#1196 – Cashing In on Entertainment

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A mixed bag of developments in the amusement and entertainment landscape, while reporting on the last ICE London event, and seeing the impacts of AI and technology in the gaming scene. The AI trend is also followed in the events and amusement scene. Meanwhile, the developments in VR and consumer gaming conclude a momentous period in the sector.

Casino Gaming’s Last London Bow

The International Casino Expo (ICE) was held in London during February. The massive casino, gaming, and gambling extravaganza once again filled the ExCel exhibition venue (all halls) and offered an amazing snapshot at the gaming landscape – organized by Clarion Gaming. ICE 2024 was another amazing event, filling the London exhibition venue, but was also a swan-song event for its UK presence – marking the last year the show will be held in the capital where the event started.

One of the major trends in the gaming world on display at ICE’24 was “Artificial Intelligence” – all roads seem to lead to AI currently, and non-more than the gaming content creation scene. Several developers of Artificial Generative Intelligence (AGI) platforms that can create gaming content to populate slots, terminals, and mobile apps, were touting their wares on the show floor. At least one developer was offering a bot-based AI game development platform for license. The full impact of how the game development process can be accelerated using AI-developed content was being speculated across many developers’ booths, with at least two major deals in the process of being closed that would see momentous agreements penned to control this new resource. The use of the latest motion tracking technology, linked to machine learning and AI, was illustrated on the BetInvest booth – with a ping pong table being monitored by a movement and ball tracking machine vision system, which was able to track the play, and supply outcomes of the action.

Exhibitor InterBlock had yet another impressive booth at the show, celebrating their increased market penetration – ranging from casinos, racinos, and cruise line businesses for their gaming platform. The company revealed the use of special automation technology to allow the live dealers to operate the tables, with the use of simple prompts to ensure correct procedure. These systems have already found interest internationally, and the latest generation allows for a level of sophistication in multiple-player control that will shape the way gaming platforms are deployed in the market.

Examples included new live terminal platform, offering “chip-less” betting on poker and roulette games. The player has their own terminal to play the game, while the action is controlled by a live croupier, able to manage multiple players, and supported by an automated touchscreen platform. It was explained by the team at InterBlock, on the booth, that the big advantage of this approach of chip-less operation is in its addressing of the less-spoken of aspects of the gaming business, that of “leakage”. The term refers to the money loss in accidental transactions and adverse behavior and does away with the issue of mistakenly giving wrong denomination chips to players. The casino operators are acting like amusement operators, regarding an intransigence to adopt a frictionless solution such as ePayment.

While AI was the big trend of the show, other previous trends such as VR were in less perfusion. Examples of the immersive technology on display included those seen on the Chinese Zeus booth, where demonstrations of their VR-based casino app were given, promoting immersive gaming. Running on Pico VR headsets, players could take part in immersive table games. Other VR demonstrations were seen on the GR8 Tech booth with a F1 simulator using VR headsets, as well as at the ICE Esports Arena booth – sponsored by Data Bet, several race rigs had been set up, with some running VR headsets in their competition. The failure of VR to leave a greater impression on the casino scene, after such high speculation back in 2017, seemed to be a harbinger of the reality of the technology overall – now relegated to being, mostly, a novelty demonstration tool.

The appearance of “Skill Gaming” on the ICE’24 show floor was limited to only one major appearance on the Aruze Gaming Global booth. The company had the Play Synergy ‘Joyride Jackpot’ racing gaming machine, and players were able to wager on their racing outcome in single and multi-player races. The arcade-style racing cabinet was given center stage on the Aruze booth – and seemed to be like the example of the system seen a few years back. No word on the penetration of this example of Skill Gaming into the market. It would seem, like NFTs and Bitcoin, Skill Gaming was an explosive concept that had yet to achieve any of the hyped potential of its launch. It is interesting to remember that the Aruze operation comprised many ex-amusement executives.

Amusement was not a factor in the ICE makeup, although the industry was represented by stalwart Electrocoin, who brought redemption, amusement, and pinball releases to the event, and saw interest from casino operators as they look to broaden their entertainment appeal. It is expected that the US casino conference (G2E), later in the year, will include a dedicated session looking into the need for casino venues to offer a broader entertainment mix to draw in a changing audience.

ICE’24 had the same glitz and glamour of previous years, and some big booths from the key manufacturers in the casino, gaming machine, and online services sector. Although, it was clear there was an atmosphere of change. Innovation seemed more focused on the latest LED curved display tech for the machines, the harbinger of AI in the wings, and new gaming regulations in emerging territories. True innovation was left to the margins.

As previously reported, this marked the last year of the run of the show (branded ‘ICE London’) in the UK. Some 88 years since the event –then part of the amusement trade exhibition – took its first steps, the event has continued to grow in market importance, and Clarion Gaming has reflected this need to continue the growth with the three-year contract to relocate in Barcelona for 2025. This Spanish move hopes to address many of the exhibitors’ concerns on growing the format (no word if the show will be rebranded ‘ICE Barcelona’). What this means for UK and international gaming service providers and operators who are not interested in making the move to Spain, was yet to be defined. Although the organizers behind the Entertainment Amusement and Gaming (EAG) show have started work on creating a wider opportunity for new sectors, such as eSports, immersive entertainment, and social entertainment, to present at EAG. This represents the nucleus amusement event that the casino show spun out from to become ICE and looks now to offer a new London-based opportunity for emerging sector – more information is expected to follow. (For the sake of transparency, The Stinger Report publisher is one of those involved in defining this development.)

AI Impacting Entertainment!

Following on from AI’s appearance at CES’24 and during ICE’24. It is amazing to think that this trending technology has already made serious impacts in the location-based entertainment scene. Away from those companies who have been using normal AI and Artificial Generative Intelligence (AGI) in creating images or text for marketing and promotion, we have also seen serious media and social interest in the more malicious impact of AI applications in actual venue projects.

The media uproar to the failed “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” in Glasgow is an example of the use of AI technology to paper over and add credibility to what many are seeing as a scam to sell tickets to a non-existing event, poorly organized, and seeming to be a means to collect advance ticket sales and seriously underdeliver on any kind of experiences – no matter the good intentions of hired staff and actors. It was covered in detail across social and mainstream media, with countless YouTube videos covering the aborted one-day opening of the planned three-day event, that ended in the police being called by angry parents and ticket holders. The event had promised an immersive adventure with live performers and magical theming, changing its original “Willy Wonker” branding to avoid copyright. Most of the promotional images and marketing material was created by AI, prompted by the organizers, but the actual event was held in a disused warehouse with a notable lack of any of the promised theming.

The aftermath of the event generated much media interest, with interviews with disappointed ticket holders, as the hired actors from the aborted experience were presented to the world, giving their versions of what happened with the failed experience. It was through these interviews that the script for the cast members was revealed – along with its AI origins. And, incredibly, from this wreckage, memes and public interest have grown, with cast members becoming social media celebrities, and even one of the creations from the AI script (“The Unknown” – an evil chocolate maker) becoming a popular element from the adventure. Talks of a documentary about the event are being hinted at, and even Halloween costumes, based on the cobbled-together costumes worn by the cast members of the failed event.

The UK has seen, over the years, several scam artists attempt to run Christmas Adventures or Themed Children’s events, that have descended into poorly camouflaged ticket scams with the reality of the experience having no bearing on what was promoted. But this event seems to have touched a nerve with the public, garnering column inches and much reportage, but also shining a light on the entertainment industry. Inside the industry, voices have been raised towards creating an industry-supported event to clear the good name of the entertainment attraction scene – some suggest that the trade associations for the leisure and entertainment sector have been too quiet in not condemning this event and defending the good name of the industry.

The impact of the technology in confusing activities was also drawn to our attention by one of our veteran sources regarding the Japanese amusement and leisure scene. It was the appearance of a webpage promoting the “ILAJ – International Leisure & Attraction Japan” show that raised many eyebrows. The page, run by BoothSquare, offered a confusing promotion of this new show – with the main copy promoting an October event, only for the stilted coverage to state a November gathering. A few mixed messages and generic terms in this coverage singled this out as being AI generated, and scrolling to the bottom of the page, it was revealed that the whole page had been generated by OpenAI for the site.

But the real consternation was that this ILAJ show seemed a fabrication created based on the real “ILOJ – International Leisure & Outdoor Japan” show – taking place in October in Tokyo during the same dates as the claimed AI-generated event. The ILOJ event, known also as Leisure Japan, has garnered much interest as a strong Tokyo trade event, stated as the largest for the respective industries – with some 450 exhibitors and an expected over 30,000 attendances.

Attempts to ascertain if this was an error of AI prompting by the BoothSquare website owners, a competitive event, or just a mistake across the board, were unresolved at time of going to the wire. But this is an illustration of when AI is fed bad information, confusion can be guaranteed. And this opens a bigger problem for an industry dependent on promotion. Many have flocked to use AI to cut corners in the creation of webpage information, and promotional copy/material.

VR Arcade Vs. Social Entertainment Attendance

The current chain of VR LBE venues seems to have entered a battle of numbers to promote their attendance. This war of words was kicked off by Sandbox VR who reported that, following the launch of their Netflix licensed ‘Squid Game’ VR experience, they had seen approximately 75,000 visitors ($60 per player, generating some $4.6m). This was reported as their best-selling experience, representing 30-percent of ticket sales at their 46 locations since launch in 2023. This four-player game has beaten the company’s previous high-selling experience, ‘Deadwood Valley’, developed by the company in 2022 and generating some $23m in the first year. This announcement was followed by Zero Latency, who stated they had seen some 100,000 visitors to play their new game ‘Outbreak: Origin’, generating some $10m in ticket sales. The operation has some 32 locations in North America. The eight-player game experience was also launched in 2021. Meanwhile, VR enclosure manufacturer HOLOGATE stated, in an announcement, that some 20m VR experiences had been played globally on their platform, stating their platform generated $50m annually (on an average $10 per play basis), while raising $7m in 2023 in funding.

Place this in comparison with the emergence of Competitive Socializing. This new entertainment medium has seen an explosive reception and, already, the figures are coming in to show its continued growth. An example of this can be see with the announcement from developers Red Engine, famous for their ‘Flight Club’ and ‘Electric Shuffle’ social entertainment venue brands. The corporation revealed a 28-percent increase on sales from 2022 to 2023, that saw the previous year generate some £100m ($127m) in sales. The speed of this market adoption to Competitive Socializing is reflected in the fact that Red Engine was founded on back in 2015.

In comparison, the consolidation and reporting on the bankability of various VR entertainment chains has increased, as the crowded waters of LBE VR continued to grow and redefine themselves. There seems to be a rush, as investment into many of these operations reaches a critical point, as the investors want to see the state of their investments. Industry observers also speak of the impact of the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) fever entering this space. Some of these LBE VR chains are rushing to reach many operations to consolidate their positions, with some looking at the possibility of floating their operations on the stock exchange.

Developments in the VR arcade scene have been tempestuous, with news of major developments concerning the move to VR 2.0. The bull run for VR arcade has slowed considerably following the aftermath of the global lockdown, and the venues which survived and were able to reopen have seen a mixed bag of either incredible take-up, or a slowing retention of audiences. Many of the VR arcades (against the LBR VR venue approach) have been dependant on distributed content (VR location management services) from one of a handful of providers. The shakeup of those who provided the content for these venues has also had impact on the survivability of these business. Initially, the upheavals of operations, such as EscapeReality and Private Label before, were followed by the acquisition of SpringBoardVR (their parent Vertigo Games acquired by Kosh Media – in 2020) and SynthesisVR (strategic acquisition with XR ImmersiveTech – in 2022).

As seen with the closure of VRStudios, the tempestuous nature of the space, especially for products, has started to see major strategic changes in the way the VR arcade space is supported. We will follow with more information on the developments in the consumer VR game space in our following report, along with details of the Video Game job apocalypse that seems also to be playing a part in the restructuring of the digital entertainment landscape, which is also having impacts on the Out-of-Home sector.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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