The very term “slot machine” has become antiquated. Gone are the days when most mechanical gaming devices featured an opening or “slot” to receive coins or tokens that triggered play. Gone, too, are the handles and levers that gave rise to the phrase “one-armed bandit.” Even the words “reel” and “spin” are becoming out of place. Today’s casinos are ruled by video slots, and thanks to new digital technology, they just keep getting better and better.
Evolution of the Machine
At the heart of every video slot is something called a “random number generator” (RNG). The RNG is usually not a physical device but a computational program, which ensure the unpredictability of game outcomes. The first one was introduced by International Game Technology (IGT) in 1981. It revolutionized slot machines, allowing computers and video screens to replace spring-powered mechanisms, gears, and spinning reels.
The first truly successful video slot was developed in 1996 by a Chicago-based company called WMS. Its initial game had a fishing theme and it was named “Reel ‘Em In.” The game featured not one but two video screens, one where the slot game was played and another mounted above where cartoon characters in boats “fished” for bonus prizes. The game’s wild success led to an entire line of video slots, including Jackpot Party, Boom, and Filthy Rich, which can still be seen on casino floors today.
Not only were these new electronic slots more involving and creative than their predecessors, but thanks to the RNG they also guaranteed an equal shot at hitting a bonus or a jackpot on every play. It would generate random numbers, typically between one and several billion of them, hundreds of times each second. When the slot’s start button was pressed, the machine’s internal computer would identify the next several numbers produced by the RNG, run them through a program, and output what symbols should appear on each of the slot’s video reels.
Having the video slot “spins” controlled by computer led to other innovations, including the ability to wager and play without coins. Bill validators were installed to accept paper currency and issue credits, which were in turn displayed on the screen. When it came time for payouts, credit slips were printed out to be redeemed at the casino cage—no more messy coins to deal with.
The Video Future
Another major advantage of computer control was the elimination of bulky physical reels. Replacing them with video images meant machines took up less space and more reels were possible. Expanding the games to a five-reel format meant more possible combinations of symbols, which in turn led to multi-payline patterns, more winning combinations, bigger jackpots, and higher payouts.
Other slot makers have been quick to follow suit, bringing out ever-more innovative video slots year by year. One of the biggest manufacturers is IGT, whose line-up includes variations on the old spinning reel slots such as Ultimate Sevens and Jackpot Bonanza as well as 5-reel and even 6-reel Video Slots with themes that range from adventure (Marco Polo, Traveling Gnomes, Diamond Galaxy) to social topics (Sex and the City, Vamps, Zodiac Riches).
The newest Video Slots allow players to personalize their playing experience by entering a user name that is remembered by the machine. Just like role-playing games on home video game systems, these machines guide players through “levels” of accomplishment. Some have special chairs, too, fitted with surround-sound systems. The video slot known as “Star Trek,” for example, has two screens and audio so realistic that the seat shakes when the game clicks into a “warp drive” bonus. Multiplayer video slots have also been around for a few years, as have big mobile games, bringing slot play ever closer to a virtual reality experience.