Guaranteed Play Video Poker and Pong

By John Grochowski
Sometimes the road from showcase to casino slot floors takes a few months. Sometimes it's a few years. 
In the few months department, there's IGT's Guaranteed Play Video Poker, one of the most buzzworthy products at the 2006 Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas last November.  

On the few years side, there's Bally Technologies' Pong, which I reviewed in its initial incarnation after the 2004 G2E. At that expo, I walked the display floor along with John Busam and Cathy Jaeger, my publisher and editor at Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine. Pong caught our eye as something new and different, a game to watch.

In the last few years, Busam has ended any number of conversations with, "So, have you seen Pong yet?" And he'd chuckle.
But my latest communication from Busam was an e-mail directing me to an article in the Sun Herald on the Mississippi Gulf Coast , which said Bally might be able to place the new spruced-up video version of Pong in Mississippi casinos by the end of the year if all goes well with regulatory approval. The game has already reached slot floors in Michigan , and in August was approved by regulators in Nevada . Pong has been submitted to regulators in Mississippi . Other states no doubt will follow, and Pong at last will make its impact nationwide.

The five-reel video slot machine offers nostalgic fun for those who fondly remember Pong from its release to arcades and taverns in the 1970s, or even for those who have caught up with it in the retro games packages that home video game manufacturers have released in recent years. Pong, the slot, lets players test their skill at Pong, the trail blazing video arcade games, in the main bonus round.

It pays to play the angles, bopping the ball back and forth against your computerized opponent. The bonus mounts as you play the 45-second round, and beating the computer brings you the biggest reward.
Skill, and hand-eye coordination counts. Good Pong players will get the biggest bonuses. But for the Pong-impaired, you can choose to just let the machine play out the round, banking on your electronic player to get the job done.
Pong is the first slot machine in which a physical skill counts. There have been other skill-based bonus games, such as Mikohn's Battleship and Yahtzee, but those are mental game-playing skills, not tests of reflexes. If Pong works, there will be more tests of skill. Bally has Breakout and other arcade classics in development.
As for Guaranteed Play Video Poker, it has made its Las Vegas debut, but in different venues than I thought would be its natural home.

Guaranteed Play has been rolled out locals-oriented Station Casinos at venues including Texas Station and Fiesta Rancho. Las Vegas locals casinos rely on heavy video poker play --- video poker is the most popular game among local players.

So in a way, it's not unusual that a video poker product would find its first home at a locals casino. But Guaranteed Play is a very unusual video poker product. Slide a $20 bill into a quarter Guaranteed Play machine, and you don't have 80 credits pop up on the screen. You see a credit meter set at zero, and a second meter telling you how many hands you have to play. One configuration at Stations gives you a guaranteed 75 hands for $20, or 200 hands for $40.

The guarantee is an attraction - 80 credits would normally guarantee you only 16 hands. On Guaranteed Play, you get to keep playing even if you would have already lost all your credits on a traditional machine. That gives you extra chances to go for the big jackpot.

On the downside, the credit meter starting at zero means you have to have a winning session, not just a break-even session or a slight losing session, to cash anything out. On a traditional Jacks or Better machine, if you start with 80 credits and get 16 high pairs in a row, you would still have 80 credits and could cash out your original $20. On Guaranteed Play, if you get those break-even hands on every play, the credit meter still doesn't budge above zero. You have nothing to cash out.

That leaves a more volatile game - you get more chances to hit a big hand, but you almost have to have a big hand to cash anything out.

It was explained to me last year that Guaranteed Play gives casinos a way to include gambling time in package deals, the same way they can include meals or shows. At last, casinos could package their primary product, gambling time, in with rooms or restaurants or anything else on property.

I can see Guaranteed Play having a major impact, combining where we stay and how we play. And the natural home for such packages would seem to be the Strip, large resorts with loads of rooms to sell, looking to make their deals more attractive.

We'll see how all this plays out, but I'm wary of relying on experienced, local video poker players used to shopping for the best pay tables being the test audience for these games.

 John is the author of six books on casino games, including
"The Slot Machine Answer Book." You can find his weekly column
www.scoblete.com. His one-minute Beat the Odds tips air
three times Saturday and three times Sunday on WBBM-AM 780,
news radio in Chicago