"A glimpse of the future,"
trumpet the black vinyl letters plastered on Cyberview Technology's booth at G2E, the gambling industry's annual trade show in Las Vegas. The company's fake-wood cubicle hardly seems up to delivering on that promise. But after two days of trekking through jangling hotel casinos and a convention center filled with even more slot machines wailing "Wheel! Of! Fortune!" I am ready for some Future.
So is the gambling business. Nevada's casinos rake in almost $13 billion a year, and two-thirds of that comes from slots. But the players are conspicuously grizzled. Everyone wants to know how to turn the younger crowd over at the gaming tables into the next generation of slot addicts. Cyberview's answer: videogames.
Alexander Popovich, the jovial lead software engineer of Cyberview's R&D group, seats me in front of his prototype game, Glaxium, and gives me an imaginary credit of $10 to play with. I take control of a blue spaceship hovering over a rocky alien landscape. Enemy fighters and asteroids start coming at me. My fighter swoops left and right, dodging bullets and grabbing glowing capsules that give me extra weapons. When I destroy a boulder, it explodes with a satisfying thud. It's all very familiar. The attacks intensify until eventually I'm caught in hostile fire and my ship explodes. I groan.
Popovich smiles paternally. "It doesn't matter," he says, explaining that gamblers would buy a block of play time, not a single spin of the wheel. As the seconds tick by, a counter at the top of the screen shows a steadily increasing wager. Whenever you blast something, it triggers the same random-number generator that's at the heart of any digital slot machine. In other words, Cyberview has pulled an arcade skin over a one-armed bandit, and each explosion is a pull of the arm.
My ship immediately reappears. It seems I have an infinite number of lives. Nevada laws force Cyberview to deliver the same odds to everyone, Popovich tells me, so the worst player has the same shot as the best.
"Even if you do nothing, your ship will run into something and break it," he says. I lift my hands from the buttons and let the craft drift into an oncoming boulder. Both explode. "See, you just won some money."
Indeed I did, and when I finish my two-minute demo, I have a pretend $20.24. I'm a pretend winner!
Cyberview hopes to persuade state regulators to allow skill-based payouts by 2009. Of course, as in any casino game, odds and payouts tilt toward the house — skilled gamers will merely lose less.
I slide over to the company's other offering, a pinball machine that wagers credits every time the ball hits a bumper. I feel oddly relaxed, and I suddenly realize why: My ears aren't being assaulted by the irritating clanks and aggressive C-major arpeggios of slot machines. I feel like I'm in a video arcade. It feels good.
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