For years, the industry has been reminded of its future on the slot floor—server-based or networked gaming—in theoretical terms. Lately, though, the practicality of it all is beginning to dawn on operators.
One source of this practicality is Bally Technologies, which has spent much effort this year showing operators across the country just what server-based gaming means for the end-users of slot machines, the players. Those players are providing one other element that was theoretical until now: real numbers showing return on investments in networked floors.
The zenith of this effort occurred in March at the eighth annual Bally Systems User Conference at California’s Pechanga Resort & Casino, where Bally customers were invited to see networked system products in action, on the casino floor.
Attended by 400-plus executives from more than 120 casinos across the U.S., the conference was the most successful ever for the Bally Systems division. “This is the biggest conference we’ve had in the eight years we’ve been doing it,” Bruce Rowe, Bally senior vice president of strategy, commented at the event. “Attendance beat last year by a large margin, but what’s even more exciting is the mix of conference attendees. We had a significantly higher representation of senior management and marketing professionals than we’ve had in the past.”
Bally CEO Richard Haddrill says the increased interest means server-based gaming is ready for prime time. “I think the reason we see such an increase in marketing and operations people attending this year is that they understand the new products are about touching the player and about operations, not just about technology,” Haddrill says. “We’re at the tipping point where the industry is ready to grow again, ready to market smart again—and the best way is with this technology.”
According to Ramesh Srinivasan, Bally Technologies president and COO, a big factor in the success of the conference was an emphasis on the here-and-now, rather than the future possibilities of networked gaming applications.
“The Systems User Conference was always reasonably popular among operators,” says Srinivasan, who headed the systems division until moving up to president and COO last month upon the departure of Gavin Isaacs.
“But the reason it’s become even more popular is our greater emphasis on products in action. Our partnership with Pechanga, and the fact they’ve been early adopters of many of our new technologies, made it possible for us to show new products live on the floor.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a product in action is worth a million words.”
The practical demonstrations centered largely around the Bally iVIEW Display Manager (iVIEW DM), a system that lets the casino channel everything from bonus events customized for a single player to enterprise-wide promotions, directly to the screens of slot machines. The Pechanga system sends these events and promotions not only to Bally slots, but to those of Bally and four other manufacturers.
“This is the first windowing application we know of that is actually running on five major manufacturers’ equipment,” said Rowe, adding that the advances have brought Bally’s arsenal of networked applications—scalable anywhere from 20 machines to an entire floor—to the point where large-scale distribution is imminent. “Our product is ready for larger distribution, and more importantly, the applications to support the hardware are there,” he said. “We’ve got the convergence of hardware and applications ready to go.”
What attendees got was a dazzling display of the benefits of networked technology. Highlights included slot tournaments, an enterprise-wide virtual horse-race, and promotional bonus games on individual machines. Additionally, workshops and break-out sessions provided an eye to the future, demonstrating mobile and internet-based applications that are possible now, and new system technology that could transform casino marketing right now.
For each attendee, the slot tournaments displayed one of the practical benefits of the networked floor. A section of the Pechanga casino floor was roped off as the “Bally Zone,” and the designated banks of machines from three different slot manufacturers were switched instantly from in-revenue mode to tournament mode for the contests. Overhead LCD displays turned into leader boards, and there was no waiting after the events for scores—a process that can take hours on stand-alone tournament slots. After the tournaments, the games were easily switched back to revenue mode.
The virtual horse-race, first seen at the Barona Resort & Casino south of San Diego, gives every player on the floor who is using a player’s club card a chance to pick a horse in a periodic race that is run on video screens, slot displays and LCD signage across the casino. Players are asked to pick a color, and the race runs on the iVIEW screen. Everyone picking the winning horse splits a prize pool that’s in the thousands of dollars.
Srinivasan says the virtual horse race typically packs the casinos on designated race evenings, when several races will be run. “Customers who have tried the virtual racing have called it the most successful promotion ever,” he says. “It generates real, measurable ROI—real, tangible benefits to the customers.”
The virtual race also showed off the iVIEW DM system’s display options, including one that lets the player continue to play a slot game while the promotional event is under way. The player has the option to shrink the slot’s game screen to watch the race on the side as he plays, or to have the promotional race displayed on the full screen. For traditional stepper games that can’t support iVIEW DM, players get the same experience on the iVIEW player/user interface.
The kinds of promotional games available to casinos as options to reward players was another highlight of the conference. The system allows casinos to feed promotional games to any slot machine, with the player having the option to use the entire screen to play the game or shrink the game screen to multi-task on the primary game and the bonus game.
Bonus games in this form are what Bally executives call the “gamification of loyalty:” Instead of a coin coupon sent to a player’s mailbox, an interactive game is sent right to the slot, giving the player a chance to garner a larger loyalty reward. Srinivasan notes that the Bally system still allows casinos the option to dole out traditional awards like coin coupons or free play, but the networked “Elite Bonusing Suite” opens the door to create any number of clever bonus awards. “What the Elite Bonusing Suite gives us is the infrastructure to create games and promotions like this,” Srinivasan says.
Seminars and break-out sessions demonstrated how casino operators can use another of Bally’s latest innovations, the “iDeck.” It is a virtual button deck—a flat, touch-enabled LCD video screen that substitutes for traditional buttons on the game, but doubles as an extra video monitor or, in the case of games, as an interactive touch-tool for the player’s use.
Some examples demonstrated at the conference included skeeball, a Space Invaders-style shooting game, and “Bubble Fish,” in which the player tries to shoot bubbles and catch passing fish on the upper screen. All use a new play mechanic added for the iDeck, a modification of the “U-Spin” feature used on the popular slots Cash Spin and Hot Spin. On those games, the feature’s touch technology, called “Gesture Control,” lets the player touch the screen and physically spin the bonus wheel, which responds with a spin speed corresponding to the amount of pressure applied.
The iDeck bonus games use a variation of Gesture Control technology called “U-Shoot.” A skeeball alley will appear on the top video monitor, and a ball appears on the iDeck. The player touches the ball, aims and shoots—it appears to respond with the speed and direction with which it is virtually “released.” Similar shooting features occur when throwing bubbles up at fish, shooting at enemy starships, or any variety of other games.
“The customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive on the iDeck,” comments Haddrill. “Customers like the iDeck because they can see when they buy the cabinet that this is the technology of the future—they can have a deck that is customizable and upgradable in an easy way. They can download content, promotions, games with the U-Spin feature, CoolSign displays, all in concert with iVIEW DM.”
Srinivasan adds that the possibilities for new games using the combination of
iVIEW DM and the iDeck are virtually limitless. “You are going to see a lot more of these events, and pretty rapidly,” he says. “One of the reasons is that it has been very successful for our operators.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Many of the break-out sessions at the Systems User Conference laid out the future of system technology, both in applications available now and some that are only a year or two away.
There were many demonstrations of how game content and communication from casinos to players can be facilitated on mobile devices—attendees were each given an Apple iPod Touch for the demonstrations—and over the internet. Mobile applications include Bally slot games, such as a mini version of Cash Spin allowing players to spin a bonus wheel using the U-Spin technology. In the U.S., games will be offered to familiarize players with what is in a particular casino, but they will also become available as for-wager mobile games in jurisdictions that allow them.
Other mobile applications give casinos a variety of marketing abilities, such as tailored promotions and loyalty rewards directly to the player, invitations to shows, and other offers using the player preference information already in casino databases.
“Our first and greatest purpose for mobile applications is to help our existing casino customers stay in communication with their players,” says Haddrill, “whether it is through promotional games or other communications using iPods, iPads or other interactive devices. The for-wager applications will depend on the regulatory environment; we see that evolving within jurisdictional boundaries around the world. The marketing applications are there today.”
The User Conference demonstrated how marketing and game content will soon span cyberspace through cloud computing—the “Bally Cloud” will help casinos communicate with players over the internet on casino websites, through social media and to mobile devices.
“We are looking at developing games going forward for casino, mobile applications and the internet all at the same time, so the applications can be easily imported across all platforms,” says Haddrill. “We want everyone to love Bally games, but our main goal is to promote player loyalty to casinos. It’s very important for casino operators to have one view of their customer, whether they’re playing in the casino, on mobile applications or on the internet, so they can build loyalty in that customer.”
Some break-out sessions peered a couple of years into the future, outlining the possibilities of merging various new system technologies to create new marketing possibilities. One session suggested possibilities related to biometric recognition, which could be used to recognize a loyal player before a club card is even inserted. Another session suggested the possibility of merging biometric recognition with GPS technology, to actually locate loyal players as they move around a resort—one possibility mentioned would be to send an offer to a player’s mobile device for a restaurant or other venue he or she happens to be near at the time.
Other presentations included a motivational speech by NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, and famous futurist Dr. James Canton, who said we are only a few years away from the next level of 3D technology, which could introduce holographic technology to the slot floor.
Srinivasan says the success of the User Conference foreshadows what will be an acceleration of the move to server-based gaming applications. He notes that more than 40 percent of the more than 620 casinos equipped with Bally systems are already equipped with Ethernet floors, and even those that are not can add networked applications area by area.
“The pace at which we are providing new product based on an Ethernet floor is increasing rapidly, and ROI calculations are becoming easier,” Srinivasan says. “There are more compelling reasons to go to an Ethernet floor now than ever before. Secondly, all of our products are developed to enable an evolution process. Should the customer decide to do this bank by bank, our products will work well in combined environments. We will work with customers to carry them through this process.”
In other words: Welcome to the network.