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Gaming for the Gaming Generation

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March 14, 2007
Gaming | Technology
Bill Geoghegan - Bill@LGTConsulting.com

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© 2007 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

People will bet on anything, no special equipment is necessary.  Any event with an unpredictable outcome can become the basis for a wager between two or more parties. The winner of a horse race, the result of a toss of a coin, or the total value on two thrown dice cannot be predicted in advance, and require no special equipment or technology to establish the result of the wager.  The office pool on a sporting event requires nothing more than a piece of paper and a treasurer who is trusted with the money, with the winner and final score being the unpredictable result.

Gambling is one of the oldest pursuits known to mankind.  Games of chance and their objects are well document in both history and mythology.  It is said that Zeus, Hades and Poseidon split the universe by dividing the heaven, hell and the sea with a throw of the dice. Dice-like objects called Astragali have been dated back 40,000 years, and cave drawings depict gambling. Ancient ivory dice were found in Thebes dating back to 1500 B.C., and gambling artifacts have been unearthed in China, Japan, India and Roman archaeological digs. Pairs of dice have turned up in the ruins of Pompeii. The use of playing cards dates back to early China, which is where paper was invented.  It is well known that our everyday lunch meal was invented by the Earl of Sandwich so that he could continue playing cards while eating.

In any form of wagering, there are always going to be people who attempt to turn the odds in their favor.  Whether it is loaded dice, marked cards or paying off the players, cheating has been part of the history of gambling. Since the first legal casino in Baden, Germany, all modern race tracks and casinos owe much of their existence to the ability, under government regulation, to provide a fair game to the public.  Anyone with even a small understanding of the odds understands that the casino earns its money by providing a fair game, but bending the odds in its favor.  All of the casino games have a built-in return in the favor of the casino.  Blackjack, craps and baccarat all have small percentages built into the pay tables, but by far the greatest odds in favor of the casino are built into the slot machines.

As recently as 1975 slot machines were mechanical, with the payoffs limited to modest jackpots.  With the age of computers, far more elaborate and entertaining games were produced, with high jackpots being the main draw.  Progressive jackpots, bonuses and statewide games raised the excitement level. 

Over the past 30 years, the slot machine and the video poker machine have become mainstays for the modern casino.  While table games are still popular, by far the bulk of wagering in a casino is done on these electro-mechanical devices.  For the casino, they are popular because of the low labor costs and high return on investment for the limited space used.  The real estate that is used by a blackjack table or craps table could easily house eight to 20 slot machines that require no dealer or pit boss. The coin hopper has been replaced by a bill validator, and payoffs are now made via a paper ticket, allowing for jackpots to be paid no matter how many coins are in the machine.  Machine jams and hand paid jackpots, which slow down the play on a machine, are a thing of the past. 

Much of the development of new slot machines lies in creating games that draw the player’s interest, and are exciting enough to cause that player to continue playing.

There are stringent regulations for the certification of slot machines, and one of the primary requirements is that each device must regularly report its transactions.  In the past, this meant mechanical meters in each machine, but today, each slot machine sends the wager amount and the result of its games up to a central computer.  Virtually all casinos have loyalty clubs giving players points for their play.  The identification of the player at a device, coupled with the accumulated transactions on that slot machine allows the casino to identify its best players, and to reward those players commensurately.  Free hotel rooms, meals, show tickets or free play are often the incentives used to keep a valued player returning to the same casino.  This same transactional information makes it possible to determine the popularity of a specific game and denomination of choice.

Today, the casino and gaming industry is in the midst of a technological evolution.  The slot machine has become little more than a computer, with peripheral devices such as a bill validator and ticket printer being connected to the motherboard via standard USB type of connection.  Technically, the random number generator and game theme do not have to be permanently resident in the slot machine, but rather can be pushed down to that device from a central server, making it possible to change the theme of the game without changing the physical device. 

In a server-supported game (SSG), you could think of the slot machine as a kiosk, with its program initially loaded from a central server, but all gaming win or loss determination being done on that kiosk. This mechanism would not only allow the casino to download those games that are most popular at various times of the day or days of the week, but also allows a player to select the game that he or she wants to play without having to find or wait for a specifically themed slot machine.

In an even more futuristic incarnation known as server-based gaming (SBG), the user interface need not be more than a Web browser, on which a game that is housed in the server is displayed to the player.  All win/loss determination is done on the server, and any capable device can be used to display the progress of the game and the results.  This is effectively the way that all Internet casinos work.  Currently, many jurisdictions are creating the rules and certification criteria necessary to allow this type of play in the legal casinos.

One of the greatest concerns of the casino industry today is whether the slot machine games of today can hold the attention of the gaming generation.  Today’s youth have grown up in an era of video games and computer gaming that requires a great deal of skill and time to master, with their goal being nothing more than achieving the next level of the game.  Many casino executives are concerned that the historically popular games will not draw this next generation of potential gamblers into the casinos.
Server-based gaming and server-supported gaming both offer the potential to make the games more interactive and exciting.  One possibility might allow a group of friends to sit at a group of slot machines and have an impromptu tournament, with a bonus going to the player with the best results.  Another possibility could allow a player to achieve various levels of play within the game, with ever increasing odds in his or her favor as levels are achieved.  This might allow a combination of skill and chance in the game.  The primary requirement for a game theme is that it must be adult oriented, so many of today’s Xbox 360, Playstation and Game Cube games could be adapted to slot machine use, giving the gaming generation an opportunity to play familiar games in the casino environment, and gaining rewards for their skill.

The transition to server-based and server-supported gaming will be slow.  Most slot machines stay on the casino floor for seven years or more, and the regulatory agencies move very slowly into new technology.  There will have to be a compelling reason to replace those machines any sooner, but enticing the younger generation to the casino is certainly the goal of many casino owners.

Bill Geoghegan is a consultant in Las Vegas. He can be reached for comment at Bill@LGTConsulting.com.

Slot machines are a relatively recent invention in the gaming world. Charles Fey, a San Francisco car mechanic, invented the Liberty Bell slot machine in 1899, with diamonds, hearts, spades and one cracked Liberty Bell on each of three reels. The nickel machine would return 50 cents for three Liberty Bells on the payoff line, with smaller payoffs for three diamonds, hearts or spades. In 1907, Fey teamed up with Herbert Mills to produce the Mills Liberty Bell, producing over a million machines within the next 50 years. In places where the slot machine was outlawed, the same type of machine would pay off in gum, candy, cigars or free drinks.

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