Bally India:Hitting a Jackpot in Gaming Technology

Date:   Monday , September 03, 2007

On their first trip to Las Vegas, this family of four from Bangalore is bowled over by the mind boggling expanse of the casino. They have seen nothing like this ever before! None of them have realized it yet, but they have been inside this casino-resort for over eight hours now. And, none of them seem to be even thinking about leaving anytime soon! This is the magic of Vegas that completely engulfs each one of the surging humanity making a beeline to this desert town on vacations. The youngest among them is the wide-eyed girl, all of 13 years. She still can’t get over the enchanting live magic show they saw yesterday evening. She is now in a kid’s game arcade playing her favorite ones. The young man of 17 is not yet allowed to try his hand on the sea of slot machines or any of the table games where hundreds of people are wagering their bets. He stands in the entry to the kid’s arcade keeping an eye on his sister, and at the same time keenly watching his parents try their luck on what is obviously one of the most popular games on the floor. He can see the game is called Hot Shot Progressive. His dad told him earlier that it is a game developed and manufactured by Bally Technologies, the premier game maker. He watches his dad swipe his card in the unit and start to play – press the touch screen, fix the bet amount, number of lines to bet and then with a flourish click a button on the panel. The wheel starts spinning and he watches with amusement as his parents pump their fist and hug. They are obviously winning! A multitude of people from all over the world, ranging from obviously well to do American couples in the slot machines to Chinese youngsters in groups on the tables throng the floor. The young man – a grade 12 student – starts wondering what it takes to develop these games that seem to hold so much power over these players. And, his mind starts spinning!

On the other side of the planet, one would be equally fascinated by the India office of Bally Technologies. The environs are so much similar to any of the other thriving development centers that populate the Bangalore skyline. Concentric circles of workstations with state-of-the-art equipment, engineers banging away on the keyboard, some discussing something seemingly important in a group. But something about here is so obviously different. Is it the energy? Or the looks on their faces? There is clearly something extra, something special about the environment here.

To think it all started with a small wooden pinball machine named the Ballyhoo! When Ray Moloney founded Bally Manufacturing Company in Chicago back in 1932, he could not possibly have imagined the company that built the ‘Bally Baby’, a tiny cast-iron slot machine filled with mechanical gears, springs and levers would someday evolve into one of the gaming industry’s technological giants. As Swapna Nair who works with the HR department explains the history of the company with a 75 year heritage, she says “Ray Moloney could not have imagined the company he started would become the world’s No. 1 Gaming Systems Company with more than 366,590 machines using Bally systems technology. Or that research and development spending at Bally would reach over 50 million dollars per year!”

For an industry that is alive with excitement round the clock there is a need to continuously innovate and also evaluate the trends and pattern to hook the players on to the casino. With the changing times when technology progressed in an unprecedented manner Bally also took to the task of changing the way games were operated, managed, and played. From technological milestones such as the first slot machine featuring a “bottomless hopper” and the first fully electronic reel-spinning slot to the world’s first electronic slot management system, Bally Technologies continues this path of innovation with a number of new reel-spinning, video-slot and systems products. For example, the Hot Shot ProgressiveTM, features five of Bally’s most popular reel-spinning titles embedded in the reels of this dramatic new game. What makes Hot Shot Progressive a unique breakthrough is the way the game presents secondary bonus options to the player. When a player enters the bonus round, he or she actually ‘plays’ mini-versions of the full-sized originals of other popular Bally games for a theoretical chance to win up to five progressive jackpots on the same game.

Bally Technologies, India started its operations in Oct 2005 in Chennai and subsequently opened its Bangalore center in January 2007. In the uncluttered and fun filled environs of its two centers, over 400 engineers are putting together creativity and skill-sets to develop games as well as designing and developing software based solutions.

The game of game development
When you race down to the Casino to bet high stakes in roulette, craps and other popular slot games like Hot Shot and Millionaire SevenTM, which are the famous casino games you are just ignorant of the intricacies involved in the developing of the game. From scripting the storyboard and visualizing, to programming and fine-tuning the end product, there are different layers of processes which need to be followed in the development of a game. “There is a lot of psychology and mathematics involved in the development of the game”, says Surya Patar Munda, Director Technology. The preferences of the players of a region are also taken into account. For example, in the U.S. people like to play individual games whereas in Asia people like to play in groups.

Meanwhile, the young boy’s father is discovering that the remarkable new video-slot platform breaks the mold of traditional video gaming, creating an entirely new gaming experience. He is getting the best of the dynamic surround-sound audio system, the ergonomically designed cabinet with padded armrests that creates a zone of privacy and comfort for him. As the 12th grader watches his dad on the game, he notices that this effectively filters out annoying distractions for the ultimate video gaming experience – much better than anything he has ever played on! He is blissfully unaware that all this is made possible by Bally Technologies’ CineVisionTM innovation. What makes CineVision unique is a revolutionary video monitor that uses the same 16:9 aspect ratio found in movie theaters and on the latest wide-screen plasma televisions.

Then there are other complexities which need to be dealt with; for example, the number of rotations the spinning wheel should make, how the rotation should happen, random number generation, what the possible number of wins should be, what the losses should be, how to develop a game that doesn’t make a player bankrupt etc. These are some of the challenging thoughts that keep the mathematician in the games division of Bally busy all the time. The creative aspect of the job is also quite challenging. To write the storyboard, to fix characters, the movements of the characters, sequence of the story, making the special effects, are all both an art and a science. The team in India has developed a new game called Chinese Kitchen recently. The target is to develop one game every one and half months explains Surya.

Bally develops software for all its games on its own operating system (OS). Dubbed the Alpha OS, this new operating system dramatically improved Bally’s entire portfolio of slot products. Bally’s new Alpha video platform with its intricate, brightly colored graphic capabilities provides a striking presentation to the player. Bally has re-engineered its entire line of video and reel-spinning slot machines, using the entirely new software program. “A good portion of the work done on the OS and the development of games are now being supported out of India”, says Surya. Bally India also takes part in R&D work focused on enabling innovation in game development and application development. Thrust is given to explore various innovative strategies to simplify the algorithm used in game development.

The back stage
The young boy’s mother is now getting tired of playing, while the father wants to continue. She is very willing to let him play alone, as the games they have played till now have yielded vouchers that can be encashed at the resort-casino’s sprawling shopping center and mall. She now decides to leave her husband and go to do some vacation shopping. Her son starts to wonder how in the world the casino can print out shopping vouchers on a gaming floor! This world-class entertainment center obviously has a lot going on behind the scenes! He makes a mental note to explore this amazing world further once his vacation is over.

This is made possible by a combination of additional recent technological innovations from Bally, the new iVIEWTM display and Bally Power BonusingTM. The iVIEW is a dynamic customer-relationship marketing device capable of cross-promoting everything from gaming promotions to shopping and entertainment venues. The full-color interactive LCD touch-screen display is mounted in the slot machine to allow players to review their player’s club points, request a casino host, view entertainment, shopping and dining options, or anything else that a casino operator might want to provide, thereby bringing player-centric marketing directly to the slot-machines. When customers insert their slot-club card, they receive an exciting personalized greeting in full color on the iVIEW display. The system can even present customized greetings and other unique messages designed for specific players. In addition, iVIEW also allows casino slot personnel to instantly access vital slot machine data, such as machine diagnostics, ticket transaction logs and repair or maintenance information in a much easier-to-understand format. “The Bally Power Bonusing is the industry’s most complete and proven package of bonusing, gaming and promotions that provides unlimited solutions to fit any casino situation including a range of predefined bonus events, sweepstakes and promotional programs,” claims Arun Rajaraman, Director of Technology.

Beyond fun, frolic, and gaming, there lies a complex process of managing the casino. To manage and monitor the huge crowd and the heavy amount of money that flows in and out of the casino is not an easy task. Bally Technologies is the leader in casino information systems offering a full complement of products that help casino’s retain and reward customers, manage and forecast finances, reduce risk, spot the trends, and increase security. Bally System’s product line offers slot machine cash monitoring, table management, cashless operations, accounting, security, maintenance, marketing, promotional and bonusing capabilities, enabling casino operators to accurately analyze performance and accountability while providing an enhanced level of customer service. “The casino management system manages the backend operations of the casino”, says Arun. As the player inserts his card on the unit, the system monitors the games that he plays, the games he wins, and also games which he loses. “Now we are working on enhancing the existing system by giving it a web interface and providing support to the maintenance team”, explains Arun. Bally Systems has solutions on the IBM AS400, Microsoft Technologies and Open Systems platforms. “Though we are maintaining our existing systems by adding new features and customer driven enhancements, there is a constant need for enhancing these systems with newer, platform independent technologies and we are focusing on this modernization effort in a major way. To enhance the interoperability, we are coming up with a new Business Intelligence tool which works across platforms”, he adds.

Life at Bally
Anantha Krishnan, Senior Lead Analyst at Bally, says, “I come to office to play”. This describes life at Bally in a nutshell. The unconventional mindset of the management is evident in the ambience of the work place. To effectively test the solutions its engineers develop, there are a number of slot machines and table games at every nook and corner of the work place company that also give a feel of the casino in the work place. “Moreover, Bally has given me an opportunity to enhance my technical skills and domain knowledge” says Anantha. The enthusiastic and challenging atmosphere presents itself in the manner all employees approach their work and each other. Intense discussions, enthusiastic knowledge sharing, coaching and mentoring seem to be happening all the time. This was very obvious when Anantha suddenly ran out in the middle of the meeting to one of his team member’s workstation to explain a complicated algorithm.

There is a concerted effort by the management to make Bally India a workplace of choice. They approach this by trying to give individuals an opportunity to realize his or her intellectual capabilities. As Haresh Kumar.S., Senior Lead Analyst, a returnee from the U.S. puts it, “In the product development group which I am involved in, I get full freedom to experiment with various technologies during the course of my work. This helps me enhance my technical skills as well”. Another focus area is to facilitate employees to interact with one another and create a team where everyone enjoys working with each other. Finally, building a world-class office, having a competitive compensation structure and a healthy focus on quality of life in the work place are aspects where Bally doesnot compromise.

Bally also insists on building a work environment based on a solid value system that will define the identity of Bally in the future. The core value system exists regardless of time, geography or rewards for practicing it. At Bally India this core value is guided by highlighting real-time examples that are clearly indicative of the company’s principles and Bally India Values.

Srini Raghavan, Managing Director of Bally Technologies India tries to inculcate those value systems in his team by constantly talking to team members about such instances. “This aspect, along with assisting the teams to deliver quality solutions is my top priority for the next year. I am struggling to be more hands-on in both these areas and that is my current focus,” he says.

To err is human, they say. Bally India encourages the culture of sharing mistakes within the team as well as with other Bally members. There is a realization that most errors occur because of the same or similar mistakes being made across the organization – while writing a code or analyzing a business objective or even testing an application. Sharing one’s errors reduces repetition of mistakes to a large extent. The endeavor is to achieve this in a secure and non-threatening environment.

One of the key focus areas for Srini is his recruitment process. While selecting candidates with language skills is important, the main focus area is software coding aptitude and strong analytical skills. “Just as a person with very good knowledge of English or another language may not be able to communicate effectively, a programmer with good language skills may not write robust code. The approach to writing robust code along with the capability to understand the customer environment is vital for us,” explains Srini. This insistence on quality engineers has ensured really efficient people like Keshav Mohan and Gaurav Jindal join Bally. Keshav, a Software Analyst says, “The work I do is very complex. But I truly enjoy it and am passionate about it.” For Gaurav, Senior Software Analyst, it is the ambience and infrastructure that appeals. “To walk into a company with such a nice ambience is itself a catalyst to work efficiently”, he says. Gaurav is leveraging his past experience in the gaming industry to give his best at Bally. It is this good will in the heart of the employees that has helped Bally arrest its attrition rate at 4.5 percent compared to the industry average of over twenty percent.

Bally India believes in building leaders within the organization .To ensure a career path for his employees, Srini has left a void at the middle layer of the organizational hierarchy. The team currently consists only of senior level directors and the technical leads and analysts who are at the intermediate level. He wants the people in the levels of technical leads to quickly climb the ladder both in technical and managerial areas, and the programmers below them to move up as technical leads.

To develop highly motivated and empowered employees, and leverage their expertise and experience in the latest technologies is crucial to Bally India. To encourage this, putting in place mature processes to support all software engineering activities and leading them with a spirit of innovation and creativity – is a major task. To foster an environment which connects to this vision, Bally has come up with a novel idea of annual themes. Last year’s theme was to make Bally India ‘A Great Place to Work’. This year, the theme is to build Bally India as a ‘High Performance Team’. At an organizational level a high performance team means delivering software with impeccable quality. At the team level it will focus on working with collaboration towards achieving the objective. At the individual level the theme stresses on accountability. “As Bally India enters the third year of its operation, it is very crucial for us to establish ourselves as a high performance team”, says Srini. He insists that though they coin a new theme every year, the previous year’s theme will continue to be upheld and practiced.

The 12th grader’s mother returns with a fancy watch for him that he has yearned for a long time and nice gifts for everyone else. As they go back to their rooms, he wonders what it will be to work for a company that is so clearly riding the crest of the technology wave and at the same time enabling gamers have so much fun, capturing their minds, their hearts and their time. It has to be better than playing the game itself, he decides! He knows where his wager is going to be placed as far as his career is concerned.

Bally India has set its eye on leading the gaming and technology industry in India, and is headed towards achieving its goal while offering high growth prospects to its engineers.

Like the silver ball in the pinball machines, Bally India is poised to sharply carom off posts and bumpers and ring up the big points or even hit a jackpot! A jackpot in gaming