The Problem(s) with Play For Fun Casino Games

There’s a difference between doing something and doing nothing.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? The kind of thing that shouldn’t even need to be said out loud.

But when it comes to play-for-fun casino games, that’s not the only obvious point that needs to be made.

It’s clear what’s happening. Casinos are eyeing the absurdly massive multi-mega-billion-dollar social gaming industry that has taken over our phones and our free time and thinking, “How can we get a slice of that sweet money cake?”

So they’re responding by getting into the game game themselves. The industry’s higher profile moves include the MyVegas Slots and Blackjack games, released by MGM Resorts International, and Caesars Entertainment Interactive’s purchase of Playtika, makers of the super-popular Slotomania play-for-fun casino game simulation. I’ve checked them out, and they’re pretty fun games.

But instead of trying to break off their own piece of the action, casinos should stay far, far away from the slippery slope that is play-for-fun. Here’s why.

Play for fun is a waste of time.

The cardinal rule of any marketing activity should be to add value to the relationship between a business and its customer. Play for fun is Angry Birds. Nobody gets anything out of it. (MyVegas’ offers of comps are the exception to this rule.)Play for fun is evil.

Play for fun is a waste of activation.

But how much did all those billboards cost MGM, anyway? Not in terms of dollars, because those are easily recouped in a freemium play-for-fun model. But in terms of, how many times can you ask your customers to do something? If a player downloads a mobile app, thinking it’ll help him or her get more out visiting the casino, but instead finds a bunch of kiddie games, how likely is that person to jump the next time the casino says “oh hey we have something useful for you?”

Play for fun doesn’t build loyalty.

Play-for-fun is a squandered opportunity, because casinos have players’ attention, but they’re using that attention in such a way that builds loyalty to a game – not to the casino. There are 52 cards in a deck no matter which casino a player chooses. Players make that decision based upon their affinity for the environment, or their relationship with the staff. You’ve taken away what makes your casino a special place to players who can find the same game in fifteen hundred other places. You’ve just made your casino a commodity.

It sets unreasonable player expectations.

I’ve messed around with some of the play-for-fun games. And some of them are actually pretty enjoyable. But that’s the problem. Play-for-fun slot games hit with such unrealistic frequency that a player is almost guaranteed to have a disappointing experience when sitting down in front of a live cash game. They condition players to expect high hit frequency and high payback when they play slot games. Compared to play-for-fun games, even the loosest casino in the most liberal market looks stingy.

It gives purely recreational players an incentive to stay home.

For players whose enjoyment in gambling comes from playing the game itself, and not from the adrenaline rush of wagering money on it, you’ve just given them a reason to stay home and not visit your casino.

It calls into question casinos’ commitment to responsible gaming.

When I worked on the Las Vegas Strip, we were trained extensively on how to recognize when a guest may be exhibiting signs of a responsible gaming issue, and what to do about it. There are no such human safeguards on mobile devices. Free-to-play “freemium” games are, for reasons of their own, equally problematic for those with addictive tendencies, a fact famously and sharply lampooned by South Park (relevant clip below, full episode here).

Bottom line: play-for-fun isn’t just bad business. It might actually be totally evil.

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