Jury’s still out on server slots

May 1, 2006 12:27 AM

Casino customers at Treasure Island in Las Vegas are getting a glimpse of slot machines’ future, even though they might not realize it.

The TI is currently running field trials for a couple of dozen server-based slot machines, also called downloadable slots, whose game content, denomination and even payback percentages can be controlled electronically from a remote location.

That location in a small back office is manned by Justin Beltram, a casino executive who is the point man in the high-technology field test.

With a few clicks of his computer mouse, Beltram can reprogram the slot machines on the casino floor, adjusting the denominations required to play, payback percentages, even game themes.

In the past, changing out a slot machine was a complicated operation and entailed opening it, replacing the computer chip inside, then changing the glass sign that displays the game’s theme. The alteration usually took a day and could cost thousands of dollars, from ordering parts to modifying the machine.

"Now, I just come to my office, and select the program," said Beltram, the 28-year-old executive director for slots at Treasure Island, which is owned by MGM Mirage. "With the technology, it takes 20 seconds."

The concept is being tested for the next few months under the watchful eye of Nevada regulators. If they approve, casino operators will be able to centrally adjust the slots to cater to different crowds — older players and regulars during the day and younger tourists and people with bigger budgets at night.

That could mean testing consumer confidence as well. Some critics wonder whether centrally controlled slots are not a few steps away from the instantaneous and unchecked control enjoyed by Internet casino operators. Others say it wreaks of a Big Brother-like control over the rules of chance.

Beltram insists he does not plan to capriciously change the odds, which he said would be bad for repeat business and could run afoul of regulators.

The development of downloadable slots underscores the growing convergence of gambling and technology. In addition, casinos are experimenting with equipping blackjack tables with money chips embedded with digital tags that can automatically measure how much a gambler has wagered and on what kinds of hands.

Casinos also are testing handheld wireless devices that would allow people to play games like keno and eventually blackjack while sitting in public areas, like the swimming pool.

But these advances raise questions of security and propriety. In the case of the new slots, regulators want to make sure the systems cannot be invaded by outsiders, while consumers want to know casino operators cannot too easily manipulate the odds, said David G. Schwartz, director for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

"Let’s say you’re playing at 2 and you’re doing great and you come back at 6 and the pay tables have changed," Schwartz said, adding that he wondered how much latitude casino operators would have to change their returns.

He also worries that some players could receive preferential odds if, for instance, they are high rollers, thus creating an uneven gambling field.

By law, Nevada casinos must on average return at least 75 percent of slot machine wagers. The reality is they return more than 90 percent, according to Gaming Control Board reports. Also under the law, they cannot modify the payback percentages while someone is playing.

State law allows them to change the odds after a machine has been idle for four minutes, and then they must not allow anyone to play the machine for four more minutes. During that time, the screen must indicate a change is being made to the game’s configuration, said Travis Foley, laboratory manager for the technology division of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, who is overseeing the Treasure Island test.

Typically, those changes now are made in the middle of the night when there are fewer players in the casino.

Foley said the technology "does expedite the change" to a new theme, wager denomination or payback percentage. "But it’s not a new capability."

For his part, Beltram said fierce competition for slot machine players would keep him from playing fast and loose with his odds. The bigger goal, he said, is to cater inexpensively to consumer demand. He cites as evidence a recent visit by a high roller from Rhode Island.

Beltram said the gambler, who liked to play slots in the high-stakes slots room where individual wagers can go from $2 into the hundreds of dollars, requested a $25 Double Diamond slot machine. Beltram ordered the computer chip and glass plate from IGT, which makes the machine, and had them in place 24 hours later.

The lost day potentially cut into profits. If the customer had been able to play earlier, "Who knows what he would have spent?" Beltram said. As it turned out, the high roller returned a day later, played the new game and wound up winning money.

But a lot of money is left on the table with low rollers as well. It’s just a matter of giving them what they want when they want it, Beltram said. "Throughout the day, there are more locals, so during the day we might have more video poker. At night, we might have more slots," he said. "Customers get stuck on themes they like," he said, and those themes can be programmed in.

Beltram said he expected the system to be in place by the end of this year or the start of next year.

Ed Rogich, spokesman for International Gaming Technology, said a similar test was taking place at a casino operated by the Barona Indian tribe, just outside of San Diego.

Regular slot players say they have mixed feelings about the potential for the centrally controlled games.

Some customers believe they’ll have more choice by downloading games from a large inventory of themes and denominations.

Skeptical players fear they will get the worst of it — from a payback percentage standpoint — and will no longer be able to return to "favorite machines," because the stand alone, dedicated machine will be a thing of the past.

More field testing and actual implementation may help clear up the cloudy areas.