t’s an unprecedented effort, unusual in the gaming industry as well as most of the business world, where Apple and PC-based computers and AT&T and Verizon cell phones, for example, run on discrete systems that allow these companies to better protect their profits from competitors.
Today’s slot machines are a world apart from the mechanical-reel cherry machines of years past. High-tech gambling games arrived years after other industries pioneered such entertainment features as Disney-quality graphics and high-fidelity sound. Some industry executives will admit that long-standing protectionism in the gaming industry has hampered the kind of innovation that benefits the entire industry by encouraging new products that might attract new customers or keep existing ones interested.
The same expectations that people have of their computers, cell phones and other consumer technology - including better innovation, flexibility and pricing - motivated CityCenter to demand more than a year ago that the big slot machine vendors work together to elevate the overall quality of the casino floor. That was a tough pill for slot makers, which have struggled to increase profits in a recession that has shrunk the budgets of gamblers and casino operators alike.
Historically, competitors in gaming have had even less incentive to work together than other industries. Because state regulators license slot executives and evaluate machines for play, the cost of entry for newcomers is steep. Manufacturers fight tooth and nail for market share, as casino customers in most parts of the world are limited by regulation and new casinos are generally few and far between.
And yet, with the global publicity generated by CityCenter - an us$ 8.5 billion resort complex touted as the Second Coming for Las Vegas - manufacturers couldn’t afford not to meet the property’s demands. So they agreed to get along. “We’ve never had a better relationship with all of our competitors than we have now,” said Rob Bone, VP of marketing for WMS Gaming.
And so, CityCenter will become the first Nevada casino to network its slot machines so that the casino, from a central computer server, can download games, marketing offers, coupons and customer greetings onto the machines.
Until now, slots were governed entirely by discretely programmed computer chips. These new slots won’t look much different except that some will feature flat screens whose content can be changed from a back room to reflect a newly downloaded game.
In some cases, players will be able to choose from a menu of several games - somewhat more variety than many slots now offer. At the touch of a few buttons, Aria managers will be able to create a bank of slots on which gamblers could compete with one another, tournament-style, or offer select gamblers a steak dinner.
Although manufacturers fell short of developing a single system to manage Aria’s slot floor, the casino will close in on a more cooperative effort after a year or so, when it will be able to offer games made by different manufacturers in boxes, commonly called “cabinets,” made by competitors. For now, manufacturers are still carving out a few profit centers for themselves.
Bally Technologies makes a small screen on its slot machines that isn’t compatible with slot systems developed by IGT and WMS, for example. Using Bally’s screen, called iVIEW DM, gamblers can make a sports bet and then watch a football game as they gamble. They can also use the screen to order a drink or call a host.
By contrast, WMS games offer another window that is made by a third party that created it independently, based on a publicly available standard protocol created with input from many manufacturers. Adopting an open, Web-based system enables software companies that were traditionally shut out of the gaming business to compete for the development of slot applications - enabling WMS to focus on creating new games, said Mark Pace, vice president of network gaming, engineering and operations for WMS.
Games made by Bally, Aristocrat and Konami won’t work on the IGT/WMS network - at least not yet. And some companies are protecting their legacy systems by requiring casinos to buy another piece of software that can “translate” between the old and new technology.
Giants in other industries have come together to develop new technology for major customers, as Lockheed Martin and Boeing have done with bombers and air traffic control systems for the federal government. Some sectors have shared research to better compete with others in the same industry, as Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have done with energy and mechanical technology.
Slot machine gizmos might seem a less important outlet for business ingenuity. And yet, the CityCenter effort, a fundamental shift in how an industry is positioning itself to do business, is more significant relative to the customers it will serve.
The technology developed for CityCenter will be used by casinos around the globe, affecting untold numbers of gamblers as systems now open to new competitors eventually replace older ones that quickly made games obsolete and the process of changing them expensive and time-consuming.
“We knew we wanted to go in this direction as an industry - it just makes sense,” said Javier Saenz, vice president of network systems for IGT. “CityCenter forced us to have a deadline. We need these kinds of catalysts.”