Ahead of the class
What makes a slot machine a slot machine?
Federal regulators say it's how the game looks. Casino tribes say it's how the game works. Therein lies one of the biggest controversies roiling the Indian gaming industry.
The conflict stems from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) passed in 1988. The IGRA defined two types of games: Class II (bingo and pull-tabs) and Class III (slot machines and table games). Tribes had to negotiate a state compact to operate Class III games but could operate Class II games freely.
As manufacturers developed Class II games that looked like slot machines, states complained that tribes were skirting the compacting process. In response, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) ruled against some slot-like bingo games. In addition, the Department of Justice claimed jurisdiction over any "gambling devices" that weren't Class II machines.
When the courts got involved, they declared that what mattered was the underlying game played (bingo), not how the machines looked (like slots). Gaming tribes felt vindicated. Despite losing several cases, however, the federal government has proposed rules to curtail devices that resemble slot machines too closely.
But game-makers and their customers aren't letting the regulatory uncertainty slow them down. While they wait for the agencies (and probably the courts) to sort things out, they're forging ahead.
Mix and matchOne major area of innovation is the move to common standards and protocols.
Charlie Lombardo, senior vice president of casino operations for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, heard of one tribal casino running eight to 10 systems on its floor. Each one was color-coded; patrons could use blue tickets only in blue-coded devices, for example. "Imagine the nightmares for your customers," said Lombardo. "Imagine the nightmares for your accounting department and your employees and everybody else."
To address problems like this, IGT, the leading slot-machine producer, has distributed its SAS and SuperSAS protocols to developers. Meanwhile, the Gaming Standards Association, which IGT has rejoined, is promulgating its Best of Breed (BOB) and System to System (S2S) protocols.
As manufacturers write to a common language, their games and systems are starting to talk to each other. The result may be something like the PC world. Everyone's hardware (bill acceptors, ticket printers) and software (player tracking systems, accounting systems) will work together.
"What we're looking for is something that's going to be seamless to the customer," Lombardo said. "One ticketing system, one player tracking system, one back-end accounting system."
The Seminoles deal exclusively with IGT, Bally Gaming and Rocket Gaming, who seem to be leading the pack. IGT's Class II devices communicate with anybody's ticket-in/ticket-out or player tracking system. Bally's Bally One system lets operators consolidate ticketing and reporting systems from up to eight vendors. Not only does this reduce auditing and accounting costs, but a single ticket system can increase play 10 percent.
Companies such as Video Gaming Technologies are also working on merging their systems. "This year our big push has been in integrating the games with traditional casino management systems," said Aaron Rubin, VGT's director of marketing.
Integration is "definitely in a casino's best interest," he added. "This opportunity to integrate everything into one central location is a tremendous time savings."
Get down with itAnother area of innovation is making the games downloadable. Bingo games are already server-based, since they link players across machines. With downloading, an operator can electronically change a game's themes, denominations or max bets because the software resides on a generic "box."
If a game is underperforming or has reached the end of its life cycle, this function "creates incredible efficiency for the slot floor," said Gina Lanphear, marketing manager at Cadillac Jack. An operator can switch titles "without having to rearrange machines on the floor (or) call in service people to literally go inside the machine and change out game assets."
Downloading is important to clients like the Seminoles. The tribe is hoping to upgrade its whole class of games. "If we buy any games, we want everything to be downloadable compatible," said Lombardo. "Whether it's available today or not...we want to be able to go in that direction."
IGT and Bally are among the manufacturers whose systems have the capability to download games. These firms are testing downloadable products and getting regulatory approval in various jurisdictions. But Cadillac Jack says all its games, whether Class II or Class III, are downloadable already. Casinos can port any Cadillac Jack title to a particular unit in just one or two minutes.
"I think what you're going to see is...Class II and Class III come together," Lombardo said. "It'll be seamless at some point." Steps in this direction include IGT's AVP and Bally's Alpha OS platforms. These new operating systems let operators upgrade a Class II game to Class III on the same box.
Games people playOf course, people go to casinos for the games, not the technology.
Every developer seems proud of its game collection. For instance, IGT has migrated almost every recognizable title in its library-Wheel of Fortune, Double Diamond, and a hundred more-to its Class II platform. Multimedia Games, another Class II giant, touts its "games people love to play." Cadillac Jack touts its Dr. StrangeLuck, with a bonus round featuring Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, and Rock, Paper, Scissors, a nostalgic game based on the children's contest.
Manufacturers are switching from mechanical-reel to video games with LCD and touch screens. As their products go digital, the sound and graphics will continue to improve. Bally is field-testing its Cinevision cabinet, which offers players "the most immersive gaming experience to date."
One area where Multimedia is pushing the envelope is speed. Its games require only two touches: one to start the action and one to stop.
"Multimedia probably has the fastest Class II games in the marketplace," said Michael Lombardi, a tribal gaming consultant, "and speed counts. That's what players want. They don't want to sit around. That's what makes a Class II game competitive with a Class III game."
In contrast, IGT stresses its adherence to regulations. IGT's models require three touches-to start the game, daub the numbers, and claim a prize-and display the bingo card prominently in a separate window. These traits may well become the standard for complying with NIGC regulations, said Lombardi.
Charlie Lombardo doesn't see any major differences between the vendors' products. He wants to know about the companies behind the cabinets. What kind of engineering skills and technical support staff do they have? What can they provide that others can't?
"That's really where it's at in today's world," he said. "What kind of support are you going to get for that box?"
Back to the futureOne vision holds that the Class II field is evolving like computing did. Once there were many proprietary, stand-alone computers and peripherals that couldn't communicate with each other. Now PCs are interchangeable workstations that get much of their power from connecting to networks and the Internet.
Similarly, Class II games will run on any hardware and work with any software-ticketing, player tracking, accounting or marketing devices. Other functions will be equally enhanced. Visitors will insert their cards and get a menu of favorite titles to choose from. Money will come from an ATM card reader or from "smart cards" with stored funds (subject to problem-gambling restrictions, naturally).
Despite some clouds on the horizon, then, there's no turning back. Class II vendors agree that the future looks bright.