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The Force Is With You

IGT's "Star Wars: A New Hope" provides a video slot experience like none before it

by Frank Legato

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

It is among the most familiar of phrases in the history of cinema, and it is a fitting description of just how different a game from other video slots on the market has been produced by slot market leader International Game Technology.

The long-awaited Star Wars: A New Hope video slot is finally here, and if your favorite casino is anything like the first few locations where this groundbreaking game has been introduced, you will encounter a scene as familiar to you as that outside of your local theater back in 1977, when the original Star Wars film was released – a long line.

Players are lining up in Nevada for the new Star Wars, a penny multiline video slot with a million-dollar-plus progressive jackpot that is, incredibly, minor among the entertainment attractions incorporated in the game. IGT pulled out all the stops for this one, tapping its remarkable arsenal of technology to create a slot experience that is akin to placing yourself inside the original Star Wars movie – which, thanks to all the prequels and sequels, is now Star Wars: A New Hope, Episode IV in the six-part Star Wars series.

Just as the original George Lucas film broke new ground in cinematic special effects, creating a film experience that is now part of the national culture, IGT's Star Wars slot does the movie justice with the astounding abilities of its Advanced Video Platform, or AVP. This computer system permits live-action video to be displayed as clear as if you were watching it on the big screen, and permits sound, film clips, and game features to be meshed into a slot experience so unique as to make one almost forget about shooting for a lifechanging jackpot.

It is fitting that IGT's launch of this game coincides with this month's release of the new and last film in the Star Wars series from Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century Fox. For one thing, the new film is Episode III, the final prequel to the original film – the slot theme picks up where the new film leaves off.

"The timing was great with the new Star Wars movie," says Joe Kaminkow, vice president of engineering and game design at IGT, "because it really dovetails into what is Star Wars IV, the emergence of Darth Vader."

"The development of the Star Wars video slot is a significant gaming event."
-Joe Kaminkow, IGT's vice president of engineering and game design

He adds that the timing of the slot's release is also perfect for those players who have been Star Wars aficionados from the very beginning. "The development of the Star Wars video slot is a significant gaming event," he says. "Those who stood in line in 1977 to see the first Star Wars movie are now about 50 years old – exactly the demographic of core slot players."

Kaminkow heads the game design "force" at IGT, and he says he assembled his "A Team" of designers, artists, sound technicians, and mechanical engineers to create this game. "We had to turn people away from this project," he laughs.

It shows. In fact, Lucasfilm, George Lucas's independent production company and the creator of all six Star Wars films, loves what IGT has done in representing the action of Lucas's 1977 masterpiece.

"The introduction of IGT's new Star Wars video slot fits perfectly with the May 19th opening of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, the final installment in the Star Wars saga," says Casey Collins, director of domestic licensing and retail marketing for Lucasfilm. "The IGT game development team has done a marvelous job of adapting the sensory excitement of the first film to a gaming machine that should be a huge attraction for casino players, especially those who are Star Wars fans. This is a unique extension of the Star Wars brand."

Hollywood Production

IGT officially announced its license agreement to create the Star Wars slot in June 2004, but the real genesis of events that would lead to this game can be traced much further back than that, to Joe Kaminkow's career as a designer of home video games prior to his joining IGT in 1998.

Kaminkow had occasion to work with George Lucas often during his 15 years designing home video games for Sega, and that relationship was to come in handy when IGT eventually went after the license to create a Star Wars slot. "We were very fortunate to have a relationship with George Lucas from my prior career," Kaminkow says. "We first assembled a creative team on Star Wars while we were pitching the idea to Lucas."

He adds that Lucas and his studio served as invaluable consultants in the development of the game. "George was involved from his approval, allowing us to go forward with the project, to a year ago, with the licensing meeting," says Kaminkow. "His organization is very big, and a lot of his people have been involved in Star Wars for a decade. The Lucas people have been involved every step of the way, in making sure the quality of our game was fitting for a Lucas project."

The other strength Kaminkow had by the time he pitched the idea for a Star Wars slot to the film's producer was a major investment by his company in the technology to create a slot game that would do the film justice. IGT launched the AVP platform in 2002, and the company's executives immediately realized its potential. The highspeed processor had the storage capability and computer horsepower to display a multitude of interactive game events, displayed with video and animation that had never before been possible in a slot machine – which would become obvious to players with the first AVP game, Wheel of Fortune Special Edition.

Trust us, folks – you haven't seen the likes of this game in a casino before
You relive the film while you're spinning the reels

One of IGT's key investments along with the creation of AVP was the construction of a state-of-the-art motion-capture studio at IGT's Reno headquarters. This is the same type of facility used by Hollywood production companies such as Pixar, Lucasfilm, and New Line Cinema to create the lifelike computer animation you see at the movies. Pixar used it for The Polar Express. New Line used it for The Lord of the Rings to create digitized characters like Gollum and the Orcs. Lucasfilm used it in the later episodes of Star Wars for characters such as Yoda (having pushed the 1970's stop-motion animation technology to limits never anticipated in the first film).

And now IGT would use the same process to create an unforgettable sequence for the Star Wars video slot – the famous light-saber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The process begins with real-life actors, filmed performing a choreographed sequence of movements. The actors wear special suits covered in luminous balls, and the resulting film provides a blueprint for designers to create animated wire frames of the figures. They build from there, using the live action of human figures to build animation that is incredibly lifelike.

"For the motion-capture sequence in Star Wars, we created the characters separately in our 3-D studio labs," Kaminkow explains. "Martial arts experts wearing the special suits were captured by 16 cameras throughout the room. We choreographed the action through several sequences, with fantastic results."

Anthony Baerlocher, IGT's director of game design and leader of the Star Wars development team, adds that the studio would have been useless without the new AVP platform. "AVP was critical, because we needed a high-definition vehicle to create the animated figures," he says. "Motion-capture is far superior to anything we've done before. We needed that horsepower to create the type of experience we wanted to create."

AVP also provides enough computer power for game designers to weave actual clips from the film seamlessly into the bonus rounds – the animated screens mesh perfectly with the clips from the film into a complete Hollywood experience within the confines of a slot machine. Trust us, folks – you haven't seen the likes of this game in a casino before.

"Our AVP platform gave us the ability to do true 3-D," says Kaminkow, "and with the investment of our company in 3-D technology and our motion-capture studio, it gave us the ability to do the quality of animation that the Pixar or Lucasfilm studios are doing. From the player side, the combination of excitement created by jackpots and this amazing visual experience truly makes this game a grand slam."

International Game Technology

Thirty-line, 300-coin video slot; multisite progressive jackpot; primaryscreen, second-screen, and mechanical top-box bonus events; penny denomination
91% (Base Game 87.8%; Progressive Contribution 3.2%)
Approximately 50% with all paylines active
NV: Progressive resetting at $1 million
Other Jurisdictions: Progressive resetting at $500,000
Nonprogressive Version: $25,000
NV at press time; approval pending in AZ, CA, CO, CT, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, LA, MI tribal, MN, MO, MS tribal, NM, NV, NY, OR, WI

Star Wars – The Slot

You won't have any trouble spotting the Star Wars game from across the slot floor. The central 19-inch color video monitor is housed in an upright cabinet over seven feet tall, its progressive meter beaming underneath the central feature of the top box-a huge replica of the Death Star planet-killing weapon wielded by the evil Empire in the film. The Death Star, a metallic sphere illuminated from within, is the bonus apparatus used in the three levels of the game's central bonus event.

However, without even considering bonus events, this is a unique video slot game. The primary game – a 30-line, 300-coin penny video slot – is actually three games in one, with three distinct sets of reel symbols, animation, and sound packages that are activated according to how much the player wagers per line.

If the player wagers from one to four credits per line, the setting of the primary game is Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's home planet, where the droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, landed in the film and where Skywalker (Mark Hamill) eventually linked up with the legendary Jedi fighter Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). The reel symbols and sound effects with this wagering level depict that first segment of the film.

With five to nine credits wagered per line, the sights and sounds change to depict the Cantina, the interstellar bar in which Luke meets his mercenary spaceship pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Solo's second-incommand, the hairy alien, Chewbacca. The reel symbols at this level depict many of the quirky aliens who brawled at the Cantina in the film, as well as Solo and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who he is enlisted to help save from the Empire.

The maximum wager of 10 credits per line switches the primary screen to Death Star mode, with symbols and sounds depicting the final battle between the Empire's TIE fighter ships and the rebel alliance vessels (along with Han Solo's starship, the trusty Millennium Falcon) in the race to destroy the Death Star before it can obliterate the planet of the rebel alliance.

Each level of wagering brings with it the complete ambience of a particular part of the film, but each level also changes the percentage return-jackpots for several different winning combinations actually are higher with each progressive level of wagering. "The more the player bets, the looser it gets," says Baerlocher.

Throughout primary game play, you will hear audio clips from the film, from Han Solo's victory yells to Obi-Wan Kenobi's reassuring "May the Force be with you" line. You relive the film while you're spinning the reels.

The Bonuses

But where you really begin to relive the classic film is within the multitude of bonus events incorporated into the game, beginning with the scatter-pay wins from landing either or both of the droid characters on the primary reels.

Three or more R2-D2 or C-3PO symbols return a scatter win. Matching droid symbols return a higher jackpot. When these symbols land, the animated images of the droid characters instantly transform into small film images of the characters, in motion within the reel spots.

When a Darth Vader symbol lands on the first reel with an Obi-Wan Kenobi symbol on the fifth reel, the Light Saber Bonus is triggered. This is the motion-capture sequence of the light-saber battle from the film. When the bonus is triggered, the two combatants appear on the screen, and the player is prompted to select the one he thinks will win the battle. The light-saber duel ensues, in a masterful sequence of computer animation, with a bonus award displayed at the end. If the character picked by the player wins the battle (turning the loser into a nothing more than a heap of clothing), the player's award is higher.

Three Death Star symbols on an active line in the primary game trigger the big show, the multilevel Death Star Bonus. This event is interactive between the main video screen and the top-box Death Star device, in a sequence of animation, lights, and sounds that, if luck is with you, will take you through the entire film sequence leading to the climactic starship battle.

The first level of the bonus depicts Han Solo's battle with the Empire's storm troopers inside the Death Star. When the bonus is triggered, a letter-box window on the video screen shows the film sequence of Solo yelling as he is chased through the vessel's corridors by the white-clad storm troopers. The scene then switches to Solo's view of three storm troopers ready to zap him with their laser weapons. The player is prompted to touch one of the villains, who Solo shoots dead.

The Death Star display in the top box includes three arrows positioned over both the top and bottom of the metallic sphere. The sphere contains two rows of bonus amounts; the top and bottom arrows will mark the bonus amounts the player is awarded after the sphere spins. The position of the storm troopers on the video screen corresponds to the positions of the arrows. The villain dispatched by the player's choice causes the corresponding arrow on the top-box display to light up.

Once the first storm trooper is dispatched, the scene switches back to three troopers ready to shoot, and the player again selects one to zap, which lights up the corresponding arrow beneath the sphere. The Death Star then spins. If the lit arrows line up with two bonus amounts, they are added together for the player's award, and the bonus round ends. However, if the top arrow lines up with a circle on the sphere called the Superlaser, it triggers the second level of the bonus round.

This level depicts the initial chase between the Millennium Falcon and the TIE fighters of the Empire. The player sees three of the enemy fighters through the Falcon's electronic targeting displays, and selects one to shoot. (This sequence takes you right into the film's battle; it is masterful.) The fighters selected by the players correspond to the arrows on the Death Star, lighting up one each on the upper and lower displays. The Death Star spins again, landing either on two bonus amounts to end the round, or on the Superlaser again to trigger the third and climactic level of the bonus, the final chase between Darth Vader's fighter ships and the rebel alliance fighters in their quest to destroy the Death Star.

Just as in the second level, the player targets the TIE fighters through the scope of Luke Skywalker's ship, lighting up arrows on the Death Star to spin the sphere a third time. (You hear Han Solo from the film saying, "You're all clear, kid! Let's blow this thing and go home!") If two credit amounts land, all the accumulated bonus awards are added together and awarded to the player. If it lands on the Superlaser again, an extra 1,000 credits are awarded as the Death Star explodes, just as in the film, to the sound of Han Solo's famous line, "Great shot, kid! One in a million!"

All of these sequences are true to the experience of the actual film, with clips from the movie woven together with computer animation to make the player feel like he's taking part in the movie.

The bonus features are all fairly frequent, too. The main Death Star bonus is triggered every 96 spins on average, with either that or the Light Saber Bonus triggered every 62 spins.

Oh, one afterthought – in the primary game, if you happen to line up five Star Wars symbols on the first payline with maximum coins bet (max-coin is $3), you win the progressive – resetting at a cool million in Nevada, and $500,000 in other jurisdictions. (The game is offered as a stand-alone unit with a top jackpot of $25,000 where the MegaJackpots multisite network is not available.)

The Rollout

Star Wars was officially launched in Nevada casinos in March, with the Native American jurisdictions soon after. By this month, the game was expected to be available in 16 different jurisdictions, with other major jurisdictions such as New Jersey and Mississippi to follow later this year.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable slot experience, whether or not you are a Star Wars fanatic. If you happen to be a fan of the films, you are not going to leave this game for quite some time.

"It has the volatility players crave, and it has the emotional experiences that Star Wars fans crave," says Kaminkow. "It is very well choreographed and visually stunning. As Star Wars fans and as slot machine players, we are happy on all fronts. There has never been a game that goes to this level – ever.

"We hope the Force is with our players."

This article originally appeared in Strictly Slots magazine. Used by permission.

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