In part one of a two-part series, Nachi Kurizki, business development director at Skywind Group, who boasts over six years experience dealing with branded igaming content, ponders if they are a game changer. 

Branded video slot games, having originally been connected to the land-based gaming sector, are one of the most important trends to enter the world of online slots. This emerging phenomenon has played a crucial role in establishing long-lasting reputation and success for top game manufactures, like NetEnt, Playtech and Microgaming.

It has also added a fair amount of credibility to the industry, as a whole. Branded slot titles provide casinos with a fantastic acquisition tool which can be used to attract more casual gamblers, and even players who have previously had little interest in gambling at all, offering them the opportunity to interact with a format that they already have an in-depth knowledge or emotional resonance with.

What are branded video slot games?

As the name itself would suggest, branded video slots are licensed casino games built around a universally popular theme that is instantly recognisable to players. These can be based on blockbuster movies, cult TV shows, well-known music artists, classic video games, pop culture icons, comic book characters, sports celebrities and even board games.

How are they different from regular slots?

While generic online slots are the sole creation of a software developer, branded video slots are developed under a license from the owner of the brand. The licensed games usually make use of high-quality graphics, images, video clips and audio for a truly immersive game experience. Players get the opportunity to actively engage with their favourite themes and enjoy an emotional experience that is just as compelling as the actual gameplay.

There is a lot of attention to the plot so that the game will continue the original story line and remain on-brand. For example, playing the role of a detective in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a new video slot from Skywind Group. This interactive mystery-solving crime-scene game has the player looking for evidence in the bonus round, trying to solve the case.

Developers also seem to be more willing to break with tradition when making branded games. Microgaming’s Jurassic Park was the first game to use Parallax Scrolling effects, and this innovative piece of technology made the entire game come to life thanks to its detailed graphics.

Another good example that demonstrates innovation is Skywind Group’s Rambo slot, the industry’s first game featuring a dual screen layout, with a full story line played as a third person shooting game on the top screen interacting with the reels in the bottom screen. It is also the first branded game designed primarily for mobile portrait mode.

Why are branded slots so popular? What are the benefits?

The propensity to latch onto something familiar, that a person can relate to, is a trait rooted deep in human nature. Slot developers will often try to craft their own stories, but on a psychological level, players usually get more excited by a well-known name, characters we all know and love, and a familiar story behind the game.

The benefits that name and image recognition bring in is that people will subconsciously be drawn to a slot simply because they enjoy the TV show, film, cartoon, comic book or video game, on which it is based.

With the prevalence of so much new content available to operators, having this competitive edge has become more important than ever. In 2019, 3-4 new video slots, on average, are released every single day, so the players are overwhelmed with choices. Established brands obviously have the advantage of standing out when it comes to cutting through the noise, and statistically speaking it has been proven that players will first give a try to a branded game over a non-branded one.

“The propensity to latch onto something familiar, that a person can relate to, is a trait rooted deep in human nature”

Moreover, experience further shows that the familiarity of some brands in certain markets, not only draws new players in cheaply, but also helps retaining them more effectively. This is achieved due to brand loyalty, a social phenomenon which casinos may leverage to build a stronger ongoing connection with existing players. These games provide additional confidence and trust by associating the casino with well-respected entertainment companies and media groups, making the players feel conformable with what they are playing.

Are there any risks associated with brand licensing?

Despite their undoubted appeal, licensing branded games does come with a set of pitfalls that should not be overlooked. For starters, brands are a matter of personal taste and preference; therefore, potential players who really disliked the movie or TV series to which a branded slot is connected, will not even open the game to try it out. This inherent risk can certainly alienate a large audience regardless of the game quality.

From a commercial perspective, licensed products require an above average investment in both time and resources. There are considerable upfront costs when securing the rights to build a branded game, as the developer must pay a license fee to the rights holders. This spend comes on top of the other costs of development, certification, sales, marketing and promotional efforts. Therefore, justifying the expense puts a lot of pressure on developers who fear the risk of a flop when the game finally hits the market.

What are the challenges involved in developing a branded slot?

There is quite a bit of wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes before a branded slot can go into production. It all comes down to licensing – the game developer is required to obtain permission from the owners of the brand in order to use the brand name, visuals, audio etc; therefore, a license agreement must be negotiated until both sides are happy to sign.

“Despite their undoubted appeal, licensing branded games does come with a set of pitfalls that should not be overlooked”

On the creative side, the developer relies on an asset pack provided by the brand owner, to start working on the game. These assets ideally consist of high-resolution static images, separate sound/voice tracks, HD video clips, logos, fonts and so on. But if a proper style guide is not available, or certain other critical elements are missing, then this can easily affect the quality of the produced game and make its creation a much harder job to complete.

Additionally, the development of a branded game, as opposed to an ordinary game production, requires the approval of the brand owner at every stage – the game script, concept art, graphics and animations, up until a working playable game is ready – all need to be signed off prior to the release and fully comply with the license holder’s sometimes strict guidelines. This approval process is a constant back-and-forth, that can often be lengthy and cumbersome. With less responsive partners, it is a factor capable of compromising timelines and resource allocation at the developer’s end.

A brand license may also contain many restrictions and limitations around the permitted usage, which in some cases pose a real creative challenge. Talent rights are often not covered in film and TV licensing deals, for all or some of the cast, as many actors refuse to assign their individual likeness rights to the production company.

The game developer will then have to handle those clearances separate from the license agreement and reach out to negotiate with each missing actor. This is a time-consuming and costly endeavour that at times is just impossible to accomplish where global stars are concerned (especially since this is for the gambling space). The talent rights obstacle is why a game like Top Gun lacks lead actor Tom Cruise and how come the Gladiator slot was done without Russel Crow.

“Territory restrictions imposed by the brand owner are another challenge to deal with, especially if important markets for igaming are left out”

The use of original music from the licensed title is even more complex, as in most deals it will likely be completely excluded from the main license granted by the brand owner. Music licensing requires the clearance of the master rights with the record label and the synch rights with the publisher.

It may also involve further reuse fees paid separately to labour unions (e.g. SAG-AFTRA if there are vocals on the track and the AFM if only instrumentals are being used). The decision whether to invest the extra time and money to clear the original music very much depends on the brand – for instance not being able to use the iconic theme tune of the Superman movies for a Superman themed slot would really diminish the game, but for most brands substituting the original with new music created in-house may have less impact.

Lastly, territory restrictions imposed by the brand owner are another challenge to deal with, especially if important markets for igaming are left out, as that can seriously cripple the distribution of the game and lessen the commercial value generated from the license. Same goes to stringent marketing restrictions that could be significant in terms of the ability of operators to promote the game through any advertising channels they see fit.