The stars are beginning to align for the server-based technologies we’ve been hearing so much about, and they’ll be on full view at this month’s Global Gaming Expo.
It’s an exciting time for the industry - “time for the next generation of player interfaces to hit the real world,” in the words of Tom Doyle, vice president of systems product management for Bally Technologies.
What is equally important, he adds, “We’re seeing some loosening of budgets.”
If more casinos are finding the money to take advantage of server-based gaming it is because the technology is becoming more practicable and cost-effective for them to deploy. The ability server-based gaming (SBG) provides casinos to “converse” with their players, immediately and in real time, pretty much wherever they are, but mainly its unprecedented powers to engage and entertain them directly at the gaming machine with an array of marketing and promotional interactions and rich-media content, these always were a given.
“We did a review of our systems portfolio 24 months ago as part of a very extensive process to try to determine where the industry was headed from a technology perspective,” said Kelly Shaw, Aristocrat’s vice president of North American systems sales and marketing. “We did extensive interviews with our customers. What we learned is that they want tools that are going to get them to server-based and downloadable gaming.”
They’re getting there, finally, because there are more Ethernet-enabled gaming floors, more collaborative opportunities available to operators and manufacturers alike now that there is an open standard that everyone agrees on for governing communications between different EGMs and back-of-house systems, and as more older machines are phased out, legacy obstacles are becoming easier to overcome, with the result that legacy adaptabilities increasingly are being incorporated into a more market-ready SBG product mix.
“We’re done with building the plumbing. Now it’s all about what flows through the pipes,” said Richard Yin, who as IGT’s vice president of system products is one of the strategists mapping the slot giant’s advance into the server-based future.
WORKING TOGETHERDoyle counted something like 450 Bally customers at the company’s most recent Systems Users Conference, held in Southern California at Pechanga Resort & Casino. It was a big deal for Bally, which got to show its “Networked Floor of the Future” in action on 2,400 machines fitted with the innovative iView user interface and 1,200 featuring the iView Display Manager picture-in-picture interface, which transforms a slot machine into a multimedia experience through direct downloads of rewards and customized bonusing, tournament and community gaming opportunities and touch-screen applications that let players enjoy any number of concierge-style services, from ordering a drink to booking a spa date.
For operators, the collaborative possibilities are especially meaningful from an ROI standpoint. The iView showcase at Pechanga included machines from Aristocrat, IGT, Konami and WMS. In June, not three months after the gathering, Bally concluded agreements with Caesars Entertainment and Sun International for enterprise-wide deployments of iView and iView DM.
WMS Gaming has entered into joint technology ventures with IGT and Konami that look to be similarly groundbreaking in scope. The first of these has WMS and IGT working together to leverage the Gaming Standards Association’s open Game to System (G2S) protocol to develop software for implementing the direct-to-player interfaces of IGT’s Service Window and sbX Media Manager and applications such as WMS’ FreedomPort Player-User Interface, which runs on the company’s powerful WAGE-NET networking platform.
IGT has taken the forward-thinking step of inviting operators into the process of designing and developing applications for SBG.
“We have the ability now to get customers involved in the front end,” said Yin.
With the base tool kit IGT provides, the applications they design (a bonusing or promotional module, for example) become their intellectual property.
The agreement between WMS and Konami Gaming combines WAGE-NET with Konami’s Player Tracking, Advanced Incentives and Casino Management System, allowing both companies to run all the features and functionalities of their respective gaming and non-gaming applications on each other’s machines.
“The key is operator efficiency,” explained Dean Ehrlich, vice president of network solutions for WMS. “If you have seven suppliers on the floor and you can manage them from one server rather than seven, because it all integrates, it’s just easier. The simplicity of delivering content to the gaming floor is a huge advantage. The easier that is, the more you, as an operator, are able to optimize your investment.”
Among the technologies included in the Konami partnership is WMS’ Portal Application, which uses WAGE-NET’s networking power to deliver fresh server-generated game content on top of an existing base game. The name derives from the portal-style architecture, which runs on a central game controller. It’s not just bolt-on content, however; these are game features that integrate with the original game to create an entirely new experience for the player.
“From our strategy, it’s more or less bank by bank, not trying to boil the ocean,” Ehrlich said. “It represents a pretty minimal investment to drive a lot more value to the gaming floor. The operator doesn’t want to have to touch every game.”
The first Portal Application, Ultra Hit Progressive, delivers a second-screen dynamic in the form of a themed, mystery-triggered, multi-level progressive which the player participates in simply by continuing to play the original game.
Ultra Hit Progressive recently was approved for installation in Nevada - a “major milestone,” as Ehrlich termed it at the time, one that also provides the biggest of stages for the company to show off the versatility of its Remote Configuration & Download, a GSA-compliant system which, as the name suggests, enables operators to remotely download new themes and game content, such as that available through Portal Application (UHP, for example), and firmware to peripherals such as printers and bill acceptors, and modify EGM configurations (denominations, line counts, hold percentages, for example) and even perform administrative and maintenance tasks.
The legacy value is obvious and significant. “It’s something we do a very good job with,” Ehrlich said. “We can upgrade a 2003 Bluebird with an enhanced CPU board to run ‘Jackpot Explosion’ and ‘Piggy Bankin’ ’” - the two themed progressives that comprise the initial UHP rollout - and when necessary, he said, WMS develops multiple versions of the same games to work with different legacy platforms.
SEEKING AN EDGEAristocrat is tackling the legacy issue by building a number of very versatile modules into its popular Oasis 360 system. Three of these will be unveiled at G2E: a content-delivery solution called nCompass; nRich, a dynamic and highly personalized bonusing application; and a business-intelligence application called nVision.
“You look at the online space, it’s all about understanding total player behavior,” said Shaw. “Operators need tools to understand their players better, to drive incremental spend and to keep the player at the game longer.”
nCompass is a main-screen game interface that serves both new and legacy games with visually rich, customizable video and animated content, bonusing and state-of-the-art touch-screen interactivity. Features include targeted marketing messages to individual players at specific machines, one of the things downloadable technology does best.
nVision is designed to provide casinos with the ability to make important decisions better and faster by digging for key performance indicators across an entire operation, table games as well as slots and restaurants, spas and other points of sale, and to segment that data on the basis of a variety of metrics - “to understand player behaviors in their totality,” Shaw explained, “the key being to understand their value holistically.”
The marketing power of customized bonusing is recognized as one of the great advances of SBG technologies, and one the nRich module aims to exploit with tools for delivering specific, personalized incentives that work to provide casinos with the ability to encourage specific behaviors from their players.
The concept of flexible rewards figures prominently in Bally’s thinking as well. The Elite Bonusing Suite, as it’s called, offers casinos an array of tools for delivering loyalty-building incentives direct to device via iView display and iView DM. These can range from personalized messages to floor-level interactive promotions like Virtual Racing, which was one of the highlights of the Users Conference at Pechanga back in March.
The idea, said Doyle, is to provide players with “a whole new entertainment experience above and beyond what the actual game provides.”
For IGT it’s all about “player personalization” - it’s Intelligent Bonusing suite being an example of how good the technology has become at identifying individual player behaviors and tailoring rewards to that history and to a casino’s most valuable player segments with things like customized tournament and community-play events delivered direct to the device, even extra spins at the game.
“It really brings in that intelligent piece,” said Javier Saenz, executive director, Systems Products, for IGT. “It opens the horizon to so much new creativity in how the casino can reach their players and merchandize their floor.”
Universal Game Adaptor is another good example of why IGT is recognized as a leader when it comes to thinking about server-based technology in “holistic,” which is to say player-centric, terms. Designed for hybrid floors and floors that pre-date the G2S standard, UGA lets casinos seamlessly deliver visually sophisticated content and the picture-in-picture functionalities of the Service Window direct to the machine using a GSA open-standard add-on that any manufacturer can certify and support floor-wide.
Not surprisingly, Universal Game Adaptor has generated considerable interest ahead of G2E. “From our point of view it represents a very large step forward,” said Yin. “It utilizes a very simple board, and we’re offering it at a very attractive price so manufacturers can use it. A lot of customers are happy about it. They get the rich media without a G2S floor and without interfering with the integrity of the EGM.”
Saenz said that server-based technology has advanced to the point where manufacturers now can deliver on the “value promise” it always implied.
“It is something we’ve all been talking about for the last several years. Now we can. It’s been the culmination of years of work.”
Doyle agreed. “What casinos are looking for is something that is going to bring value to their players and to them. The great thing about server-based is they don’t have to have the latest and greatest games to implement some of these marketing features. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to change out their entire floor overnight. Operators are looking for incremental change that is going to improve their success.”
The Bally literature speaks of SBG as “an evolution, not a revolution.” The road forward is one of “thoughtful implementation.”
At Aristocrat, Shaw is delivering a similar message. “I tell our customers this all the time, I think this is a journey. It’s a journey into the future.”