Sunday, March 14, 2010 | 3 a.m.
In an industry that seduces customers with gimmicks, perhaps no slot machine had ever been launched with such high expectations.
But then, never before had a slot machine been designed and marketed with so much Hollywood muscle behind it.
So there were a lot of eyes on the birth of the slot machine “Sex and the City.” Everything about that HBO megahit had turned golden. And the expectation was that this slot machine would, too.
For six seasons, “Sex and the City” explored the lives of a newspaper love-advice columnist and her three girlfriends. It was one of HBO’s biggest hits, winning a place in cable television stardom along with “The Sopranos,” “Hannah Montana” and, most recently, the hot vampire drama “True Blood.”
To continue cashing in on the franchise, in 2007 HBO’s sister company New Line Cinema began making the movie “Sex and the City.”
It was then that a “Sex and the City” slot machine was pitched by HBO’s licensing chief, James Costos, in a phone call to Nancy King, licensing manager at International Game Technology’s Reno headquarters. They agreed to meet at the Global Gaming Expo trade show in Las Vegas that November.
Merchandising for the film, HBO said, needed to be smarter than the typical tote bags and T-shirts bearing the series’ logo, beyond the martini glasses, beyond even the lingerie line.
What it wanted was a slot machine as seductive as the show. It would be nearly 9 feet tall. It would be interactive. It would have lots of pink and lots of sparkle, and men would love it as much as women. It would be expensive — costing thousands of dollars apiece to produce — yet would pay for itself many times over.
The gaming industry began embracing commercially licensed slot machines more than a decade ago after the initial success of IGT’s “Wheel of Fortune,” introduced in 1996 with the spinning, multicolored wheel and audio that replicated a studio audience chanting “wheel ... of ... fortune!”
HBO had previously partnered with an IGT competitor, Aristocrat Technologies, on a “Sopranos” slot machine in 2007. Although “The Sopranos” also was a megahit, it was less associated with easily identifiable products and brand-name icons than “Sex and the City” — a show that has been called “fashion porn” for its frequent costume changes and close-ups of haute couture accessories.
The “Sex and the City” machine could be decorated “with all these amazing fashion icons — making it glamorous and pink and pretty,” Costos recalls. “You look on the casino floor and you see spinning wheels with gambling images. Instead of traditional images, you would see shoes and diamond rings.” The show’s bossa nova-flavored title song would, of course, be the machine’s siren call, just as the winking Manhattan skyline at night was sure to work as one of its visuals.
IGT could hardly wait.
The “Sex” project surfaced at an opportune time for IGT. The company had just created a game design group focused on crafting its most elaborate and high-profile slot machines based on licensed brands.
HBO assigned a dozen of its people to work with IGT to review which icons, visuals and sounds to use and had the final say on the look and feel of the device. The slot company — eager for rights to a hit show with wide appeal from both sexes — was happy to follow the cable channel’s lead.
In the beginning, IGT decided the technical basics. The slot would be digital with virtual, rather than mechanical, reels. It would be a “penny” game with credit increments of 1 cent — a denomination that had years ago overtaken higher-denomination games such as dollar slots in popularity.
“We went through hundreds of decisions a day,” says Joe Kaminkow, IGT’s vice president of game design. “One thing for sure was that we would make the game pink.”
Kaminkow says he immediately figured the machine could be a hit with men because “Sex and the City” is about four beautiful women, and most men would pick any one of them over bananas and cherries every time.
He used to design video games for Sega, and even though most of the players were men, he created female avatars based on the same basic principle: “Guys like looking at good-looking women.”
But one of the bonuses of “Sex and the City” was that the TV show was a favorite of older women. Most slot players are women in their 50s and 60s.
Many slot machines, which are mostly designed by men, feature unisex, cartoonish images.
For “Sex and the City,” “we cranked up the estrogen,” Kaminkow says.
The designers used a process similar to “storyboarding” that directors use for films.
“Like every good movie you write out your plot,” Kaminkow says. “We put a lot of ideas on boards and eliminate ideas we don’t like. You say, ‘Who am I targeting this for?’ We had a large list of things we felt were important,” Kaminkow says.
They decided on a certain number of “bonus” games that players could win, which would unlock video clips and other features from the show. Frequent bonus rounds have become increasingly popular with gamblers who like being rewarded even as they lose money.
Although previous generations of slot machines might play only a handful of video clips, “Sex and the City” has faster processors and is able to compress data better, freeing up space for hundreds of video clips of various lengths. Designers spaced the clips to tease the players to gamble longer; to view all the film clips, a player might have to gamble for more than an hour.
Over a few weeks in 2008, videos, icons and sound effects were being layered into a prototype. Designers added a spinning wheel — a successful gambling concept since the first “Wheel of Fortune” games in the 1990s. For the “Sex” game, the wheel would, of course, sparkle while leading players to bonus rounds of the gamblers’ choice. In the midst of development, IGT’s design team decided to change the game’s appearance to fit its recently launched multiplay format, which encourages gamblers to play four games at once rather than just one.
The project was fast-tracked and less than three months after the design team began working on the machine, including many weekends and late nights fueled by takeout and fast food, it was all but built. Tweaking it would take another three months.
“It’s that 1 percent that takes 99 percent of the effort,” Kaminkow says. “It’s ‘This sound’s not loud enough’ or ‘That symbol doesn’t stand out enough. HBO says that pump wasn’t as sexy. The heel wasn’t sleek enough. That picture of Sarah wasn’t as good as this one.’ And we added sparkle. More sparkle.”
HBO bosses called Reno daily to review the smallest details, including the machine’s myriad shades of pink. Should the Manhattan skyline surrounding the slot be more pastel or dark fuchsia? Should this diamond or lettering have more glitter?
Kaminkow’s team pored over details, consulting wives, mothers and colleagues who watched the show.
“People think we’re just dealing with math, but that’s only part of what makes a game successful,” he says.
HBO vetoed certain video clips as not quite right. The companies agreed that only PG-rated content would be included. Each of the stars viewed the game and approved its content before release. Sarah Jessica Parker, for example, made sure a particular hairstyle and outfit of hers were showcased.
The manufacturing of a complicated gambling game can take at least a year, but the assembly-line speed was cranked up for “Sex and the City.” The machines had to be built and ready for use within nine months, in time for the December debut of CityCenter.
The first machines were unveiled in November at the 2009 Global Gaming Expo in the same way the most highly anticipated new cars are rolled out at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.
But at the Las Vegas trade show, instead of inspecting wheelbase and engine torque, industry veterans discovered “Sex and the City.” They sat in padded bucket seats transfixed by spinning reels of digital animation. They saw lots of pink, lots of sparkle.
They touched a video screen, opening leopard-print shoe boxes to reveal pairs of strappy heels in lime green. The jackpot meter flicked higher. The voice of actor Chris Noth, who played Mr. Big, boomed from surround-sound speakers: “Hey, that was well done.”
Above, a scene from the show plays in high-definition: Carrie Bradshaw, the show’s lead, played by Parker, is buying a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes for her last night out on the town with her lover, Mr. Big.
There’s little time for it to sink in. Pink cosmopolitans rimmed with red sugar fly by as diamond-encrusted hearts flutter and burst across the screen.
“Now that was fabulous, if I do say so myself,” Noth’s velvety voice proclaims.
Gamblers seem to agree with Mr. Big’s assessment.
IGT has hailed “Sex and the City” as one of its most successful launches and its biggest technical achievement.
About 150 casinos, many of them in Nevada, have at least one bank of these slots. That’s not as many as the all-time performer, “Wheel of Fortune,” yet more than many licensed brands can boast in their first few months. IGT has more orders in the pipeline.
HBO loves its “Sex” machine, too.
The cable channel won’t say how much money it’s making on them, but has declared the slots a financial success.
And new versions are being developed, even as a sequel to the “Sex and the City” movie began filming last year for a May debut.