You would think that server-based gaming is a casino industry-inspired acceleration in technology, judging by the fixation with the development evident in Las Vegas in November of last year.
The trade show floor was dominated by the SBG theme, just as every year there seems to be a frenetic ambition to find something ‘new’ to demonstrate an advance in casino thinking. It tends to make for a ‘faddish’ atmosphere at G2E shows and was no more new than the fads of other years, such as the return to mechanical reels, multiple stakes, leasing, etc.
In fact SBG is indeed a development from within the industry, but certainly not stemming from the casino industry per se. Reality is that it comes from the much maligned and often openly hostile street market.
Picture a country with low-stake, low-prize gambling machines in 100,000 bars, run by a service industry, viz. operators. The appeal of gambling machines in pubs is transient. In some countries income can dip inside six weeks. What does the operator do? Leave it there as long as he can get away with it, but bar owners are keen to see income maintained and will put pressure on for a change.
The business therefore became one of ‘furniture removal’ - vans and engineers moving machines from one pub to another, to eke out the viability of the machine and maintain income for the customer.
A couple of companies in the UK, Gamestec and Leisure Link, both giant operators with between them 150,000 of these machines in operation, separately worked on ways around this. To cut a long story short, SBG was developed. The machine in the pub therefore became video-based and the operators were able to download new product into them remotely.
That story is still unfolding painfully within the street market, as notoriously conservative operators and site owners (as usual) allow others to take all the risks and watch for outcome before plunging themselves.
The principal of SBG has therefore been hijacked by the casino industry and applied to its own business, now that the industry is dominated by the video-based product.
But why should the ‘furniture removal’ problem apply to casinos? In essence, it doesn’t. But other aspects of SBG certainly appear to hold benefits for the casino industry.
- The flexibility of SBG in casinos is a powerful argument. With different types of clientele at different times of day, a location can amend the games and the stakes set-up to fit.
- The multiple games principle can be used to its utmost, dumping low-performing games and replacing them with new versions.
- Many faults on machines can be fixed remotely.
- Hit games can be introduced to a machine faster than would be possible by ordering a complete machine.
- Casinos can demand - and get - subtle changes to games which would not be possible in a new, complete machine.
This ability to make games far more adaptable to the site owner who carefully monitors exactly what is going on with his slots floor, is of no small value. In these days of striving to find any new way to add value to the floor, SBG may be more than a passing hysteria.
The major slots manufacturers are certainly no mugs and the depth of penetration of SBG - particularly in North America - is testimony to the willingness of casino operators to make their offering as streamlined as possible, to extract the absolute maximum that machine performance can provide.
All of the big players have taken the science very seriously and most of them have developed their own, often co-operating between themselves (once unheard of!) in order to pool resources. IGT and WMS and Atronic with IGT in North America and with Inspired Gaming in the UK. All are prime examples of this phenomenon.
Harrahs has taken the lead, as it so often does in North America, with the rollout of SBG through IGT. As we understand it, however, it is not a total SBG product, but rather a method through which the operator can adapt an existing machine to deliver marketing messages.
As a half-way measure to avoid huge capital outlay, it makes some sense. In smaller locations in Las Vegas, Cyberview has conducted some trials and to keep it realistic at this early stage, Las Vegas has only a few hundred machines which can be said to fall into the SBG category.
But there is no question that it is on its way. In Europe, traditionally somewhat slower to take up new technologies, preferring the North Americans to make all the mistakes before latching on to anything worthwhile (sorry Europe, but it is unquestionably true! - Ed). The pioneers from the street market previously mentioned, Leisure Link, better known these days as Inspired Gaming, have not simply sat upon their expertise.
The group, now firmly out of street operating and very much a supplier of technology to that market, has also taken it to the casino business with something of a vengeance. A whole stream of video-based SBG empowered product for the casino sector is coming out of the company’s R and D department. Co-CEO Norman Crowley: “In the UK we have Gala and Stanley casinos involved in our SBG technology. In Europe Holland Casino has joined Inspired in trials and the company is also working with SBG in Mexico and Malaysia, Australia and Macau.”
SBG therefore, is no more than scratching at the surface at this moment. Even the Holland Casinos trial is limited, with a MultiWin in the locations at Venlo and Scheveningen. There is a long, long way to go, but fundamental to the success of this - and many other new technologies coming into the industry these days - is standardisation. After all, just as you would conclude with a product like management systems, if it doesn’t work with all of the machines on the floor then it is useless. This perhaps accounts to some degree for that inter-company collusion in the development of SBG previously mentioned.
Compatibility is unfortunately fragmented. The evidence suggests that someone needs to get a grip on a single platform. Every market seems to have a different standard for the new technology at the time of writing. In Europe, there are standards set out by the Gambling Commission in the UK, and the Inspired Gaming-Holland Casino trials are being based upon the GLI 11 and 21 standards. North America may well standardise on the new G2S.
So what happens to an operator with five casinos using one standard who buys up a competitor whose two locations use another? An answer to that one may have to wait for the fallout as the technology begins to be applied in earnest.
And so to the fundamentals. If we follow the logic through to its conclusion - which presumes a widespread use of SBG in the long term - then what happens to all that hardware? We have IGT, WMS, Aristocrat, Novomatic, Bally and others all turning out thousands of machines (furniture?) annually from huge factories for a market that will gradually evolve into one needing fewer machines but more games.
Let’s look back at the street market, where all of this began. SBG has still a long way to go in that sector, but very significant inroads have been made and the effect is emerging with stronger definition. In the most advanced of the street markets, the UK, there has been a very marked reduction in the number of manufacturers, a reduction in factory size and the emergence of what we might call ‘bijou’ suppliers. These are simply development houses, making games for a multiplicity of manufacturers and traditionally operate with only a dozen or so staff, very strongly technology-led.
How close are we to the scenario, therefore, of one or two manufacturing bases for the casino slots business, all acting as ‘jobbing manufactories’ for several competing clients? Will IGT and Aristocrat machines one day be turned out from the same production line?
At Inspired, Norman Crowley, a keen observer of likely trends feels that the effects could begin to show in three-to-five years. “And judging from the number of new Asian entrants to the supplier business who do not design games but make machines, that is where those machines may be built.”