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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Casinos hunger for Walking Dead game

18 December 2013

LAS VEGAS -- Zombies soon will be chasing Pat Sajak and Vanna White, Dorothy and the Oompa Loompas across casino floors.

Officials from Aristocrat Technologies officials said a slot machine based on the AMC cable television series “The Walking Dead” is the company’s most successful new game ever — and that is before the first wager is even placed.

The slot machine contains videos and images of characters from the Emmy Award-winning drama, which follows a group of human survivors and their struggles in rural Georgia after a worldwide zombie apocalypse.

Aristocrat, which is based in Australia but has an American headquarters in Las Vegas, unveiled the game at the Global Gaming Expo in September. Predistribution orders already have cracked more than 800 games.

The first six “The Walking Dead” slot machines are expected be available to customers at Atlantic City’s Borgata by Saturday.

The games will roll out nationwide, and at Strip venues, in early January. Dallas Orchard, Aristocrat’s vice president of gaming operations, said casino requests for “The Walking Dead” machines are the highest figures he has seen in his seven years with the company. By comparison, a slot machine based on Tarzan didn’t reach 800 game placements until six months after it landed on casino floors.

During G2E, the company placed a half-dozen “The Walking Dead” games in its trade show booth. Attendees played them constantly.

“Many of the sales orders came in during G2E,” Orchard said. “We kept another game off to the side to use for demonstrations for our customers.”

Aristocrat caused a stir on the gaming industry convention’s first day by having actors made up as zombies trolling the trade show floor.

Eilers Research founder Todd Eilers said 800 games on order this early was “a pretty strong number” for a new product.

The gaming analyst said he is curious how many “The Walking Dead” games will replace older Aristocrat slot machines. The company has an installed base of roughly 7,600 slot machines leased to casinos, Eilers said.

“Given that Aristocrat has ramped up the number of new premium leased, and more specifically, premium wide-area progressive games, I would expect that probably 50 percent of the 800 will be incremental,” Eilers said.

Janney Montgomery Scott gaming analyst Brian McGill agreed with Eilers. He said casino operators are reluctant to increase the number of wide-area progressive games because of the high cost.

“They would prefer to take one off and then add one back,” McGill said.

He said preorders of 800 games is a good start.

“It shows that Aristocrat is making a strong comeback and part of the reason why the industry has gotten so competitive,” McGill said.

“Wheel of Fortune,” which is based on the popular television game show and is owned by International Game Technology, has been the casino industry’s top-performing slot machine consistently since the 1990s. IGT officials said there were 8,600 “Wheel of Fortune” games in the U.S. market as of this past summer.

Two games produced by WMS Industries, based on the movies “The Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” have gained strong followings also, the most recent Eilers Research-Fantini Research quarterly slot machine survey shows.

Eilers said he wasn’t surprised “The Walking Dead” would be so popular so fast.

Casino slot floor managers polled after G2E said “The Walking Dead” was one of the most anticipated new games with IGT’s machines based on the movie “Avatar” and Bally Technologies’ latest version of its NASCAR slots. Sphinx 3D, which GTech Holdings is producing, was the most anticipated game.

“Typically, over 1,000 games (installed) within six months is pretty good,” Eilers said. “If you can get over 2,000 games within one year, that is a very good game. Most high-profile games start off strong in placements and performance, and then they tail off around six months to one year.”

Aristocrat officials said they had an idea a slot machine based on “The Walking Dead” would be well-received. That is one reason the slot machine will be available for play in less than 15 months after signing a licensing agreement with AMC. The game is being released in the middle of the series’ fourth season, which resumes in February.

Aristocrat Vice President Ted Hase, who headed the design team that produced the slot machine, said it was important to develop a game that appeals to more than just the legions of fans of “The Walking Dead.” The goal is to attract slot players who may not have watched the show but would be drawn in by the game’s graphics and math models.

Because the television series features images of zombies devouring humans and the associated blood and gore, the game’s elements had to reflect the concept. Many of the video clips were toned down and ended just as the action became too intense.

“Something bad actually becomes a rewarding event for the player,” Hase said of the game’s jackpot bonus elements.

Hase and his team watched every episode of “The Walking Dead,” finding clips and story features that would translate into a slot machine experience. The current game is based on the first season, with updates planned.

Hase said actors portraying zombies filmed special sequences for the slot machine that are used during bonus rounds, such as clawing at the spinning video jackpot wheel.

“The Walking Dead” is one of television’s most-watched cable dramas, attracting 12.4 million viewers for the season three final episode. Orchard said casinos believe the game will tap into the show’s audience, which skews toward a younger demographic. He said AMC and producers of “The Walking Dead” were open to the idea of the slot machine concept when approached.

“The casinos want new games that draw a younger customer,” Orchard said. “This had to be one of the best licenses available at the time. I think AMC is pretty happy with what we developed.”