Celebrity Culture Invades Slot Machines

Slot machines started to offer massive progressive jackpots and their popularity continued to grow. Over a century since their invention they’re still a significant part of the casino’s ‘product mix’. The video screen continued to replace the old-fashioned reels though a few ‘holdovers’ can be found in just about every casino, likely to placate older gamblers who don’t like ‘newfangled’ things. The ‘inner workings’ of the games had been transformed via state of the art technology but outside the real money slot machine case the experience for players had changed little since the ‘early days’. The games operation was smoother and more reliable and the jackpots were bigger, but otherwise, it was a case where everything had changed yet nothing had changed.

The visual themes that decorated slot machines had also stayed the same. Slot machine designers wanted bright colors and vivid images to attract players so the games had more going on visually but the overall themes weren’t much different than the pioneering ‘Liberty Bell’ game. Patriotic themes were still popular and plenty of flags and similar imagery was commonplace (and likely a few Liberty Bells). There were plenty of old West themes, gambling images and self-referential images evoking jackpots and fruit. Not much changed during the 1970’s–there were more ‘Oriental’ themes reflecting the greater prevalence of Asian gamblers in Nevada casinos but otherwise little had changed.

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Everything changed in 1996 though it might not have seemed like it at the time. An officially licensed slot machine based on the hit game show “Wheel of Fortune” hit the casino floor complete with a ‘spin the wheel’ bonus round. It became the slot machine version of Elvis on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show‘ and completely transformed the industry single-handedly. It became the biggest slot machine hit in history and its popularity will likely never be touched. By 2003, there were 12,000 ‘Wheel of Fortune’ slot machines in operation. Each turned an average profit of $300 a day meaning the series was generated profits of $3.6 million a day or $1.3 billion a year. The original game has been revised and updated several times but the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ slots are still a fixture in land-based casinos and have even moved online.

It also created a public demand for more ‘officially licensed’ games. Initially, it proved to be a tough sell and gaming manufacturers like IGT got used to constant rejection from celebrities past and present. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was created by Merv Griffin who has been involved with the casino business for years. IGT realized that they’d have to make celebrities and their estates an offer they ‘couldn’t refuse’. The company reportedly threw out a number in the neighborhood of $10 million when first approaching the licensing agency representing the families of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Although the eventual figure was less than that it suddenly piqued the interest in licensing a “I Love Lucy” slot machine. Other celebrities and their estates started to cash in on the ‘easy money’. Frank Sinatra’s family worked out a deal six months after his death.

As licensing fees increased slot machine companies came up with a ‘new deal’ for placing their devices in casinos. In the past, most machines were leased from the slot manufacturer by the casino. The terms involved varied but most involved a flat fee plus a cut of revenues. The more common arrangement for popular, celebrity-themed games are a 50/50 revenue split between the slots manufacturer and the casino with the licensee cut in for a royalty percentage. The potential windfall from a popular slot machine has also allowed the manufacturers to lower their ‘upfront’ payment to celebrities in exchange for a long-term revenue stream.

Today, there are themed machines for too many celebrities, TV shows, movies, brands and anything else you can think of to come close to naming them all. There are cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, TV shows as divergent as ‘Saturday Night Live’ to ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ to ‘Game of Thrones‘. There’s a NASCAR themed machine that makes race car noises, movies like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Godfather’ and even consumer brands like Tabasco Sauce and board games like Trivial Pursuit. Just about anything is ‘fair name’ with a few exceptions–Nevada Gaming Regulations prohibit themes from products designed for children, obscene themes or racist themes.