CasinoBeats sits down with Nik Robinson, CEO of Big Time Gaming, to discuss Monopoly Megaways, innovation and 8-bit soundtracks
Fifteen stories up, within a glazed perch high in Malta’s Intercontinental Hotel, Scottish boxer Hannah Rankin takes breakfast, nursing a swollen left eye and perhaps reflecting on her world-title fight defeat the night before to Sweden’s Patricia Berghult.
The Swede is seated at table nearby and the two exchange pleasantries. The mood among diners in the exclusive Club Lounge is cordial and relaxed, abetted by a panorama of clear autumnal skies, rooftop infinity pools and, beyond, the cobalt-blue Mediterranean, foam-tipped waves shimmering silently in the late-November sunshine.
It’s an environment within which one might expect to find professional sports women such as these. Somewhere to spot famous actors, rock stars even.
At a table along from the boxers’, sits one of online casino’s undeniable superstars. It is a mantle that doesn’t always rest easy but one Nik Robinson – CEO of Big Time Gaming and, whisper it, Mr Megaways – is having fun with.
Sitting down to breakfast with CasinoBeats, Robinson sheds some light on his activities in Malta during SiGMA week, not least an extremely warm reception from the island’s operators, which on occasion has been accompanied by a fanfare befitting a rock star.
“I got a round of applause in the offices of one operator,” he explains, with an expression placed somewhere between pride and bewilderment. In truth, the driving force behind Big Time’s many successes is humbled by the response he receives. Far from reclusive, Robinson is nonetheless a man focused on delivering the goods. Head down, grafting.
“Monopoly Megaways will go on to be the biggest slot launch in the 16-year history of SkyVegas“
Based in Sydney, his forays to the northern hemisphere are comparatively few and, when they come, are packed with activity. SiGMA week is no exception.
It is a few days before another Big Time milestone, the launch of Monopoly Megaways – a title that will go on to be the biggest slot launch in the 16-year history of SkyVegas, by a magnitude of three – and Robinson is in Malta catching up with his vast network of partners and prospects.
Following an evening of streaming slots play with Kim Hultman – aka LetsGiveItASpin – and off the back of just four hours’ sleep, he welcomes CasinoBeats to the InterContinental for breakfast and to chat about the new Monopoly title.
He kicks off with characteristic enthusiasm. “You’ve got to look back at the history of Monopoly slot machines – there have been around 50 Monopoly slots since it was first licensed to IGT, before Scientific Games jumped in and made many more iterations of the game.
“Going back to around 2001, 2002 maybe, I was in the Hilton Niagara Casino and I saw my first ever Monopoly video slot – I think it was just a standard five-by-three on a terminal but there was an actual queue of people to get on this brand new game… Since that moment, my brain started working on what would make a good Monopoly game.
“So when SG had Monopoly – and as our relationship blossomed – we eventually worked on an integration of the board game with the slot machine. In the base game, you spin and two-of-kind to six-of-a-kind are the ‘dice’ and, if you get those wins, you move Mr Monopoly around the board.”
Robinson’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious and he gathers pace as he gets into the detail of the game play. And this detail, this fine print, is the end product of that process that began back in Niagara nearly two decades before.
“As you move him around the board you get to put houses down depending on how many reactions you get. When you get to the bonus you collect the rent. You collect the houses and that increases your multiplier.” The result is what Robinson calls Big Time’s ‘most important Megaways game yet’.
“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Megaways was important last year as it coincided with the reinvention of the brand on UK TV with [new presenter] Jeremy Clarkson. It reinvigorated the show and – as luck would have it – at that moment we brought out the new slot.”
“Monopoly is the last bastion of bringing players kicking and screaming to Megaways. It’s the ‘penny-drop factor’”
Acknowledging that a brand such as Millionaire is a gateway for introducing players to the Megaways mechanic, Robinson nonetheless considers Monopoly to be something of a definitive moment for Big Time.
“Monopoly is the last bastion of bringing players kicking and screaming to Megaways,” he says. “It’s the ‘penny-drop factor’, when someone feels they finally understand how a game works.
“With [Big Time mega-hit] Bonanza, people might not get it but they still have a bit of fun. Perhaps they’ve gone into Bonanza, had some fun and pulled away. And maybe then the same with Millionaire but now they’re drawn into Monopoly in an entirely new way. They see Mr Monopoly moving along and the penny drops. They get it and that’s really all they need to know.”
Without stopping to collect his £200 for passing GO, Robinson is off again, drawn into the excitement of the title that clearly took over his life for a period. “So, players move round the board and, as they do, they get wins, get multipliers and lay down houses, picking up chance cards and so on.
“They pick up the stations, for example, and each station in the base game gives them another free spin and if you get all four stations, when you land in the feature, you get four free spins. Water Works boosts the multiplier by two or three.”
This is the key to Monopoly Megaways. As Apple said in the initial marketing campaigns for the iPad, “you already know how to use it”. And this is true of Monopoly. The world knows the game – it doesn’t need to be explained.
“It’s inherent in what we all know about Monopoly already – and that will drive the other 30 to 40 per cent of players who didn’t get Megaways into Megaways, via Monopoly,” explains Robinson.
“We wanted to target adults that remembered That dusty old box that comes out once a year”
“And we’re launching it as Christmas for a reason. Monopoly is Christmas, its Boxing Day. Hasbro said they wanted us to use the modern board but we went for the classic 70s/80s layout – we wanted to target adults that remembered the brand and that dusty old box that comes out once a year.”
The Big Time output, through Danger High Voltage, Final Countdown, Opal Fruits and many more – down to the soda bottle-top roundel that is the company logo – is rich with nostalgia and cultural cues. This comes from deep within Robinson’s mind and memory, from afternoons in the arcade playing Defender and Robotron, to late nights in his office studio working samples into the fabric of the games.
“Audio, for me, is hugely important,” he explains, in almost hushed tones. “Our big-win music sounds terrible but it took a long time to make it sound that bad! I started with a version of Ode to Joy and then took it to my team they said ‘No’. A few days later – once it was 8-bit and jingly, like something from a 1980s’ Casio keyboard – we had it right.”
These motifs, both audio and visual, are the hallmarks of a Big Time Gaming product. “It is essential for our business that you can tell these are Big Time products,” says Robinson. “Someone will say ‘It looks like they did it on a Commodore 64’ – and that’s the whole point! To take Millionaire and Monopoly and make them into a Big Time product, it’s a really hidden art. It’s something people don’t really get.
“There was a post on CasinoMeister the other day ‘Why don’t you update your look and feel, your games all look the same!’. Our response to that is that it really misses the point. It’s a brand thing.”
This is the fine balance at the heart of the Big Time proposition. A company that backs itself in creative terms, trusting Robinson’s instincts and mining the cultural touchstones with which players identify, while at the same time producing cutting-edge game experiences.
It might seem to some that Big Time is among just a handful of companies that are genuinely taking the sector forwards in term of product innovation. “We’re leading by default because we set about anything we do to innovate,” says Robinson.
“[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos said ‘You’re only as good as what you were doing two-to-three years ago’. What were we doing three years ago? We were launching Bonanza.
“Once we launched Bonanza we didn’t sit back, we pushed it further. What we have now – Megaways – is an evolution of slot machines. Three-reel, then five-reel, now Megaways. It could be the slot machine for the next 50 years.”
It’s nearly time to go. Robinson has another appointment and breakfast is over. The Club Lounge is emptying, just the staff remain. Even the boxers have been counted out.
Robinson is preparing a parting shot, before the metaphorical bell rings. “I was showing an early iteration of Monopoly to the streamers we know – playing it on my phone, huddled round a restaurant table in Amsterdam – and they had nothing to add.
“That’s when you know you’re onto something.”
Nik Robinson was talking to CasinoBeats Managing Director Stewart Darkin