Bally Technologies’ iDeck was a hit at the Global Gaming Expo, offering a new dynamic player user interface that holds promise for gaming today and in the future.



If the casino industry hopes to keep pace with the increasingly competitive list of  entertainment options facing today’s players, it’s going to have to step up its game.

You won’t find many in the industry who would take issue with that assessment.

In order to compete, today’s slot floor must evolve to incorporate the changes that are enveloping society today.

What changes will occur and how fast they will take shape remain up in the air.

Today’s slot floor already has seen its share of significant changes even in the last 10 or 15 years. Traditional three-reel slots and video poker machines that once dominated slot floors in long rows are still evident, but they are joined by pods of video gaming machines featuring eye-popping graphics and bonus rounds. Where casinos once faced service challenges of cashing out overflowing buckets of nickels, tickets and in some cases account wagering have all but erased that burden. And ticket technology is evolving to also become promotional marketing tools.

Now, the slot industry is at the threshold of even greater change mirroring the technological and societal changes taking place elsewhere in our daily lives.



WMS’ Players Life Web Services site lets players stay connected to the casino even when they’re at home or on their smart phones.

IT'S A PLAYER'S LIFE

For a vivid example of where the industry is headed, look no further than WMS’ Players Life web services site already in use today.

WMS’ www.playerslife.com, launched in 2009 in connection with WMS’ Lord of the Rings game, Web services leverages the expanded role of the Internet and mobile communication in players’ lives to connect them with their favorite games outside of the four walls of the casino. It allows players to play casual, not-for-cash games to attain new status and unlock new bonus segments for a later time when they return to the casino.

 “It’s just the tip of the iceberg on where we’re going with these technologies,” WMS’ Phil Gelber told an audience during a session at the recent Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

WMS learns much from its yearly Active Gambler Profile research into player behavior, said Gelber, WMS vice president of game development.

“We look at everything from the players’ perspective,” he said. “Ultimately it comes down to the player; people vote with their wallets by the machines that they play.”

Some of Active Gambler Profile findings for 2010 included that 20 percent of slot gamblers have smart phones, compared to 18 percent of the general population, “so they are very open to e-mail, Facebook, and all those others things that smart phones bring.”

In addition, he noted 69 percent have played a casual game on their phone. “I think that’s an interesting statistic,” he said. “Slot machine players, they’re gamers in general. They may not be hardcore Xbox 360 gamers, but they’re definitely online gamers, playing casual games, and they definitely prefer a personalized online experience.”

Another finding indicates some 86 percent of players have downloaded a free application to their phone and 44 percent of them have paid for one, Gelber said.

“What that really shows is that players crave entertainment at the casino and not at the casino. And that’s one reason we launched our Players Life web services site last year with our Lord of the Rings product to really kind of bring the casino experience home and then drive the player back to the casino.”

“Our slot players are open to technology. They use technology, they enjoy technology. They feel challenged by technology, which is important,” Gelber said.



IGT's ReelEdge games incorporate skill-related features.

MORE FREEDOM, FLEXIBILITY, INTERACTIVITY



“Our slot players are open to technology. They use technology, they enjoy technology. They feel challenged by technology, which is important,” Gelber said.

Harold Zeitz, IGT’s senior vice president of core products, also sees a convergence of slot gaming, mobile devices and online social media.

“I literally think all of those pieces are going to come together,” said Zeitz, who came to IGT from Seattle-based Real Networks where he spent several years on leveraging the casual games experience on the Internet.

In the future, Zeitz said, “I think we’ll be less focused on a person sitting in a particular area focusing on a particular device. I think we’ll be giving people a lot more freedom.

“We live in an Internet world, some would say we live in an iPhone world. Making sure that people have the opportunity to game in the mode and time and space they’re most comfortable in is best for the operator and best for the player.”

Casinos are keen to learn how they can better reach out to players, said Bruce Rowe, senior vice president of strategy and business development for Bally Technologies.

“The casinos are very interested in understanding how to have persistent interaction with their customers,” Rowe noted.

Through its systems offerings, Bally Technologies envisions delivering providing such interaction through multiple channels. “We see being able to generate an offer delivered in a mail box, delivered to the customer at the game, delivered at their hotel room and on their cell phone four hours after they leave. We see this as really just giving the casino companies many more distribution channels than they have had in the past.”

Javier Saenz, vice president of network systems for IGT, said players expect to have an integrated experience with their social network.

 “We’re going to start to see in particular social network capabilities come to the casino floor,” he predicted. “We’re going to start to see integration with their Facebook page. Those experiences that happen on the casino floor could get pushed up to your Facebook page.”

Networked or server-based gaming will allow for opportunities to give customers new ways to play, Saenz said.

“In terms of players being connected to other players while they’re playing either cooperatively or competitively, what networks do is they break down those physical barriers,” he said. “It’s about creating unique experiences through the network; that cooperation and competition is going to be unique.”

Already the signs of where the industry is headed are there. “You’re starting to see games come out with leader boards, on demand tournament capability. We’re starting to see the network start to use persistence.”

He predicts even more creativity with how players are rewarded.

“I think we need to be more creative than just with jackpots. Cash is always king, but I think it’s going to extend beyond that,” he said. “More experiences making players feel their part of something beyond those four walls creates a lot of green field. It really is about bringing the Internet to the casino world.”

Both IGT and Bally see plenty of opportunity for innovation on their windowing technologies – IGT’s Service Window and Bally’s iView DM.

As the slot floor of the future takes shape, Rowe noted it is imperative to ensure the alignment of three casino areas, the slot, marketing and IT departments. All of these, he said, need to be on the same page in order to deliver on the promise of networked gaming.

With regard to server-based gaming, Rowe noted he expects to continue to see casinos trialing pods of games connected to servers and as the economy improves and technology proves out, the industry will see broader applications.



The slot floor of the future may hold more games like IGT’s Texas Hold ’Em Heads Up Poker game that pits players against a computer “brain” opponent.

CONTENT STILL KING



Creating great content remains at the core of the gaming industry.

“Humans in general like to play games Many of our most important lessons come from learning to play games,” Rowe said. “The ability to create games that are compelling enough to make you want to leave home to go play them is the challenge.” 

Will the traditional three-reel slot completely fade from view and become a relic found only in museums in the next decade? Not likely. Players still have that connection to the mechanical device, and in fact, several slot developers are adding more mechanical and other features to enhance the games.

“We’re seeing the continued innovation of the traditional slot machine. We’re seeing a lot of innovation in game mechanics and play experience,” Rowe predicted.

That said, he noted that he expects the floor will still have a variety of classic games mixed with the latest, new games.

Some of the older games are the ones that make the most money, he said. “They are what I call the blue jeans and khakis. We have to be very careful not to take away those games that players know and love,” Rowe said.

“What you’ll see is this ability to add this marketing and this persistent connection with the customer through marketing and second chance to win features that are actually being delivered by the system rather than the game,” he said.

Bally is touting its iDeck as a very powerful user interface, Rowe said. “It’s dynamic,” allowing its uses to change quickly, he said. “It’s not just about pressing the buttons. It’s about all kinds of sensory things that you can do that you can’t do with a button.”

Coupled with Bally’s uSpin technology, it creates more opportunities to add interactivity to a game, Rowe said. “If you wanted to spin a wheel horizontally [on the iDeck], you would just swipe your hand across the iDeck. It could be used to ‘launch’ a ball onto the main screen. It can actually be used as skill as well as the representation of an outcome.”

“As we look toward the future, there’s going to be this migration that comes from skill games, console games that you’re going to start to see on the casino floor,” Rowe said. “I think the next few years are going to be amazing.”

IGT has invested significant resources in this area, with its Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker game and its Reel Edge products, Zeitz said.

The slot floor of the future may hold more games like IGT’s Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker game that pits players against a computer “brain” opponent, or its Reel Edge games that offer skill-based bonus rounds. “We think the opportunity to really knock it out of the park in this whole segment is there,” Zeitz said.

But at the end of the day, players decide. “It’s all about the game. It always has been and it always will be.”

Among other cool innovative gaming concepts here today but also point the way forward are WMS’ Pirate Battle and Aristocrat’s Remix.

WMS has invested significantly not only to understand players’ wants and needs but also to deliver on them with new product categories, such as its Adaptive Gaming and Sensory Immersion products. At G2E 2010, one of WMS’ products to create buzz was its MetaScreen, part of its Portal application family. It debuted Pirate Battle, a two vs. two community gaming competition theme available exclusively in banks of four Bluebird xD cabinets with special 32-inch overhead monitors. These monitors join to form a massive, singular screen on which a bonus canon battle randomly occurs, as red and blue teams compete for credit and progressive awards.

With Aristocrat Technologies’ Remix, customers playing Remix games sometimes get a second chance to get the right symbols in the right positions to win big. Don Quixote, one of the first two titles in the series, symbols shuffle around the video screen and land in new places, sometimes aligning for winners just missed the first time around.

Dragon Emperor, the other Remix title, is a Reel Power version of the same concept, with the reels, rather than symbols, shuffling around to land in different order.

Reaching out to a potential new audience of younger players is important to casino operators, said Dallas Orchard, Aristocrat Technologies’ vice president of gaming operations.

“There’s so much competition right now,” for the entertainment dollar, Orchard said. “We know we all have to try to get a younger demographic interested in our games.”

It’s very important to them to have games that attract that new audience, Orchard said. “We want to be able to give them the tools that help drive revenues.”

When the recession’s impacts let up and casinos loosen their purse strings, manufacturers will be ready, having hunkered down and focused on R&D and game development.

 “We know there comes a point in time where games have to be replaced. When it comes to game replacement there are no savings, there is only deferred spending because at some point in time, games have to be replaced,” Rowe said. SlotManager