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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

New Slots Put to the Test

18 April 2006

SAN DIEGO, California -- To customers at Barona Valley Ranch, the slots in a 20-machine bank don't appear to be much different than any of the casino's 1,980 other games.

But for officials of the East San Diego County American Indian casino and gambling equipment maker International Game Technology, the 20 games represent the beginning of a breakthrough in the future makeup of slot floors.

Barona is the first California casino to test market server-based gaming developed by IGT. The system could, conceivably, let casino customers change games on a slot machine with a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Most of the major slot machine manufacturers are researching and developing server-based systems, also referred to as downloadable technology.

Slot makers said they think server-based gaming could remake casino floors by the end of decade. Slot machine boxes would have pull-down menus of different games, denominations, wagering limits and payouts. Customers could tailor-make their play.

For now, Barona casino managers can only perform simple tasks.

"Really, this is just the first step," said Lee Skelley, assistant general manager of casino operations at Barona. "We're very comfortable with Version 1, which is what we have here now. It's worked exactly like IGT told us it would. The next step is Version 1.2, and we'll put that out on the floor when it's ready."

From a central server, Barona officials can swap out a game's wagering denomination or change features, such as the maximum number of coins played. Skelley said the casino has moved game titles between boxes, swapping "Russian Treasures" with "Snow Globe," through the server. But floor personnel had to change out the slot machine title glass.

"What we're being told is that the next version will have LCD (liquid-crystal display) screens in place of the top and bottom glass where the titles will automatically change out," Skelley said.

Barona was selected by IGT as the California test casino because of its history with IGT. When it opened in 2003, the 300,000-square-foot casino equipped all of its 2,000 slot machines with ticket in-ticket out technology.

On the ultrahigh-limit slot machines in Barona's two private gaming lounges, the machines use fingerprint screening to allow for in-house cash transfers from a customer's account in the casino cage directly to the $500 and $1,000 minimum bet machines.

"Barona is one of the real proponents of technology on the casino floor," said Patrick Cavanaugh, IGT's executive director of investor relations. "They have very progressive management and their customers understand new casino technology."

He said the testing at Barona, which could proceed well into 2007, was the first stage in experimenting with the core technology of server-based gaming. A similar test is taking place at Treasure Island.

It may be some time next year before slot players interact actively with server-based technology. Customers didn't seem to notice they were taking part in what could be a casino-changing event.

On Wednesday afternoon, 18 of the 20 sever-based machines at Barona had players wagering away.

"It does OK for me," said Barona customer Jon Larson of nearby Ramona, Calif., figuring he was playing just any other slot machine. "I'm winning, so I'm happy."

Said Skelley: "For the customers, they really aren't seeing anything different yet. Our mantra is that we will look at any new technology, but we want to know what it will do for our customers. Does the technology make the experience better for our customers?"

Skelley said Barona would offer as much feedback as possible to IGT in time for the next phase of testing.