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21st Century Slots

High-def video and digitized interaction bring slot machines to the next generation
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

(continued from page 2)

Michael Ordille remembers the first time he realized that “Sex and the City” was big beyond cable TV and the movies. He was at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for the debut of a “Sex and the City” themed slot machine. The names and likenesses of its stars had been licensed by IGT, one of the casino industry’s leading makers of gaming devices and the company for which Ordille works as an account manager. The actor who portrayed Mr. Big was on hand to juice up the event, and the Hard Rock was hoping to snag some local press. A ribbon-cutting ceremony ensued. It was followed by a rush of would-be Samanthas overtaking the machines.

The women couldn’t get their money in quickly enough, but something else went down. “What really surprised me were the 20-something males who sat down to play,” says Ordille. “I thought that the machine would have been for middle-aged women. But these guys knew that the females were playing and it drew them. Plus there are lots of bonuses and clips.”

That scenario is one example of the new reality that slot machines are no longer, well, slot machines. “You need to have a sense of style for the new demographic,” says Chris Satchell, chief technology officer at IGT. “Then you add a social component online and it helps the experience. Suddenly casino gaming is matching other entertainment forms.”

Casino executives sense transformation in the air. “There is a heightened sense that something different is going on,” says Mike Volkert, vice president of slot marketing and operations for Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. “The way people spend their time with entertainment is changing, and we’re all looking at how to use those changes to interest our gamer of the future.”

From the casino’s most base perspective, Sex and the City functions like a standard, three-reel machine: It pays off a certain percentage of the money put into it and the rest is reserved for the house. However, from the player’s point of view, it offers more. There are high-definition visuals, instantly recognizable sound effects, a touch screen, familiar clips from the HBO show and bonuses that are the next best thing to shopping for a new pair of Manolo Blahniks. On a recent evening at the Borgata Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, it was standing room only around the machines. Jersey girls use elaborately manicured fingernails to punch buttons; they sit on the edges of their seats and high-five one another when bonuses kick up. A clutch of young men railbird the action, and it’s easy to guess that they wouldn’t mind jumping in.

If slot machines were once targeted at old ladies holding plastic cups full of quarters, Sex and the City, which hit casinos two years ago, has heralded a new age. “Your average slot player now is somebody who was weaned on Xbox and Sega Genesis,” says Tim Burke, vice president of slot operations at Borgata. “They loved it then, and now they want products that feel fresh. It used to be husbands playing table games and wives playing slots. Now they’re all on the machines together.”

The newest offerings comprise a flashy, splashy, high-concept pack aimed at a new generation of machine gamblers who text
between spins and want to brag about their winnings on Facebook. Underscoring Burke’s assessment, the fresh flock of machines attract guys who can’t resist dumping money into computer-chipped boxes that allow them to remember playing Battleship (yes, a machine is based on the 1967 board game) and relive moments of The Hangover while providing opportunities to win money. It’s a hoot and a way of bringing larger-than-life aesthetics onto the casino floor. In the new Godzilla machine, for example, the Japanese monster breaks through the third wall and expands beyond the glass in front of the machine to the big video display above it. And its three-dimensional graphics have become the norm rather than an eye-catching exception.

If the new generation of slot machines seems increasingly like computer games, that is no coincidence. Companies such as Williams, Bally and Interblock have poached designers from the world of computer gaming. This is most evident at IGT.

Satchell was lured in from Microsoft where he had previously worked as the interactive entertainment business CTO for Xbox. “People used to be happy just to come into the casino and do some form of gambling as entertainment,” says the goateed and buzz-cut Satchell. “But now they are exploring all kinds of media; they are digital everywhere. They’re wondering why they shouldn’t be digital in the casino. They are wanting more and more.”

Those desires should not be taken lightly. Says John Grochowski, author of The Slot Machine Answer Book, “I’m seeing that gaming devices account for more than 80 percent of casino revenues.”

Satchell’s brief has been to deliver the elevated experience that a casino’s best customers desire. “I wanted to bring the techniques and technologies from video games, which are ahead of the curve of casino gaming machines,” he says. “We now have a new generation of game development platforms that use the same processes and cutting-edge technologies as video games. We use the same production methodology. We use the same high-end graphics, real-time animation and high-end movies.”

Bringing the aesthetics and play of the machines up to speed had been done with relative ease, usually by following the computer-game approach. But, considering why these machines exist in the first place, there is a trickier challenge as well. “We also have to have complex math models that are unique to gambling,” says Satchell, meaning that he and his colleagues need to slice and dice odds to make proper payouts and to account for the amount of time that players spend on the machines per hour. “If you look at our technology, it stacks up similarly to what the computer gaming companies are doing. We are catching up to them. On top of that, we do stuff that the computer-game engineers would never comprehend. The math model behind the modern-day slot machine is what people from the video game business remark on. They see it and surprise themselves by saying, ‘This is really complicated. More so than I thought.’ ”

Satchell has been a major driving force behind the transformation. He’s developed groundbreaking games and watched his competitors do the same. Bally has come up with a gambit in which players touch the screen and spin a virtual wheel. Williams has a Monopoly machine where players feel as if they are rolling actual dice. G2 Game Design has devised a slot machine based on the TV show “Pawn Stars.” It uses complex algorithms that allow you to negotiate the number of winnable credits.

Other machines have volatility options that give players a high probability to win small jackpots or small probability to win large ones (the casino doesn’t care; either way, it still gives out the same percentage of money based on how much is put into the machines). Roulette with a real, but automated, wheel is out there; and so is a craps game that incorporates bonafide dice under glass.

One breaking aspect, which helps bring casino-game technology into the modern realm is the incorporation of skill elements—or at least the illusion that skill translates into significantly increased revenue for winning players. “We’re focusing on changing the physical experience,” says Satchell. “For example, there’s a game called Buck Hunter where you get a rifle and shoot at targets. The amount of money you get rewarded is random, but you receive points for hitting targets. For another machine, Reel Edge, we licensed the game Centipede. Get to the bonus-round and you play an arcade game that gets you more money if you play the game well. That makes it closer to video poker and gives you a way to interact with it.”

Where video poker is concerned, IGT recently introduced a game changer. Ordinarily, when you play video poker you do not play against the machine so much as you play against the pay schedule. You get dealt cards and go for certain hands. There are some optimal moves, but they resemble basic strategy in blackjack. You do what’s statistically correct in a static situation and hope that the cards fall your way. Then you get specified amounts of money for hitting certain hands, usually from a pair of Jacks up to a royal flush.

IGT’s blandly monikered Texas Hold’em Heads Up Poker, on the other hand, is extraordinary for a few reasons. Immediately noticeable is that the house has no discernable advantage. There is no rake (a percentage of every pot taken by the casino, as is the case with games dealt in the poker room) and no fixed odds for the player to go up against. It is a game of mano a machina heads-up, limit hold’em poker. You play against a bot loaded with artificial intelligence. Short of the machine getting the dealer’s button first, it has no obvious advantage. And the stakes are no joke. In Aria’s high-limit slots room, you can play for as high as $200/$400.

Seemingly, the casino is taking a chance, betting that its bot is better than your brain. Considering all the machines with odds pre-rigged against players, you wonder if it’s worthwhile for casinos to bother. I pose the question to a slots boss at a casino in a jurisdiction where the game has not yet been approved. He looks out at an ocean of machines, all carefully calibrated to set amounts of payoff with nary a risk, and replies, “What do you think?”

Obviously, he’s not crazy about the notion of taking any potential downside. David Sklansky, a notoriously brainy poker pro and author of books such as The Theory of Poker and Getting the Best of It, sees the machine as being tougher than the slots boss might think. “What’s interesting is that not only does the machine beat almost everybody, but it has been programmed in a way so that its strategy will win regardless of how you play. It beats people who play tight and people who play loose. It does things at the right ratio to keep from being exploited.”

Sklansky finds the machine tough enough that it’s not worthwhile for him to put in a whole lot of time playing against it. “I’ve been told that it has a few different playing personalities and it switches them,” he warns. “So if you think you have a line on its personality”—and style of play—“you will be disappointed.”

The first slot machines date back to the late 1800s. They were primitive beasts, made of steel and purely mechanical—but still perfectly adept at beating gamblers out of money. On the East Coast, in Brooklyn, New York, a machine was devised with five reels that were loaded with playing cards and they spun out poker hands. Because there was no mechanism for making cash payments based on the myriad number of hand possibilities, the machines (which were usually in saloons) paid out in the form of beers or sandwiches or cigars.

To cut down on potentially winning hands, the bars’ proprietors usually removed the 10 of spades and the Jack of hearts. Simultaneously, on the West Coast, in San Francisco, another inventor came up with a machine that simplified the process by replacing all those playing cards with five different symbols, which made the payouts easier for the machines to negotiate.

Things were going great, with demand for the so-called one-armed bandits on the rise, production increasing into tens of thousands of machines annually, and bar patrons enjoying the thrills of financial risk. Then the government clamped down and deemed the gambling machines illegal, which sent bar owners back to offering sandwiches and cigars to lucky customers. When prohibition hit, the machines went into speakeasies, where they were once again put to illegal use and paid out in cash.

In 1931, when the state of Nevada legalized gambling, most of the machines were shipped out west. They were popular, but far from an immediate hit. “Table games generated more money than the machines back then,” says Marshall Fey, author of Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years of the World’s Most Popular Coin-Operated Gaming Device. “It wasn’t until the 1970s, when mechanisms in the machines allowed them to offer larger jackpots, that slot machines got a lot more popular.”

These days, a half-dozen or so companies are embroiled in a battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of casino customers. Continuing my stroll through the Borgata, I see that the days of slot machine play as an isolating experience are winding down. Sure, there are plenty of people sitting a respectful distance from their neighbors, grimly pumping funds into machines while pulling levers or punching buttons. But, more and more, I’m also noticing banks of machines, loaded with fast friends who are communicating, sharing knowledge, rooting each other on in the way that they do at a blackjack table. “We’re designing machines to change the physical experience,” says Satchell. “You play as a group. You’re social. You’re all engaging in the same activity.” The thinking is that it will make slot play more enjoyable and, of course, more profitable.

That’s definitely happening at a machine called Dark Knight, themed for the Batman movie franchise, and designed so that if one player hits a bonus all the other gamblers playing at the same time are suddenly in bonus territory as well. Players sit on comfy seats outfitted with speakers that create a cinematic rumbling effect whenever the Batmobile takes off. Watching his wife and a couple of friends playing, an ex cop by the name of Jerry gushes, “I played this last night. Now I’m hooked on it. My wife hit it for $331; we want to do it again!” He’d like to keep on talking, but a buddy of his has just hit a bonus and Jerry’s suddenly cheering the guy on.

This is exactly the response that game designer Chris Satchell has been angling for. But he’s already making a move to take it further. He wants players to bring their casino experiences home. In January of this year IGT purchased Double Down Interactive, a virtual-currency casino on Facebook. “It allows the company to put its slot games online,” says Satchell. “This gives us another channel for our content. It also opens up the possibility for you to find out about a game online, try it for free and eventually play it in a casino.”

Beyond the fact that IGT is setting itself up for the day when all forms of online gambling will be legal, the Double Down project also pushes things forward in another way. Satchell envisions a time in the near future when his customers will be interacting online together, sharing experiences, communicating with each other and with IGT, forming communities of slot lovers who inadvertently promote the machines.

Beyond that, looking into his crystal ball, Satchell sees a future where slot machines continue to become increasingly unlike slot machines to the point that they are almost unrecognizable. “I think about meta games,” he says. “Imagine we both go to a casino on a Friday night and a window pops up on all the machines, stating there will be a red vs. blue tournament. You’re randomly assigned to the red team or the blue team, and if you’re on the team that gets the most cumulative points you get some kind of a bonus. That will make you want to play. We’ll keep pushing the entertainment capabilities. There will be new forms of interactivity and play mechanics that will seem like nothing out there right now. And you’ll be able to experience it on any end point you want.” He hesitates for a beat, then adds, “It will blow you away.”

Michael Kaplan is a
Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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