No more cherries and lemons: Technologically advanced slots appeal to younger crowd

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Wade Vandervort

Gamblers play Buffalo Link at Red Rock Casino Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Sun, Feb 6, 2022 (2 a.m.)

As he meandered through Red Rock Resort, Aaron Bettale gravitated toward a slot machine featuring animated video of stampeding buffaloes and explosions of gold coins, ringing bells and the refrain of a disembodied voice exclaiming, “Buffalo.”

“I like the flashy stuff,” Bettale, who is in his 20s, said as he examined the Buffalo Link machine. “I don’t like the ones that just have the three sevens.”

For casino operators, gamblers like Bettale, who recently moved to Las Vegas from Colorado, represent the coveted young adult demographic. The hope is young players can be cultivated into lifelong casino patrons.

The average age of U.S. casino customers declined from about 50 in 2019 to 43 last year, according to the American Gaming Association. And 25% of casino patrons were under age 29, the group noted.

The trend can at least partly be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, said Jon Hanlin, a senior vice president of commercial strategy and business analytics for slot manufacturer Aristocrat Gaming.

After movie theaters, concert halls, nightclubs and other entertainment venues closed during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, casinos were some of the first to reopen, Hanlin said.

“That created a new bubble of people who had never frequented casinos before,” Hanlin said. Sign-ups for casino players club cards have skyrocketed among 21- to 35-year-olds, he said.

Red Rock has recently introduced a number of games geared toward young adults, including a skills-based offering called Megamatch-Jelly Kingdom, a cross between a video game — similar to Candy Crush Saga — and a traditional slot machine.

Jelly Kingdom, which is now on the casino floors at six Station Casinos properties, is made by an Australian company called Wymac Development.

Sally Bernard, a Las Vegas local who works as vice president of business development for Wymac, said young people “are more interested in slot machines these days compared to before the pandemic.”

“There are many variables to understand slot demographic behavior and how and why things have changed over time. When looking at data over the last dozen years prior to COVID-19, it had been on a steady decline,” she said.

Another Wymac skill-based game, Fortunes of the Brave-Dragon Forge, recently went through testing at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, Bernard said.

The game, which has a feature where players can create a customized character, is expected to be formally introduced later this year.

Last year, Aristocrat shipped out slot machines based on the 2021 remake of the science fiction movie “Dune” to some Las Vegas casinos, Hanlin said.

The game was released about the same time as the remake, creating a cross-promotion opportunity at some Station Casinos properties with theaters.

“We noticed that people coming out of the movie were more likely to try the game out,” Hanlin said. “We tried to capture that younger segment with our ‘Dune’ machines.”

“Something else that has driven a younger audience is the willingness of casinos to allow for filming on the floor,” said Hanlin, who has previously worked as a regional vice president of slots for Caesars Entertainment.

“When I was a casino operator, we’d tell people to put their phones down. That’s changed in the last three or four years,” Hanlin said. “People are filming and I can tell you they’re not posting anything about losing on social media. They’re posting about hitting jackpots. It creates a younger vibe.”

Brian Christopher, a California resident and slots aficionado who runs a YouTube page with more than 450,000 subscribers, is one of the most well-known personalities in the slot machine social media world.

Aristocrat welcomed Christopher last year to its Las Vegas complex to play the Buffalo Link game before it hit the casino floor.

“Even just in the past year and a half, our audience has gotten a lot younger,” Christopher said. “The pandemic may have helped a little in the beginning when people just needed a place to go, but it’s more than that. Right now, it’s the male millennial that is driving the YouTube page and my videos.”

Christopher said his YouTube channel, which features live game demonstrations and video blogs, can help familiarize people with the casino scene.

He said certain casinos seemed to “get it” by having an active presence on social media channels, which can help to market to a younger demographic. In Las Vegas, he mentioned the Plaza and Cosmopolitan as being forward-thinking in that regard.

“My fans make the comment a lot that they try new games that we highlight,” Christopher said. “What we do is important in helping people understand what’s going on. It can be very overwhelming to sit at a slot machine that you’ve never played before. We’re no longer talking about a three-wheel game.”

“There are fun and exciting games with fun and exciting bonuses,” Christopher said. “If I look at the games that my parents or grandparents played, they don’t excite me. Now, we’re always on our mobile devices or in front of a TV screen and these games match that.”

Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV who follows the region’s gaming industry, said technological advances in the presentation and complexity of slot machines have played a big role in attracting more millennial and Generation Z players.

“Younger people have grown accustomed to smartphones and devices on their wrists, and slots have advanced technologically too,” Green said. “I think back to when people used to stand there, pull a handle and watch a wheel spin and pop up cherry, cherry, lemon. The technology has advanced a lot.”

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