Bryan Upton, director, games at NetEnt, took time out from unveiling not one but two new blockbuster slots at ICE to talk to CasinoBeats about the giant’s game culture
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So when you hear ‘quality’, what does that mean in terms of video slots?” Bryan Upton is at ease thinking out loud in a small meeting room upstairs on the NetEnt stand at ICE London.
Wearing jeans, an Ozzy tee and a pair of Converse, Upton is fresh from revealing the developer’s latest two licensed game launches – Conan and Ozzy Osbourne – to a crowd of more than 200 at the NetEnt stand.
Upton’s CV includes stints at IGT, GTECH, OpenBet and Inspired, moving from online to land-based and back again, to NetEnt. CasinoBeats has suggested that the high standards for quality that NetEnt is renowned for could be under threat as the company increases its games output.
“I’ve been in land-based for the last three years but when I came back into online, the thing that I noticed is that the games themselves haven’t changed that much but the players have. That’s the thing that caught me off-guard because in land-based things move much more slowly so the through-put of content isn’t there,” says Upton.
“But, in online, players have reached a level of maturity so quickly. Some customers don’t want super high-gloss games and some do. ‘Quality’ can be defined by the person you’re giving something to. There are games that are doing fantastically well that don’t look that pretty. Then there are some that look absolutely magnificent but they aren’t doing great.
“For us, it means being smarter about what were doing – the kind of games were making and for whom.”
“We’ve had 45 billion transactions come through, every one has data we use and learn from“
NetEnt surveys the floor at ICE – and by extension the online casino sector – from a unique position. Upton is quick to play down suggestions regarding the company’s special status but in terms of maturity – NetEnt is in its 24th year of operation – as well as the sheer volume of games, integrations and transactions, the company has few if any peers.
Upton concurs that this vast depth of experience is of huge value in reading the market and targeting game quality as determined through the player lens. “We have had something like 45 billion transactions come through and every one has data that we use and learn from,” he says. “It is fair to say that we have more data than any single operator because we have such a huge distribution network.
“The sheer amount of data available for the games creators in the company is a big deal. We can make reasonably informed decisions,” he explains.
“The intent is that we use it and understand the ‘why’. There’s different ways to build games, different approaches. The only way to get that done is by being smart and thinking things through.”
Having that huge resource in-house is of course invaluable but there are other benchmarks against which companies are measured. And there are innovators in the sector that are making waves without two decades of data going into every game. CasinoBeats cites Big Time Gaming‘s Megaways mechanic as a recent innovation that has raised the bar.
“We are a bit of a different animal… We’ve muscles we’ve yet to flex“
“Its not the first time that something like Megaways has happened,” says Upton. “They do a fantastic job – hats off to them. They keep the rest of us on our toes and I love that we have those guys in the industry.
“But, for us, those things are just part of what we do. We’ve got games that use similar devices. If we discover something amazing then, sure, we’ll respond. But we are a bit of a different animal to BTG. We have some muscles we’ve yet to flex.”
The connection that Megaways plays on – of developers communicating their strengths directly to players – is nothing new. In fact, NetEnt’s enviable online and social footprint has arguably been the template for that type of engagement. “I don’t think we’re alone in that now,” says Upton. “A few years ago, that might’ve been the case.
“Our players are all talking to each other, on forums, etc, and its great to hear these players talking about the things we’re doing. It offers a bit of a benchmark. I don’t think there are many that don’t know who NetEnt is.”
And that brand awareness brings a degree of expectation? “Yes it is a powerful brand. But we also need to look after some of our core brands, to nurture them. Dead or Alive is an iconic slot, we will be doing a sequel. Taking care with our brands is important to us.”
The rough doubling of the number of games NetEnt is to put out annually appears to be paying early dividends, with Q4 2018 revenues up nearly 10 per cent.
Quantity versus quality – where the conversation with Upton began – is a recurrent theme, and so it returns. Accepting what he says about the perception and definition of quality, caring for those brands surely gets harder the more games NetEnt is producing? “We have increased our throughput, it’s true. Announcing Narcos and Vikings last year, and here there’s Conan, Ozzy and Scudamore’s Super Stakes.
“We’re quite open to licensed brands and we are being contacted all the time. Sometimes we say no for whatever reason and then other times it can be the brand owners that make it worthwhile. The Conan guys are fantastic to work with, for example,” he says.
“Working with brands is quite a talent in its own right. Picking them carefully is really important but also working with them is the second part of it, can you do it well? Jumanji is a great example. We took the game the film was about and really built it into the slot and that is why it has been such a great performer.
“Games like that – that have an inherent games mechanic – we love.”