced a real-money online gambling site for New Jersey-based gamblers in 2015.

Rappaport formally unveiled plans for the Foxwoods HighFlyer zip line at an event in Boston a week ago, though no specific date for its debut has been set. At the same time, plans for a new Italian restaurant, Caputo Trattoria, were announced. Developed in partnership with the Craveable Hospitality Group, owners of Foxwoods’ popular David Burke Prime, the new restaurant will replace Al Dente, a longtime casino favorite.

“Construction is taking longer than anticipated,” Rappaport said of the zip line. “No one’s ever tried to do it from the top of a 33-story building before. We hope to have it open by the end of the summer, September.”

Such changes, conventional and not-so-conventional, are all part of the “refreshening” that casinos typically undergo, he said, though some of it feels more like a sea change.

“You've heard me say we’re transitioning from a gaming-centric facility to a full-service, integrated, destination resort and that's exactly what's happening,” Rappaport said. “We’ve got 9 million square feet here and 1,200 acres (on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation). The zip line’s meant to be a harbinger of things to come.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of the slot game, “Pharaoh’s Secret Temple."

Brand ambassador Lisa Lysik, right, with GameCo, shows Joy Mauro of Bozrah, center, and Terry Field of North Stonington how to play Pharaoh's Secret Temple on Friday, June 9, 2017, at Foxwoods Resort Casino. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Brand ambassador Lisa Lysik, right, with GameCo, shows Joy Mauro of Bozrah, center, and Terry Field of North Stonington how to play Pharaoh's Secret Temple on Friday, June 9, 2017, at Foxwoods Resort Casino. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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