Photo by: Alyse Liebowitz, 3 Chicks that Click
For 31 years, if you’ve wanted to take the pulse on the nature of the games being offered by casinos at any given moment, you could go to James Maida.
Along with Pau Magno, Maida founded Gaming Laboratories International in 1989 as an alternative to state-run testing labs that often became backlogged with new products as slot machines evolved and multiplied. As new casino markets opened in the Midwest and various Native American markets, slot games that formerly would have launched in Nevada or New Jersey began debuting in a growing array of states recognizing GLI certification.
As such, new products and emerging technology have invariably passed through GLI’s labs for certification. In the early years, this primarily involved games and systems for casinos, lotteries and charitable gaming. As the industry grew, GLI developed expertise in online gaming, geolocation, cashless payment systems, responsible gaming systems and network security.
GLI’s engineers have been among the first to see a parade of new technology that has poured into casinos. The company has partnered with regulators, manufacturers and operators on all manner of technology designed to move the industry ahead.
Of course, none of that history could have led to anyone foreseeing 2020. But GLI’s years of investment in technology allowed it to quickly adapt to deal with the current crisis.
As the industry faced an unprecedented shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Maida’s team kept GLI working at full speed, shifting focus to helping clients survive, and to deploy technology that would ultimately help operators to reopen and operate safely.
Meanwhile, the equipment testing that is at the core of GLI’s mandate has continued. “We saw things coming in March, and we quickly figured out how to use technology that allowed us to continue serving our clients during the crisis,” says Maida, who is GLI’s president and CEO. “When the pandemic was taking shape, we immediately contacted our regulators and learned to access gaming equipment in a way that kept our employees and clients safe, while continuing to fulfill the needs of regulators and the industry.
“Our previous investments in remote work technology were essential to our ability to provide seamless service to our stakeholders.”
Remote testing, of course, is nothing new for GLI. “Over the last four or five years, we’ve developed a robust system where we can remote-control all of the slot machine games that are being testing in the lab from outside the lab,” Maida says. “So, our employees were able to work from home and test games that were in the lab.”
The same went for other GLI departments. “Over a three-day period, our IT, HR, accounting and legal teams quickly transitioned to remote work,” Maida says. “We have hundreds of employees now on remote connections. Our servers are just as fast as if they were in the office. We also recognize that no office can run without people. Thus, we worked within the CDC guidelines to ensure that a small group of essential employees could work in our offices safely. Throughout this crisis, the health and safety of our employees has been the top priority.
“We’re here to help the suppliers get through this. And whether they’re supplying a lot or a little, we’re going to have people on the ground ready to take their work and get it done.”
While slot game volume may have dipped while suppliers were forced to furlough R&D staff, there has been plenty of other work that has filled the gap. One of these areas, of course, is U.S. online gaming.
“Throughout Europe and Asia, we do lots of online gaming (testing),” Maida says. “We’ve had a lot here in the United States, and the amount of online work is increasing.
“I think that as time goes on, you’re going to see regulators and state governments and policymakers start switching to more of a digital environment. We are seeing a realization that there are times when consumers need access to remote entertainment. In addition, gaming revenues fund important state and tribal programs, and online gaming can at least keep casinos alive, and lotteries stable during times of crisis. It helps these companies to continue serving their customers, making money, and retaining employees.”
GLI’s Colorado office hosts the growing online gaming division in the U.S. and complements its huge iGaming testing division in Europe. “We test all these products not only on iPhone, but Android and all of the other different platforms,” says Maida. “As new devices come out, we have to test them. As new systems come out, we have to test them against all known devices.”
“Mobile device gaming has just exploded,” says Ian Hughes, GLI’s chief commercial officer. “We believe, with the advent of 5G, that will just continue to grow, because the separation between what you’re able to do at home on a broadband connection, in terms of viewing the sports on your mobile devices, that gap has become smaller and smaller. We see mobile gaming continue to grow.”
The mobile applications have become more important as sports betting has geared up. GLI works with most of the sportsbooks in the U.S., testing platforms and technology, in addition to well-established operations around the world.
For GLI, the Covid-19 pandemic has expanded more than testing in online and mobile applications. The crisis has spawned a wealth of new technologies designed to allow casinos to reopen and operate safely amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
“There have been a lot of system improvements,” Maida says. “People are thinking about problems such as when a player ends a session on a game, how the system will be able to alert staff to come and clean the game.
“The other thing we’ve seen a lot is payment processing, and new ways of putting money on the games. We’re seeing a lot of submissions around contact-less, touchless ways of moving money onto the game and moving money off the game.”
In this case, he adds, the pandemic is speeding up the industry’s adoption of payment methods that are routine in the retail world, where there is a growing reluctance to handle cash. “I think I’ve had the same $20 or $40 in my wallet for the last two months,” he says, “because now I charge $5.50 on a credit card, which I never used to do. I think we’re seeing a lot of changes in money management. We’re working closely with regulators to move this technology through the lab and into the field. It is not just a response to the pandemic, but also fulfills consumer demand and improves protections against money laundering.”
Health-conscious technology is not all that’s new on GLI’s testing menu. The coronavirus crisis is contributing to the rise of a style of game that has been viewed as illegal in the past—the so-called “skill games” that are proliferating in non-casino locations in several states. In the latest development of that ongoing story, lawmakers in Wyoming and Virginia have, at least temporarily, moved to legalize and regulate games of skill, along the same lines as video gaming terminals prevalent in states like Illinois and Montana.
“These skill games are a new type of gaming the states are looking for, to allow them to again make money and make revenue for the state,” says Maida. “And I expect to see more of this. New types of gaming are coming, new kinds of ideas are coming, and we’re always here to help people.”
Wyoming and Virginia are regulating skill games to fill the revenue hole left by Covid-19 business shutdowns. According to Maida, GLI tests the skill games with the same dedication to ensuring integrity that is used for casino games. “We work very closely with Wyoming and Virginia,” he says. “The states will give us the rules and regulations they want to use, so each state will be different.
“With respect to how you figure out a payout percentage, we can calculate the best player never making a mistake—that will come out as a percentage—we can come up with an average player, and what that percentage would look like, and we can come up with an unskilled player, and what that percentage would be. Then it’s up to the state to tell us what percentage to use—should it be an average-skilled player? Should it be a poorly skilled or highly skilled player?”
Maida is careful to draw a distinction between state-authorized skill games in states like Wyoming and Virginia and the unregulated games still proliferating in a variety of retail locations in Pennsylvania and other states. In fact, GLI Vice President of Government Relations Kevin Mullally contributed a white paper on unregulated gambling to the efforts of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers and the American Gaming Association to fight against unregulated machines.
“AGA and AGEM are taking a tough approach that gambling machines should not be used in a state jurisdiction where they’re not legal. Our white paper explains the scope of that problem and the related policy implications,” Maida says. “In Pennsylvania, those games are not regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. We would see that as illegal gaming. We see that as a very clear line. We work for regulators; we don’t test games that go into illegal markets.”
Adapting to Change
Adjusting to the new challenges created by the global pandemic is second nature to GLI, which has spent 31 years adapting to an industry that is constantly evolving with new technology. “As the industry has grown more complex, we have developed staff to serve its needs. During each industry evolution, GLI has ensured that we have the staffing, expertise and technology to quickly, efficiently and accurately move technology through the lab and into the field. That will never change,” Maida says.
“The work has become more challenging, the technology is more multifaceted, and the games are much more complex than in the past. The mediums have really changed. Before, it was plug a slot machine in, it had three reels; it was pretty simple. And now we have all of these different types of games, and iGaming, and sportsbooks and sports betting.
“But the quality of how we approach it today continues to increase. Last year, we had a revocation rate of less than one half of 1 percent. I don’t think anybody else is close to matching those numbers.”
“Technology is always evolving,” adds Hughes. “Manufacturers are deploying and developing new technology all the time. And so, it’s important that we stay ahead of those (developments). Regulators recognized fairly early on that it was financially better for them to use an independent, private lab that could invest in the technology and the resources to understand that technology. And so, we continue to serve that around the world.”
The fact that technology is changing so rapidly in the gaming industry means that GLI’s professionals have a unique view of what’s ahead in the industry. “We now have over 60 people in our technical compliance division,” says Maida. “They travel the world, they meet with clients, and they’re the first line to say, hey, this is what is new, and work with clients and regulators on ways to efficiently test it with great quality. We monitor all the new technology.
“All of our clients globally give us a one-to-two-year roadmap of all their new products coming. This allows us to know things a year ahead of when you might see them at a show. We can then go brief regulators on what’s coming. That’s a very large portion of our work.”
That technological foresight extends to all corners of the industry, as GLI continues to work not just with suppliers but with operators, to test iGaming or sports betting operations, or, through the company’s Bulletproof division, to assist casinos in the cybersecurity area. “We’re engaging with operators more and more every year, almost as much as we engage with suppliers today,” says Maida.
“We help the operators in a couple of ways,” adds Hughes. “First of all, indirectly, when we do work for suppliers that are putting product onto the operator’s floor, it’s our job to make sure that it works correctly, it integrates with systems correctly, and it works seamlessly when it hits the floor. And then of course, directly, on the side of security. We understand gaming systems better than anyone else, especially when it comes to cybersecurity.”
“Our cybersecurity division, Bulletproof, was in business 20 years before we acquired them five years ago,” says Maida. “That division is growing rapidly. Through this coronavirus situation, there’s been more fraud on the internet than ever before. That part of our business is growing 30 percent or 40 percent per year.”
Bulletproof’s work also extends to lotteries around the world, as well as outside of the gaming realm entirely. “Almost 60 percent of (Bulletproof’s) work is non-gaming,” Maida says. “We work with people who operate dams, and electrical companies and large oil companies. Those people are also concerned about cybersecurity.”
Rebooting the Industry
As several states experience fits and starts in the process of reopening the casino industry, GLI is helping wherever the company is needed. “We are moving at (our clients’) pace,” Maida says. “Some casinos have opened to large crowds because of the pent-up demand, and now, several weeks later, we’re starting to see what that demand is.
“We’re taking care of clients first, with personalized customer service. We’re doing field testing where we’re asked to. We’ve also done some geolocation testing for clients. And we’re continuing to work at not only the regulators’ pace, but the operators’ pace. When they need to reopen and they need our services, we’re going to be there.”
Meanwhile, GLI continues its efforts to provide education and peer review opportunities in the regulatory community amid the rapid changes in the industry. The GLI University training program continues with a host of virtual events, such as a major webinar series. The next major North America Regulators Roundtable is slated for March 2021, but the virtual events are covering more immediate issues in the meantime.
“One of the things we’re seeing is a shift away from table games and onto multi-station electronic table games, where there’s no dealer,” Maida says. “A lot of that content has been featured in the webinars, whether it’s in Latin America or North America or Europe. It’s interesting, because we’re a global company, and in all of our offices around the world, we’re in a different phase of the coronavirus.”
The agility of GLI’s staff in adapting to the post-Covid world will be paramount over the following year. “As we come out of this, most CEOs are thinking of two things: One, we’re very hopeful that we come out—we’re hopeful for this fall and we’re hopeful for next year. We’re hopeful for a vaccine, and we’re hopeful for an anti-viral drug that will help.
“But I think you also must plan for what would go wrong if there was a second wave, and we had to shut down a second time. So, I don’t spend a lot of my time thinking about what’s coming in on a daily basis, because we have a huge team that handles all the requests. I’m trying to think about the effect on our employees and our teams and our company if, God forbid, we have a second shutdown, or certain casinos open and then are forced to close and reopen again. I’m spending most of my time planning for all the contingencies going forward, because we want to make sure GLI is sustainable for the long term.
“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and we’ve seen a lot of crises—financial crises, we’ve lived through two or three of those; we’ve been through 9/11, where people couldn’t get on a plane. But we’ve never seen a crisis where all the casinos in the world were shut down simultaneously, on the same day. No one would have thought that could have happened. So, I would say this is our biggest challenge yet, but we continue to look forward and try to be hopeful, but be on guard for what might happen in the future—and plan for both scenarios at the same time.”
Whatever the near future holds, Maida has built a corporate culture for GLI that will carry the company through. “We value our team members, and we want to make sure we have a world-class employee experience,” he says. “Not only do we go for a world-class customer experience, but we want to make sure our employees are not only well taken care of, but they’re well trained, and that we provide each employee with a path to greatness.”
That means GLI employees often move to other parts of the industry, which Maida says actually is a testament to that corporate culture. “As I travel around the world, how many suppliers have former GLI employees working for them now? I think that’s a good testament, hopefully, to what we started with each of them. I’m glad our employees have a chance to reach for the stars, and we want each one of them to do that, because we know that we’re developing tomorrow’s leaders.”