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September 16, 2019

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Lure of high-tech slot machines

Slot machine makers unveil their jazziest to attract younger players


Justin M. Bowen

Exhibitors and attendees of the American Gaming Association’s Global Gaming Expo check out the newest slot machine offerings last month at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Despite the economic climate, the menu of new machines is as full as it was when gaming was booming.

Behind a temporary wall and a beefy security guard warding off interlopers, slot machine manufacturer WMS Gaming showed off one of its most elaborate prototypes at the casino industry’s premier trade show last month — a slot machine based on the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.

It is complete with spinning symbols of goblets and swords, a digital Gollum who moans “precious” and a screen resembling an ancient map of a world inhabited by wizards, elves and, of course, hobbits.

Gamblers who hit jackpots ascend “levels” that trigger movie clips and bonus games based on those scenes.

A bonus called the “Prancing Pony” incorporates a scene from the first movie in which the hobbits enter a tavern and encounter ghostly horsemen known as “Ringwraiths.” The ghostly screeches of the horsemen, programmed to stab beds in the tavern at random, blare loudly from Bose speakers embedded in the captain’s chair facing the slot machine. Gamblers touch the screen to select beds in the tavern, winning a cash bonus for each bed that remains unscathed.

Allon Englman, WMS Gaming vice president of game design and strategy, touches the screen and grins.

“This is so cool,” he says. “No one has anything like this.”

Amid the worst year in recent memory for the gambling business and at a time when few casinos can afford new games, slot manufacturers are introducing a slew of the industry’s most ambitious games — and are offering a similar number of new titles for sale or rent as were unveiled when the casino industry was booming.

They can’t afford not to: Older, longtime gamblers who preferred classic games are passing away, leaving younger casino customers who grew up spoiled by more high-tech forms of entertainment.

At the same time, casino profits are plummeting as gamblers have grown tight with their money or have less of it to spend.

In their quest to attract players who think slot machines are boring or fickle gamblers who quickly tire of new games, slot makers are taking cues from movie theaters, video games and home entertainment systems. Faster computer chips and more memory are powering some of the latest add-ons, which include layered graphics that create 3-D images, theater-quality sound and high-definition video.

Elsewhere at Global Gaming Expo, International Game Technology showed off a 103-inch, high-definition monitor flanked by two 40-inch LCD screens airing snippets of “American Idol” that hovered over a bank of slot machines.

The games attracted a crowd who watched Kelly Clarkson belt out “Respect.” It’s a group bonus round in which gamblers, sitting in cushy chairs outfitted with Dolby surround-sound speakers, can choose which “American Idol” judge they want to play and win bonuses based on how they rate participants’ singing skills. During another sequence, a player selects the venom-spouting Simon, who tells an off-key contestant his singing was “torture.”

Nearby, a bank of “Wheel of Fortune” machines with a similarly large screen overhead was instructing each gambler to take his turn picking a letter to solve a word puzzle. The more letters a player gets right, the bigger bonus he will receive when the big wheel from the game show spins.

Behind a curtain in the Aristocrat Technologies booth, a tattooed artist with long black hair and black fingernail polish discussed his latest creation: a slot machine called “Rockin’ Olives.”

Las Vegas-based Michael Godard, known for oil paintings of animated martini olives and decks of cards, spent thousands of hours drawing more than 80 images for the game and a storyboard of a plot that centers around a “rock star” olive who will smash his guitar, fly a jet or engage in other rock-star behavior throughout the game.

“I play a lot of video games, so I wanted this to be an engaging experience rather than just mindlessly pushing buttons,” Godard said. One of his favorites: “Call of Duty” — an elaborate video game in which players get to play a World War II soldier whose vision and hearing are impaired if he is hurt.

Godard’s slot machine is an experience in sensory overload: dwarfed by a large video screen with animated scenes of cheering olives and strawberries and surrounded by oversized plastic olives striking goofy poses. Symbols of microphones, guitars and speakers become animated as they spin about, making noise and appearing to speak.

It’s no accident that manufacturers are borrowing features from video and arcade-style games that have attracted legions of fans.

A few years ago WMS adopted a collaborative studio approach to designing slot machines common in the video game industry, in which independent groups of designers engage in friendly competition and share ideas to develop games. Under the watch of WMS’ Chief Innovation Officer Larry Pacey, a former Sega executive, WMS “studios” have sprung up in cities such as Chicago, Sydney, London and Las Vegas.

The “Lord of the Rings” slot allows gamblers to collect “trophies” as they play, such as battle armor and jewels. And in another characteristic of video game play, gamblers who have progressed through any of eight levels can save their games so they can advance to higher-level bonuses the next time they play.

Similarly, the WMS slot machine based on “Star Trek,” in which gamblers log “miles” on their trip across the galaxy, allows players to save their games with a protected login and resume where they left off. The goal of encouraging repeat play appears to be working, as the machines have stored the games of some 700,000 players since they were introduced a few years ago.

Bally Technologies, known for games with physical reels and iconic gambling symbols such as “Blazing 7s,” is entering new, arcade-style territory with a two-player game called “Meet Me in the Middle” featuring pieces that move around a game board as players gamble.

Gamblers sit side by side on a couch and share the same bankroll as they play individual games that converge for shared bonuses. This line of love-seat games, called DualVision, features footrests, cup holders, stereo speakers and high-definition graphics.

It’s a form of social gambling that appeals to many players, especially younger customers, who dislike the isolated experience of playing a slot machine, executives say.

Similarly, IGT is offering a slot machine based on the reality TV program “The Amazing Race,” featuring video and voice-overs with the show’s host guiding players through bonuses modeled after challenges on the show. A cluster of “Amazing Race” symbols on one player’s screen triggers a contest in which all players sitting nearby compete for a single prize. It’s among many slots that involve multiple players in bonus rounds — a trend that began a few years ago and is growing in popularity.

Aiming to attract the largest and most diverse group possible, casinos want traditional slot players to adapt to new technology that will eventually make old-line slots — those that bore younger players and people who don’t typically gamble — obsolete.

Some companies are attempting the transition by sneaking new technology into popular games from several years ago or introducing familiar technology with a few tweaks.

IGT’s newest product line lets gamblers choose from a menu of games including traditional video poker, digital slots that resemble mechanical reels and those with jackpot lines that zig and zag across the screen and images of cascading flowers or crashing waves that flash over virtual reels.

Fresh from a victory in its multiyear lawsuit with IGT over the right to use spinning wheels, Bally has launched many slots with wheels — a popular yet old-fashioned gambling symbol. But there’s a twist: Some feature touchscreens allowing gamblers to spin a virtual money reel to win a bonus. (Similarly, WMS lets players “throw” dice in a new version of its Monopoly-theme slot.)

Some of the latest slots have digital reels that look and sound much like the old ones did.

Like Bally, which offers a line of “Reel Image” slot machines that use a light-emitting diode projection system to create curved reels that resemble mechanical ones, IGT has perfected the realistic look of its faux reels, which wobble and bounce as they settle after a spin.

A new IGT slot called “Bombs Away!” features World War II-era pinup girls and other nostalgic aviation motifs, big band music and faux physical reels that would presumably appeal to older players. But other features are straight from video arcade rooms familiar to those younger than the Great Generation: During a bonus round, the reels disappear and are replaced by a flight sequence with 3-D symbols that appear to levitate over a landscape 10,000 feet below. The captain’s chair, featuring five audio channels wrapped about the head and a subwoofer implanted in the seat, shakes when players hit a bonus.

It’s still OK for the gambler to celebrate the old-fashioned way with a squeal or cheer.

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