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One-armed bandits of tomorrow

A single one-armed bandit will soon be capable of serving up a variety of games, depending on the player's whim. Photos: Serving up slot games

If the typical Las Vegas slot player wants to switch to playing "Wheel of Fortune" after hours on a "Monopoly" box, he has to take his cup of quarters and go trolling for a different machine. But that's about to change. Where one-armed bandits have always been standalone devices with a single game hard-wired into their circuitry and rotors, the industry is getting set to unroll a new generation of machines in which the games will be stored on back-office servers and downloaded at the whim of gamblers.

According to executives from two of the biggest slot machine manufacturers, the so-called server-based gaming, or SBG, technology is slated to be the biggest news at next month's Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, the casino industry's huge annual trade show.


What's new:
When the gaming industry unrolls a new generation of slot machines next month, the one-armed bandit we've always known will become an anachronism.

Bottom line:
Server-based gaming could expand beyond the casino floor. Some even predict the technology will be as big a sea-change for the gaming industry as the Internet was for PCs.

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"The floor of gaming establishments in the near future will be changing drastically," said Ali Saffari, senior vice president of engineering at International Game Technology, or IGT, one of the largest makers of slot machines. "Quite simply, the machines are going to be slaves to the system."

What this means, essentially, is that slot machines will become little more than dumb terminals with games that can be changed on the fly by customers or at any time by casino officials looking to put the more in-demand games on casino floors when players want them.

Further, the gaming industry has in recent years standardized electronic loyalty club programs in which players carry cards that track what and how much they play in return for complimentary rooms, meals and other rewards. With SBGs deployed, casinos could also keep track of which games club members most like and have the machines offer those games from a menu when players insert their cards in a slot.

"It will allow your favorite games to carry with you no matter where you are," Saffari said. "The games can be downloaded in seconds."

By all accounts, this will be a major move in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, despite the fact that no one is exactly sure when the first SBGs will hit casino floors. Saffari said, however, that the roll-out should begin sometime after G2E and should be complete by 2007.

Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for MGM Mirage, which owns Vegas casinos such as Bellagio, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, the MGM Grand, Monte Carlo and others, said the company likely plans to deploy SBGs in the near future.

It gives MGM Mirage the "option to switch to an exciting new emergent technology that (offers) benefits for the consumer and the casino," Monet said. "This is definitely predicted to be (big) and is going to be seeing very wide use."

For casinos that currently have to devote significant man hours to maintaining individual slot machines suffering from broken or jammed rotors or to change out games during slow periods late at night, SBGs are likely to be a boon for efficiency.

Server-based slot machines

"It certainly could save the casinos some time if the games are able to be set up on the fly," said Charles Kimmel, deputy attorney general at the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. "For instance, if on a Saturday night, they decide they'd like to change from a 94 percent pay table to a 90 percent table...right now it would take hours and hours to make that change. And now they'd be able to do that much more expeditiously."

Kimmel said his agency has not yet had any SBG technology submitted to it for review, but said he had seen a demo from IGT. Still, he said he is optimistic that the new machines could provide regulators an easy way to ensure that the systems are hacker-proof.

"That is what we're there for, to make sure the system is as secure as possible," he said. "We're going to set standards (to ensure) the encryption method is as secure as possible.The rule will be they have to use the most up-to-date encryption process."

Indeed, Saffari said that IGT had developed a security protocol called SuperSAS, which he expects to become the industry standard for making sure hackers can't break into SBG systems.

He explained that IGT has spent months working on hardening SBG defenses and added that the system employs encryption methods used by the Defense Department.

"More importantly," he said, "we're going to have bi-weekly gatherings of all the nerds" to ensure a hacker-proof system.

Larry Pacey, senior vice president for product development at WMS Gaming, another large slot machine maker planning on introducing SBGs at G2E, said casino floors will eventually have an amalgamation of different companies' SBG technology. That should come as no surprise, he explained, since most casinos already employ slot machines from a wide variety of manufacturers.

"There will be one network on the casino floor that all gaming devices will plug into," Pacey said, "but they'll have multiple solutions running."

And regardless of whose technology casinos use, Pacey predicts that server-based gaming will be as big a sea-change for the gaming industry as the Internet was for PCs.

"This is really going to be a paradigm shift because it's allowing the technology to come of age the same way your PC has radically changed since it was networked," he said. "Those kinds of revolutions will happen in this kind of environment."

Saffari said the revolution will extend even beyond the casino floor. He described a scenario in which players could cart around wirelessly enabled handheld devices on which they could continue to play their favorite slot machine games even as they lounge by the pool. That would be possible, he said, because SBG systems could broadcast data via secure Wi-Fi networks anywhere on a casino property.

Meanwhile, because server-based slots will, at heart, be no more than gussied-up terminals, they won't have the ubiquitous spinning wheels of today's machines. At least not physically. Instead, explained Saffari, the devices would have digital screens which would mimic the look and feel of current machines down to the requisite dinging sound so familiar to anyone who has ever stepped onto a casino floor.

Thus, it appears, the revolution of networked technology is coming to a casino near you and everything that previously existed physically inside a discrete box will now be reduced to a few lines of code in a rack in some back room.