Slot milestones

Jul 27, 2004 6:16 AM

Slot machines have come a long way since Charles Fey unveiled his pint-sized Liberty Bell slot in San Francisco in the 1890s. Today, slot machines — in all of their various forms and functions — represent the poster child of modern commercial gaming.

In fact, slot machines set the pace for casino gaming throughout the country. It’s been 20 years since slot revenue caught up with and overtook table revenue in the average Nevada casino. In some places, such as at Station Casinos, slots account for nearly 85 percent of the casinos’ win.

The evolution of the slot machine can be traced to a handful of key technological advances. Before examining the top 10 innovations that helped shape the industry, here is a brief look at the origins of the one-armed bandit.

In the late 1800s, there were several devices that could be called "slot machines." Some were very large and cumbersome and more closely-resembled pieces of furniture than gambling devices.

The first of the reel-spinning devices was Charles Fey’s Liberty Bell. About the size of a toaster, the Liberty Bell had three spring-loaded reels, each of which had 10 stops. When the handle was pulled, the reels would begin to spin, then after a short period of time the reels would stop in sequential order.

The player’s prize was based on the symbols that lined up on the reels: the top prize of 10 drinks was won when three liberty bell symbols lined up. Other prizes included cigars or a smaller number of drinks. The machine was operated with a single nickel.

Over the next 60 years, slot machines grew in size and stature, but they were still essentially cast-iron devices that spun reels and dropped a few coins.

But technology brought about huge changes that would help shape the slot machine into today’s marvel of electronic gaming. Here are 10 of the most innovative ones:

”¡ Coin hopper: Until the 1960s, slot machines stored coins in chutes and dumped them when a player lined up the right symbols. This method didn’t allow for very large jackpots — just a handful of coins at best. But Bally Manufacturing revolutionized the handling and sizing of jackpots when it introduced the coin hopper in the 1960s. The device allowed a slot machine to pay out hundreds of coins, accurately and quickly, and encouraged manufacturers to offer larger jackpots that could compete with more substantial payoffs in the casino.

”¡ Electro-mechanical slot: All the earliest slot machines were mechanical devices. But in 1964, Bally introduced its Money Honey electromechanical slot that eliminated the springs and levers that characterized its predecessors. Motors and other electrical components now did the spinning but, more important, electricity added bright lights, sounds, graphics and other features that attracted slot players like never before.

”¡ Video poker: In the early 1980s, Si Redd, a route operator with Bally Manufacturing, was touting an electronic game, video poker, which simulated a five-card draw poker game that was displayed on a video screen. Bally wasn’t interested, so Redd took his game to Reno, where he teamed up with a manufacturer, Fortune Gaming. Sales of the new game took off and in 1982, Redd took the company public with the name International Game Technology, which would grow to become the world’s largest manufacturer of gaming devices.

”¡ Stepper slot: At about the same time Si Redd’s Fortune poker machines were appearing in Nevada casinos, Universal Manufacturing engineers were perfecting a new kind of slot machine, one that used a "stepper" motor to stop the reels where the slot’s computer program told them to stop. The significance of the stepper slot is that it paved the way for mega jackpots (previously, the number of reel stops determined the odds and thus the size of the jackpots), and provided for more entertaining slot action, such as multi-line pay tables, and the use of "wild" symbols such as Double Diamonds and Wild Cherry), to name a few. Incidentally, Si Redd was so impressed with the stepper slot, he purchased the rights to the patent and used it to create innovative games for his new company, IGT.

”¡ Megabucks: In 1986, IGT launched its first "wide-area progressive" slot jackpot, Megabucks. The concept was revolutionary in that the system linked slot machines throughout Nevada to one, ever-increasing jackpot that paid off in the millions of dollars. Since then, IGT and others have introduced other mega-jackpot progressives, including IGT’s Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, Bally’s Thrillions and Aristocrat’s Millioni$er.

”¡ Bill acceptor/credits: Twenty years ago, most of the slot and video poker machines in Las Vegas accepted coins only. Moreover, most of them accounted for only the coins played and coins dumped — there was no provision for "storing up" credits and playing them little by little. That changed with the bill acceptor in the late 1980s, which for the first time allowed players to insert paper money into a machine, thus eliminating all those coin wrappers that littered the casino floor. Coupled with the bill acceptors was credit play, in which a machine’s credit meter kept track of a player’s net winnings — amount inserted plus awards minus spins — which could be redeemed at any time by hitting the machine’s "cash out" button.

”¡ Multi-game machines: In the early 1990s, Bally Gaming (formerly Bally Manufacturing) unveiled a landmark innovation, its Game Maker multi-game slot machine. The machine was unique in that it contained several different games that could be chosen by touch-screen controls. Not only were there different games, the games were of different genres. For instance, video keno players could choose from a variety of keno games, or go to a video poker game or even switch to a video slot game. IGT followed suit with its Game King series and the era of multi-game slots had begun in earnest.

”¡ Bonus rounds: Several manufacturers will lay claim to offering slots with bonus rounds, but no one perfected it like (nor had the influence of) WMS Gaming, whose Monopoly series of slots in the 1990s truly revolutionized modern slot play. The Monopoly game was unique on several levels. First, the slot screen would change to a new screen when the bonus round was accessed. This new screen was like a new game entirely, complete with its own credit meter and pay table. In addition, the Monopoly game introduced "scatter pay" bonuses, in which a player received credits for the appearance of various lucky symbols, whether or not they lined up on the payline.

”¡ Multi-hand poker: The popularity of video poker reached a plateau in the mid to late 1990s. There were innovations, such as Deuces Wild or Joker Wild poker, plus other outlandish (and ultimately uninteresting) games such as Deuces and Joker Wild Poker. But interest in the game reached new heights when IGT launched Triple Play Poker, a video poker game in which a player can bet three simultaneous poker games (a common dealt hand is paired with three separate draws from three different decks). The new game was an instant hit and spawned new multi-hand poker games such as Five- and Ten-Play Poker — there’s even a 100-hand video poker game!

”¡ Cashless gaming: Finally, the advent of ticket-in, ticket-out technology is currently sweeping casinos across the country. While players may claim they still love the sounds of coins dropping into a metal tray, operators have found that ticket-in, ticket-out provides for a more efficient slot floor where players don’t have to wait for hand-pay jackpots (except when a W2 is involved), they can move from machine to machine with ease and can cash out (often times at an unmanned kiosk on the casino floor) at will.