If you read the article or listened to the podcast of CEM’s first networked gaming guide this year, you know that we started a very open, honest and intriguing discussion of all things networked gaming. Operators weighed in their thoughts and interactions with networked gaming, and their comments were invaluable to the industry. Now, we turn to top slot machine manufacturers and game developers for their take. Their essays tackle the tough questions we’re all asking of server-based gaming. Can it work? Does it work? What needs to happen? Here, standards, IT, the floor itself, interoperability, and much more is all out on the table.
One thing almost everyone agrees on, including both our operators and manufacturers, is that this industry needs cooperation. Mark Pace, vice president, network gaming engineering and operations for WMS, states: “Interoperability is critical, but some suppliers are withholding access. Most, if not all, operators want the freedom to choose applications from multiple suppliers.”
“No single company can develop all the best games and all the best applications,” John Acres, founder of Acres 4.0, comments. “Your server is tightly controlled by a group of your vendor’s engineers who decide, up front, which features will be implemented and which will not. Such actions unnecessarily extend the development cycle, increase costs and stifle creativity.”
Further, “There’s absolutely no reason, except uncooperative vendors, that a single well-designed network cannot serve all needs,” Acres says. “Make them cooperate.”
And that is just the beginning. So many valid points are brought up by our essay writers in this installment. We believe we were truly successful in fostering an open, and sometimes brutally honest, conversation on the nitty gritty details of SBG. Just read on to find out what else major suppliers are saying. It’s a highly relevant conversation, so be sure you tune in.
Gaming systems first appeared in the late 1970s when Bally built an accounting system for the Hilton Hotels. We added player tracking in the early 1980s, and not a lot has changed since. Certainly equipment has become faster and more reliable, but those gains haven’t always translated into better products.
The latest concept is server-based gaming, or SBG, which is an advanced network of gaming machines connected to a game server. The idea has merit: Gaming machines are reconfigured though an electronically downloaded program. In theory, any desired game title is instantly and easily transferred to a gaming cabinet on the floor. In reality, the task of getting the right game to the right player is neither easy nor instant.
No technologist from the world outside of gaming would consider our systems or games—SBG or not—to represent truly modern design.
Consider this: In 1980, a personal computer cost $6,000 while a slot machine went for $1,600. Today, a far better computer costs $600 while a somewhat improved slot runs $16,000. It’s a fair bet that the 2011 personal computer will do even more and cost even less. It’s an equally fair bet that the slot machine of 2011 will be more expensive without nearly so much improvement.
How do consumer electronics continue to grow more powerful and cost less? Two reasons: The annual market for personal electronics is easily 100 times that for gaming equipment. Most importantly, the consumer market is largely open while the market for gaming equipment is highly proprietary.
How bad is it? Here’s five examples that cost you money and customers right now:
• A new U.S. $100 bill is coming out later this summer. You’ll likely deploy technicians to reprogram each of your games manually because your system doesn’t support an automated version of that function. This deficiency prevents more frequent updates to improve rates of legitimate bill acceptance and counterfeit rejection, costing big money.
• TITO is a wonderful concept that’s been around for a decade. Yet one of its great promises—widespread issuance and acceptance of promotional tickets to implement local awards and promotions—remains unfilled. That’s a capability you desperately need in these times.
• Your system is a conceptual powerhouse of information regarding player behavior and game performance. I say conceptual because, even today, the time and effort required to extract much of that information is so high that you just don’t bother.
• Your casino is a resort with hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping and entertainment. You still lack a standard format through which to capture consumer behavior throughout the resort and determine each customer’s true value.
• A truly great player loyalty system emulates the methods of truly great casino hosts. That product is a personalized experience for each player that maximizes enjoyment while ensuring your profit. Your loyalty system is poorly connected to your casino games, making it impossible to efficiently deliver personalized entertainment experiences. As a result, a great percentage of consumers find no joy in the products you offer.
Fact is, our industry has been greedy and shortsighted. We confused the release of pent-up demand for gambling by legalization of casinos with the creation of new players. We thought we were smarter than we are. Now that we’ve absorbed that pent-up demand, we lack the tools and experience to attract new players in the numbers we need to grow.
The hourly price of gambling is too expensive and unpredictable for most consumers. Our loyalty rewards are too skimpy and our games too boring. We categorize players as silver, gold and platinum and consider that sophisticated personalized service.
Just 5 percent of adults gamble more than twice per year. Imagine the growth opportunity if we could increase that to 10 percent. That’s entirely achievable but we need new equipment and revised thinking to get there. Here are seven keys to creating a casino floor that’ll return your casino floor to growth and profitability.
1. The Network is the Game. Move game decisions and accounting off the casino floor and onto the servers holding loyalty and accounting functions. This drastically lowers hardware costs, reduces security concerns and provides vastly enhanced opportunity for personalized service. Internet gambling already works this way, and billions of dollars in wagers are successfully processed there each year. Your games become glorified personal computers in custom cabinets—much cheaper to deliver and maintain and a great deal more fun for your players.
2. Open Network Infrastructure. It is crazy that each of your vendors—ticket printer, player tracking, bill acceptor or jackpot system—is expected to install its own independent network. You cannot afford to maintain such complexity, much less install it. There’s absolutely no reason, except uncooperative vendors, that a single well-designed network cannot serve all needs. Make them cooperate.
3. Open The Servers. No single company can develop all the best games and all the best applications. The Internet succeeds because it is open to a wide range of ambitious, talented people. Your server is tightly controlled by a group of your vendor’s engineers who decide, up front, which features will be implemented and which will not. Such actions unnecessarily extend the development cycle, increase costs and stifle creativity. Think of the Internet innovations over the past dozen years: search engines, social networks, online banking, games, etc. Compare that to the innovations in casino technology over the same period. Pretty dismal, isn’t it?
4. Vibrant Third Party Developer Community. Third party development means designs created by neither the casino nor the equipment provider. Amazon publishes electronic books on the Internet. Consumers buy them. Third parties write the content Amazon sells and consumers read. Same is true for Apple’s App and iTunes stores. Publishers long ago realized that best sellers don’t come from armies of English majors. Likewise, great games don’t always flow from a hired staff of engineers and graphics artists. We need an app store for casino systems and games.
5. Shared Data. To get to where you are going, you need to know where you are. Game and system developers must understand how their systems and games are performing before improvements can be made. Casinos must share performance information with developers in a way that protects the confidentiality of that information while still allowing developers to learn from player behavior.
6. Streamlined Regulation. Governments are our partners by virtue of the tax revenues they collect. We all understand the value of honest, reliable gambling equipment and most of us agree that regulation is necessary. Some of that regulation is obsolete or redundant and prevents deployment of better games and systems, which reduces profits and tax revenue.
7. Appliance Operation. Today’s systems are too complex to install and too difficult to maintain. Your next server should work more like a toaster or refrigerator and not require a sophisticated team of specialists to operate and maintain.
Some will read this and list all the reasons why the methods and economics of the Internet do not apply to casino gaming. Others understand the need for change and will work to invent, improve and redefine. I know which team I’m on. What about you?
Vice President, Marketing
Aruze Gaming America
The concept of networked gaming has been around for as long as operators have placed multiple games on a “link controller” to share contribution toward a progressive jackpot. While this network operates through various protocols, the end result was that players competed individually against the machine to share the awards that had been contributed to by other players. These links evolved from simple combination-based awards to mystery awards and wide-area links that made the awards even bigger.
Today, networked gaming has evolved into the ability to download content from a location that plays on an individual terminal for the patron’s enjoyment. While the networked gaming technology has evolved, the basic connected play concept remains the same with a few more options. In some instances of networked gaming, patrons can select their favorite games to play (or operators can download new popular games without the high costs and downtime of standard conversions). But overall, the desired end result is still the same from the early days of progressive links—to provide a strong entertainment experience for the patron and generate revenue for the casino.
Aruze Gaming America has developed a product line called G-LINKTM, which delivers on the desired end result of providing a strong entertainment experience through networked gaming. Our focus is on developing products that join players together socially through either a competitive play product like Jackpot Battle RoyalTM, a cooperative player product like Link CrapsTM, or through a shared challenge mystery product like Title MatchTM.
In the G-LINK series, players can select machines that feature their favorite Aruze base games like Shen LongTM, The Legend of Qin Dynasty IITM, Giant PandaTM and ShowgirlTM. As they are playing in the networked environment, an “event” will take place which then downloads the G-LINK theme game from the server onto the patron’s machine. In some instances with Jackpot Battle Royal and Link Craps, the remainder of the event is played out on the machine by all the players who qualify. Once the event ends, the players go back to their favorite games and the process starts over again.
In essence, a G-LINK theme game like Jackpot Battle Royal operates like an application that has been temporarily downloaded from the server to the base game. Once the event has run its course, the base game returns to normal play.
Aruze’s G-LINK network solution is currently a closed system. The games are networked together through an Aruze proprietary server. For Jackpot Battle Royal, the product is offered in 6-game or 10-game configurations; however, in Link Craps, the product can operate two to 50 machines on the floor. The networking is wired through CAT-6 cables and usually there isn’t a requirement to rewire the floor, unless casinos prefer to locate machines in different banks or areas connected to the same server. Configuration for the overall G-LINK network product is done through the server. Since the games use the standard Aruze G-ENEXTM cabinet and platform, it is compatible to the SAS-capable slot management systems currently available on the market, just like a traditional base game.
As more titles become available, the same base games that work on the earlier G-LINK enabled titles can work on Aruze Gaming’s newer G-LINK games. This allows the patrons to continue playing their favorite games while participating in a new “networked” environment, competing or cooperating to win various prizes. For the operator, this also provides maximum flexibility for conversions to new base game products, or using existing base game products with new G-LINK themes.
A networked gaming environment in today’s technology provides an entirely new dimension to what the industry has seen before when linking games together. As social networking grows, the ability for patrons to join together to compete or play together for a prize appears to be growing as well. Networked games like Jackpot Battle Royal allow patrons to compete in a tournament race to win the top prize. The excitement on the floor grows as the patrons reach the “home stretch” and winners are announced. No two tournaments are alike as the players and spectators change throughout the day and bring their own touch to the excitement on the gaming floor.
Without a networked gaming environment, patrons would not have the opportunity to join together in competition or team up for a common prize. The patrons still get their opportunity to play their favorite base games, but the G-LINK product gives patrons the ability to be entertained with a diversity of experiences.
Overall, Aruze Gaming’s G-LINK networked gaming product has many benefits for patrons and operators alike. The familiarity of titles, the themed G-LINK games and the larger available prizes gives patrons a more exciting gaming experience, which can contribute to additional cash in box and more return visits.
For the operators, the ease of installation, centralized configuration and additional play make for a better margin on the gaming floor. From the smallest to the largest casinos, these G-LINK networked gaming products can fit in most environments without mandating significant investment or 100 percent turnover of machines. The operators are given maximum flexibility in how quickly they roll out networked gaming products across the floor, while providing their customers with the benefits of network gaming with little investment.
In conclusion, while many believe that network gaming is purely download and configuration, Aruze Gaming’s implementation of networked gaming provides far more than just game selection; it provides additional entertainment. This additional entertainment justifies the minimal investment and maximizes casinos’ margin—and isn’t that a shared goal between suppliers and operators?
Sr. VP of Strategy and Business Development
Bally Technologies Inc.
If someone at Bally Technologies needed to educate their boss or peers on networked gaming, we would first let them know that our games have been connected to a network for years. The difference is that in the past, the very low-speed networks did not support bi-directional communication to the game itself and only limited capabilities on the player and employee interface that is added to the game. Second, this is a logical evolution of gaming business systems and not a revolution, as was predicted in 2003. Lastly, each company needs to articulate how it wants to compete in the marketplace. The networks and applications can add significant value to companies that compete on service or marketing, as well as add an element of cost efficiency. But likely the most exciting is to be able to create custom experiences by player that differentiate games that ultimately become commodities because they are available to all operators over time.
For technicians to keep up with the changes in technology, they should begin a re-education program and understand the components of gaming from the computer room to the game screen. Additionally, they should think about learning associated skills for touch-associated equipment, such as kiosk and digital sign maintenance.
Floor Design and Current Games
Say a new casino resort just opened in the previous year and the staff is finding difficulties with their design. Perhaps they don’t have raised flooring and there’s no way they can run CAT-6 cables. This is most likely due to the fact that the IT department had the foresight to invest in a network that, with little or no modification, is more than capable of doing more than is being done or has been envisioned for the next three to five years. It is the casinos that are five to 20 years old that need a review of current capabilities and need to perform a gap analysis based on the technology that will be necessary to implement the property strategy.
It’s important to note that there are solutions that do not require a radically accelerated game replacement cycle like we saw with TITO. Applications can run on the classic 2×6 player display or on the main game screen. There is no technological barrier to creating solutions that are both backward and forward compatible on the vast majority of games. And it must be this way, or at the rate of replacement given the current financial environment, it could be 20 years before a customer could have the same experience on every game on the floor.
Keep It Simple
Does the “KISS” principle apply to slot machines today more than ever? Yes! We cannot take away games that people love to play, may be fully depreciated, and not available on future platforms. The retail chain Gap almost went out of business when they failed to realize they were in the blue jeans and khaki business and fantasized about being in the fashion business. As for the pricing models, these will evolve as well. Networked gaming is such a broad term that one cannot assume higher costs with it or higher profitability without it. Pricing models will evolve with the new applications, and sophisticated operators will figure out how to exploit it as we did with PCs and the Internet.
To get started with networked gaming, first assemble a team of people who have responsibility for driving revenue on the floor, maintaining the games and managing the costs of operating. It is critical that these stakeholders be exposed to the vision of the networked floor of the future and determine how each of them would use the solutions. IT then evaluates the enabling technology, and the process for moving forward begins.
There are a number of ways to move data over existing networks to create enterprise value and enable cross-property marketing with a seamless customer experience. Business intelligence tools are there to take data from disparate systems and provide customized views for users at the property and corporate levels. And there are integration gateway products that allow for multiple systems to maintain connectivity, cache data, and do protocol conversion, thereby eliminating the tedious job of maintaining hundreds of point-to-point connections.
Competition is part of our industry, whether we speak of operators or manufacturers. And yes, it does drive innovation. Further, this industry is a closed-loop economy that can only grow when the law and regulators allow it to. That structure actually causes us to compete more aggressively to grow than in other open-market environments. That said, competition is healthy and makes it fun to come to work every day.
Open source does not necessarily allow you to modify the games and adjust everything to suit your floor. The concept of open source is that anyone can contribute to the code. Not only is this not practical for gaming applications, but it would not likely be legal based on the mission-critical nature of the business systems we provide. This is often confused with the ability to easily integrate or interface based on a common set of protocols. And even when a common set of protocols exists, it does not mean they are always implemented in an identical way.
Is it Secure?
Provided the systems have been architected correctly and recently, they should meet the tests of reliability, recoverability and security. The business systems must be treated much like a banking system would as we move game content, outcomes, and real and marketing currency across the network.
The “Killer Application”
Asking where the next killer application will come from is a bit like asking which bar the next Celine Dion is singing in tonight. You have to go to a lot of bars and listen to hundreds of audition tapes to find it, and there could be some mistakes along the way. There are a lot of great singers that are not great entertainers.
Easy Integration is Key
The power of easy integration is as or more powerful than open. It is unrealistic in the business systems environment to apply the same preconceived notions we have for personal computing and console games for many reasons. First and foremost, the games we deploy are reviewed and approved more like prescription drugs than a console game, and our systems are held to a standard that is closer to military specifications than an HR system. In many jurisdictions, casino management systems are the only systems required by law to run the business.
Some people are focusing more on the networked nature of server-based gaming. While downloading of games has certain efficiencies, there are other applications that can drive effectiveness. Many of the early applications being deployed are related to service and marketing. And the technology that allows the applications to be deployed on any game from any manufacturer will create the common experience. We learned this lesson decades ago as we implemented the first player-tracking systems into the industry.
A networked floor is an enabling set of technology that, once in place and paid for, can be exploited in an endless number of ways for years to come. Some applications will come and go, as with any media-distribution network like the Internet or for that matter TV, but some will become blue jeans and khakis and be timeless. It is our customers we must listen to who tell us what is compelling. Occasionally, manufacturers come up with ideas and that are great, but no one company can dictate what is compelling technology or applications.
VP of Business Development, N. America
The casino executive looking to implement networked gaming could be met with resistance. With any new technology, there are early adopters, an early majority, late majority and laggards. So naturally there will be people who want to try the latest and greatest, and others who play wait-and-see. However, the server-based gaming argument is pretty convincing when you see the operational, revenue and customer satisfaction benefits. It’s a little like the iPhone. The world didn’t ask for a smartphone with thousands of apps. But when Apple offered it, and people saw what they could do with them, iPhones started selling by the millions.
Our experience with server-based gaming (SBG) is that operators love the benefits when they start to use it. Factor in the marketing, operational and customer satisfaction benefits, and server-based gaming is clearly a superior platform. As other slot manufacturers adopt the technology, awareness and demand will increase together, and SBG will become the platform of choice. Just as laptops with LCD screens overtook desktop computers, and web-based apps revolutionized the way we bank, shop and book travel, it’s hard to turn back the clock. People will choose what gives them the most utility and convenience.
Unfortunately, as with all things new, a mythology grows around the product, mostly created by those who are not able to adapt to the new technology. The best place to start educating your boss or your peer on the benefits of SBG is, therefore, myth busting.
Myth 1: Server-based gaming is a new technology and therefore unproven.
Server-based computing platforms have been around for over four decades and have been used in gaming for two decades. Europe has embraced SBG technology where, for example, the U.K. has been running over 50,000 SBG machines for almost 10 years.
Myth 2: Server-based gaming is difficult to install and will require specialist skills to manage.
Server-based gaming machines can be installed and run alongside legacy systems. They are no more complicated to install and hook up to a SAS-based CMS than any other standalone machine. Any “complexity” is dealt with by the platform itself, not by the casino.
Myth 3: Server-based gaming has poor content.
Players play games and platforms. A good SBG provider will have a significant library of proven content. The operator should ask all the usual questions that they ask their legacy game providers. There are companies out there with platforms but no content, but who would buy an MP3 music player if there were no song titles available for it?
Myth 4: Server-based gaming will confuse the player.
A player should not know that they are playing on an SBG machine. They should just feel that suddenly they have access to a better gaming experience.
The Slot Tech
Slot technicians should understand that SBG will not eliminate their job. Bill validators will still jam, LCD screens will still blow and players will still spill their drinks down the button panel.
A slot tech can shift his or her role from the mundane to the value-add activities. At first, this may seem like a threatening position, but just remember that the robotic activities such as swapping out flash memory devices and performing hash signature checksums with traditional slot machines are time consuming and don’t really add much value. Also, when things go wrong, such as the manufacturer shipping the wrong software (no, this never happens!), all of this work counts for zero and it has to be done over again. SBG removes most of this remedial work and allows the slot techs to do more important things, such as manage the technology, maintain the floor and optimize performance.
Some slot floors are difficult to upgrade, being concrete or steel, which makes it to difficult to install cable conduits for a networked-enabled floor. However, there is always a solution. It can be as simple as routing out a conduit space in the concrete floor and then overlaying the floor covering over the affected area. It could also be a form of secure wireless network (although cabling for its higher bandwidth and security is preferred).
It is not necessary to replace an entire gaming floor to start taking advantage of server-based gaming. BetStone has installed as few as six machines into legacy gaming environments where the SAS-based CMS is aging and the remainder of the machines on the floor are standalone units.
SBG, in particular, has been able to respond to the challenges of the economic downturn. With less access to financing, operators have turned to solutions that continue to give them maximum flexibility while still delivering great content. Operators have also had to respond to players tightening their belts, with an inevitable decline in coin drop, by implementing a seemingly contrary strategy of reducing costs while becoming more competitive. BetStone has achieved this by placing value in what is important: the content, management controls and information systems, rather than what is easy to sell at a high margin (e.g., belly glass and an EPROM).
In cases where cost is the only consideration, there is always a challenge to sell a premium solution, whether it is SBG or not. However, it is our advice that operators ensure they look at the overall opportunity cost versus maximizing the return from that opportunity.
A perfect example of this is Latin America. We have seen a flood of used machines entering the market since Russia and the Ukraine have all but closed gaming. A number of operators have invested in these machines but have often found that they are unable to compete using old content, or content where the themes and mathematics do not meet the requirements of the local demographic. We have seen a number of slot halls open with these machines and soon close down again.
Server-based gaming has offered the solution through providing a lower total cost of ownership while still providing a high quality product. The issues that operators have faced have been sourcing gaming manufacturers who deliver not only the technology, but also the content. BetStone is one of the few companies that meet this requirement, with over 100 titles on a true SBG platform and demonstrated stability and reliability for several years now.
There are more advantages to SBG than immediately obvious. Some of these advantages are:
• Dynamic floor. One of the key objectives of a casino operator is trying to keep their casino floor dynamic and fresh. BetStone, with its true multigame platform, achieves that automatically.
• Quick to deploy new software and games. With traditional EPROMs, flash drives and other memory devices, a slot tech has to bring the machine down, open it up, install the new game software, verify the signature, and then test to see if works properly. It then needs to be verified by the regulatory commission. With the BetStone server-based gaming platform, all of this can be done ahead of time, seamlessly to the operator. When a new game is ready for launch, it has already been tested and approved, and simply needs to be uploaded.
• Performance. Centralized real-time reporting allows the operator to focus on machine performance and maximize income from each square foot of floor space. Changes are made efficiently and easily, ensuring every area of the venue is optimized.
• Promotions. Having dynamic content and configurable parameters means the operators can run specific promotions at very short notice. If it’s a special holiday, sporting event or just some newsworthy happening, a savvy operator can run a promotion coupled with the BetStone games that makes a very exciting event for players.
BetStone has always maintained that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In other words, people don’t play sophisticated SBG platforms; they play games. The easiest way to really test a SBG platform is the way that it has always been done—start with a pilot program of 10 to 30 machines, and set clear performance goals. Given a slightly longer ramp-up time for players to understand the new technology, and for casino staff to communicate the benefits of the new technology, set some realistic parameters. Then, using a system of on-the-floor support, such as training and promotion by hosts, get the system running smoothly. Then you will notice something slightly unusual happening: word of mouth. We have seen examples where someone who has already visited Casino A will go into Casino B and ask if they have any BetStone machines, and if not, why not?! This is very compelling for casino executives to seek out this technology and look to incorporate into their current casino floor.
The car companies used to have an adage that said, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” In other words, racing made people feel that a winning brand was a superior car. There’s no doubt that competition improves the breed, and the winner is the survival of the fittest. Open standards, such as GSA’s G2S and S2S protocols, allow games and systems to openly communicate through a common network, using open published standards. As long as a technology company has the skills and resources, they are free to compete on their own merits. BetStone is a strong supporter of open systems and standards.
AES is the data encryption standard that has been adopted by the U.S. National Security Agency for use with all government agencies. Further, AES 128-bit or above is the requirement for government “classified” data. The average home computer has a processor that can handle in the order of 5 GigaFLOPS (5 billion floating point operations per second), and by some estimates, using “brute force” number crunching, it would take 11 trillion years for an average PC to crack AES 128-bit! Even the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the Cray XT5 Jaguar, which has the processing power of approx 1.75 million home PCs, would take in excess of 6 million years to brute force this encryption method.
Given that banks and U.S. government departments handle classified and confidential data using AES, and the improbable amount of time it takes to crack the encryption, casino executives should feel fairly safe and confident, especially when the server is locked in a secure, monitored facility.
Indeed, it is our view that a well-implemented SBG platform is even safer than a legacy implementation. Over and above ensuring the security of data as it is transported from the machine to the server, the centralization of code and data allows fraud to be detected and tackled and removes the possibility for people to tamper with the gaming platform.
BetStone is a technology company, so it’s important to stay ahead of the curve in terms of new product. But let’s look at the types of product we would look to launch. New game content? Absolutely! This is an ongoing and stated objective that BetStone wants to stay at the forefront of game diversity and choice. New games, such as Bingo, are being launched as this is written and we are about to release an additional 20 games in the third quarter of this year. New software, such as Vision, is also being launched. Vision is an intuitive management tool that allows casino executives to securely analyze up-to-the-minute numbers in a multiplicity of different ways. We are also working on a number of initiatives to further enhance player experience and operator control across all areas of the platform. We hope to come back and tell you about these soon.
To take this discussion full circle, in a previous article we presented that the delivery mechanism in BetStone’s SBG platform ensures that software is delivered quickly, seamlessly and with minimal effort. This means that as these new software products become available, operators can integrate them into their businesses immediately, ensuring full benefit and value as quickly as possible.
Investing in a BetStone product therefore means that a casino operator invests in the future rather than buying the past.
Vice President, Network Systems
IGT is proud to lead the industry. We provide comprehensive solutions that connect operators with manufacturers. We aim to elevate the operator and player experience. Our customers are empowered to take their operations to the next level.
Upon my joining IGT in 2006, the company had already embarked on delivering on the vision of the open network. Since that time I have seen that vision become a reality and have been fortunate to see industry change and collaboration at work.
Demonstrating our commitment to the open network, IGT has worked in collaboration with our peer manufacturers for the betterment of the industry. We value what’s right for operators, and that belief drives our development. No shortcuts, unnecessary hardware or roadblocks—just a focus on what’s truly best for our industry. IGT has fostered connectivity through open systems technology, and we invite everyone in the industry to work with us toward a collaborative environment.
Through the Gaming Standards Association (GSA), the industry has agreed upon a common set of communication protocols that operate much like the Internet and will allow for tremendous innovation. The open protocols allow for an all-new level of collaboration. With open communication standards in place, intellectual property is still respected. Participants don’t have access to source codes or APIs in order for there to be clear ownership and accountability.
Collaboration doesn’t ignore the importance of competition for innovation and progress. When you look at the industry in general, there are many examples of competitors who work together to achieve common goals. Casinos often pool resources to achieve a greater good. The GSA offers the perfect opportunity to achieve healthy competition that breeds innovation and choice in the market.
IGT has delivered the first fully GSA-compliant solution to the industry for maximum interoperability, flexibility and unlimited potential. Not only do our open systems connect manufacturers in collaboration, but they also empower operators to customize their own content on their floors. Our systems solutions help operators optimize their floors, differentiate their property and enhance the player experience.
The next game-changing application is out there, waiting to be built, and today any party can be the innovator. With open protocols in place, now operators, third parties or even two guys in a garage can enter into the market with the next thrilling app. Where in the past operators had to rely singularly on the manufacturer to provide solutions, the open network will foster a robust ecosystem of applications to choose from.
When operators are ready to take the next steps, a venue-wide installation, as demonstrated at ARIA, or a more incremental approach are both possible, whichever pace is right for their business. IGT offers operators its Tier One package of up to 100 games with access to hundreds of choices in the game library and the ability to price those games instantly to optimize the floor.
Operators can also start with Service Window or cater to specific areas of their floors, such as the high-limit room, and target specific segments of their player base. IGT’s Taxable Accrual application allows high rollers to recognize jackpots and associated W2G forms with a simple press of a button which limits gaming disruption. This is another example of how server-based gaming can be implemented to solve problems that could not be solved before.
Operators can factor in their existing investments when transitioning to this high speed network solution, too. Whether it’s a state-of-the-art AVP or legacy video or a spinning reel, the open network is available on these platforms via the Service Window or the G2S-compliant secondary display, such as the sb NexGen II. There is a misconception that existing slot investments cannot be leveraged on a networked floor, but this is not true. Because the Service Window is a feature of the game, it only makes sense for the game manufacturer to provide service window functionality. IGT’s solution protects operators’ investments, scales to their property needs and offers the only proven venue-wide solution on the market today.
IGT has the global resources and skill set to lead the industry away from single-purpose and proprietary systems and lead it toward a standardized and multi-purpose open network for the casino enterprise. Several years ago, IGT introduced the “Power of Open” which encouraged connectivity in the gaming industry. This philosophy directly led to the conception and development of sbXTM. sbX is currently installed in 13 casinos around the globe, and there is a significant pipeline of interest both here and abroad.
sbX helps operators connect with customers in a more rich and much more dynamic way. It also helps solve operational issues and process bottlenecks leading to greater efficiencies. The evolution of our solution has provided proof of our commitment to open. “The Power of Open” has evolved, too. We now refer to this as “The Path to Open” because open is no longer just an idea. It’s a reality.
For the first time in industry history, we can communicate in a two-way manner to players at the game. Content distribution has been modernized. IGT has anticipated and provided solutions to today’s needs as an industry pioneer, helping create an open horizon for everyone, and we will continue to develop the unexpected in the bright light of tomorrow’s possibilities.
Senior Director Gaming Systems
GTECH and SPIELO
Interoperability is the buzz word today, and its strength is growing. The Gaming Standards Association’s (GSA) role in bringing protocols like Game to System (G2S), System to System (S2S) and Gaming Devices Standards (GDS) to the industry is certainly strengthening the future of interoperability, but it is not going to happen overnight. Deployments like MGM’s CityCenter in Las Vegas and the Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego are proof that operators are starting to ask for open standards, and the industry is getting closer to the interoperability goal.
The goal of interoperability may be innovation and competition, but getting there will come at a price. In the short term, some suppliers are spending time and money preparing their existing and future solutions to be interoperable, and that is detracting from the time spent on innovation. The industry should expect to see more innovation once these short-term hurdles are resolved.
The transition may appear to be slower than expected, but the industry is committed. The GSA has a membership of more than 60 game, system and terminal manufacturers, as well as operators and testing organizations. SPIELO is a platinum member of the GSA, and like many companies, is building products in support of open standards while also investing in innovation. In fact, SPIELO is the first manufacturer in the world to deploy an end-to-end G2S-compatible solution in a distributed VLT gaming market, which is taking place this summer in Italy.
Open standards will not guarantee interoperability, but they will make it easier for companies to build interoperable solutions. They will have extensive, well-defined message classes and extensions, but companies will still need to work closely together to ensure that the correct classes and extensions are implemented. Since there are numerous classes and extensions, companies will only implement those necessary to make solutions interoperable.
Interoperability will ultimately benefit everyone. Manufacturers need to develop a solution in one standard. Operators will have access to multiple solutions using a single standard instead of integrating a different solution because it was built in a proprietary or legacy standard.
The transition to open standards will affect everything from terminal design and game development to communication infrastructure, system development and third party integration. Not all existing infrastructure today can support these technologies, which includes legacy terminals supporting serial communications, EPROMs, and slower processors capable of supporting binary protocols. These terminals simply can’t support the robust IP protocols and Ethernet communications without either hardware upgrades or replacement. Venue infrastructures built to support serial communications will need to be replaced to support Ethernet communications. Successful games built to support legacy protocols and systems will need to be converted to the new open standard protocols. Each company will need to make business decisions on how much to invest, and when.
The advantage of open standards is interoperability, but interoperable solutions do not require a complete transition to open standards. In the same way that companies will implement the subset of classes and extensions to make their solution interoperable, inter-process or inter-server communication between components not intended to be interoperable will continue to use the most appropriate technology necessary for the performance and reliability of the product.
SPIELO has already invested heavily on converting games and systems in the support of open standards and interoperability, and we will continue to do so. As the need for terminal and system suppliers to support open standards continue to grow, suppliers will invest more and more in conversion of products not currently supporting open standards.
Over its 20-year existence, SPIELO has grown into a world leader in the government-sponsored VLT market, where a majority of the business supports system solutions in wide area networks. The trend in this market has been to require open standards on all recent Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Operators are keenly aware of the advantages of interoperability, and are making open standards a requirement for future business. Even near-term system replacements won’t signify a complete transition to open standards, however, because of all the investments needed to replace legacy components mentioned above.
In video lottery environments, where network security has always been a critical concern, there are many security features already built into gaming systems today. In the past, proprietary, closed architecture solutions were tremendously advantageous to maintaining security on networked systems, but this was not always advantageous to interoperability. If an operator needed a third party feature, then it needed to be integrated with either the system provider implementing the third party’s protocol, or the third party implementing the systems provider’s protocol. This usually caused the operator either a delay in potential deployment, or an additional deployment cost.
Because the industry is already rich in security features, and the newer open standards are using the same features that Internet banking uses every day, the standards are prepared to address concerns about security.
Thanks to existing legacy security features like signature calculations on binary game images, security exceptions to notify operations when doors are opened or cash boxes are accessed, encrypted cashout ticket numbers and gameplay meters that can be validated against cash counts, combined with current Internet security features, the new solutions will be more secure than ever.
There are probably more concerns about wireless technology than hardwired networked solutions because of the perception that anyone with a wireless laptop or smart phone could potentially hack into the network. However, this is probably more of a hypothetical concern as wireless solutions are put into use more and more every day. Wireless technology in a gaming environment would utilize the same security features as those currently in place on the Internet.
Most traditional games today are built with the game’s logic residing in the slot machine. In order to hack into a network and impact the payouts of a slot, each game would need to be modified to produce winners or force cashout vouchers to be printed. Networks are still private, and in most cases, their entry points are protected. If an intruder were able to gain access to the network, they would need to be able to modify and/or replace the game in the slot machine. Security measures like signature calculation will alert operations, should this take place. Generating false payout vouchers would require modification of the game, as well as the ability to generate encrypted voucher identifiers recognizable by the system validating the ticket.
Games with centrally determined outcomes, bonuses and progressives might be considered more open to intrusion because the outcomes of the games rely on communication with the servers. However, the same encryption that protects slot machines during transmission of data to and from the central accounting system is used by the bonus, progressive or outcome servers. In addition, operators are protecting systems components in the same way slot machines are signature-checked.
In addition, independent testing laboratories such as Gaming Laboratories International and Technical Systems Testing validate game and system applications by certifying their use, and providing mechanisms such as checksum validation to ensure the proper software applications are released to operators. The industry will ensure that any networked solution will be reliable and secure.
VP, Network Gaming Engineering and Operations
WMS Gaming Inc.
After years of talking about networked gaming (NG), the technology is finally making its way to market, and initial live deployments are starting to provide tangible evidence of the value this technology has the potential to deliver. While several suppliers have had technical or field trials of some NG applications over the past few years, those were simply trials set up to beta test the technology and functionality, and we are only now seeing real applications of this technology on casino floors.
One of the greatest misconceptions about NG was that operators would swap out an entire floor. It does not surprise WMS that the industry has taken a pragmatic approach toward adopting this new and exciting technology. While some of our industry peers expected that NG would be rapidly and widely adopted and touted the efficiency gains that operators would achieve, we always believed adoption would occur slowly and, as such, our NG vision has been consistent for over four years. WMS is currently executing on a successful “bank-by-bank, product-by-product” strategy to enable operators to transition toward a fully interoperable, NG environment.
WMS’ approach to NG extends beyond providing concierge services, advertising or simply communicating with patrons through a new player user interface on the electronic gaming machine’s (EGM) main display. We believe the true value of NG is its ability to offer patrons new exciting gaming experiences that were not possible without broadband networks connecting EGMs to servers.
However, since implementing a broadband network in a casino with older technology is relatively costly, WMS believes casinos are best served by implementing NG bank-by-bank to minimize their upfront investment and prove the financial case for its existence. From there, casinos can move NG to more sections of the casino floor and finally, as the return on investment is justified, to the entire floor.
The path to implementing NG applications starts with education. It is imperative that operators do their homework and truly understand what each NG application will require, how it works, how it was developed, and what benefits it can yield.
Understandably, new casino openings have an advantage over existing casinos when it comes to implementing NG. New casinos can be wired with fiber optic or CAT-6 cable and generally install the latest NG-ready EGMs. For existing casinos, operators must contend with older wiring and congested duct work along with an installed base of older, non-NG capable EGMs.
We believe that NG applications do not have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement and do not require a significant number of EGMs to prove their value and generate a positive return. Our NG applications can be implemented on as little as one bank of eight EGMs, requiring a very modest investment in servers and CAT-6 cable to activate the installation. Starting small has a number of other advantages beyond keeping the initial investment manageable.
WMS’ approach to operator adoption of NG also minimizes the replacement or upgrade costs required of EGMs in order to support NG. Given today’s EGM replacement cycles, which in many cases exceed 10 years, operators may find themselves with EGMs that are not capable of running NG. Unlike some suppliers, WMS has ensured that operators have an affordable upgrade path that does not require a full purchase of a new EGM, giving operators the ability to incrementally implement NG on their floors.
Finally, most slot technicians today have significant experience with maintaining EGMs and conducting preventative maintenance. In an NG world, they will need to develop networking expertise or rely on their IT peers for the implementation and maintenance of an IP-based network. The slot technician’s job is not going away but will simply evolve, just as it did when slot machine technology shifted to electronic from electro-mechanical. Slot technicians do not have to become network engineers, but they do need to understand that a partnership with IT is essential as EGMs become nodes on a network.
How NG Works
NG does not just impact the operator’s floor and wiring. It is also likely to impact regulatory requirements, internal controls and the operator’s processes and procedures. The operators must do their homework before starting down the path toward implementing NG in order to minimize the amount of time it will take to get these applications approved and, more importantly, integrated into their processes with the least amount of impact to ongoing operations.
How NG was Developed
We believe it is unlikely that a single supplier will be capable of developing all the best NG applications for the industry. Even multi-billion dollar software development giants such as Microsoft cannot build the software applications to meet the needs of every corporation. Therefore, the development of NG applications becomes very critical. Operators must understand if they were developed using proprietary hardware or software or if they were developed using open standards such as GSA’s G2S or S2S or the computer industry’s SSL standard. Proprietary applications make it far more likely that they will not be interoperable with applications from other vendors, thereby potentially restricting the operator to applications from a single supplier.
One of the other great misconceptions about NG is that all suppliers are pursuing fully interoperable systems. Interoperability is critical, but some suppliers are withholding access. Most, if not all, operators want the freedom to choose applications from multiple suppliers. As such, interoperable applications will become far more desirable than ones that simply coexist. Some may question the motivation for suppliers, who are fierce competitors seeking to gain market share, to cooperate and interoperate. We think the answer is quite simple: learning from the computer industry, applications developed using proprietary methods limit sales, increase prices and have a high maintenance costs. When suppliers compete on applications and content rather than on infrastructure, protocols or hardware, the customer, i.e., the operator, is far more likely to benefit. The phenomenal success of Apple’s app store is a great example of this.
Benefits of NG
The value proposition of each NG application is likely to vary. Operators need to fully understand the level of technical and operational integration required on an application-by-application level to determine who within their operations must be involved.
IT involvement will be needed to implement NG, and we believe marketing could also become a key partner in the process. Marketing input may be critical for NG applications designed to advertise or communicate resort amenities within a window on the EGM’s display. Without their involvement, messages displayed on the EGM may not be in synch with those delivered through other media channels such as TV, print and kiosks.
WMS’ Ultra-Hit Progressive, our first NG portal gaming application to be implemented in the field, is proving—just like the Big Event community games that came before—that server-based NG gaming applications do in fact generate additional profitable revenue for the casino operator.
In summary, WMS has found over the past two years that Remote Configuration and Download is a key foundational technology that, on its own, does not add much value, but rather enables the implementation of other new and exciting NG applications. Our small domestic and international implementations of NG gaming applications have proven accretive to casino revenue. We believe this is proof that the true value of NG is in its ability to enable the delivery of new gaming experiences. We don’t see a single “killer app,” but rather believe these new gaming experiences, coupled with service capabilities and advertising, will in fact have a positive impact on casino revenue. In the end, operators must truly educate themselves by asking lots of questions, by seeking input from others who may have implemented some of the technology and by starting small, expanding only as demand dictates.