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Server-based slots

30 August 2011

Server-based slot machines have been in the works for most of the last decade, with technology evolving and systems making their way through gaming labs and state gaming boards for approval and licensing.

Regulatory approval for new technology can be a lengthy process. And casinos have to weigh the capital outlay when adding any new product. So far, server-based slots are on casino floors in small pockets in states including Nevada, California, Missouri, Mississippi and Michigan. The time is coming when they'll dominated casino floors, but at the moment, they're a novelty.

So when I spent a mid-August day in Indiana, I was only too happy to accept an invitation from execs at Majestic Star Casino in Gary to check out what they're doing with their first 40 server-based machines, all International Game Technology sb units.

"Our focus is on getting slot themes quicker to our guests. It offers us much more flexibility," said Scott Hendrickson, the casinos vice president of slot operations.

Hendrickson, senior vice president and general manager Larry Buck and director of marketing Tyler Conover sat down with me to discuss sb plans, then Hendrickson showed me the machines, the server room and a demo on his office computer.

With IGT's sb, the casino can load games onto machines very quickly. Flexibility comes from being able to change a game players shun without the expense of buying a new game. If a game theme proves unpopular, it can be replaced with something from a library of games on a server, including new games from discs that IGT will provide each month.

When a casino purchases a traditional slot machine, it can take two weeks to a month to talk to the manufacturer's sales rep, place the order, have the machine built, delivered and installed — all under the watchful eye of regulators.

On its sb machines, Majestic Star can speed around the process, bringing games to players weeks before its competitors could install the same game on traditional video slots. Under supervision of an Indiana Gaming Commission agent, it can even define several machines, or whole banks of machines, at once to install a new game.

Down the road, there's even the possibility of doing special, themed events that involve server-based games.

"Maybe on the Fourth of July, you could do something with all Red, White and Blue slots," Hendrickson said. "Try doing that with all the labor in changing regular slots. Or maybe you could do something at Halloween, with all Halloween-type themes and colors."

That doesn't mean the casino will — or could — change games or payback percentages behind unwary players' backs. In states that have approved server-based gaming, casinos are not allowed to change games while someone is playing. Majestic Star plans to take a machine out of service and tape a piece of paper to the game detailing the change while the necessary behind the scenes moves are made.

There remain plenty of checks. Each disc of new games will be delivered to the Indiana Gaming Commission, not to casino operators. It's up to the commission to approve the disc and load it onto the server. From there, it takes IGC agent approval to port the games to individual machines. The computer in the server room has a double-lock system, and if the agent's not logged in, the game's not going anywhere. And once the game has been sent to the machine, the agent must go to the casino floor for one final check before the game is available to the public.

Even so, the casino can react quickly to add more of a game players like, or to remove games they don't.

"It enables guests to tell us what they want," Conover said, "instead of us telling them what they can have."

COMING ATTRACTIONS: There are elements to IGT's sb system that Majestic Star is not using just yet, particularly in the areas of player tracking, data mining and customized, targeted promotions.

I asked Hendrickson if he would be using the Service Window, and he said not yet. On sb games with the Service Window activated, the casino or player can open a window on the main screen for two-way communication. The video reels narrow, still giving a full view of the game, while the Service Window opens down one side.

The player can use it to summon a cocktail waitress, make reservations, redeem comps and other transactions.

For the casino, the Service Window brings an opportunity to do instant promotions. If a player using a rewards card has a history of using spa services, the Service Window can pop up and offer a spa comp or discount. If the casino has empty seats as a showtime draws near, software can be used to identify the customers closest to qualifying for show comps, open the Service Window and offer tickets. It's a way of building goodwill among customers who normally wouldn't quite qualify for the comp, at minimal cost since the seats would just have been unfilled without the comps.

That's a back-burner item at Majestic Star as it gets its sb system up and running, but one that has a chance to become a casino-industry fixture in the not-too-distant future.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski