AMI Entertainment Levels Up Its Game Machines With Windows Embedded

BRISTOL, Pa. — Sept. 27, 2011 — A patron visits a bar, orders a drink and plays a few simple games on a big-screen console. It’s a common ritual that’s played out in thousands of eating and drinking establishments every day.

That routine can take on a more social dynamic with the release of the latest version of a bar-top game machine that lets people compete against friends, create profiles accessible anywhere, brag about their scores on Facebook, and use virtual tokens to buy game enhancements that can boost those scores. It’s all possible because of a tactical business decision made by AMI Entertainment, makers of the ML-1 game machine — whose reengineered Megatouch Live platform, from today, is powered by Windows Embedded.

“About two years ago, it became clear that we really needed to reinvent the Megatouch platform,” says Mike Maas, president and CEO of AMI Entertainment, based in suburban Philadelphia. “We had a development structure that had been around for a decade or so, built on Linux; quite frankly, it was tired, and it was difficult to change, and the business was starting to reflect that fact. We needed something that we could innovate with much faster.”

Megatouch is the market leader, but Maas and his team knew that to remain successful after about 30 years in the market the machine had to meet the changing demands of gaming. In the past that meant new titles and art; now gamers were also looking for social connectivity. Players wanted to share the gaming experience with their friends in the pub and in other cities and to brag online about their latest high scores.

“Someone could be sitting down at a pub or a restaurant and achieve the greatest score ever achieved in one particular game. They’d have no way of knowing and no way of telling the world about it,” says A.J. Russo, creative director at AMI. “We want people to be connected and telling their friends where they’re hanging out to play. We want someone sitting at a pub or a restaurant to be able to play not just against the people that go to that location but against the rest of the world.”

AMI also wants operators who purchase game machines, as well as bar and restaurant owners, to reap the benefits of connectivity. That includes increased game revenue through players competing against their friends and racking up higher scores and rankings, and increased food and drink sales when players order more rounds while they keep playing or urge their friends to come down to the bar and join in the fun. AMI had networked machines, but the open-source platform made it difficult to keep the machines reliably connected, so operators and bar owners weren’t taking full advantage of connectivity.

AMI’s Big Jump From Linux to Windows Embedded

Reinventing Megatouch required significant change, which was a challenge on the existing Linux-based system. Hardware upgrades meant new drivers had to be built from scratch; new game features took programmers days or even weeks to test and finalize.

“Linux has all the aspects that you want to see in software development — with some notable exceptions,” says Brennan McTernan, vice president of software and games at AMI. “One of the big exceptions for us was that the game development assets under Microsoft dwarf the game development assets under Linux. It made sense for us to start looking for a solution that would help us be more efficient and effective, and deliver a better product quicker, faster and more cost-effectively.”

So McTernan led his development team in a new direction. He started by bringing in trainers and resources to teach the cadre of Linux programmers how to work on Windows Embedded Standard 7. The intensive classes ran for several weeks, but it didn’t take long for the team to start building products and features on the new technology.

Once everyone had learned the new operating system, they started rebuilding Megatouch from the ground up: new hardware, new operating system, new game engine, new games. Using Windows Embedded Standard 7 opened up a world of options for hardware selection and evaluation. Developers could pick from motherboards and other components knowing they wouldn’t have to write their own drivers just to evaluate them because reliable, tested Windows drivers were easy to find online.

“We were able to right away leverage the benefits of Microsoft itself plus the third-party people who make stuff for Microsoft,” McTernan says. “We did in a 16-month cycle what would probably take 30 months to get done.”

Rugged, Always-Connected Systems Benefit Distributors, Operators, Bar Owners and Gamers

AMI designs games with players’ interests and preferences in mind, but there is a chain of additional stakeholders between AMI and that player. Distributors purchase machines from AMI, then sell them to operators who install them in bars and restaurants. With the new Megatouch Live service and ML-1 machines, AMI is sharing in the revenue from gameplay for the first time, which makes it even more important to ensure an engaging player experience that will result in profits for every member of the distribution chain.

Broadband connectivity enables tracking of revenue, as well as other key details operators need to keep their machines running and profitable. Automated alerts tell operators when a coin box or bill acceptor is almost full, so it can be emptied promptly and gamers can keep playing without interruption. Game settings are stored in the cloud and can be updated and adjusted remotely, allowing operators to customize game menus, age-appropriate settings and pricing options by location without traveling to each machine.

Diagnostics and fixes can also be performed over the network. For an operator who has a network of 30 machines located within a 50-mile radius, that’s a significant time savings. “No one wants to go out at 10:30 on a Friday night to fix a machine, but that’s the time these things need to be operating,” says Bill Layne, product manager at AMI. “Servicing machines becomes easier and less time-consuming because the Windows Embedded platform is resilient and durable.”

And that durability is especially important in what McTernan half-jokingly calls the “hostile environment” of a bar or restaurant, where the machine’s owner isn’t present to watch how gamers handle the machines or where they put their dripping drink glasses. At the end of the night, McTernan notes, the bar owner is likely to power down the front rooms without bothering to go through a shutdown routine for the electronics. The ML-1 machines are engineered to bounce back after sudden shutdowns and other rough handling.

Windows Embedded technology also helps ensure system security through BitLocker encryption and AppLocker protection. Gamers can trust that their profile and credit card information is protected. Game developers know that the game software is protected from hackers who would try to pirate successful games for their own use — which offers peace of mind to both AMI’s own game developers and third-party game manufacturers whose titles are licensed for Megatouch Live.

And always-on connectivity means that new game titles and updates can be pushed out online, without waiting for operators to find time to do the installation themselves. Since the Windows Embedded development environment also makes it easy for developers to create new games more quickly, AMI can offer gamers more games, more often, giving gamers something new to play on a regular basis and tempting them to come play — and eat and drink — at their favorite pub more often. This also gives gamers more chances to build up their Megatouch Live scores and achieve new rankings. Gamers can also post their high scores online via Facebook Connect, and can invite their friends to come down to the pub to play or challenge friends from across the country to beat those records.

The Future of Connected Gaming

Before today’s launch, AMI tested the ML-1 and Megatouch Live with operators, bar owners and gamers. Operators liked the reliable system and easy maintenance. Bar owners liked the attractive machines — not just from a hospitality perspective but as people who like to play the games themselves just before opening or after closing. Gamers have enjoyed the crisp new graphics and responsive gameplay.

Future adaptations to Megatouch Live will build on what customers like, and developers will be paying close attention to customer feedback as they create new titles and features. Network connectivity will be a vital component of new developments. The key consideration will be how to foster a social experience through Megatouch Live games.

“Many attributes that in the broader gaming world have become kind of expected are now available in the Megatouch platform,” AMI’s Maas says. “But they’re available in an interesting environment, which is in the bar, in the restaurant. It’s kind of the original social media; the original social environment was on-premises, and that environment was missing this modern-day gaming platform — and that’s really what we’ve built.”