Jan. 9, 2003
Slots hit the jackpot with new technology.

How times change. Slots of old, as shown in the photo (top) courtesy of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, gave ladies something to do while their men played table games. Now they are the money-making powerhouses.
Most casino players today head straight for the slots. But it wasn't always that way. Early mechanical "one-armed bandits" were simply a way to entertain the ladies of high-rolling gentlemen playing table games. But the late 70s and early 80s saw slot machines emerge as moneymaking powerhouses. In fact, since 1981, slots have been the main game in town, raking in more money for Las Vegas than their table-game counterparts. With the shift came highly sophisticated computer-controlled machines able to generate attention-grabbing bells and whistles.

Slots were once relatively simple mechanical systems with three old-style spring-loaded reels supported by a shaft, which was attached to a handle. Pulling the handle sent the reels spinning until braking mechanisms inside stopped them by locking into slotted discs, also connected to the reels.

By all outward appearances, slots today look much like those of the past but that's where the similarities end. New-generation machines are essentially independent computers, controlling every function from accepting coins and initiating play to determining game-winning combinations. Each jackpot hit is decided by the machine's computer chip programmed to generate random numbers that eventually tell the reels where to stop. The random element ensures that with each pull, players have an equal shot at hitting the jackpot.

How it works: Random number generator (RNG) software constantly produces numbers -- actually pseudorandom, based on a number-generating formula -- from one to several billion at the rate of several hundred per second. As soon as a player pulls the arm or presses the spin button to begin a game, the computer stores the next few numbers produced by the RNG.

Flow analysis, not just for fluids

Placing the latest, greatest, most-advanced gaming machines in the right location is a challenge now met through CAD. The way a casino floor is designed could mean the success or failure of a game. IGT represents software called seePower from Compudigm International Ltd., Las Vegas, that lets casino owners track traffic flow through a casino, determining, for example, what games specific categories of players gravitate to, how much they play, and where they move to. What casino operators see looks a bit like a weather map. In one example, a screenshot shows banks of slot machines next to red contours that indicate heavy play, while blue/gray contours show cooler zones. "Casino floor design and slot placement are major elements," explains IGT's Ed Rogich, marketing vice president. "Casino operators have to ask themselves, 'Which of the 2,000 machines and five different companies, offering 10 new games a month, do I put on my floor? Where do they go? What stays and what goes?'"

seePower software takes the massive amounts of data casinos collect and transforms it into user-friendly pictures, explains Andrew Cardno, Compudigm's president and chief executive officer. Inputs to the program come from information gleaned from player-tracking cards, which show players' movement over time. "The key output," explains Cardno, "is a moving heat map showing player-movement patterns. Operators use this to connect individual player patterns to individual machine behaviors."

Many casinos are seeing the benefits of such software. For example, seePower is a component of Harrahs' slot-floor management system. A Harrahs' spokesperson says the tools, in use at The Rio in Las Vegas, helped that casino's slot team revise its mix of machines so they were more compatible with the preferences of its best customers. The result: slot win in Q3 at The Rio was up 12%, even with 400 fewer slot machines. (The team cut the number of machines on the floor to make room for other offerings.) Overall, slot win per unit at The Rio jumped 45%.

Percentages mean a lot in the gambling world. Gaming machines are built on, and regulated by, payback percentages or how much money gets paid back to players from the amount the machines take in. Casinos keep a running tally of these numbers and report back to the gaming regulatory bodies on a weekly basis. Most gaming jurisdictions require payback percentages to be a certain level (usually about 75%), but actual percentages are usually much higher due to intense casino competition. The general rule of thumb is, the more a player bets on each spin, the higher the payback percentage. For example, dollar players get a higher payback percentage, typically 93 to 97%, then, say, nickel players because they are wagering more money. Slots are often called "loose" or "tight" depending if the payback percentages are high or low, respectively.

Pull the handle, cross your fingers
Modern slot machines create the illusion that pulling the arm determines the outcome. In reality, it is the computer that determines where the reels stop and who wins when. With the random numbers captured, a computer program reduces them (one for each reel) to a certain range. The result from that calculation is used to address a stored table of numbers in the computer. Those numbers correspond to stop locations on the reels. By manipulating that table, odds of winning increase or decrease.

For example, suppose the random number is reduced to a range from 0 to 31. This can be thought of as a virtual software-generated reel that has 32 stops. Now suppose the actual reel you see has only 10 stops. The virtual wheel value serves as an address to access one of the 10 stops stored in the table. Because there are more virtual stops than actual stops, several virtual stops correspond with each actual stop. But typically, the top payout symbol or stop on an actual reel corresponds to only one virtual stop.

The odds of winning correspond to the number of virtual stops, not actual stops. So in this example, the odds are not one in 10 of hitting the jackpot logo, but one in 32 (32 virtual stops compared to 10 actual stops). That is true for each reel. If it is a three-reel machine, the odds of hitting the top jackpot are one in (32 3 32 3 32), or 32,768. For higher-jackpot games, the division number (and virtual stops) may be higher -- typical division numbers are 32, 64, 128, 256, or 512.

The computer also controls stepper motors that drive the wheels to display symbols corresponding to the value drawn from the numbers table. The result is a configuration of symbols. If the reel configuration matches the stored winning configurations, the computer instructs the machine to pay out. If not, you've helped the casino stay in business.

The introduction of computers into slot machines allows all manner of bells and whistles. These include the ability to bet straight from credit accounts without the need for coins, and tie into casino slot-accounting and similar systems.

Bright lights, big city

With so many machines to choose from, players often look for something familiar or glitzy that shouts, "Come over and play me." Many times they find it in electronic game toppers. In that vein, Durel Corp., Chandler, Ariz. (www.durel.com), (an affiliate of 3M and Rogers Corp.) developed electroluminescent (EL) lamps specially designed for backlighting gaming machines. The lamps are said to be bright and white in color, offering long life, low power consumption, and uniform backlighting. They are suitable for machine toppers, slot glass, and gaming-machine billboards.

Durel's EL lamps, made from proprietary phosphers, distribute light evenly over an entire surface. This eliminates hot spots that degrade graphical details, an important consideration in graphically intensive gaming machines. The EL lamps save space, claim Durel officials, because each lamp package is less than 0.025-in. thick. Also, EL is a cool energy-saving alternative to conventional hot bulbs.

The lamps can be attached to the back of graphic glass with flat C-channel clamps or adhesive, saving room as compared to large fluorescent-bulb cases. The EL technology provides thin two-sided illuminated screens that can be moved from machine to machine simply by unplugging two wires and moving the lamp and driver, or power supply, which plugs into a standard 110-Vac outlet.

Slots of choices
Wheel of Fortune, one of IGT's wide-area progressive slots, is one of the most successful games ever launched, says Rogich. One reason may be the chance for bonus play on a mechanical spinning wheel resembling the hit game show version, but much smaller, that sits in the top box. The machine is a basic three-reel spinning slot but with an additional spin symbol on the third reel that initiates a bonus round. Players get a chance to spin the wheel and win more money than what they may have already won on the reels. IGT recently kicked it up a notch, so to speak, with its newest Wheel of Fortune Special Edition. Though still a basic reel-spinning game with mechanical wheel, the new-generation system has added whiz-bang features including a touchscreen, hardware-accelerated real-time 3D graphics, 32-bit color (more than 16 million colors with 8-bit alpha channel allow for over 4.2 billion color combinations), and 32-channel hardware mixed digital stereo sound. (Only 256 colors were available with the older system).

Another enhancement: live streaming video. "Our games must be able to perform on demand," says Rogich. "Live streaming video on a computer sometimes causes glitches or hang-ups when downloading. To put this capability on a slot machine means the video must be available at the touch of a button, without any delays, and must perform consistently in a heavy-play environment." To avoid any downloading snafus, machines needed more storage capacity than possible with EPROM chips, so IGT developed a new PC-based processor called the AVP platform with hard-drive storage.

Bringing live streaming video to slots adds extra excitement to the games and keeps players in their seats longer. (Imagine getting encouragement or playing instructions straight from Pat Sajak and Vanna White.) IGT only recently rolled out AVP technology. Some of the features of AVP include a high-resolution digitally controlled color monitor with up to 1,280 3 1,024 resolution, a DVD ROM drive, more than 40 Gbytes of high-speed RAM, AGP video with hardware 3D rendering, high-speed Ethernet, a modular serial communication system adaptable to any gaming/lottery system, and USB for use with new peripherals such as the standard multicolor LED-lighted monitor bezel. AVP also offers new technologies including electronic configuration keys (ekeys) used for securing menu pages, advanced verification software, controlled nonvolatile RAM clears, and authorized CD/DVD ROM-based software installation.

Tickets, pleaseBeyond the technology of the games is the technology of the casinos. That same machine producing millions of colors, 3D animation, stereo sound, and live streaming video must interact with player-tracking techniques, accounting procedures, and alternate payout systems. For example, new coinless slot machines using Ticket In/Ticket Out (TI/TO) technology are popping up everywhere. Instead of paying players with coins from a hopper, machines with TI/TO systems dispense a ticket that can be played in other coinless machines or exchanged for cash.

IGT developed what it calls the EZ Pay Ticket System. Touted as being more versatile for players and operators alike, EZ Pay cuts down on hopper fills, simplifies hand pays, and supports selectable-denomination gaming. This lets casino operators program a machine to pay a portion of its payout in coins and the rest as a ticket, or pay the entire amount via ticket or hopper, depending on the payout limit. The system, says Rogich, provides all transaction processing, auditing, and reporting associated with the tickets, and integrates that with the casino's existing systems.

Interestingly, with all the money changing hands and all the high technology in today's machines, the gaming industry had no standard form of communication for its equipment until recently. Without standards, manufacturers were developing their own proprietary forms of communication, which often couldn't "talk" to other gaming equipment without interpreters. Leading gaming manufacturers, suppliers, and operators stepped up to the plate, forming the Gaming Standards Association (GSA) in 1996.

Who wants to be a millionaire?

With average jackpots reportedly above $80 million, and the potential to reach north of $500 million, Mega Millions is a big fish among noncasino-based gambling. The multistate (nine) jackpot lottery game boasts a minimum jackpot of $10 million, nine ways to win, and overall odds of 1 in 43 of winning a cash prize. Live drawings take place every Tuesday and Friday in Atlanta, Ga.

Here's how Mega Millions works: Players select five numbers between 1 and 52, plus a Gold Mega Ball number from an additional pool of numbers between 1 and 52. During the drawing, two lottery machines mix separate sets of balls between 1 and 52. The balls drop into a chamber where paddles, spinning in opposite directions, mix them. Under the watchful eye of an optical sensor, the correct number of balls passes through a sliding door and into a clear tube. Five balls are drawn from the first machine, and one Gold Mega Ball is drawn from the second. Players win if they match three, four, or all five numbers drawn. They also win if they match only the Gold Mega Ball, or one, two, three, or four numbers plus the Gold Mega Ball. Players win the jackpot if they match all five numbers and the Gold Mega Ball.

Odds of winning the jackpot? One in 135,145,920, much less than being hit once by lightning in your lifetime (1 in 685,000). But all is not lost -- you have a much better chance of taking home that jackpot than being hit by lightning twice (1 in 469,225,000,000).

The purpose of the GPS, on the other hand, is to help slot machines communicate with their own peripheral devices inside, such as bill validators, card readers, and ticket printers. Essentially, says GSA, it gives peripheral devices one command set to communicate with the host slot machine.

The BOB standard is designed to help slot machines communicate with the casino-management system, says GSA. It's based on standard computer technologies, such as Ethernet, TCP/IP, and XML, so that casinos have no trouble accommodating future technologies like downloadable games. GSA also adopted IGT's proprietary SAS protocol in 2001 as a specification. According to GSA, this is currently the most commonly used communication protocol in the industry between slot machines, their interface board, and backend systems.

IGT also recently launched SAS 6.00 at the Global Gaming Expo, which has been adopted by GSA as an official specification. The new protocol lets gaming machines and slot-accounting systems interconnect, and secures data transfer between the gaming machine and an online monitoring system. "The SAS 6.00 protocol is unique in that it was developed with the input of both manufacturers and regulators," says Rich Schneider, GSA vice chairman. One highlight of the new version is an authentication function that lets operators and regulators remotely interrogate gaming machines for memory-verification information, for both game programs and peripheral devices, says GSA. Also the enhanced Advanced Funds Transfer feature permits transferring player money and promotional credits back and forth between the online monitoring system and gaming machines.

The new protocol, says Rogich, will soon make its way into all casino systems as regulatory approvals are obtained. That, he says, will give operators additional choices, such as using tickets, promotional cards, debit cards, and other forms of cash instruments securely and reliably across the slot floor. IGT already has begun working on incorporating the new GSA protocol standard into EZ Pay and other slot-accounting systems. Says Ali Saffari, GSA board member and vice president of Firmware Engineering for IGT, "The SAS 6.00 protocol gives the industry a solid footing for all forms of cashless gaming, which is the future of the industry."

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