Out of the Box

Why slot manufacturers continue the parade of new cabinets

Considering the entire history of the modern slot machine, one of the elements that has changed the least is the cabinet. However, if one were to view only the past five years, cabinets arguably have been the element that has changed the most.

Up until recently, the life of a core or premium cabinet was, comparatively, quite long. The IGT S2000 lasted decades, through different owners of International Game Technology. The Alpha Pro line of cabinets from Bally, first launched in 2006, survives in some form to this day at today’s Scientific Games Corporation.

Other examples of long-lasting cabinets can be seen from the core video of IGT and Aristocrat to the former Cadillac Jack cabinets inherited by AGS when it acquired that company. Konami Gaming has gone through several cabinet eras, from the Advantage series to Podium to today’s Concerto.

These days, though, every major trade show sees most if not all of the major manufacturers introduce new cabinets, or launch new cabinet groups. During the past five years, hardware has become nearly as important as software and game math in distinguishing the products of a given slot manufacturer.

Clearly, part of the reason is the rapid evolution of consumer technology, an area in which casino slot manufacturers traditionally have lagged behind, but lately have been closing in to where new consumer technology is rapidly being adopted by casino suppliers.

“I think it’s the iPhone effect,” comments Andrew Burke, senior vice president of slot products for supplier AGS. “Everyone has been trained to appreciate hardware. Prior to Apple doing what they did with the iPhone, you had a phone, and that was just a way to call somebody or text somebody. Apple realized there’s a design on this that’s missing; let’s evolve that. And customers started wanting more.

“Gaming cabinets are not dissimilar, in that it used to be that you went to a metal vendor, like a Cole Kepro, and you said hey, what parts do you have on your shelf? What can you get easily? We’ll slap those together and make our own cabinet. Now, we’ve got a team of 12 people in industrial engineering, and we work with a third-party industrial design firm. We spend as much time thinking about the design of the cabinet as we do our games. Probably more.”

“It has to do with customer demand,” agrees Steve Walther, senior director of marketing and product management for Konami Gaming. “It was interesting when, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, having a cabinet that would last three to four years as the primary cabinet was something to hang your hat on… But then the market somewhat changed, and the customer base started responding to far more newer and shinier cabinets, and the newer technology.

“It’s just aligned itself more with the technological advancements that you see in the non-gaming space—television advancements, video game system advancements, phone advancements; they’re all happening so much faster outside of our sector that by releasing more cabinets with newer technology and newer game styles and products, we’re just keeping up with other forms of entertainment.

“We are wholesalers of entertainment. We wholesale entertainment to the retailers, who are our casino customers. So, we have to be in tune with what other wholesalers are doing to maximize the commercial opportunity for our retailers and their customers.”

 

Technology Race

Even if the advancements came from outside the industry, when it comes to hardware, they’ve sparked a healthy competition among gaming suppliers.

“Five to seven years ago, there was a big pushback from our operators and customers to quit with the cabinet proliferation, but it didn’t really stick,” says Dallas Orchard, senior vice president and chief product officer for IGT. “Over the last few years—particularly with the growth of suppliers; there are so many suppliers now—one way to really differentiate yourself these days, and make a bit of a splash, is with the cabinets.”

“Manufacturers are always searching for the next great must-have hardware,” comments Dean Ehrlich, executive vice president and games business leader for Everi Holdings. “We all know great hardware draws the eyes of players. It’s an area where we have to continue to innovate.”

He adds that cabinet changes must be done with value to the player as the main driver. “Building cabinets and utilizing technology for technology’s sake doesn’t make an impression on the player,” he says. “There has to be some level of play element you’re offering the consumer to give the value proposition they didn’t have before. Or else, why do it?”

In addition to adding value, IGT’s Orchard says the evolution of the slot cabinet allows suppliers to place their products above the din of competition. “At this past G2E, I would say that every supplier had a pretty impressive hardware offering,” he says. “Even some of the so-called smaller guys had some very, very nice hardware. I just think it helps differentiate you at trade shows and on the casino floor. They’re physical, so people can look and touch and see the differences easily.”

Some of the new cabinets of late have been crafted to launch an entirely new series of slot games, while others are versions of cabinet groups already on the market, tweaked to serve a new purpose. “They’re not really all brand-new cabinets these days,” says Orchard. “I think the manufacturers have gotten quite smart at making sure they’re more derivative, so, there’s a commitment to a base cabinet which has underlying functionality and technology, and compatibility with your operating system and your game library. And then, how can you derive that and iterate that to create different form factors, ultimately to create a different gaming experience?”

“We need to make sure it’s not just hardware for hardware’s sake,” says Konami’s Walther. “The philosophy is to concentrate on what are we going to do with this hardware that’s going to get us to leap with content and appeal to our players.”

 

Toward the New Standard

Just as in the consumer technology space, all of the technological advancements in the cabinet space have resulted in a standard for gaming hardware that is constantly changing. As technology advances, suppliers tap the changes to add to the list of absolute necessities in a slot machine cabinet.

The quality of video and graphics is a prime example. The higher the definition in video that is widely viewed on digital TV or even smart phones, the more suppliers are pushed to improve the image on slot machine displays.

“The advancements in LEDs and LCDs—and those floating screens and edgeless devices—has really been key the past few years,” says Orchard. “A lot of the bells and whistles these days are really to attract. What we hope, and the way we study and do our industrial design and engineering, is that once you sit and engage the device, those peripherals sink away into the background, and it’s the game and screen that stand front-and-center for the player.”

The graphic quality of 4K video is now becoming more of a requirement, says Everi’s Ehrlich. “We’re seeing that the more technological advancement we’re putting into our graphics, the better,” he says. “As people are playing games that are no longer stick figures and dots, and are more photo-realistic, we need to be more photo-realistic ourselves. As people are used to engaging with advanced game technologies on their iPhones and Androids that look more realistic, they need to engage those same types of symbols, smooth spins and bright color contrasts that we get out of our monitors and our designs.

“If it starts to look like you’re playing 1990s technology, people will say it’s a bit passé, unless it’s a complete home-run throwback game that they are completely accustomed to. Going forward, most people are going to want to play product that uses the latest and greatest capabilities.”

Burke at AGS adds that another advancement in LCD and LED technology that has become a must for new slot hardware is the brightness of the image on the monitor.

“I know monitor brightness seems like a funny one, but people have, in their living rooms, very high-end televisions that can be bought fairly cheaply these days,” Burke says. “So, that matters. Any time Apple releases a new product, that screen is brighter, it’s higher density; it’s just a better quality. On our end, that has to be the same.”

 

Driven by the Game

Everi’s Ehrlich notes that the existence of advanced technology does not necessarily mean success within advanced hardware. “Do we believe older players need to have the most cutting-edge, high-def video displays? Most likely not,” he says. “But it depends on how you’re using the new technology to communicate to players, and whether that requires more horsepower than what they’re previously accustomed to.”

Ehrlich says that in the end, the hardware adjusts to the requirements of the games themselves. “Our strategy builds on what our internal product roadmap is and what we’re aiming to accomplish through our game innovations,” he says. “There are certain features and functionality we want to get accomplished, and some of the hardware we currently have doesn’t accommodate that. I’ll give you a simple example: a game with a mechanical wheel on it for the three-reel mechanical genre. Not the most innovative element, because it’s been out there for 20 years, but it’s new to Everi and obviously very recognizable to the player.”

Orchard says IGT operates on a similar philosophy. “We really are using that hardware as a way to segment our portfolio,” he says. IGT, in fact, has cabinets which incorporate technologies like gesture control (in Sphinx 4D) or PowerSight technology (in the latest Sex and the City game) that were developed for specific games.

Even so, Orchard says technology such as that in the TRUE 4D series is another response to general consumer technology. “3D is becoming more prevalent in the mainstream, particularly in the film industry, so that is something we were ahead of and continue to be ahead of with glasses-free 3D technology,” he says. “With gesture, we’re enabling the player, without touching the screen, to play with their symbols and play with their bonus screens, for an even more immersive experience.”

Konami is another supplier that is working 4K video definition into its product roadmap. “When you look at something like the KX43 cabinet, it was our foray into the pure 4K space,” says Walther. “Concerto Opus was an oversized version of the technology, because 4K works well on such a large platform. But when you look at something that’s more on the core gaming platform, the KX43 is our way of introducing 4K technology into our product base, and distinguishing itself from our existing product line.”

In addition to amping up the high technology on new products, when it comes to cabinets, some form factors remain the same. In fact, in the mechanical reel-spinning genre, R&D dollars are often spent to make the experience more retro.

“Even in the advancement of all these kind of new, sexy cabinets, there absolutely is still room for core cabinets that I believe will stay in place for a long time,” says IGT’s Orchard. “Core video is one. Even though you’ve got some of the curves out there, for the most part, that core video experience and the core video player demands consistency. So you’re seeing incremental evolution there, as opposed to some incredibly fast evolution in other parts of the portfolio.

“And the biggest one, in my opinion, is stepper. In fact, right now, with our next-gen designs and our rework of the S3000 cabinet, we’re actually going back to a more retro look and feel. Because that player base demands it, and the position of those games on the floor demands it, particularly if it’s in a high-limit room. I believe inside the mechanical reel business and the core video business, there needs to be incremental change rather than high-velocity change”

Everi’s Ehrlich agrees. “Three-reel mechanical? We believe the classic mechanical player doesn’t want a lot of change,” he says. “But, we change hardware outside the playing area to help merchandise themes and/or play mechanics, so players can see what they’re looking for a bit easier. We’ve got to make it easier for the player to understand the value proposition.

“We believe we’ve seen a shift in the market for more single-screen, portrait-oriented video product. But we also believe there will always be some form of a three-reel stepper cabinet, and there will also be players that prefer dual-screen video as well.”

 

Cabinet Futures

The advance of technology is rapidly changing the definition of a slot cabinet, and that definition is now as fluid as technological advance in general.

IGT already produces cabinets including charging stations for smartphones, as well as Bluetooth functionality. “Regulations will continue to drive how well and how much they are adopted as we move forward,” says Orchard.

Five years from now, Orchard predicts there will be cash-free slot play. “We envision a world in three to five years where there’s really little cash at all on the casino floor, and we’ve got to make it a more connected experience,” he says. “Those are the key ways we’ve been integrating technology into our hardware to keep up with market trends, and also, the evolution of our demographic.”

Burke at AGS notes that the evolution of cabinets will, in some jurisdiction, require or follow regulatory changes. “We have a team that’s trying to always explore where the jurisdictional requirements are going, and how we can be on the cutting edge of some of those requirements,” he says. “I would love to see things like Bluetooth beaconing. Imagine if you could walk up to the cabinet and it recognized you.”

Konami’s Walther predicts hardware design will adapt to consumer technologies like those in mobile games. “I think you’ll see games that are appearing in a physical cabinet at the casino and games that are appearing on mobile devices and in other venues looking a lot the same, although the experiences will be slightly different,” Walther says.

“In five years, I think you will see player user interfaces that are different from today. I think that is an area where things have been evolving most. We’ve gone from two rows of buttons to a digital deck to a digital deck with some screen interfaces, etc. I think how people engage with their gaming product on the floor will be an area where things will evolve.

“USB ports have become standard, but I think you will see non-gaming devices start to separate themselves from USB. If you look at what you see in the market with what Apple and Android are doing, they’re not using USBs for much anymore. They’re not even using headphone jacks anymore. So, things are becoming more wireless.”

Beyond that, Walther says the speed of technology outside of gaming will affect what hardware looks like in the future. “Technology is advancing in other areas and other segments,” he says. “Look at electronic funds transfers that we do with ApplePay and Venmo. I think you will see cabinets evolving to take advantage of consumer trends happening outside of the gaming space, whether that’s near-field communications we’re putting into our Synkros system, or wireless charging. I think you’re seeing us adapt to how consumers consume technology.”

“More screen, less actual hardware, bigger footprint,” predicts Burke at AGS. “Not necessarily taking up more space, but a bigger player surface. I think all those things are coming. I do think that smart things like wireless phone chargers and the ability to quickly recharge your tablet or mobile device are intelligent things going forward.

“Also, the lighting experience is very important to us. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the lighting interacts with the game. It’s not one thing that makes a cabinet; it’s a thousand little things that come together.

“We collectively, as an industry, are building more ergonomic and smarter cabinets that are more comfortable for players to play, and are designed to give players a superior entertainment experience.

“Once you create an award-winning cabinet, like we did with Orion, you see the returns on it. You have to have a whole strategy built around hardware, and you have to have a whole roadmap built around hardware. We’ve really built our whole business plan in R&D around developing new hardware out into the future.”

Says Everi’s Ehrlich, “We believe the market will see new advanced panels, some iteration of curve, advanced sound packages, etc. We also believe there’s going to be some level of hardware play-mechanic elements. What will be the next wheel that’s going to drive the market?

“It will be done with the mindset of a value proposition for the player, and not just designing a cabinet for the sake of designing a cabinet. And that’s what all the manufacturers are going after.”

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.  

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