Features like IGT's sb Service Window (above) and promotional programs like Media Manager add new functionality to server-based gaming.

 As server-based gaming technology moves closer to reality, the prospect that its potential benefits can be enjoyed beyond the customers and management of only the largest casino operations is becoming clearer.

Developers of server-based gaming systems have been closely listening to the concerns of managers of smaller operators and Native America casinos, and are developing systems that can be scaled to meet all size operations, needs and budgets. And the fruits of these efforts - depending on the speed of field testing - could be available to any casino seeking to harness the full power of the Internet on their gaming floors within the next two years.

What server-based gaming systems will do is to network slot machines to a central computer, from which casinos can exert greater control over the content and services provided on the gaming floor.

With these systems, casinos can offer players a broader selection of available games, thus assuring that they never get frozen out of playing a favorite game. Proposed systems will offer multiple games in each slot cabinet, from which a player can choose to have downloaded for play from the central computer. More variety leads to more fun.

Casinos also benefit, as these systems will give them the ability to alter game content and pricing to match changing conditions on the floor by the day and even the hour. Slot managers can program these systems to offer certain games at hours or days when they are most popular. They also can change per-play pricing, making it higher during peak gaming periods and lower during slow periods.

Finding the right fit

Server-based systems are not entirely new. Class II bingo systems have long played games through a central server via wired or wireless links to tabletop monitors or portable handsets. But the technology is new enough that U.S. gaming regulatory agencies have had to draft new regulations concerning system operation, especially in the area of security to assure that no one hacks into a system.

Server-based gaming systems will offer many of the same components as earlier non-server-linked systems, said Phil Bury, manager of network system product management at Reno-Based IGT. These will include ticket-in/ticket-out systems, bill validators, real-time events programs, real-time accounting programs, player card acceptance and player tracking systems.

All of the announced systems will not be one-size-fits-all products. For instance, “IGT’s Version 3.0 server-based system has architecture that it scales to meet the requirements of both large and small operators,” Bury emphasized. “You can acquire as little or as much of a system as desired, so smaller properties can spread out the investment over time.”

Cost of initial installation will vary by casino.

“Server-based systems require an Ethernet communications link. If a casino already has one, that greatly cuts initial installation costs,” Bury explained.

There is a growing buzz among all sizes of casinos about the new technology. But Gregg Solomon, CEO of MotorCity Casino and owner of Detroit Entertainment LLC, warns that before selecting a server-linked system, smaller properties should do some investigating to assure that their investment isn’t wasted.

“If a casino chooses to gradually upgrade its slot floor to use the new technology, how will it integrate with the existing non-server system?” Solomon asked. “Will the programs used on both be compatible, or will you have to operate two systems in the interim?”

Another concern is how well player information will jump between the two systems. Can a player using a player card on a non-server machine move to a server-linked machine and not lose his rewards data, Solomon asked. Such questions need answering to assure that costly problems don’t arise during the switchover period, he said.

Vendors have said that their programs on older non-server systems will still work on their upcoming server-based systems currently in development or field testing.

IGT’s Version 3.0, currently being tested at Gaming Laboratories International’s Nevada Lab, will - in addition to providing multi-game selection and having the ability to adjust betting denominations - include a program called Media Manager. Initially placing text and flash animation promoting casino events and services on the slots screen, the program will eventually be upgraded to provide streaming video, giving even small casinos the ability to promote additional business and sales off the gaming floor.

Meeting demands

Other features will enable small casinos to brand their machines, adding logos and other features to slots screens. And the server-linked machines will have the ability to greet players by name as they insert their player card, provide a personal message from the casino welcoming them to a fun day, and ask if they want to play the same game as on their last visit.

IGT also is making its server-based system plug-and-play so that it works with machines from multiple manufacturers. IGT will offer systems for both Class III and Class II games.

Las Vegas-based Bally Technologies doesn’t refer to its system as server-based gaming, preferring the name Networked Floor of the Future.

“We prefer to call it by what it does rather than how it accomplishes its task,” Jeff Allen, Bally’s director of business development, said.

Bally’s Networked Floor technology also is scaleable to meet the needs of large and small properties. But Bally also offers casinos the system in a choice of UNIX-, AS400- and Windows-based platforms.

“We want to offer casinos an operating platform they are comfortable with; and for many smaller casinos, that platform is Windows,” Allen said.

“We also realize that most smaller casinos do not have their own IT guy, so to ease the cost, Bally provides complete training for employees so they understand how to use each system feature,” Allen explained. “And afterward, Bally’s Professional Service Department provides complete service support.”

The Networked Floor can include all current Bally slot management and accounting programs; all Bally Power Bonusing products like Bally Power Winners, Bally Power Bank and Bally Power Live Rewards; and the Bally Business Intelligence System that monitors all facets of a hotel/resort/casino. This includes tracking customer spending both on and off the gaming floor.

The business intelligence software (seePOWER and GamingPOWER, acquired from Compudigm last year) provides a “heat map” of what’s happening on the slots floor, so slots manager can make real-time decisions to optimize play throughout the floor, Allen added.

The Download and Control Manager (DCM) system co-developed by Bally and Las Vegas-based Aristocrat Technologies facilitates easy alterations of game content throughout the Networked Floor. This trims costs especially at smaller properties as one doesn’t have to buy new cabinets to get new games, Allen said.

Cadillac Jack's Cadillac Cash wide-area progressive will be carried by the company's Vision Op server-based system.

Suiting the smaller operations

Duluth, Ga.-based Cadillac Jack, got its start in the Class II gaming market, and is now taking its Class II server-based game technologies and applying them to the Class III market.

The firm’s Vision Op System is designed to provide remote configuration and downloading of games, said Kunal Mishra, vice president of product management and marketing at Cadillac Jack. The firm’s complete line of games is available for use on this system, and new ones will be added as they are developed, he added.

This system also will carry Cadillac Jack’s player-exciting progressive jackpot technology, which casinos can program to cover one, some or the entire floor of server-linked games. This includes the firm’s popular Cadillac Cash wide-area progressive.

“Smaller properties that already have an Ethernet link will find the initial installation costs low, as they’ll only have to buy the machines,” Mishra said. “The initial cost also can be amortized as the system

automatically keeps records, thus reducing labor costs. These personnel also can be transferred to other tasks, such as patron relations, which also will boost casino productivity.”

Robert Bone, vice president of marketing at WMS Inc., Waukegan, Ill., agreed that whatever initial cost a small casino made in server-based gaming systems would be earned back through better cost efficiencies and revenue enhancements.

“Cost savings will result from operators having the ability to enhance the variety of content on their floors by providing new products in a timely manner while reducing the effort needed to convert individual games,” Bone said. “Revenue enhancements will result from operators being able to configure and ‘price’ their respective floors for any time or day to drive up the optimum utilization of their entire hotel/casino.

WMS’s WAGE-Net (Wide Area Game Enhanced Network) solution is fully scalable to any size floor and can interoperate with any player tracking system, Bone noted. The system’s many suites of applications will enable casinos to personalize and customize play to create “whole new levels of engagement for players.” And Patron Services modules, comprised of business intelligence and analytics/visualization tools will provide casinos with player information that does not current exist, he added.

Field tests of WAGE-Net begin in summer.

MotorCity’s Solomon remains a little disappointed that other features are not yet being offered in server-based gaming systems.

With everything flowing through an Ethernet, there are opportunities to improve communications with players, including one-on-one conversations tailored to providing customers what they want from their gaming experience, Solomon said. Also missing so far are features that would allow players to create their own slots tournaments, create personal progressives, and even a buddy list that, once a player registers in, will alert he or she when a friend is playing at the same time.

These are things that could, and should be future developments, Solomon argued.