Server-based gaming still pending

Sep 27, 2005 7:24 AM

At this month’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E), several slot manufacturers displayed their downloadable slot systems while proclaiming that "server based gaming is here."

However, the introduction of downloadable slots in Nevada casinos is still probably a couple of years away and will most likely occur in stages.

Bally Gaming, for instance, has a "three stage strategy" for introducing its server-based gaming technology into casinos, according to Bally’s spokesman Marcus Prater.

"Bally will submit to regulators its first stage of system based gaming within the next 30 days," Prater told GamingToday. "But full-blown downloadable slot systems are probably still a couple of years away."

Unlike traditional slot machines, downloadable games use generic or "dumb" terminals that look like slot cabinets, but contain no game computers, EPROM chips or random number generators (RNGs).

Instead, slot games are downloaded into the terminals from a central server system. The technology allows the casino operator to choose from a library of hundreds of games, as well as a multitude of denominations and payback percentages.

Operators can also customize their game content by offering special incentives and bonuses to, say, slot club members, special customers or VIPs.

Some systems even allow the operator to pre-schedule what games he wants on the slot floor, depending on the time and day of the week, and what the player demographics are at various times.

Bally Gaming will initially introduce a system-based bonus system in which players automatically earn credits and participate in secondary bonus games.

"The bonus games are in addition to the dedicated game on the slot machine," Prater said. "They will run independently of the base game, and won’t interfere with the payback or other configuration of the base game."

The second stage of the Bally server-based system is its configuration management stage, which will come out mid next year, Prater said.

"This stage will include software upgrades, such as altering the bill validator to accommodate new currency from a central server," Prater said. "We’re on track to have this stage submitted by spring/summer 2006."

Prater said a "full-blown" downloadable slot system, which will feature hundreds of slot games that can be downloaded into generic terminals or "boxes" on the casino floor, will most likely appear in 2007 at the earliest.

"Ultimately, the player will be able to select from a number of titles from a backend server," Prater said.

Prater added that downloadable slots aren’t expected to overrun the casino floor, not at first anyway.

"No one will have 3,000 ”˜dumb’ terminals on the floor," Prater said. "We expect at least 50% will remain reel spinning slots and other games that are little entertainment centers onto themselves."

At G2E, IGT also introduced its Server Based Products (SBP), an Internet-based system that will allow casino operators to configure their slot floor remotely.

"Server-based gaming will enable many new efficiencies to be introduced to the casino marketplace, and will ultimately give operators full control of their floors," said Ali Saffari, IGT’s senior vice president of engineering.

Saffari said the technology enables instantaneous changes to be made on the casino floor, thus allowing operators to tailor the games to meet player demands. The changes include rapid configuration of games, denomination, paytables, tournament modes, bonusing and any other event-driven configuration.

Once IGT’s server-based system is fully implemented, Saffari said the following scenarios are just a couple of years away:

”¡ A player sits down at a machine, inserts his player card, and the menu changes to show his favorite games and denominations.

”¡ It’s Friday night and the casino manager wants to reconfigure the slot floor. He does so remotely, from the back office server in a matter of minutes.

”¡ A new currency note is released and the manager needs to upgrade his machines’ bill validators. He does so in a matter of minutes, without ever opening a single machine.

”¡ Managers and regulators can instantly audit any machine and make necessary upgrades as required by Customer Notifications.

Also at this year’s G2E, a panel of experts (mostly slot machine execs) discussed server-based gaming. Among the concerns raised by conventioneers was the notion of too many choices for slot players, and whether slot managers could "adjust" game content for maximum return.

For example, one G2E attended questioned whether casino managers could change-out a slot game when it appeared ready to "hit" and replace it with a game that was just beginning its cycle.

There really weren’t any definitive answers to such concerns.

While the appearance of downloadable slots in Nevada casinos is still a couple years away, server-based gaming is currently being used in venues outside the United States, including in about 9,000 terminals operated by Hilton Hotel casinos abroad.

In Nevada, gaming regulators have produced a draft of technical standards that would govern server-based gaming.

The technical standards are posted on the Gaming Control Board’s web site. Within the next few months, public workshops and hearings on the standards will be held, then ultimately adoption by the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Nevada officials point out that nothing relative to server-based or "central determination" gaming has so far been approved.

They concede, however, that manufacturers have submitted server-based systems for review, but comments or even confirmation of the companies will not be forthcoming, not until their systems or devices have been approved by regulators.

Nevada’s technical standards define central determination systems as either "system supported" or "system based" games. The standards also identify the generic terminals as "client stations," and list rigorous requirements about how software is transmitted to and from the stations.

Security and reliability have always been the major concerns of any server-based system, and the Nevada technical standards list a variety of checks and double-checks, firewall systems, authorization codes, secure interfaces, encrypted information, and other technological and accounting standards.