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Playing for Keeps: Developing Casino Games

April 24, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Money for Nothing

Because these are gambling games, the game math is a critical factor in the success or failure of a title. This math determines, on a statistical basis, how big and how frequently the jackpots are hit. A game that is perceived by players as offering neither high payouts nor any other type of entertainment value will quickly be shunned by the marketplace. The basic math considerations are a game's hit frequency (the statistical percentage of plays in which some type of payout is awarded), as well as the overall payback percentage (the percentage of money wagered by players that is returned to them via payouts). Most jurisdictions have established laws that require gaming devices to offer a minimum payback percentage of 75 percent, and it may be surprising to some that the great majority of modern games return at least 90 percent of the total monies wagered.

With some game types, the overall payback percentage is dependent to some extent on player skill. Games such as video poker and video blackjack, for example, require the player to make certain decisions during each hand of play (such as which cards to hold). The skill and strategies used can swing the payback percentage several points in either direction. This is an important factor in the design of video poker games in particular (generally regarded as the most popular "locals" game), as some models can offer up to (and sometimes even more than) 100 percent payback with the right strategy.

Outtake from the Monkey Business
promotional movie.

At the heart of the math engine (and indeed, the game itself), lies the random number generator, or RNG. A far cry from the simple random functions provided by most development environments, a gaming device's RNG consists of sophisticated algorithms designed to ensure that all outcomes are as random as is technologically possible. The best RNGs use algorithms that change the random seed constantly and unpredictably, as the ability to detect predictive patterns in a game is a classic cheating technique.

When a game is initiated, output from the RNG is funneled through the odds calculations. At this point, the game outcome is calculated and displayed (either by spinning reels or a video screen), and evaluated for potential winning combinations. Payouts are based on the amount wagered and the paytable, the schedule of awards for any given game outcome. Naturally, the longer the odds of hitting a certain combination, the higher the payout will be. It's important that the paytable be displayed and communicated clearly to the player, otherwise disputes are likely to result. Traditionally, paytables were printed on the backlit glass that is part of almost all game cabinets, however the increased popularity of video-based games has allowed developers to display more informative and interactive paytables on the video monitors. These paytables, along with general game help, are usually accessed through touchscreen buttons.

More Technology, and the Call for Professionals to Build It

In addition to the math engine, modern gaming devices have several additional subsystems critical to their success. I/O functions are very important, as the games must monitor all internal functions. Examples of these functions include coin and bill handling, button and/or touchscreen status, and integrity checks (door open, for example). Regulations mandate that games constantly monitor these functions and go into "tilt" mode should any abnormalities be detected. Games must be able to survive an unexpected shutdown gracefully with absolutely no loss of data, as very few casinos provide adequate uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems on their floors. Additionally, a complete game history log must be kept in nonvolatile memory (typically on an EPROM chip) so that casino personnel and regulators can review the game's history should a customer dispute erupt.

First-level bonus screen of
CDS's Monkey Business game.

Networking capabilities are another important consideration in today's machines. The great majority of casinos today utilize slot monitoring systems, which are in effect large, real-time databases of machine information and player data. All games on the casino floor are networked to this database via proprietary, encrypted protocols. These systems have enabled the development of the popular slot clubs, wherein customers sign up to have their play monitored online. Once enrolled, players earn bonus points based upon their play. These points can then be redeemed for cash or merchandise. Casinos benefit from these systems not only by attracting player loyalty, but also by building a tremendous database of marketing information. They also use these systems to extract a great deal of accounting and security information from the gaming devices, and are required by law in many states.

CDS's Easy Street video slot machine (complete cabinet). The game, part of CDS's Bandit model series, utilizes a hybrid ROM/PC architecture to achieve high security while delivering engaging, immersive content.

Games may also offer progressive jackpots, which increase over time and are based on the amount wagered by players trying to win them. These jackpots are typically advertised on large overhead LED or plasma TV signage, and other proprietary, encrypted protocols (typically serial-based) have been developed to enable communication between the games and the displays. Games can be networked together to form a progressive link, where play from all games contributes towards one large jackpot pool. In recent years, these networks have grown to encompass machines spread throughout a state (and in some cases, several states), thereby enabling the posting of lottery-sized jackpots (with accompanying lottery-sized odds, of course).

As a result of the advancing technology and design methods, the gaming device business offers significant job opportunities for game programmers and artists. The skill sets necessary for these professions are virtually identical to those sought after in other types of game development, with the advantage to those who have a background in (or a penchant for) the mathematical areas. Nevada, the home of most major manufacturers, has never been known as a major hotbed of technological talent, so when the need to find staff arose, the industry turned toward (not surprisingly) Silicon Valley. Several major manufacturers (including mine) have established design studios in the Valley, where it's easier to attract world-class talent. Others have found offering relocation to Nevada attractive due to the significantly lower cost of living. Still others prefer simply to outsource their multimedia production to well-known California studios.

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