The Changing Face of Slot Machine Electronics - Friday 10th of February 2006

Everyone involved in the slotmachine industry is aware of theenormous changes that havetaken place in recent years in terms ofthe functionality of modern machines.From their beginnings as purelymechanical items they are now packedfull of complex electronics andsoftware. This evolution has transformedthe player experience.

The desire and necessity to produceever more sophisticated games raisesboth technical and commercial difficulties.For the many years that slotmachines comprised simple motordriven reels and flashing lights thecontrol electronics and software werefairly simple. Slot manufactures wereable to design their own controllers andsoftware in-house using just a handful ofengineers. Several independent suppliersalso sprang up supplying genericcontrollers specifically for the slotmarket. These controllers were used invery large volumes and, due to theirsimplicity, were relatively cheap, reliableand simple to use. Heber's Plutoplatform is an excellent example of thiskind of controller, used in hundreds ofthousands of machines world wide.

THE ARRIVAL OF VIDEO
Video slots provide many advantagesover their electro-mechanical ancestors.From the player side large flatscreens displaying spectacular graphicsand accompanied by dynamic soundprovide a more exciting playerexperience. From the manufacturerside new games can be introducedsimply by changing software ratherthan complete machines. However,this video revolution generates aproblem for the control electronics –instead of just lamps, buttons andmotors they now have to be able todrive screens and generate moving images- a major change in functionality.

Initially graphics requirements werefairly basic and could be realisedwithout a total transformation.Methods of adding video capability toexisting architectures were created.These "custom" solutions to gamingcontrollers provided massive benefitsto slot manufacturers:-

  • Low cost
  • High reliability
  • Low heat generation – no need forunreliable fans to cool "hot spots"
  • Mechanically designed to matchslot cabinets – layout, dimensions,connectors
  • Inherently secure, or easy to makesecure, due to proprietaryarchitectures
  • Simple software – easy to writegames with a moderate level ofsoftware resource
For basic graphics these advantagesoutweighed the appeal of otherpotentially more powerful alternativearchitectures.

The advent of advanced graphicscreated the need for "digital artists" toproduce high-quality images andanimation. Simply having an electronicrepresentation of mechanicalreels was not enough. The "storyboard" style of gaming was startingto evolve, and the quality of gameswould be judged not only by thequality of fixed graphics, but also bythe animated game-flow based oncomplex mathematical outcomes.

THE PC HAS LANDED
As with everything things do notstand still for long, especially ingaming. Animation approaching Disneystandards is now a requirement, asis the ability to play back items ofvideo and other tricks. Multiplescreens are quickly becoming thenorm on all but the most basic ofgames. All of this stretches far beyondthe capabilities of virtually all non PCbased platforms.

On the surface PC technologyseems to bring a whole host of benefitsto gaming, such as:-
  • Excellent video performanceand cost
  • Availability of of-the-shelfoperating systems andsoftware tools
  • Easy expansion by pluggingin extra boards
Great! - Just by buying in standardcomponents and writing some simplesoftware anyone can have the world'sbest slot machine. Eureka!

Readers more familiar with thepitfalls of PC technology in industrialapplications know the hidden problemsthat the PC brings with it. ThePC industry is driven by the vastmarket for home and office computers,not by a niche industry such asgaming, resulting in:-
  • Form factor designed for a desktopcomputer, causing mechanical andwiring nightmares in slot machines
  • Short product lifetimes causelogistical problems and continuousredesign issues
  • Poor reliability – designed for cost,not long-term 24/7 reliability
  • Headline speed creates lots of heatnecessitating unreliable fans
  • Specialised interfaces to gaminghardware still have to be takencare of Non-existent security
Speciality companies have sprung upto make PC compatible boardsspecifically for industrial markets thatovercome two of the biggest issues –long-term availability and reliability.However these products are stillaimed at a very broad market and donot address the specialised requirementsof the gaming industry.

More recently, PC architecturemotherboards designed from theground up for slot machines haveevolved. These products combine thePC architecture with all the specialhardware requirements of gaminginto a single customised product,offering:-
  • Virtually all the features needed forgaming on one board
  • Long product lifecycles
  • High reliability
  • Form factors to make assembly intoslot machines easy and tidy
Quixant with its QX-10 platform isone notable supplier of such products,along with companies such asDensitron with its DPX series andHeber with Axis. To be successful atwhat these companies are trying toachieve they must possess in-depthexpertise both in the design andmanufacture of PC motherboards aswell as detailed knowledge of therequirements of the slot machineindustry. Indeed, if they are good at it,such companies will actually lead theindustry by creating features theircustomers haven't thought of.

SECURITY
Security is a critical part of gaming. Itis essential for two main reasons – toprevent game fraud and to preventtheft of game content and/or machinecloning. The commonality of the PCarchitecture makes these issuesparticularly problematic.

The PC architecture is notoriousfor its lack of any built in securityfeatures. Attempts to solve thisproblem usually involve connecting"external" security devices. These areusually easy to overcome by identifyingthe points of communication tosuch devices in the operating softwareand defeating them. Trying to avoidthis problem often increases softwarecomplexity, absorbing valuable timeand expertise.

Another approach, pioneered byQuixant, is to encrypt all software,including the operating system. Asthere are no software interfaces tosecurity devices, attack is madevirtually impossible. In additionhackers are not able to insert extrapieces of "sniffer" software into thesystem, as all software must beencrypted by the correct key in orderto be executed. As the key is neverexposed this is impossible to do. Ahacker is faced with software thatcannot be read or reverse engineeredand no way of running any "extra"pieces of software of his/her own.Achieving this requires complete redesignof the PC architecture andoperating system, but the result isextremely high security with noincrease in complexity to the gamecode.

SOFTWARE - WHAT SOFTWARE?
With the PC architecture many slotmanufacturers have found all theirsoftware resources and many monthshave been sucked away just getting asuitable operating system with therequired functionality together. The"no risk" option of using Windows fallsdown when you find out that actuallyit wasn't designed to run a slotmachine! The resources required justto run Windows are significant, andthat still does not get you all you needfor a game, never mind the licensecost. Of course, there is always theHoly Grail that is Linux to come tothe rescue – free and open source.True, the potential is great, howeverthe expertise and time required tounderstand and implement a solutionunder Linux is enormous.

So, just when you need all yoursoftware resources focused on writinggames, you actually find most of itdistracted by focussing on theoperating system and related softwareinstead. Since when did it make goodcommercial sense for slot machinemanufacturers to become full-timeexperts at modifying operatingsystems? Specialised gaming hardwaresupplied complete with a preconfiguredoperating system tuned tosupport all its features is the onlysensible answer.

THE FUTURE
Quixant strongly believes the biggestissue now facing slot manufacturers isthe overwhelming need to producetop quality new games in the shortestpossible timescales. Achieving this willrequire manufacturers to focus theirresources on what they are best at –writing the core games and creation ofthe graphical images and animation.To enable them to do this gaminghardware and platform suppliers willhave to raise the bar on what theyprovide to their customers. What isneeded is a complete hardware/software solution, including an optimisedoperating system together withall the necessary drivers, libraries,communication protocols and peripheralsupport. In addition there is theneed for powerful development anddebugging tools to speed gamedevelopment. The company that deliversthe best package of specialisedhardware and software to the slotmanufacturers will certainly achievesignificant success for both themselvesand their customers. Quixant believesthis is an unstoppable trend and isfocusing all of its resources on the achievementof this goal.

By Nick Jarmany, Managing Director, Quixant Limited
Nick Jarmany isManaging Director ofQuixant Ltd, a UKbasedinternationalcompany specialisingin the design,manufacture andsupply of gaming systems to the globalslot machine industry. Nick has 28 yearsexperience designing computer systems.Prior to founding Quixant he led thedevelopment of computer products whichare now deployed in over 30,000 slotmachines worldwide.

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