Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Video Vegas

Allen Varney | 24 Apr 2007 12:02
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"On the other hand, with a few exceptions, the casino crew are even more inclined than videogame people to follow trends set by successful products. There is somewhat less pressure to innovate, and more pressure to make an airtight, bugless game."

Why such pressure? Like all slot makers, Multimedia has gone heavily into networking. "Progressive" slots offer top jackpots that increase as people play, and "wide-area progressives" link hundreds or thousands of machines, across a casino or a whole country, to offer giant aggregate jackpots. All the networked machines communicate with a back-end server.

Programmer Phillip Eberz writes server code for Multimedia. Like some other Multimedia coders, Eberz is an Origin alumnus; he worked on the Ultima series. He describes some differences between computer games and slots. "Video gambling development includes significant transaction validation and recording. A bug here can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in erroneous payouts or lawsuits. As financial systems, they also require extensive monitoring and control. Many gaming systems store screen captures of every gameplay result to aid in dispute resolution.

"Of course, federal and state law governs video gambling systems much more tightly than most other gaming. Occasionally, legal restrictions limit functionality. For example, the law tightly constrains whether a video gambling system can include skill-based play - e.g., hand-eye coordination play, or trivia knowledge tests." Slot makers pay testing companies like Gaming Laboratories International (GLI) to certify their software. Bids and contracts often specify a GLI compliance level, like GLI-11 or GLI-13.

Aside from legalities, slot designers must also think about the user experience in a way different (or is it?) from computer game developers. "The game payout matrices can become very complex when dealing with multiple betting options on multiple concurrent games," Eberz says. "The amount and frequency of the payout greatly affects the users' experience and enjoyment of the game.

"Suppose you and 99 other people play a lottery game for a one-dollar buy-in. In one version of the game, 45 people double their money, receiving $2. In another, only one person wins, but wins big, taking home $90. Which would you rather play? In either case, the game pays out the same amount - 90 dollars, or 90 percent of the pay-in. But each feels much different. A lot of marketing and complex analysis goes into deciding payout percentages."

One wonders how such analysis differs, if at all, from, say, Blizzard's analysis of loot drops in World of Warcraft.

***

Given the similarities between computer game and slot machine design, what can we learn from the gambling industry? Theoretically, computer game designers could pick up pointers on creating addicted players - though that is a touchy subject. Game security expert Steven Davis, on his PlayNoEvil blog, commented, "Game addiction is going to be the next big legislative target, now that game violence is a proven failure."

A better lesson? Videogame concepts and technologies are spreading widely into society. Video slot machines are a symptom of this propagation - likely an early symptom. In the years ahead, expect more devices to look and sound game-like. And if they sound like slot machines, be ready to buy earplugs.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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