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Slots continue to evolve

Nov 25, 2003 12:47 AM

Gaming and gaming equipment are as old as recorded history. Illustrations of gambling games have been discovered on primitive cave walls. Dice were found in the excavation of Pompeii and the word casino comes from the "little houses" or "casini" where Venetian society gathered to play cards and make wagers during the Renaissance.

In comparison, slot machines are definitely a new diversion. Only about a century old, they started out as penny games that — if they paid players at all — dispensed trinkets, cigars or candy.

Candy payouts gave way to coins after the Jennings Company developed a jackpot bell machine in 1930 but, even as they became fixtures in many early Nevada casinos, slots couldn’t quite shake their reputation as a novelty.

And it’s easy to understand why when you consider the primitive one-armed bandit machines — a slot embedded in the belly of a wild West outlaw complete with six shooter as the handle — that showed up in booming Las Vegas after World War II.

Bally — an industry leader along with Mills, Jennings and Pace — introduced the granddad of the modern machine in 1963. It was a free-spinning reel slot that featured innovations such as an electrical bell, electromechanical circuitry and motorized hopper pay. In turn, the mechanical slot gave way to the electronic slot and that advance led to the first video and poker machines in the mid-1970s.

A new player, International Game Technology, was born in 1981 and rapidly proceeded to build a franchise for its products starting with the Fortune 1 line of video slots which were followed by the Fortune 1 line of Draw Poker machines. In 1983, IGT made history with the introduction of its first solid state spinning reel slot machine, the M Slot.

Early microprocessors, like those used in the M Slot, brought about the addition of lights and sounds. With electronics came additional enhancements: multi-line bets, double pays, five reel games, and Giant Bertha machines. The microprocessor also made possible embedded meters, which allowed for progressing "Giant Jackpots", a concept that would be taken even further in years to come.

IGT’s arrival in the marketplace coincided with a significant shift in the composition of the gaming floor. The lively table games of the original Ocean’s 11 were being challenged by an ocean of slots that were generating wave after wave of revenue.

In Nevada, for example, slot revenues exceeded table revenue for the first time in 1981, a trend that has become more pronounced as the years have passed. In 2002, slot win accounted for 66.4 percent of Nevada statewide revenues — more than $6.2 billion — making slots the dominant source of casino profits.

As more slots and bigger jackpots became the norm, casinos were plagued by a growing problem with slot cheats who had figured out how to manipulate the reels to make them stop on a jackpot.

In response, IGT’s revolutionary S Slot was born. The S Slot gave control of the game to the microprocessor that used a random number generator to secure the outcome on the machine’s computer. The system was further refined into the S-Plus, which brought about a variety of contemporary applications: multi—level progressives, creative linked configurations and enhanced audit trail functions.

IGT’s current S2000 spinning reel machine has added further enhancements like digital stereo sound, backlit reels, multi denomination capabilities, and easy-to-read displays. IGT has also added a separate, fourth reel — a bonus reel — on some games, and the new Reel Touch series, whose LCD in the machine’s top box bridges the gap between slots and video games.

IGT also took the progressive jackpot a step further with a wide area monitoring system that was first used on a new game called Megabucks, introduced in 1986. Still alive and well today, Megabucks links machines from various casinos to one progressive jackpot and offers casinos a larger jackpot than they can offer on their own.

Today, the concept of linked slots known as MegaJackpots is used on many different games. Some offer large annuitized jackpots such as the world record $39.7 million Megabucks jackpot won in Las Vegas in 2003; other games called MegaJackpots Instant Winners are paid immediately. The nickel Jeopardy! Video Slots, for example, offer an Instant Winner jackpot that starts at $100,000. The Beverly Hillbillies video slot debuted in 2003 as the first penny MegaJackpots system.

As slots multiplied on the casino floor, casinos began to rely on packaging the machines to differentiate themselves. Manned carousels were introduced to improve customer service by speeding up the exchange of customers’ bills for coins -- and do it with a smile. Manned carousels gave way with the arrival of the bill acceptor in the early 1990s, making more room on the floor for more machines. To enhance the appearance of the unmanned carousels, the neon signs that were a hallmark of a casino’s exterior began to show up inside, on the casino floor. Flashy interior signage can now exceed the cost of the machines themselves and is an integral part of casino floor designs.

Today, multi-line video slots are the hottest products found on slot floors, raising the entertainment bar to a new level with lights, colors and sounds unimaginable even a few years ago. At heart, most of them are simple slot games with a shinier package. The new ingredients include familiar songs from artists like the Beach Boys on IGT’s Catch a Wave or familiar pop culture icons such as The Addams Family characters, which not only light up the screen but also crown the huge oversized top boxes.

Beyond entertainment, service issues continue to fuel new advancements. Introduction of new multi-coin video games have led to problems with the time it takes to fill coin hoppers and hand pay winners. In response, IGT has developed the EZ Pay system that offers casinos a choice of coin or ticket payouts, and the tickets can be reinserted into other machines on the system. EZ Pay eliminates frequent hopper fills, meaning a machine is operational longer””a plus for the casino””and for players, cashing out is as easy as pushing a button. It also means new multi-denomination programs that work with EZ Pay will allow players to select what amount they want to wager””from one cent up to $25.

The gaming systems that support slots have also evolved. First introduced as a way to track play and assist with slot accounting, gaming systems now monitor the whole casino floor and can interact with other systems in the resort. Casinos can now offer players a single card, which can be used at any of their locations across the country to accumulate points, which are redeemable for comps, perks and even cash.

So what’s next? The possibilities are endless. With new entertainment offerings being introduced daily and technology continuing to advance, the evolution of the slot machine is very much alive.