For casino industry, server-based gaming still in the cards

High-tech slot machines should get a big shot in the arm with the opening of Las Vegas' CityCenter later this year. Still, a whole lot of rewiring remains to be done.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

In the summer of 2005, the casino industry was abuzz with excitement over what was then seen as the next great thing--server-based gaming, a major technological shift in how slot machines work.

Essentially, this innovation was going to make it possible for the machines to present a wide variety of games, all served up from back-office databases, and chosen on the spot by players. This was a sea change from the traditional model, in which a device had a single game built into it. As a result, I wrote then, the technology was "slated to be the biggest news at (the September 2005) Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, the casino industry's huge annual trade show."

Flash forward, however, to the November 2008 edition of G2E, where a technology panel entitled "Server-based gaming: Beginning to begin" promised a rousing discussion on the topic, and one that belied the intense optimism of four years ago. "While it may still be unclear when and how server-based gaming will be introduced widely across the industry and to the consumer," the panel's description stated, "the question of if it will is no longer."

Long seen as the next great thing in the casino industry, server-based gaming may finally be ready for primetime. These machines, from WMS Gaming, are enabled with the technology, which allows individual machines on a casino floor to download new games on the fly, as well as give the casino a way to offer players promotions. WMS Gaming

So yes, the industry was jumping the gun with its 2005 excitement. And of course, given that track record, any new enthusiasm must be viewed through a somewhat skeptical lens.

But now, industry executives say, the time is finally right for sever-based gaming, and the first signs of the technology--albeit a new form of it that has been reworked considerably from what it was originally--may actually be on the horizon. The next great thing may at long last be here.

That means a host of new slot machine-based innovations could be on their way. Among them, said Rob Bone, the vice president of marketing for WMS Gaming, one of the casino industry's big-four manufacturers, is a community-gaming system that will allow multiple people to play games across a series of machines. And another, known as "adaptive gaming," will make it possible for the machines to keep track of a player's progress and let them rejoin their game, even at a different location.

For each of the four manufacturers, then, the innovations that will come as part of a larger server-based gaming movement are diverse and wide-ranging. At its core today, though, the technology is all about systems in which the machines can talk to databases on back-room servers, making it possible to download new data and information to a machine at any time, or even to change the denomination of games on the fly to react to casino occupation numbers.

The world's first all-server-based gaming floor
And if a new technology needed to be publicly rolled out with a splash, the casino industry could hardly have chosen a better way to formally introduce server-based gaming to the world: CityCenter, a mammoth, $8 billion, joint MGM Mirage/Dubai World development project now under construction on the Las Vegas Strip that encompasses thousands of hotel rooms, luxury condominiums and football fields' worth of casino space. And the world's first all-server-based gaming floor.

This launch, which will include 2,000 machines, is slated for late 2009, and could, after all these years, finally pave the way for server-based gaming to become the new industry standard.

But what caused the delay?

According to industry executives, not long after the 2005 G2E, there was a major philosophical shift, in which the major vendors--International Game Technology (IGT), WMS, Bally Technologies, and Aristocrat--came to the conclusion, along with regulators, that instead of each trying to produce their own proprietary versions of the technology, they would put their heads together and devise some new technology standards.

"In 2005, there were no standards, and no protocols by which we could create support software," said Javier Saenz, the vice president of product management for network systems at IGT. "We needed to create protocols, interfaces that worked, and some formalized technology."

Around that time, then, a new standards body emerged, the Gaming Standards Association (GSA), and what resulted were protocols that would make it possible the casino operators to automatically pipe in communications to players--promotional messages, notices of free buffets and the like--in pop-up windows on the screens, regardless of which manufacturer's machines they were playing. Previously, it would not have been possible.

For companies like IGT and WMS, this change in philosophy was nothing short of a major retrenching, but one they felt they no choice but to adopt.

"Pretty much, IGT had to...abandon all previous development that leveraged old, proprietary protocols," Saenz said. "It was a huge undertaking."

Instead, he said, the four manufacturers have adopted what they call open networks, a new term for server-based gaming built around systems designed to give casino operators the kind of new server-based technology they want, while also meeting the security and communications goals of the GSA.

Getting the standards in place was the first step, of course, and according to Mark Lipparelli, a member of the Nevada Gaming Control Board--which regulates casinos in that state--they were implemented in November of 2005, just months after that year's G2E.

The bigger question, then, was how long it would take for the results of that standardization to manifest in industrywide roll-outs of server-based gaming.

"The widespread adoption and implementation of the secure network technologies," Lipparelli said, "will be more of a market function."

One unanticipated--at the time, at least--result of the philosophical shift is that the industry's major manufacturers have come around, for the first time, to the realization that their technology must be interoperable, in at least some fundamental ways.

Banking on customer loyalty
These days, a big part of successful casino operations is best figuring out how not only to get a player to bring his or her money onto your floor, but also how to get that person to join your loyalty program and return to one of your properties again and again.

For companies like MGM/Mirage, for example, that kind of customer acquisition and retention is key, especially in a city like Las Vegas, where the giant already owns ten major properties--including Bellagio, the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Luxor and others--and will soon open up City Center. Making it possible for its customers to play games and feel welcome and valued at all of its casinos is just about the most important thing MGM/Mirage or any of its competitors can do.

And that's why, while an IGT machine still won't run games from Bally--at least not any time soon--the four manufacturers seem to have come around to the idea that their technology had to give the casino operators much more control over the messaging players would see on those machines.

Additionally, Saenz said, the gaming machines will need to be able to access the casinos' databases of customer names and information, regardless of who made the machine, in order to serve up information that is individual to each user.

A schematic of a server-based gaming system from WMS Gaming. WMS Gaming

But even as giant companies like MGM/Mirage buy into server-based gaming, the adoption of such machines is going to be slow.

As of today, Bone said, WMS has about 1,500 server-based machines deployed around the world. He imagines that casinos will begin to roll out server-based gaming on a "bank by bank" basis, meaning one section of machines at a time, rather than by replacing whole floors at once.

That means, Bone said, that the technology is going gain traction throughout the casino industry over the next two to three years.

IGT's Saenz agreed with that assessment.

At the moment, he said, the company has five server-based gaming field trials, two in Nevada and one each in California, Missouri, and Michigan.

Lots of servers, lots of rewiring
Of course, the forthcoming City Center opening will likely be the big coming out party IGT's--and the industry's--server-based gaming technology has been waiting for. But while that launch will mean that up to 2,000 machines come on line at once, Saenz said that there are practical reasons why the technology will be slow to spread, even now.

Part of that is because of infrastructure. In order to roll out server-based games, Saenz pointed out, casinos need to have Ethernet networks deployed on their floors. That's something that few casinos have achieved to date, he said, adding that those who do have a much quicker path to the new technology.

"Historically, there was an expectation that when server-based gaming arrived, (casinos) would magically rewire their entire floors," Saenz said, "and suddenly there would be server-based gaming. But that's not practical."

That's why he expects to see roll-outs a hundred machines at a time throughout the industry, but not much faster than that.

"In a few years," Saenz said, "the majority of casinos will have some server-based games, and (a few) will be 100 percent" rolled-out.