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Reel Estate

The annual arms race among slot manufacturers these days is just as much about hardware as game content

Reel Estate

It was not that long ago that the cabinet on a slot machine was viewed as secondary to a game’s chance of success. When the Aria opened on the Las Vegas Strip in 2009, its server-based slot floor was viewed as the wave of the future.

The flexibility of a server-based floor was supposed to transform slot operations, since game software can be altered on a schedule according to the

demographics of who is likely to be in the casino at certain times. The cabinets are dumb terminals, there to house any number of game styles. In the mid-2000s, many thought slot cabinets would become little more than cookie-cutter personal computers, designed as hosts to any variety of game content.

As it turned out, rumors of the demise of advanced slot hardware were not only premature; they were downright wrong. Over the past decade, technological advancements in slot-machine game programs have been inexorably linked to hardware advancements. New slot cabinets are rolled out at trade shows every year right along with the new slot games. New games are designed to make the most of hardware, and vice versa.

Slot games are merchandised via their cabinetry, and slot cabinets have become crucial to the development of new game styles. The ergonomics of the cabinetry has a direct effect on player comfort, and consequently, the length of slot play sessions. Product roadmaps of all the major slot suppliers typically contain game groups built around particular advanced hardware setups.

“Technology is moving at a rapid pace, and cabinets that are 10 years old feel like they are 30 years old,” says Jon Hanlin, senior vice president of commercial strategy & business analytics for Aristocrat Technologies. “Our responsibility is to ensure our operating partners are getting positive returns on their purchases with great content and innovative hardware, but getting new hardware to players is the goal.”

“There is no question the look of the cabinet plays an important part of the game standing out on the casino floor,” agrees Jean Venneman, chief commercial officer for Gaming Arts. “Keeping up with technology and trends is important as well. But the ultimate success of that cabinet will still come down to the quality and appeal of the game as well as the supporting library.”

“Players want to be dazzled, and desire the latest and greatest as they spend good money to be entertained,” says Travis Bussey, vice president of hardware engineering at Everi. “New hardware draws the eyes of players, distinguishing itself more so than any new title can on the same cabinet. Manufacturers are always in search of the next must-have hardware; however, designing and building a new form factor for the sake of technology does not make an impression on the player. Some level of play element needs to exist providing them a value proposition they have not experienced before.”

Old-timers in the industry no doubt remember when slot floors evoked a mind-numbing sameness in which one cabinet looked exactly like the next one. These days, the floor offers a smorgasbord of shapes and sizes.

“The casino floor continues to evolve with bigger, brighter, and more surprising hardware,” notes Caitlin Harte, director of product marketing at Incredible Technologies. “As technology rapidly evolves in all areas of life, players expect the same thing in their slot playing experience. The latest hardware is expected to capitalize upon the advancements in technology like screen resolution, wireless charging, and premium sound, then show all of it off with an entertaining game. Many players decide what new games to try based on the visuals.”

“New hardware is important to our customers for several reasons,” notes Anthony Baerlocher, vice president of product content and innovation at IGT. “First, deploying new slot cabinets is one way to differentiate one casino from the next, and to notably modernize the casino floor environment. This diversity of hardware also allows properties to cater to a wider variety of players and expand their player base.”

Randy Hedrick, vice president of development engineering for Scientific Games, says cabinets change along with the expectations of players. “New hardware isn’t necessarily a required addition to each year’s new product cycle; however, it has become more of the norm in recent years as we work to adapt to changing player preferences,” Hedrick says. “Scientific Games builds great, high-performing cabinets that have a lot of staying power on the casino floor, but as consumer technology rapidly evolves so, too, have player expectations.”

“It’s not unique to our industry,” adds Andrew Burke, CEO of Bluberi Gaming. He offers televisions and smartphones as analogous developments. “It used to be you’d have a TV and it lasted 10 years,” he says. “Now, it’s seems you’re getting a new TV every couple of years. It’s the same with iPhones—It used to be you’d need a new smartphone every few years. Now, a new one comes out every year, and you’ve got to upgrade. I think consumer expectation of how to interact with hardware has really changed, and we’ve been part of that shift.”

Advanced hardware development also is becoming a necessity to compete in the modern marketplace. “It’s almost like an arms race,” says Karl Zedell, Jr., vice president of hardware engineering for AGS. “When you go to G2E every year, everybody has bigger hardware, bigger cabinets, advanced monitors, more lighting, and the latest technology.”

R&D Collaboration

This brave new world of slot hardware has evolved right along with software R&D. Development now involves collaborative work between software and hardware engineering.

“A new gaming cabinet cannot be developed in isolation,” notes Vince Bruzzese, general manager, research & development at Ainsworth Game Technology. “You must seek opinions from all stakeholders and take their feedback into consideration in the product specification. Cabinets are rarely if at all designed with one specific game type in mind, but you may design a range of options which enable manufacturers to configure a cabinet for a specific game type if required.”

“We have always had a highly collaborative process,” says Aristocrat’s Hanlin. “In the end, these cabinets are a vessel for our games, so integrating the game design talent into the process allows for optimal design and performance.”

Victor Duarte, senior vice president and chief product & strategy officer for Konami Gaming Inc., says the level of collaboration between software and hardware teams in game development varies according to the product. “There are obvious examples like Konami’s Fortune Cup (horse-racing game), Rapid Revolver and Titan 360, where the innovative nature of the game play absolutely required close collaboration between software and hardware teams,” Duarte says.

“In general, as we move deeper into the premium space, we expect greater shared custom innovation between the software and hardware elements, in order to help create that premium experience. And as you move toward the core product, we generally expect more standardized interaction for those core players who desire a more straightforward presentation.”

“Our hardware leadership works closely with game development to ensure we provide a hardware platform that augments the game experience for the player as much as possible,” says Everi’s Bussey. “For the most part, we aim to stay neutral and avoid theme-specific accents in hardware design, but some changes can add a subtle flash, help merchandise themes or play mechanics, or more effectively communicate the game’s value proposition.”

“For me, it’s always the hardware first,” says Bluberi’s Burke. “I don’t think it has to be the most outstanding or expensive version of hardware, but it needs to be good. Then, it’s the games themselves we give a lot of attention to. Hardware gets you to sit down. The game is what keeps you coming. So, it’s a very good symbiotic relationship between the two.”

That relationship between engineering teams has become an essential part of developing product roadmaps, adds Zedell at AGS.

“The development philosophy for the cabinets has evolved into a very focused long-term strategy on an overall product portfolio for AGS,” he says. “We’re not just thinking about the cabinet we’re working on today and the one that’s going to hit the market next year; we have a roadmap that’s laid out for several years into the future, and it’s very detailed—specific types of cabinets, configurations, monitor sizes, even mechanical and electrical architecture.”

“One of my biggest initiatives at IGT involved looking at hardware, content and commercial strategy,” says Baerlocher. “Working with a great team, we spent many months looking into this topic and discovered the content roadmap and hardware strategy were disconnected. This independence didn’t hurt the games, but it created inefficiencies in our development process. We have modified our strategy so that content and hardware are now developed in concert, and we build hardware to best present the games.”

Advancing Technology

One reason hardware and software development are in a constant state of advancement is that outside consumer technology has continued to advance at a rapid pace. Where once the gaming industry consistently lagged behind other consumer industries in technology, there is now an emphasis among slot suppliers to stay closely attuned to outside developments.

“Go back to something as simple as a touch-screen button display,” comments Mike Trask, director of product marketing and strategy at Ainsworth. “Ten years ago, it was hugely innovative that all the buttons were being replaced by these touch-screen button decks. Here we are 10 years later, and the touch-screen button deck is fairly standard on new slot cabinets.

“In the same way, the audio has improved over the years. Now, we’ve seen over the past few years the advent of everyone working on curved-screen monitors. Certainly, all of these improvements you see on slot hardware are reflective of just the general increase in technology.”

“Consumer product technology drives innovation across many entertainment mediums, including gaming,” says Aristocrat’s Hanlin. “4K screens, bent screens, Gorilla Glass, and improved processing power all factor into the evolution of the gaming cabinet. We utilize technological advances that will enrich the slot player experience.”

“Advancements in consumer technology are a huge part of video slot hardware development,” says IT’s Harte. “You cannot expect players to go from watching their 4K television or using their touch-screen smartphone to sitting down at a low-res, sub-par gaming experience.”

“Advancements in outside consumer technology have a considerable impact on hardware development,” says Wayne Ellard, executive director of product management at Scientific Games. “From the size and clarity of screens, to expectations for cashless gaming options and the need for charging stations at each gaming terminal, all of our new cabinets will offer mobile phone charging stations. The ability for the player to charge their devices at the EGM to enable other property-level amenities is now a requirement on all new products.”

IGT’s Baerlocher adds that the iPhone charger is one of many advancements from consumer technology that have become requirements in new slot cabinetry.

“There are consumer standards that have become the norm,” Baerlocher says. “For example, high-resolution 4K video is the expectation of everyone. Therefore, as we develop cabinets, the displays need to be crisp and clear. Another important area is sound. With the advancement in digitized sound, players are expecting clean audio with more dimensions and surround elements.

“Separately, there are new consumer technologies that help the casino suppliers which consumers never adopted. The best examples are curved displays. The gaming industry drove the mass production of curved displays to enable a consumer-acceptable price point. But due to exogenous factors like viewing angles and room dimensions, curved displays have been rejected by home consumers. Despite this, curved LCD displays truly have enhanced slot games and offer a unique experience for consumers at a casino.”

Zedell at AGS adds that the evolution of slot monitors is by no means finished. “We’ve gone from HD to 4K, which is pretty much a standard,” he says. “In the TV industry, they’re displaying 8K monitors, and now we’re even moving away from LCDs into the micro-LED technology.”

Bluberi’s Burke reports similar movement. “Our guys in R&D are constantly showing me cool new uses of micro-LED technology, or LED technology, and we’re constantly asking, is this good with what we’re doing?” he says, emphasizing that new technologies need to provide a logical fit with gaming. “I think where you get some weird outcomes is when people find a cool technology, and just try to sort of fit it into the gaming business. It ends up being a cool technology that just doesn’t have any use to us. So, we try to make sure you have something that’s got purpose.”

“We’re looking at other other industries all the time for technology, and that’s one of the most exciting things about the job,” says Zedell at AGS. “And when you see that new technology, you try to come up with a plan on how you can leverage that technology to strategic advantage within our own industry.”

“Advancement in consumer technology is constantly monitored in line with the manufacturers’ future product requirements,” says Bruzzese at Ainsworth. “But it has to be weighed up against its cost, availability, life cycle and contribution to game performance.”

“As technology evolves, there are shifts in consumer entertainment preferences,” says Konami’s Duarte. “This impacts what slot hardware looks like now and in the future.”

Comfort and Size

One of the most prominent requirements in any new slot cabinet is that it must be comfortable for the player. Twenty years ago, when slot floors were crammed with cookie-cutter cabinets, players often found it uncomfortable to position themselves for extended play. That has changed, as developments in ergonomics have risen to the top of the checklist in cabinet development.

“Player experience and comfort are paramount for hardware design,” says Everi’s Bussey. “We have specific requirements when it comes to ergonomics of the machine. For resolution, most players have a smartphone with the highest level of clarity, and they expect that level of technology to exist on all devices they interact with, particularly those they are putting money into.”

“Ergonomics is key,” says Aristocrat’s Hanlin. “Having the reel basket sit perfectly in the player’s vision is paramount to success. All the fancy lighting and packaging attracts the players off the aisleway and onto your game, but when they get there they have to feel comfortable playing your game.”

“IGT’s two primary areas of focus when it comes to ergonomics are player hand position and viewing angles,” says Baerlocher. “IGT strives to make the player as comfortable as possible to enable extended play sessions.”

As these considerations in ergonomics have grown, so has the size of the typical premium slot monitor. Where the typical cabinet lineup once consisted of a standard-sized core cabinet and perhaps a Bertha-style giant, many of today’s hottest new cabinets are in between those two, with monitors anywhere from 40 inches to 85 inches. Most of these fit onto a standard-size slot base, and thanks to the increased attention to ergonomics, those big screens are easy for players to look at.

Aristocrat, for instance, has replaced its former Arc Double cabinet, which featured stacked 43-inch monitors, with the new Neptune Double, which stacks 49-inch monitors, configured in a way that a player can look up from a custom chair and directly view the progressive meters on the top monitor.

That cabinet is just one example of a trend among all manufacturers toward that larger-format form factor.

“There’s a definite performance lift for large-format games—in between the standard core and the big oversized machines,” says Konami’s Duarte. “The growth of large-screen displays and portrait-oriented game cabinets has given players entirely new kinds of jackpot events and bonus mechanics. And depending on the type of entertainment, these machines can capture a crossover appeal, to both core and more casual-style audiences.”

“The trend is that cabinets are definitely getting larger,” says Zedell at AGS. “The technology allows this because the monitors have come down in cost, as well as the backlighting and the weight of the monitor. It’s at a point where it’s easier now to implement that into the cabinet sizes.”

“Players vote with their wallets, and it seems the larger, more prominent cabinets are quite popular with players,” says Venneman at Gaming Arts. “I believe we can give the player a larger-scale experience but keep within the bounds of the general footprint.”

Bluberi’s Burke predicts more uniquely sized cabinets are on the way. “I think somebody will do something beyond what we see today,” he says, “but I really do think that 49-inch screen has become the new standard product.”

As suppliers keep up the parade of new cabinets, many feel the hardware arms race will continue indefinitely.

“I think it will,” says Bluberi’s Burke. “I don’t think there’s some tipping point that pushes it over. I do feel like things are becoming a little homogenized, but I’m hoping it veers off where people are trying things a little differently.

“You remember the days of the old Barcrest. There are some cool concepts out there that feel more like a carnival than a current casino game that I think there’s still an opportunity for.”

“The advancements that matter most are those that drive enduring engagement for players and enduring asset value for operators,” says Konami’s Duarte. “Konami is currently doubling down on development to serve changing needs, in ways that help ensure superior results, reliability, and ROI for our casino customers.”


King Cabinets

Suppliers identify their best in the way of hardware advancements

Slot suppliers have been rolling out new cabinets more frequently than perhaps any time in the history of the industry. Here are the products they identify as their latest heavy hitters.

AGS

The sweet spot for AGS these days is the unique merchandising package created by the Starwall, the giant, freestanding video backdrop display for Orion Portrait cabinets that frames three or six Orion games in a stunning 4K video display with colors and features drawn from the game content. Measuring 8.5 feet tall by 5 feet deep, the merchandising display can frame a three-pack along a wall or a freestanding two-sided six-pack bank of games.

“Merchandising is a very important part of the hardware business now, and AGS did a tremendous job with the Starwall package,” says AGS Hardware Engineering VP Karl Zedell, Jr.


Ainsworth Game Technology

Ainsworth released its first curved cabinet, the A-STAR Curve, just before the industry shutdowns last year. The new offering is quickly gaining traction this year. It is a sleek 13-foot cabinet featuring a 43-inch floating infinity monitor under a 27-inch high-definition topper, with dynamic LED lighting and a state-of-the-art LCD button deck.

“For us, the A-STAR Curve was a pretty big step. It was our first cabinet release since 2017, and it was our first curved-screen monitor,” says Mike Trask, Ainsworth’s director of product marketing and strategy. “We certainly know it’s necessary to create a more and more innovative and strong experience on a cabinet in order to compete on today’s casino floors.”


Aristocrat Technologies

Aristocrat has followed up the launch of the Neptune Dual premium cabinet with the MarsX Portrait, its 42-inch flat-screen monitor providing the perfect complement to its workhorse MarsX core cabinet, which was named the industry’s top-performing cabinet by Eilers & Krejcik in 2019.

“Portrait cabinets have been a hot cabinet style for years now, and we feel the MarsX Portrait is a top-tier entry into that market,” says Aristocrat Senior VP Jon Hanlin. “The design is elegant and builds on the highly successful dual-screen MarsX.”


Bluberi

According to Bluberi CEO Andrew Burke, in the fall, the company plans to introduce G-Force, a new 49-inch curved-screen cabinet that is the first new form factor for the company since Burke arrived. “We’re also working on a game with Steve Weiss’ company we call ‘Big Mech;’ it is a hybrid mechanical-reel oversized cabinet,” Burke says. “It has really big, stenciled-out mechanical reels, with a 7-inch LCD behind each symbol, and a 55-inch monitor on top.”

 


Everi

Everi launched the Empire Flex, featuring a 49-inch curved monitor and curved LED light bars, with the successful Wicked Wheel slot series. The cabinet, ranked No. 1 among portrait cabinets for seven straight months in the Eilers-Fantini Cabinet Performance Report, is on tap for a parade of new content going forward.

“In February 2021, we leveraged the success of Empire Flex and introduced the fully featured banked product Flex Fusion with 4K game content, incredible lighting features, and an expanded button deck,” says Everi Hardware Engineering VP Travis Bussey. “The platform is available in multiple configurations for flexibility in placement including socially distanced configurations with integrated panels for player safety.”


IGT

IGT recently released the latest entries in its “Peak” group of cabinets, the PeakSlant32 in the core segment and the PeakSlant49 as a premium offering for new multi-level progressive titles and the Wheel of Fortune brand.

“Both of these cabinets include the latest technology and really cater to the player, while making the content the star of the show,” says Anthony Baerlocher, IGT’s vice president of product content and innovation.  

“The PeakSlant32 was the first triple 32-inch monitor cabinet into the marketplace highlighting IGT’s leadership in hardware and innovation. The PeakSlant49 has a signature double progressive curve to create a sleek, modern flow to the cabinet which also enhances the viewing angle.”


Incredible Technologies

IT has achieved great success with the Infinity line of cabinets, this year emphasizing the larger-format Infinity Pilot, Infinity V55 and Infinity Summit. The Infinity Pilot is designed to give the player an immersive experience by flanking the main 55-inch vertical monitor with two 29-inch displays for a cinematic effect. The Summit is designed as a new “premium core” cabinet, with a 4K high-definition monitor on top of the main 55-inch display, angled down toward the player.

“We believe players will continue to seek out playing spaces where they do not feel crowded or cramped,” comments IT Product Marketing Director Caitlin Harte. “Larger-format cabinets like our Infinity Pilot promote extra space with wing monitors to encapsulate players sitting at the game. Our Infinity V55 and Summit cabinets occupy a standard footprint but have the capability to add Edge displays between them to create space in many unique configurations.”


Gaming Arts

Among Gaming Arts hardware highlights have been the Phocus U104 upright and Phocus S104 hybrid cabinets. The company is planning on releasing a 49-inch, single-screen portrait cabinet this summer called the VertX Grand. “Using all of that uninterrupted real estate allows for several innovative game concepts that we are excited to see in the field,” says Gaming Arts Chief Commercial Officer Jean Venneman.

Last year, the company stepped up R&D efforts to promote player safety amid the Covid-19 pandemic, developing a Player Guard Antivirus System that uses UVC lighting to decontaminate, disinfect and sanitize gaming machines and gaming equipment. “The goal is to disinfect and sanitize virtually any piece of equipment or object that possesses a risk to the gaming public or casino staff,” Venneman says.


Konami

Last fall, Konami expanded the Dimension series of slot cabinets. Dimension 49J, the J-shaped curved-monitor cabinet, debuted with All Aboard, which is one of the company’s highest-preforming slots. Konami is making other titles available on the 49J, as well as the core tri-monitor Dimension 27 and the Dimension 49 portrait cabinet.

“All three Dimension cabinets are available now, and certainly with the proven success of the Dimension 49J machine we anticipate strong player reception for the for-sale versions—each with an incredible pipeline of original content and comprehensive merchandising options,” says Konami Senior VP Victor Duarte. “Our latest Dimension slot product line has been designed from the ground up to focus on the player, and features some of the best available content from Konami development teams.”


Scientific Games

Last fall, Scientific Games released Kascada, billed as the next generation of the groundbreaking TwinStar J43. Kascada features an ultra-high-definition 4K graphics display on a 43-inch, innovative double curved monitor. This spring, the company is launching the massive Mural cabinet, featuring dual 55-inch curved displays designed to host premium content with game mechanics designed specifically to take advantage of the dramatic layout.

“Powering this cabinet is a next-generation processor that provides lightning-fast game play, smooth animation, and crystal-clear graphics,” says Randy Hedrick, SG’s vice president of development engineering. “Further enhancing the player’s experience is an upgraded larger iDeck featuring dual bash buttons for increased player interaction and an embedded inductive charger for convenient mobile phone charging.”

 

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 books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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