Gaming Gets an App

The average smartphone user is an educated 35-year-old with a family and an income 50 percent higher than the national average. Currently, there are about 30 million smartphone users in the United States. Most of them use Apple iPhones, but Android platform phones are also increasingly popular. The number of smartphone users is expected to increase to more than 100 million by 2013.

A handful of casinos are already experimenting with apps. Harrah’s is credited as the first operator to release an app, which, in addition to check-in and check-out options, allows users live access to their players club point balances. Caesars Palace, for another example, has an app that provides users with property maps, check-in and check-out, reservation functions, and photo galleries. MGM Grand, New York-New York, the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, and Mandalay Bay also provide property-specific apps. The 2010 Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition & Conference (HITEC) even has one, offering the conference schedule, exhibitor information, maps and more.

The point? If your company, be it a gaming property or a gaming technology manufacturer, has not yet considered developing an app, you’re already behind.

But a word of warning: A poorly executed app can do more harm than good. Apps can be undeniably valuable customer relations and promotional tools, but they must be done right. Unfortunately, as with all new technology, apps come with an abundance of overblown claims and considerable opportunities for fast-talking, fly-by-night service providers. Indeed, when it comes to technology, who hasn’t already been burned by a developer promising a profitable web page, an e-mail marketing monster, or a you-can’t-lose database?

Knowledge is the best defense against an app disaster, so CEM set out to examine the ins and outs of the app. Is it for you? If so, where should you start? Will it cost an arm and a leg? Or just an arm? Android or iPhone?

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, first things first. Have you ever even used an app? Downloaded one? To understand what your organization might be looking for in an app, you first must understand what an app is. If you don’t have a smartphone or are uncomfortable using one, certainly you have a colleague who can’t put his or hers down. Ask for an app tour. Right now. This article can wait.

OK. Now down to business.

Do You Need an App?
Not every group in the gaming industry can benefit from an app. Will consumers really be interested in an iPhone app from a cabinet manufacturer or a legal services provider? A few might, but probably not enough to make the investment worth it.

Jen Gordon, owner and creative director of Atlanta-based iPhone app design studio Clever Twist, says: “Just because you have content doesn’t mean that content is a good fit for mobile. When thinking about apps, you have to consider the mobile context, the ‘I’m opening my phone intermittently throughout the day for a minute at a time’-type environment. Can your content thrive in that type of environment? Considering how you can engage your audience in the snippets of time they spend on their devices is an important discovery step when you’re developing an app idea.”

If your content is app-appropriate, what exactly can a company hope to gain from an app? Steve Gurley says a lot—and as the VP of marketing and content services for Symon, the developer of InView MobileTM, a smartphone media player application that retrieves and displays location-dependent, interactive multimedia content, he should know. For those companies considering developing an app, Gurley says: “The primary gain is facilitating a more intimate experience with and between their customers. Other benefits are that they can monitor customer behavior and tailor their offering accordingly.”

More specific gains vary. Bally Technologies’ Senior Director of Product Management Greg Colella explains why Bally is currently developing an app: “to market the Cash Spin game to a customer base that may not otherwise see the game.”

When asked what the primary consideration should be for an app, Gurley advises: We believe the question is not based upon the qualifications of an app developer, but how an application integrates with the entire visual communications experience. Anyone can hire a developer, but the real value for a property is the role the application plays in creating an immersive experience.

George Levine of Casino Data Imaging, a provider of app platforms, suggests “that the app provides relevant information to the end user.” If not, he warns, the customer will not be motivated to use again. On this note, he adds, “The application’s user interface must be designed to ensure easy real-time updates, exploit applicable features of smartphone technology and provide meaningful statistics to measure use.”

Gordon also cautions organizations not to make assumptions. “The primary consideration is ‘Does your target audience own a iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch?’ ” she says. “Sounds obvious, but a lot of people assume with millions of devices in circulation that their audience is bound to be in there somewhere. I always recommend that due diligence be taken in researching your target market before pursuing an app idea.”

Aron Ezra is CEO of MacroView Labs, which has created the most downloaded casino resort apps in the App store for properties like ARIA, The Mirage and MGM Grand. Ezra warns against being distracted by all the cool features that one can imagine. He says: “The primary goal should be to create an app that delivers a tangible return on your investment. Apps can help you do a lot of great things, but ultimately you want to bring in more revenue, create more buzz, get people to stay longer, and inspire guests to recommend your brand above your competitors. We want people to have fun using our apps, but we always have an eye on designing solutions that deliver ROI to our clients.”

Now What?
The first question any company with eyes on an app needs to ask is, “Who is going to use our app?” This question is supremely important before any development even begins. Without it answered, any app project is doomed from the start.

Gaming apps do differ in some ways from their non-gaming counterparts. Ezra explains: “A lot of the most powerful technologies we designed got their start in casinos. From designing jackpot scoreboards and GPS-powered games like scavenger hunts, to navigating privacy issues, there is a lot to consider when putting together a strong gaming industry app.”

Bally Technologies was wisely very specific with the target of its in-development app. Colella says: “Our target is the casual game player. Usually that is a female between 35 and 40. This is younger than a typical slot player. We want to try and attract a new group to our games.”

Customized or Plug-In?
Next, most gaming businesses will be faced with the decision to develop a customized, built-from-scratch app or to go with an existing app template. Depending on your target audience and content, this decision may already be made for you.

For example, a manufacturer such as Bally Technologies that is looking to highlight a specific game will probably want to develop a proprietary app. A property, however, may find it easier to contract with an app developer that offers a centrally administered content management system where your specific casino’s information can be plugged in to an existing app architecture that offers everything from mapping and general information to coupons and promotional ads.

While the customized app may be molded more specifically to your casino, a templated app with support software has its advantages, one of the greatest being launch time. As templated apps are generally already approved by smartphone app stores such as Apple’s, you can get your offering out to customers immediately and without waiting through the app approval process, which can take months.

“Templated apps are obviously quicker and cheaper to produce. You build the app once and repurpose that template over and over with different content that can fit within the boundaries of that template,” Gordon notes, adding that templated apps also have their downside. “I’ve seen this model abused where developers are using a template to produce lots of junk content in the app store, hoping for a few downloads that will bring in some ad dollars. Where this model really works is when you have a series of apps that are under one umbrella, like TapTap. They have built a series of quality apps that all work the same but feature different music within each app. They are elegantly executed and it actually makes sense to break up each app based on each user’s musical taste.”

Ezra sees some wonderful features in plug-ins but says, “Straight plug-in app software will never come close to delivering what a truly custom solution can deliver in terms of experience and revenue.”

Levine of course recommends his own group’s Casino iGuide™, winner of CEM’s Slot Floor Technology Awards this year. The iGuide provides an information tool for the customer while allowing the casino operator to easily manage and promote all aspects of the casino important to the customer. Levine adds: “Properly developed and supported template apps still allow an operator to customize content to their business. We believe the majority of casino operators will prefer a low-cost software as a service to ensure optimum support, ongoing development and optimizing technologies.”

Of MacroView Labs’ approach to platforms, Ezra says: “We like to create custom solutions that plug in certain established technologies where it makes sense. I wouldn’t recommend basic plug-in style apps to anyone except very small gaming businesses. Nor would I recommend investing in a custom solution that will go stale in six months. We act as a partner to our casino clients to constantly improve their custom solutions to make sure they stay cutting-edge and profitable.”

Developers
Obviously, there is one big step missing early on: choosing your app developer. This might be the most challenging part of the app-making process. There are many developers, but not all will be a good fit. Others still may not deliver on promises. The first resource for finding developers should be your network. Ask friends and professional contacts if they have any recommendations. Others’ tales serve as valuable advice and could save you a headache.

Picking a Platform
If you are doing an app, porting is another concern. Obviously, you will want your app to run on every smartphone, be it an iPhone or an Android model. “Porting” is when a developer takes an app developed for one platform and transfers it to another. This process is much more complex than it appears (or than one would logically expect) and can lead to greater costs. There are now more iPhone smartphone users than any other platform, but that might not always be the case in the future. The bottom line is that you should discuss this with your developer before beginning the process of building your app.

Gordon recommends doing all platforms, if you can. “If you have the budget to think about development for both Android and iPhone platforms, it’s a good idea,” she says. “The challenge, of course, is deciding whether to develop two separate apps or to use a solution like Titanium (www.appcelerator.com) to build the app once and publish it out to multiple platforms.”

A more complex platform question is, web or native? A “native” app is one that is installed directly into the user’s smartphone. A “web” app is one that operates via an Internet service. Native apps can run offline, without the need for the phone to maintain an Internet connection. However, as mobile browser technology rapidly advances, more versatile possibilities for web apps are opening up. For example, the programming language HTML 5 now offers offline caching, in many ways replicating the native app’s advantage. The native vs. web conversation is also one you need to have with your developer.

Populating Your App
As the gaming industry is comprised of a wide variety of interests, from manufacturers to property operators, every company will need an app that communicates different content. One thing all these apps should share, though, is relevant information. An app that is not updated with timely information is an app that will not give users a good reason to continually use it. For example, a casino should make sure all of the coupons or deals offered via its app are current and not expired. Does your app provide maps of a property? If so, make sure they are up to date.

A trick to making your app even more valuable is to add a feature that isn’t immediately associated with your business but that provides timely information that all customers want. A perfect example is today’s (and tomorrow’s) weather. Users wondering about the forecast may use your app and, in the meantime, be introduced to additional brand-specific information.

Another question is if you want your app to be one-way or a “conversation.” An app is a great way to provide your consumer with information when they need it, but it could also be a way to engage him or her. Would a feature that allows users to submit comments or pictures be useful? How about a feature that allows users to submit feedback about your products? Or how about feedback on the app itself? Planned properly, an app can be both a marketing tool and a valuable consumer research resource.
No matter what you choose, don’t be scared to ask your developer for unique, cutting edge suggestions. Ezra says: “One of my favorite aspects of the gaming industry is the energy and the willingness to push the envelope. Our gaming industry clients are always looking to the next big thing. That keeps us innovating and helps us keep the public coming back for more.”

For most gaming interests, an app should not be seen as a direct revenue stream but as a marketing tool. Therefore, unless you have some spectacularly valuable content on your app, there should be no reason to charge users for it.

OK, How Much?
Time to talk cost. Guley says an app’s cost, as expected, depends on its functionality, adding: “Symon’s InView product is free to Symon’s customers. There is a charge for developing content, which then again depends on the scope of content needed and the level of interactivity needed.”

A survey of iPhone app developers shows a going rate of between $75 and $200 per hour, and while there may be diamonds in the rough, you probably will get what you pay for. But apps development costs vary wildly depending on just how much interactivity and features they boast. MasterCard’s Priceless Picks app cost $320,000; other simple GPS-central apps can cost $12,000 to $25,000. The import thing is that you get a very detailed list of everything the fee will cover, including future updates, upfront.

Launch
It is important to remember that planning, developing and releasing an app isn’t the end of the work. In fact, half the work of app development is promoting it and encouraging your target users to download and utilize it. Gordon suggests companies with new apps brainstorm at least 20 promotional strategies that target your app’s user group. She specifically recommends these three steps:

1) Pre-launch promotion. Start building buzz about your app before it has launched. E-mail people who write about things that relate to your app and see if they will talk up the upcoming release of your app.

2) Plan for multiple releases. Don’t pack your app with every single feature you want to offer in the very first release. Make your dream list for the app and make sure that the app is designed to incorporate all of the features at some time in the future. Then periodically drop new versions of the app to boost app store sales (or, in your case, free downloads).

3) Prominently announce your upcoming app on the homepage of your website. You might even offer users the ability to submit their e-mails for an announcement. When the app finally is available, make sure it gets healthy promotion on your website(s).

Bally Technologies, for one, is on top of promotion for its app, which it launched in September. Laura Olson-Reyes, Bally Technologies’ director of corporate communications, says, “We promoted the new Bally iPod play-for-fun game via traditional consumer advertising in player-focused gaming publications.”

Bally Technologies also utilized a spectrum of e-mail marketing, direct mail and social media to get the word out.

One more step Gordon recommends is something she calls the “Circle of Friends.” According to Gordon, a solid app launch begins well before the app is completely developed. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter will likely be the most valuable tools to getting the word out, building that network and populating it with fans of your property or brand creates the foundation of app champions who will, hopefully, be your app’s early adopters. Gordon also recommends setting up social media networks as forums for communication with your app’s users, which will provide valuable feedback for improving and tweaking your app. If you don’t have a social media presence, let alone a Facebook page, well, there is no reason you should be considering an app yet. Building your social media presence should be your primary goal.

Happy app-ing!

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