Powering the New Slot Floor
by James J. Hodl
Powering the New Slot Floor
The benefits of server-based gaming are closer to becoming reality as manufacturers’ offerings near deployment
If those rows of stand-alone slot machines depicted in old movies like “Diamonds Are Forever” and the original “Ocean’s 11” don’t already look archaic, they will soon seem like something out of the dark ages. Server-based gaming technology is rapidly progressing, and ultimately will change the slot machine experience by providing players with more choices, while providing casinos with opportunities to boost profitability.
What server-based gaming systems are being designed to do is network slot machines to a central computer, from which casinos can exert greater control over the content and services provided on the slot floor. Or in the words of Andy Ingram, senior vice president of network systems at Reno-based IGT Systems, “We’re bringing the power of the Internet to the gaming floor.”
For players, this will mean not only a greater selection of available games, but also less chance of being shut out of playing a favorite game whenever they want. For casinos, these systems will enable alteration of game content and pricing to match changing conditions on the floor by the day or even the hour.
Closer to fruition
While such systems are not yet approved by any U.S. gaming regulatory agencies, Nevada has drafted regulations under which individual systems can achieve approval. New Jersey has drafted but not yet adopted its own regulations, and Gaming Laboratories International also has issued its GLI-21 regulations that other jurisdictions might use.
System suppliers are working closely with regulators to assure that their systems meet all requirements, especially in the area of security. They also are working with each other to get server-based gaming to the market sooner, as in the deal announced last November between Bally Technologies and Aristocrat Technologies to co-develop and manufacture a joint system. Other firms offering whole systems or components of systems include IGT, Cyberview Technology, WMS Gaming and Transact Technologies.
Server-based gaming systems are currently being field tested by manufacturers at assorted locations, primarily Native American casinos throughout the country. WMS and Aristocrat predict a rollout for server-based gaming within a year, though others more conservatively suggest early-2009.
Server-based systems are not new. In the restaurant industry, the NAFEM Protocol (named for the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers) enables chain eateries to download at once new one-touch cooking-cycle selections to specially equipped appliances whenever their menus change. And in gaming, Class II bingo systems play games through a central server with wired or wireless links to monitor screens or handheld devices.
Boding well for the ultimate success of server-based gaming technology in the United States is that producers have accepted a standardized communications link between gaming devices and gaming systems called the G2S (Game-to-System) Protocol. G2S resulted from years of collaborative work by gaming manufacturers, suppliers, operators and regulators under the auspices of the Gaming Standards Association. As a result, components made by one firm can plug into and work with components made by other firms.
Server-based gaming systems will offer the same components as the earlier S2S (System-to-System) Protocol, including ticket-in/ticket-out systems, bill validators, real-time accounting programs, player cards and player tracking systems. What is added is the ability to download game programs from a central server into individual machines on the slots floor.
Changing the game
“To change slots games now, casinos send technicians onto the floor to physically swap software and some hardware—one game at a time. With server-based gaming systems, casino managers can, from a central screen, point-and-click to change games in a whole bank of machines simultaneously,” said Carolan Pepin, marketing director at Cyberview Technology in Las Vegas.
“The benefit for casinos is that the general mix of games can now be altered at shorter intervals to better follow changes in player preferences,” she added.
Several system producers indicate that new games can be given short tryouts on a handful of machines. If they fail to click, they can be quickly banished in favor of games that patrons may like better.
Acquisition of new game programs can even be arranged over the Internet. Programs such as the IGT sb Store and the Cyberview Dynamic Game Library enable quick access to game software from Web sites so new games can be offered to players in less time after the order.
The games available will not only include old favorites, but also new games incorporating detailed graphics, animation and even movie clips. Cyberview, for instance, is developing games especially for server-based slots systems themed around and including clips from licensed movies such as “Guys and Dolls,” “The Vikings,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Wall Street.”
The downloading of new games can be prearranged at specific times using features such as the IGT sb system’s Scheduler or Cyberview’s Game Activation Scheduler. Casinos can thus change the face of its slots floor during low use periods, or to optimize the mix of games in real time to better give customers the games they like during the time periods they want them.
Fun and functionality
Server-based systems are expected to enable casinos to further alter games in ways that increase the fun, excitement, and not incidentally their profitability.
“Slots managers are experts in creating a fun environment, and they know the fun can be increased when players get the games they want without waiting. If they detect that certain games are in greater demand during certain hours, they can alter the mix to include more of those games during their peak demand period, then revert back to the general mix afterwards,” said Jeff Allen, director of business development at Las Vegas-based Bally Technologies.
It is customary on busy nights for table games to increase the minimum bet (such as from $1 to $5). With server-based systems, minimum bets on slots also can be raised when gaming positions are at a premium.
Casinos can further use most of the currently announced systems to change the speed of a game, the bet per line, the number of lines on the game screen, and the pay tables.
The yet-unnamed Bally system includes the ability to add to the data on the player card the owner’s five favorite slot games. Thus, whenever the card is plugged a machine, he will be offered a choice of playing any of these games.
“This can be especially important to customers that engage in different forms of gambling at once,” said Bally’s Allen. “If a player places bets with the sports book, by plugging his player card into a slot within eyeshot of the TV screen carrying the football contest, he can monitor his sports bet and still play a favorite slots game, which formerly might have been available deep onto the slots floor.”
This is possible, Allen noted, because the game program is in the server, and the patron plays it in the server through the machine, which instantly provides on its screen all graphics of the selected game.
With the IGT sb system, patrons with player cards have the option to interrupt play in the middle of a game. Then after tending to some important matter or going to dinner, by re-plugging the card into any server-connected machine and the game resumes where he left off, said IGT’s Ingram.
The proprietary Downloadable Technology system of Las Vegas-based Aristocrat Technologies will even offer a few surprises. When a patron plugs his player card into a server-connected slot machine on his birthday, the screen will display a birthday greeting, a coupon for a free dinner is printed, and based on preference data on the card, the patron’s favorite drink will be delivered to him gratis within a few minutes, said Jamal Azzam, director of server-based technology at Aristocrat.
The Bally system also includes an upgraded version of Bally’s Power Winner progressive that enables all patrons playing any game on the floor to compete for a progressive jackpot.
A feature of the prototype IGT sb system creates additional profit opportunities for casinos through the system’s player tracking software.
“Suppose your hotel is operating at less than capacity. Through player tracking, the system identifies customers having a rough night gaming—such as losing more than $100 on slots. The casino can contact the player through the system to thank him for his patronage and offer him as a reward an upgrade from his regular room to a premium room for only $30 more. The casino can thus earn $30 more on a premium room that otherwise would be empty and not earning the operation anything,” explained IGT’s Ingram.
Cyberview includes within its system a Remote Diagnostics Application program that enables the casino to constantly monitor the operation of linked slot machines. When a developing operational problem is detected, maintenance personnel can be sent to the floor to correct before the machine fails and causes unprofitable downtime.
Security has not been overlooked either. Cyberview, IGT, Bally and others report incorporating into their systems the same security systems used by the U.S. Department of Defense and major corporations protect the two-way flow of information between slot machines and central servers to prevent hacking that could result in the alteration or theft of casino and patron data. Cyberview especially noted the use of a Public Key Infrastructure that encrypts data, provides security at all entry points in the network, and tags all data so it can be traced.
To help others develop downloadable slots games for play on G2S systems, Cyberview also offers the Game Development Kit, which includes all programs needed to create, test and debug. Also included in the kit is a tutorial of developing video reel games, the complete game programming interface, and all the source code to produce a fully function game.
Though much of the WAGE-NET system developed by WMS Gaming, Waukegan, Ill., is focused on providing downloadable game content, the company is upgrading its hardware to enable quick implementation of its server-based system after regulatory approval is secured. WMS Bluebird slot cabinets currently offered for existing gaming systems are being built Wage-Net-ready for quick conversion.
TransAct Technologies of Wallingford, Conn. unveiled in late-March an expanded line of Epic gaming printers that can work with server-based slots in enabling real-time marketing of other casino attractions on the gaming floor.
To install server-based gaming technology, casinos will require a high-speed, six-wire floor network and at least a 100-bit Ethernet connecting each machine to the central server, said Bally’s Allen. Some casinos are already upgrading existing communication networks to these criteria as they remodel, as well as install such systems in new construction.
The cost of upgrading for server-based gaming will be between $300 and $400 per machine, Allen added.
But casinos don’t have to swallow the entire cost at once. According to Todd Elsasser, Cyberview technical compliance director, casinos can start small, initially rewiring part of the floor, then gradually expanding the area covered by server-connected machines at regular intervals until the whole floor is wired.
But he added, older casinos may have a lot more to do to switch to server-based gaming than newer operations.