Will casinos have the right people on board to handle the technology shift to networked gaming floors?

IGT has created a $10 million Interoperability Center to help manufacturers and operators ensure their games or add-on programs work seamlessly with IGT’s products.

The coming of networked gaming is changing the dynamics regarding the kinds of employees that will be needed to manage the new high-tech slot floors of the future.

In addition, manufacturers are dealing with this hiring shift and preparing for a new role of providing managed services as well as creating games and system products.

“This technology is nothing new; applying it to our business is entirely new,” said Rob Bone, vice president of marketing, WMS Gaming. “Things are going to be different. Slot directors are going to be talking to the CIOs, VPs of marketing, [who are] going to play a part in how the slot floor works.”

Dealing with the changes will require not only hiring new employees from the greater IT universe but also retraining existing slot personnel, Bone said.

“The slot floor people - we need to invest in them,” he said. “We’ve got to grow them along. They are going to be the ones who determine our success.”

To that end, WMS offers its online Slot University, providing a wide range of accredited courses for slot novices to veterans.

New blood

WMS and other companies also are taking other steps, including looking outside the gaming industry for new high-tech employees.

Ramesh Srinivasan, senior vice president of network gaming at Bally Technologies, said he sees some definite demands on IT staffing as networked gaming is adopted. Casinos are going to require more robust network servers, the demand for business intelligence tools will increase and the classic application software will become more sophisticated.

“The assumption is the floor is going to become a lot more dynamic,” he said.

All of those changes will require a higher level of staffing for both operators and manufacturers. The good news is it won’t happen overnight, Srinivasan said.

Companies will have time to prepare for the transition. “There is definitely going to be an IT challenge in the gaming industry,” he said. “But I don’t see a state of panic. I think it’s going to be evolving over a period of time, like it always does with business systems.”

Srinivasan acknowledges that IT staffing requirements will be higher than they are today. “It is going to require Silicon Valley type of people to keep that environment running 24/7,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to attract those kinds of people to the gaming industry.”

When Srinivasan joined Bally, he noted that the company needed to bolster its engineering talent. “One thing that was apparent was there were not enough doctors to run this hospital,” he said. So he focused on beefing up the systems engineering talent, including adding 450 engineers in offices in India.

“There is a lot more engineering at first going into a product,” and he said Bally has some 210 engineers dedicated just to service.

“All they do is help customers install products,” he said. “Services become an important component between the staffing they need and the staffing they have.”

He predicts a four- or five-fold increase in professional services over the next two or three years.

Bally also has spent a significant amount of effort on recruitment not only in India but in the United States.

The company is extremely particular about who it hires, hiring only one out of every 20 interviewees. “We are looking for that technical aptitude that can deal with complex applications,” he said.

One issue in finding good people is that it’s sometimes difficult to attract them to Las Vegas. “What we did is open a small office in Atlanta,” to help reach out to potential candidates,” Srinivasan said. “Giving ourselves the option like Atlanta helps a lot.”

Bally Technologies has devoted considerable time and effort into cultivating and hiring new information technologists through offices in India and domestically.

The operator's view

Tim Stanley, chief information officer and senior vice president of innovation, gaming and technology, sees the shift coming, and acknowledges the potential changes that will be necessary for both manufacturers and operators.

“I know several of my peers in gaming and/or IT roles, are increasingly putting upon gaming manufacturers and system providers to think more like enterprise IT shops because management of this stuff is going to be real interesting, from a regulatory standpoint, operational and from a technological and people standpoint,” Stanley said.

For instance, slot techs will be facing a different world, albeit first a hybrid floor with both traditional slots and network games.

“They’ll be dealing with all sorts of new stuff,” he said. “I think you’ll see some trend toward more IT geek and people with more enterprise background in dealing with that, perhaps from financial services or large distributed networks, and companies that serve those. I think you’ll start to see a transition of different players getting involved in the industry.”

Stanley said he and others are encouraging vendors and manufacturers to hire more IT professionals from outside gaming.

IGT is a good example, he said, noting the number of Sun employees hired to work for the slot manufacturer. “We don’t buy a damn thing from Sun, but people who have that experience and background, or Intel or Microsoft, or Cisco, those kinds of people are now being hired into the IGT’s, the Bally’s and the others in the world, and that’s an evolution that’s required to get there,” Stanley noted.

But he noted that the industry will be living in a hybrid world for some time, and will need employees adept in both today’s traditional slot technology as well as those who understand advanced network technology. “You’re going to have to have folks who have or will develop new skills that hybrid between the two. “You’re going to run mixed floors and mixed environments, and you’re definitely going to have to have a whole new set of skills that evolve from people you have or create staff and develop them to take advantage of these new things, like much more centralized evaluation of performance and customer selection.”

It’s a given that there will be adjustments as the industry moves to networked gaming, said Andy Ingram, senior vice president of networked gaming at International Game Technology.

As the industry moves from a serial to an open network, casinos will need more robust IT equipment.

“Everybody has some form of IT, but this will scale up the number of servers and storage that you need to have in place,” he said.

Much more is at risk too, he said. “There are obvious implications, in that if the network goes down or is not designed properly, you could impact the operation of the floor,” Ingram said.

But the industry is capable and will make the necessary adjustments. Major casino companies, Harrah’s, MGM Mirage, Boyd and others, will have fewer issues than those that are smaller, he said. “Smaller casinos could struggle without some help. I think there is a way to help them,” he said.  

A little help from your friends

“You don’t necessarily displace slot techs,” he noted, but it does mean a move to a more powerful network to manage the slot floor. “It changes the nature of the slot tech role, if you will, to a network tech on the slot floor,” Ingram said.

Manufacturers have to be ready to step up to the plate to help operators with needs related to network gaming, Srinivasan said. “To the extent that the customer cannot do it themselves, we will have to bridge the gap,” he said.

So far, Srinivasan noted, the industry mainly sees manufacturers only as providers of products, rather than services.

But that’s changing, he said, noting Bally’s services business has practically doubled.

“We are not a product company. We are a solutions company,” Srinivasan said. “That will become more and more required as customers will expect us to bridge the gap.”

Stanley said he’s a big advocate of managed services. “To the degree by which we take advantage of it, TBD, but on the systems and support side, I’m a huge advocate ... and that’s a bit of credit I would give Bally, for instance, over the years,” he said. “To their credit, they are more progressive than some have been about making software remotely supportable and the like, and increasingly being able to be on the hook to provide that remote access and support and administration of those things on call.”

IGT also is expanding its professional services arm, which is particularly of interest to smaller casinos.

“In the case of smaller casinos,” Ingram said, “there are different levels of assistance we would provide.”

For instance, professional services could provide set up, management processes, train their people. “We basically teach them or help them in becoming proficient in system operations,” he said.

IGT also provides managed services “where we would go in and operate it for them,” Ingram said.

“We see that as a very desirable service to medium- and smaller-size casinos.”

Business analytics

Srinivasan said sophisticated business analytics will become extremely important to casinos.

“Companies are not used to that kind of predictive analysis,” he said. “It’s like a constantly correcting analysis. It requires an ability to appreciate and understand complex volumes of data.”

As far as applications software, casinos are more up to date on that front, he said.

“That is the area where we’ve made the most progress so far. That’s the phase the industry will have the little easiest time with,” Srinivasan said.

Manufacturers also are readying for the change. “Business intelligence is being taken a lot more seriously,” he said, noting that manufacturers are starting to partner with more firms focused on business intelligence. Casinos will need to maximize the business intelligence tools to better operate their business, and the kinds of employee who will be needed, Ingram said.

“I do believe it’s a powerful set of tools, so you need people who are capable of taking advantage of those tools,” he said.

IGT is strengthening its business intelligence tools, partly through a partnership with Massachusetts-based Apollo Data Systems. Apollo, coupled with IGT’s gaming understanding, will provide a predictive modeling engine that will allow customers to use business intelligence tools such as Mariposa software more powerfully and more completely. What Apollo brings to the table: Its “engine will find the best fit, the best model for that data set,” Ingram said.

Ingram’s recommendation for operators is for them to start preparing for the network-based gaming world.

“There are a number of things they can be working on now,” he said, such as how to plan the migration to a G2S floor and to get a full Ethernet backbone in place. “Those are steps that can be done now.”

In addition, companies can be sure to be purchasing only gaming machines compatible with the G2S protocol. “You want to make sure that you’re investing in machines that can really take advantage of the network.”

They can also check to see if their casino management system is going to be ready for G2S.

In some ways, the open network is simpler, Ingram said.

But a lot is riding on it, he noted. “More of the business may be dependent upon it, so then you probably have to manage it to a higher level.”

By structuring the sb architecture to keep the game located at the client rather than the network, a casino can limit the potential downside when a network fails.

“The floor could continue to operate,” Ingram said. “You wouldn’t be able to reconfigure the floor, but the basic game could continue to play.”

Ingram said casinos can look for a computing environment with service-oriented architecture that is extremely resilient, with network equipment redundancy built in for protection.

“You can design the network to be extremely reliable,” he said, noting such network infrastructure technology is deployed with reliable results in industries, such as online banking.

“We’re trying to make it simpler to operate in these environments, in building architecture that is reliably scalable, flexible, with a user interface that’s simpler to use, more intuitive, more forgiving,” Ingram said, so it’s harder for those network problems to occur.

IGT also recently built a $10 million Interoperability Center that it will populate with equipment to make available to competitors “so they can come in and test their equipment with competitors and with us so we can help provide interoperability. They can build applications to go to on top of our infrastructure. Our customers can come in and test their applications,” he said.

At WMS, the company has made significant investments in its IT and intellectual property in order to be able to offer advanced products to casino operators.

“From our standpoint, just because we don’t have a player tracking system, doesn’t mean we aren’t a systems company,” Bone said. “We are a very robust, intellectual property house. We happen to

make games very well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t execute on an enterprise system.”

WMS is committed to delivering products that allow casinos “to maintain and cultivate your best players so your return on investment is the best it can be.”

“Players will pay a premium to have a customized player experience.” Bone said. “We can bring very unique, very robust technology to make it [networked gaming] built around the player’s experience.”

WMS, Bone said, is focused on letting slot executives know what server-based gaming means to their business and how it can help casinos.

“Between now and September, we’re going to be giving our customers a very detailed plan of how we’re going to get there,” he said.

Networked gaming, and Gaming Standards Association’s G2S protocol, also should afford operators more opportunity and flexibility to pick different providers for different products, Bone said.

“It’s how they interoperate and connect that makes it worthwhile.”