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Setting The Standard

The Gaming Standards Association made sense of the modern casino floor

Twenty-five years ago, a casino floor was every man-or manufacturer-for himself.

Back in the 1980s, of course, it didn’t matter that the slot floor, still newly popular, consisted of a mish-mash of machines produced by different manufacturers, each protecting its patents and intellectual property as a spy protects a secret document. That was, until systems entered the mix.

By the late ’80s, online slot accounting and player tracking systems were spreading rapidly across the industry. Suddenly, slot managers were able to record drop, track per-machine winnings and turn in daily results without sending a fleet of attendants out to read meters. They also were able to market the games with promotions and reward loyal players to a degree that never was possible before. In other words, computer technology had created the modern slot floor.

That same technology, though, required something that never was needed in the past-communication between devices. A line of electronic communication had to be established from systems to all devices on the floor for accounting, and among all the various slot machines and the back of the house for player tracking and marketing.

Sounds simple, right?

Not even close.

Sharing a Common Cause

Two decades ago, fiercely competitive slot and system manufacturers each developed proprietary technology. That meant, by and large, that an IGT slot machine was designed to link to an IGT system, a Bally slot to a Bally system, and so forth. Putting together a complete tracking and accounting system with games from several manufacturers meant having a casino’s IT personnel devise makeshift protocols to link everything together.

“It was an absolutely chaotic situation,” says Peter DeRaedt, president of the organization that would eventually solve the problem, the Gaming Standards Association. “Every time you wanted to add an application, you had to be very creative on the interface, to try and make it all work. You had to get a few parties involved to ensure that information was correctly transferred. That created a significant amount of errors.

“Therefore, it took a long time to bring any concept to market, because of all the trial and error, and all the tribulations involved in communicating information correctly.”

DeRaedt says increased costs added to the difficulty of the situation. “Every time you have to install something on a machine, there is a hardware cost related to that, there is a software cost and there is a maintenance cost.”

By the mid 1990s, IT professionals in the industry knew there was a  better way to do things-courtesy of the internet more than anything, according to DeRaedt. He says it was, after all, the existence of open standards and common protocols among computers that fueled the growth of the internet.

The open internet standards provided a starting point when GSA was formed in 1998, with an industry agreement by which various companies would work together to make common protocols a reality. The idea was to have any system communicate with a game from any manufacturer with a standard game-to-system, or G2S, protocol; and for various systems to link through a system-to-system, or S2S, protocol.

The first order of business was to educate the industry on the language of open standards. “Most of these large operators had been painfully aware of the challenges they had to go through to get their floors up and running,” DeRaedt says. “They didn’t fully understand why that was. They did not understand the term ‘protocol,’ but unfortunately, some of them had to dig down and learn about that term and what it meant-and what its impact on the business was.”

The real trick, though, would be getting the manufacturers on board. “A standard-setting organization in any industry has its biggest challenge when you bring competing entities together,” DeRaedt says. “It always boils down to intellectual property, and keeping a competitive edge. In the early days of GSA, people did not quite understand why they had to collaborate, because they thought proprietary solutions were the way to go, and the way for them to control the market. And that was not an unreasonable assumption to make.”

Eventually, he says, the applications proliferating on the internet caused it to dawn on competing manufacturers that there are a wealth of similar possibilities in applications on slot systems. “As internet applications were developed, they saw a broader market with the ability to do more applications, and saw that it was in their interest to ensure that everybody can speak the same language,” says DeRaedt. “Because then, they’re able to generate more money-not by themselves but with others as well.”

One of GSA’s early moves was to implement an intellectual property policy that would allow partnership between manufacturers in developing an open standard while protecting proprietary technology. Over time, the industry came around. “We came up with a very fair and equitable policy that everyone could agree to,” DeRaedt explains. “That was the milestone, by which suddenly, we had the whole industry behind GSA. From then on, we accelerated. We were able not only to get more funding, which we needed, but were able to get up to nine people who work for GSA full-time.”

Moving Ahead Together

Eleven years later, manufacturers and operators around the industry adhere to GSA standards, and the standards themselves have been refined. “The standards get refined because the manufacturers implementing them find small details-mostly clarifications that need to be made to the standards to ensure correct implementation by all the vendors to employ an open standard,” says DeRaedt.

The next big push will be to implement server-based and server-supported gaming on a large scale. According to DeRaedt, that means a focus on spreading the GSA standards internationally, and on getting vendors and operators around the world up to speed for the move to networked gaming.

“Just about every single vendor-system and games, but specifically system providers-is now deploying Ethernet on the floor,” DeRaedt explains. “This also applies to operators. Operators around the world are beginning to employ standard Ethernet connections to the bank. How they go from the bank to the machines is obviously up to the game provider and the system providers, but more and more, you see switch network technologies being used, and there are indeed vendors now who supply games with Ethernet ports just like a computer-which you can simply plug in.”

GSA’s latest efforts have brought international operators and vendors-including many non-gaming vendors such as Cisco and Oracle-on board in the effort to achieve networked gaming. This year’s focus, he says, is on Asia, because it is still a growing market and because of the lack of legacy systems-there is no retrofit involved in setting up a server-based or server-supported floor.

“The advantage in Asia is that these operators can leap-frog what is happening in the rest of the world, where everyone inherited a history of systems and a patchwork,” says DeRaedt. “Here, once the operators understand the benefits of the technology, they will demand these latest systems. Therefore, it is a tremendous growth market, not only domestically but internationally, for all our members.”

The Future Network

The goal of GSA is to create an infrastructure on which the applications can flourish in a server-based or server-supported gaming setup.

“GSA University” was set up by the organization to travel around the world educating operators and vendors in how open standards will open up a new world of possibilities for gaming.

DeRaedt says discussions and education on server-based gaming actually began about three years ago. “The protocol standard we developed facilitates any deployment of a server-based or server-supported gaming solution,” he says. “The technology does not restrict anybody or force anybody in a certain direction. This was accomplished after a very healthy discussion with all industry partners-whether it be people who supply solutions to the British market, which is truly server-based gaming; or people supporting and selling system-supported gaming in the United States, which is very different.”

DeRaedt contends that the industry has put the cart before the horse when it comes to server-based gaming, touting its benefits before the infrastructure was in place to make it actually happen. “When everybody was first talking about server-based gaming two years ago, it was premature,” he says. “While the standards we developed were finished, implementing these technologies takes a lot of time. It’s the same as a computer, where you had a serial port, and suddenly you had to put in an Ethernet port and the software to support it. That’s a radically different technology, and it’s vastly more complex.”

With more and more companies implementing Ethernet technology and companies working together on common applications, DeRaedt says the time is finally arriving when everything is in place to implement server-based and server-supported gaming.

“Operators are beginning to realize that the technology is definitely there, and efforts are going to be accelerated,” he says.

“First of all, we needed to develop a standard, which we did. Then, the industry needed time to learn it, get the right engineers and resources to implement it, and get these systems approved and tested. That was a cycle of about three years, and now we are getting there. CityCenter is going to open with a significant portion of GSA standards in place, and they will drive some of these new functionalities. Depending on how it goes in 2010, it’s going to be very interesting to follow the player feedback on that. What will be the impact of this server-based window?”

DeRaedt presented some of the new horizons to be explored through server-based gaming enabled with GSA open standards at the recent Asia’s GEM trade show in Manila. Among the new applications he noted are the distribution of game and promotional content to multiple platforms; the integration of resorts using “loyalty points” throughout a property; inter-jurisdictional communication to enable financial tracking, on demand software checks and other functions; improved data warehousing; and highly adaptive, interactive games on networks that span multiple properties, and even multiple jurisdictions.

While capital markets may delay full implementation of server-based gaming on a widespread basis, DeRaedt looks to CityCenter as a giant test site of new applications using open standards-and an example for the rest of the industry. “The result of CityCenter is going to be pretty exciting,” he says. “Competitors around the Strip will pay close attention to that, and then you’re going to see an acceleration.”

As for GSA, DeRaedt says he hopes the organization serves as a catalyst for a complete transformation of the industry to new technological standards. “GSA won’t disappear, but GSA will go into the background,” he says. “We won’t talk about GSA protocols-you’re going to be focusing on all the applications these vendors will be producing. We will be in the background, making sure we maintain and ensure the technology that allows this and future applications to be developed.

“Even in these depressed times, this is going to be a phenomenal time for the industry over the next five years. Just watch and observe the applications.”

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.