U.S.A. - It's a Tuesday night sometime in the not so distant future, and the nation's bars and taverns are alive with excitement.
Location owners from coast to coast, unaccustomed to large crowds on what is traditionally a slow night, can't believe their eyes. While many have experienced heavy traffic occasionally during such major sporting events as the World Series or NBA finals, there are no such contests scheduled on this night, beyond a few scattered hockey games.
There is one event, however, that has captured the nation's attention: the first ever large-scale national touchscreen tournament, with thousands of dollars at stake. Teams of people, many of whom have grown tired of sitting alone in front of monitors chatting with strangers on the Internet, compete at trivia, puzzle and action games, each hoping to be crowned as national champion.
At the end of the night, everyone agrees to meet again the following week to do it all over again. Many will come back in the coming days to practice, hoping to improve their skills. Others will tell their friends and bring them to the next tournament. Location owners will quickly call their local operators, telling them to place more terminals. A new phenomenon is born.
Although such a scenario may seem far-fetched, it could soon be more than just a fantasy if coin-op's touchscreen manufacturers have their way. The vast majority are moving ahead with ambitious plans to introduce online technology, with the idea that systems capable of running wide-area tournaments will spur more player competition and ultimately lead to fatter cash boxes.
Although local-area networking (within a location) is already a reality, many industry observers believe the real opportunities are presented by wide-area networking, which can enable regional and national tournaments in real-time. Others either already offer or are planning to offer online tournaments using the successful model established by Incredible Technologies, which involves a central server sending data to and from connected machines to establish national rankings and leader boards.
With an eye on determining just how far the coin-op industry is from making large scale online tournaments a reality, V/T spoke with representatives from the nation's leading touchscreen manufacturers.
One company that is looking to make real-time tournaments a reality is San Francisco-based Ecast. Although the company views itself as a provider of a full-range of services, including digital music and other Internet-based content like short movie clips, online tournaments are a major focus, according Roger McAulay, the company's president and COO.
"Tournaments are just one element of the Ecast Network, because we're positioning the whole thing as a network that has many different channels of content, but we view them as an important factor."
Ecast, he said, as been testing its "Automated Tournament System" for the past two months at six locations in the San Francisco area, with plans to complete at least another four months of tests. Depending on how things go, McAulay indicated that Ecast will roll out its tournament system sometime between the Amusement Showcase International in March and the AMOA International Expo in early October.
"I think that we're probably at the same point as most of the other manufacturers; that is, we are testing it in a number of venues and those tests are going very well," he said. "So far, the tournament games are earning better than twice what we would expect each individual game to take in on its own."
As an added benefit, he noted that the "Automated Tournament System" handles all tournament tracking, freeing operators to manage other aspects of their businesses. By providing its magnetic "Club Ecast" card to each tournament participant, Ecast handles the process of ranking scores, publicizing upcoming tournaments, tracking points and fulfilling prizes.
McAulay emphasized that the key to bringing as many people as possible into tournament play in general, and national tournament play in particular, is to provide a variety of quality games.
"This whole movement was obviously revolutionized by Incredible Technologies because they put out one great game, 'Golden Tee Golf,'" he noted. "We feel that the potential for online tournaments has yet to be fully tapped simply because not everybody wants to play golf. To ultimately pull all of this together, we think it's going to require a system that offers a wide variety of games that are likely to pull in a higher percentage of the patrons."
Regarding national tournaments, McAulay noted that the single biggest challenge facing the industry is user base. It may take a little time, he added, before a given company has enough users to run successful national tournaments.
"I think your really going to see tournaments impacting the industry economically late this year or early next year," he said. "The real decision lies with the operators, who will ultimately decide that it's time to go online because it will earn them more money."
JVL introduced its "Conquest Touch and Win" software for its new tournament-capable "Conquest" system during September's AMOA International Expo. The touchscreen comes complete with a modem, and does not require a dedicated phone line.
According to Valerie Bechtold, JVL's Western and Southern sales manager, the "Conquest" was designed to give operators as many options as possible to run customized tournaments.
"Since operators know their locations better than anyone, they're best equipped to know what they want," she said. "We feel like it's our job to give them the tools that they need."
While the system allows players to compare their top scores with other players on a national basis, it is designed primarily for local and regional competitions.
"It all depends on the individual," she explained. "Operators can run tournaments along their entire route, or join with other operators to run tournaments together, which we've seen happen. In one case, an operator is overseeing a state tournament."
To aid operators in running tournaments, Bechtold noted, JVL can customize tournament promotions and advertising. It can also download specific tournament information and assist with prize fulfillment.
"We want to make it as easy as possible to run tournaments," she said.
The advent of touchscreens with Internet capabilities, she predicted, will also have a positive effect on the bottom line, as it will allow operators to increase the price per play of their machines. The progression of video games is a good analogy, she said.
"At one time video was set at a quarter play, and now they've been able to justify a dollar per play, and in some cases $2. We believe this is where the countertop industry is headed," she said. "We now have a justifiable reason to increase the price per play. It's gone from a quarter to 50 cents to 75 cents and I foresee that going to a dollar, and the major reason is Internet capabilities."
In regard to future tournament endeavors, Bechtold noted that JVL is planning a major announcement in March.
After months of testing in the U.S. and Europe, Merit Industries is expected to finally unveil its "TournaMAXX Global Player Ranking System" at ASI in March.
Merit's director of network business, Bob Mills, describes "TournaMAXX" as an ego-based global player ranking system that adds value to the operator's existing "Megatouch Diamond Edition" games. Most importantly, he added, there is nothing new to buy, as the system is designed to complement existing Merit equipment already owned by operators. The kit, which is comprised of a modem and promotional material, is provided to Merit operators at no charge.
"TournaMAXX" works with a modem , an existing phone line is all that is required. Merit's "Diamond Edition Software" also supports local-area networking of TouchTunes' jukeboxes using an industry standard Ethernet connection.
Once the system is in place, players will compete in tournaments set up and run by the company's "TournaMAXX" staff. The machines will connect to the "TournaMAXX" central server daily to upload scores, player and tournament information. "TournaMAXX's" remote monitoring feature enables operators to view game data, connection reports and leader boards, and to register machines.
The Bensalem, PA-based company has been testing the system domestically since the summer of 2000, Mills reported, with more than 80 distributor offices throughout North America taking part in the company's "Summer Sizzler 2000" promotion.
"It really gave operators a good first look at the system, provided a fun competition for everybody and helped keep steady traffic flow during a traditionally slow period," he said. "The results have been encouraging and the operators that participated helped us put the finishing touches on the product."
"Global Ranking System" tests continue in Europe. Merit has released versions in France and is preparing for a service launch with its European partners.
In both cases, Mills noted that the testing has supported the requests made by operators for a localized level of competition, as well as having a positive impact on earnings.
In terms of how operators will ultimately benefit, Mills cited a host of operator-friendly features, including the localized custom level of promotion, the ranking system, player scoring that promotes repeat play, and a business model of a flat monthly fee that allows operators to keep earning increases.
He stressed that the biggest incentive for operators to get connected is the bottom line.
According to Mills, "the incentives to the operator are real clear and simple: they want to increase their cash box earnings and set their routes ahead of the competition, and if we can help them accomplish that it will be incentive enough for them to get connected with 'TournaMAXX.'"
With its new tournament edition touchscreen system, the "Global Touch 2001," Lakewood, NJ-based Micro Manufacturing, a unit of Coastal Amusements, has been busy helping operators get their first taste of local tournaments.
The "GT2001" can accommodate a modem and features an Ethernet connection for local-area networks. It is equipped with a 500 MHz processor, 32MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive, and is shipped with tournament-play capability at no additional charge.
The company is currently shipping "Version 2.5.1" software, with a total of 36 games and enhanced full-motion video.
According to Micro's Sal Mirando, 20 tournament games can be programmed in four sequences, with five games in each sequence.
"The tournament feature has been very successful in certain parts of the country where competitive play is popular," he said, noting that the system is easy to program on site.
Despite the success of the "GT2001," Mirando emphasized that the company is cautiously approaching Internet-enabled products.
"We are taking a 'wait and see' attitude, as we have been in the business too many years to rush headlong into such a minefield," he said. "This is still the amusement business, and if we lose sight of this, we are truly doomed. Our main concern is to keep making the game better by listening to operator input and adding the content and features they demand. Our strong point is that we are not too big to listen, and big enough to perform."
Midway Games' modem-ready "Touchmaster Infinity" touchscreen will be part of the "Midway Tournament Network," which is also compatible with the company's video game lineup.
The "MTN" uses standard phone lines and an internal 56k modem to run dial-up high score tournaments over a secured network. In order to keep all information protected from the rest of the Internet, Midway developed "Virtual Private Network" technology specifically for "MTN."
In addition to winning cash and prizes, players that get high scores on "MTN" games will achieve notoriety on the "MTN" website. All "MTN" games will download top scores to the website daily, where they can be viewed by anyone with Internet access.
"MTN" is also capable of collecting players' e-mail addresses to notify them of their standing, so if players get knocked off the high-score leader board, they will receive an e-mail encouraging them to go back to the location to get back on top.
"Infinity" employs the company's "WaveNet" tournament network, and is available in both countertop and upright models. The touchscreen also boasts new features, including an expansive 6.4GB hard drive offering upgraded game-storage capabilities and quicker response.
In a recent conference call with analysts, Midway CEO Neil Nicastro indicated that the "MTN, "including the modem-ready "Infinity," will make its debut sometime in the spring. Although the system has been on test for almost a year, with some locations showing a 50 percent increase in revenue, Nicastro said it will not ship until it is proven in the marketplace.
Los Angeles-based uWink, launched in July 1999 by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, is looking to bring multi-player gaming, nationwide tournaments and the Internet to public venues through its line of networked, touchscreen terminals.
According to uWink officials, the fully-networked kiosks will eventually allow customers to compete in real-time national tournaments with a swipe of the company's "Club Wink" affinity card. Similar to frequent flyer miles, "Club Wink" rewards loyal players with such benefits as rebates, free games or entry into random drawings. The card also records all relevant data so players only have to register for tournaments once.
According to Bushnell, uWink currently has some 600 units in the field, and has been running high-score leader board tournaments since November of 2000. Since that time, the company has been downloading an average of two free tournament games per month. (A full breakdown of uWink's tournament activity is available at www.uwink.com.)
"We just completed our 8th tournament and have already awarded between $15,000 and $20,000," he said. "We have units in about 35 states, with the largest concentration on the West Coast and smaller pockets on the East Coast, and quite a few in the Ohio and Kentucky area. Unfortunately, there are certain parts of the country where distributors don't quite understand the whole Internet thing yet."
In terms of real-time tournaments, Bushnell noted that uWink is shooting for the late summer, when the company hopes to have between 5,000 and 10,000 units on location. By late April or early May, or as soon as enough units are on location in Europe, Bushnell indicated that uWink will seek to run global tournaments.
"As soon as we have 5,000 to 10,000 deployed machines, we'll start running those kinds of tournaments," he said. "You really have to have a solid base of customers so there are enough people to play at the same time."
UWink's "uWin" tournament network will eventually feature over a dozen tournament styles, allowing players to compete nationwide for cash prizes. Players involved in weekly tournaments will also be able to play globally.
The standard hardware, which is PC-based, features 64MB of RAM, a 2GB hard drive and a 56k modem. It is ready for high-speed services like DSL, ISDN, cable and T1. The system, however, works well with a standard phone line connection.
Bushnell believes the addition of real-time national tournaments will eventually convince location owners to add multiple terminals to each location. He envisions a scenario in which 10,000 people enter a tournament for a $5,000 prize, with a global winner declared within 10 minutes.
"You'll find that all of a sudden you've got a bunch of players there on a Friday night, and if you only have one machine, you're going to have some unhappy people," he said. "We think real-time tournaments, all by themselves, will triple the number of terminals that owners will allow in a given location."