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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Slot machines way high tech

4 June 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Slot machine manufacturers, sometimes slow to respond to technology, are catching up to America's love affair with faster computers, wide screen TVs and communal play on the Internet.

The new slot machines will allow gamblers to play more quickly, hit more payoffs and interact with - and compete against - other gamblers. And, in the end, they'll also make more money for casinos.

These new features include:

- Wide screen games offering more "reels," increasing the chance for more payoff combinations. A gambler may feel encouraged by the sense of winning more frequently, even if the individual payoffs don't cover the cost of the spin.

- Slots that are linked so multiple gamblers can participate in one another's bonus round or compete against one another for prizes. This development follows the popularity of video games allowing players to compete with one another, in person or through the Internet.

- Faster games , including one that allows players to stop spinning wheels on their own, speeding up the process and giving players the illusion that the player can control the outcome of the game.

- Slots with "opt-in" game tournaments for players who compete against one another for prizes and can watch as their high scores are tallied on display boards.

- Slots with side games that offer prizes for qualifying players.

The new features are considered significant in an industry where innovations often are measured in small details , like a new set of symbols, more animated bonus rounds or the particular slant of a screen.

These changes come at a challenging time. The average life cycle of a slot machine at a big casino is but a few years and getting shorter as casino operators seek the latest and greatest games. Although slot companies are rising to the challenge, many casino operators are holding out on big purchases while manufacturers work on a longer-term project: computer systems that will control entire casino floors from a central server. It will be years before casinos introduce so-called downloadable games on a large scale because they are waiting to see how these more expensive systems will perform. These futuristic games will be more customized than any before them because they will allow operators to change game titles, bonus features, denominations and jackpots at the push of a button.

"Why go out and purchase games now if this technology is going to be out there in a year or two years?" said Steven Wieczynski, a stock analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus Capital Markets.

Meanwhile, slot makers are catching up with more rapid developments in the television and video game industries.

For Bally, changes were prompted when major game developers shifted to a widescreen format for all their new releases.

Next to the company's 20-inch and 26-inch widescreen slot machines, the standard 19-inch square display screens - newly upgraded with LED technology from the days of cathode ray tubes - already look passe.

The first video slot widescreen games to hit casino floors are outperforming their standard versions from 30 percent to 50 percent.

"People are getting used to better, high-definition TVs," said Michael Mitchell, vice president of game development for Bally. "The quality of the image is better - colors are brighter and images clearer. It's also easier on the eyes. With the flat screen, you don't have glare from overhead lights. Players become more immersed in the game."

The wider screen allowed Bally to add more reels to its video and mechanical games, as well as add more bonus features and touch panels to the display screens.

By adding reels, Bally created more "lines," or combinations of symbols that can yield a jackpot.

The ReelVision slot, which has seven reels, also employs other advances in technology. New algorithms move the mechanical reels more precisely, synchronizing them to stop quickly and smoothly like video reels instead of the jerky, unsynchronized reels of years past.

By pushing the "spin" button in quick succession, players can stop the spin of all seven reels before they come to a complete stop on their own, speeding up the game but not changing the result of the game. (By state law, the outcome of each spin is determined by a computer chip that triggers a random result at the initial push of a button.)

"We didn't just add a wheel," Mitchell said of the ReelVision game. "This game is a bunch of small little improvements that , when added together, make the product more interesting and entertaining for the player."

As for turning solitary slot playing into a community experience: International Game Technology, which is also offering wide screen slots, is building slots with shared bonus rounds that allow gamblers seated next to one another to bet on one another or compete collectively for a bonus.

Improvements in digital and reel technology are "evolutionary rather than revolutionary," said slot critic and gambler John Robison, who writes for the trade publication Strictly Slots.

"There's a lot more buzz about the community gaming developments because this is something that really hasn't been done before," he said.

The first of these for IGT was last year's debut of the Wheel of Fortune "Super Spin" - a giant, colorful wheel much like that used in the original game show. Players sit at individual screens situated around a big wheel and can join in a neighboring player's "spin," or wait for their own, once they are eligible for a bonus. Each player's winnings are largely displayed. Rather than drawing accidental spectators, the game is intended to draw crowds that wait to witness the spin of the giant wheel.

This fall IGT will introduce an "Indiana Jones"-branded game with a bonus round in which neighboring players can compete, and has begun rolling out electronic versions of table games - such as baccarat, roulette and blackjack - allowing players more opportunity to interact around a table.

"This is a strange universe where people interact with a single computer," IGT Chief Executive T.J. Matthews said at a technology conference last week. "People want to interact with each other."