LAS VEGAS — In the newly unveiled Avatar slot machine, you can pick which Na'vi character you want to be, set the background and music, and, if you play long and "well" enough, unlock extra content. There's also now a Skee-Ball machine that allows you, eventually, to play a video version of the arcade game for scores that are posted on a leaderboard. Hit the bonus round of the newest iteration of a Titanic machine and you may get to swipe a touch screen to spin the (doomed!) ship's helm in an act that, it would seem, influences your prizes.
You'd be forgiven if, someday soon, you wander into a casino and mistake it for an arcade. The vast show floor of this week's annual Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, where slot makers hawked their latest wares to casinos seeking new attractions, certainly looked and sounded a lot like one too.
Except, of course, there's a catch: Nothing you do, no matter how many familiar gaming elements the slot makers integrate into gambling, makes a difference to your outcomes or payment. Legally, it can't. But, nonetheless, it's the latest sleight of hand from the gambling gods — the perception of the same cause and effect that makes Mortal Kombat or Angry Birds so addictive and satisfying.
"We're pretty constrained by regulators whereas video games don't have those constraints, so what we do is kind of an illusion of control and interaction," says Brett Jackson, a director of game development or Bally Technologies, which makes the Skee-Ball and Titanic slots, among others. "You are interacting with the game and doing certain things, but the outcomes in most cases are very much defined beforehand. It's really about your perception of how the play develops."
Manipulated perceptions have always been key to the casino experience. The lack of clocks and windows, legend holds, aim to blur a sense of time and confuse circadian rhythms. Penny slots are designed to persuade gamblers they're playing small stakes even as they enable larger per-spin bets than the manual quarter-feeders of old ever did. And those multi-line machines make it possible for the screen to tell you you've "won" even when you've lost.
The result is a gargantuan reverse ATM of sorts, representing $7 billion a year in casino winnings in Nevada alone, according to data from the UNLV Center for Gaming Studies. American gambling parlors boast more than 800,000 slot machines because they remain, according to American Gaming Association studies, the preferred casino game for 70% of visitors.
Yet slot makers now must engage a generation of those coming of age who emerged from the womb holding Xbox and Wii controllers and have shown a distinct preference thus far for table games over slot machines when they maraud a casino. Thus, the floors are increasingly populated with what are sanguinely referred to as "entertainment experiences."
Themed slot machines aren't new — IGT pioneered that with the Wheel of Fortune machines in 1999, and the coming year alone will see new games based on True Blood, The Walking Dead, and Bridesmaids — but that approach is so common now that the real competition is in amping them up and making them appeal to the iPhone set.
"This new video game generation is looking for something more," says Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business, a top industry magazine. "You see that with the development of the bonuses and the second screens. The games are more interesting. Now they definitely have a video game mentality and feel — you actually race something or whatever. But here's where you come to the problem: It can't be skill-based, you can't be better than the machine. So they have to give you the impression that you're beating the machine but you just can't do that."
The laws prohibit it because permitting skill to impact outcome in casino games would give some players different odds than others and, probably more significantly, would quickly let the best players bankrupt the house.
So there's a line of demarcation, albeit one that looks and feels increasingly blurry. The blockbuster new game of the year, IGT's Avatar, comes in a five-seat model in which players in oversized, The Voice-esque chairs with booming built-in speakers that make the seat backs tremble. As with social games on consoles and smartphones, gamblers can create accounts to accumulate points and — and this is novel for the slot world — pick up later where they left off.
"Progression and achievement and reward and recognition and customization are all things you see on Candy Crush, the foundation of a lot of your core video game experiences," said IGT Creative Director Darrell Rodriguez, whose résumé includes a stint at video game giant Electronic Arts. "It's in the foundation of Farmville. Core game-playing characteristics are translating across all media."
Indeed, the convergence is so pronounced that slot makers have even begun to build slot machines that are directly based on video games. IGT has Centipede, which allows players to take command of a joystick to play the actual, original game in the bonus round. I made it through three screens on a free test machine, but Rodriguez assured me my bonus is predetermined regardless of how long I elude that spider thing. My longevity, he said, was its own reward.
The big question — and one Rodriguez and Jackson can't answer yet — is whether adding game-like elements will actually impress the younger gamblers who, presumably, are savvy enough to realize the core of the thing is still the spinning symbols that align or, more often, don't, no matter how practiced the operator is. Among skeptics is Ted Hase, one of the three co-founders of the Xbox project and the current vice president of global games for Aristocrat Technologies.
Aristocrat's big new theme this year is The Walking Dead slots, a colorful game with lots of video clips from the TV show — and little more. Hase is unconvinced that slapping on video game lipstick will persuade anyone they're playing one. Instead, he fears, some of the new games are so complicated that they scare off many people uncertain what is expected of them.
"What we principally try to do is that which is the most effective way to entertain our customers as opposed to trying to change or alter people's behaviors," Hase says. "It is true that some of the younger generation tends to not be a slot player. I don't think the reasons for them not being a slot player are content-based. I think — it's simply because there are so many other alternatives that are at the moment more appealing to them at that point in their lives."
Jackson agrees the younger players will age into slot play and, while older players have become more accustomed to video game elements in recent years thanks to games they play on their phones, there's a potential to push too far.
"If they don't get it within those first few spins, they're going to walk away," he said. "We're always looking for something that's easily understood and intuitive but then over time opens up and gives you more. Really great games unfold over time."
Despite the complexity of the eye-popping Avatar machine, Rodriguez agrees there's a fine line to toe.
"I always talk with my team about making games that are accessible," he says. "Fun is tough enough, but to make it quick to the fun and elegant is even more difficult. Is it too complicated? A player can choose to customize the avatars, they can choose to customize the backgrounds they're playing on. You can choose the volatility of the game play in the bonus rounds or they can choose not to."
Still, the intimidation factor is real. It's why, despite all of the high-tech games with all their literal bells and whistles, the majority of every casino floor is occupied by the Hershey bars of gambling — machines that line up cherries or sevens.
"Triple Red Hot 7s is probably my favorite game, and probably for IGT the game of the year," Rodriguez says. "There are players who want that amazing entertainment experience, and there are players that want something more familiar."
Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor-based freelance journalist and former Politico Pro senior writer. Follow him at @SteveFriess
Contact Steve Friess at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.