fb-pixel Skip to main content

With slots revenues lagging, casinos seek to put a new spin on an old game

Gamblers played the slot machines at Plainridge Park Casino.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

EVERETT — On a recent weekday morning, there were plenty of slot machines available at the Encore Boston Harbor casino, with their flashing lights, inviting noises, and big-screen displays beckoning patrons to take their chances on a spin.

A few people lined up for “Quick Hit Super Wheel,” a classic “reel” game with physical spinning dials that recall the one-armed bandits of old. Others tried their luck at the more infernal “Hotter Blazes.” A machine with a “Game of Thrones” theme was ignored.

Like other gaming resorts across the Northeast seeking to attract slot machine players, Encore is looking for ways to squeeze the most out of a market that is showing signs of overcrowding. Though table games, with their higher stakes, have performed well at Encore, slots revenues are softer than expected.


Some industry observers wonder whether there are enough players to go around, leaving casinos with limited options as they strive to meet rosy revenue predictions they promised when they sought licenses. In part, that means figuring out which slot games resonate most with players and dumping the rest. Gambling with the Mother of Dragons, for example, may not be something people who gravitate to the machines are keen on.

Encore has shipped out about 100 of the 3,100 machines it had when it opened in late June, using the space for table games it hopes will be more lucrative.

“Less is more as far as the slot floor goes in a saturated market,” said Frank Legato, who closely follows the slot machine business as editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. “You need to get creative with the slot machines and bring in games that are attracting the most people.”

Other operators are feeling the same pressure. Plainridge Park, the slots-only casino in Plainville, has had two down months since Encore opened. MGM Springfield, whose overall revenues have fallen short of expectations in its first year of operation, has replaced more than 300 of its original 2,500 machines with table games.


Robert Westerfield, vice president of casino operations at MGM Springfield, said such changes are normal for a young casino in a tight market.

“It’s a very competitive space, and you have to stay on top of what the flavor of the week is, so to speak,” he said.

MGM recently built some video poker machines into a bar — a move that has proved to be popular and added a massive “Shark Week” slots game with a huge video screen meant to draw customers’ attention. For non-slot players, it constructed a “stadium gaming” area, where one dealer can serve a large group of players.

The casinos also have the option of “loosening” up payouts on slots as a way of encouraging customers to play.

The house’s take often varies. Encore last month kept about 5.6 percent of the money played in its machines, paying out the rest in winnings. MGM retained 8.6 percent, and Plainridge took 7.6 percent.

Westerfield said it’s not as simple as allowing bigger payouts.

“It’s a mix between profitability and consumer satisfaction. Everybody thinks they don’t pay out enough, no matter what,” he said.

At Plainville on Thursday, Susan and Randall Martin said they mainly go to the casino because it’s closest to their home in Baldwinville. Like most players, sometimes they win, but often the house does.


“If a machine is hitting, I guarantee you that within a few months it will be gone,” said Susan, who is 65.

Industry observers say competition for slots customers may only be part of the problem facing casinos; it’s also a matter of appeal.

“Some people have said it’s a generational thing: younger players don’t want to sit in front of a machine pressing a button for hours on end,” said David G. Schwartz, a gaming historian at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. That’s why gambling companies are experimenting with machines that play more like the video games people are used to, he said.

But that kind of game is no sure bet, either.

“If you want to play a video game, you’d probably stay home and do that . . . rather than going to a casino and paying a couple dollars a minute to do it,” Schwartz said.

Casino operators in Massachusetts say they have looked at skill-based video games as a way to complement their offerings, though none has installed any yet.

Westerfield said he likes the concept. But he doesn’t yet see a clear model for “how to make it work and how to monetize it and make it appeal to the guests.”

For now, operators here are sticking with the familiar format for slots: Put in some cash – or use a casino-issued card — determine your bet, give it a spin, and hope the symbols on the screen line up.


At Plainridge, those games have proved to be more successful even than the multiplayer setups that approximate table games such as roulette and blackjack. Slots users generally prefer to play by themselves, among standalone banks of a few games, rather than sitting at a long bank of machines.

“While we’re always paying attention to the newest games and latest technologies, what we’ve found works best at Plainridge is providing the best customer service possible,” Plainridge vice president and general manager Lance George said in a statement.

“Sometimes it’s the classic offering and being the most responsive to your customer base that’s successful in attracting and maintaining your market.”

Legato, of Global Gaming Business, said there has been significant innovation in the classic game structure.

Users are increasingly gravitating toward “progressive jackpot” games, where the prize grows every time someone doesn’t win, analogous to what happens in lottery games such as Powerball. Other relatively novel games keep players at the terminal by allowing them to “hold and re-spin” in hopes of improving upon the results of their first draw.

On the other hand, Legato said, electronic versions of old-style machines remain popular with the all-important baby boomer market. Even though the reel machines are controlled by the same kinds of computers that run the more high-tech slots, Legato said, they still evoke nostalgia, particularly for people who have been gambling for years.

“You don’t need a handle. All a handle does is come down and push a button,” he said. “But it has the feel of it. That’s people’s idea of a slot machine, and people like that.”


Steve Richmond, 71, popped into the Encore with a few bucks on Wednesday just to check it out. The East Boston resident hadn’t been to a casino in years, so he gravitated to the simple design of a reel machine. “You just slip in $10 and hope for the best,” Richmond said.

The money was quickly gone, and Richmond said he doesn’t expect to play again anytime soon.

“I saw what I wanted to see,” he said. “And I know that they’re going to win. The casino always comes out ahead.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.