LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Every year slot machine manufacturers gather to discuss their industry's version of global warming — a dramatic shift in customer tastes with long-term implications for survival that are still years away.
Every year they confer about what they're doing to attract young customers — people raised on video games who aren't impressed by spinning reels and blinking lights.
This year's Global Gaming Expo, which wrapped up last week, was no different. The Big Four — International Game Technology, Bally Technologies, Aristocrat Technologies and WMS Gaming — showed off more breakthroughs to interest younger players while still appealing to their core audience of over-65 gamblers.
"You're talking about a demographic that's dying," said Al Thomas, executive director of research and development for WMS Gaming.
Next year several U.S. casinos will offer machines that use server-based technology, which allows casino managers or gamblers to select games that are downloaded onto a particular machine. The technology allows casinos to offer games on demand and other services, including custom coupons and impromptu tournaments — a leap forward for a slow-to-evolve industry.
International Game Technology introduced slots with a library of about a dozen games to choose from. The process of switching to a new game takes about 20 seconds.
Bally and IGT also are using such technology to interact with gamblers. Some Nevada casinos offer Bally's iView — a small screen below the game that displays a gambler's account and offers casino promotions — and will soon offer touch-screen games from IGT that allow players to order cocktails, view and print coupons and make show reservations.
Knowing that younger players prefer a more interactive experience than the typically solitary act of pushing a "spin" button, manufacturers also are racing to create so-called community games that allow groups of gamblers to, say, play a bonus round together or win a series of jackpots. These include WMS' Reel 'Em In, where players at a bank of machines can compete in a boat race, and Bally's "Two for the Money," a two-player game featuring armrests, cup holders and a love seat.
This year's new games were bigger, brighter and more elaborate. And while they are starting to look more like souped-up arcade games for an XBox generation, manufacturers are careful to appeal to the older side of the generation gap.
IGT, WMS and Bally featured games with layered displays to create a 3-D effect. The games' cartoonish images would look familiar to longtime slot players.
IGT even has a digital reel game that makes a clicking sound like a mechanical device, no doubt appealing to older players who prefer actual reels to digital ones.
Some themed games appear aimed at a younger crowd, like Aristocrat's "Jaws" and "Sopranos" slots, with big-screen displays. Bally introduced advanced versions of its Playboy, Breakout! and Pong games. IGT unveiled another "Star Wars" game. And WMS showed off an arcade-like "Star Trek" machine, which allows players to progress through different levels of the game over time.
Manufacturers are attempting to strike a balance between young and old, whose tastes don't appear to overlap much.
"Just because I like video games doesn't mean they (older gamblers) are going to like video games," said Thomas of WMS, who came from the video game industry.
As a joke, Thomas once dyed his hair blue to show a casino manager that he identified with the casino's older, "blue hair" players. The casino manager cares less about younger players because they have less time and money to gamble, but that's changing.
Just the same, "you can't expect this group of young players to ... like what you do," he said.