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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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New Slot Machines: Innovative or More of the Same?

24 February 2004

Some people get bored playing the same old slot machines every time they visit a casino. Especially players who avoid games like video poker that require finesse, and prefer to just lean back and be diverted from reality while trying to win those big bucks.

The bosses know this. So they're endlessly seeking new wrinkles to keep solid citizens coming back and dropping in the dough. Successful innovations of the past few years include multi-level games where wins on initial spins lead to bonus rounds, devices which accommodate a myriad of "lines" simultaneously, and themes ranging from cartoon characters and variations of Monopoly, Scrabble, and other classic board games to personalities such as Elvis Presley, Dick Clark, Monte Hall, and Regis Philbin.

Numerous new ideas are in the offing. But this field is highly competitive, and the developers are no more apt to blab about their concepts in advance than Ford is to show General Motors its sketches for the 2008 Edsel. Recently granted patents for slot machines, however, offer clues about possible future trends. Patents serve the dual purpose of giving the originators a period during which they have exclusive rights to their intellectual property, and disseminating knowledge by disclosing inventions.

One interesting design combines two popular pastimes, gambling and shopping. Patent 6,390,917 utilizes the networks to which machines are now connected for the latter purpose. It gives players advertising and purchasing information consistent with what they win, and with personal interest profiles accessed via the "club" cards they've inserted into the machines. The systems accept orders "on-line" and deduct the charges from returns due.

Slot aficionados who believe they exercise a degree of control over the machines may be attracted to the main feature of patent 4,773,647. This supplements the "spin" button or handle with keys to stop each reel individually. Sadly, the situation isn't quite as blissful as may first seem. The stop keys aren't "enabled" until the reels are up to speed. And the amount of rotation after the stop buttons are hit isn't determined by the laws of physics but by a random number generator. This means that the control is strictly illusory, rather than a matter of hand-eye coordination.

Some players enjoy games with large numbers of lines, but can't afford to bet them all and worry about guessing wrong and missing a biggie. These folks may appreciate the "mystery line" of patent 6,261,178. In addition to paylines players activate by betting on them directly, the machine randomly selects another set of locations which yields a prize if it contains appropriate symbols. The mystery line, which is different on each play, may appear on some but not all spins. Alternately, it may be set up so it's always activated as an extra line, creating the impression that the game offers "more ways to win."

Some games are popular solely for the chance they afford to get rich. Others have more intrinsic appeal. For instance, you don't have to win money to enjoy solitaire, Parcheesi, or Trivial Pursuit. The casinos are accordingly on the prowl for slot versions of more substantive games. The amalgam is sometimes superficial, for instance a slot machine having the look of Chinese Checkers but little or no functional affinity with this old standby. Patent 5,927,714 is one attempt to go further. It's a tic-tac-toe variant. Three reels have X, O, or a blank at each position, intermixed. The window shows three rows per column. Players bet up to eight lines: three horizontal, three vertical, and two diagonal. A line wins if it has an X in each position.

Will any of these machines get to the casino floor? If so, will they last? Maybe. Nobody can be certain. But you can be sure that new games are in the wings. Most will involve nothing more than cosmetic changes, pictures of Little Miss Muffett and a spider instead of Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Only a few will both be truly original and also catch the public fancy to become the slot standards of tomorrow everyone wishes they thought of yesterday. It's as the insightful inkslinger, Sumner A Ingmark, iterated:

The best ideas are obvious, whene'er they've been presented,
But were it not for geniuses, they'd never get invented.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.