Despite hot hype, computer-linked game systems don't yet rule casinos


Like many casino operators, Aria President Bill McBeath isn't sure how server-based gaming will ultimately be received.

He knew five years ago, however, that Aria, the centerpiece hotel-casino of MGM Resorts International's $8.5 billion CityCenter, wasn't going to open without the new technology.

In concept, server-based gaming links slot machines on a casino's floor to a central server, allowing operators easier functionality while enhancing the gambling experience for customers. Through the server, casino managers could quickly change out games and pay tables and advertise promotions and a resort's amenities.

For the better part of the past decade, the slot machine manufacturing sector touted server-based gaming as a casino industry-changing event. Companies such as International Game Technology, Bally Technologies and WMS Industries spent countless millions of research and development dollars to create computer systems, innovative gambling content and software for server-based gaming.

"A lot of what we developed shows up in different (balance sheet) areas," International Game Technology Chief Financial Officer Pat Cavanaugh said. Game content developed for server-based slot machines is also used by the company's other gambling products, such as video lottery terminals.

"It's a product where we generate revenues that touch many buckets," Cavanaugh said.

The system's highly anticipated industry rollout, however, never materialized.

With the economy in free fall over the past two years, capital expenditure budgets tightened. Casino operators held off on buying new slot machines and management products.

Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs gaming analyst Steven Kent, in his annual slot-floor managers survey, said server-based gaming may be four years away from being fully embraced by the gaming industry.

"Until the slot manager can point to an example of (a) central server that boosts sales, we find it hard to see how this will grow in acceptance," Kent said.

McBeath said Aria may eventually provide the measure of success, but he doubts anything concrete will be learned quickly.

"Ask me at the end of the year," McBeath said.

Aria's system is provided by IGT. Of the casino's 1,940 slot machines, a little more than half of the games are connected to the system. Only IGT machines and a handful of WMS slots are used by the server. Gaming regulatory approvals are still needed so machines produced by Bally, Aristocrat, Konami and other companies can be integrated into the network.

"Once we have 100 percent of the floor connected, we'll have a better idea of what we're dealing with," McBeath said.

Cavanaugh said the true financial model for server-based gaming is still evolving. The return on investment could be better realized once operators are better able to understand and all the system's applications and capabilities.

Aria gave IGT a living showroom to display the system to potential customers.

"We have to be able to show value to the operator," Cavanaugh said. "With Aria, casino managers can see how the system provides the two things they want, the ability to manage your slot floor and the ability to communicate with customers in a more standardized fashion."

The Goldman Sachs report said casino operators are more concerned the server-based system's costs than its technology.

So far, those comments haven't curtailed IGT's business.

In May, IGT installed the system at the Casino d'Evian in France covering 300 machines. A similar system now covers 20 percent of the slot machine floor in Finland's Grand Casino Helsinki. At the end of June, a system was installed to cover 100 slot machines at the Casino di Venezia in Italy. A second Italian casino is expected to receive the IGT system this year.

IGT has also has versions of its server-based system at the Ameristar St. Charles in Missouri, San Diego's Barona Resort, the Colusa Casino in Northern California, the FireKeepers Casino in Michigan, MGM Grand Detroit, Detroit's MotorCity Casino, and the Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Miss.

"It's a working model in progress," Cavanaugh said. "We know it's a cautious approach."

In June, IGT announced plans to outfit the under-construction Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas with a server-based gaming system that mirrors the Aria product. The $3.9 billion, 2,995-room hotel-casino opens in December.

Cosmopolitan CEO John Unwin said up to 80 percent of the casino's 1,500 slot machines, will be part of the system.

Unwin said he believes server-based gaming will let the Cosmopolitan build a customer database more quickly, learn players' gaming and entertainment preferences and market the resort's restaurants and other amenities to players.

"We looked at the competition here and in other markets," Unwin said. "It just makes sense to open with this type of product."

McBeath understood Unwin's reasoning.

"Why would you have a static slot floor if you have the option to do server-based gaming?" he said. "I mean why would you buy a camera that uses Kodak film when you could have a digital camera? Nobody would do that."

McBeath said Aria, which was planning a December 2009 opening as the Strip's newest and glitziest casino, was the big jackpot slot companies producing server-based gaming systems were hoping to win.

The resort would house multiple first-generation technology features which included a server-based gaming system.

The property's grand opening was going to attract vast attention from media, including gambling industry trade publications. In other words, it would be a public-relations bonanza for whichever slot company earned Aria's server-based contract.

Those factors allowed him to "negotiate the largest discount IGT has ever given."

Aria is 7 months old, and with most of the resort's postopening shake-out and fine-tuning completed, McBeath is turning his attention toward the property's server-based gaming system, which IGT developed.

He's unleashed a team of casino technology people and slot-floor supervisors to tell him what they like and dislike about server-based gaming.

"I told them to go play with it, have some fun and spend some time with the system," McBeath said.

IGT landed the deal for Aria primarily because some 45,000 of MGM Resorts' slot machines are already on IGT operating systems. IGT officials also listened to what McBeath wanted from server-based gaming.

"Forget all the things it can do, there were only three things that mattered to me," McBeath said. "I wanted player interface with back-end accounting that worked, dynamic content and dynamic pricing. If it did anything else, it was a bonus."

Slot machine developers and casino operators both said server-based gaming could allow a slot floor to operate in some ways like the table games pit or the hotel side of the business.

On busy weekends and during special events, table-game wagering limits are raised and hotel room rates increase. But it was cost-prohibitive and time-consuming to kick up the wagering limits for slot machines.

During a few slot machine player special events, Aria executives "flipped the switch" and changed out the payout levels and content for several banks of slot machines.

"It works," McBeath said. "But I still don't know how to quantify the value."

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

 

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