The team also has to cope with the game-to-system protocols set by the regulatory bodies. Such protocols are not standardised. “Remember, there are a variety of slot machines other than Bally’s,” says Tirumalai. “Our systems operations, fundamentally, should work across the entire slot mix in a particular casino.”

Though the company is the market leader, Bally’s systems aren’t just for its own machines. The systems team also needs to make the software compatible with the hardware from other companies.

“The engineer not only has to be familiar with the hardware and its functioning but also figure out how the hardware will actually ‘talk’ to the software systems,” says Tirumalai. For example, a slot machine alone has 25 components and all have to be connected to get it started.

The prime objective and biggest challenge is to ensure that the various components comprising the systems function like a well-oiled unit. “Our software package operates in a live environment,” says Raghavan. “Most casinos rarely shut down for maintenance. Even if they do, just one part shuts down, the rest is still open. Our application software has to run 24/7.”

Patrons though, never experience any disruptions, as they continue to play even as the backup systems kick off. The lights are always flashing and the machines always chiming. The game must go on.

During game time, you also encounter the bonusing system. There may be promotions that flash on the screen asking the patron to wager $5 more to qualify for a bonus game within the main game. If he wins the bonus game, Bally’s media management system displays a congratulatory message on the huge plasma screens inside the casino. There are also the table management systems, which work together with the casino’s own security system to keep things clean at the poker or blackjack tables.

Casinos have transformed from being pure gambling dens to entertainment centres. Bally’s systems also drive casino restaurant menus, cross promote shopping and live show entertainment venues, help order food and beverages sitting from the gaming station, and even print out shopping vouchers on the floor. Bally not only has its own bouquet of products but also customises development to address the specific needs of a casino.

There is the creative team that conceives storyboards and characters; graphic artists and multimedia specialists who bring the characters to life, fix their movements, and provide the special effects. It’s a full-blown multimedia experience for players, which goes beyond the usual spinning numbers and fruits. There are mathematicians and statisticians who decide how many rotations the wheel in the slot machine makes, how the rotation happens, the generation of random numbers, the number of wins and losses; engineers who write the code in programming languages, and finally the game testers. The entire unit is headed by a game producer, who oversees the development of the game.

Just like the complex logic involving game theory and probability which goes into the algorithms, the random generation code is tough to crack for players. (You have a better chance of beating the house at a table game such as blackjack). Shivakumar Keshavamurthy, vice president, technology, says: “The outcome is random, but there’s a mathematical model that will ensure that out of $100 the patron bets, $75 should be given back. That’s the payback percentage, which is between 75% and 99% for every game, so that patrons are drawn back.”

The algorithms and software are tested separately by the California-based Gaming Standards Association (GSA) before they go live on the floor. Not even one line of code can be released without approvals from the GSA.

While small casinos may house 20 to 50 of Bally’s slot machines, the larger ones stock more than 7,000. Over 425,000 machines worldwide use Bally’s technology.

“While game development provides a thrill, to see it actually working on the floor, people using it, and data being generated—is more satisfying,” says Keshavamurthy.
What about the developers, many of whom may never see the inside of a casino? Do they give in to temptation and play the slots? “Employees who work closely on the slot machines will play them regularly, almost every day, while others may not play even once a year,” says one engineer. “Of course, there is a difference in playing the slots in a casino and in the office, where no money is involved.”

If the gaming division of Bally Technologies India is a face-up card, the systems operations is face-down. Raghavan draws up the analogy of a bank to explain the systems side of the business. From the time of opening an account, beginning transactions, diversifying them, till the closure of the account, everything is monitored by a software package at the consumer level. “So Bally’s systems are like the application software that runs the entire casino environment, end to end,” he says.

When a patron enters a casino for the first time, he makes his way to the cage, or the reception, to enrol himself. He is given a card, the size of a credit card, which has a chip or magnetic strip. The receptionist keys in his name, address, and other personal information, and then loads money on to the card—the player begins with a base account, usually ‘gold’, followed by ‘diamond’ and ‘platinum’. The first part of Bally’s mammoth behind-the-scenes operations, the patron management system, is now in action.

When he inserts the card to play a slot machine game, the wager is transferred from the card to the slot machine. The winnings are also credited to the card. This is done by Bally’s accounting system and slot monitoring systems.

The Bally Technologies India  office at the International Tech Park Bangalore.
The Bally Technologies India  office at the International Tech Park Bangalore.

The Bally India team developed about 100 games last year, and boasts new products or innovations every year. Watching the development of a machine or game is as fascinating as playing the slots. In the Bangalore office, almost every cubicle has a different slot machine, topped with coloured lights that flash frantically every time a bug is detected. Engineers work on specific aspects—programming, hardware, graphics, math or statistics logic, or plain testing—and the machine then moves to other cubicles. The movement of the machine around the office (and between the two buildings that make up the Bangalore centre) is an exercise in transportation and logistics: Each weighs nearly 180 kg.

The gaming division not only deals with hardware but also conceives, creates, builds, tests, and runs the games. “It’s similar to cinema production,” says Raghavan, whose favourite movie is 21, the 2008 flick in which MIT students milk Vegas casinos by ‘counting’ at the card game. “People with multiple skills come together to produce an output that is watched, or played in this case, by millions.”

India has brilliant software and hardware engineers and, in this case, they have been able to apply new technologies in an area where they did not historically work,” says Frank Legato, editor of the Casino Connection and Global Gaming Business magazines, and an authority on the industry. “Chennai, where Bally established its first Indian operation, was one of the country’s technology hubs, so there was ample talent to tap. It has established something of a blueprint for other companies expanding worldwide, in identifying areas ripe with engineering talent.”

The concept of gaming is niche, which is why the engineering is more so. The exclusivity demands a wide range of skills. A typical IT services firm, on the other hand, will require only software skills such as .NET, Java, or AS/400.

“Each product we use has various combinations of technologies. It’s not one product,” says Anantha Krishna Tirumalai, director-development, iView/Media/Bonusing. “There are various facets of the systems operations. These require a combination of Java, .NET, C++, Flash, Content, and knowing how to make all of this work together.”

Bally Technologies India’s offices have a combined workforce of over 1,000. Around 40 people were recruited from campuses, while the bulk comprises professionals who have worked in IT product development or software.

“We’re six years old, yet we are writing new code and rewriting packages,” says Raghavan. “You need people who can come in, and start being productive from day one. We don’t have the luxury of spending three to six months training engineers fresh out of college.”

And what about the moral conflict in working for a company such as Bally, especially in India where gambling is frowned upon? The engineers see themselves as working for a gaming outfit rather than a gambling one. Most of them have never even gambled in a casino. Raman Poyapakkam, senior director-services, says: “My father-in-law is big on the Bhagavad Gita. It’s not like I tell him to hide it, but I say ‘I work for a gaming software company’. There have been comments though, such as ‘Does your father-in-law know?’.”

So why did the $760 million (Rs 3,806.1 crore) Bally Technologies decide on India when it already had development centres in Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada, and Nice in France? “In the ’90s, a number of product development companies came to India because of the low manpower cost,” says Raghavan. However, he says, that has since changed, and today, companies want to tap India’s technical skills and engineering talent.

“If I had to sketch a value-chain story for the IT industry here, Bally India would feature high up,” says Asheesh Raina, principal research analyst at IT research and advisory firm Gartner. “Post-recession, the Indian IT industry realised that it could not depend on services for long.”

The Bally India team began by writing and rewriting millions of lines of code for software packages. The older packages were written in vintage TransBASIC language and they wrote newer versions of operating systems and newer packages of application software as well. As the techies grew more confident in the area, they began developing games. Bally’s research and spending in its Indian arms is over $26 million per year.

“The rise in revenue, from $300 million then to the current level, is no coincidence,” says Raghavan. “It was not as if Bally India was set up around the time and growth happened. It was propelled by Bally having its offices here.” (See stock price graphic).

There’s a new connection between Indian IT engineers and chips. For starters, you need to get out of the semiconductor mode. The link is the flashing lights, electronic chimes, and sudden, loud bursts of retro music (Grease was the word, or tune, of the day). What could easily pass off as a casino is, in fact, Bally Technologies’ India office at the International Tech Park Bangalore. Here, techies mull over probabilities and write code that makes thousands of gaming aficionados and casinos worldwide richer every day.

Las Vegas-based Bally Technologies, the world’s No. 1 casino management systems company and among the top three slot machine game manufacturers, has its development centres in Chennai and Bangalore, set up in September 2005 and January 2007 respectively. “When Bally set up its centres here, it was more like ‘Bally, who?’ No one had heard of it,” says Srini Raghavan, senior vice president, Asia-Pacific, and managing director, Bally Technologies India, making an inside joke. Ballyhoo! was the company’s first machine, developed in 1932. Not too many in India know of Bally even today, since gambling is banned in most cities; Goa has six boat casinos and around four or five on land, and one has recently opened in Sikkim.

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