An Inside Look at China’s Gaming Market

Joseph Ward of International Game Technology discusses the stark differences between gaming in the United States and China.

International Game Technology (IGT) takes the “international” in their name seriously.

Joe demonstrates the Vitruvian man pose in Macau, China.

If you’re searching for an out-of-the-box career, give IGT a second look. After less than one year of working for IGT as a game designer, Joseph Ward (Joe) was invited to travel to Macau, China, often referred to as “the Vegas of China.” Joe gave me a look inside gaming in China, where he represented IGT at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E).

G2E is an annual, massive gaming expo which brings together gaming industry professionals from all over the world. Major slot machine companies attend G2E as an opportunity to show off their newest slot machines, check out competitor’s slot machines, and interact with casino operators. For game designers, G2E is an invaluable experience to learn about global gaming trends. In short, G2E is the Comic-Con equivalent for slot machines. Joe spent one week at the G2E at the Venetian Macau, where he researched the newest designs, portfolios, and gameplay mechanics.

Much of Joe’s gaming expertise is based on his experiences working in Nevada, which is home to gaming capitals Las Vegas and Reno. Although G2E may not be the typical crowd of gamers, Joe noticed stark differences between gaming culture in China and Nevada. Joe approximated that 90% of the players at the Venetian Macau were from Hong Kong and other nearby parts of China, as opposed to tourists. (As a math brain, Joe talks a lot in percentages). If not for G2E, the local gamers probably would have made up about 95% of casino participants. Gamers from nearby cities in China were brought into the Cotai Strip daily by hordes of buses.

A slot machine generates random combinations of symbols on individual reels, while a live dealer operates table games. While popular table games in the United States are Blackjack, Craps, and Poker, in China, Baccarat, Sic Bo, and Pai Gow are more typical. In Nevada, slot machines make up the majority of gaming, with a few table games scattered around the floor. Upon entering the casino floor in China, Joe immediately noticed a huge difference between the amount of slot machines and gaming tables. He estimated that the ratio of slot machines to tables was about 70/30 in Nevada. On the contrary, in China, tables dominated the floor. I asked Joe why gaming tables were so much more popular than slot machines in China.

“Money and regulations. In China, it is so much more of a hassle to get a slot machine installed than a table game. It’s this very long process. After a machine is installed on the floor, the machine will sit there for month after month, screens blank and not working. After eight months or so, with barely a day’s notice, the machine will finally be inspected. They make it that way because the machines aren’t as profitable as table games.”

A slot machine in China reserved for a signature club member.

Another difference in gaming culture between China and Nevada is China’s treatment of signature club members. Joe explained that Chinese casinos will actually reserve a machine for special use by one casino member only. These high-contributing signature club members are often nicknamed “high-rollers” or “whales” in the gaming industry. In Math: high-rollers are the “one percent” of the gamers responsible for a considerable amount of the profit. In English: whales are the big spenders. Joe discussed the special privileges casinos offer to these signature club members.

“In China, there are some high-rollers who want to play their own machine until the top award is hit. They don’t want anyone else to play the machine in case someone else hits the reward. You will be yelled at by security if you even touch a signature club member’s machine. When a high-roller is finished gambling for the day, they’ll often write down which symbol was in each square on the screen. If they come back to the machine a few days later and the symbols are in different squares, they will know that someone else used the machine, so they won’t play it. Essentially, when signature club members contribute enough to the casino, they can sometimes get their own personal machine, that no one else can touch. That is something I have never seen in the states.”

Even the mindset of players is drastically shifted in China. Joe elaborated.

“Another way the market is different in China is that in the states, gambling is more of an entertainment based experience. Sure it’s great to win money, but as long as you had a good time and played a couple hours, it’s not the biggest deal how much you won or lost. But in China, it’s much more serious. Less sounds, less gimmicks, more straightforward, no background music. When a player looks at a machine, they want to know what they can win, how they can win it, and then they’re off.”

The culture of serious gaming over entertainment defines China’s market. In Nevada, gamblers are often tourists or locals coming into the casino to play for fun. I asked Joe how a player acted in China if they lost a game.

“Deadpan. I didn’t see anyone get super happy or super sad. Whereas when you go to a casino in Nevada, someone gets a bonus and you hear excited shouting and crazy buzzers.”

Joe continued to describe the intense atmosphere for gamers in China. “Games are more volatile in China. The majority of the time you get destroyed, but if you win, you can potentially win quite a bit. In my experience, I would either lose a lot or win a lot. There wasn’t much in between.”

The number 8 is lucky in China.

Even the lucky numbers in China are distinctive from those used for gaming in the United States. When you walk through the casino floor in Nevada, you might see the number 7 on many of the screens of the slot machines. In China, Joe was surprised to see the number 8 everywhere. He said, “The number 8 is a very lucky number in China. Super 88 Fortunes are everywhere.”

I asked Joe if there were any other differences between slot machines in China and Nevada. Not surprisingly, the popular slots in Nevada were not as prevalent in Macau. Joe mentioned that one of IGT’s most common slot machines in the United States is Wheel of Fortune.

“Wheel of Fortune, that’s a classic. In the states, you see it everywhere. I saw literally one Wheel of Fortune machine in China the entire time I was there.”

Applying his international business trip to his work in Nevada, Joe discussed that “One of the very first things I do when I design a game is consider cultural differences. I figure out which market we’re selling to and what the language the game needs to be in.” Since IGT designs games for casinos all over the world, it’s imperative to customize each slot machine to each market. Understanding cultural differences such as the lucky numbers and the attitude towards gaming is crucial to the success of game designers like Joe.

You can connect with Joe on Facebook and LinkedIn. The photos throughout this article are sourced from Joe’s Facebook with his permission.

What are your thoughts on gaming abroad? Leave a reply below!

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