SBG: Technology versus Content

Server-based gaming applications must please the player

Have you ever heard a slot customer say, “Where’s the latest new technology? I can’t wait to put my hard-earned money into that server-based gaming thingy?”

 

      My guess is that the average slot customer could care less about the latest technology. All she wants is to play her lucky game, have a little fun, and maybe win some money. So what’s all the fuss about server-based gaming, and what is really going to get this train out of the station? This will be the third G2E that we’ve seen server-based gaming touted as “this year’s big product.”

      Server-based gaming could be one of the most powerful drivers for the slot machine industry since the hopper. It has the potential to improve customer service, enhance security and controls, and overwhelm us with marketing and statistical data. But more importantly for the players and for the industry, it can expand the quality and creativity of our slot content. That is where the real payday lives, and that is what will ultimately be the most compelling force for acceptance.

      There are five players at this table, but one of them will ultimately pay for it all—the casinos, the suppliers, the stockholders, the regulators and, oh yeah, the customer (that would be the one with all the money). The casino wants all the money from the customers, the suppliers want to be the one to provide the products that help the casinos get all the money from the customers, Wall Street wants to make a bunch of money off the suppliers making the money, the regulators want to make sure that nobody gets any money without them knowing about it, and the customers just want to have a good time.

     Therein lies the problem. Everybody is getting excited about it except the customers. They may like it, they may even want it, but they just don’t know why yet.

     The “hype” got in front of the cart a little bit on this one. The technology is pretty complicated, especially when you add in an evolving regulatory landscape. We don’t just have ourselves to please when satisfying our thirst for innovation, gigabytes, download speed, and connectivity.

     When “money” is the product, everybody in the food chain pays more attention to the details. Although some of us would love to go out and buy a boat load of iPhones, hand them out to our nation of gadget-primed gamers and stream the latest multi-hand poker product down into their wallets, our path is more circuitous. Dungeons, dragons, and gaming regulators.  

      It is very tough to get a slot machine product approved, and that’s a good thing. There is nothing more important for our industry than protecting the integrity and fairness of our products. We have to ensure at all cost that our customers know they have a fair shot at winning every time.

     When explaining to the uninitiated who complain about how far behind the technology curve we are, I just say, “Yeah, but can your iPhone work after being hit with 40,000 volts of electricity from a cattle prod and not drop your call or lose your contact information?”

     That’s exactly what a slot machine, and slot systems like download servers, are expected to do. Literally. They are expected to work every time, flawlessly, no matter what. That takes a little more time than ordering your new computer from Apple.com.

      So, a few years ago when Wall Street started going crazy about how server-based gaming was going to take over the planet, I smiled. It is amusing to me how some become so eager to build a success story to move the stock price that we forget how complicated the engineering and approval process is and, most importantly, what we should really be focusing on:   how we improve the quality of the players’ gaming experience.     But what does that mean exactly?

      Our customers want to have fun and maybe win a little money. Even if you could explain to the player about all the benefits of server-based technology—access to hundreds of game titles quickly, intuitive download of game preference, enhanced player rating and bonusing, faster upgrades of software, better security—you would probably get a blank stare.

     If the player doesn’t have fun playing the game, the games won’t drive higher revenue and SBG will be a technology with no place to go. It is hard to justify the cost of this kind of technology on operational savings alone. Remember how long it took slot accounting and ticket-in/ticket-out systems to take hold?  

      TITO technology was first introduced in the 1980s. Operators loved the idea of getting rid of all those nasty coins and expensive coin handling, but the players didn’t want it. Players loved their coins. There was little benefit to them for giving up something they liked and were used to, just so the casino could save money. So, the tests at places like the Desert Inn and MGM in the early ’90s failed.

     It took another six years for the multi-coin video slot with a penny denomination to drive customer acceptance. It was entertaining to watch unfold. The customers finally embraced the technology because it solved a problem for them. They loved their penny slots, but they were a pain in the butt.

     You see, the penny slots kept emptying the hoppers because it took too many pennies to make a cash-out. This caused a lot of hand-pays and a lot of unhappy customers. Suddenly, TITO had real value to the player. It made playing a fun game more enjoyable.

     So what is server-based gaming’s “tipping point?”

      In a word, content. Our world is now wired in just about every way imaginable, and people are becoming comfortable with being connected. They are starting to embrace it and even look for it in all aspects of their lives. As a player, if you give me a good math model and excite me with a way to play with others, or somehow participate in a shared gaming space, I’m all in.

     Tournaments, progressives, shared bonuses and poker all lend themselves to networked play. This is one way of moving server-based gaming from an interesting technology to a money-maker for the casinos. My bet is that at this year’s G2E you will see a lot of great, creative ideas with this theme. But be patient. With most really cool new games that you see at the show, there is another 12 to 24 months before you see them fully deployed in the market. And, my guess is that new regulations will have to be written or modified for these new and very creative games to be approved.

     For example: Pong. The addition of a little skill (dexterity) required some special attention by the Nevada regulators. Think about what a group-play Pong game will require regulatorily. Think about Dungeons and Dragons on a slot machine.

      This has got to be one of the most exciting times to be a part of the slot machine industry. If we work together and keep the architecture open, giving access to an even broader set of talented developers, it will truly be a “tipping point” for server-based gaming.

     This new technology affords us much potential to shake up our world and expand what we think of as gambling entertainment. But remember, the technology is only the vehicle, not the destination. Now it is time for game developers to get busy.

 

Mick Roemer is president of Roemer Gaming, a gaming content, marketing and product development firm in Las Vegas. He is a veteran of the slot industry, having held executive positions at International Game Technology, Electronic Data Technology, Power Technologies and Bally Technologies.