Skill-based gaming has a ways to go

Skill-based gaming has a ways to go

July 24, 2018 3:00 AM

This past week, I had an opportunity to play, with real money, one of those new skill-based video poker games.

I’ve been rather skeptical of them since first seeing them at the Global Gaming Expo a couple of years ago. My primary concern is I have had a tough time figuring out how a skill-based game can be designed for people of all skills and still meet the needs of a casino market.

More than a year ago, I met with one of these companies and got a bit better of an understanding of how the machines in their current state of development handle this situation. But, I had to play a live game to get a true understanding of how it works.

The game I played was a word-based game. I like Words with Friends and my wife is an avid Word Cookies player. Despite my computer slant, I think I have a strong vocabulary and thought this would be a good game where I could show my skill.

The game worked as follows. I wager a minimum of $1 and a 4 x 4 grid of letters appears. The goal is to use your finger to go over letters, in order, to form words. Normally, I would read all the instructions before playing a new game, but I’m guessing few people will actually do this, so I just started playing and thought I would figure it out!

Game play lasts for 30 seconds or until you “fill” all five levels. It was not clear what fills a level. My first thought was that levels were filled by creating certain length words. So, to fill the highest level, you needed five-letter words or greater. Also, the glass said if you get a seven-letter (or greater) word, you build toward a “mystery” hat, which I took to mean a bonus prize of some sort. After getting three of these, I expected to win extra coins, but all it did was change the hat of the main character on the screen. At this point, I decided to read the directions.

The first thing I found out was changing the hat of the character on the glass was meaningless financially. You could “brag” about your word skill. I’d rather brag about how much money I won!

The five levels of the main game fill based on the total number of letters in the words you form. So, a 12-letter word has no more value than four three-letter words.

Essentially, you fill level one when you use up at least X letters. The more letters, the more levels. If I recall correctly, it was a total of about 33 letters to fill all five levels. At the end of the game, you get paid for each level you fill according to essentially a random number generator.

I played about 25 games and finished all five levels in all but one of them. In that one game, I was still hunting for seven-letter words as I thought they had value. As a result, I only filled four levels. I’m guessing if I were to play the game 100 times now, I would complete all five levels 100 times. If you fill all five levels, your payout is essentially a random payout that would resemble a slot machine payout. So, if you can fill all five levels 100 percent of the time, the “skill-based” game turns into a slot machine that takes about 30 seconds to play – or a total of about 120 “spins” per hour. I can’t see this pleasing the casinos.

I walked away rather disappointed. I lost about $7 at a game that I had pretty much mastered in five minutes. If I did play 25 hands at $1 each, my payback was just over 70 percent.

Now, I have played video poker in short spurts where I’ve probably done as poorly. But, in those case, I’ve walked away thinking I just had some bad hands. In the case of this word game, I walked away wondering what the payback of the game is if you play every hand perfectly.

One problem is you have no way of knowing! Just like a slot machine, so much of the game is random and hidden that there is little you can really do to affect the outcome. Sure, if you stare at the screen for 30 seconds, you will win even less. If you have a tough time using a touch screen, you’re in trouble. But, if you can readily spot 8 to 12 three- and four-letter words on a screen and in 30 seconds, you’ll have the honor of being paid like a slot machine!

My older son was with me and we walked away shaking our heads. It seemed as there was so much more that could be done with a game like that. If you want the game to be skill-based, then pay more for longer words. Pay more for more words. Make it skill-based. It wouldn’t be video poker if the machine dealt you five cards and then indicated you could discard at most one card. The strategy table would have nothing but obvious entries on it. All the three-card Flushes and Straights and two-card Royals would be meaningless.

I know these new skill-based games are in a state of evolution. It might take many more years and many more iterations before they get just the right combination. In the meantime, it’s good to know we still have the original skill-based game, video poker, to keep us entertained.