You’ve seen all the Star Wars computer games, but have you seen the Star Wars: A New Hope slot machine? Sit down at the cabinet, put a penny in the slot, push the big lighted SPIN button and watch the video screen. While John Williams plays, five columns of images spin upward, then slow to a stop, revealing pictures of Chewbacca, droids, starfields and planets. If three or more pictures of Luke, Han or Leia show onscreen, they animate to show a movie clip, and the jackpot bell brings a clatter of pennies. But that’s not all.

If Darth Vader shows up on reel 1, and Ben Kenobi on reel 5, they duel. By pushing a button, you pick one to win, and if you pick right, you win more pennies. But that’s still not all.

Atop the machine cabinet, mounted on an axle, stands a big plastic Death Star. When you line up three Death Stars onscreen, the reels vanish and Han Solo appears, chased by stormtroopers. You push buttons to choose two stormtroopers; this lights two arrows on the Death Star globe. The globe spins, and the arrows point to bonus numbers that are added to your winnings.

But wait! If an arrow points to the Death Star’s superlaser, another round begins. You target enemy TIE Fighters chasing the Millennium Falcon; corresponding arrows light up, and the Death Star spins. If you get the superlaser again, you can now join a Rebel Alliance run on the Death Star. Target more TIEs to spin the globe a third time. If you get the superlaser, you destroy the Death Star and win the spoils of victory, 10 dollars.

Yes, this is a real casino slot machine (or, for British readers, a fruit machine) – a genuine, Lucasfilm-approved gambling device licensed and manufactured by International Gaming Technologies. IGT has a couple of other slots in its Star Wars series: Dark Side and The Empire Strikes Back, the latter featuring a big plastic Yoda. Gotta love the advertising poster for the Empire machine: “Become a hero you must. Win a million you could.”

Have you gone to a casino lately? Most slot machines are now videogames, with graphics and sound right out of casual games, licensed movies, TV shows and even food. IGT’s “Game King” machine licenses include not only Star Wars, but The Price Is Right, I Dream of Jeannie, Kenny Rogers The Gambler, Creature From The Black Lagoon, SPAM, TABASCO and (get this) Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys. IGT’s Soul Train slot machine, based on the 1970s music show, features the voice and image of host Don Cornelius, plus “an extensive cast of animated disco divas that dance to well-known R&B songs.” And while you drop nickels in the Alien slot machine, you can relive nostalgic memories of chest-bursters and facehuggers.

All these slot machines, as well as many hundreds of other non-licensed brands from a dozen manufacturers, have the same gameplay: Drop the coin; push the button; repeat. Like Star Wars, when you hit certain combinations, some machines offer little mini-games, which involve – pushing the button. Yay. What’s interesting is their insanely various frenzy and clamor and flash, their multifarious glitzed-up beckonings that could jump an ICU patient out of his coma. These video slot machines feel so much like old arcade games, you just know whoever makes them grew up playing Pac-Man and Defender and Frogger.

Hey, wait. These slot machine makers – they made Pac-Man, Defender and Frogger. Bally! Williams! Konami! What’s more, many of those who design and code today’s slot machines come from the hallowed early days of video and computer gaming.

Why?

***

Companies in the gambling industry – confusingly, they call it “the gaming industry” – tend to suffer at least mild disrepute, for reasons that hardly need rehearsing. But on their websites, slot-machine companies present upbeat corporate histories that read like Candide: Innocent entrepreneurs, just trying to make ends meet, repeatedly encounter tumult and calamities. Yet despite setbacks, these companies, being hardy and resourceful – they might say “scrappy” – pick up and move on, like gypsies.

Take Bally Technologies and WMS Gaming (formerly Williams). Though Bally has built slot machines since its start in the 1930s, both companies found their early fortune making pinball machines. In the late ’70s, coin-op video arcades devoured the pinball market, and these scrappy multi-million-dollar corporations (along with a new startup, Konami) adapted to the new business. (Bally/Midway: Space Invaders, Tron; Williams: Joust, Robotron; Konami: Gyruss, Time Pilot, Super Cobra.) They all made big bucks until the arcades dwindled, and then, as before, they moved on – to the richest field yet.

EGMs (electronic gaming machines) are a far, far bigger market than our own little computer and videogaming business. The gambling industry, of which EGM is a major part, is global. North America is the primary market, with gambling revenue of $84 billion in 2005. Forty-eight U.S. states, all but Utah and Hawaii, permit lotteries or other forms of gambling. The casino market in Europe is large, and the fast-growing Asian space includes Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Japan and, soon, Taiwan. But common wisdom has it that the world’s most fanatical gamblers are Chinese. Macau, a former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, is now the world’s largest gambling haven; its 2005 revenues of US$6.9 billion outstripped the $6.5 billion earned in Las Vegas. And all these casinos buy hundreds or thousands of slot machines and Video Lottery Terminals.

The arcade game makers were well positioned for this market. The first video poker machine appeared in the same year as Space Invaders, 1979. In both fields, manufacturers constantly pushed their technology, and over time they basically converged. Slots added microchips to improve randomness, while arcade stand-ups developed ever glitzier graphics. By the late ’80s, if you could make an arcade game, turning it into a slot machine meant hardly more than adding a payout trough.

Williams sold its first video slot in 1991. The next year Bally, which had already pioneered electromechanical slots in the 1960s, introduced Game Maker, which offered multiple video slot games in one cabinet. Konami survived the arcade bust better than the others and only entered the slot business later, in 1996. Konami has since made a splash of sorts: In February 2007, the government of Ontario pulled Konami machines for flashing subliminal jackpot messages.

Almost all new slot machines made today are video slots. Bally leads the market, along with IGT, Aristocrat Technologies and Atronic; smaller players include Konami, Williams and a dozen others. One of these, in Austin, Texas, has become a refuge, a reliable paycheck, for more than a few computer game developers: Multimedia Games.

***

Slot manufacturers occupy different niches in the gambling ecosystem. IGT is big in Nevada and Atlantic City; Aristocrat owns Australia. Multimedia Games sells mainly to America’s largest market, Native American reservations, and to the fast-growing $10-billion industry of “charitable” gaming (i.e., bingo). For years, the top-grossing slot on the reservations was Multimedia’s Meltdown, the first to feature music by none other than computer game music legend George “The Fat Man” Sanger. The Fat Man has since scored many Multimedia slots, including Good Mojo and, uhhh, Cash From Uranus.

Sanger contrasts slot creators with computer game developers. “Both groups are wonderful. In my experience, the casino guys are more businesslike and kinder. Crunch time is more gentle; there is more emphasis placed on loyalty and on the importance of family and charity. Their world is somewhat less rocked by the many ghosts of disappointments and failures that haunt the videogames workplace.

“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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