Updated May 24, 2019 - 4:23 pm
At Palace Station, Phillip Zamarron sits in front of the “Feathered Friends” slot machine, transfixed as cartoon images of birds, acorns and eggs spin across the screen.
The Albuquerque, New Mexico, native visits Las Vegas at least twice a year — it’s a chance to relax and possibly leave with a little extra cash. Over the last five years he’s made these trips, he said he’s noticed a transformation in slot machines. Compared to just a couple years ago, these machines are bigger, brighter, flashier and more convenient.
“When I play an old game now, it’s so dull,” he said. With new machines, he can order drinks and make dinner reservations right on the screen.
“You don’t have to wait for someone to show up,” he said.
Slot machine developers say cashless slots and mobile integration are coming next.
“A slot machine nowadays is a pretty powerful computing device. It can do a lot more than just play the game it’s designed for,” said Jim Barbee, who heads the Nevada Gaming Control Board’s technology division. “It’s really an exciting time in the tech space to see how it will be used here.”
Advancing technology in slot machines is paving the way for a better, more immersive experience for players — one that draws a wider variety of demographics and keeps people in their seat longer, industry insiders say.
Many of the recent innovations have been focused on the display case. Almost all the cabinets in development incorporate 4K resolution, LED lights and improved sound quality.
Cathryn Lai, vice president of product management for Scientific Games Corp., said the display innovations really kicked off about five years ago, when the first curved cabinet was introduced.
The curved screen “takes the player almost inside the game,” she said. “Before, you’d watch players crane their head to see all the way to the top.”
Marcus Prater, executive director of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, said the focus on a theatrical experience proved to be a success.
“It showed in hard dollars that hardware could drive additional revenue,” he said. “Put a game on a waved, curved screen cabinet, and the win per day increased significantly, with the only difference being the hardware.”
According to March data from the Control Board, slot machines made up about 66 percent of the total amount won by casinos against players. In all, casinos collected more than $1 billion in gaming win that month.
Slot revenue has remained relatively flat over the past decade, but there has been a slight uptick in recent years; March slot revenue climbed about 5 percent from a year earlier.
Prater said casinos would like that revenue to grow even faster. “We have to keep innovating, or we risk losing this revenue that obviously drives our entire state,” he said. “I think that focus has never been sharper.”
Lai said the updated technology is meant to create an attractive, immersive experience for players.
“You want people playing as long as they can, so you provide them an enjoyable experience so they play longer,” she said.
But the games are competing for attention more than ever. With interest in mobile gaming and nongaming attractions growing, slot machine manufacturers are doing all they can to attract players.
“Gaming is now available in many places. You can do it on your phone. You can do it on your iPad,” Lai said. “We try to get players to leave their home and come to the casino. You have to differentiate yourself and really bring value to the player.”
Angelo Palmisano, vice president of strategy and innovation at slot machine manufacturer Aristocrat, said the industry is trying to incorporate technology that reaches a wider range of demographics.
Take Aristocrat’s “Madonna” game, which will hit casino floors soon. The game is based on the singer’s 1980s hits and invites players to sing along karaoke-style.
“It’s just a way to engage a slot player that isn’t about winning or losing at that moment,” said Jon Hanlin, vice president of gaming operations at Aristocrat.
And with easy-to-use products from technology giants like Google, Amazon and Apple in almost everyone’s hands, Palmisano said slot manufacturers have to keep up with other industries.
“The patron’s expecting a seamless experience wherever they go, whether it’s a casino floor or they’re going to the bank,” he said.
Innovations on the horizon
Barbee said the industry has exploded in the last five years, and there’s still more innovation to come.
He expects mobile phone integration to pick up speed soon, simplifying the process of playing or making payments.
“We’re accustomed to using our personal device to handle everything from paying our bills to ordering pizza to setting the temperature in the house,” Barbee said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more interaction between our personal device and slot machines.”
A cashless option is also on the horizon, according to Nick Khin, chief commercial officer of gaming for slot machine manufacturer International Game Technology.
The technology would let players use a mobile wallet at slots. Players could transfer cash to the wallet within the casino or connect it to prepaid, credit or debit cards. Holding a smartphone by a sensor on the machine would let users log into their account and transfer money straight to the game.
Players who win money could use it at the buffet or nightclub. Khin said this saves players time and lets them skip fees and lines at ATMs and is a safer alternative to carrying hundreds of dollars in cash.
“It’s revolutionizing the experience,” Khin said. “It’s removing the friction. … It’s almost like setting up a currency within the casino.”
Lai said this could help make the machines attractive to younger people, who are less likely to carry cash on them and are used to cashless options like Apple Pay.
“If we want to engage younger players, we have to break that barrier and require them to play without cash,” she said. “(Scientific Games will) have something out this year.”
Wireless charging and more hardware updates should also emerge in the near future. And much of this new technology is in our own backyard, Prater said.
“The good thing about Nevada is it’s embracing this, it’s promoting this, and I think it’s important for Nevada to continue,” he said. “We are the gaming tech hub of the world.”
Did you know?
— A coin-operated gambling machine was first invented in 1895 by San Francisco inventor Charles Fey.
— Ten years later, he invented the first “true slot machine.” It had three reels and automatically paid winners.
— In 1915, the machines were camouflaged to avoid anti-gambling laws. They were designed to dispense things like cigarettes, candy and gum every time the handle was pulled.
— The gum dispensed by the slot machines were from the Chicle Company — creator of Chiclets — and were decorated with illustrations of the flavors (orange, cherry, plum, and more). The fruit and bar symbols on machines today evolved from the early machines that dispensed the gum.
Source: University of New Orleans professor George Fenich’s 1996 paper, “A Chronology of (Legal) Gaming in the U.S.”