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Best of John Grochowski

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Server-Based Games

2 May 2006

For as long as I've been writing about casinos and casino games --- and that's been more years than I care to count --- I've been reassuring players that there is no difference in slot machine payback percentages whether you play weekday or weekend, day or night, or any other split players might worry about.

The process of changing a slot machine isn't that easy. The machine has to be opened in the presence of a gaming board agent, evidence tape broken, the old game chip taken out, a new chip put in, resealed in evidence tape, machine closed, paperwork done. Try doing that with a slot floor of 1,100 or so machines in Illinois, or 1,500 or so in Indiana. That's much too big a project --- and a highly visible one, at that --- for any day-to-night change.

At least, it hasn't been that easy until now. Regular readers might remember that last fall I wrote about downloadable and server-based slot machines that were shown by nearly every major manufacturer at the annual Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. No one was certain how fast regulators would move in approving server-based games, but they were no doubt the wave of the future. With server-based systems, casino operators could change a game theme, change the denomination, change the payback percentage --- all in seconds.

That future is here, or at least very near. Treasure Island on the Las Vegas Strip and Barona Valley Ranch outside San Diego are both conducting field tests of International Game Technology's SB system. Now that server-based gaming is here on at least a trial basis --- and there's no reason to believe the trial won't be successful --- media outlets from the New York Times to the Motley Fool have taken notice.

Now, a game theme can change instantly. A dollar game can become a penny game. And, yes, a 95-percent payback machine can become a 90-percent game in seconds.

In the Nevada test, the process is at least partly visible. Regulations do not permit the casino to change the game while a customer is playing. The machine must be idle for four minutes before a change is made, and then after the change, another four minutes must pass before anyone can play the machine. A message on the game screen must indicate that a reconfiguration is taking place.

Players don't know through any of this if the payback percentage is being changed, if it's moving up or down, or what the payback percentage is at all. But then again, we never have been able to tell by looking at a game whether it's a red-hot 99-percent game or a coin gobbling 85-percenter. We don't know what's on the chips inside each game on the floor now any more than we'll know what payback percentage has been selected from the menu on a server-based game.

Now, if the casino operator had to change one machine at a time, and wait eight minutes on each one, it wouldn't be that great a leap from the present system of changing chips. It would be faster, but perhaps not worth the expense of leaping into server-based gaming. But with server-based systems, operators can change whole banks of machines at once.

I watched it happen in a demonstration of Aristocrat Gaming's system at the Global Gaming Expo. On a diagram of the casino floor --- in this case, the bank of demonstration machines at the Aristocrat booth --- the operator highlighted the entire bank. Then with the click of a mouse on a pull-down menu, he selected a new game theme, number of paylines, coin denomination and payback percentage. Voila. New games.

Apply that to a bank of, say, 12 machines and the effect is amazing. One minute, 12 nine-line nickel slots paying 90 percent, the next minute, 12 20-line penny slots paying 87 percent. Even with the eight-minute delay mandated in Nevada, it opens the possibility to fast changes on the casino floor.

To some extent, it will allow operators to tailor its game offerings to player preference. More and more, casinos are using electronic data warehouses and analytical software to track who's playing, and when. Companies including Mariposa, Compudigm and Casino Data Imaging have devised software that allows operators to see hot and cold spots on the slot floor instantly, then --- among many other uses --- to analyze if they're drawing more play at different times of the day and with different customer groups. Combine that ability with server-based games, and a casino that knows that it gets strong penny play during daylight hours but has people waiting for nickel games at night can change accordingly.

Of course, the quick-change ability of server-based games will open up the old questions of whether games pay more during the day or at night, on weekdays or weekends. That's something casino marketers and public relations people will have to tackle when they get the questions from customers. Because with server-based games, the possibilities will be there.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com, and to his casino talk show from 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WCKG-FM (105.9).

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski