Online Live Dealer Games – What Works and What Doesn’t
Ever since that first Neanderthal etched scenes of the hunt on the cave wall, man has wanted realism and entertainment in his home.
For a long while, you had to be rich to afford pictures to hang on the wall, but eventually, somebody came up with the radio, and that was cool for a while.
Then along came television, and that was good enough to keep entire generations out of the harmful rays of the sun and all that unfiltered (they called it “fresh”) air.
*cue cool animated map of red lines crisscrossing the country and then reaching beyond even to the farthest corners of the world*
The internet, of course, relegated television to a secondary role. Certain uncharitable sorts might even call it a subordinate position. Personal computers appeared in every home with a speed far greater than television.
All of Man’s virtues and all of Man’s vices—the entirety of Man’s knowledge and experience, in fact—was now at anyone’s fingertips.
That online gambling appears at every stage of the internet’s growth seems, in hindsight, to be as natural and inevitable as a cat having kittens. But we weren’t satisfied, were we? We just had to have it all.
We wanted live people shuffling actual decks of cards, and you know what? They better be sexy, too.
And we got all that. And more.
Virtually any game you find dealt at a brick-and-mortar casino is readily available at hundreds of online casinos. Baccarat, roulette, blackjack, casino hold’em—it’s all there, and it’s live, pal. And in living color.
The nail polish on that dealer’s hands? It’s fresh. She smiles as she deals your pocket cards, and you can bet that somewhere, halfway ‘round the world, there is an identical woman smiling as she deals two cards to the unblinking eye of the video camera.
Guess what? They’re the same dealer!
Brought to you by the magic of Boolean algebra harnessed to a bunch of vacuum tubes and put into service by the companies that specialize in live dealer streaming for the multitude of online casinos happy to pay so that you may play.
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
It should come as no surprise to you that video production, live or recorded, is an expensive business. The old rule of thumb was a thousand bucks a minute for a professional-quality video.
You want a thirty-minute video of how to wash a dog? That’ll be $30,000, please, and you provide the stunt dog.
Pro-quality video was shot on Betacam SP (yeah, you thought Beta disappeared, didn’t you? Nope, it just moved out of town and got a job). The camera you needed to use cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. A professional lighting package suitable for a one-person interview cost as much as a new car.
Oh, and you needed a reliable, quality sound recording system. Not to mention tripods, battery packs, and a couple of people to carry things, lift things, monitor things, and generally make sure no time or money was wasted. People who can write you a check for thirty grand (one that won’t bounce, anyway) are not people you want to disappoint.
Some of that changed with Hi-8 cameras, which gave up a bit of the Sony Betacam quality in exchange for a dramatic reduction in price (you could buy five Hi-8 cameras for the price of one Sony Betacam).
Today, of course, there’s the GoPro line of cameras that again trade a small downgrade in video quality for a dramatic reduction in price (several dozen GoPros can be purchased for what one Hi-8 camera goes for).
And sure, maybe video produced with a GoPro might not be acceptable for the Oscars, but it’s perfectly fine for streaming video productions.
Naturally, you still need the lighting, the sound, the grips, the floor directors, and the line producers.
You need a HUGE pipeline for data, and, to generate enough revenue so that you can afford all this, you need a large building with industrial electrical service, a whole bunch of felt-covered tables—and, oh yeah, I almost forgot—a lot of attractive men and women dressed in formal evening wear.
Who does this sort of thing?
The companies already providing online casinos with their gaming software. That’s who.
Companies like NetEnt, Visionary iGaming, Evolution Gaming, and Playtech were the first to jump at the sudden interest in streaming live games. While each of these providers developed their own systems, the marketplace featured the same specific product and the same host of clients.
So, a common management theme emerged. Each production company aggregated the action into one manageable location and then leased each table/dealer to a variety of customers simultaneously.
The old punch line “Ya got it, ya sell it, ya still got it” found new life with the live dealer phenomenon. Do you really care that the baccarat dealer at your favorite online casino is also dealing the same hand to someone at an entirely different online casino? You do? Really? You don’t get out much, do you?
With standardization among competitors comes a certain homogeneity of quality, which ironically serves to highlight the array of quirks and fumbles within the industry.
That’s where you and I come in.
Live Dealer Streaming: The Good
Virtually all of the live dealer games I checked out fulfilled the basics necessary to call the game “live”: sound, video, a useable betting field, and—of course—a dealer. Chat windows also appear on virtually every live dealer game.
One point here: The dealer herself is not chatting with you. She’s too busy shuffling cards or spinning the roulette wheel. Someone else off-screen is typing “Welcome, Biff” (actually, this is probably an automatic computerized response as a new player enters the “room”).
In fact, it’s possible the dealer doesn’t speak your language at all. Remember that with the exception of “branded” tables dedicated to a specific online casino (which itself may cater only to English-speaking or German-speaking players), every table is probably being streamed to players all over the world, so understanding what the dealer is saying is not something you should expect 100% of the time.
Luckily, cards are cards, so the chatter could be in Urdu, right? Actually, that would be kinda cool…
Some production companies, like Microgaming, offer introductory screens for each dealer. These appear immediately upon entering a particular table’s “room” and feature factoids about the dealer à la Playboy centerfolds. Date of birth, interests, favorite casino game, hobbies… an unexpected but reasonable way to make the experience more real.
Nice touch, Microgaming. Now, how do I send a birthday card to Gretta? She smiled at me, and I’m pretty sure I saw her wink.
By the way, most of the live streaming production companies not only offer the production itself but will often include among their services full backend (read “bookkeeping”) services for their online casino clients.
For players, this means that many of them offer (through the online casino, of course) rewards programs such as instant bonuses and/or free spins as well as other promotional programs to enhance customer (read “you”) loyalty.
It also allows the online casino and the production company to track user preferences in order to adjust the games and services offered—which, in today’s world of aggressive targeted micromarketing, seems almost innocent and quaint.
Live Dealer Games: The Bad
Sound quality seems to be the biggest problem among the various live streaming producers I checked out. Sometimes the background music was so loud that I only knew the dealer was talking because her lips were moving (I’m looking at you, Visionary iGaming!).
The sound problems are legion. Muddy sound quality. Mumbled speech from the dealers. That annoying empty-room echo that marks a production company so cheap it does not individually mic each dealer (you heard me, Ezugi). Sound quality seems to be the last thing some production companies think of.
Perhaps, as in Ezugi’s case, they didn’t think of it at all.
Others actually don’t think of audio, simply playing an endless soundtrack during play. It’s sort of like being on hold for hours, but with something nice to look at while you’re bored.
Not only that, but it’s quite off-putting to hear a distinctly American voice as an Asian dealer’s lips move in an entirely unrelated fashion.
Playing at a table where you don’t understand the dealer’s language can be odd, but hearing a Midwestern American’s nasal accent that visibly does not jibe with the petite Asian dealer’s lip movements is downright creepy.
Or funny. Maybe creepy-funny. I guess it would really depend on how drunk you were at the time.
Now, I understand that a production company may have to deal with their own version of the Tower of Babel at work; trying to personalize the experience for people speaking Tagalog, French, Spanish, English, and German has got to be a monumental task.
But I’m a critic, not an innovator. I don’t have the answers. I just have the snark—and I’ve got the broken nose to prove it.
All I know is, if I see the dealer’s lips moving, and they don’t match the words I’m hearing spoken, that willful suspension of disbelief required to make this experience work is destroyed.
Yes, you heard me right. Just like any other type of performed entertainment, we as viewers must suspend some disbelief under pretty much all circumstances in online live gaming. The dealer isn’t smiling at you, for example. She’s smiling at a piece of machinery with a red light on top of it. You and I just imagine she’s smiling at us, personally.
Oh, I’m sorry. Did I ruin it for you? Did you think there were actually tiny little attractive people playing blackjack inside that plastic rectangle you carry with you ever since it spoke to you that one time? No, of course not. We’re all adults here. We’ve learned our responsibilities when it comes to viewing entertainment.
Streaming production companies realize this and do everything they can to facilitate your virtually instinctual need to believe in the verisimilitude of what you’re seeing onscreen. And for the most part, they succeed.
But others do not—and it is, surprisingly, not the visual but rather the audio realm in which they fail.
Live Dealer Games: The Ugly
First off, let me say truthfully that I never saw an ugly dealer, male or female, on any of the live streaming games I checked out. So if you’re looking for me to dish on “Who wore it better?” or some such nonsense, disabuse yourself of that notion.
I will admit to preferring women dealers over men dealers, but that’s just a personal preference. You prefer the guys? Rock on.
No, every production company I looked at obviously realized that video is, um, a visual medium, and unless your market demographic is “people who really dig the Elephant Man,” you’re going to want to staff your tables with young, attractive, well-dressed, and well-mannered men and women.
But an expression that says, “Man, I gave up a primo gig at the McDonald’s drive-thru for this crap?”—even on the face of an attractive woman—is not, I repeat, is not an incentive for the player to return regularly.
Another “area of opportunity” for some production companies is the venue, or if you prefer, the stage settings.
Some production companies can do green-screen projections (of varying quality and realism) behind the dealer (nothing like playing blackjack with a dealer standing in front of Mount Fuji), while others skip the pretense and shoot the game—by all appearances—in somebody’s spare guest room (*cough* Extreme Live Gaming *cough*).
Say, is that Aunt Tilda’s old Singer sewing machine up against the wall back there?
Yeah. It probably is.
A Fistful of Live Gambling
No overview of live streamed gambling would be complete without having a quick look at mobile gambling. Like anything new, the field is filled with promising ideas, failed concepts, and generally, an awful lot of “huh?”
Producers like NetEnt seem to understand the irony of participating in a live game on something only slightly larger than a playing card. Their mobile gambling streaming features full shots of the table and the dealer, intercut with close-ups on the betting field or the dealer—all depending on which requires our attention at the moment. Compact, seamless. Impressive.
Others, like Visionary iGaming, seem to think that the picture-in-picture strategy that serves adequately on a desktop video screen translates perfectly well to the iPhone or Android screen.
Well, maybe—if you like your live shots of the dealer to be about the same size as a postage stamp. Well, it’s not that the bear dances well, but that he dances at all, right?
What I’m saying is this: There’s still a lot of room for improvement in the mobile area. And that will happen.
Remember the olden days, when you had to drive into town to play casino hold’em? Of course, we’ve got it great nowadays. We just tell Mr. Spacely we’re taking the afternoon off, slip on our jet packs, and rocket up to Cloud Nine, the floating casino above our heads.
Okay, maybe next year, eh?
Say What You Want; It Beats Solitaire
Despite the various stumbles and bumbles and outright failings of live dealer streaming, it remains a solid feature for online casinos, and one that grows in popularity every year.
For many of us, it’s the simple novelty of watching somebody on your phone. For others, it adds a new dimension to the online game. And for some, it’s a welcome sort of human contact in a world gone slightly daft with individual-serving-sized lives.
Nobody wants a table for one at the restaurant. For one thing, the pressure to come up with a story your audience hasn’t heard before is immeasurable.
So, let’s enjoy live dealer gambling—warts and all. Remember that our Neanderthal forefathers had just that one picture of a mastodon with little stick-men throwing spears at it. A single frame of animation, frozen in time for centuries.
In their defense, they were probably too busy avoiding being eaten by saber-toothed tigers or dodging the clubs of those crazy Cro-Magnon dudes to put in a lot of time developing Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP).
We should probably just be happy they got around to it eventually. Now, about those jetpacks…
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