For slot players and managers alike, the gambling experience could soon be quite different. Slot floors of the near future are likely to feature machines that are unlike the singular "Elvis!" or "Wheel of Fortune" games.
Instead, they will be portals through which consumers will have at least 10 to 12 games to choose from, and in which slot bosses can endlessly manipulate and reconfigure game offerings, bonuses, denominations and hold percentages via a centrally located computer.
When the fifth annual Global Gaming Exposition (G2E) opens September 13, much of the anticipated buzz is expected to emanate from these devices. No longer free-standing game machines, they may soon be run from computer servers in the back of the house.
CBT Gaming consultant Rob Fier, who has tracked the technology since 1996, said: "It is a concept of the new millennia. There is an axiom that he who controls the wire controls the gaming floor of the future."
This centrally controlled form of slot machine gambling isn't deployed anywhere in the United States, but that isn't stopping major vendors from displaying their downloadable wares in anticipation of regulatory approval.
As Marcus Prater, senior vice president of Bally Gaming & Systems sees it, operators in this computer-controlled casino environment could automatically alter denominations on machines, such as converting quarter machines to half-dollar ones on a busy Friday night. Instead of altering machines one computer chip at a time, it could be done across the entire slot floor via a few clicks of a computer mouse.
"The instinct, from Bally's perspective, is not to change hold percentages," Prater added. "That's not a good idea. Some players have a paranoia that operators seem to be changing hold percentages on the fly."
Replacement cycles for aging devices might also be slowed down in this Brave New World.
"As far as operators are concerned, they're not going to have to rotate their physical inventory," observed author and casino consultant Max Rubin, who estimates annual replacement of slot machines at 10 to 25 percent of a casino's inventory.
"Your big chains, like the Boyd Group, when they run tournaments, they have to go to a warehouse, bring in machines for a weekend and redo them all," Cyberview Technology President Roy Student added. "What if you just hit a switch and those banks become tournament machines?"
Changing games at will is one of the major talking points for the so-called server-based gambling. Aristocrat Technologies will be showcasing its server-based Mark 6 game platform, which can support a suite of 10-plus games at present.
Aristocrat's vice president of marketing, Kent Young, hopes to eventually have the company's entire 100-game repertory on one server, enabling the player to invoke dozens upon dozens of Aristocrat games without straying from the same slot machine. He also sees the transition to computer-driven gambling as a way of showcasing new products. Young likens it to a video store.
"When you have a new release, you generally have a lot of the new movies," he said, "and you have them in a prime position." Depending on the level of play, the number of machines showcasing that particular game could be scaled back over time. "That's done through the press of a button," Young said.
Cyberview's Student makes a similar observation about the potential for casino operators to optimize their slot floors with the new technology. "A guy gets a game in, but if it doesn't work after a couple of weeks (and) it's not making the numbers, he doesn't have to say to the vendor, 'Go take it out,' " Student remarked. "He just hits a button."
Could that instant-changeover option lead to situations in which operators panic and pull games off the floor before they've had a chance to find their audience? Young thinks it's a risk but feels that smart operators won't go that route.
At present, Cyberview would appear to have a leg up on its competitors, by virtue of having the only slot-controlling software sanctioned by Gaming Laboratories International, the predominant game-testing lab in the United States.
Still, Student emphasizes his company's slot-control experience in the European market, where its software is currently in play, and insists his company's games are ready for implementation.
"We're going to be the first ones in North America, in Southern California, very shortly," he said. "It'll be in major Indian casinos. We're just waiting for the (California Casino Commission) to sign off."
In addition to slot machines and ancillary devices, Cyberview has its own line of games. These will include an adaptation of the Kirk Douglas-Tony Curtis barbarian film epic The Vikings, to be introduced at G2E pending contractual approval. A Guys and Dolls-branded game has already debuted.
"We believe we're in the entertainment business," Student said. "As you can see, I've been, for a long time," he added, indicating two walls of his office covered with autographed photos of showbiz figures, including actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and her husband, Michael Douglas. "We're using my relationships to develop games from motion pictures."
But the real money is in system software. That's why Cyberview recently inked a $15 million pact with Williams Gaming, or WMS, to sublicense its server-based game-management software to the slot manufacturer.
"They believe we're the future and they wanted to have it. I cannot tell you who, but we're also negotiating with other major slot manufacturers right now to use our software and pay us lots of money," Student said.
Rubin added: "It could be years before there's a full floor of server-based gaming. Then we've got to see if there's a public appetite. The Luddites may not respond to it but the Generation X'ers and (younger) may embrace it wholeheartedly. That's the $64,000 Question: What's the public going to say when these machines hit the floor? There was the fear when electronic machines came out that people who were used to mechanical (slots) would not embrace them and it was just the opposite."
But CBT's Fier doesn't think that the traditional reel-spinning slot is in any danger from video-driven server slots.
"A lot of people still sell mechanical reel-spinners short," he said. He notes that video-based games historically have brief life cycles compared to traditional slot games like Double Diamonds that have been out on the floor for 15 years or more. The consultant figures that 50 percent of the slots at any new casino will still be mechanical reel spinners. But Aristocrat's Young doesn't share Fier's optimism.
"Video is the way of the future," he reflected. "Downloadable (gambling) is only going to enhance video penetration throughout the market." As for the 'box,' he believes it will gradually get smaller, enabling casinos to put even more slots on their floors, as LCD flat-panel monitors supplant traditional video and coinless/cashless slots continue to proliferate.
If successful, Student believes, this server-based gambling will force an integration of game design and development with hardware manufacture. "We're the first to do it," he said. "We've caused all the slot manufacturers to all of a sudden go into downloadable (games). They're not prepared. They were going to be in the box business. Now they've got to change their model to go into the content business."