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Familiar themes lure players to branded slot machines

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
The Pawn Stars slot machine from Bally Technologies includes a bonus round that lets players “negotiate” the price of a collectible with Rick, Corey, The Old Man or Chumlee.
The Pawn Stars slot machine from Bally Technologies includes a bonus round that lets players “negotiate” the price of a collectible with Rick, Corey, The Old Man or Chumlee.
Wizard of Oz is one of many slot machine brands tied to pop culture.
Mark Gruetze | Tribune-Review
Wizard of Oz is one of many slot machine brands tied to pop culture.
Dolly Parton slot machines include songs by the country singer.
Dolly Parton slot machines include songs by the country singer.

If you long for a chance to negotiate a sale to Rick Harrison or another member of the “Pawn Stars” crew, head to your favorite casino. That's also the place to go when you're off to see the Wizard, enjoy performances by Dolly Parton or Michael Jackson, or immerse yourself in multiple worlds of Monopoly.

All are “branded” slot machines, which feature famous people, productions and pop-culture characters as a way of enticing slot fans to spend their money.

Slot manufacturers “license anything they can that might resonate with the general public,” says Bud Green, assistant general manager at Rivers casino on the North Shore. This week, Rivers installed machines based on “The Mummy” movies.

“You walk into most casinos in the U.S., and you're going to have at least a thousand options for what game you want to play,” says Mike Trask, spokesman for Bally Technologies, one of the country's leading slot manufacturers. “That initial recognizability (of branded slots) certainly helps draw players to those games.”

Branded slots account for about 15 percent of the product line of WMS Gaming, says Phil Gelber, senior vice president of product development. While the percentage is small, the investment is not.

“Those 15 percent are usually very big productions,” says Gelber, whose company has 40 versions of Monopoly games and will launch a Willy Wonka slot this summer. “There's custom hardware and signage. We spend more time developing them. We put a lot more sound and graphics into them.” Many times, the branded games are linked and offer progressive jackpots.

Green says more than 100 of Rivers' 2,937 machines are branded. The Meadows in Washington County has 196 branded machines among its 3,317 overall, says Michael Jankoviak, director of slot operations.

Branded slots touch almost every facet of American culture. Recent games include Superman, Ironman, Breakfast at Tiffany's, CSI (all three versions in one machine), The Hangover, Wheel of Fortune, Spider-Man, KISS, Gone With the Wind, the Beach Boys, Grease, The Game of Life, Battleship, Skee-Ball, Playboy, Penthouse and Sex and the City.

Casino patrons tend to be 45 or older, so many brands play on the nostalgia factor. Manufacturers do exhaustive research to track what programs and stars their customers like, in hopes of identifying the next big slot brand.

Success depends on more than the name, Gelber and Trask say.

“It goes far beyond just slapping some logos or familiar motifs on the reels of a game,” Trask says. “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.”

In the Pawn Stars game, for example, a bonus round gives lucky players the chance to sell an item to one of the Pawn Stars and dicker over the price. True to the show, the guys sometimes call in an expert to appraise an item. It might fetch twice the original offer or it might turn out to be worthless.

Developing a game can take a year. Gelber says it can cost millions of dollars, from the licensing deals to developing and producing the game.

“It's definitely not a cheap process, which is why we do a lot of market research and really try to pick the cream of the crop of the brands,” he says. “We pass on a lot more (deals) than we actually make.”

Jankoviak, who is offering a free-spin promotion Saturday on just-installed Pawn Stars machines, says branded games tend to be popular among players for three to six months. Grease and Breakfast at Tiffany's, for example, “hit it out of the park” for a couple of months but soon will be replaced because of reduced play, he says. Often, casinos must lease branded machines rather than buying them outright. Pennsylvania casinos pay a daily fee; in Las Vegas, manufacturers can get 20 percent of the machine's slot revenue, he says.

Gelber says some surefire brands have yet to be signed, although he wouldn't identify them. WMS pursued the Willy Wonka brand for several years before the estate of author Roald Dahl agreed to license a slot.

“For the brand holders, it's important to them to make sure they partner with someone who is going to hold to their core values of their brand and deliver a true, entertaining experience,” he says.

Trask says Bally has high hopes for its NASCAR machine, which is based on the country's No. 1 spectator sport. In addition to the individual machine, Bally offers a system that allows a casino to broadcast a simulated NASCAR race on every slot and on TV screens throughout the building. Players on any machine can choose which of eight drivers will win; those who pick the winner can receive cash or free play.

“That's the kind of event that I think really takes casino entertainment to the next level,” Trask says. “It really gives people something different, something they haven't done before.”

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or

Ohio's second racino opens near Cleveland

ThistleDown Racino opened this week near Cleveland, offering slot fans another spot to play.

The slot machine-horse racing facility is on 128 acres off Interstate 480 in North Randall, about 10 miles southeast of downtown. It offers more than 1,110 slots, with live racing from April through November and simulcast racing year-round. This is the state's second racino, joining Scioto Downs near Columbus. Five more are expected to open in a year.

Horseshoe Cleveland, which opened in May 2012, offers slots and table games.

Money trail

Slot players lost $52.91 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos in the week ending April 7, the Gaming Control Board reports. That's up from $49.41 million in the comparable week last year.

The state gets 55 percent of the gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots are paid.

Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.92 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.92. Highest payout rate: 90.6 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.37 at Hollywood Penn National near Harrisburg.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers, weekly slot revenue of $6.35 million, up from $5.05 million last year.


Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.97 million, up from $4.71 million last year.


Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $3.07 million, down from $3.28 million last year.

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