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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Bally Tech hopes slot fans will pine for "Pawn"

10 September 2012

LAS VEGAS -- Chumlee has been immortalized on a slot machine.

Game maker Bally Technologies, Inc. will unveil a slot machine based on the History Channel show "Pawn Stars" at next month's Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

The slot machine features the likenesses of the cable television show's stars - Rick Harrison, Richard Harrison, Corey Harrison and the popular Austin "Chumlee" Russell - on the game's spinning reels. During bonus rounds players choose items to pawn. They can negotiate with the "Pawn Stars" cast on the game for credit awards.

Jean Venneman, Bally's vice president of product management, said the action and events that take place on the television show are easily mirrored on a slot machine.

"We want the player to have a positive experience," Venneman said.

All I have to say is thank goodness "Jersey Shore" was canceled.

Slot machine companies are embracing pop culture in the new games and titles they hope to land on casino floors in the coming years.

Just look at a roster of the current popular game titles: "Michael Jackson," "Grease," "Sex and the City," "The Dark Knight," "American Idol" and "The Hangover."

"Pawn Stars" will have competition when it's launched at G2E.

International Game Technology plans to display new games based on the television shows "Judge Judy" and "Family Guy."

Janney Montgomery Scott gaming analyst Brian McGill, who follows the manufacturing sector, said slot makers veered away from themed games for a short time, but seem to have found a new love affair with recognized titles and personalities.

"At some point, we're going to run out of television series, movies and actors to place on a slot machine," McGill said.

IGT began the themed slot machine era in 1996 when it licensed the television game show "Wheel of Fortune," which included the first-ever bonus wheel atop a slot machine. The game is still considered the No. 1 slot machine on casino floors today.

The problem was every other company tried to match IGT's success.

Meanwhile, Joe Kaminkow, who oversaw IGT's game design division in the 1990s and 2000s, seemed to create a game based on every old television series and Strip headliner during his tenure.

Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, there were hits and misses. Some titles initially appeared to be odds-on favorites for success. In reality, the games were a total disaster.

The surviving cast of the 1960s television show "Gilligan's Island" helped open the 2003 G2E, but a slot machine based on the series was marooned. That same year, slot machines based on "M*A*S*H," "I Dream of Jeannie," "The Dating Game," and "Laverne & Shirley" were launched to varying degrees of success and failure.

Many expected IGT's Frank Sinatra-themed slot machine would be a slam dunk. The game was introduced on Dec. 12, 2001 - the late singer's birthday - at MGM Mirage-owned casinos. The game contained a melody of Sinatra's best-loved songs. But the slot machine bombed.

Sometimes, misses are understandable.

A few years ago, WMS Industries unveiled a slot machine themed after the movie, "Top Gun." One problem. The movie's star, Tom Cruise, wouldn't sign the licensing agreement allowing his image to be used on the game. That meant the film's lead character, Maverick Mitchell, was nowhere on the machine.

Australian-based slot maker Aristocrat Technologies couldn't buy a hit. Games featuring soccer superstar Pele and comedian George Lopez failed. A slot machine based on the HBO series "The Sopranos" was whacked.

Aristocrat thought it had a local winner with a slot machine themed after tennis standout and Las Vegas resident Andre Agassi. But the game failed to attract players after it was launched in 2005.

"I have one of the machines here at the house and my little boy likes to play it," Agassi told me seven years ago.

A slot machine's theme will initially attract players. But analysts said the math model that controls the frequency of payouts will ultimately determine whether customers have a lasting interest.

This brings us back to "Pawn Stars."

Venneman, who has 20 years of experience in the casino industry including time with IGT, said the concept is a perfect fit for the Bally's portfolio. Musical themed titles, such as "Michael Jackson" and "Grease," come at a high cost to the casinos. The games feature high-tech surround-sound chairs that replicate a concert venue.

"Pawn Stars," she said, fills a midlevel niche.

"We're very careful in what we choose," Venneman said.

McGill said his "gut feeling" is that a "Pawn Stars" slot machine will have a decent run. The reality series has a worldwide audience and the long lines of fans outside the show's location at the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop on Las Vegas Boulevard South is testament to game's potential.

"It was smart of Bally to strike now. The popularity is pretty high," McGill said.

Maybe Chumlee and "Pawn Stars" isn't the end of the world.

Last I heard, slot machine makers have yet to discover the Kardashians.