Server-based slots: Not (yet) ready for prime time

Jul 1, 2008 7:05 PM

By David Stratton | LAS VEGAS - Server-based gaming (SBG), the cutting-edge technology that is expected to revolutionize casinos’ slot operations, was the focus last week of a two-day summit, hosted by the industry’s leading experts.

The Server Based Gaming for Casinos Summit featured detailed explanations – often in cryptic terms such as bandwidth, routers and fiber optics, as well as acronyms like TLS, S2S, OSCP and GLI-21 – of how the technology will transform and consolidate slot operations into a single, server-based network system, with the casino operator controlling nearly every aspect of the game with the flip of a switch.

But after hours of panel discussions and seminar sessions, William Maxwell, the general manager of Casino Arizona, turned to his associates and commented, "Well, I guess we won’t be installing server-based gaming for awhile."

Maxwell, as well as most of the 75 delegates in attendance, recognized that, while SBG technology represented the future of slot operations, from a practical perspective, it was still in the experimental stage.

Contributing to that notion was the session that featured representatives of two casinos that have already implemented a server-based operation – Ameristar Casinos in St. Louis, Missouri, and Barona Valley Ranch Casino in Southern California.

Chuck Hickey, director of slot operations at Barona Valley Ranch, noted that, in addition to changing games and altering the machine’s payback percentage from a central server, the network would open an expanded communications portal to the slot-playing customer, allowing the casino to cross-promote everything from gaming promotions to dining outlets and entertainment venues.

But, when the experts were asked the $64,000 question – "How do the server-based slots compare to the traditional slots on the floor?" – their answer caught many of the attendees flat-footed.

"It’s really not a fair comparison, at this point," said Bob Soczyk, vice president of slots for Ameristar Casinos.

The reason it wasn’t a fair comparison, Soczyk explained, is that there were only a handful of games on the server network, while the casino floor included hundreds of traditional slot games. "At this point, there’s not a lot of content," he said.

According to Soczyk, slot manufacturers – IGT, WMS and Bally, for instance – have so far developed just a few of their games for SBG operations.

And, regardless of the technology that delivers it, "game content is still king," noted Todd Elsasser, technical compliance director for Cyberview Technology.

In addition to operating a network system with just a few games, the two casino representatives noted that only a small portion of their slot floor – about 40 or 50 machines out of 2,000 – were connected to the network system.

Other factors that would make a mass SBG rollout impractical for at least a few years include:

• Pricing: Manufacturers of systems as well as the games themselves haven’t yet developed a pricing system that would be uniform throughout various jurisdictions. "They still don’t really know what to charge," said one panelist.

• Regulatory approval: Regulators in some jurisdictions are finding it difficult to reconcile SBG with existing regulations, which, according to one expert, are often written specifically to outlaw network systems. "Some regulators may actually have to rewrite a portion of their regulations in order to accommodate server-based gaming," said a former member of the Missouri Casino Commission.

• Standardization: Although the industry has made strides in making differing systems compatible with each other, manufacturers are still trying to develop a "universal protocol" that would allow every company’s software and network system to function together, on the same slot floor.

While many of the proponents of SBG predicted large-scale roll-outs of slot floors could take place by the end of next year, the consensus of attendees was that the time frame could be much longer.

The industry will find out next year, when MGM Mirage opens its massive CityCenter property on the Las Vegas Strip. CityCenter will reportedly open with a completely server-based slot floor.

Whether that happens or not, should be enough to prove whether the SBG experiment has found a solution.