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Ian Sims, the founder and MD of Rightlander and the designer of Afterlife: Inferno, talks to CasinoBeats about the good, the bad and the ugly of the online slots sector.

Could the online casino sector do more to attract players to new slots?

IS: “The issue the sector has right now is the sheer number of slots coming out and the fact that a player simply doesn’t have the time – or inclination – to investigate them all.

“There is an argument that the developers have not helped themselves here by releasing clones of old games or games that feel like they have been put together in a hurry or to cash in on another game, player apathy levels have risen.

“But the issue is just as much about having an over-crowded market place. The obvious solution would be to reduce the number of games on offer but that can only really come from the casinos who would risk losing out on players looking for a specific game so is unlikely to provide a solution.

“Player reviews are one way that a player may decide what to play but speaking as a player, you need to be sure these are genuine player reviews based on a large sample and that isn’t always clear.

“Another issue of course is ‘variance’. A lot of players do not necessarily understand the concept, but it is central to their enjoyment of a game. High variance fans are not going to be playing Starburst while low-variance fans are unlikely to stick with games like Bonanza or Afterlife: Inferno. The casino could do more to educate players in this area and help them to understand the game-play style they are most likely to enjoy.”

Aren’t new or varied mechanics complicated for players when coming to a new title – familiar is good, right?

“Like most things in life, it’s mainly about balance. In order to innovate you have to try something new but people can be wary of the unknown. The real innovators will push the boat out and take risks on something totally new, accepting that it may not work as a concept but hopeful that it will become the next big thing. Big Time Gaming and the Megaways slots are an example of taking that risk and seeing it pay off.

“We saw it first when Microgaming and IGT introduced the online world to their ‘ways to win’ concepts and a lot of games since have experimented with more than the standard five reels/times paylines combinations, often very successfully.

“…simplicity can be key to success. Look at IGT’s Cleopatra, still very popular after all these years.”

It is true that games can also appear over-complex. One that springs to mind here is Aliens by NetEnt, which caused a bit of a stir when it came out and looked for a moment that it might be on to something but ultimately kind of fell by the wayside through it’s sometimes confusing personality.

“I don’t think complexity should be confused with ‘immersive’ though: there is an audience for games where lots happens. Slots like Britney Spears and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory in land-based casinos draw the crowds and not just because of their theme: they are very immersive without being confusing.

“Conversely it is also true that simplicity can be key to success. Look at games like IGT’s Cleopatra, still very popular after all these years through its use of popular theme and simple free-spins feature. Helped of course by the familiarity of launching to a land-based audience before online slots were really a big thing.”

“There are two challenges when developing a slot: getting the player to try IT and convincing them to keep coming back.”

Are better or new mechanics more important than, say, blockbuster IP?

“Ultimately, there are two challenges when developing a slot: getting the player to give it a try and convincing them to keep coming back. In my opinion, there are few better ways that using a blockbuster IP to achieve the first of these, but it often comes with a ball and chain around its neck: the IP owner doesn’t want to be associated with a rubbish game!

“Consequently, many third-party IP-themed games play safe and aim at the lower variance ‘entertainment’ player. As a high-variance slot fan myself, I am only ever drawn to an IP game if I have read good things from similarly minded players!

“That said, the investment in the IP normally means the developer is prepared to try some new mechanics on a ‘safer’ audience, so these games can often have more interesting features, even if they do often tend to base themselves on jackpots and pick’em style bonus rounds.”

Where’s the next Rainbow Riches or Starburst coming from, or is that missing the point?

“Well firstly, it’s worth pointing out that Starburst itself wasn’t exactly innovative. It’s a watered-down version of Novomatic‘s Power Stars using colour, sound and animation designed for lower-variance entertainment players. What NetEnt cleverly did to get it noticed was to make it easy to offer free spins to players, which casinos loved and took full advantage of.

Barcrest‘s Rainbow Riches had the added advantage of a long history in land-based casinos of course. Additionally, both Rainbow Riches and Starburst also arrived at a time when there was a lot less competition. But that’s not to say that new games can’t come along and grab the imagination and do well, as alluded to above.

“I am generally a firm believer that everything is cyclical and through periods of innovation, every now and again a twist on an old idea will capture the imagination of players and make a land grab.

“I think it’s inevitable, with so many games being developed now, that a successful slot will have a shorter life-span at the top.”

“I think it’s inevitable, with so many games being developed now, that a successful slot will have a shorter life-span at the top than before. It’s also inevitable that successful games get copied and reduce the original’s impact. Take Book of Dead – a very popular game that many players would opine has basically just copied Novomatic’s Book Of Ra, tweaked the game-play a little and now is often found sitting above the original. In my opinion, it’s as far removed from innovation as you can get but it has worked, and on that basis, you could argue that the ‘next Starburst’ will be called something like ‘Starbang’…

“On a personal note, I hope nothing ever comes along like Rainbow Riches or Starburst.”