Since the year 2000, the combined number of blackjack tables in all Nevada casinos dropped by 16%. This is in the face of a huge expansion in the number of resort casinos and casino floor space. Games that showed growth include roulette, Pai Gow poker and baccarat. The number of baccarat tables showed the strongest growth, increasing by 78% between 2000 and 2009. In addition to the change in the mix of traditional casino games, a new generation of proprietary games has helped transform the casino landscape. The number of tables hosting proprietary games increased 41% between 2000 and 2009. The table game pit in the year 2010 barely resembles the pit of the year 2000.
What’s going on in Nevada is reflected nationwide. These changes have been brought on by more than the whim of table game managers who want to drive incremental revenue; they reflect the changing demographics, habits and desires of casino patrons. Like the explosion of new slot themes, there is a tremendous pent up demand for new table games, side bets and bonuses. Likewise, there is plenty of supply to fill that demand. This leads to the increasingly present and growingly complex problem of choosing new table games. The question management has to answer over and over again is: “what do my players want?”
First and foremost, players want trust. They want to feel as though the game they’re playing is not a high tech new gadget designed to take their money fast. Having the game feel old and well known is one way to build trust. Giving a game a name like “Mississippi Stud” or “Spanish 21” can confer a sense of history. A fun name can engender trust, as shown by the success of “Lucky Lucky.” A name like “EZ Baccarat” is honest – the game is easy for a baccarat player to try out. Social elements generate trust as well. Games with a sense of community allow players to root for each other. The side bet 21 + 3 is a good example, with players identifying the good cards for everyone around the blackjack table before the final card is dealt. Invoking gambling mythology also builds trust. For example, because many players believe in patterns, streak side bets have found success.
Players want to feel comfortable when they play a game. Little things add up. If the layout is cluttered with pay tables and betting areas, players may feel claustrophobic. If the game’s strategy is too complicated, players may feel stupid or intimidated. If the rules are complex, players may become exhausted trying to learn the game. If the game uses negative terminology, many prospective players will feel offended or dismayed. If the game creates negative commentary between players, players may feel angry or defensive. If the dealer is downbeat and not enjoying dealing the game, players may feel annoyed or depressed. It may be that one of the primary causes for the decline of blackjack is its lack of comfort.
Because of their loyalty to a particular game, many players want to have a new experience at a game they’ve been playing for a while. Usually, the experience they want is a new level of volatility. The best way to change the volatility is to offer a side bet or progressive bonus. Because of their low volatility, baccarat and Pai Gow do well with high volatility side bets; hence the Dragon bet in baccarat, and Fortune bet in Pai Gow. Let it Ride has been remade with new bonus and progressive side bets. Craps has the relatively new and highly volatile Fire Bet. Blackjack is being constantly doctored with new side bets. Side bets allow players to mix and match wagers, to give themselves the customized experience of volatility they want on each round.
If players are willing to try a new game, they are likely to be very conservative in terms of how far they will move. They will usually gravitate towards variants of one of the four trusted mainstays: baccarat, blackjack, Pai Gow and poker. They want to be able to quickly apply their knowledge of one game to another. Blackjack players want blackjack variants, hence Super Fun 21, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch. Poker players can move between poker variants with little effort. Baccarat and Pai Gow players will give EZ Baccarat and EZ Pai Gow a try. Players want to quickly recognize the basic concept of a new game.
Finally, players want to choose their “time on device.” Of course, every player wants to win, but most know this is not a reasonable expectation. The best a game can provide is a certain time period of entertainment. The primary factors that determine the time on device for a game are its volatility and pace (number of decisions per hour). Pai Gow and baccarat have exceedingly long time on device, due to very low volatility and slow game pace. Some games that require multiple wagers to complete a round (for example, Ultimate Texas Hold’ em) can bust a player in 3 or 4 hands, even with an initial wager of $5. To compensate, these games move slowly. Even though it has medium-low volatility, blackjack is the game with the quickest pace. Low time on device may be another reason blackjack is in decline. Management has to choose games that fulfill the time on device needs of their players.
Casino management has no shortage of great choices as they attempt to find the right new games to offer to their players. The future of the pit seems clear: casinos will continue to convert blackjack tables to slots and proprietary games. If that space is going to be preserved from slot cannibalization, management has to be able to put more games on their floor that are games players want.