Consider the following scenarios:
- An elderly couple have come to the casino to play slots-he a 25-cent, play-to-win player who likes to play particular machine; she a 5-cent, play-to-win-to-play player who likes the diversity of playing a variety of machines during one session. Since they cannot play together, they meet for an early dinner to have some time with each other before they leave.
- A player playing a slot machine for over an hour has to leave to join his friends for lunch. He is peeved because he is concerned that someone else will win “his jackpot” while he is gone, not to mention whether the machine will be available when he returns.
- A local group is appearing in the lounge tonight and a group of friends want to play slots nearby but because everyone has their own denomination preference and favorite game. Only a couple of them find the game they want to play near the lounge. The others must go elsewhere.
- The vice president of slots has just attended a meeting where the CEO asked all of his executives to look for ways to improve the utilization of all of their facilities. Something to do with “asset turnover,” he thought he said. Besides knowing his overall slot floor physical utilization is below 40 percent, the vice president sees areas like the pool areas and cabanas, the late-night clubs, meeting and convention pre-function areas, and any number of other places where there seem to be a lot of visitors with a lot of money who are not playing slot machines. The vice president cannot figure out how to take advantage of these situations.
- The marketing “thought leaders” know the X, Y and Z generations are moving into the sweet spot of slot demographics, but know they do not have any games that seem to cater to their X-Box/PlayStation heritage.
- In Macau, a player from Guangzhou is superstitious and cannot find games with symbols suited to his sense of luck, and when he finally does, it is not in a location within the casino that seems to have good feng shui.
- An architect charged with designing a new $5 billion project sees lots of new ideas being applied to gaming-centric projects, but not in the gaming area itself. She wonders how she can design a casino that will niche or beat the competition. At the same time, her self-made, rich, highly opinionated boss keeps raising concerns about whether high or low ceilings, light or dark casinos, single-level or multi-level casinos work best.
Sever-Based Solutions – Forces are massing on the horizon that will address all these situations-that both independently and collectively will shape the design of casinos in the future, and the casino experiences produced within. Among them, and arguably the one with the greatest potential to be a change-maker, is the introduction of central server-based systems to drive the presentation and play of slot machines and derivatives. In this regard, manufacturers working on central server-based systems say their way of crafting a slot floor can solve each of the opening issues… and more.
Despite this prospect, a rather unscientific polling of owners, operators, architects and designers reveals that few, if any, have given much thought to how the arrival of central server-based systems will change the operation and marketing of a casino and, by extension, the design. This article is our crystal ball and peek into a hypothetical future of what a central server-based casino environment may look like five to 10 years from now.
Given the number of articles in this and other publications on central server-based systems, we will assume that the reader knows the basics about this new technology. Recognizing, however, that the myriad elements that make up central server-based systems could take a number of different forms, for the purposes of this article, we are assuming the following:
- There will be a standard protocol that will allow one vendor’s game to operate on any and all vendor central server systems.
- A casino floor may be 100 percent central server-based or any mix of central server-based and embedded games as the market and owner/operators so dictate.
- Vendors will make available any and all of their games to their or anyone else’s central server-based system.
- Economical pricing structures will have been developed that will allow any and all games and game types to be hosted on a central server-based system and thereafter be used as needed by the casino or called for by the customer.
- Game peripherals such as bill acceptors, ticket-in/ticket-out reader, and player club card readers may be added to central server-based systems with the same ease and flexibility as they are now.
- Power and data infrastructure will be no less flexible than what exists today in terms of allowing gaming devices to be located and/or moved virtually anywhere on the casino floor, and probably even more so.
- Games will be available in all of the current cabinet heights, footprints and configurations, but also in new formats not even offered today (e.g., thinner than the thinnest game now available).
- Games may also be downloaded to hand-held devices, tablets, televisions and other formats as long as they are located or transported within regulatory-approved geographical areas of the casino/hotel complex.
- Games will be promoted using a number of different approaches including but not limited to plasma screens, located either on the game, on top of the game, and/or near the game devices fed by messages from the central server.
- Casino management will be able to establish a much greater communication level and personal touch with the player via a greater stream of player information to casino management, and their ability to react on a more granular basis with much larger and flexible message areas (like the plasma screens).
- Central server-based systems will be accepted by a large majority if not all consumers.
- Regulators will allow all of the above to take place.
While everyone may not agree that all of the above assumptions may come to fruition, we believe that given sufficient time they will. Thus, this article assumes a matured and fully developed central server-based environment.
What, then, are the design implications of the introduction and integration of central server-based systems?
Less Hardware – In a central server-based environment, casinos will be able to serve the same number of players as they do now with fewer games on the floor. The primary reason is that the player will have the ability to download from a library of virtually an infinite number of games instead of the casino having to physically inventory all of the game types on the floor. There are also physical opportunities to reduce the floor space for the same number of games, because the games can be much thinner than their stepper-motor brethren.
The “right” number of games on the floor becomes a bit trickier in situations where peak demand periods constitute so much of the weekly revenue that it does not seem practical to reduce the number of games needed from Friday swing shift to Sunday day shift. Owners in this situation-and all owners who have any peak demand period variation, regardless of how slight-will be able to better balance their peak/off-peak demand with a central server-based system by increasing the “price” of playing the gaming device during the peak period, and lowering the “price” during off-peak periods.
With a central server-based system environment, the slot manager will be able to specify the denominations, coin-in per handle pull, and even the availability of games with tighter or looser par percentages as fast as the regulators will allow.
This strategy will drive those who want a better price-value and are able to play at other times to move some or all of their play to off-peak periods, thus making room during the peak periods for those who do not or cannot shift their play. Those who still chose to play during peak demand periods due to higher “pricing” measures by the casino will experience shorter playing time, thereby also making room for more players.
Other casinos with peak demand swings may simply be willing to provide fewer games on the floor knowing that the frustration from the player will not come from not being able to play “their game” but because no games are available. Put another way, as soon as a machine becomes available, the waiting players will have an opportunity to play their game.
In fact, it is not too crazy to think that a casino might take a reservation list, give the waiting player a beeper, and call them to a host desk to tell them when and where a machine becomes available. Under peak conditions, the central server system could be programmed to lock up after the end of a player session only to be unlocked by the host station.
Bottom line, all casinos will have the opportunity to reduce the number of games they have on the casino floor relative to serving their current volume of business.
Reinvesting and Reallocating Savings – The removal of one or more gaming devices on the floor has the potential to produce some very interesting financial benefits. They are:
- saved capital investment from the land and construction cost saved since less space is needed for the reduced number of machines;
- saved capital investment from the cost of a fewer number of machines and peripherals; and
- saved operating costs, since the casino will not have to staff the eliminated machine or area, nor pay for the heat/light/power to maintain the reduced space.
The potential capital savings can be illustrated taking a hypothetical example shown in the accompanying table. The example assumes a 2,000 machine, Las Vegas Strip casino and evaluates the potential land, construction, and machine/peripheral purchase costs assuming a potential reduction in machine count that ranges from -5 percent (or 100 fewer machines) to -30 percent (or 600 fewer machines). The total potential capital expenditure savings ranges from a low of $-4.3 million to a high of $-25.6 million. Beneficially, utilization rates increase from an assumed 35 percent base case utilization to a low improvement of 37 percent utilization to a high improvement of 50 percent utilization.
On a per game device basis, the saving per machine is approximately $42,600. This savings represents approximately a $14,000 savings per unit for land, $11,000 saving per unit for construction, and a $17,000 savings per unit for the purchase of the machine and peripherals.
The inescapable conclusion is that if the slot department can generate close to the same if not the same or even greater revenue in a smaller space with less equipment, the return on investment increases markedly due to a higher asset turnover. This makes owners, senior executives, chief financial officers, and Wall Street analysts happy. For directors of slot operations, there is also the benefit that was not quantified above for additional operating cost savings from reduced labor, utility costs, maintenance and repair expenditures, and other unit-driven expenses. These savings directly increase bottom profits making all stakeholders happy as well.
Some owners may choose to save these dollars while others may choose to reinvest them in ways that improve the guest experience or their competitiveness. For example, these saved dollars may be used to add other profit-generating activities, build to a higher quality level, purchase innovation and technology, and/or increased marketing efforts. These strategies, too, will improve financial performance.
New Games, New Customers – The convergence of changing technology and changing demographics taking place could lead to new games that would attract new market segments to the casinos.
Ironically, new games do not necessarily mean more units on the floor, as the previous discussion pointed out. But, new games could and should broaden and deepen the market. For example, the X, Y and Z generations raised with Sony PlayStations and Microsoft Xboxes may not be turned on by stepper-motor reel games, but could be motivated to visit casinos that offer “living rooms” with central server-based stations where either the players play against themselves, in groups, or in larger tournaments, perhaps using a common vid-wall screen so others can watch.
The games played could be gambling-oriented games, skill-based, or some combination of the two with par percentages and/or a per-minute or per-game charge generating the needed casino revenue. Similarly, generations used to playing online poker could be attracted to online poker play in a casino on central server-based systems that could offer environments that mimic their apartment or house but offer much more.
Poker get-togethers, conventions, and/or tournaments could be held for those who traditionally play poker online but now would have a chance to meet their opponents. As for the casino-experienced, aging baby boomers, they will continue to be provided the games they “grew up with,” but perhaps in more user-friendly ways, thus deepening the penetration of this market.
For example, a game on a central server-based system could have different font sizes to make it easier to read. Instead of stools that are unfriendly to those with canes, walkers, wheel chairs, and motorized ‘scooters,’ games could be downloaded to much more ergonomic cabinets and seating options, which are more cost-effective in a central server environment because of the prospect of much higher utilization.
Seniors will be able to play in areas that, like Goldilocks, are “not too hot, not too cold, but just right” for their body temperature and other needs.
Central server-based environments will also allow the less-mobile elderly to play with their mobile friends and family, because now, all can get their game types next to each other.
Given the expansion of gaming into other parts of the world, games can be cost-effectively customized to the cultural prerogatives of each market. Existing games with symbols that reflect the local culture could be easily added to the casino’s game library, or entirely new games developed that cater to the idiosyncrasies, history, and pop culture of a given area.
Perhaps most importantly in emerging markets, the casino operator and game developers will be able to test new games very quickly and get immediate feedback on whether they work or not. The cost to swap out or fine-tune an under-performing game becomes minimal in a central server environment.
In all, central server-based systems will accelerate the inevitable introduction of new types of games catering to new-entrant market segments.
Mini-Environments – Because in a central server environment the games can be brought to the player rather than the player having to go to the game, there is a great opportunity to create mini-environments that align with the multitude of visitor needs, wants and expectations on any given day.
This, too, should increase demand. At the most basic level, design concerns over low versus high ceilings, dark versus well-lit areas, windows versus no windows, or smoking versus non-smoking need not be an all-or-nothing choice for the owner and designers.
Indeed, casinos can now offer a little of everything, all sized into areas that contain the minimum number of machines needed to create the needed sense of winning-i.e., the player either is a winner, was a winner at some point in time during their playing session, or sees other players winning.
Taking this strategy further, playing areas could be developed that are near where entertainment is playing (e.g., a lounge), in “quiet” zones, or anything in between. Besides changing the games themselves, mini-environments could also be developed to cater to different cultures via the design of the gaming device cabinets, signage, employee uniforms, carpet, wall coverings and ceilings.
Food outlets nearby would be developed to align with the culture or market segment targeted, as well as the piped-in music played. Consequently, there could be anything as broad-based as Asian and Latino areas to more micro-areas such as those designed to cater to Vietnamese or Mexicans.
These areas could, of course appeal to other visitors who would enjoy being part of a different culture during their stay. Since the games can be changed so easily, going further, mini-areas could be designed so that they turn over to celebrate different holidays-Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, etc.
Taking a cue from the phenomenon of clubs and ultra lounges, gaming areas could be designed around a club atmosphere. Couches, lounge chairs and bottle service could be provided along with a set number of terminals in their given area or an exclusive common area. Bars in which to “see and be seen” could be provided nearby, along with an exclusive table game area as well.
Since each unit in a central server system can downloaded from an infinite library of games, new games could be developed that cater to this young, hip crowd. And, the aforementioned X-box/PlayStation type games and online poker games could be part of the mix as well. A precedent has already been established at the Palms Casino Playboy Casino, a separate area away from the main casino floor, to charge admission.
From a psychographic perspective, those patrons seeking a social aspect to their gaming will now be able to play with their date, guests or group. Again, rather than two players having to split up to find and play the game each like to play, players will now be able to sit together in twos, threes, or larger groups. There is no reason that a casino might not take reservations to guarantee groups of players that the ability to either play in the environment they want to play or to gain access to exclusive, set aside areas.
For the competitive player, traditional competition of a slot tournament can easily be provided, except in this case virtually anywhere on the casino floor.
People psychology tells us that some people like to be in the thick of the action, others like the option of joining the action or not, while still others like to step back and just watch what is taking place. All of these people-dynamics and preferences can be accommodated with a central server system environment, since the casino can bring any game to the player in any given area.
For designers, this means that casinos need not be massive halls with a sea of slots; rather, they can be tiered vertically in raised or lowered areas and/or carved up along a horizontal plane into mini-areas where the only design limitation is to provide sight lines that allow people to watch people who are watching people.
Flexibility, Portability – Central server-based systems coupled with wireless technology, portable tablets and the ability to “send the game” to virtually any legal area within the site of the casino means that gaming can be located anywhere. A patron sunning himself at the pool could have a tablet device that provides the same games available on the casino floor. The same could hold true at the swimming pool bar, the more exclusive European/private pool areas, or those pool areas often shared by late-night clubs.
The increasingly popular cabanas at poolside could have games that could cater to anyone in the entourage with only several machines. Reception areas at meeting and convention centers, mezzanines of event centers and pre-show time periods in a showroom are also possible locations.
Games could be downloaded to the television or, to prevent underage gaming, a locked game cabinet in the player’s room, suite or villa. Super Bowl and bachelor/bachelorette parties held in suites could also be served by games customized just for a sporting event and/or centered on the theme of the party. The opportunities to provide gaming will only be limited by regulation and the creativity of the suppliers, owners, designers and operators.
It is Not Where You Start But Where You Finish that is Important – The potential of slot-oriented games offered on central server systems is like many new discoveries: the raw potential is perceived and can be appreciated but the exact utility of it and how that potential will be optimized is not and cannot be understood in the beginning. Only through the long term iteration of experimentation, use, and customer feedback will this potential be fully realized. So will it be for slot-based games on central server systems.
This first part of a two-part article on central server systems has introduced the potential. The second part appearing in the December issue of Global Gaming Business will explore more esoteric applications, some of which are quite exciting. Click here for part II
Dean M. Macomber, president of Macomber International, Inc. has 35 years of diversified experience in the gaming industry ranging from dealer to president, development to operations involving mega-destination resorts to locals’ oriented casinos in numerous domestic and international venues. Macomber provides high value, executive level consulting in the areas of strategic and business planning, feasibility and all other project development phases, and pre and post opening management and profit improvement engagements. He may be reached at office 702-456-6006.
Roy Student has been in the gaming industry for 35 years and is the president of Applied Management Strategies, a globalconsulting company specializing in the planning, marketing and sales of gaming products and central server-based systems. Prior to AMS, Student was president of Cyberview Technology Inc. and chairman of Gaming Systems International (GSI).He can be reached at 702-523-0444.