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Downloadable slots on casinos’ horizon

Jun 8, 2004 5:22 AM

The next great advancement in electronic gaming is likely to be downloadable slot games, but they’re still years away from regulatory acceptance in Nevada and other U.S. jurisdictions.

That’s the consensus of opinion from experts in the field, who recognize the viability of server-based slot systems, but also understand the inherent security dangers as well as customer concerns.

Simply stated, a server-based system for slot games includes a library of games — in various denominations and hold percentages — that can be downloaded from a computer room or other location into any number of "generic" slot machines on the casino floor.

The casino could control the downloading of games, or the player could have the option of picking from dozens if not hundreds of game options.

The technology for server-based systems already exists, they are currently in production and they are even operating in limited usage outside of the U.S.

"It’s really just a matter of time before you start seeing regulatory approval in the United States," said Greg Shay, COO of Venture Catalyst Inc., a consulting firm to the casino gaming industry.

Shay said server-based slot systems create security issues and other concerns that must ultimately be addressed before regulators can begin to accept downloadable slots.

They include the need for high-powered computer technology that can safely and reliably deliver massive amounts of serial data; the danger of system intrusion or "hacking," similar to the Breeders’ Cup case two years ago when hackers broke into the pari-mutuel system and created a winning Pick Six ticket; and the assurance that slot games’ content and payback percentages could not be altered by whim of the operator.

The last factor is perhaps the greatest customer concern — that the casino has a switch in the backroom that can alter the game’s payback percentage or other characteristic without his knowledge, at any time — even while he’s playing.

"Casino customers like to believe the machine they play today is the same one they played yesterday," said Will McMaster, director of research and development for Gaming & Entertainment Group, which manufacturers a downloadable slot system for casinos.

McMaster added that benefits to the playing customer and the casino operator far outweigh the inherent security and logistic issues.

"Obviously, the operator has much more control — they can choose the games that will appeal to the players’ changing tastes, thus maximizing their income while reducing installation and maintenance costs," McMaster said.

The casino can also use server-based systems to offer spontaneous bonusing, a variety of personalized progressives and other promotions geared to their slot club members or other preferred customers.

"You can even have a system in which the player selects the game, the denomination, the language and type of currency to be used," he said.

As noted, players would have hundreds of games at their fingertips, but it’s not certain whether they would actually want to choose from such an extensive list.

"I might play several different machines, but they’re always the same game — deuces wild video poker," said a player at Palace Station, a Las Vegas casino that caters to the locals market.

Another player who likes the "traditional" reel slot machines said she often hops between Double Diamond and Wild Cherry, but would occasionally try a new game such as I Dream of Genie or The Addams Family. "There’s just so many of them, you’re better off picking a few and sticking with them," she said.

While some customers may not be willing to "cherry pick" from hundreds of games, the casino operator could at least use the downloadable library to pique players’ interest.

"Not only can the games be personalized for the player, but the casino marketing department can use the server-based system to target customers or offer their latest promotions," said Sylvie Linard, COO of Cyberview Technology, another company that manufactures server-based slot systems.

Linard, whose company has installed downloadable slot systems in several casinos outside the U.S., said the benefit to players and operators cannot be ignored.

"I think once the technology has proven itself — as is the case in some foreign jurisdictions — the approval time will begin to shorten, even in the traditional Nevada and New Jersey casino markets," Linard said.