Behind the reels

To most players, slot machines are only screen deep. The spinning reels are what’s important. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that makes the action possible. Without back-end systems to track play and account for payouts, those slot machines would be very expensive ornaments. Through fiber-optic cable and data drops, a series of networks connects slot machines to each other, to master systems, and even to software that lets managers analyze the casino in real time. Though invisible to the players, these systems are absolutely essential.

Casinos buy slot machines from several manufacturers, but typically turn to one vendor for their systems. Even with the number of games on the average casino floor going down, these systems are becoming increasingly complex—and valuable to casinos.

There are two major systems that link slot machines. The first, usually called the “slot system,” connects every slot on the casino floor in a network. Through the slot system, regulators can keep track of what’s going on (and where the money’s going), and managers can connect to business intelligence and data-analysis programs that help them determine which slots are getting play.

The other system is no less important and has a part that the player sees: It’s a small graphic display that has evolved from a simple two-line alphanumeric display to a miniature HD screen that displays player club account information, comp offers and advertisements for venues in the casino.

This is the primary way for casinos to communicate with their players while they’re playing, and it is the front end of an extensive system that tracks and analyzes patterns in play, both among individual players and broad demographic segments. This system also lets casinos offer several kinds of bonus games that give slot players more chances to win while they’re playing.

The changes in that small screen are a visible sign of how slot systems are becoming more sophisticated.

Ramesh Srinivasan, president and chief operating officer of Bally Technologies, which manufactures both slot machines and the networks that serve as their nervous system, is enthusiastic about his company’s latest version of the traditional player interface, the iViewDM, which lets the player use the “main” slot screen for some functions that used to be confined to the smaller player display.

“The new displays let players do much more than they could before. In addition to checking out their point levels and reviewing comp offers from the casino, players can order drinks and request their car from valet,” he says. Keyed to the data the casino already has about the player, the drink menu even lets the player pick from a list of past selections. In addition, streaming video lets players watch television on one side of the screen while continuing to spin the reels on the other.

Increasingly, these systems are even integrating with table games. Once, rating table-game players was a laborious, inexact process: A manager would watch the player awhile, determine his average bet, then simply plug that and his time playing into an equation that determined what level of comps he should receive. As a result, some players got more comps than they deserved, while others got less.

For a while, radio frequency identification (RFID) was touted as the solution: with RFID tags inserted into every chip, casinos could track every dollar won and lost. But, as Srinivasan explains, there have been complications.

“When I worked in supply-chain execution, I led the team that created RFID for Walmart,” he says. “And I can tell you that it’s excellent technology on the pallet level, for tracking shipments of relatively big things, but doesn’t work so well at the individual level. It’s very difficult to ID small things that are less than two centimeters apart.”

Since casino chips fall into that category, Srinivasan is focusing on a visual engineering system that is able to accurately interpret surveillance images of table play into data on how much is being bet and by whom.

“There are many benefits,” he says. “You don’t have to buy new chips, change the table surface or change the lighting. This is very advanced technology. It lets us automate player-tracking in ways we wouldn’t have imagined years ago.”

So while most players don’t know which back-end system is supporting the machines on which they’re playing, those systems still have a profound impact on the casino experience—and that impact is only going to increase.