Delivering Innovation: Bally’s ALPHA 2 and Pro Series

Change is inevitable when dealing with technology. And new product announcements can be exciting, especially when they promise better performance, improvements that will benefit your operations, and new features that have long been on your wish list. Technological changes, however, can be expensive. The cost of the actual technology or device may be dwarfed by the cost of the underlying hardware or software systems, network cabling and devices, support costs, and license fees, not to mention employee training and labor costs.

To provide true advantage and make these costs “worth it,” a new technology should follow several premises. It should be based heavily upon operator and player input. It should build on previous learning and take advantage of previous releases, not forsake them. (This is double-edged, though, as maintaining legacy support can be challenging.) It should offer better value in comparison to existing offerings. It should not just look better cosmetically, but it should perform better, too. It should offer continuous improvements by maintaining a link to the previous platform, helping customers identify the new through their recognition of the old. To do this, it should maintain some commonality with the past: menu options, screen layouts and formats that technicians use. It should also make it an easy transition, providing worth without creating a steep new learning curve. And it should not just be an emulation of another new technology. It should be a real innovative product that leverages its position in the marketplace and allows operators to leverage their facility with customers, providing compelling content, attractive, comfortable devices, and games that provide true entertainment value. But can a new technology really achieve all of this?

When Bally Technologies Inc. migrated from the 6000 slot series to the ALPHA platform, it offered substantial upgrades in new technology, the games library, cabinets and the operating system, as well as an entirely new platform. It was a major step forward that brought considerable changes—in fact, everything changed. This provided an opportunity to start over with a fresh beginning. While it also meant that the old could not be brought forward into the new, Bally instead reworked its tried-and-true. Legacy games were created for the new platform to work side-by-side with the newest in the library, a necessary step to keep business moving forward and utilize the latest in computer and multimedia technology. Since then, the ALPHA platform has been an award-winning, stable base that has been well received by operators and players alike.

Now Bally has introduced the new and improved ALPHA 2 platform, which also promises to move into the next generation without leaving the past behind. The ALPHA 2 refers to the operating system and game platform, an all-encompassing platform for Class III, Class II, VLT and lottery.

“The launch of ALPHA 2 and our Pro Series cabinets is truly another milestone in Bally’s 78-year history of innovation as we unveil our most state-of-the-art, powerful operating system, and our sleekest and must cutting-edge slot cabinets,” noted Gavin Isaacs, Bally’s chief operating officer. “We’re very excited about this launch.”

Bally showcased the new Pro Series cabinets on June 2 at its User’s Conference in Washington state this summer, one of its most important markets. (Sierra Design Group [SDG], which was acquired by Bally in 2004, was the first slot company to deliver product to that market, and for many years Washington was 100 percent SDG.) Bally is also launching its Australian product line with the Pro-Series ALPHA 2, as Isaacs said, “going in with our best and newest technology.”

During an economic downturn, it can be incredibly difficult for any company to keep forward momentum and to continually invest in your company, products and technology, but investment during this period often results in the largest paybacks down the road—and Bally knows it. “We’ve been doing the best we can for our customers and shareholders,” Isaacs said. “We’re very tough on ourselves and in how we look at ourselves. We are investing at this time when it’s most important to invest.”

“The ALPHA 2 and the Pro-Series cabinet is a great step forward for Bally,” he added. “It’s really well timed, and we hope that it’s timed well with the economic uptake—a brand new product for players when they want to spend a little bit of money. Bally and our competitors have been innovating, but you don’t see a lot of new product hitting the floor. When you do you see it, there is an immediate uptake, so we really want to get this out there. The timing is right.”

What’s Inside?
On the inside, the ALPHA 2 is a major step forward and a natural technological progression. At its heart is an Intel multi-core CPU with a higher speed than the ALPHA I and with 3-D video capabilities. The memory has been greatly expanded, and the inclusion of a solid-state hard drive offers improved performance and the removal of mechanical parts. The solid-state drive is desirable for industrial applications, as it has no moving parts, a flash technology base, reliability for data integrity and security, and an extremely fast throughput.
Onboard RAM is 4 GB, and the SRAM has been increased significantly and includes non-volatile storage for data, critical meters, accounting and game play. The solid-state hard drive starts at 60 GB and increases from there. It can hold Bally’s most complex games and provides the capacity for multi-game.

With faster processing and more storage comes a great opportunity for a new generation of games for the industry. “The multi-core CPU offers a big benefit because the increase in horsepower is about 10 times the speed of our previous platform,” explained Robert Crowder, Bally’s vice president of advanced product development. “We have completely rewritten the video subsystem to take advantage of the 3-D video card and the multi-core processor. Additionally, ALPHA 2 can drive up to four monitors. We have found that we can stream high-definition video to all four monitors with no delay, using a very high frame rate and very smooth graphics. All of these technology improvements give our game developers the best video platform on which to create truly amazing game content.”

Games and Libraries
And truly amazing it is. “Bally has a long history of great games. With ALPHA 2 and the Pro Series cabinets we bring many of those titles forward already approved. This was vital of course. Combine those titles with the natively developed ALPHA 2 development, and our customers have the best of both worlds!” said Mike Mitchell, vice president of game development.

All of the ALPHA I game library titles are supported on the ALPHA 2 platform. The only difference— which is actually a benefit—is how the games are installed. The ALPHA I games were installed on a compact flash cartridge, while the ALPHA 2 takes the existing compact flash and loads it onto the solid-state hard drive. There is no re-submission for parts approval required; the ALPHA I games get installed the same way they are approved. The ALPHA I games will also benefit from the performance increase of the ALPHA 2. Operating from the faster storage drive, with the increased processor and video capability, the games will load many times faster, saving slot technicians valuable time when servicing the games.

Bally’s Pro Series cabinets will be released with the full-complement of existing games as well as four to five new banks of games that start to take advantage of some of the Pro Series’ new capabilities.

“The most compelling games going forward are ones that will leverage the lights, sounds and iDeck™ capabilities that the Pro Series offers,” Crowder said. “Operators have already commented favorably on the improvements in our early feedback sessions, and the change is noticeable even with our introductory titles.”

“You will see the library expand over time, and even taking titles and enhancing power, graphics and technology under the hood makes it more attractive,” added Dan Savage, vice president of marketing. “There’s a dramatic improvement in the look and feel. The window-shopping and curb-appeal are good.”

This promises a long life for the ALPHA 2, given the long-range plans for the platform. And with the proven track record of the ALPHA I, these goals don’t just appear to be marketing hype—Bally has walked this road before.

The first games will be “for-sale” games with premium titles. Bally has completed five player studies on three of the new titles to be released with the cabinet, and all have earned high acceptance from the players. Bally says the games to follow will be even better.

Networking for the Future
“Along the lines of server-based gaming,” said Crowder, “we have selected over 200 of our most popular games to be download-capable on the ALPHA 2. We are proceeding through the requisite regulatory approval and will have 100 downloadable games approved and ready for G2E.”

The ALPHA 2 platform will be fully G2S-compliant, using Bally’s Command Center™ server-based technology to control remote configuration. In addition, the ALPHA 2 is compatible with Bally’s iVIEW Display Manager™ (DM), providing picture-in-picture capabilities for server-based applications, marketing and bonusing. This sees Bally hitting the ground running, ready for networked gaming. With the available technology included with ALPHA 2, Bally’s networked gaming solution is both able and enabled. It will truly put the operator in the driver’s seat.

Breaking New Ground
Savage knew that Bally was on to something great when player testing of the Cash Spin game started last November. “Players definitely preferred to interact directly with a bonus wheel compared to a button deck,” he said. “And we know it is more intuitive, more compelling and more fun for players. Interacting directly with the wheel on Cash Spin was an industry first, and we’re about to do it again with the introduction of the iDeck on the ALPHA 2 Pro Series cabinets.”

The iDeck, a player-tested technology, promises to change the way players interact with games much like how the iPad is changing the way we interact with technology by offering multi-touch and gesturing capabilities. “We think it’s a big technology advantage for Bally, and it gives our game developers a great platform to create compelling games,” Savage explained.

The iDeck is an innovative product that is such a great fit, you might wonder why it wasn’t implemented before. Operators tested 15 months ago, and it has received great acceptance. While the ALPHA 2 supports traditional mechanical buttons, the iDeck is a touch-enabled video display. Downloaded games can represent any legacy button deck or games on the iDeck without any configuration. This is a big benefit, as no operator reconfiguration is required.

Traditional touchscreens recognize the pixel location where human interaction takes place. With multi-touch, a person can touch two separate spots at once, having each one recognized individually. In fact, the iDeck can recognize up to 20 individual touch locations simultaneously. Gesturing, as used on the iPad and iPhones, etc., allows a person to touch two spots, then rotate, expand and contract the images on the screen based on how each finger moves in relation to the other. This opens up a realm of unique game possibilities. Players can widen or shrink video content or perform other tasks in bonus rounds, for example. The possibilities have not even begun to be imagined. New game designs and play mechanics that have not been possible before will be developed. And with Apple and other consumer electronics companies training the players on their devices, Bally’s iDeck is sure to be well received by the player and an expectation of an operator’s target audience—an audience that is demanding digital more and more.

“Bally Pro Series cabinets can be completely digital, including the interactive button panel and topper assembly,” Mitchell said. “The topper assembly has historically been traditional backlit graphics. ALPHA 2 Pro Series will be 100 percent completely digital! The button deck will be one of the four video devices that ALPHA 2 supports. All this really means is a fully immersed player experience and operational flexibility not yet seen before in gaming. We believe the iDeck will be used in bonus rounds and yet-to-be thought of game features, such as streaming video. The iDeck is also perfect for multi-game and multi-language environments. The testing of this with players and operators has gone very well.”

The ALPHA 2 and Pro Cabinet weren’t just designed not only for the player and operator, though; the slot tech was considered as well. “This is the state of the art,” Isaacs said. “We have taken the best of the best, discovered where the gaps are and filled them in. The Pro Cabinet is a very important, very integral part of ALPHA 2. If we found anything that was outdated or a shortcoming in our previous platform, we fixed it in the ALPHA 2. We’ve obviously had input from customers, both players and slot techs, so that it’s usable and serviceable by a technician. Our product improvements are not just for the player or operator, but also for the slot technicians who service the equipment.”

“The Pro Series cabinets’ mechanical design is very elegant, and its doors open like a new sports car,” Mitchell explained. “The door is hinged on top of the main game door. There are no components on the side of the game. We did this because the game is effectively 2 inches wider. The mechanical engineers designed a door opening system that lifts from the bottom like a Lamborghini—a well-designed power-lifting system.”

The upright cabinet still fits on a standard-width stand, alleviating any changes to the casino floor bases. But with the wider cabinet, the game can integrate larger game screens and wider reel assemblies. The Upright Pro Series cabinet is also not as deep as previous cabinets by 4 inches. This means more games per square foot or wider aisles for customer comfort.

The ALPHA 2 Pro-Series Upright cabinet also includes another innovative first: The bill validator and ticket printer share the same chute. This means no more players scanning the machine for the flashing LEDs that indicate where their ticket has printed. With the ALPHA 2, “We aren’t following the industry, we are leading it,” Crowder said.

Bally is not in the business of creating bill validators and ticket printers, so existing validators and printers are used with the new mechanism. It allows them to share the same chute for ease of use but still relies on current technology available in the marketplace.

The cabinet itself is greatly changed from the ALPHA I, yet is still recognizable. At first glance, a player will identify this cabinet with Bally and the ALPHA I games but will soon identify the new features as well. There are lights on each side of the cabinet, running along the vertical axis to a super candle.

“Our Super Candle is a newly designed tri-color tower light,” Mitchell explained. “It is special because we can control the lighting by the game feature and do game-specific lighting sequences to enhance the player’s experience. The Super Candle and the LED cabinet lighting are both synchronized with game play. This is a way to celebrate winners and enhance in-game bonuses. Add that to the Digital Topper, and we have a custom game package that we are very proud of.”

Sound Great?
Equal consideration was taken for the games’ sound. “Some manufacturers have made good progress by incorporating off-the-shelf household sound into their game platforms,” Savage said. “We have done a bit more. We hired third-party consultants to go in and track the sound wavelengths directly in the casino environment. Once we understood the environment, we developed a custom, digital sound system that breaks through the ambient noise and makes for a better play experience that we’ve been able to measure in our player testing.”

“One of our goals with the Pro Series cabinets was to redesign our sound delivery system,” Mitchell said. “We started from scratch. During our study of sound and noise levels, we went to casinos at different times of the day and occupancy levels to better understand the ambient and background noise levels. We learned a lot and used this information to design a sound delivery system that’s exceptional.”

The game sounds have been enhanced and take advantage of what Bally learned about sounds and frequencies that don’t add to the clutter. This provides added value to the casino player that they can hear. Noise-cancelling techniques keep the game audio within the “player bubble” so as not to add to the general noise level in the casino. “All this adds up to a better player experience,” said Mitchell. “ALPHA 2 electronics have all been upgraded to meet today’s requirements. The sound system upgrade is significant because today’s player really desires a higher-quality gaming experience.”

“This is state of the art,” affirmed Isaacs. “We have taken the best of the best and found out where the gaps are and filled them in. Our game developers can develop on something that’s state of the art and also gives them something that enables them to compete on a stronger footing—they jump the current standard. It’s all very exciting.”

The ALPHA 2 hits every point on the checklist. It is founded from extensive customer input and suggestions. It takes advantage of the ALPHA I and builds on its strengths while removing its weaknesses. It offers true performance advantages as soon as it hits the floor, but also is poised to deliver continual benefits and improvements for many years to come. Customers (both operators and players) will be able to recognize the brand and will immediately be drawn in by the improved cabinet, rich multimedia sounds and graphics, and the overall entertainment experience. The easy transition will see a greater ROI and allow the technicians who work inside the machines to get up to speed quickly.

ALPHA 2 will allow operators to leverage their facility with customers, providing compelling content, attractive, comfortable devices, and games that provide true entertainment value—and all of this is right out of the box. It is also just the beginning.