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November 21, 2014

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Slot makers pull together

New way of controlling machines forces competitors to cooperate

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Enlargeable graphic: A look at server-based slot machines

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As steel girders and shimmering glass define the exterior of the rising CityCenter, slot machine engineers and computer techies behind the scene are trying to figure out how to wire the casino of the future.

Their new slot machines will allow you to easily pick from a huge menu of games, order drinks, print show tickets and compete against others for jackpots — nice features for players.

But these devices also will let the house raise or lower the stakes as well as adjust payout percentages, depending on time of day or which convention is in town. That’s a sweet feature for the casino boss but might unsettle players.

This new-generation casino won’t have the thousands of free-standing boxes with hard-to-swap-out computer chips that fill today’s casinos. Instead, it will be filled with slot machines behaving like a network of personal computers with high-speed Internet access, linked to a computer server in a back office that will give players and the house alike unprecedented control over the slots.

Creating this new casino has required slot machine manufacturers to share protocols and specifications so their products can be networked, just as computer game makers agree on technical issues so their games can be played on the Internet.

“This is probably the most cooperative we’ve been in the industry,” said Ed Rogich, vice president of marketing for International Game Technology, the giant slot machine maker chosen by MGM Mirage to develop the computer server system at CityCenter. “And we’re doing this because we all realize this has great potential for our futures.”

Historically, slot machines have been governed by a discretely programmed computer chips in each device. To change a game, denomination or payback percentage, technicians must manually change the chip, which can take hours.

With souped-up hard drives and large bandwidth wires connecting to back-office servers, the new systems allow casino bosses to download games and other features within minutes, at the touch of a button.

Surely the biggest question among slot players: If my machine is red hot and I’m on a roll, will lights and sirens go off in the back office so management can cool the machine?

We’ll get to that.

The race to build server-based applications had been bumpy before companies agreed to cooperate. Concern over incompatible systems forced competitors that battle fiercely for business and often sue one another for patent infringement to work toward an industry standard that has yet to be proved. Major slot manufacturers are devising compatible server-based systems and games in the hope that casinos will be able to mix and match components.

CityCenter probably won’t be the first big casino to deploy slot machines networked on computer servers. Existing casinos are retrofitting their wiring systems to prepare to phase in the devices as they become available.

IGT doesn’t expect the server-based technology to be firing on all cylinders until after the still-unnamed casino in CityCenter is scheduled to open in 2009.

That’s partly because each version of a system and each application of it will require regulatory approval — a process that could take months or years. Also, casinos are reluctant to roll out new applications — especially on opening night — before testing them on a small scale first.

IGT began testing one of the first server-based systems four years ago at the Barona Indian casino outside San Diego and has introduced the technology with a small group of games at the MGM Grand casino in Detroit and a sister casino, Treasure Island, on the Strip.

The Pechanga Indian casino in Temecula, Calif., has installed a large bandwidth system capable of networking 4,300 slot machines and will introduce the new components as they become available.

Nevada adopted the first set of regulations for server-based gaming in 2005 and added to those regulations last year.

Although there doesn’t seem to be much controversy over the ability of a casino to change slot machine games at the push of a button — already, players frequently can select from a smaller menu of game options on the free-standing slot machines — there is more buzz about casino managers’ ability to change the games’ payback as well as the denominations of the games.

To prevent changes during play, the Gaming Control Board requires that a slot machine be inactive for at least four minutes before any aspect of a game can be altered from a casino’s central server. After the four minutes have elapsed, the machine would go into an inactive mode for another four minutes. During this time, the device would display a message notifying players that the game was being modified.

Bill McBeath, president and chief operating officer of CityCenter’s hotel-casino, says the technology will make the slot manager’s job, which is largely a trial-and-error process of regularly changing and testing new slot machines, much easier.

A casino could change some of its slot games during the week to video poker games, which are more poplar among locals. Casinos could change penny or quarter machines to dollar machines in anticipation of bigger crowds on weekends, much as they adjust table game limits, he said.

“Managing your floor is an art,” said McBeath, who ran the Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island casinos. “You want your floor to be dynamic. You want people who frequent your facility to see new product each time they visit.”

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