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Networked NOW

For the past several years, many of the industry’s top system and slot suppliers have been focused on a singular goal: to bring the casino floor-and the slot floor in particular-into the digital age.

Slot managers are anxious to manage their floors more efficiently through remote downloads and quick changes of denomination and game content. They also are anxious to create new players and generate more play from current customers through a variety of applications like instant tournaments, group play, on-demand games, bonusing and new customer service options.

But, before any of the promises of the networked gaming floor can be realized, the infrastructure must be in place. That process appears to be entering the final phase for some suppliers and casinos. It looks like server-based gaming will be approved and live in certain casinos as early as next year.

The manufacturers are racing to get ready.

While Cyberview Technology was the first to get a server-based system certified by Gaming Laboratories International a few years ago, the effort to create a digital, networked slot floor has largely proceeded on two fronts-the major slot manufacturers on one front; the Gaming Standards Association on the other.

The system certified for Cyberview used proprietary technology, developed during that company’s years of operating a successful server-based gaming network linking fixed-odds betting terminals across Great Britain. Now, as Cyberview officials hunker down in merger talks that may lead to an acquisition by leading slot manufacturer International Game Technology, IGT and other major slot-makers continue to refine their own technology for the digital age.

In fact, IGT and rival Bally Technologies have already been testing their proprietary networked systems in the field. IGT based its networked applications on its legacy “SuperSAS” (“SAS” for slot accounting system) architecture. Bally’s networked applications also are designed to work over its proprietary slot accounting system.

Those two manufacturers, as well as Aristocrat Technologies and others, are working feverishly to update their applications to fit into the open-architecture standards released last year by GSA. “We have five field trial sites that have been running for two years on the legacy SuperSAS protocol,” says Rich Schneider, senior vice president of systems development for IGT. “We realized we needed to join back with GSA and get back on the open-standards bandwagon; we took our applications and retooled them into a new system based on GSA open protocols.”

Bally, which has been delivering a collection of networked applications through slot accounting systems with its iVIEW player interface and system applications such as “Live Rewards” and “Power Winners,” is working on similar open-architecture technology under a partnership with Aristocrat, as well as revising its own GSA-compliant system.

According to Bruce Rowe, senior vice president of business development at Bally Technologies, the newest version of the company’s open-architecture Download and Configuration Manager, which will permit remote changes of denominations and game content, was set to go into field trials in May.

The company’s alliance with Aristocrat will create a common command-and-control system for applications created by any manufacturer. “It is the underlying DNA of the Download and Configuration Manager,” Rowe says. “With the system in place, their applicaions will be able to control our games very efficiently, and our applications will be able to control their games, as well as those of anyone who uses GSA standards.”

Meanwhile, WMS Gaming crafted its server-based applications, along with hardware such as the Bluebird slot cabinet and community-play games designed for networked gaming, according to GSA protocols. “Our CPU-NXT platform was designed from the beginning with a clear plan of being on a networked floor,” says Larry Pacey, executive vice president of global products for WMS. “We’re providing the full network supply chain.”

The first WMS server-based application, enabling remote configuration and download of games, was near approval at press time by GLI, which would make it the first approved server-based application fully compliant with GSA protocols.

Going Live

For all the advances of slot-makers in moving toward a networked gaming floor, the last major impediment in making server-based gaming a workable reality has been simple: There needs to be a casino equipped to handle it.

For networked gaming, the most basic need is the same as the need of any business environment in creating a local-area computer network. The computer terminals-i.e., the slot machines-need to have Ethernet ports or wireless communication cards, and there needs to be a broadband network in place.

Existing casinos are wired for the analog age, and changeover will require significant investment in most cases. Conversion of existing slots and systems to comply with GSA’s “G2S” protocol (for game-to-system) likely will be gradual for most casinos.

“Industry consensus is that 2009 and beyond is when adoption of networked gaming will start,” comments Jamal Azzam, Aristocrat’s director of product management for downloadable and server-based gaming. “How extensive is debatable. If you look at new openings and expansions, those will most likely be G2S-ready. If you look at existing casinos, some have already begun preparing for it, but we expect that conversion will be slower. You’ve got a lot of legacy product out there, and that product is not going to disappear overnight.”

“We’re seeing continued investment in upgrading the systems in place today on floors,” adds Bally’s Rowe. “Companies doing expansions are putting in the infrastructure to accommodate broadband and Ethernet.”

The first floor-wide applications of broadband technology are already appearing. Last month, MGM Mirage announced that its joint-venture, mixed-use resort CityCenter Las Vegas will open in 2009 with a completely networked slot floor. It will be an open system, which means games of any manufacturer will be able to link to the network.

The operator made the announcement in conjunction with IGT, which will supply its “sb Service Window” for on-screen messages to the player. The Service Window is a picture-in-picture application which serves as a portal through which the casino can send promotional messages, secondary bonus games, streaming video or other features directly to a portion of the game screen. “We actually shrink the active game graphics and show the Service Window graphics in the remaining space,” explains IGT’s Schneider.

“When we started the CityCenter project, one of our core operating principles was to examine how we could leverage technology to create greater operational efficiencies,” says Bill McBeath, president and chief operating offficer of CityCenter. “This technology allows us a true dynamic in managing the floor as it relates to pricing and content. The by-product of that is having a server-based technology platform that allows us to use this Service Window as a portal to communicate directly to the guests, and to develop marketing programs and promotions directly in the hotel.”

The sb Service Window is IGT’s version of video portals that will form the player experience in networked operations. Bally’s “iVIEW” technology, already in widespread use through online slot systems, will be employed in what will be another of the first floor-wide networks, at Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino outside of San Diego. Last month, Bally signed an agreement to upgrade Barona’s slot management system with its “Networked Floor of the Future” server-based technology, featuring the iVIEW player network utilizing Ethernet technology.

As part of the agreement, Barona is upgrading its player interfaces on all 2,000 slot machines with Bally’s iVIEW interactive network, which provides casino patrons an expanded communication portal, customer service enhancements, and “second-way-to-win” experiences.

“Many of the things people have been talking about for the future, we’re delivering today through iVIEW,” Rowe says. “We’re already downloading promotional and media content through iVIEW. We are continuing to roll out second-chance-to-win opportunities for players.”

The Application Business

As casinos gradually convert their infrastructure to handle networked gaming, manufacturers continue to work on what will remain the basis for heated competition: software applications for those systems that will be useful to casinos-and, perhaps more importantly, fun for players.

WMS Gaming was the first of the major slot manufacturers to begin tailoring all of its products for networked applications. Many of the slot-maker’s latest games have been network operations in miniature: Monopoly Big Event, and more recently, Star Trek, are complete networked games, linked to a dedicated server on the slot floor.

In addition to game content, WMS game style and hardware innovations have come with en eye toward the networked floor. The company’s “Transmissive Reels” games combine a video overlay with mechanical reels, providing a possible way to include reel-spinners in a networked floor. The Bluebird II cabinet, slated for limited deployment by this month, has a dual digital display tailored to provide a portal for communication with the player.

Rob Bone, vice president of marketing for WMS, says other applications coming out of the GLI lab-including WageNet 1.0, the first remote configuration/download application-are ready for any GSA-approved, open-archtitecture network that will be put in place.

“We created a platform form day one on the open-standards philosophy,” Bone says. “It is designed to be server- and technology-agnostic, which has allowed us to adapt the GSA standards very easily.”

He adds that the WMS applications have been tested to work on systems right along with products from IGT, Bally, Aristocrat and others-and on system architecture such as that being created by CityCenter and Barona. Bone notes that last year’s Global Gaming Expo provided evidence of this, as WMS games could be found in the booths of other manufacturers, and vice versa, in a display of the interoperability of the systems.

In fact, the drive toward networked floors has created strange bedfellows-companies that have historically been bitter rivals and fierce competitors are now forging alliances and cooperative arrangements to achieve open networks. In addition to the Bally/Aristocrat alliance, WMS and IGT are cooperating in an arrangement that allows them to test applications without worrying about intellectual-property lawsuits.

IGT also recently signed an agreement with Progressive Gaming International that will allow Progressive Gaming to integrate IGT’s sb NexGen displays and replicate IGT Advantage Bonusing products into its Casinolink Enterprise Edition slot management systems, currently linking around 64,000 slots worldwide.

“The universe in the gaming industry is going to change as this open-network environment evolves over the next few years,” says WMS’ Pacey. “This is just the dawn of a radical change, but it is a change for the good-better features, faster time to market, more innovations. Operators will benefit from more flexibility.”

Bone draws an analogy of future competition between slot-makers to competition between applications on the internet: IGT vs. Bally vs. WMS will be like Yahoo vs. Google, with the open-architecture system analagous to the internet.

Rowe from Bally notes that the variety of available applications will allow casinos to brand their properties through the slot machines. “Operators will be able to create a customized experience for an individual or group of individuals that could not be done in the past,” he says. “More and more, marketing becomes one of the key
system users creating value out of the network.”

McBeath at CityCenter agrees that customization may be the most valuable marketing tool of the networked casino floor. “We have a wealth of information about players-what they like, why they like it, what they like to eat, to drink-we were limited in what we could do with this information,” he says. “The slot floor will now be designed to provide value in terms of the entertainment experience for the guest.”

Some details of the slot floor need to be ironed out, to be sure. Manufacturers will determine ways to integrate reel-spinners-in addition to WMS’ Transmissive Reels, IGT’s “ReelDepth” system actually simulates spinning reels in a realistic video display-and also decide how to integrate popular slots that incorporate mechanical top-box bonus devices, such as IGT’s Barcrest games and AC Coin’s many popular bonus slots, as well as multiple-progressive displays like Aristocrat’s Hyperlink.

“Technology is catching up fast,” says Aristocrat’s Azzam. “There are smart people out there who are coming up with solutions for all of these problems.”

Meanwhile, the move toward a networked floor will continue in an evolutionary mode-its pace, notes Azzam, dictated more by casino customers than by casino vendors. “Networked gaming brings in new concepts,” he says. “To bring in new players, you have to bring in more challenging concepts. Technology is not going to cause the industry to change. The players are.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.