Still, there’s something about poker machines that continues to draw in new players. Dropping the occasional twenty into a machine after a meal at your local is no big deal, but for many that spontaneous punt turns into a regular occurrence. And for some, it goes much, much further... the damage that full-blown poker machine addiction can cause is frightening.
We should count our lucky stars that poker machines have a fairly limited appeal. Three quarters of Australian adults never even play, and of those that do, only a little over one in ten play regularly. But if you’re one of those one in ten, it’s practically an even money bet that you’ve already developed a problem. And even this relatively small gambling population manages to lose a staggering $13 billion every year in Australia’s pokies.
Our pubs and clubs know this too. They say that after more than sixty years in New South Wales, and twenty years across the rest of the country, poker machines are a “mature” industry. They point out that revenue growth has slowed to a trickle and claim that problem gambling rates are dropping year by year across the country. That last point is crap, of course, but it’s true that despite the flashier, fancier bonus games and stereophonic sound, our pokies are not that much different now than they were a decade ago.
The reality is that with all the paylines, the on-screen action and the infernal electronic noise, it takes time to understand the rules of the game. You can easily spend twenty dollars or so just working out what’s going on; I recently took two overseas journalists through a gaming venue in Melbourne and they were absolutely bewildered by the machines. I had to explain how to bet, which buttons to push and what was happening on the screen. They both walked away bemused and a little baffled.
Poker machines rely on the chance of a win to encourage people to spend that first twenty bucks; beyond that it’s human nature. Many people will spend another twenty, and another, once they know what’s going on... but for the uninitiated, that chance of a win is all the pokies have to offer.
That’s about to change. Australia’s supposedly “mature” poker machine industry is about to boldly go where no one has gone before.
WMS Gaming is an American slot machine company. Like all manufacturers, they long ago embraced Australian-style poker machines (for that is seriously how they are known around the world) but they’ve added their own special touch. Their innovation has seen them capture a sizable chunk of the US casino market, and can be described in one word.
Pop in to an American casino and you’ll be confronted by row upon row of poker machines, just like in our pubs and clubs. But in amongst the dragons, the dolphins and the dancing chillies are some familiar faces that have helped make WMS a world player in the gambling industry.
Are you a Star Trek fan? WMS have no fewer than six officially licensed Star Trek poker machines, including “The Enterprise Incident” and of course, “Live Long And Prosper.” Clips from the original TV series play throughout the game, and everything you could possibly remember from the show has been stuffed into a five-reel game designed to take your money.
Or maybe you have fond memories of The Godfather? Yes, that’s a poker machine too, one that gives players a chance to “receive the offer they can’t refuse”. Which is apparently just another way of saying “double up until you lose”.
For something a little more recent, WMS gives you The Lord Of The Rings. Elijah, Liv and Viggo reprise their roles in a game that’s advertised as “8 Exciting Bonuses, 5 Power Spin Features, 2 Mystery Features and One Ring To Rule Them All.” Even the Balrog and the Uruk-Hai get a look in. Tolkein would be spinning in his grave.
If a show or a movie is popular, with a dedicated fan base, the chances are WMS have locked down a licensing agreement. Apart from these three, they have Survivor, Gone With The Wind, Happy Days... even I Love Lucy and The Monkees get their own poker machines. Princess Bride, Top Gun, The Dukes Of Hazzard... the list goes on.
The WMS strategy is simple. By giving their machines themes that are not only familiar but have popular appeal and staying power, they gain a threefold advantage. First, their machines are easily distinguishable from those made by other companies. Second, they attract more first-time players who are instinctively drawn to something they know and, in many cases, relate to. And third, people are more willing to spend more money, for longer periods of time, on these machines. Whichever way you look at it, WMS are on a winner.
What does this have to do with Australia? That’s where it gets interesting. In July 2009, WMS signed an agreement with Australian company eBet Gaming to serve as an exclusive distributor for WMS poker machines in New South Wales. In February 2010, eBet announced that they had received regulatory approval to sell WMS “BlueBird2” poker machines in NSW; “BlueBird2” is the platform that all licensed WMS poker machines run on. Trials commenced in a number of clubs in NSW, including Dee Why RSL and Merrylands RSL. And in November 2011, the agreement between WMS and eBet was extended and expanded to include Queensland and Victoria.
The invasion has begun. A number of regular WMS poker machines have been approved and are now operating in New South Wales, among them the officially licensed Wizard Of Oz machine (with Judy Garland front and centre). In just its first month of operation, the Oz poker machine earned 159% of the average for poker machines in this country.
At this rate, it won’t be long before Captain James T Kirk, Bilbo Baggins and the rest spread across Australia’s gambling scene like wildfire. We’ve already proven to be receptive to themed poker machines; Aristocrat’s The Phantom was hailed as being responsible for turning the company’s recent fortunes around, and the Sex And The City poker machines have been knocking ‘em dead in the northern states.
And that’s a problem. It’s one thing to have this style of poker machine in a casino-based gambling environment, such as they have in the US. Casinos are designed first and foremost as gambling destinations; you visit them to gamble. You’ve already made up your mind to spend your money before you walk in the door.
But here, it’s a very different scene. Poker machines aren’t confined to casinos. There’s a venue on practically every corner, in clubs and pubs around the country. What that means is that far more occasional gamblers and non-gamblers are going to be confronted by these licensed poker machines, with their familiar themes and fan-based investment. And what that will lead to, as the success of WMS in America has shown, is a drastic increase in the number of people playing, the time they spend playing, and the amount of money lost. Again, that’s a simple fact of human nature. We’re drawn to what we know.
All of this inevitably points to the certainty of a significant jump in the levels of problematic gambling behaviour, or poker machine addiction, in this country. It’s demonstrably true that the more often you play a poker machine, the more at risk you are of developing a gambling problem. These licensed machines are designed to encourage prolonged play in a way that no current Australian poker machine can.
The Americans are coming. Scotty, beam me up.