Gaming Guru, John Grochowski


When the opening of the new Revel casino resort brings the first server-based slot machines to Atlantic City, it might take a while for players to fully take in the revolution that is building in electronic gaming.

But once they’ve been around the reels a few times with the International Game Technology sbX system Revel is installing, they’ll know something’s up. And as other manufacturers put their stamp on a fertile field for designers’ imaginations, players will know they’re fully into a brave new world of technology.

What will players notice as these slot machines of the future become the slots of the present? Let’s take a look.

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Server-based gaming will give players faster access to new games. You’ll see the latest and greatest from IGT at casinos with sbX before you see them at competitors. That’s because IGT sends a disc with new games to subscribers every month. State gambling regulators must approve all games on the disc, but after that each game is available to load onto multiple machines.

If a game is so popular you can’t get on a machine, just wait. Casino operators can quickly move to convert more server-based machines to run the popular game. Similarly, old favorites don’t just go away once they’re removed from sbX machines. Casinos retain the right to run games from IGT’s full server-based library. After removing a game from play, casinos that find there is still demand can easily change over and run the game on sbX machines as needed.

One of the first things that will become apparent is the customization of perks at the machine. IGT’s sbX system includes “Service Window” capability. The Service Window is a video application that can be run even as you keep playing your game. The video reels compress, and the window opens off to the side. You can open the Service Window by touching a screen to check your player reward points, make dinner reservations or check out other casino services. You might also receive unexpected bonuses. When you insert your card, the server-based system can search its database. If it recognizes you as a customer who likes the spa, it can show you an advertisement for the spa, or even offer a comp. It’s the same with restaurants, shows or any other casino amenities. The application can be programmed to search your history, and come up with the appropriate display on the Service Window.

There’s a potential for instant special events, with database sorting active players for inclusion. This isn’t in wide use yet, but Bally Technologies, for one, has made it a focal point in its SBG server-based system. A given number of players — 20 for example — could be selected randomly, according to reward points or by reaching a qualifying level. The server-based system then could launch a tournament among those players. They wouldn’t have to change seats. The tournament could run on the same machine, with an extra prize above players’ regular results.

Also for the future is the customization of game offerings. Server-based systems are not yet offering multiple games on the same machine, but the technology exists to do so. When that happens, you could walk up to a machine offering multiple games and touch the screen to launch a game. After you put in a rewards card, your playing patterns could be reviewed in an instant, and the system could make sure your favorites are included among the offerings.

There are a couple of potential worries for players.

Players have long worried that casino operators would change payback percentages on games — and not for the better. On most slots, changing percentages means opening a game and changing a chip, under gaming board supervision — and that’s the short version, leaving out several steps. It’s time consuming, and it’s apparent to the public. On server-based machines, the operator, under gaming board supervision, can highlight a game — or a whole bank of games — on a computer screen, and change percentages with the click of a mouse.

Required public, onscreen messages that a game is being changed must be made, but old player fears that percentages could change from day to night or weekday to weekend certainly will surface. Rapid changes like that are not being permitted in jurisdictions that now have server-based gaming, but casinos and regulators will have to deal with player concerns.

Some video poker players have expressed the fear that the potential customization of game offers could mean good players get offered only bad pay tables. That one will be easy enough for players to check by having non-video poker players launch video poker games to eye the pay tables.

Some of the changes may take some getting used to, but then slot players quickly accepted coinless gaming and video slots. This is the next step. And make no mistake. The revolution is coming.

John Grochowski's gambling column now appears every Thursday in the At The Shore section. This is a special column looking at server-based slots.

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