Has networked gaming found the momentum to push the technology forward in a big way? Manufacturers, operators and experts offer their insights.

When MGM Mirage’s $9 billion CityCenter opens in November 2009 on the Las Vegas Strip, its hotel-casino will showcase server-based gaming across its slot floor as the first casino-wide, ground-up implementation of International Game Technology’s sb solution.

The CityCenter announcement in April was the latest in a series of deals and field trials involving server-based or networked gaming. Casinos around the country, including Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino in Lakeside, Calif.; Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas; Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif.; and Ameristar’s casino-resort in St. Charles, Mo., among others, are experimenting with server-based gaming.

The impending arrival of server-based gaming across casino floors has been talked about for years, but is the gaming industry reaching a tipping point or a critical mass that will push the technology forward?

There’s no clear consensus among the experts Slot Manager talked with, but substantial progress is occurring, most agree.

Rob Bone, vice president of marketing at WMS Gaming, said he believes the industry has reached a “mini tipping point” where “it’s gone too far for people to say things and not deliver.”

 “People are saying, ‘Show me. Don’t tell me anymore,’” Bone said.

Server-based gaming’s evolution is starting to move faster, said Bruce Rowe, Bally Technologies senior vice president of strategy and business development.

“We’re not at a tipping point, but we’re at the beginning of the evolution accelerating,” he said. “And the evolution is accelerating principally because there are more applications being identified that can add theoretical value; people are upgrading their floors to Ethernet; and we have new casinos coming online that are interested in spending money on the forward-looking technology and what’s going to be coming. And those things are some of the catalysts that are starting to allow this technology to move a bit faster.”

Rich Schneider, senior vice president of IGT Network Systems, said deals such as the CityCenter agreement for the first floor-wide deployment of IGT’s sb gaming mark important milestones.

“They’re really about major operators saying, ‘I believe in this vision of providing at the slot machine better service to my customer, a better way to communicate to them, and a better way to provide entertaining game features that have an element of my own casino brand associated with them.’ So that’s a very compelling story to those kinds of operators, who really at the end of the day are all about differentiation.”

The fact that major operators are pursuing the technology causes competitors to take note, Schneider said.

“People look at that, and they say, ‘Wow, my competitors are going to be getting these tools, and that’s a scary thing for me.’ And it should be a scary thing for them,” he said. “Being able to provide entertainment offers and promotions to a customer not on a monthly basis but in real time before they leave your casino, I just fundamentally believe that has to translate into a competitive advantage. Being able to configure your floor based on what you know about the audience that will be in your casino that evening; being able to tailor the gaming product to meet the demands of the consumer who’s going to be in your establishment, I believe that also has to translate into a competitive advantage.”

Many casino operators remain skeptical.

Shawn McDaniel, director of casino operations for Three Rivers Casino in Florence, Ore., said Three Rivers opened its permanent facility last year and at the time laid the groundwork to accommodate server-based gaming once it is ready.

But McDaniel said he has yet to see that application that makes it worthwhile to go to the expense of pursuing server-based gaming. “There’s not a cost benefit yet to have server based gaming. It’s only a benefit to the casino, not the guest,” he said earlier this year.

MotorCity Casino in Detroit also is wired to allow for server-based gaming, said Gregg Solomon, chief executive officer, Detroit Entertainment LLC, which owns and operates the casino.

Solomon said he’d move forward with the technology if there were a compelling reason, if he could be assured that any new system he chose would provide at least the same functionality as his current one and if adequate game content were available.

 “What is the killer app? Why should I do this? People have been hard-pressed to give us an answer to that,” Solomon said.

Solomon said, however, that his interest was piqued at the Southern Gaming Summit when he saw a promising new IGT machine that delivers important functionality and features the server-based world.

“I’ve seen one prototype. I think it’s a helluva game, but I’m not going to put 100 percent of those on the floor,” he said.

Solomon noted that he needs assurance the content will be there, not just from IGT, but from other manufacturers, and that once he does move to server-based gaming, the new machines he’s purchased will still work. “In the next year, we’ll start buying boxes like that and as we get to a certain percentage of the floor, then we’ll get to that point where it’s not so painful to flop in that direction.”

Although moving to server-based gaming requires a new system installation, Solomon is undaunted by that prospect as long as MotorCity doesn’t lose any current function in the process. “I’ve kind of ridden this slot system I’m on as far as I can go with it,” he said. “At some point I’ve got to get a new system whether it’s server-based or not. What I would like to do is upgrade my system once and get a server-based system with that.

Solomon noted other operators also may be outgrowing their slot system and prepared to make a change, as long as all the pieces are there to make good business sense. “I think a lot of operators are in better shape to make the change than some people would have you believe.”

Among the other major challenges for server-based gaming is how operators will be charged for game content, Solomon said. “They have not defined that pricing model yet, so we’re all sitting here waiting,” he said.

Casino operators are trying to understand the true value proposition of network gaming and what it may mean to their floors and overall business. “It will be the company that best presents tangible benefits and a solid, full-scale strategy that makes the most impact,” Bone said.

While WMS does not have a traditional systems business, that is proving to be a help, not a hindrance, Bone said. “We’re not bound by that ball and chain of a legacy system.”

Operators should have the freedom to select modules to give them what they want, Bone said. WMS products are fully interoperative, bolt-on products, he said. “We’re trying to make it as risk free as possible for customers to embrace our technologies and make it work,” Bone said.

WMS’ cutting-edge gaming products, including community gaming sensory immersion, adaptive gaming, and transmissive reels, are available and give operators the ability to see the potential for leveraging such technology in a server-based world, he added.

“It gives customers the ability to see how the technology can work [in a server-based environment] and they can visualize how it can roll across the floor,” Bone said.

Not a product, but an enabler

The importance of network gaming isn’t the network, said Mark Pace, WMS vice president of engineering services.

“The importance of network gaming is what we can do with this new capability now that we’ve got this Ethernet pipe,” Pace said during a server-based gaming session at the Gaming Technology Summit in May. “What new technologies, what new experiences can we create? How are we going to architect those experiences?”

Server-based, or network gaming, is sometimes misperceived as a product, Rowe noted.

“We talk to Wall Street and they always ask when is it going to be available, as if there’s this defining day and this shrink-wrapped box is going to show up, and we’re going to have this server-based gaming [product],” Rowe said at the summit.

“It will not be delivered on one day in time, where any customer has all of it or any company has all of it. It will not have one price,” he said. “The question of when will server-based gaming be done is like asking, ‘When will the Internet be done?’ It will never be done. This is an enabling technology. It is not a single product.”

What the industry is moving toward is enhanced network capabilities, added Rowe, including the ability to update printers and bill validators or offer customized marketing at the point of play.

“This is not just about efficiency and making more money, but a lot of this translates into customer satisfaction,” Rowe said.

Second ways to win features represent another advance that enables a casino to create a ubiquitous experience across the floor regardless of machine manufacturer or age of the game, Rowe said. “That lets the operator create a unique value proposition on their floor. Those are areas where we’re seeing real progress now with the networks that are in place today as well as where we’re moving with the Ethernet.”

Bally and other manufacturers are keeping backward compatibility in mind with the products being released today. “It’s very important for operators who buy our systems. You could argue that it’s better for us to accelerate a replacement cycle, but we really think the value of the application should determine the speed at which things are replaced,” Rowe said.

“Things like being able to change denomination by time of day and day of week, we’re building that into standalone games that don’t even have to be connected to a command and control system, and that’s another way that operators can learn whether this adds value.”

Open question

IGT has stressed “the power of open” in its marketing for server-based gaming. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of technology under this thing. It’s based on high speed networks, and fundamentally it’s also based on the premise that this functionality has to be offered on every slot machine on your casino floor,” Schneider said.

“We have to be partners with our competitors for the base technology for the infrastructure. Now, for what we put on that, we have to be fierce competitors. [But,] defining that line between infrastructure and applications is always a challenge because it’s defining the line between partnership and competition.”

 IGT has offered its Service Window player interface to other major manufacturers with a royalty-free license in exchange for a cross-license to technology in the same space.

“It has to be all about the industry and how this open standard is going to make everybody be able to deliver a better product to the operator and to the player. And that, because it is a consensus-building process among fierce competitors, takes time.”