AWP machines in pubs have an uncertain future while awaiting the Gambling Bill. Phil Mellows looks into the entertainment systems.
The AWP machine industry has been through a rocky 12 months or so. On the one hand there is declining take, which in pubs has been exacerbated by competition from fixed odds machines in betting shops. On the other, continuing prevarication around the new Gambling Bill continues to delay long-awaited deregulation.
It now seems likely that the bill will have to wait until after the General Election before it becomes law. The good news is that it hasn't held up the technological developments that are making it possible for machines to appeal to a far wider audience.
Many pubs which rely heavily on machine income are, however, locked into a shrinking market - the hardcore male player who makes up only seven per cent of pub-goers.
With this in mind, Leisure Link, one of the two major machine suppliers to the pub trade, chose last month's Amusement Trades Exhibition International (ATEI) show to announce nothing short of a "revolution".
"Pubs have had a hard time," says Leisure Link group managing director Jim O'Halleran. "Machines in pubs have been founded on the core player and that market has been contracting for some time. Games have become more and more complicated and players are turning away."
The result is that pub operators have been trying to increase their machine revenue by reducing the percentage pay-out, giving players poorer value for money and causing a vicious circle in which the hardcore players are depleted even further.
The machine operators, led by Leisure Link and its main rival, Gamestec, are convinced that pub operators must grasp the nettle and shift the player base by offering more entertainment.
"I don't see the £25 payout machines as real gambling," says Jim. "They are more about amusement."
The technology is there to make the change, and it is developing all the time. Leisure Link's "revolution" at ATEI comprised of an updated version of its Itbox entertainment terminal Itbox, which can now incorporate digital music, and the launch of a digital, networked AWP machine called Rainmaker.
But if the revolution is going to happen in the pub it will require pub operators themselves to embrace the potential of the new technology and the pressing need to get a greater variety of customers dropping coins in slots.
"If we are going to appeal to a younger generation we have got to entertain," says Leisure Link sales and marketing director David Purvis. "Machines have to attract people who haven't previously put money into them and that means they have got to give them value for money - and be fun."
Leisure Link's 7,000 Itboxes and Gamestec's 5,000 Gamesnet machines are already providing evidence that this is possible. The Itbox generated £50m through pubs last year and increased income per terminal by 40 per cent.
The trick with these web-based machines is that content can be updated remotely with new games, services, promotions and real-time networked tournaments.
Leisure Link and Gamestec are also trialling new types of AWP machines which, thanks to similar technology, can offer more interesting games to attract new players - the challenge is to wean hardcore users off the spinning reels they are used to and get them used to the idea of video and touchscreen.
There are advantages for the pub operator too. Jim O'Halleran is, for one, clearly frustrated at having to physically change the machine when a game gets tired when there is the technology available that can be operated remotely.
"At the moment we're the world's best furniture removers," he says. "We currently move 15,000 machines a month."
Maximising the take for even a basic AWP depends on changing the game regularly to maintain players' interest - typically this happens once every 12 weeks.
Changes imminent in the new gambling laws could increase this frequency. The machine operators will be allowed to take a share of the take and, says Jim, incentivised to change games even more often, maximising the effectiveness of machines for both industries.
Spirit Group and Leisure Link are celebrating the 1,000th Itbox entertainment installation in the pub company's estate. As well as offering wi-fi access through the Itbox, Spirit is trialling e-top-ups for mobile phones.
The company's director of machines, supplies and services, Bridget Bridgett is pictured with Leisure Link sales and marketing director David Purvis and the 1,000th Itbox.