Frank Floor Talk: Bar-top Competition Frank Legato, CDC Gaming Reports · November 20, 2020 at 12:45 pm While competitors have begun to challenge IGT’s dominance of casino bar-tops, the pandemic has intervene For decades, when the vast majority of people who have sit down at casino bars looked at the bar-top machine in front of them, the brand was the same: International Game Technology. IGT has dominated the bar-top market in casinos, its Game King and Super Star Poker platforms and G20 bar-top unit as familiar to players as the bar itself. While few competitors have challenged IGT’s dominance in the bar-top market over the years, a few potential challengers popped up in 2019. Mid – year, Aristocrat launched its Winner’s World multi – game bar-top unit, and the company reported a great start in sales into fall 2019. The big selling point for Winner’s World is that it features variations of the Buffalo brand of video slot – one of the biggest hits in the company’s history – in the bar-top menu. Aristocrat touted the variety of video slot games headed by Buffalo in comparison to IGT’s traditional inclusion of its lineup of video poker variations, accompanied by Caveman Keno and a couple of other keno and/or blackjack games. Also in fall 2019, Scientific Games launched a brand campaign dubbed “Reimagine Play,” headed by the SG Game Service, a server-based system feeding content to terminals not only on the slot floor, but casino bars. The first manifestation of SG Game Service is planned on bar-top units offering video poker, video slots, and video keno, as well as integration with electronic table games. PeakBarTop (IGT) Meanwhile, ETG supplier Interblock has linked its stadium-style ETG setups to bars with the StarBar bar-top terminal, which can either link to streamed dealer-assisted live table games or operate as standalone units. Interblock installed the first StarBar units in Asia this summer, at the Hoiana casino resort in Vietnam. Of course, the pandemic has slowed the rollout of all of IGT’s potential bar-top competition, as well as IGT’s own new bar-top unit, the PeakBarTop. Officials from Aristocrat, Scientific Games and Interblock all declined to be interviewed for this story, perhaps wanting to get more units out to the field and absorb feedback for possible revisions before commenting. However, according to Darnell Johnson, IGT’s director of product management, the company’s development of the PeakBarTop, the first new IGT bar-top hardware in decades, was not in direct response to the increasing competition, but was the result of the company’s own internal evaluation of its bar-top business. Winner’s World Multi-Game Bar Top (Aristocrat) “We predominantly don’t look at these decisions we make because of what the competition’s doing,” Johnson told CDC Gaming Reports. “We really do these types of decisions primarily because we want to make sure we can truly provide a product that’s two key things: one, provides a positive playing experience for our players; and two, continues to drive strong revenue for our customers. That’s the real reason we try to make these changes.” The PeakBarTop does address the need for more game variety at the bar, a principle which Aristocrat has seized upon with the Winner’s World product. The PeakBarTop includes several popular IGT multi-line video slot titles, as well as the standard video poker and keno. However, Johnson says the design of the hardware itself is the most important development in the new bar-top unit. “Our bar-top design has been what it is for 20-plus years,” he said. “And in this new world, there were a lot of things we felt we could take advantage of to provide a much better experience, a much more comfortable and ergonomic look, and a very compelling look across the new-age casinos and modern bars you’re starting to see in the world today.” One of the most easily recognizable developments is in the viewing angle created by the PeakBarTop. Most bar video poker players long ago became accustomed to hunching over while playing their game. Players also typically move from one bar-top unit to another because overhead lights cause glare on the glass of the screen. The PeakBarTop solves both problems. “The ergonomics of this cabinet are different than the G20 or some of our other legacy bar-top products we’ve done,” Johnson said. “A lot of that is attributed to the positioning of the screen, so that a player can be relatively perpendicular and upright, and not have to slouch as much. Bringing the button panel closer also helped with that, and the positioning of the card reader, printer, and bill acceptor. No longer do you have to reach and go out of your comfort zone.” Johnson said IGT’s engineers made these changes after garnering extensive feedback from both their operator customers and the operators’ customers, the end users of the product. “Sitting down with them in a focus group environment was really key in helping us understand some of the things people really enjoyed about our product, and some of the things they would like to see done differently,” Johnson said. “Once we were able to gather that information, our engineers utilized their experience and their creativity to create a much more compelling product that meets their needs. And yes, some of those are associated to the viewing angles – identifying that a curved screen could be really compelling to try to address those issues on a bar with glare, and with the privacy that people look for.” He added that the company’s engineers took care to assure that the new positioning of the hardware would not interfere with the inner components of the machines. “Kudos to the engineering team for coming up with (those) solutions, but I also want to give kudos to the operators and players who provided that feedback,” Johnson said. Looking Ahead Of course, it’s too early to judge the overall performance of the PeakBarTop, or the potential competition in bar-top units, thanks to the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has hurt in a lot of different areas,” Johnson said. “When the casinos had their closures in March, it impacted everybody. It’s been a slow reopening across the board because of social distancing practices, and the most important thing is trying to keep people safe.” Further feedback from customers has been particularly hard to gather from the bar route locations, where thousands of bar-tops have been deactivated, reactivated, and restricted as state governors rescind and reimpose safety restrictions. “The route specifically has had a bit of a unique situation,” Johnson said. “Many of those route customers have come back, and are doing really, really well. Here in Nevada, due to some challenges we were seeing with the number of (COVID) cases, our leadership decided to put some restrictions in place. The bars were shut down for a time. In September, they reopened, and most of them are now active and live, and people are playing them. “Because of that, we are working really closely with our customers to make sure they have everything they need to remain active, whether that’s support from a content perspective, support when it comes to shields or dividers, et cetera. Whatever they might need.” The advancements apparent in the PeakBarTop and its competitors may forever change what manufacturers consider essential equipment on a bar-top cabinet. “We’re constantly looking at what makes sense to introduce,” says Johnson. “The first couple of (changes) we’ve already introduced to machines on the floor, like the charging port on the side. Everybody utilizes a cellphone, and, unfortunately, everyone’s cellphone at one point is going to die. So having that charging port there is something we see as a value-add to players and operators. “We’re looking at other types of technology where we can provide the operator better insights on the amount of play that’s occurring on a machine as well, so they can utilize that to determine how they properly want to compensate their players over time. That’s another big feature that both the player and the operator see a lot of value in.” That change was in response to operators who complained of customers sitting at bar-top units and registering minimal play but who were taking advantage of complimentary cocktails anyway. The latest units can activate a red light to alert a bartender that a player is not playing enough to warrant free drinks. “Other technology things we’ve introduced in relation to our systems side is Bluetooth technology, where we can provide a much easier and more modern way of adding currency to the box than having to deal with cash,” Johnson added. “Those are a few of the things we’ve introduced, and we have others we’re looking forward to introducing.” Gradual Change The changes in the makeup of the bar-top unit doesn’t mean there will be wholesale replacement of units in the field even after the pandemic ends. While the slot manufacturers have begun to consistently introduce new cabinet hardware for floor games year after year, there is no indication the bar-top unit will ever experience the regular dynamic transformations of floor cabinets. “Because of how the bar-top is used, I would assume we wouldn’t see the same kind of dynamic with bar-tops that you see on the floor,” Johnson said. “However, because of the changes you see in technology, and in the desires of customers and players, if that trend does happen, IGT would be able to support that. “This is the first time we’ve introduced a new bar-top in 14 years. When we designed the PeakBarTop, we had that in mind – we wanted to make this as future-proof as possible. It’s positioned in a way that it can be modularly improved over time.” He added that casinos are not likely to institute blanket replacement of bar-top units in any event. “We have thousands of G20 and legacy bar-tops out in the field today. Those bar-top units have a reputation of standing out there for quite some time and being really strong workhorses. We don’t expect those machines to go away overnight.” How the bar-top competition develops in the long term may have to wait until the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. Ultimately, though, it will in all likelihood be the operators – and the customers who vote with their play – who determine the outcome.