G2S is the Future—And the Future is Now

With the industry on the verge of wide implementation of networked gaming, operators and manufacturers both are asking themselves a lot of questions about what will be demanded of them in the near future. One of the most important questions is “Do you speak G2S?”

G2S, short for Game-to-System, is a standardized communications protocol, or “language,” that enables secure communications between gaming devices and gaming systems. In layman’s terms, game terminals and slot machines “speak” G2S with a property’s central management system and its voucher, slot accounting and player tracking servers.

Developed by the Gaming Standards Association (GSA), the aim of the G2S protocol is, in the GSA’s own words, to “provide a common interface between devices and systems, as well as support essential networked gaming functions, such as software download, remote configuration and advanced features.”
But like any new, game-changing system or technology, apprehension and a lack of understanding may stall its acceptance. And that is especially paradoxical in the case of G2S, where more comprehensive adoption would appear to benefit all involved. That is to say, the benefits of G2S to manufacturers and properties are exponentially based on how widely the protocol is adopted. In the interest of better understanding these benefits, CEM dove into the G2S pool from the position of someone who might think G2S is the name of a G2E after-party.

In the fast-approaching future where the gaming floor is networked, the benefits of a system like G2S become clear. The G2S protocol enables an operator to dynamically adapt a casino floor to suit its players. For example, a hot player function allows operators to swiftly locate a key player regardless of whether that player is using a player card. On G2S-certified systems, operators may also configure and control their gaming floors remotely. This remote ability goes beyond just a slot floor and a backroom, though; the G2S protocol also allows for the easy, fluid download and application of jurisdictional requirements, such as those demanded by many lottery or other distributed gaming markets. As G2S is an open, event-driven protocol, operators can calibrate the volume of information “communicated,” thus personalizing their systems according to specific data.

Ethan Tower, GSA’s protocol director, explained what everyone needs to know about the G2S language, starting with that the best single reason to adopt G2S is opportunity. “The limitations of SAS and other serial protocols are well known—speed, access and functionality,” he said. “G2S creates opportunities to do things that were not possible before. Communications with the player is one area where G2S excels. Traditional protocols simply don’t provide an effective mechanism for communicating with the player. You can’t capture the player’s attention. The player can’t interact and respond to messages. It’s possible to get a message up on a secondary display, but not where the player’s attention is focused.” It is these problems that G2S addresses.

According to Tower, player tracking is another area where G2S excels. “Gaming machines know which wagers are being made and what the return-to-player is for those wagers,” he explained. “With G2S, the machine tracks the play associated with carded sessions, calculating actual win and theoretical win in real time. Theoretical win is calculated using individual wager categories, not averages. Polling for meters and guessing at the return-to-player is unnecessary.”

This openness is the key characteristic of what GSA says will benefit all G2S adopters. Users with G2S-compliant systems may also add new features as they are developed, regardless of manufacturer. And, of course, the more users of G2S systems there are, the more G2S-compliant features developers will be inclined to offer. Ultimately, the symbiosis of such an open system benefits all; developers and casino operators both can make long-term investments in the protocol, because they can be confident that their system resources will not become obsolete and because they will not be bound to a single, exclusive manufacturer’s solution. Essentially, G2S allows casinos to “future-proof” their operations.

Another reason to adopt G2S now is the maturity of the existing SAS protocol, which will no longer support further development. This is not to say that existing products will soon become useless, as most manufacturers will still support SAS for some time. But operators looking to upgrade to offer rich content are left without an adequate “language” in SAS to facilitate such advancements. And as Tower explained, G2S speeds are superior. “G2S communicates at speeds up to 5,000 times faster than SAS; it allows direct communications with multiple back-end systems; and it extends the functionality resident in gaming machines into whole new areas.”

In the interest of eliminating confusion, it’s worth noting the differences between G2S and S2S. It’s quite simple. The latter stands for System-to-System protocol. Where G2S supports communication between gaming machines and back-end systems, ensuring interoperability and common behavior across manufacturers, S2S supports communications between gaming and non-gaming systems. Tower explained, “Typically, anything that is not a gaming machine can communicate to gaming systems via S2S, for example, kiosks, table game systems, data warehouses, promotional systems, hospitality systems, etc. The requirements are not as strict as G2S. The functionality is much broader.”

Sure, great, you might say. We were all promised flying cars by now, and meanwhile I’m still getting 14 mpg in my Dodge. Well, let’s look at some practical details surrounding G2S, starting with timing.

Clearly, in the future, technology is going to save us all. However, many of us would prefer to be saved right now. With that in mind, several major markets are already successfully utilizing the G2S protocol in daily operations. For example, Mississippi’s Imperial Palace Casino Resort & Spa is currently operating the G2S-enabled sbX Tier One package from International Game Technology (IGT). The G2S-enabled sbX Floor Manager allows access to more than 100 themes in IGT’s game library. Imperial Palace is not IGT’s first real-world run with G2S either. The manufacturer has been on the forefront of G2S distribution, with IGT sbX units already in Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego and Ameristar Casino in St. Charles. But IGT is not alone.

GTECH and its subsidiary SPIELO spearheaded the development of a G2S protocol extension specifically for the distributed gaming market. The extension allows government-sponsored gaming operators (and lotteries) to capitalize on system interoperability efficiencies and all G2S-compliant manufacturer devices. This means operators, even government ones, can maintain their current games well into the future while benefitting from new technologies such as client-server games.

As for other manufacturers, Tower says that there is no reporting requirement for usage, as the protocol is publicly available. “The best source of that information is the manufacturers themselves,” he says.
G2S is also going global. Canada and Australia will soon see the protocol’s use in a number of packages and applications.

2010 is going to be the big year for G2S. More applications will get final regulatory approval, and many manufacturers are putting the final touches on large-scale G2S offerings that will roll out throughout the year.

There is no bigger 2010 marquee for G2S than ARIA at CityCenter. The property is the first where G2S natively delivers the core functionality to the casino floor. That functionality includes meters, events, vouchers, wagering accounts and player tracking, among others. If you want to see G2S showcased, it’s a good place to start.

And when it comes to timing, there may be no better time than the present for G2S. The 2010 Slot Managers Survey conducted by Goldman Sachs found that 72 percent of slot managers “would install slots that could download content.” The survey concluded: “Slot floors in the United States are very old and seemed poised for a surge in replacement. The percentage of respondents who said that 50 percent of their floors are over five years old hit an all time high at 43 percent. The last time the floor was this old was 2001—right before a three-year surge in replacement sales.”

And the reason for those updates? Groundbreaking new technology. The study credits the adaptation of cashless, ticket-in/ticket-out technology as the driver behind industry-wide floor refreshes. This year, 62 percent of respondents they would “not want to be the first to install server-based,” a number that has stayed fairly constant since the survey started asking this question three years ago. Again, this appears very similar to the initial response to TITO; slot managers hesitated to adopt the technology for years, and it was only when it was rolled out 100 percent to the Suncoast Casino that they see the real value of the system.

The survey also noted that slot managers’ primary concern about adopting next-generation central server technology is not the quality or dependability of the technology; It’s the price. “So it appears that slot managers want central server and see some opportunities but still have concerns about the price.”
So … about that price. When pressed about the potential cost to operators, Tower admitted that, naturally, implementing the G2S protocol will cost manufacturers money. So, it follows, that G2S will cost operators some too. But, he reasoned, “G2S can be used with or without SMIBs. Player tracking, progressive, bonus and wagering account functionality can be supported directly by the machine without secondary communications boards and displays. This can be a huge cost saver for operators, especially when looking at the total cost of ownership. Without SMIBs, there are no upfront purchases, no installation costs and no on-going maintenance costs. These savings could easily offset any increases in machine costs. SMIBs can still be used with G2S. They look like back-end systems to the machines. The G2S protocol allows system functions to be performed remotely by a back-end server or locally by a SMIB. The protocol is not biased one way or the other. The operator needs to determine which method is best for their environment.”

Aside from cost, what other factors should property owners be weighing before going whole hog for G2S? Like any technological innovation, G2S is a new protocol, and manufacturers are just now completing their respective first full implementations of it. As with any technological leap forward, there are bugs early on. The best way operators can assure compliance and interoperability is certification. Tower said: “Testing agencies have been part of the G2S development process from the outset. They have been working in parallel with the manufacturers to assure that the protocols can be effectively tested and certified. Certification programs are available.”

Pointing out that it’s better to discover bugs in the lab than on the floor, Tower implores operators to take advantage of these programs. A large selection of certification requirements, resources and programs can be found at the certification programs section of GSA’s website (www.cert.gamingstandards.com).

Other than a bug here and there, Tower said the other hesitations over G2S stem from simple misconceptions and misunderstandings of a new technology. The first is that G2S requires too many resources. But it’s not that it requires “too many,” just that it requires more. “Speed, access, and functionality come at a cost,” he explained. “G2S was designed to fix the problems inherent with serial protocols and to provide opportunities for future growth. It’s a protocol for the future, not the past. Older machines may not be able to support G2S. However, many newer machines can support it. Certainly, all future machines will support it.”

Another misconception of G2S is that it is “not complete.” Tower actually admitted this is true. But, it’s intentional. “One of the primary design requirements for G2S was extensibility,” he said. “Since it’s not possible to predict future requirements, the GSA wanted to make sure that the protocol could be extended to meet those requirements. As long as there is a possibility that new requirements will arise, G2S will never be complete. Operators and manufacturers should expect additional extensions—not a static protocol. The initial release of G2S provided the vast majority of the functionality available in other protocols, and more. Future releases will provide extensions to fill niches and take advantages of new opportunities.”

Finally, we questioned Tower from the cynical standpoint of an operator who has seen other protocols come and go, and who suspects that, six years down the road and millions of dollars later, he’s going to open CEM to read about this crazy great new protocol that is going to blow G2S out of the water. What happens then? Tower countered that part of the value of G2S will be its wholesale adoption. That is, a sort of herd protection. “Most machine manufacturers are well on their way to having full G2S support in their machines,” he said. “System manufacturers are beginning to adjust their systems to take advantage of the opportunities created by G2S. G2S is being implemented in both the casino and video lottery markets. It has traction.”

That said, Tower is not out to fool anyone. “It’s hard to predict what will happen in six or seven years,” he admitted. “Will another protocol come along? Will consumer preferences for other forms of gaming supplant gaming machines? Will gaming machines still exist? Who knows? However, the GSA technical committees are utilizing the most current Internet standards and following the best practices of the IT industry. Hopefully, we’ll be future-proof.”

What is for sure is that, for the foreseeable future, opportunities for growth on both the manufacturing side and the property side (and the sides in between) will be facilitated by the G2S protocol.

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