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David W. Herschman
 

To Browser or not to Browser

15 March 1998

By David W. Herschman

Technology Options for Players and Providers of Online Casino Software

What is the optimal technology path for operating an online casino? Is there such a thing? In this article, I'll attempt to outline some of the various alternatives being used by successful online casino operators of today. We'll take a look at the strengths and weakness behind each option, and also point out some specific sites which are using each option to its best advantage, and point out some of the leading software suppliers of each technology solution. In conclusion, we'll take a quick peek some of the lessons to be learned, and I'll discuss some of the technology choices that my company, Virtual Vegas Inc., has made in its own development path, and why.

Very generally speaking, there are three main ways you can go when launching an online casino or sportsbook site 1) A downloadable "client" solution; 2) A Java based in-browser solution or 3) In-browser solutions which do not use Java.

First we'll look at the pros and cons of each solution.

A) Downloadable Client Solution - An overview
A downloadable client, for the sake of this article, is defined as a casino package or suite of games (it can also be just one game) which the user must download to her hard drive before playing. Such a client / server solution can also be distributed on CD ROM or other removable media. Generally downloadable clients are for PC's only, and often only for 32 bit operating systems like Windows 95.

Advantages: The pros of a downloadable solution are as follows: 1) A downloadable client, because it is resident on the user's hard drive, only needs to transfer small amounts of data between the casino server and the player. This allows for faster play for repeat customers. 2) Because of the one time download involved, or ability to use CD ROM, casinos can generally pack more graphics in to the download, and the games look better (but not always). 3) There used to be security advantages of using a dedicated client, but those seem to have been minimized as industry wide Java development has gained momentum 4) In our opinion, downloadable systems have the highest customer retention and player loyalty - primarily due to the difficulty a customer must go through in the first place in order to access the games - they simply will be less likely to switch once they've already completed the hard part of gaining access.

Disadvantages: The cons of a downloadable solution are generally found in the marketing and distribution difficulties associated with it. For instance, most casino / sportsbook "clients" are bulky - over 5 megabytes. On a standard 28.8 modem, this can take well over an hour to download, sometimes over two hours. And if the players' internet connection is lost during that time - then the whole process must begin again from the start. Most players, particularly newer players or those wary of online gambling, will simply not go through the lengthy process of downloading a casino client. Thus "conversion rates" of signed up accounts from targeted advertising leads is quite low using this system, and costs of acquiring new customers are more expensive than any other solution. This is a significant hurdle that must be given full weight as an obstacle towards implementation and can not be underestimated. Other disadvantages are that proprietary clients are more expensive to expand and maintain, they do not leverage the bulk of 3rd party development spending in the internet industry, and they can not use the newest financial processing, advertising and entertainment features that the web at large is beginning to incorporate as standard practice.

B) Java Based "In-Browser" systems:
Simply speaking, a system which is Java based (i.e. written in the programming language called Java) is able to play "in browser". That is to say a player may access a casino site from within their standard Netscape (version 2.0 or higher) or Microsoft IE (version 3.0 or higher) or WebTV Plus browser. When a player wants to play a game - all they need to do is download that particular game - they don't have to download the entire casino first. And with Java players can still experience full animation, sound and other features which make playing fun in the first place.

Advantages: The ability play games in browser is significant in many respects 1) 99.9% of all internet users already have a browser downloaded on their computer - and nearly all of them are Java enabled. This means that a player does not need to download a new proprietary "client" in order to access a casino. In fact they already have downloaded such a proprietary client - it just happens to be made by Netscape and/or Microsoft. 2) In browser is the direction of the majority of internet development at large. Billions of dollars are being spent each year in furthering the ability of web browsers to quickly access content and information. Services like video, audio, rotating ad banners and financial processing are all being developed around the standard of the browser as the main point of access. While some, like Bill Gates, are trying to push this standard back towards the OS level, the majority of development is geared towards the browser. Java based casinos can take full advantage of 3rd party development. 3) related to the previous point - Java systems are very easy to upgrade from a customer service perspective. As players are only downloading one game at a time, each time, whenever changes are made to games they can occur immediately, and players may not even notice. 4) As a general rule - the less time a player has to spend accessing a casino, and the easier it is made for him, the more likely they are to play. An in browser Java system is at least twice as effective, if not much more, in attracting new players.

Disadvantages: Not all browsers support Java - in particular the early WebTV systems and older Netscape clients. Also, Java is still relatively new, and performance can be slower than proprietary clients - particularly when casinos are located in the Caribbean where bandwidth is scarce and expensive. Java can be less efficient to distribute on CD ROM.

C) In Browser Non Java systems
While the above may sound like quite a mouthful, the concept is really quite simple - casino games are being offered which play in the standard browser, but instead of using Java, they use other technologies like CGI, PERL and others. What this means, practically, is that casinos using such technologies can offer games which can be played by anyone with any web browser. However, such games don't use animation or sound, are difficult to protect from hackers, and tend to have the lowest customer retention rates.

Advantages: Players using these systems are downloading only one game at a time. And without animation or sound, these games can be quite small and thus quick to download. Getting started as a player in these systems is generally easy. This is the best solution to reach a mass market audience and extreme net neophytes.

Disadvantages: 1) Small download games sacrifice graphics, animation and sound to keep their size small - many would say that the games are no longer fun to play without such features 2) Securing such systems from hackers is difficult, and have only been done by forcing the entire page to refresh each draw of cards or spin of a slot machine - causing agonizing waits (especially from casinos in the Caribbean) and sacrificing the very advantages of such a system in the first place 3) There is only one software provider currently licensing out these types of systems, and early reviews from operators have not been glowing. 4) these systems, with the least to offer in terms of entertainment value, tend to have much higher "churn" (player turnover) rates than other systems.

SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATIONS

Examples of Existing Casino Systems in each technology category include
Downloadable Clients: The leading provider of such systems at present appears to be MicroGaming out of South Africa - they certainly have the most systems installed and operational. Other providers of such systems are Atlantic, and Cryptologic (though Cryptologic systems require use of their proprietary financial processing software which has scared away numerous operators. Examples of sites which successfully use a downloadable system are www.GamingClub.com , www.CasinoRegal.com, www.TreasureHunter.com. All of these systems are playable only on PC's running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 - one casino (Winstreak) has written a downloadable client in Java which also plays on Macs, but performance is subpar and early reviews have been negative of this software.

Java In Browser Solutions. A number of casinos, including Virtual Vegas, use Java in-browser systems. Examples of this include www.IslandCasino.com, www.Playstar.com and www. These systems play in any standard browser and the biggest download at any one time seems to be less than 250kb. Leading providers of these systems are Cyberspace Casino Tech and a handful of newcomers.

Non-Java In Browser Solutions: A few casinos exist which seem to be successfully operating these systems. Examples are www.GrandDominican.com, www.Funscape.com and www.Starluck.com. The leading provider of these systems (and perhaps the only provider that we know of) is Handa Lopez Inc.

Conclusions and Lessons to be learned:
The bottom line in choosing a system, whether you are a player or operator, is to first identify your goals. Do you seek a compelling entertainment experience? Do you have a problem with a lengthy download? What is your available bandwidth? Are you trying to target high rollers or the mass market. It is imperative to know this first. The most compelling experiences tend to keep players interested longer, but also come at an expense of scaring away many players due to lengthy downloads. For our own site, VirtualVegas.com we have chosen to implement a Java in browser solution. The reasons for this are many, but our main priority was to attract a mass market audience and maximize the amount of players on our site. Being a free site which is supported by advertisers, a Java solution was in many ways the only viable one - we are able to take advantage of all of the 3rd party tools which enhance in browser game play - rotating advertisements, streaming audio and video, easy database access. For Virtual Vegas, going with Java was a successful move - we now have 190,000 monthly gamblers on the Virtual Vegas site for much less cost than it took us to sell 60,000 of our CD ROM products through established retail channels. However, there is no one "right" solution for everyone. The most important thing is to know your own goals, examine the options available in the marketplace, and hopefully make the correct decision to find success.

To Browser or not to Browser is republished from iGamingNews.com.
David W. Herschman
David W. Herschman