Although there was little in the way of VR demos, the ones I did try proved how powerful virtual reality gambling could be. I caught up with Jeffrey Lande, founder of Lucky VR and developer of Riftsino, who was presenting a voice recognition controlled Blackjack demo on the Oculus Rift DK2.
Riftsino has been available to download for a while now, but somehow playing it in the ambience of a hall filled with slot machines on freeplay was even more enticing.
Lande has also been working on some VR slot applications and Topgame Technology were presenting the most over-the-top virtual reality slots experience you could imagine.
Through the window of an Oculus Rift, we experienced a bonus feature that saw us break out of the casino and end up on a rollercoaster – something very different to picking a box feature on a 2D screen.
Another big online casino operator called Microgaming were presenting virtual reality slot machines behind closed doors in their immersion room.
Whilst all this was impressive, how VR gambling shifts from a casino marketing exercise to a utility that encourages gamblers to play for longer is not clear.
Talking to experts, the goal for any casino, whether land-based or online, is to keep people playing as long as possible – it is not so much about encouraging players to increase their stakes.
Slot machines work on percentage payouts which vary according to the profile set by an operator. But these averaged payouts are calculated over time. So a slot machine with a 97% payout will in theory return £97 to a player’s £100. Of course, that is spread over many players, so some will win big but most will lose so the casino can afford to pay the wins.
So it is a essential to keep players pumping money in, for the advertised payout percentage to work. Perhaps virtual reality can encourage players to spend longer time participating in the game with mechanisms that increase the player’s adrenaline.
Since the dawn of the industry both land-based and online casinos have been devising new ways to extend gameplay. In fact, some of the slot machines I saw at ICE Totally Gaming would not have looked out of place in an arcade. Sphinx 3D by GTECH featured a glasses free 3D screen with a virtual wheel that could be spun by the movement of my head. The company are researching how the same technology can recognise the gender of the player to adjust the game’s theme according to profiling.
During my last trip to Vegas, my friend often hit bonus features on slot machines that would ‘reward’ you with motion. During a bonus sequence, the chair created an extra thrill by rocking her in different directions (she is easily pleased).
In the online world, slot machines are becoming increasingly gamified. Rich graphics, pre-game movie sequences and brand licensing are taking the popular past time to a new, games console style level.
The next logical progression could be virtual reality. The infrastructure to deliver VR gambling experiences already exists with companies like IGT, Microgaming and Playtech providing the power for major operators such as Sky Vegas and Jackpot City. It would not be difficult for an online casino to deliver VR versions of their existing slot assets via website and mobile downloads.
But would virtual reality gambling be popular? Online slots are often the same as you would find in casinos now, without the free cocktails, so the Vegas experience in the home is not that far off already. The same with Blackjack. You can now play with real video live Blackjack players on a computer, and chat to the others on your table.
I think that virtual reality gambling should not try and recreate the real casino experience – it already exists albeit in a flat 2D way, and with over 50% of online gambling now being played on tablets and phones, this suits the increasingly casual and second-screen nature of gambling (I even saw a demo of real slots on a smartwatch).
So where could virtual reality fit within a multi-media world where we are used to texting, watching the TV and surfing the Internet at the same time?
I have a friend who is a consultant for the casino industry and he told me people don’t gamble to win money – they gamble for the rush, and it is the rush that may be further enhanced with virtual reality. So rather than try to recreate what is already out there, why not do something completely different? Rather than a reconstruction on playing Blackjack in a casino, why not add an element of danger as you play in a dimly lit room against the mafia in the 1920s?
Or a ‘life or death’ slot machine that sees you walking across an ever smaller plank to get to greater prizes. Do you take your winnings? Or do you risk walking further for the bigger money at the risk of plummeting to the ground, losing the lot?
Virtual reality intensifies everything, with your full vision surrounded and 3D binaural audio. The existing rush elements of slots such as ‘near lines’, audio tone changes of sound effects and dramatic lighting changes could be taken to extreme levels in VR.
And then there is the emergence of what is called ‘Digital Skills Gaming (With Prize)’ . Reuben Portanier, founder of advisory firm Avviza, thinks this could become a whole new product in the industry. Even the Malta Gaming Authority is looking at implementing a specific regulatory framework for such games.
Imagine how powerful ‘Digital Skills Gaming (With Prize)’ would be in virtual reality? For example, during a bonus feature where you have to start with a large win, and need to shoot as many thieving aliens as possibly stealing your pot in a given time frame – what you are left with is yours.
Although the combination of skill and chance would get the regulators head’s spinning, this could make for a very powerful (and profitable) gambling product for the industry.
Gaming is about the emotional and physiological experience of playing at the casino tables, and all the sensory stimuli that this delivers. VR could replicate that experience of walking into the casino lobby, being greeted by the hostess, and being led to the gaming floor. It really could replicate the physical gaming experience to a whole new level, while breaking down consumer barriers in order to potentially drive patrons into a land-based casino that have perhaps never ever set foot in one.For me, opening up this new dimension to gaming makes virtual reality devices the most exciting of all the developments in wearable technology for 2015 and beyond.
Here at Freefly VR we can’t wait to try immersive virtual reality slots, especially via mobile. Mobile offers other opportunities such as easy voice control, hand tracking through devices like Leap Motion, and real-time connected gambling with friends. The fast growing sector of social gaming (another term for virtual currency casinos where the player never wins prizes, but can buy tokens to unlock new slot games) could also be a perfect genre for VR.
Whether people will continue to gamble in VR after the initial novelty factor will be told be time. But was is important is that the game mechanics of casino gaming will need to be taken just as seriously as regular online games – it is not a case of pretty graphics, but well thought out features that keep people playing for longer, which has led to some older slot games still being more popular than newer more advanced slots (Rainbow Riches for example).
VR will need to be just as considered and not make the mistakes of 3D TV, which relied on the format being the draw, rather than quality content.
Anyway – I must go. I’m feeling lucky and Rainbow Riches is just waiting to pay out. Can someone fetch me a Bloody Mary?