More than 500 people from 21 countries and 39 states and provinces gathered at Uncasville, Conn.-based Mohegan Sun in June to attend the EMPOWER Bally Systems User Conference 2014, to hear and see the latest innovations from Bally Technologies, one of the casino industry’s top technology innovators and thought leaders.

And in terms of new product introductions, EMPOWER 2014 did not disappoint, with Bally using the occasion to unveil the major systems, table games and slot machine improvements and devices it will showcase at the upcoming Global Gaming Expo (G2E) and beyond. The event also shed some light on current trends and problems impacting the gaming industry as a whole, and how some of these issues can be rectified through evolving technology.

Of course, EMPOWER 2014 also provided a progress report on where Bally Technologies stands after a rather hectic past 12 months, which saw the company acquire SHFL entertainment, a provider of table games, table game products and slot machines, in a $1.3 billion deal last summer, recently purchase Dragonplay, a leading online social casino company for $51 million in June, and undergo a change in executive leadership when former CEO Ramesh Srinivasan was replaced by current CEO Richard “Dick” Haddrill in May.

“I have only positive things to say about Ramesh, who had been with Bally nine years and was strongly associated with the systems division” said Haddrill, during his opening remarks for EMPOWER 2014. “To be clear, there will be no lack of emphasis on the systems business now that Ramesh has moved on. Bally is totally committed to the systems, and the good news is we have a lot of Ramesh’s great systems DNA to continue forward.”

Despite all these changes, the last 12 months have been very good for Bally. By Haddrill’s count, over the past year the company added 41 new customer sites, installed 12,000 new systems connections, added 17,000 new iVIEW connections, implemented 127 new add-on products; performed 126 major product upgrades, helped 160 customers go live with its Elite Bonusing Suite product, unveiled 113 new game titles and spent $136 million on research and development.  These results continue a 14-year upward trend that has seen Bally Technologies’ revenues grow by over 500 percent and share price increase by 2,500 percent. And with the SHFL entertainment merger mostly complete, Bally can now boast one of the most complete lines of product in the gaming space—a mix of table games, electronic table games, shufflers and other table products, slot machines and systems, available to operators anywhere in the world. The recent Dragonplay purchase will only add to this reach, allowing the company to take its proven content and push it into another medium, in this instance, the social games realm.  

“The mission statement that has driven us for the past 10 years is to become the very best technology company serving the gaming industry,” Haddrill said. “I say we have done pretty well… we’ve grown, our quality is up, we are more focused than ever on the customer, and we are an emerging thought and innovation leader.”

To help keep this edge, Haddrill announced the formation of Bally Ventures, a new business unit that through strategic partnerships and investment will identify, help develop and commercialize new products and technologies for the casino space. “We simply can’t afford to move at a normal pace [of new product development] in today’s environment,” he said. “Bally Ventures will leverage our core strengths with the goal of getting the products that can make a difference for the gaming industry to market more quickly.”

Haddrill was also quick to admit that even with efforts such as Bally Ventures, both his company and the gaming industry as a whole still need even more viable solutions to cope with a number of extreme market forces now coming to the fore, which he identified as social networking, Big Data and its use to target market, mobile technology and collaborative communication, between a company and its customers, or in this instance, the casino and its players

“When I talk to marketing technology consultants, what they say is most companies are struggling with these marketing forces because they try to deal with them as one problem when in fact they are four distinct opportunities,” Haddrill said. “Gaming is behind in these areas, and [competing forms of entertainment] are blowing by us. We have got to do more.”

 

SYSTEMATIC CHANGES

For its part, Bally Technology is doing what it can to help casinos improve their core gaming businesses, introducing new products and technologies that solve problems in gaming system, table game and slot machine disciplines.

“Customers often come to us with something they need developed that will make their operation more successful, or to better entertain the customer, or improve marketing service or take casino operation to the next level, said Tom Doyle, vice president of systems product management for Bally Technologies. “It’s these requests that we turn into our innovation and new products. Our products [tend to] solve a major problem for our casino customers.”  

One such problem faced by large casino customers was the need to implement and manage progressive jackpots in a more flexible and configurable manner. In response, Bally has introduced a progressive jackpot module to its Elite Bonusing Suite (EBS). At its core, EBS Power Paytable Progressives essentially takes management of the progressive jackpot away from the individual machine and gives it to the slot system, where it can be SAS supported. This gives the slot operator greater control when it comes to scheduling, setting maximums and target marketing for progressive jackpots while at the same time keeping the jackpots coin-in and symbol driven in order to maintain their tax deductible status in certain jurisdictions. EBS Power Paytable Progressives can also be used to better manage mystery-style progressive jackpots.      

“This brings all the great EBS features to a progressive jackpot,” Doyle said. “You can schedule it; you can shove it out there during graveyard shift if you wanted to or run a progressive just on the weekend or weekdays. You can target it toward customers—if a salesmen convention comes into town for a week and you want to run some small, quick-hit progressives, you can do that, which is something you can’t do really well with the standard, off-the-shelf progressives that we have seen in the industry over the years.”

For slot operators that complained about machine downtime when a player leaves for a smoke or a meal, Bally has come up with Take n’ Play, which allows a slot customer to play a favorite slot machine remotely through an iPad or tablet computer from dedicated areas within the casino facility. Take n’ Play is a game operating system that is designed to hook into a wireless device but still remain connected to the facility’s casino network. When a player requests remote play, an attendant shows up at the slot with a with a mobile tablet computer that is then synched with the slot through a cue code. While playing the game from the iPad, the slot that houses the actual game goes gray to let customers know it is in remote use, but still shows reel spins, jackpots and the various other bells and whistles associated with live use. The customer is then allowed to take the computer to various geofenced areas throughout the resort where they can sit, smoke, eat and socialize, all while still playing the slot machine.

For operators looking to add a greater level of control and management to poker games and tournaments, Bally has introduced the PokerView card room management system. The system shows which customer is at what poker game throughout the entire facility; creates and manages waitlists; automates the bad beat jackpot process and can even manage multi-level or multi-tier poker tournaments.

 

SETTING THE TABLES

Poker management is not the only table game issue Bally Technologies is tackling through the introduction of new products and technology. Much like their slot machine brethren, pit operators are having issues managing table game progressive jackpots—indeed, these jackpot add-ons have proven so popular among customers that properties are adding more and more of them. Ideally, casinos should be able to link all these various progressives into a single, and larger, jackpot; but they have been unable to because no one could come up with a way to make the math work. 

At least until now, thanks to Bally’s new Infinilink, a software solution that simply matches up the math of disparate game types, allowing them to feed into and payoff from a single, progressive jackpot.

“The best way to explain Infinilink is by example,” said Roger Snow, senior vice president of table game products for Bally Technologies. “Imagine a five-card Royal Flush in a game in which you get seven cards. It is about 20 times more difficult to get a Royal Flush in five cards than it is to get it in seven cards. Through Infinilink, it is 20 times more difficult, so you are 20 times more likely to win. That analogy applies if something were five times more difficult, it would be five times easier. So it matches up perfectly, and it enables a single jackpot across any progressive table game on the casino floor.”

Shuffle Flex is another table game operations solution unveiled by Bally at EMPOWER 2014. The technology essentially solves a pressing problem faced by table game operators who rely on automatic card shufflers—getting the proper ROI from the devices. Shuffle Flex is a module that can fit into any type of shuffler that connects the machine through the Cloud to a Bally server that tracks two pieces of vital information—how often the shuffler is used, and how many decks of card it shuffles. From this info, Bally is able to come up with a participation pricing structure similar to an electric or gas bill that only charges the user, in this case the casino, for the amount of time the shuffler is actually in use.

Bally also unveiled Safe-Bacc, a solution designed to make baccarat play much more efficient and secure. Traditionally, baccarat has been dealt using an eight-deck card shuffler and an iShoe, both of which are very efficient and secure devices. The problem was that when the shuffler was done processing the cards, they had to be transferred manually to the iShoe, creating a time drain and a very real security risk. Safe-Bacc, which has been years in development, essentially combines the eight-deck shuffler and iShoe into one device, improving both game pace and card security.

“Two things happen with Safe-Bacc,” Snow said. “All the scams are gone. Secondly, the design of the machine enables the casinos to buy less expensive cards and they can save significant money. If you are a casino in Macau, you could be burning through 10 to 20 million decks of cards a year. Saving 10 to 20 cents per deck is certainly worthwhile.”

 

MACHINE AGE

Table games were not the only Bally business to benefit from exposure to the Asian gaming market. One of the benefits of the company’s recent integration with SHFL entertainment was that the 88 Fortunes slot machine and its Duo Fu Duo Cai progressive link were added to the Bally slot game lineup. This game and link have proven incredibly popular in Australia and Asia, and Bally will now offer the products to U.S. properties seeking more play from Asian clientele.

“We have recently launched 88 Fortunes and its Duo Fu Duo Cai progressive link in the U.S., and we have seen similar success to what we have seen in other jurisdictions,” said Jean Venneman, vice president of product management and licensing for Bally Technologies. “Generally speaking, this game and link are at 2.5 times house average for these products. We are developing follow-up titles to grow and eventually replace games on the link. Hopefully this will give us a very long lifespan for this product.”

Venneman was also bullish on Bally’s recently introduced ALPHA 2 Pro Wave cabinet, which provides operators a cutting-edge platform powered by the latest technology and innovation. The slot already comes with a complete game library, thanks to its ability to use games originally designed for Bally’s ALPHA 2 Pro V32 cabinet.

Bally also used EMPOWER 2014 to announce two of the three new games it has created exclusively for the Wave cabinet that will debut at G2E. The first is Wonder Woman, which will be based on the classic 1970s television show that stared Lynda Carter.

“Wonder Woman will be an exclusive to the Wave cabinet and, I want you to really hear this part, it is a for-sale game,” Venneman told the EMPOWER audience. “We have two [Wonder Woman] games we are bringing out so you can create a nice bank experience. I am really excited about how this game has come together.”

The company will also be releasing Duck Dynasty for its Wave Cabinet, a licensed slot game that will feature elements from the popular cable television series of the same name.

 

  From the top

Dick Haddrill, CEO of Bally Technology, took some time during the EMPOWER Bally Systems User Conference 2014 to hold an informal press conference and answer questions from reporters at the event. Here are some excerpts from that discussion.


On his return to the CEO position and the departure of Ramesh Srinivasan:

I think the board looked at this rather unique opportunity we had as the thought and innovation leader to become the market leader as well. I think their view was that my experience was more relevant for that next three to five years. It’s a simple as that. Ramesh did a great job for us.

On the potential of recently acquired Dragonplay social casino company:

It is one of the top 10 social networking sites and it is a profitable business. We paid a reasonable value. For us, it allows us to get our content on yet another platform. They have done very well without the kind of content we have and so we think that will boost the performance of that business. It will also give us more experience and rapid feedback on the types of games those players like and how that might benefit our other customers down the road.

On the challenge of attracting a younger demographic to slot gaming:

It’s just a great opportunity. It has been over-played now for a number of years, about as many years as I can remember, as a worry. If you go back 20 years ago, the demographics weren’t much different than today. We assume that someone who is 30 today will not want to gamble when they turn 50, or won’t want to gamble in a social venue. And yet, I would argue that the under-40 crowd is a good target opportunity. They like tables. They like online. They like social and online gambling. But that is not to say that when they become 50 they won’t like a more social type of casino slot experience.

On the integration of hospitality and other non-gaming applications into the slot experience:

Well it’s like a lot of these features we introduced several years ago, they has taken a little while to catch on. But one of the themes of this conference is to provide great examples where people have deployed them successfully. It takes a casino partner who is willing to think through things… and see the productivity gains from, say, drink ordering at the machine, where the player gets the beverage they want and stays at the machine longer. This is really were the ROI comes in—you get this good, solid platform of system technology and these add-on products save you costs and enhance the player experience.