Forward Thinking in Online Slots
Two renowned online slot producers reflect on the factors impacting game development and where the industry may be heading in the future
Mobile, social, virtual reality (VR): there’s no doubt about it, we’re in the middle of the biggest period of development for online slots since the concept was launched in the 1990s.
But what do the developers themselves feel is round the corner? Have slots reached saturation point? Is mobile a bubble waiting to burst? And will Facebook shape the next generation of slots players?
These are some of the questions executives at AZ Online Casinos posed to two innovators at the opposite ends of the online slot development spectrum: Max Niehusen, CEO of Booming Games, an Isle of Man-based B2B provider of proprietary content for the gaming industry; and John Quinn, head of Quickfire operations for Microgaming, a leading supplier of online gaming software that is also based on the Isle of Man. Below are some excerpts from this conversation:
We’ve seen huge growth in online slots over the past few years. What will shape the next big rise… mobile, social, virtual reality (VR)?
Niehusen: We believe all three are integral to the rise and progression of the slots industry, but for now mobile is certainly a priority. In terms of mobile, we believe that these players deserve an equal playing experience to those who prefer desktop or land-based terminals. Our engine and design teams always treat mobile versions of our games as individual entities, meaning we don’t simply adapt a completed desktop version by trying to squeeze it into a smaller screen.
The social aspect offers great potential, principally in relation to multi-level gaming, gifting of credits and posting of achievements. This will allow us to introduce a greater degree of interaction to a previously solitary pursuit. We’re seeing some good feedback from our integration into social platforms because we place equal emphasis on great graphics, fun animations and intuitive user interfaces (UIs) as we do with the excitement of the gambling factor.
As a company always eager to work with new technologies, we are interested in the VR dimension of slots and are presently in the process of researching it to take full advantage of this section of the market.
Quinn: There’s no doubt about it, the casino channel, and slots in particular, is on the rise. You only have to look at operators’ financial results to appreciate this acceleration. 32Red’s Casino net gaming revenues (NGR) were up 35 percent in 2015 compared to the year before; similarly William Hill’s Vegas product suite grew net revenue 20 percent in 2015. These are just two examples, but they both reflect a positive trend.
The driving force behind the growth of the casino channel has undoubtedly been mobile, and the ability for players to play games wherever and whenever they like. Mobile isn’t the next big thing—it is already here and it is already shaping the slots market. It’s the fastest growing platform and in time will overtake desktop play.
Dual release is now a must-have—it is an expectation. And that’s why this year all of our game releases will be cross-platform (released on the same day to desktop, mobile and tablet).
We’re certainly excited about the potential of virtual reality and the possibilities it brings with slot development. The technology has the ability to bring a more immersive gaming experience to players. And we’ve had a lot of fun creating game prototypes on the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR headset to showcase how the industry could embrace this new technology. Our vision was on display at ICE 2016, with VR Roulette taking center stage.
We are watching the likes of augmented and virtual reality very closely. With many VR headsets set to go on sale, this could be the year that virtual reality becomes a reality.
Will mobile overtake online and, if so, when?
Quinn: Absolutely. It wouldn’t surprise me if operators start to see the 50:50 split in the next year or so; we’re edging ever closer to it. If we look at 32Red, one of our exclusive customers, they reported in their 2015 financials that revenues derived from mobile customers increased by 71 percent on 2014, representing 44 percent of total 32Red Casino revenues. Other big-name operators have reported similar high figures in mobile revenue.
Niehusen: The mobile market is of great significance in attracting new players, as well as being an important part of development within the industry. We are, however, careful never to ignore the large section of seasoned habitual players, for whom playing is more than just something to do while waiting for the bus, for example.
With so many thousands of slots available online, how do your concept and design teams ensure freshness when they develop a new game?
Niehusen: We place strong emphasis on our R&D; researching what is presently popular, not only among our competitors but in the world of media and culture. With a diverse and competitive market, we look to bring originality to old themes and introduce previously overlooked concepts. We place strong emphasis upon the relationship of content and features ensuring that they fit relevantly, and thereby work to enhance our themes.
This is one area where our team’s highly diverse background comes into play. From information and entertainment technologies, to land-based gambling, international finance and even the creative arts, we utilize every individual’s input and feedback every step of the way from brainstorming to game testing.
Finally, we trust our partnering operators and aggregators to know their markets and guide us in the conception and development of new games, both mathematically and aesthetically. This is why making bespoke content for our partners is such a huge part of our business.
Quinn: Most importantly, it’s about having an imaginative group of experts who cultivate innovation and think differently.
Sometimes game themes can come very naturally—Halloween or a major sporting event, for instance. We also take inspiration from popular culture. Timing is incredibly important for these game releases.
Our experienced team does a lot of research, looking at the land-based casino industry as well as other industries (such as social gaming) to bring about new features and concepts in the online world. They’ll also read player forums to understand what features are most popular. This all helps with the development process for new games.
We have a long history of developing new features and ensuring our content is innovative… Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 online slots are great examples.
What are the biggest obstacles to improving the development of new games?
Quinn: Players are now incredibly savvy; their expectations are at an all-time high. With the explosion of mobile, now more than ever, they desire a comparable experience between all devices, from speed and ease of access, to security and intuitive design. Additionally, the gaming experience should be the same through registration, banking, balances and play.
Although overused in our industry at the moment, “cross-platform” and “omni-channel” are more important than ever before. All games now have to be available on mobile and desktop, but also deliver the same experience. This isn’t an easy task. Obstacles include differences in hardware and screen real estate. But we’ve managed to overcome these thanks to an early start in mobile development (since 2004).
Do new technologies like VR have a place in slots manufacturing? Is there a point where technological developments are outweighed by the desires of the casinos to attract customers?
Niehusen: We place a high level of importance on appealing to end-user players. This means that we do not solely prioritize what industry designers and technological innovators think is cool. We certainly work to keep ourselves abreast of new technologies and developments, but only if they assist us in making better games.
Quinn: We are yet to see the influence VR will have on our industry—it’s too early to say. 2016 was an important year, though, with headsets such as the Oculus Rift and SteamVR going on sale to the public. Mass adoption is what the industry is waiting for. We believe there is great opportunity with VR and other emerging technologies; research suggests the wearables market is increasing rapidly.
What’s important is that we, and our operators, continue to monitor player behaviour and market developments. If the market moves towards AR or VR for example, and players want to play via these technologies, then we have to cater for this. It’s the same as what happened with mobile; the market shifted and we had to adapt.
Do you foresee more consolidation of slots and casino manufacturers as has been happening over the past couple of years? What has been setting the trend?
Quinn: There has definitely been a trend for consolidation in the past few years. Not just between software companies but operators too, such as the Betfair and Paddy Power merger. And I’m sure it will continue. To me it’s a sign that the market is maturing.
What’s become evident in the world of slots manufacturing is that in order for the smaller development houses to thrive, they have to be specialists and bring something new to the table. That’s why we’ve seen the likes of Rabcat, who specialize in 3D gaming, and MGA, who focus on Spanish-style games, come to the fore—they fill a niche in the market.
We actually work with many of these companies through our Quickfire platform. We have over 20 development partners who each bring a different style of content to the platform, ensuring our Quickfire customers have access to the most versatile gaming portfolio.
Niehusen: Having started out as a small company angling for attention among such established competitors, we believe that the trend of consolidation will subside. We are proof that there is space for smaller, younger and more ambitious companies to challenge the lumbering giants.
How do you see social slots in the framework of overall online gambling? Is monetizing them essential and do ‘freemium’ games still have a place?
Quinn: Social slots have never really made the impact that many expected in online gambling. That’s not to say it never will… I think there is greater opportunity to utilize technology in such a way as to better immerse the player in the experience, and social could play a huge part in this.
There are many elements of social gaming that have translated well into online gaming, such as achievements-based play in slots, or chat in multi-player games. Whether the freemium model would work in online gaming, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely an interesting one to keep an eye on.
Niehusen: If freemium games are to maintain a viable place in the slots industry, they need to diversify to present features that encourage players to pay for features that are actually fun and impressive as opposed to cheap ploys. This would include things such as additional symbols, higher maximum bets, increased paylines, bonuses and level-ups, for example.
Overall, do you see online legislation as improving on the whole or are there any pitfalls ahead?
Quinn: It depends which market you’re talking about—no two are the same. There are undoubtedly challenges we have to face with regards to regulated markets, such as increased costs of software development and tight deadlines to ensure compliance. But with this comes opportunity, and new and emerging markets excite Microgaming.
Before entering a new market, you have to assess carefully whether the market is a competitive and sustainable one for both operators and providers. We consider a number of factors: licence, development and certification costs, level of restriction on licenses, tax rates and what products are on offer from the opening of the market. It’s important that the balance is right and that the barriers to entry are not too high… we’ve seen examples of this in the past.
To prevent problems, we work very closely with regulators in the early stages of legislation. We build relationships with the authorities where we can to help them understand the balance of critical factors they need to consider in order to make any regulations work.
Niehusen: Legislation is a principle part of protecting the reputation and legitimacy of slot providers and users, ensuring that good business practices are met. On the other hand, legislators need to ensure that regulations are careful to avoid stifling the industry. New laws emerging out of the U.S., specifically New Jersey, are exciting and will hopefully help to bring in greater freedom in gambling. Wherever there are great operators and players who love great games, we hope to be there.