In many ways, the future of gaming technology is now. As the pace of digital technology and related trends speeds up throughout society, the gaming industry is striving to keep up.
The signs are easy to spot, whether it’s social networking initiatives such as WMS’s Players Life website that allows players to play certain games online and unlock bonuses on the game at the brick-and-mortar casino or International Game Technology’s (IGT) social gaming revenues, which increased by 105 percent in the quarter that ended June 30, and DoubleDown Casino became the top-grossing social casino game on Facebook for that period.
Add the legalization of online poker in Nevada and online gaming in Delaware and New Jersey, and it’s more clear than ever that these, and other changes, are pushing the envelope for innovation on and off the casino floor.
“I think it’s a really exciting time to be in the space, for players and casinos and for manufacturers like us,” said Aron Ezra, vice president of mobile for Bally Technologies. “One of the things that is so exciting is we’re now seeing all of the innovations that have been worked on in the mobile and the online world and separately on the casino floor actually begin to overlap so that we’re able to take best practices from each of those formerly separate worlds and kind of bring them together in ways that previously were impossible.”
“On the mobile side, today what we can do is we can actually put games that are sort of miniature versions of the exact games that a visitor would see on the floor of the casino directly on their devices so they can continue to play them,” said Ezra, who is former chief executive officer of MacroView Labs, a leading mobile app developer that Bally purchased in 2011.
“We’re able to do a lot more with being able to give players the ability to see what the experience will be like in the casino when they eventually get there,” he added. “[We can] expand the experience that they’re having with the casino and the relationship they have with the casino and also enhance the experience they are having once they’re in the casino.”
For Aristocrat Americas President Atul Bali, the new level of interconnectedness of platforms and devices signals significant change in the industry.
“Obviously there has been a lot of talk around digital gaming and regulation of online gaming, but of course online gaming has been around for the last 15 or 16 years, so we’re probably in our third generation of platforms with the respect to that,” Bali said. “I think what’s really interesting at the moment from a technological perspective is this ecosystem of connected devices. We’re starting to see so much connectivity between different devices and different platforms, both at the corporate enterprise level as well as the consumer level. And I think the whole face of the Internet—how it’s being promoted, how data is moving around and being utilized—is changing rapidly.”
The pace of innovation is checked by the fact that the gaming industry remains a highly regulated industry. Even so, regulators are showing more openness in considering new technology.
“The technology between the consumer and the device is obviously going to move along at the pace of regulation,” Bali said. “What’s happening is that because of these new technologies [such as i-gaming], because of proliferation of different types of wallets, different ways of verifying data on users, etc., I think regulators are starting to feel more comfortable, and they will continue to feel more comfortable as other jurisdictions have already regulated those things.”
An overarching trend Bali sees is not just about games being enabled through technology, but that new channels are being enabled. “I think we’ll see a lot of new things as we start to use new devices in the gaming environment,” he said.
Aristocrat has found success with its nLive platform to create online for-play casino websites for casino customers, including a highly successful install at Maryland Live!
He noted Aristocrat has significantly enriched that product over the last 12 months and added a development team as well as a digital services team that is providing customers with assistance in terms of presenting nLive’s free-to-play option, as well as enabling them for social and mobile environments and preparing them for wagering where it’s legal.
A Question of Content
When asked where gaming content might come from in the future, Bali responded that it remains an open question. “That’s a fascinating topic. I think many of us have an opinion, and I don’t think any of us have been proved right or wrong in the short term,” he said. “I think it will take a little while, and I think certain nongaming concepts will work and others won’t.”
Bali said he believes some content will come across the casual gaming genre of development. “We will start to see people leveraging some of those well-known brands across different games that are produced from the casual gaming market, and I think features from those games will become part of the bonus features within the traditional casino slot.”
Still, Bali noted, the North American slot player has a number of characteristics and favorites, “and so I think we will continue to see content from those providers that are in the market today who are satisfying the innovation expectations of that customer base.”
When asked if he worries about how to reach out to the younger demographic of players, who cut their teeth on console and casual gaming, Bali said he doesn’t. “Frankly, I don’t stay up at night thinking about that. I do believe that in terms of the nature of the content of games, that will slowly but surely evolve as it needs to,” Bali said. “I don’t see it as being unattractive to the younger generation. We just need to build the right wrapper around it that attracts their attention.”
Ezra noted that “there’s a real misconception that the only people using these types of technology are young people, and that’s been proven again and again not to be the case. In fact, one of the fastest growing groups of mobile gamers are middle-aged women, if you look at who’s buying smartphones.”
In the mobile space, Bally is creating ways to enhance that gaming experience for players.
“We do a lot on the mobile side, [from] enabling users to do things like find where their favorite game is on the floor, rate individual games that they’re playing and give feedback about what they like and don’t like or remember where they parked their car or get tickets to a show, whatever it is that they happen to be interested in doing,” he said. “So when I look forward, I see a very exciting future where not only are we seeing those interesting overlaps and interfaces, but just a whole world of really new technologies, new technologies around banking; new technologies around the displays that people are able to use thinner and thinner displays that can be manipulated in various shapes and forms; more wearable electronics, ranging from smart watches and Google Glass to augmented reality; more cloud-delivered games, streaming-style games allowing people to access a much broader library of content from wherever they happen to be; and more gesture-enabled games. That’s one of the things that’s been a lot of fun to see. We’re starting to see much more interaction with the games in very different ways that previously weren’t possible.”
When asked if players are ready for all these changes, Ezra said, “I think players in many ways are the ones driving it.”
“We are in an age that if you look at the very broad definition of gaming, it is evolving not only around traditional casino gaming, but [also] akin to Angry Birds and some of the things going on across console gaming and mobile platforms, and I think it’s becoming increasingly important for both casinos and manufacturers like ourselves to really capitalize on all of these exciting innovations happening outside the traditional wagering environment and employ those technologies in our world as well. I think that’s what’s going to help keep us cutting edge,” he said.
Another driving factor is that technology is better today than ever, Ezra said. “We have more and more reliable connections with better and better machines. We have got faster connectivity everywhere you go in the world, and it’s opened up a whole host of opportunities for us to be interacting with those folks in very different ways.”
As for casino operators fearful that i-gaming may impact their brick-and-mortar business, operators need to understand the power this can bring to their properties, according to both Bali and Ezra.
“If you look at the convenience, and if you look at the amount of opportunities that people are seeing and utilizing different forms of media, why would you not offer them the online gaming experience, particularly if you could offer it to them on your brand? I think that as long as you’re careful and thoughtful about your offering, I think that these brick-and-mortar casinos will actually grow their presence,” Bali said.
Compared with their counterparts in Europe, he noted, North American casinos have a huge advantage because most have built large player databases. “This is not a European online business where you have a pure online business where people are buying databases and they’re using affiliates to draw players,” he said. “Casinos in North America have longstanding relationships with their customers, and giving that customer increased access points to play what they want, when they want to play, even when they’re not on the property, I think is net upside for those casinos, and I think there’s both a defensive aspect to that as well as a growth aspect to that.”
Ezra predicts online and mobile gaming will augment and support the land-based facilities. “If you look at what’s happening in other industries, more and more industries, especially industries that involve discretionary spending like ours, are recognizing that they need to have a very strong presence on those platforms,” Ezra said.
“Our goal is to enhance, not to replace, and so we look at adding technologies that are going to make the player’s experience more fun, more convenient, but we’re certainly not trying to create an all-digital space that completely lacks the human touch. That’s not what’s going to attract people.”
Keeping that human aspect top of mind is paramount to the future of the brick-and-mortar casino, according to Gregg Solomon, chief executive officer of MotorCity Casino in Detroit.
“It’s a real trick to figure out what that thing is that keeps customers loyal, and it’s getting harder,” he said.
Solomon does not shy away from deploying cutting-edge technology at MotorCity, but not merely for technology’s sake—it’s got to create real value and connection for players.
“With Internet gaming and everything else coming on,” Solomon said, “if we don’t remember that people come to a real casino because there are human beings attached to them, we’re going to be going the way of the buggy whip.”