Trying times cut both ways for GSA and the quest for interoperability

The dual protocol world of legacy floors stands in the way of a plug-and-play world.


The logic and necessity of open standards has long been apparent to all actors in the gaming industry. It’s the getting-there part that has been hard.

A sluggish game replacement cycle and operator under-investment in supporting technologies have combined to pose substantial barriers to progress toward the industry’s ultimate goal, a one-wire solution for slot floors that makes content king and places the plumbing in its proper supporting role. Manufacturers and operators alike have been engaged in a fight for survival that too often relegates progress toward the plug-and-play world to afterthought status.

On the other hand, the very question of survival is what continues to breathe life in the Gaming Standard Association’s (GSA) work on behalf of the industry to promote open standards and clear the path to a content-driven slot floor. The one industry that has thrived in the downturn is technology, which continues to transform personal life and business at breakneck speed. Many on both sides of the operator/supplier equation realize the industry must modernize if it is to remain competitive. This is fueling demand for networked, customer-facing technologies such as the player user interface, which offers the promise of real-time marketing at the point-of-play but is also exposing many of the technological limitations of legacy floors.

“Things are in motion,” said Peter DeRaedt, president, Gaming Standards Association. “The industry, meaning regulators and operators, is starting to request the use of these standards. They are embracing the ability to have full transparency, control over their own destiny and to drive innovation.”

Much of the action for now is outside the U.S. and in video lottery terminal (VLT) networks. Operators in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have each announced their intention to embrace GSA standards for their VLT networks. Austria and Slovenia are slated to make similar announcements by year’s end. Most significantly, five Canadian provinces and the Oregon State Lottery will be spending the next four years replacing over 100,000 terminals with G2S-enabled product. The implications for the broader gaming industry will be powerful, according to DeRaedt.

“You’re talking a $1 billion replacement cycle over four years, which is significant,” he said. “These people want to offer players the same look-and-feel across their markets, regardless of which manufacturer products they buy.”



"Right now we have a clear set of standards that are stable and can and will be implemented and certified, offering a solid base for the functionality that you need to day."
-Peter DeRaedt, president, Gaming Standards Association

CHALLENGES OF SCALE

GSA promotes the use of three basic standards: The first is G2S, the game-to-system protocol, which governs all communications from gaming terminals to a corresponding host system. S2S, or system-to-system, allows one system to talk to another system to share information. And GDS, or game device system protocol, which is really intra-cabinet, allows peripherals to talk to the cabinet’s operating system.

Most new machines in the industry have the G2S protocol built into it, but the sluggish replacement cycle, which was as low as 5 percent, has limited the number of G2S machines in the marketplace. When projects such as Cosmopolitan or Aria open 100 percent G2S, or VLT networks such as those in Canada and Oregon commit to full-scale replacement of legacy terminals with G2S-compliant product, that piece of the puzzle is complete. The next necessary, and more challenging, step is certification and interoperability, which is the validation process that will give operators confidence that G2S-compliant products can be seamlessly plugged into their system infrastructure. Certification most often involves a third-party test lab, but vendors may also self-certify.

“Compliant means it works; I code it into the GSA spec, but until I go and get it certified, my version of compliant may not be exactly the same version of someone else’s,” explained Walt Eisele, vice president technology, Bally Technologies, at last month’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E). “Certification gives me that warm fuzzy that now I can indeed plug in with some level of confidence that my interpretation of the GSA specification and another vendor’s are the same since we were both certified by a third party that runs through a number of test scripts and suites and ensures that the products work as prescribed in the GSA protocol.”

Interoperability was discussed in many different settings at G2E. The process is complex and not without its difficulties, but so is the present reality operators face as they try to integrate exciting new technologies into their slot floors only to find one roadblock after another.

“We brought in the products of several vendors and one thing I find interesting is there’s a port on a lot of these new games that has G2S protocol built into it,” said Peter Caster, director of application development, gaming systems, Foxwoods Resort Casino. “GSA wants to open up everything so you’re not glued to one technology in one venue for things like this, but what I’m finding is vendors will create a product that works on their machine but no one else’s machine. What we’re doing is moving a serial proprietary solution to an Ethernet proprietary solution. That’s not all vendors, just some vendors doing this. And while they’ll open up the communication from their server to the game, their server itself is either cut off from the network, or can’t be networked, or they won’t support it if it’s networked, or it’s sitting out on a floor where you can’t network it. To me that completely negates any benefit I get from doing something fancy at the machine like PIN access.”

David Patent, chief operating officer, Rush Street Gaming, sounded a similar note. “We first started having conversations about server-based gaming in 2002,” he said. “By 2007, it was all Wall Street wanted to talk about. By 2009, everybody was going to be on server-based and, here we are, we’re not even close. It will happen when you have interoperability between the manufacturers. Right now, you can’t have all of your games operate on a single system where you can easily do whatever you want on your floor. Who would want to have three different systems to do that? The expense can’t be justified.”

If it were one world, the industry would probably be closer to one wire. But the balkanized and highly-regulated global gaming industry, which is minuscule in terms of sales potential compared with conventional, mass-market industries whose suppliers are free to sell to everyone under the sun, does not often lend itself to commercially unified solutions.

“I’ve been at the center of interoperability and the challenges of what it takes to get multiple companies, all that have different IP that they need to protect to make sure that those assets best generate returns for their shareholders,” said Jacob Lanning, vice president of CRM, The Cosmopolitan. “They also have different and distinct business strategies that often times don’t align with what the end-consumer is really looking to do. It poses challenges to us as operators because everybody knows as they look at their network infrastructure that adding an additional port per game has a real cost to it. It’s more switching gear. In some cases it can be more physical wire, and that can get really expensive very quickly. But at the same time, if we want certain features, you’ve got to pay for it somehow. And, more than likely, you’re not going to be able to pony up enough money to be able to convince an individual vendor that they should converge to the solution that you want.”

Eisele acknowledged that interoperability is one of the chief problems for operators when they get a new product on the floor, if there’s a problem with how it connects to the host system and has customer-facing issues. Often times, they’ll run a test lab for the express purpose of plugging that new product into their system infrastructure, and that costs time and money. The most important piece of ROI is that it allows for innovation to happen more quickly, which benefits everyone.

“If I come up with some great new idea, I have some level of confidence whether it’s G2S, S2S or GDS, doesn’t matter; if I’m certified to it, I can bring that innovation to the floor to an operator’s business more quickly and provide that ROI for them,” said Eisele. “A lot of our time as manufacturers is not spent developing, it’s getting things approved and into numerous jurisdictions. If I have a way that I can speed that process up, it will be good for me as a supplier and for the operator because he’ll be able to depreciate innovation much quicker.”



"GSA wants to open up everything so you’re not glued to one technology in one venue… but what I’m finding is vendors will create a product that works on their machine but no one else’s machine."
-Peter Caster, director of application development, gaming systems, Foxwoods Resort Casino

CANADA AND OREGON

The absence of scale is something that five Canadian provinces and Oregon are meeting head-on, which is what makes the work that GSA is doing there not only so interesting for those jurisdictions, but for the industry as well. With over 100,000 terminals, the Canadian Project, if you will, gives the industry a chance to develop meaningful, and potentially transferable, precedents for interoperability and cutting edge features such as the player user interface.

“This started about four years ago,” said Muriel Grimble, executive director, gaming products and services, Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission, speaking at GSA’s annual meeting last month at G2E. “This group decided that by working together with one voice to articulate a vision would make it easier and more cost effective for the vendor community to respond with products and services that would support our journey to modernizing technologies and help us meet the needs of players today and in the future. Now we have a strong technical roadmap, meaningful collaboration and a commitment across Canadian jurisdictions for membership in GSA.”

Carol Hardy, assistant director and vice president of marketing, Oregon Lottery, sounded another common theme. “We operate VLTs on a proprietary protocol and that has hindered our ability to bring content forward; it’s expensive and it’s time consuming,” she said. “GSA was a platform by which Oregon and the Canadian jurisdictions could start working together to address like issues. We think the gaming industry lags behind from a technology perspective compared with other entertainment industries and we didn’t want to get left behind. It’s all about content and the consumer; we have to be in front of them when and where they want or we will lose. Right now, we are championing the G2S standard and we are about to replace our central system for video and 12,000 VLTs. We will demand that they are G2S-compliant.”

A key focus for the group is the player user interface. G2S, S2S and GDS, “are just protocol standards,” said Jacob Wyton, chief information officer, Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. “We have a very high priority on other standards. Standardization of the player-user-interface, for example, is one of our highest priorities in terms of being able to add value to our operation. The ‘inform player class,’ the responsible gaming standard, is another one.

“The point where we try to create business value by protecting plumbing has to go away,” continued Wyton. “In Alberta, we continue to focus on those things that don’t add business value to our organization and drive standardization to those particular elements so that we can spend more time on those things that do add business value like game content and innovation. The player-user-interface is that; there is a whole bunch of plumbing that we have to figure out so that we can let the manufacturer community create great content. We’re now to a place where the software is becoming more and more disposable. We want to provide new experiences more rapidly.”

If the lotteries can come up with an industry-acceptable common window, that will solve a lot of problems for these operators; that’s what they want, said DeRaedt. “You cannot continue to develop one-off solutions in a vacuum,” he said. “The Canadians and GSA have been working very hard in the Operators Advisory Committee so that as an industry we come up with a common agreement as to what is possible and what is not. I think there will be significant benefits derived from this.”

The investments by these lotteries will be substantial, involving wholesale replacement of games and systems. The British Columbia Lottery Corporation, for instance, expects to spend over $100 million over the next three years, according to Jim Lightbody, vice president, casino and community gaming. “If we don’t have systems and standards that allow us to reduce the operating costs, it’s a problem. The more we can reduce integration costs, the more we can invest in marketing.”

Operators see the certification process as the key to their success in Canada and Oregon. They are requiring products be GSA-certified as part of their legal contracts before they buy from a vendor, and they are saying the right things about working with vendors to move the still-nascent certification process along by communicating with each other and standardizing their requirements where possible.

“In Oregon, there has only been one implementation with a G2S system and a G2S terminal and we’re learning things as we go,” said Hardy. “That’s why certification becomes really important and what you are certifying to. Operators may need to get together and see if we have some alignment of business practices where we get more standardized and create test scripts that say this is how we want this delivered, particularly in wide areas, which are very unique.”



"If we want certain features, you’ve got to pay for it somehow. And, more than likely, you’re not going to be able to pony up enough money to be able to convince an individual vendor that they should converge to the solution that you want."
-Jacob Lanning, vice president of CRM, The Cosmopolitan

WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD

The intentions and commitment are there, but the industry is still feeling its way through the certification and interoperability process, though considerable progress has been made this year.

For starters, G2S, S2S and GDS are now settled standards. “There was a period time where the industry was improving and tweaking standards,” said DeRaedt. ”Errors were found and all of that. Right now we have a clear set of standards that are stable and can and will be implemented and certified, offering a solid base for the functionality that you need to day. Does that mean that we’re going to stop developing standards? Of course not. SAS (IGT’s legacy protocol) came out every two years or so with a new version. If there is new functionality, we’ll extend it. But GSA has a policy for extending the standard without necessarily rocking the foundation. That will allow the industry to innovate at the speed of business.’

GSA also established a certification and interoperability committee this year, which is chaired by Paul DeGrazia, senior director product assurance, systems division, WMS Gaming. Competitors have also agreed to share their test scripts as GSA tries to develop an open source concept, giving it the ability the ability to improve test scripts for the industry. “That is a very important step,” said DeRaedt.

“I think there will be a huge improvement on interoperability once certification is in place,” predicted Adrian Marcu, vice president, global technical architecture, International Game Technology, which has its own interoperability lab. “As the time progresses and you pass from certification to a regulatory lab, odds will be minimal that you find problems. It will be a much minimized process. I can’t see manufacturers certifying a product knowing that it can’t pass a functional test.”

Of course, there is still a mountain of complexity to work through. For one thing, test scripts and protocols are often subject to different interpretations by different human beings, even when there is commonality, and especially, in the case of test scripts, when they differ.

“The committee was approved by the board last spring,” said DeGrazia. “Even before we went face-to-face for the first time, the challenges of how we achieve certification were pretty apparent. Looking at other industries that have had similar interoperability challenges, there’s no way you can drive consistency unless you have a common set of scripts. The GSA Board agrees with that and the committee is on the same page. How do you get some of the value that the labs deliver when you have a common set of test scripts? The labs deliver their own expertise. I can take the same set of test scripts and give it to a couple of engineers and they’re going to find different issues; the same thing happens in the lab. The main thing is to drive consistency and time-to-market so as a vendor, I know that when I submit to a third party lab they might find a couple of issues but I’m going to get through pretty clean. It’s going to work a lot better if I run most of those tests ahead of time; it’s just an engineering best practice.”

“Certification is still in its infancy and we’re trying to figure out how best to do it,” said Eisele. “If you take a look at G2S protocol, it’s 1,300 pages. It’s incredibly complex and well thought-out. You had some of the best minds in the industry working on that protocol. The downside to certify is that takes a lot of time. Here’s the scripts we need to buy and run, the process we need so that if I use a third party and another vendor self-certifies, it works. We do have a checklist in place for G2S version 1.1. But GLI (Gaming Labs International) has their own set of scripts that they run for version 1.1 and BMM has a different set of scripts that they developed. That’s a problem, because there will be some gaps there. I’m not saying the third-party labs are doing anything wrong, but the certification process won’t be as thorough as it could be if everyone was using the same test scripts. Getting a common set of scripts in place is really important.”

DeGrazia said the certification and interoperability committee is presently working on creating a hierarchy of testing assets and test scripts in a machine-readable format that would minimize subjective interpretation and inconsistencies. “We’re trying to get that done by the end of the year,” he said. “I would say thousands of test cases will be involved.”

Alberta’s Wyton recognizes that operators will have to put their weight, and money, behind the process as well, “We are the end user so of course we are prepared to bear some of the cost,” he said. “One of the reasons why certification is important to us is it’s a way to communicate what we want. We have a number of RFP’s out in the last month, and the only way we could articulate what we want in the absence of certification is to actually spell out every single message in a checklist and have each vendor tell us what they comply to and what they don’t. Beyond the risk-proofing and all the things certification does for us, it’s also a very important communication tool.”

For DeGrazia, operator commitment to the certification process makes a complex matter rather simple in the end. “We’re seeing certification pop up in our RFPs; it’s being demanded more by our customers,” he said. “This is the way the industry is going and if you don’t adapt as a vendor you’re going to be left in the dust.” SM