Brand awarenuts

Anyone who reads my column regular (i.e. my mum – hi mum!) knows that I’m a bit of paradox: the section editor of a gambling magazine who isn’t really taken with gambling. I do love my poker (a game of skill when I win, a game of sheer luck when I lose, obv.) but the idea of giving a metal box my hard-earned cash so that it can spin some pictures in my face and then thank me for playing as it digests my £10 note while laughing…
I must however admit that I’m a sucker for movies, so when a fruity whistles at me from across the room like R2-D2 or waves at me dressed like Iron Man (when WILL they make a slots cabinet with metal legs that follows you around the casino?) I must admit I can’t help but float over for a sniff. Certainly they intrigue and attract me, but I wonder, do they capture enough of the serious players’ time and money to warrant the effort that’s gone into the brand acquisition and game development?
A slot operations director told me that branded games tend to be popular among players for three to six months, with players playing on them even if they have less generous pay-outs to the next machine along. Releases such as Grease and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example, went ballistic for a couple of months but ultimately needed replacing soon after due to reduced play. This often leads to casinos leasing branded machines rather than buying them outright due to the limited longevity.

I was intrigued to hear from a slots journalist who told me that the Microgaming slot title, The Dark Knight, was at some initial point in its development a Lord of the Rings slot game that stuttered after a licensing issue with the Tolkein estate. There was “some beef” over features being added to the original game so it got changed over to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and the rest is history.  
My own background includes 15 years in video games so the thought of ‘simply’ changing the brand of a game already in development is almost unthinkable. Even if you were only one month into the development of a Lord of the Rings video game, to suddenly be tasked with turning it into a Batman game would mean pretty much ditching everything you’d created thus far. Changing invisibility rings into batarangs? I don’t think so. Turning Gandalf into Alfred the butler? Wouldn’t work – way too much beard for a servant.
It got me wondering if for all the prowess and power of a branded slot game, does it really matter to the game itself? Are we really being tricked into playing the same old game just because it’s dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi one day and Mickey Mouse the next? If we were to pull back the branded curtain on three different games would we find the same wizard pulling the same strings? Also, when will I stop asking questions in my column before moving on to an actual point? Now? Who knows?

Senior Vice President of Product Development at WMS Gaming, Phil Gelber, says that branded slots account for around 15 percent of their product line. While this percentage is small, the investment is not: “Those 15 percent are usually very big productions,” says Gelber. “There’s custom hardware and signage, we spend more time developing them, and we put a lot more sound and graphics into them.”
Ok, so we know the content of a big branded game will be more juicy than a ‘standard’ development, but again – is this branded game REALLY branded to reflect the subject matter or just producing more ‘noise’ than normal. Are the makers spending more to market these titles because they are better games and deserve the shout-out, or is it just that they’ve spent so much money acquiring the license they really need this title to succeed.
“It goes far beyond just slapping some logos or familiar motifs on the reels of a game,” says Mike Trask, spokesman for Bally Technologies. “It has to give players something entertaining and something exciting, or they’re not going to want to continue to play the game. It’s taking something from pop culture and incorporating it into an experience.”
Of course smart pop culture reference gives recognition, but branding also needs to consider targeting the key playing demographic. There’s no point spending a ton on an awesome SpongeBob SquarePants slot when all you’ll do is attract young kids (and the occasional stoned adult).
Personally I’d like to see branded games moving beyond slots. If, for instance, we know lots of older ladies play bingo, let’s make it a brand of bingo that appeals to them specifically. If more intellectual players prefer more skilful games, let’s find some brands that appeal to them. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling. Needless to say I retain copyright on everything (just in case)…

Michael Bublé Bingo – handsome crooner sings each number as it’s drawn
Al Pacino Keno – “Say hello to my little balls!”
Burt Bacharach Baccarat – Hardcore gambling and easy listening come together. Smooth.
James Franco Punto Banco – Needs no explanation.
SuBo’s Sic Bo – The titular queen of song asks: big or small?
Jack Black Black Jack – Funny fat man turns the laughter up to 21!