Scientific Game

Talking Sense

Open communication between technologies reaps commercial reward, says the Gaming Standards Association

Thursday, 15 October 2009 00:00
Share
Visit us

"The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished," the Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw once pithily observed.

No one individual or organisation can claim to have all the information needed to make perfect decisions. But—according to analysis led by Professor Dick Wiggins at City University, London—organisations with well-designed data research systems collecting and analysing appropriate data have the potential to function more efficiently. In the case of commercial organisations, that also means more profitably.

It's that desire to gain a '360-degree' view of the gaming industry for its members that drives the work of the Gaming Standards Association (GSA), an international trade association representing manufacturers, suppliers, operators and regulators.

"Gaming operators don't have complete and reliable information, because they don't have the full picture," says Peter DeRaedt, President of the GSA.

"If a person walks onto your property, that's a potential customer. He or she may not normally play slot machines or tables, but might go to a restaurant or a show, or stay as a guest in the hotel. It's important to know what that customer is worth to you," he states.

Dare to share

Part of the problem within individual casino operations and within and across markets in getting that 360-degree view is a lack of shared technical standards, suggests Mr DeRaedt.

"The reason you can go to any country and buy a WiFi, Bluetooth or USB-enabled device, plug it in to your computer and know it will work, is due to open communication standards," he explains.

"Everyone recognises the growth of the Internet since 1994. Look how quickly the Internet changed our lives. In just 15 years we have gone to a situation where people go online to make their air ticket reservations; choose their seat; and place a bid on eBay to buy something—they don't think about it any more. This has only been made possible through open communication standards—the standards that the GSA has been helping to develop in the gaming industry over the last decade," says Mr DeRaedt.

"One of my main objectives in Asia is to inform and educate the market about open technical standards. As far as I can tell, the Asian community is actively trying to identify and embrace new technologies.  In the rest of the world there is a larger installed base of older technologies on casino floors. To migrate to new technologies requires a large initial capital expenditure. As a result, change is adopted more slowly in those markets. This also has the effect of slowing innovation among the vendors," he states.

Mr DeRaedt is a former vice president of technology for the gaming equipment manufacturer Aristocrat and a former systems manager for the UK-based gaming technology business TCS Group, prior to its merger with John Huxley Group. He has been president of the Gaming Standards Association since 2002.


Clean Sheet

New casino gaming markets have some inherent advantages when choosing equipment—and some familiar challenges

Emerging gaming markets in Asia have some potential practical advantages in the drive for shared technical standards, as compared to more mature markets such as the United States and Europe. In Macau, for example, building a new casino on a green field or brown field site allows operators the rare opportunity of designing their information communication systems from scratch.

"Normally, in a mature business, up to 80% of any IT manager's budget—it doesn't matter what sector you're working in—is spent on maintaining current infrastructure; maintaining the compatibility (or incompatibility) of various systems," says Peter DeRaedt of the Gaming Standards Association.
"That leaves 20% to invest in new technologies."

Demand change

Even in an emerging market such as post-monopoly Macau, however, the casino operators are in the hands of their suppliers when it comes to ensuring systems can communicate with each other. This is especially the case where operators adopt an equipment purchase policy based on 'best of breed' criteria, rather than using one supplier. The way to move the debate on is for well-informed operators to lead opinion and markets by asking their suppliers to change.

For the foreign-based casino operators working in Macau, however, the desire to transfer older but proven technologies from home markets is often strong. This is essentially a defensive management strategy designed to avoid the perceived risk of expensive down time on the floor while bedding in a brand new system.

"In some cases, ancient technologies are being used to build multi-billion dollar businesses. Some of them are essentially from the 1980s," states Mr DeRaedt.

"In a market such as Macau that's opening new properties, it's important to understand the benefit of the new technologies and immediately implement them, because it allows you [as an operator] to be more in control; to drive innovation [among the vendors] and ensure you get the products you actually want, versus the products that are being offered to you. There's a big difference."


Education, Education, Education

The case for common standards has to be made clearly to the industry, says the GSA

In order to help implement common standards, the Gaming Standards Association has to convince the industry of their value. That involves educating the existing workforce and the next generation of decision makers. Operators and equipment suppliers talking to their own staff are already doing some of this educational work in-house. The GSA focuses on industry best practice in technology education in order to help develop an educational programme of its own.

"One of my goals in Asia was to establish a relationship with an educational institution that allows us to bring people to Macau and start educating them. We chose Macao Polytechnic Institute two years ago. The relationship enables us to bring people to Macau and have them trained on GSA-industry supported open technology standards," says Peter DeRaedt.

Professional training is now widely accepted across different industries as a rolling, career-long process, reflecting the pace of change in business practise driven by evolving technology. Few sectors can beat gaming when it comes to fast-paced change. The commercial penalties for companies that fail to embrace this rate of change could be very high. If an operator's technology cannot communicate, it can result in duplication, triplication or even mass-multiplication of effort in running systems and inputting data, suggests the Association.

"A customer's name might be entered in a casino system, say a bonusing system, one particular way, with their given names first. However, if you go to the hotel reservations system you might find that the check-in system enters names differently, i.e., family name first. Why? Why is there a need to enter the same information in different systems and in different formats? It happens if you have one operator or several operators using multiple proprietary communication protocols," states Mr DeRaedt.


Responsive and Responsible

The GSA is supporting technology's contribution to ethical gaming

Technological development has affected not only consumer products on the casino floor and the front and back of house systems that control and monitor them. It has also affected the way that casinos and regulators implement responsible gaming policies. For example, in the online gaming market, technology can be used for age and identity verification purposes or to limit a player's spend in any one session or any one calendar period. In the bricks and mortar casino market, general messages regarding responsible gaming can also be communicated from the regulator and/or the operator to the player via slot game screens. The technology that enables this interface is the standard communication protocol.

"Over the past few years, several new technology-based responsible gaming services have emerged around the world," says Peter DeRaedt of the Gaming Standards Association.

"The GSA recognises the emergence of a new technology impacting on gambling revenue, and has taken a lead role in establishing a dialogue aimed at articulating a standard communication protocol. GSA is collaborating with the industry to ensure that any messages needed to support the development of such responsible gaming initiatives are part of the standard," he adds.


Changing Architecture

The historical reasons why technical standards vary across gaming markets

The creation of open communication standards in gaming, in the manner of USB devices or Bluetooth equipment found in the personal computer and telecommunications industries, is one of the founding principles of the Gaming Standards Association.

The Association's president, Peter DeRaedt, acknowledges, however, there were practical reasons as to why proprietary standards were developed in the gaming industry in the first place.

"Some gaming markets developed before others," he says.
"Those markets that developed first naturally tended to develop intra-market standards. As a result, in order to become global suppliers, gaming equipment companies had to maintain and support multiple [communication] languages, or protocols, as we call them," explains Mr DeRaedt.

"That allowed the suppliers to sell their products in various jurisdictions. The problem is that's an expensive proposition. Every gaming manufacturer knows the pain and the cost of needing to have equipment tested in many different countries."

The need to develop products market by market also stifles innovation, explains the GSA President.

New horizons

"You are restricted to what the [localised communication] language allows you to do. If you only have to do that testing once, it means if you get into a market that's signed up to the common standards, it opens up a lot of possibilities [for vendors]. It reduces R&D [research and development] costs and significantly decreases the time it takes to get products to market.

"There are operators in countries here in Asia that want [gaming] technology from the United States because they like the functionality that it offers. But they cannot get it because regulations prohibit them. What's happening in some cases is the jurisdictions are changing the regulations so the operators can get the technology.

"For the vendors that already provide products for the American market, open standards are a dream come true. Instead of doing custom designs on equipment for markets outside the US, they can ship those [US-compliant] products around the world. That's where the saving lies. That's the reason our members support GSA initiatives. It enables them to grow a business," asserts Mr DeRaedt.


Forward March

The GSA plays an active role in facilitating technology development

Relying on individual small gaming markets to change technology compliance rules to match the biggest markets won't necessarily solve the challenges of convergence.

"There is a need for the industry to move forward and to use fast communication and the ability to exchange information and extract information in a more efficient way," says Peter DeRaedt, President of the Gaming Standards Association.

"That means, firstly, doing it in a uniform way, so we can all agree on the method and we don't have to develop and support different products in different markets. Secondly it means doing it in a way that allows you to expand and extend your product offerings. Communication is a vital component of that. If you simply look at the Internet today or your cell phone, you can browse on the Internet and you can order products online. That's facilitated by the supporting technologies," says Mr DeRaedt.

The GSA is a facilitator of shared standards based on protocols agreed by industry peers rather than being a cheerleader for particular technologies, stresses the President.

Referee not cheerleader

"We support whatever the industry agrees on. We don't seek to change the direction of the industry or develop standards independent of the industry. Why would we? The banking industry, for example, is using security algorithms that have been developed already. Why would we want to reinvent the wheel? The Internet uses transport mechanisms to bring information from Point A to Point B. Why would we reinvent that? It's being used by the world," states Mr DeRaedt.

"The unique part of GSA's proposition is that the gaming industry has unique information to exchange. GSA's member volunteers are experts at defining the information that needs to be exchanged. That's what the GSA does for its membership."

GSA membership is drawn from a wide cross-section of the industry, including the major manufacturers, explains Mr DeRaedt.

"Every company has unique expertise that we bring together around the table. We discuss certain functional requirements and we agree on the format."

A practical example of how the GSA has helped to develop technology standards relates to so-called Class 2 [Native American casino] products in the United States.

"We have enabled technology that previously was impossible," states Mr DeRaedt.

Talking progress

"Class 2 is where you have a simple determination server linked to a number of terminals. Before the GSA got involved, servers from one vendor [equipment supplier] would 'talk' only to their own terminals. The server from company 'A' couldn't talk to the terminals of company 'B'.

"That means as a customer [player] if you walk into a property and you have a slot ticket from one machine, you cannot walk across to another machine and use that ticket, because it [the machine] is on a different server.

"Another issue is how do you manage accounting efficiently if you have multiple servers from different vendors and those servers don't 'talk' to each other? Operators cannot collect information in that scenario.

"Without the open communication standards that GSA was able to facilitate, operators previously had to go to each server to analyse the data to get a financial overview for the whole business. I'm just touching on two simple examples here."


Constructive Competition

Open communication allows gaming manufacturers to compete on functionality rather than user access

Technology competition in the past used to mean manufacturers racing to get their proprietary systems adopted as the industry norm.

An early example of that from the consumer sector in the 1970s was the battle between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS format for dominance in the home video recorder market. As history shows, Sony lost that particular battle, but Betamax remained the analogue videotape standard for the professional television industry until the advent of digital video technology in 1995.

The personal computer industry led the way in developing open technical standards so that peripherals such as external memory capacity could be developed and marketed as universal 'plug and play' equipment. There are caveats to that 'universality'. Within the basic USB format of a universal memory stick, for example, 'driver' programs still need to be written to make the equipment compatible with the varying computer operating platforms developed by Windows, Macintosh and Linux.

That doesn't happen by magic and needed people within that industry to sit down and discuss interoperability issues.

Groundwork

The Gaming Standards Association fills a similar role within its sector. One of the important benefits of the GSA for its members and to the industry as a whole is the ability to organise committees of cross industry experts to discuss, develop and implement common standards.

"In response to requests from the Native American gaming industry in the United States, GSA developed a language that allows us to extract information from their system servers. It's called S2S—System to System. So the operators implemented the S2S language and they now can communicate to one server. The servers can now 'talk' to each other using one simple language."

In this context, manufacturers that have spent a lot of time and effort developing competing, rival technologies need to be confident that open standards do not mean surrender of competitive advantage. This is especially important in Asia, where the protection of intellectual property rights and enforcement of those rights varies across legal jurisdictions.

"We have policies in place that govern the way we operate," says Mr DeRaedt.

"We have anti-trust laws in place about the way we deal with intellectual property and anti-trust issues. That structure is very well thought out over the last 11 years. We have clear directions from our board that define the focus groups. At this point in time, it happens to be about communication standards. But that doesn't stop us looking at other technical standards for the industry."

Keep it not so simple

Open communication standards are driving innovation in the marketplace. For example, under the shared protocol approach, an interactive player screen from Supplier A can be fitted to Supplier B's slot machine. This benefits all: the companies, the casino and the players. Supplier A increases its market reach and Supplier B boosts the functionality of its own slot product.

"[Slot] Machines used to be relatively simple," says Mr DeRaedt.

"Information used to be exchanged in a unidirectional way. That means from the gaming device to the computer at the back end. In that world it made sense to use proprietary protocols for data collection. What you were able to get out [in data] is what you had available to work with. There was no interaction with the player. There was no ability to offer services. There was no capability for people to do side bets or multiple bets at the same gaming terminal in the case of slot machines.

"Now slots have the capability of the service window. So you suddenly have an interaction between the back of the house and the front [of house] where the player is. You can now reach out to the player and have 'conversations'," points out Peter DeRaedt.

"Whether these 'conversations' are the operator offering products, such as discounts in a restaurant, or the ability for the player to order drinks doesn't really matter. The key thing is the ability to interact, very much in the same way as if you log in to Amazon.com and the site sends you a screen where you can start ordering stuff.

"Communication is now a serious issue, and the industry has addressed that with GSA's standards system."


GSA at-a-glance

A brief guide to some of the Association's work in promoting unified standards

S2S (System to System) was developed in response to requests from the Native American gaming industry in the United States. It allows operators to communicate with many system servers via one simple programming language.

G2S (Game to System) provides a common game to system communication protocol. Manufacturers are seeing G2S as the vehicle to enable the new features that will make games more interactive and fun for players. The first G2S applications were seen in California, Florida and Nevada in the US as casino operators looking for a competitive edge started using some of the powerful features available in G2S on their gaming floors.

GDS (Gaming Device Standards) is the Association's USB-based serial protocol. It is used to connect gaming peripheral devices such as printers, note acceptors and card readers together in a gaming device. The GDS protocol provides the powerful 'plug and play' capabilities of USB 2.0 along with the ability to download new firmware to peripheral devices. GDS is fully USB compliant and is based on USB's HID (Human Interface Device) class definition. Along with USB support comes UTF-16 support. This character-encoding scheme allows symbols from major languages (including the important Chinese, Japanese, and Korean character sets) to be represented and sent from a gaming device to a peripheral device, such as a printer, in just two bytes of data.

Current Issue

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Meet the Selection Panel

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Meet the Selection Panel Andrew W Scott CEOInside Asian Gaming Inside Asian Gaming’s CEO first entered a casino in 1986, fell in love with the surrounds and has been around them ever since. Andrew founded World Gaming Group and launched WGM in 2009, took over IAG in 2015, debuted a third magazine called High Life in ... Tuesday, 05 December 2017 19:28

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Ten Years On

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Ten Years On A decade of making the Asian Gaming Power 50 By Andrew W ScottIAG Asian Gaming Power 50 selection panel Chairman EVERY year for the last decade, Inside Asian Gaming has completed a task that is fascinating, exhilarating, intellectually stimulating and industry-defining whilst simultaneously bei... Tuesday, 05 December 2017 19:12

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Number 19 -  James Murren

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Number 19 - James Murren 19 James Murren CHAIRPERSON AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTORMGM China Holdings POWER SCORE1,165 LAST YEAR12 CLAIMS TO FAME • Chairman of the world’s second largest casino company • Credited with keeping MGM Resorts afloat during the GFC If the strong domestic results achieved by MGM China’s pa... Tuesday, 05 December 2017 14:44

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Number 18 - Chen Lip Keong

2017 Inside Asian Gaming Power 50: Number 18 - Chen Lip Keong 18 Chen Lip Keong CEO AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTORNagaCorp POWER SCORE1,234 LAST YEAR20 CLAIMS TO FAME • Casino monopoly within 200 kilometers of Phnom Penh runs to 2035, license to 2065. • Owns 65% of first gaming company ever listed in Hong Kong • NagaWorld extension Naga2 debuted in Novemb... Tuesday, 05 December 2017 14:39