So what types of games are most popular today? Traditional reel-spinning games continue to constitute the greatest percentage of the market (these modern games differ from reel-spinners of yore in that the reels are now controlled by stepper motors driven by the main processor board). However, their dominance is being threatened by the dramatic growth of video-based games, and all indications point to this trend continuing.
Within the video classification, poker games remain popular, mainly because of their high payback rates. Growth potential for these games remains limited, however. The real boom is occurring in the video slot arena, where designers can implement myriad features unavailable on any mechanical-reel machine. The hot ticket today is "secondary bonusing," the addition of different game levels beyond the base reel game. Initially, these were implemented as simple second-level screens that appeared over the slot reels and allowed the player to make several game-show type choices (picking one of several doors, for example). The result of these choices is almost always a bonus payout. Current game choreography expands on this premise.
The main reel screen from the
CDS Monkey Business game.
In CDS's Bandit Bingo, for example, players begin by choosing a bingo card that is placed on-screen below the slot reels. As players spin the reels, bingo ball symbols appear. Should a bingo ball symbol match a number on the card, it bounces off the reels and daubs the bingo card. Once players have bingo, they are taken to a second screen where they choose one of five special bingo balls for a bonus payout. This game offers the opportunity to play two traditional casino games simultaneously (slots and bingo), and also provides for the bonus experience. Easy Street, another CDS title, offers a road-based board game as the initial bonus. Players earn bonus payouts for each successful turn on the board, and should they make it to the end they are taken to an additional bonus level. Here, an animation of the game's main character, Chance the Dog, plays in a window. As Chance drives his car down Easy Street, players use the touchscreen to select any of the buildings he passes for an additional bonus jackpot.
Recently, the industry has begun to look beyond its own borders for attractive content. This has resulted in a recent surge of games based on licensed brand names from outside the gaming industry. Titles have recently been released that are based on board games (Monopoly), television (Wheel of Fortune), and deceased entertainers (Elvis). Although this approach offers instant brand recognition, and has been very successful in several cases, the huge royalties involved make development of such games a risky proposition.
The Long Arm of the Law
Underneath all of the design and technology lies the basic fact that these machines are designed for gambling, with the classic elements of chance, risk, and reward. Gambling has always been a controversial topic in the United States, and the industry's rapid expansion in the early 1990s provided plenty of fuel for the ongoing debate. In 1997, Congress authorized the National Gaming Impact Study Commission, the purpose of which was to report on the economic, political, and social effects of the gaming industry.
The second-level bonus round from
CDS's Monkey Business game.
Because of the controversy, as well as the somewhat notorious origins of casino gaming (remember the movie Casino?), the industry is subject to intense governmental regulation on all levels. Businesses wishing to enter the industry must go through a vigorous background investigation by every state in which they intend to do business. These investigations, which delve into all aspects of an applicant's background, can cost well over $100,000 per state with no guarantee that a license will eventually be issued. For this reason alone, the cost of entry into the industry is very high. All employees of a gaming company can be subject to personal background checks as well.
Beyond these corporate and personal licensing requirements, the games themselves are also subject to heavy regulation. Both hardware and software are subject to review, and the laboratories that examine these games enforce strict rules on the randomness, payback percentage, security, and auditability of all games. Certain states (Nevada, New Jersey, Mississippi and Michigan) have established their own testing laboratories, while other states prefer to rely on the services of independent testing facilities such as Gaming Laborites International. Hardware components are subject to environmental testing (electrostatic discharge resistance, line noise, and so on), and all software is reviewed at the source level. Approved programs are identified with a digital signature, and once approved, even a one-bit change to the code will render it noncompliant. The time required for these approvals varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but is typically never less than 30 days. Obviously, this added compliance time can have a major impact on shipping schedules.
The state of Nevada has recently added a new twist to the regulatory process by proposing rules that address game content itself. Specifically, these new regulations prohibit advertising on any gaming device, and further ban the use of any themes or artwork that may appeal to children. Obviously, the subjective nature of these proposed new regulations troubles many in the industry, and has already caused the withdrawal from consideration a game based on Comedy Central's South Park animated TV series.
No discussion of electronic gaming would be complete without touching on the rise of Internet gambling. Supporters of online wagering tout the convenience of simply logging on and betting. Despite this, true online betting carries enormous risks and has been shunned by the vast majority of the legitimate gaming industry. The primary reason is that the lack of any sort of comprehensive regulatory structure leaves Internet gambling ripe for fraud, abuse, and deception. There are no guarantees that any of these games are fair, or that players will actually be paid should they win and decide to collect. Not surprisingly, many of these sites are hosted from islands in the Caribbean, away from U.S. legal protections. Additionally, there is no easy way to guarantee that people gambling on the Internet are of legal age or capacity. As a result, Congress is currently considering a bill that would outlaw Internet gambling, and similar laws have already been enacted by several states. Until these problems can be resolved (if ever), Internet gambling will remain in that online netherworld currently inhabited by pornography and warez web sites.
This is not to say the Internet has been totally ignored by the legitimate gaming industry, however. Forward-thinking companies are developing marketing and other related programs which leverage the power of the medium without actually offering online wagering. For example, the previously mentioned slot monitoring databases have already begun to grow online hooks, and the prospects for similar systems are bright.
The Challenge of the Future
As the gaming device industry enters the 21st century, it faces many of the same challenges and opportunities present in the PC, console, and coin-op gaming worlds. Industry consolidation will continue, with the large, well-funded companies absorbing the smaller players. Advances in the technology employed will continue to shorten the life span of these games, although probably never to the extent that the PC and console markets must deal with. And fierce competition will continue to force the development of quality, interactive content, while never forgetting to offer players a good gamble. That's a safe bet.
Steve Boelhouwer is co-art director at Casino Data Systems, a leading designer and manufacturer of gaming devices. He has almost 15 years' experience in the casino gaming industry. Steve would gratefully like to acknowledge the assistance of fellow art director Kim Tempest and CDS founder and CEO Steve Weiss for their invaluable input into this article. Contact Steve at SBoelhouwer@csds.com.