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Best of Liz Benston
Liz Benston

Slots for a new generation

17 December 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Years from now, slot machine players may wander into a casino and wonder if they've landed in a game arcade.

Slots will function more like video games, featuring space ships - whoa, look out for that force field! - and pinball flippers. You won't be trying to line up three blazing 7s as much as you'll be shooting at space invaders and asteroids. Zzzzzng! Pppfffffffttt! Bam!

Dude, the gaming industry is cautiously and finally embracing the video-game generation.

Gaming Control Board Member Mark Clayton says he is "dumbfounded" that manufacturers haven't yet presented skill-based video games for consideration given the growing popularity of high-tech console and home computer games.

"There is no formal policy ... that would preclude skill-based games," he said.

At least one company is queuing up to provide the games, on the premise that slot business will go bonkers if it ties in to players who have spent way too many hours in front of TVs and computer screens with joysticks and trigger buttons.

"This is going to bring a new audience to the casino floor," a group that is now uninterested in gaming, said Thierry Brunet de Courssou, the chief systems architect for Cyberview Technology, the company pursuing the video-slot games.

Cyberview, which is seeking a manufacturing license in Nevada, plans to spend the next 12 months testing the new gambling devices.

In one of the games, called Galaxium, players use buttons normally reserved for drawing or holding video poker hands to move a spaceship from side to side or forward and backward. A player also can create a force field around his ship, protecting it from attack. In a pinball game called The Big Score, players use buttons to control left and right flippers and launch a virtual ball into a machine.

The company plans to offer online, non-gambling versions of the game to players who can try their luck at home and offer feedback and suggestions for new games.

So where does the gambling come in?

After years of research and multiple patents, Cyberview, using a standard video poker payout model, came up with a game concept that requires players to purchase a defined amount of time - say, 20 minutes. With the pinball and spaceship games, contact with objects triggers a bet using the video poker random number generator, which spits out a win or a loss.

Players can wager their money in one-second increments, with credits accumulating for every second that elapses.

Those who play faster, collide with more objects or shoot more targets initiate a greater number of smaller bets compared to hapless players who end up generating fewer, larger bets. Those who play faster or better are likelier to experience an average result closer to the odds of the game versus slower, less skilled players, who will experience more volatility.

The company hopes to approve the unskilled games first so that players get used to the video game format. The goal is to eventually offer versions of these and other games that will reward players for their skill.

It's an idea whose time has come, says Heather Wrzesinki, a 23-year-old Las Vegas native who grew up around slot machines - only to be disappointed when she finally got to play them.

"They were a letdown - hitting a button over and over again and hoping you win," said Wrzesinski, who played Atari console games as a child and now plays what she calls RPGs - role-playing video games with elaborate special effects, like the "Final Fantasy" series.

"I get involved in the stories and characters" - features desperately lacking in slot machines, she says.

She speaks for a generation of people who grew up playing arcade games and now entertain themselves with a dizzying array of technology including cell phones, laptops and iPods.

Slot makers acknowledge they aren't doing much to appeal to these players. They haven't had to, because they've been busy raking in profit by catering to players 55 and older who seek familiarity and predictability in their gambling experience and to whom new features are best introduced slowly, one bell and whistle at a time.

The introduction of video game characteristics was predicted years ago by an industry that moves ploddingly - witness how it has relied on randomized spinning symbols for more than a century.

To the surprise of regulators and even some manufacturers, that transition to video games still hasn't occurred, despite ever-younger customers thronging to casino nightclubs, restaurants and shows in recent years. These customers show little interest in slot machines, instead gravitating to table games for their cool factor and interactivity.

But with conventional slot players growing old, the time seems ripe to bring devices to the casino floor that allow some element of skill. It might take a decade or longer for the video game slots to pan out - there are patents and licenses to secure, for instance - but casino observers say they should sate the industry for generations to come.

Last year Bally Technologies took a baby step in the direction of video games with Pong, a slot machine version of the classic video game that knocked a ball between two paddles.

The game plays like a typical slot machine until players reach a bonus round, where they play Pong against the computer and receive cash bonuses based on how well they play.

Bally, which expects to offer another slot based on the Atari game Breakout next year, will offer more skill games depending on how these are received.

The approval of Pong - the first slot machine to reward players for their manual dexterity - was an industry milestone and has encouraged manufacturers to develop more elaborate video game concepts.

The development of the Atari games came with some nervousness.

"I think there was genuine concern, from a perception and implementation standpoint, that somehow the game wouldn't be fair," said David Schultz, director of video game development at Bally. "You can introduce skill and have it not be fun for the player because the player feels as though he is paying to be reminded that he is not doing well."

The world's largest slot maker, International Game Technology, has obtained several patents that relate to "perceived skill" games, which trigger predetermined outcomes yet appear to reward players based on how well they perform a specific action.

But the company has stopped short of full-blown video games for a variety of reasons, Vice President of Marketing Ed Rogich said.

Rogich says today's appetite for fully interactive video games hasn't matured.

"Eventually (younger players) are going to become a better demographic for casinos because they will have more disposable income and time on their hands," he said. But that time isn't quite here yet, he says.

For all of the hundreds of new slot machines and features introduced to casinos each year, only a few dozen slot machine brands have survived the test of time. That's because many slot players like a certain game and stick with it rather than trying out games that are too radically different, he said.

"We are trying everything we can to enhance the entertainment value of our games," he said. "But there are still a lot of people out there who want to play their three-reel slot. They don't need penny wagering or multi paylines and they don't want an audience."

There's an added challenge to appealing to younger gamers - much of their time and money is already devoted to an increasing number of technological gadgets, from DVDs to MP3s.

There are also regulatory hurdles to consider.

Rogich says IGT would have developed video gamelike devices sooner if not for state regulations requiring slot games to offer random outcomes. Even video poker games draw digital cards at random so that the worst of players have a shot at the jackpot.

After all, video games lose much of their appeal if players aren't allowed to flex some manual dexterity to their benefit.

But regulators say they are receptive to considering skill-based games. The notion that skill games were simply out of the question, they say, is a long-standing misperception.

After nearly seven years of pushing manufacturers to offer more interactive games, Howard Letovsky, a mechanical engineer and video game inventor in Northern California who secured the first patent governing skill-based video slot games in 2004, believes that 2008 will bring some major breakthroughs in fully-interactive games - a euphemism for skill-based games.

"These companies have all known that eventually the demographic that they designed these machines for is going away," said Letovsky, who is working with Cyberview Technology. "But they're very slow to react."