2012: a British man, playing an online slot machine for 30p on his laptop, is suddenly greeted by the sight of Christian Bale’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker taking over his screen. Not crude 8-bit interpretations, but full HD actual animation from the Chris Nolan blockbuster – complete with voiceovers.
The player is urged to “take a side” and spin a virtual Wheel of Fortune. The prize at stake: almost £6 million.
The wheel spins, accompanied by the Joker’s maniacal “all it needs is a little push”, and the wheel comes to a random stop on the Mega Jackpot symbol. Hans Zimmer’s score has never seemed so dramatic. The jackpot is won and the player – known only as ‘John’ – goes away a multi-millionaire.
No, not a bizarre DVD extra on The Dark Knight Blu-Ray but a bonus round in Microgaming’s The Dark Knight online slot.
The prize won that day? £5.8 million, and it was no rare occurrence. At the time of writing, the jackpot on The Dark Knight – pooled by percentages of bets made at multiple casinos online – stands at £8.6 million.
Gambling online isn’t about placing wagers on anonymous blackjack cards or a roulette wheel anymore; now you can place bets on slot machines developed in partnership with the big Hollywood players with actual photos and cutaway video sequences from the original film included.
The Move From ‘Classic’ Slots
Once upon a time, slot machines featured almost exclusively classic ‘fruit’ icons like cherries, melons and oranges.
The machines – taking up miles of floor space in casinos from Vegas to London – were basic, mechanically-powered and featured pretty low payouts.
Fast-forward a few decades, and it’s possible to play any one of a thousand video slots on your PC, laptop or mobile phone, for stakes as low or as high as you want.
The range of themes available is bewildering – from ‘classic’ old-school favourites featuring those fruity symbols to slots based on ancient Egypt, Irish leprechauns (and sometimes both), or popular TV sitcoms.
The Power of Branded Slot Machines
There’s nothing new about fruit machines and pinball machines being tied in with Hollywood blockbusters, of course.
But the latest tie-ins are big business. And it’s not just in land-based casinos in Las Vegas that branded games are bringing in the gamblers.
Scandinavian online games developer, Net Entertainment, signed a partnership with Universal in 2012, with several slots coming out in recent months based on Hollywood classics like The Invisible Man and Scarface. Even Dracula has his own slot.
Scarface comes complete with a dramatic film score as players spin the reels, and a ‘Say Hello to My Little Friend’ bonus round based on the climactic shootout from the 1983 Brian de Palma movie. For every Miami heavy you ‘shoot’, the more real cash you win.
But big-name tie-ins are developers’ marquee releases during the year, and the number of branded releases is growing by the year, with more marketing budget pumped in as they hit the trade shows.
No wonder when NetEnt brought out a high-octane slot based on Aliens in 2014, the developer spared no expense acquiring an actual alien model from the James Cameron film to promote the new game.
Or when Microgaming released their Jurassic Park slot in 2014, visitors to the ICE gaming trade show in London were greeted by a life-size animatronic T-Rex to help promote the game.
The reasons are evident: branded Hollywood slots bring players to online and offline casinos, but they are fairly sporadic. The cost involved in signing licensing deals and developing games is huge, but choose the right brand – as in Microgaming’s Dark Knight or NetEnt’s Scarface – and the rewards can be big.
A Slice of Hollywood In Slots
Indeed, Microgaming, one of the world’s leading software developers for online casinos has a ‘Cinematic Spins’ feature on several of its games – as in The Dark Knight – which can be switched on or off while playing.
Switch the feature on and if you hit a winning payline, the game will spring to life and play video sequences from the film the slot is based on.
And the audience is there. Progressive jackpot slots like The Dark Knight offer life-changing prizes, with the headlines created by the million-dollar amounts only attracting even more slots players as they take their shot at the big one.
The Attraction of Casual Gamblers
With so much competition in online casinos, the need to attract new customers who may not have played slots before is key.
Attracting players in with ‘familiar’ themes normalises the process and makes slots players feel more comfortable.
Branded slots aren’t all about Hollywood films; they can be based on popular gameshows (Deal or No Deal makers, Endemol, have launched several slots based on their own shows) or TV shows (Net Entertainment’s South Park or Bally Technologies’ big 2014 release based on Friends), but the aim is the same: make slots players feel nostalgic and comfortable with what they’re playing.
Dr. Mark Griffiths is Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham University in England. He argues that the move towards branded games is no accident:
“[Back] in 1997, I remember looking at themed branded slot machines and they were all related to TV shows, films, popular board games like Trivial Pursuit, and video games like Sonic the Hedgehog.
“This is done in every form of gambling I can think of [like in] branded scratchcards. The point is that something that is instantly likeable is more likely to be engaged with.”
The Future of Branded Hollywood Gambling
There’s no doubt that the lines between gambling and entertainment are becoming blurred.
For gamblers, The Dark Knight is as synonymous with progressive jackpots as it is billion-dollar box office receipts, but it’s not a marriage that is totally without problems.
In 2013, new Marvel and Lucasfilm owner, Disney, decided to phase out themed slot machines in US casinos.
Popular Marvel-themed slots like The Incredible Hulk didn’t fit in, the firm stated, with the company’s family reputation.
“We oppose the legalisation of so-called destination resort casinos because this major expansion of gambling is inconsistent with Florida’s reputation as a family-friendly destination,” said Disneyworld’s Andrea Finger at the time.
It may take years for such themed games to disappear altogether in Florida casinos.
Meanwhile, in 2012, the estate of JRR Tolkien sued Warner Bros over its use of the Lord of the Rings stories for developing slot machines.
Protests aside, with so much at stake – forgive the gambling parlance – expect Hollywood tie-ins and slot machines to continue for some time to come.