Technology changes as LEDs displace neon lights and server-based gaming brings rapid game and denomination changes to slot floors. But the role of a good sign has stood the test of time


Technology changes as LEDs displace neon lights and server-based gaming brings rapid game and denominationchanges to slot floors.

But, said Dexter Phelps, general manager at signage manufacturer DID-- Distinction in Design -- the basic role of a good sign remains the same.

"The role of slot signage is to bring the customer to the point of sale, which is the slot machine," said Phelps, a former longtime slot director, at the Las Vegas Hilton and before that at Bally's Las Vegas.

"Signage is very important, and I say that as a slot guy. If you walk into a casino, and it's all soldiers [slot machines] standing in a row, what is that going to look like? That's not exciting at all."

But with the excitement signs help add, "when a customer comes into a casino, at first there's a data sensory overload. Colors are flashing all over the place. They feel the excitement and action, which is what you want," he said.

It's all about attracting attention to a bank of slots, said Mick Roemer, slot machine industry veteran who now is chief executive officer of his own development firm, Roemer Gaming LLC. "That's the same now as it was a hundred years ago."

But he noted that while the goal of getting the player to the game remains constant, the methods have changed dramatically.

"The criteria for a good slot sign really hasn't changed," Roemer said. "The technology has. You get new looks, and some sings that are able to hook to the central computer, with a graphics generator. Slot floor LCDs, and plasma screens give flexibility to the manufacturer and the casino. At a progressive bank, you can display only the progressive amounts,but video animation."

There is more need than ever for signage to help create excitement on the slot floor, said Gregg Solomon, chief executive officer of Detroit Entertainment LLC, which owns and operates the MotorCity Casino in Detroit.

"The fact of the matter is, as we migrate to more server-based games and bonusing, and fully implement cashless gaming, we've lost a lot of the visual and tactile feedback that helped create a winning experience. MotorCity has been doing pretty much every form of bonusing since 1999, and we've learned that if you don't replace the energy, you're left with a dry, unrewarding atmosphere."

To pump excitement into the slot floor, MotorCity has worked with manufacturers for a blend of signage, lighting, sound and video, all linked by a DMX controller, to make winning an interactive celebratory event.

"At MotorCity," he said, "when there's a bonus award, depending on whether it's property-wide or in a specific area, all the color ceilings are changed in that section of the casino. The LEDs on all slot signs flash and rotate. All are tied to a video prerecorded on Mpeg files, all to support the big event that just occurred." MotorCity used a number of sign manufacturers --Yesco, E-gads, Mikohn -- and all were told by MotorCity what technology would be used, that there was a DMX controller, an Ethernet system and that it all had to work together.

That gives MotorCity the flexibility to change directions quickly, which is important, Solomon said, in an era where game themes rise and fall from popularity so fast that his casino no longer uses areas themed to specific games and where with server-based technology, game and denomination can be revamped in five minutes.

Chuck Hickey, vice president of slot operations at Barona Valley Ranch casino in Lakewood, Calif., said signage fulfills multiple functions, guiding players and creating movement around casino floors.

"One of the things I think is important about a sign is as a location beacon, a rendezvous place. 'Meet you at the big sign,'" Hickey said. "We like having customers lost in the joint, but with a comfort level that you can find your way. You need a recognizable rendezvous, a place that will give your bearings. It can be a point or a series of points, so that if customers have found a restaurant once and they like it, they can find it again or find their slot machine again."

Signs can also turn heads, Hickey said."There was a theory, and I don't know how valid it is, that when a right-handed person enters, he tends to turn left, and a left-handed person turns right. A sign can make you turn your head, and if it can make you turn your head, it can entice you to follow in that direction. It can be flashing lights, a cool-looking sign, or just a light level change . Some of what's being done to create that movement today is driven by technology change, with LEDs and the capability to add video to enhance marketing messages as well as drive customers around the slot floor.

At Barona, Hickey has a package of 55 signs that he says were prompted by the addition of server-based games. "One thing we've done here are 55 signs (manufactured by DID) that were caused by server-based," Hickey said. "They're little denomination toppers and use LCD-driven compact flash. We can change signs, from pennies today to nickels tomorrow, and we can do it quickly.

There's no changing of Plexiglas. With modern sign technology, he said, "You can put the graphics of the game on the sign, show movies of the bonus rounds or animate the reels spinning, and you can do it relatively quickly. You can't do that with a backlit sign. On weekends, we have server-based games that are multidenominational with nickels, dimes and quarters, and on weekdays, they're pennies, 2-cent and 5 cent. The change has to happen right away.

"The signs can be part of interacting with your guests. When you come up with a winner, you can mount the video of the winner on top as you write check. You can broadcast an interview. It becomes a more interactive event."

As with the signs to accommodate server-based games, Barona turned to DID for three new 23-foot-long signspromoting its new Power Payout mystery jackpots.

"One thing I like about DID is deliverability," Hickey said. "We were looking for a quick turnaround, and DID sends a designer to work with you. You can sit down and work with them, and tell right away if they're close or if they're on the wrong track. You look for someone who can build and deliver, and last, but not least, is the cost."

At AC Coin, where the focus is on high-end product, designed for individual casino needs rather than mass production, vice president of sales and marketing Chris Strano said he sees signage as a way of adding excitement to casino floors at a time when the natural sounds and fervor of coins clattering in trays has been replaced by noiseless ticket-in, ticket-out technology.

"Signage used to be a way of just directing people," Strano said. "Now signage is actually being used as a way to move people and you can advertise (winners or amenities). Everybody loves to see a winner. We feel the industry is using bonus games and signage to kind of add excitement back to the floor."

One of the things a good sign package can do, he said, is to help create special areas with their own feel on the casino floor.

"It's the store-within-a-store concept, like Craftsman within Sears," he explained. "This is something Casino Windsor did very well, before they were re-themed to Caesars. They made a distinction within the casino, the nickel area was the Nickel Mine, and there was Blue Street and Beach Bash, that store-within-a-store feel."

Paul Barker, creative design manager at WMS Gaming, sees signage as an increasingly important portion of the slot experience.

"No longer is signage just a way to attract players, it has become an integral part of the game," he said."With our community gaming branded themes, banks of games are linked to an overhead sign which is capable of displaying multiple bonus rounds during game play to give players a 'larger than life' experience. Casinos will need to think about the additional requirements needed to accommodate these types of games/signage."

Community-style games and multitiered progressive jackpot games topped with plasma displays help liven the casino, Roemer noted.

"There is a movement on the slot floor toward community-style games," he said. "The celebration element is very successful. You have the multilevel jackpots, Bally Hot Shot, IGT Fort Knox, Millioni$er from Aristocrat. People at the slot bank see others win. That goes back to Bally's classic Blazing 7s. It hits very frequently, and when one player is successful, you can feel the energy and excitement, like 'I can win too.' The overhead displays emphasize that excitement."

Strano points to the signage with AC Coin's community games. "In one community game, we're actually incorporating the signage into the game. If someone hits a SuperSlotto ball, you can see what station it's on and whether the player hits the jackpot. It's actually tied into the game. You're going to see more of that." And with the increasing roles for signs are coming increasing options.

"Technology is always evolving and becoming less expensive, which opens the door for multiple design options. Not only do the sign designs have to fulfill the needs of that current project, thoughts of how a sign can be refurbished for several game themes down the road need to be considered," Barker said. "Color-changing LEDs, swapping out sign faces, and even designing signage to be more modular will allow the sign to take on a completely different look while keeping costs to a minimum."

Erika Kogler, promotions coordinator at Atronic Americas, said she sees growing demand for customization.

"In general, casinos are expressing a need for more customization of sign packages," she said. "For example, some casinos have a corporate standard for signage that must be maintained. Therefore, instead of purchasing a sign from a manufacturer, they will purchase a custom-designed sign based on their specific needs from a third party. In addition, there are smaller casinos that do not have the luxury of room for a dazzling sign display and will also seek a smaller custom sign and use the same method. We, the manufacturer, request that we have final approval of all artwork to ensure that the design standard forrepresenting our products is maintained.

"Technology is definitely having an impact. For example, the introduction of flat-screen LEDs has made a definite difference in the sign package offerings to casinos. Atronic now uses these to display video loops to promote the product and display progressive values. For example, King Kong Cash has a very impressive video loop, which incorporates movie scenes and loud Kong roars when a player enters into the bonus round."

But while the technology is important, older elements such as neon and Tivoli lights still have a place in modern signage.

"There's been a rush to video and LCD on a sign, but that alone doesn't make it a great sign," Roemer said. "With LCD what your really have is a TV screen, and what makes it a great sign is content, not technology. Neon and other lights are also very important. LCD on its own can be a bland look. It's a tool, but tools have to be used in the right way. Neon adds brightness, and LCD adds movement. Neon, you can see from 100 feet across the floor. I'm a believer in neon."

But neon no longer stands alone in adding excitement to the floor.

"The days of just big, bright neon have gone," Strano said. "The industry is definitely moving away from having stagnant signs. We're seeing major changes."