Catch a glimpse of it in a crowded casino and Bally Technologies’ “Michael Jackson Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” slot machine is striking.
It’s tall and housed in a sleek black case, with stereo speakers placed in the connected high-backed player’s chair and classic video of the late pop star playing on high-resolution screens.
Now take a look at that same slot machine in the uncrowded lobby of Bally Technologies’ Las Vegas headquarters. There, amid comparatively uncluttered surroundings where the lights and the sounds of the casino are absent and the giant machine can breathe, something weird happens.
Here, the game resembles a particularly colorful, animated sculpture in an art gallery, where the disciplines of animation, illustration, design and music somehow combine into a greater, impressive artistic whole.
Seriously. A monolith-from-“2001: A Space Odyssey” impressive artistic whole.
Las Vegans spend much of their lives playing, walking past or unconsciously listening to the whirrs and whines of slot machines. But despite — or, maybe, because of — this familiarity, we easily can forget that slot machines are the creative works of artists who work in an unusual, peculiarly Las Vegasian medium.
Is it stretching the definition of “art” to think of slot machines as works of art?
“Not at all,” answers Mark Hall-Patton, Clark County museums administrator.
“When you look at it, you have to realize that not only is the machine designed by somebody,” Hall-Patton says, but that “you had to have somebody do all of the art — the belly plate and the top plate and all of that.”
Even early, more utilitarian-minded slot machines often were created with an eye toward aesthetics. Hall-Patton notes that some had “a lot of handwork on them, detailed little gold flourishes here and there.”
It wasn’t necessarily “high art, but it was industrial art,” he adds, “and everything was supposed to look the same but, of course, they hand-detailed it so it’s not going to be.”
Mechanical and technological advances that came in subsequent years also sometimes helped to add to a slot machine’s artistic appeal.
“If you look at how the technology has evolved, it certainly has gotten more interesting, more high-tech, if you will,” says Joe Sigrist, vice president of product management for International Game Technology. “But, by the same token, some of the older machines were pretty complicated in their own right.
“I’ve seen some very early poker machines that literally had mechanical cards that fell. You see some that were extensions of more of a pinball machine, really.”
Today’s casinogoers can view diverse examples of the artistic side of slot machines on so-called in-house brand machines — slot machines designed around more generic themes — that feature top- and bottom-panel illustrations that range from cartoony drawings to moody images that are as vivid and as detailed as a painting.
Starting around the ’90s and continuing through today, slot machine artists also have been able to focus their artistic talents on licensed machines based on movies (“Grease” and “Titanic,” for example), TV shows (“Wheel of Fortune,” one of earliest licensed slot machine brands), cartoon or real-life characters (Betty Boop, Dean Martin), iconic brands (Playboy), sporting events (The Breeder’s Cup), and pretty much anything else that takes pop culture by storm.
“We’ve got a Tabasco sauce game,” Sigrist says. “So it’s not just pop arts. It’s what in pop culture right now, and it’s not just celebrating movies and TV shows, it’s consumer products, and you can expand it a lot of different ways.”
In creating licensed games, the starting point usually is “the iconic brand,” Sigrist says. But in creating any slot machine, “at some point you’ve got to decide what you want in imagery. The art is really important.”
“How the imagery is represented on the game — the colors, the graphics — is important to the (gaming) experience,” Sigrist says. ” And, obviously, you want to connote fun, you want to connote winning, you want to connote the brand that’s being supported.”
A slot machine’s art and graphics may be more important to some players than to others. A fan of, say, “Sex and the City” probably will gravitate toward that game because of his or her interest in the show. For others, the aesthetic appeal of the game can be the very lure that makes them stop to play.
And when it comes to appealing to potential players, the creation process is as much about art as it is science.
For instance, “historically, games that connote water, whether it be underwater or kind of seashore games, do very well,” Sigrist says. “I think people are attracted to the color blue and to the effects of water, which is a very pleasing experience.”
There are “certain themes that resonate with players over others,” says Mike Mitchell, vice president of game development at Bally Technologies, “and the key is that we do a good job of marrying what players are looking for with what we advertise.”
At Bally Technologies, slot machines are created by 25 to 30 “studios,” or creative teams stationed around the world, says Mike Trask, the company’s corporate communications manager. Each studio is made up of about a dozen creative professionals, from graphic artists to software engineers to mathematicians.
(Fun tip: Next time you’re playing a Bally Technologies slot machine, look in the four corners of the machine’s top panel. You’ll probably see the Bally logo in one corner and, in another, the logo of the studio that designed it.)
Today’s slot machine artists also can employ new technologies in creating machines. For example, designers and artists now create illustrations and designs on computers. And while the designs seen on slot machines once were screened onto individual panels, Trask says the artwork associated with many games now likely is stored as part of a software package that can be loaded into a pre-sized cabinet, much like a home video gamer can play several different games on the same PlayStation hardware.
Being able to display digital images on high-resolution video panels also allows artists to create designs that are more vivid and more intricate than ever, with touches that even drift to other parts of the machine. For example, one Bally Technologies game based on a Chinese story features delicate digital snowflakes floating across a romantic snowy landscape while, on another game, butterflies drift across the machine’s player buttons.
Yet, all of this artistic wizardry probably receives scant acknowledgment, much less appreciation, from most casinogoers.
“I don’t think that most people pay much attention to a lot of what has been designed,” Hall-Patton says. “Once you sit, it’s ‘Am I winning or not?’ ”
Bally Techologies’ Trask suspects that, on some level, players do appreciate the art of the games they choose to play.
“I don’t know everybody sits down and says, ‘Hey, they did a great job of spacing on that font,’ ” he says. “But I think people would say, ‘I really like … that game.’
“When you walk through a casino and there are 500 games, you look for something that looks interesting. A player either looks for a game they like or for something that’s appealing visually. And, from there, it’s got to be a great gaming experience so they keep coming back.”
And, if it’s any consolation, there are some who take slot machine art seriously.
“There are very serious collectors of slot machines and people who definitely have collections of these, just like people collect art,” Sigrist says. “I think there definitely are aficionados of slot machines as an art form.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.