Put to the test
BEST PRACTICESPut to the test A rash of new technology has put state-run gaming labs like Mississippi's in a bind. But manufacturers and regulators are working overtime to improve the process
Gaming labs and regulators are usually the last stop in the process of bringing new gaming product and technology to the casino floor. But the rapid advancements of technology in the industry of late have created somewhat of a bottleneck in the review and approval process.
The influx of new slots and table games-along with industry advancements like cashless technology, player tracking systems and completely digital customer service and back-of-the-house systems-have overwhelmed some labs, especially state-run labs, where staffing and budgets can sometimes become a critical issue.
Nowhere has this issue been highlighted more than in Mississippi, where the state-run gaming lab has been overwhelmed with work, and the inability to handle the load has drawn the ire of gaming equipment manufacturers nationwide.
In most jurisdictions, new game platforms or operating systems typically take between six months to one year for approval. New games or enhancements to existing systems can sometimes be approved in a couple of months or less. But in Mississippi, the approval process had been dragging on for much longer.
"I think very generally, the turnaround time in Mississippi was slower than any other jurisdiction," said Walter Stowe, vice president of legal and compliance for Aristocrat Technologies and president of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers. "That includes other states with their own labs like New Jersey and Nevada."
The Mississippi Gaming Commission, which oversees the lab, held a series of meetings late last year in an effort to address the problems and several changes have resulted. But the review and approval process, officials on both sides point out, is a two way street, and there are a number of things the lab and manufacturers can do on their end to ensure a smoother, quicker approval process with all labs.
Falling behind in MississippiLarry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, acknowledged the backlog in his state's gaming lab. The reasons for the slower approval process, he said, were mainly due to the large amount of submissions to the lab.
"We did have delays in our lab," he said. "The increasing amount of new technology did not help our backlog."
But the increased workload wasn't the only problem. Mississippi's lab was attempting to approve new products and advancements without the aid of any real set of guidelines or technical standards. That led to constant questioning of products that manufacturers often didn't have to incur in other states.
The lab was also arguably understaffed with experienced engineers and technicians. State budgets-Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation-did not allow the lab to hire more personnel to tackle delays.
Despite the noticeable delays in Mississippi's lab, officials chose not to outsource work to private labs like Gaming Labs International or BMM Test Labs that could handle the load.
"I've heard the reason for this is because of pride that they could do the job," Stowe said. "I know the guys in the lab felt they could handle the job."
While manufacturers were seeing approvals in other jurisdictions, they found that getting the OK in Mississippi could take several months longer.
"We had games that were appearing in Louisiana and getting attention that hadn't even been considered yet in Mississippi," said one manufacturer who requested anonymity.
That, in turn, made it harder for Mississippi's 29 commercial casinos to compete with the latest slots and gaming technology in other markets.
Lab workGregory said the Gaming Commission's November meetings with manufacturers produced a number of changes that should speed up the approval process. "One of the solutions is that we divided the lab into two areas: one being games testing and with the other, we're starting a new systems division. That will focus on some of the new technology out there, including ticket-in/ticket-out."
Some work will also be outsourced to privately run labs in an effort to ease the workload of the Mississippi lab's staff.
"We're also launching a pilot program with an independent testing lab, BMM. We're going to do a 90-day program where we allow manufacturers to go to BMM to test their ticket-in/ticket-out products," Gregory said. "At the conclusion of that testing, they'll turn it over to us to evaluate what they have tested and then we'll grant final approval for the product."
BMM was contracted by Nevada regulators when cashless technology first swept through the industry.
Mississippi, in another move to mirror Nevada regulators' success in testing, are adopting a set of technical standards that parallel Nevada's.
"The manufacturers, from what I hear, are tickled pink that they've got something they can look at to be able to provide this state what's needed to get their product out faster," Gregory said.
The first draft of those standards has been filed at the Secretary of State's office for public comment. Gregory said he's looking at around May 1 before they are fully adopted, but the Mississippi lab and BMM are already using many of the standards agreed upon.
Gregory said staffing concerns were evaluated, but that the lab is not yet ready to hire additional technicians.
"Throwing more people at it does not seem to be the solution. The technology that is out there is growing by leaps and bounds and it would take a lengthy time frame as far as my employees to get up and running if I hired them. I think that with technology where it is, that is why we're having to look outside to have some independent labs to take a look at the technology that is coming down the tube."
However, there have been some personnel changes. The lab's director, D.C. Ladner and two engineers have been removed. Gaming equipment manufacturers were reportedly upset with Ladner's direction of the lab and have privately voiced their concerns with state officials. Brenda Redfern has replaced Ladner as acting director of the lab.
The changes have many manufac-
turers lauding the state's efforts. Stowe said he's already noticed a difference in the efficiency of the approval process.
"My own company saw a fairly quick turnaround on a couple of issues that had been pending. I think everyone in the industry is real hopeful right now," he said. "I think people are willing to work cooperatively with the commission to see what these changes bring."
Building toward approvalGaming labs aren't the only ones who can cause delays. Manufacturers can create problems for themselves if they submit incomplete or flawed products and don't make themselves available for the communication process that transpires between labs and gaming companies.
Gregory said there are key things he looks for from manufacturers when they seek approval of a product or system.
"The first thing I would ask of the manufacturers is to be patient. Secondly, I would want them to send me product that is ready to be operational on the gaming floor-no prototypes. We run into situations where manufacturers send us product that is not ready for testing. That's a waste of time on both of our parts. We wind up having to send it back. They try to speed up the product and wind up sending us inadequate products."
He added that he's now requiring manufacturers to submit written certification, signed by the company's chief executive officer, that the product submitted is operational in nature and ready for use in the casino.
"That way, I think we'll see more completed products sent to the labs," he said.
Stowe said it's critical for manufacturers to have effective quality assurance programs and an adequately staffed and capable technical compliance department in place to make sure the products being submitted are indeed ready for approval.
"The more thorough, the more problems you catch," Stowe said. "We're doing a lot with the software industry today and even a company like Microsoft, which is the leader in software, has problems with what they release each year."
Stowe added that open communication lines and the ability to have personnel deal directly with the labs is also a must.
"Sometimes you have to deal with a number of different jurisdictions and labs for each product. If you're not adequately staffed, you may not be able to promptly address questions that come up when the lab does its testing. Any delays internally in providing assistance to the labs will result in product delays."
Attitude is also important. Stowe admits that as manufacturers trying to beat their competitors in bringing new products to the industry, "we are never going to be satisfied with turnaround time." But that doesn't mean labs and regulators have to be the enemy.
"You have to have an attitude toward these testing agencies that it is a cooperative process. If they call and they have questions, you have to not only get back to them quickly, but be able to provide them with whatever information they need. You can't view it as 'well, I've submitted it, so it's out of my hands.' You have to continue to work the submission as it goes through the testing and approval process. "
"The labs are inundated with submissions," Stowe added. "If they have one from my company that they need additional information on and they've called us and we don't get back to them in three or four days, then what will likely happen is they'll start working on something else. Our product would get put on the back burner." CJ
Communicating early and often with a state's gaming lab can smooth the approval process
Marc Comella, vice president of compliance for Bally Gaming & Systems, said communication is the most important piece of the product approval process.
"We'll proactively work on the front end," Comella said. "As we're coming up with new innovative solutions to the problem, we'll reach out and work with all the various agencies to make certain that the things we're architecting fall within the requirements they're looking for in that market."
"If regulations or standards need to be changed, then there's a formal process of making suggestions to how they need to be changed to accommodate new technologies that are coming down the pipeline," Comella added. "But we also do it in a way so that they are guidelines for implementation versus regulations that are specific to one manufacturer's implementation."