Brave New World
CityCenter is about to take the next big step into the future of server-based gamingWednesday, 16 September 2009
When the $8 billion CityCenter opens on the Las Vegas Strip later this year, the world-class architecture and ultra-chic shops will capture the lion's share of attention. But for many casino operators, manufacturers and technology watchers the real show will be on the slot floor, where MGM Mirage and IGT will roll out the first-ever casino-wide installation of a server-based gaming network.
The unveiling at CityCenter's ARIA Resort & Casino will mark the culmination of close to 20 months of planning between MGM Mirage and the Reno, Nev.-based slot giant, which is installing the SBG network and its related systems.
For financial analyst Bill Lerner of Union Gaming Group it marks "an extremely important first data point for full-blown server-based gaming."
"The casino industry," he says, "is going to be watching the early results out of CityCenter very closely."
For Javier Saenz, IGT's vice president of network systems product management and marketing, an SBG installation across 2,000 gaming machines represents a paradigm shift for the industry. "It's brand-new technology across the entire floor. This is where people can go to see what that looks like."
Michael Volkert, vice president of slot marketing and operations at ARIA, says MGM Mirage started formulating the strategies and concepts about two years ago. Their work led them to IGT, which had a system, was committed to the open protocols of the Gaming Standards Association and was working on further development.
Conceptually, with SBG, casinos will be able to manage their slot floors with much more flexibility than ever before. They can change and reconfigure games instantly, with no machine down time, increasing flexibility and decreasing costs. What's more, they can deliver tailored bonusing, marketing and multimedia content directly to their players, expanding the opportunities for meaningful interaction and generating loyalty.
The nexus of all this from IGT's standpoint is its Service Window technology, through which players will be able to access their point balances, comp balances, account information, restaurant information, show information and more, right at the game.
"The physical machines will look the same," explains Saenz. "The big difference will be how the individual player interacts with the individual machine."
It also will allow digital signage through IGT's sbX Media Manager to be tied in across the property, so what you see on the huge sign on the street conceivably could be on the plasma screen above a bank of slot games and on the Service Window itself. Applications could involve expanding the capabilities of IGT's Tournament Manager, now used for standalone tournaments. New applications will explore areas for creating even a greater sense of community among players.
"We're definitely looking at how you enable that communication between players," says Saenz.
MGM Mirage and IGT are carefully preparing for this opening, running tests at Treasure Island (now no longer part of MGM Mirage's portfolio) and a regulatory field trial at the Monte Carlo and taking full advantage of the resources at IGT's new Interoperability Center in Reno.
"There will be no surprises in terms of functionality at ARIA," Saenz says.
As the field trial progresses at Monte Carlo, "gradually we'll start to introduce third-party EGMs to the system," he says. "At the moment, all vendors are invited to participate, and all the majors are certainly working on it."
If there has been a challenge, it has been getting the different gaming manufacturers to get along, says Volkert.
"To take a lot of different companies—who all have great ideas and different ways of doing business—and try to get them all to agree to one path has been challenging. It took us some time, and you know we decided to make it a collaborative process. We brought all the vendors together and did conference calls every week, and we just walked through every issue together, and we talked about it. It's the only way to do it."
The conference calls are still going on. "I think we've finally gotten to some middle ground to where we can get some things done," Volkert says.
MGM Mirage supports GSA open standards and made them a requirement for doing business at ARIA.
"I think it's important to provide a level-playing field for the whole industry," he adds. "I'm not looking to create a competitive advantage for any one company. I think that if server-based gaming is going to come to reality we have to be very cognizant that it has to be an open-source system and that we allow other people to be able to compete in that space."
This means telling suppliers they have to be GSA-compatible and that the Service Window is the method the casino will use to communicate to players.
"The guest needs to have one interface, one source of contact, one way of doing something," Volkert explains. "You'll just confuse them if there are multiple touch points."
This also means that IGT has to ensure its competitors' machines can work with IGT's system.
"They have a unique obligation to make sure they interface with other manufacturers and make sure their games are interoperable," Volkert says, "so they're under more pressure than ever to make sure their systems are open and to make sure they play well with others."
Regulators nationwide will be paying close attention.
"Some of the other jurisdictions are watching to see what kind of trouble or lack of trouble they're going to have," says Marc McDermott, GSA's technical director and a former chief of the Electronic Services Division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "Having the largest jurisdiction in the country, Nevada, decide that this is OK, and having it working with no problems in Nevada for some time, is certainly a help. There are quite a few places where this is moving, not to the extent of CityCenter, but it's definitely moving in."
GSA President Peter DeRaedt says he has no illusions that the technology will spread overnight. "I don't think it's going to accelerate that fast. I don't see any big bang."
Still, he adds, "having the ability to innovate more rapidly is definitely going to be there."
And it will be interesting, he says, to see what kind of metrics come out of ARIA to show cost savings, revenues and indications of how players perceive some of the new functionalities.
Which may not be quite as sexy as cool new apps, but as he puts it, "immediate cost savings increase the ability to innovate long-term."
In the shorter term, though, as Lerner sees it, the economic realities will find other casinos proceeding slowly. "A number of them are trialing [server-based gaming] as you would expect them to do. Nobody has the budget to do anything meaningful. They have the luxury of waiting."
But he acknowledges the magnitude of the potential. "I think that disruptive technology historically has resulted in accelerated replacement cycles for slot machines. I think ultimately that if you incentivize people on an individual basis at the point of sale, right at the machine, they'll spend money incrementally on other parts of the property."
Saenz has no doubt that what is happening at ARIA is a turning point for the industry.
"Once we start to see the revenue potential on the upside, operators are going to be very compelled to justify the expenditure."
By Marian Green.
Reprinted with permission from Casino Journal