Millennials love Las Vegas, but they're far less enamored with the casino world's hyper-profitable lifeblood, slot machines. So to hook young visitors back onto pulling the lever, the kings of the Strip are betting on a new strategy: making gambling look like a video game.
A state Senate committee in Nevada is considering a bill that would allow casinos to add more skill-based gambling -- like playing Angry Birds, but for cash -- on top of the typical games of chance. And gambling's gamemakers are modeling slots after modern-day pastimes like Facebook poker and free-to-play games, which have won huge audiences outside the casino floor.
"You have as much chance getting a millennial into slot machines as you do getting your grandmother into playing 'Halo,' " said David Chang, chief marketing officer for Gamblit Gaming, which is developing games in what it calls the "emerging interactive entertainment meets gambling space." "Slots today are designed entertainment experiences, but for a completely different demographic, and that's people who grew up with slot machines."
Slots are one of the gambling world's best moneymakers: Big, loud, bright and cheap to run, no dealer or croupier required. They're also cash cows: Slots often offer a 60 percent profit margin, compared with the single-digit margins of traditional table games, a University of Nevada at Las Vegas paper said.
Millennials still enjoy the skill and social play of games like poker and blackjack, casino analysts say. But today's advanced, go-anywhere games on cellphones and social media have made pressing one button while seated at a bank of flashing slot machines seem primitive in comparison, and young gamblers haven't looked back.
Visitors to Vegas are trending younger, with the average age dropping from 50 to 45 since 2009, city data show. But travelers are flocking to Sin City more for the glitzy entertainment -- nightclubs, lounges, trendy restaurants -- than the big wager. The share of Vegas visitors who gambled during their stay fell to 71 percent in 2013, down from 83 percent four years back.
The days of "grand casino openings with people rushing to play the slots” are gone, Nevada's Gaming Control Board chairman A.G. Burnett said, according to the Las Vegas Sun. "The old style of slots simply needs to change. … This means adding skill and social elements to the slot mix."
Gamblit is working with casinos and regulators on concepts that would mash together the vivid play of mobile games with the random chance of slots.
Someone could download and play one of their games, like "Police Pooches vs. Zombie Cats: In Time," on their phones back home, wagering and playing with virtual credits, then switch to playing with real money when they've connected to the WiFi in an area where gambling is legal, like a Vegas casino.
The "real-money gambling platform" could also extend to large touch-screen tabletops, added in casino hot spots like lounges, bars and VIP suites -- wherever a young gambler could walk by and be persuaded to try their luck.
The typical casino "wants somebody to sit down in front of a slot machine and be at that slot machine for hours, interacting with that piece of entertainment for as long as possible. ... Millennials don't do that. They consume multiple streams of entertainment simultaneously," Chang said.
"We don't know when someone is going to want to engage, but we know there’s a very short window for their attention, and we want to maximize our chances of success on a bunch of different channels. ... We know millennials have no moral issues with gambling. They just haven't found products that are designed for them."
The challenge for adding skill into slots, the ultimate skill-less game, has always been that a player could get so good that the casino could end up losing out. But Chris LaPorte, who owns a Las Vegas arcade bar and develops casino games, told the Sun there are methods to make sure that, even in skill gaming, the house always comes out on top. "There is definitely a way — my way — for the casino to be happy, just as much as the customer is happy with their experience," he said.
The bad luck of the slots business has run counter to the precipitous rise of digital gaming, especially free-to-play games that make money through in-app purchases and have attracted a wider market than traditional video games. Two of the biggest, "Clash of Clans" and "Game of War: Fire Age," make more than $1 million a day, loot that went toward buying Super Bowl ads.
Some of the biggest gamemakers are taking cues from the mobile-gaming world to get young gamblers back on the casino floor. Bally Technologies, the world's oldest slot-machine maker, said last summer it would pay up to $100 million to buy Dragonplay, a five-year-old Israel-based developer of poker, slots and bingo games playable on Facebook and cellphones.
Others are simply thrashing in the dark. During the Nevada Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 2013, marketing consultant Chuck Underwood suggested executives could get 20-somethings in the door by offering rewards simply for showing up. “It’s what they grew up with," he said. "Everybody got a trophy."