ATLANTIC CITY — Server-based slot machines in Atlantic City have thus far been confined to a laboratory, as though they were some kind of weird science project or experiment.
But the latest version of slot technology will make its belated public debut in the nation’s second-largest casino market April 2, when the new $2.4 billion Revel resort opens its doors.
With a simple keystroke, computer programmers using a central server will be able to almost instantly change the themes, minimum bets and payouts at those slot machines.
With server-based gambling, slot themes can be tailor-made for casino crowds. For instance, a penny “Wheel of Fortune” slot machine that is popular with the senior citizens who frequent the casino during the day could be changed to a different theme, featuring higher minimum bets, to cater to the younger, bigger-spending gamblers at night.
One expert could hardly contain his glee, calling server-based slots the greatest technological leap in the casino industry since cashless slot machines replaced the old-fashioned, coin-operated models years go.
“The sky’s the limit, basically, for this technology. It’s exciting,” said Eric Weiss, director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement’s slots lab in Atlantic City.
The division’s engineers and technicians have been testing server-based slots in the lab in preparation for Revel’s opening. They have given their enthusiastic endorsement. Revel, though, will start cautiously, using the technology on only 100 of its 2,400 slot machines.
“This is nice technology,” said George Mancuso, Revel’s vice president of slot operations. “It is not going to be a game changer just yet. I think it’s going to evolve. I think we’ll take our time with it and see how the customers react.”
A software download that usually takes only seconds to complete will replace the tedious manual process now used for changing slot themes.
“There is a whole manual process that takes about 10 to 30 minutes per slot. Each time they want to change a theme or denomination, you have to go through the process again,” Weiss said of the labor-intensive way of physically opening up the machines now to change themes.
Afshien Lashkari, an engineer in New Jersey’s slots lab, gave a demonstration of how the technology works, changing a penny machine that featured a “100 Pandas” theme into a 5-cent “Cash Cove” game in a matter of seconds.
“You could add even more themes to the games. There are up to 40 on each machine,” Lashkari said.
Revel will use a system developed by International Game Technology, a slots manufacturing giant. In the process, Revel will have access to a library of 300 slot machine themes, Weiss said.
Mancuso explained that server-based gambling will give Revel more flexibility to meet customer demand. Although Revel will start with just 100 server-based machines, Mancuso estimated that about 20 percent of the casino’s slots inventory will convert to the technology within the first year of operation.
“It allows us to offer more variety,” Mancuso said. “We’re able to be first to market with any new titles. We’re able to react to customers’ requests if we don’t have their favorite games, and we can add titles quickly if we don’t have the games.”
Server-based technology will also allow Revel to use the slot machines as a marketing tool. Revel will be able to instantly communicate with customers about promotional offers and other perks by flashing personal messages in the service window on the side of the slot machine’s display screen.
“You’re really left to your imagination what you can offer to patrons,” Lashkari said.
Customers, in turn, can use the service window to keep track of their casino accounts and perform other functions, perhaps to order drinks or make dinner reservations directly from the slot machine, Lashkari added.
Eventually, server-based technology could evolve to give customers individual control over the slot machines, allowing them to choose the games they want to play, Weiss said. The technology also holds the promise of turning slot machines into far greater entertainment devices.
“Imagine being able to watch a Phillies game or your favorite movie on a slot machine. I could see that happening,” Weiss said.
With Revel introducing server-based slots to the Atlantic City market for the first time, it seems inevitable that other casinos will rush to catch up. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the city’s dominant casino, confirmed that it is studying the technology and will keep an eye on Revel.
“We’ve been looking at server-based gaming for some time and will continue to look at it, especially if we can measure it against someone who is testing in the market,” said Joe Lupo, Borgata’s senior vice president of operations.
Although server-based gambling has been touted as the next big technological step in the casino industry, widespread acceptance has been slower than expected, in large part because of start-up costs, Weiss said.
“This is not untested technology,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it here in Atlantic City for seven to 10 years.”
Las Vegas, New York, Connecticut, California, Indiana and Iowa are among the markets already using server-based slots. Pennsylvania, Atlantic City’s chief rival, has given preliminary approval to regulations for server-based gambling, but the rules have not yet become final. No Pennsylvania casino has server-based slots at this time, said Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Older casinos may find it particularly expensive to retrofit their floors to accommodate server-based slots. Weiss noted that casinos must pay for the game titles, buy new hardware and install new wiring and infrastructure.
Revel has a distinct advantage because it is a brand new property, with a modern layout and the latest systems for its casino floor. Mancuso declined to disclose Revel’s costs for its server-based games.
“You have to evaluate from a business perspective the return on investment,” he said. “But we believe it will be very positive and we expect to expand.”
Casinos also must deal with the regulatory requirements of each state for server-based slots. Weiss said the streamlining of New Jersey’s casino regulations last year helped usher in technological innovation. He stressed, however, that New Jersey still retains oversight of server-based slots to protect the integrity of the games.
In good news for customers, there are electronic and regulatory safeguards to make sure server-based slots can’t be tampered with or rigged. Casinos must notify the Division of Gaming Enforcement at least 24 hours in advance to tighten the payout percentage for the machines. But they are free to make jackpots looser on their own, Weiss said.
Casinos can’t simply kick players off the slot machines if they want to switch themes. A machine must be idle for at least four minutes before themes are switched. No changes will be made while a customer is still playing the slots or any credits are left on the machine, Weiss said.
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