At Scientific Games’ recent virtual GamesFest customer event, Stewart Darkin of CasinoBeats joined a discussion about the importance of innovation from companies that have shaped the gaming experience in recent times, alongside Big Time Gaming CEO Nik Robinson, LeoVegas head of casino James Ford, ReelPlay CCO Dave Johnson and Scientific Games’ content director Rob Procter

In the panel discussion we delve into the impact of bringing fresh concepts to the table, what inspires the next wave of product innovation and a sneak peek into what’s set to hit the marketplace in the near future. 

CasinoBeats: What does innovation mean to you, is it a slightly overused phrase in our industry?

RB: I think the term can be used very loosely in our industry. On the flip side there is a lot of innovation happening and it’s something that we should highlight whenever someone thinks outside the box to bring a new idea to the table.

In the last six months, a lot of the hard work we’ve invested is starting to bear fruit, such as Mega Drop Quest, the industry’s first syndicated jackpot system which went live earlier this year. We’ve also got Jackpot Wars coming out soon.

This new product should bring more millennials into slots as players enter a Robot Wars style event to battle against others for big wins. For us that’s true innovation, offering players a different take on the existing gaming experience. 

JF: From an operator perspective, we’re able to enjoy great innovations that suppliers are creating such as Megaways, Infinity Reels and Mega Drop Quest, but it’s also about how we provide that experience to the player. We look to try and tailor it for our demographic and engage differently compared to our competitors. At LeoVegas, we’ve heavily promoted our new multiplay feature on mobile, which allows users to play two games simultaneously. Ultimately, it’s about creating the greatest gaming experience for the player, wherever they are and anytime of the day. 

DJ: It’s a real challenge for a smaller studio as you want to go out there and bring a game changing concept to the market, but ultimately you’re measured by the performance of the games with operators. If players aren’t enjoying them, chances are you won’t be around for the next wave of innovation.

Innovation is the cornerstone of our industry”

We’ve taken a pragmatic approach at ReelPlay, where we plan to release six new games a year. Five of those will be solid performers that we know will resonate with players, but we’ll also look to add something to the mix that’s new and fresh, while also pushes the envelope that little bit further. Buster Hammer Carnival is an example of that, which showcases some great new art concepts.

NR: Innovation is the cornerstone of our industry. We won’t move forward if everyone did the same thing. With Megaways, we wanted to change the dynamics of slots. It’s something that I had wondered for years as to why a slot game had similar reel sets and how we could make a player feel fascinated from every single spin.

The key with Megaways is that every time you take a spin, you get a different game. That’s what’s propelled the mechanic and why we will see over 200 games feature Megaways before the end of the year. 

CB: At present, there are plenty of game providers that are sticking to tried and tested formulas. Should we demand more innovation to be created from a wider range of suppliers?

DJ: We’re seeing a lot of ‘tributing’ in the marketplace. Big Time Gaming licensed the Megaways feature and we’ve benefited greatly from it, and you can argue that’s an easy entrant to the market for those who don’t hold strong aspirations for their own innovation. There are other suppliers out there who are flagrantly using concepts that have the same look and feel as to what already exists, perhaps sold at a different commercial rate, which risks the integrity somewhat. In terms of true innovators, there are only a handful at present. 

JF: One of the biggest things in the marketplace right now is the pure volume of content that’s coming through. At LeoVegas, we work closely with over 70 studios and on average we are releasing about 20 new games a week, but we still get a number of suppliers knocking on our door to partner with us. We see the true innovations in Megaways and Infinity Reels, and we’re also seeing iterations of those.

The quality of the product is what determines whether players stick with a game”

We’re no different to the video game industry, whereby fanbases are following certain franchises and you’ll see iterations of FIFA and Call of Duty that include little tweaks and adjustments to the proven formula to take it to the next level. It’s the same with slots, with suppliers doing exactly that, but others who look to put their own look and feel onto a similar format and try and compete in the marketplace. 

The quality of the product is what determines whether players stick with a game. Whenever we launch a big game such as one featuring Megaways, players want to see it from launch day and experience the new elements. The real innovators that have changed the space are streamers, such as the Casino Grounds of this world, who have come in and shown the value and potential of videos showcasing the latest games. 

NR: The people who should value innovation are the providers. If they innovate above the line and create a new fascinating concept that gives the “penny dropped” moment when players understand the game, it’s the ultimate prize for them.

For instance with Bonanza, we introduced cascading reels and side reels with Megaways that was complicated at first, but the moment players understood how it worked it became their ‘go to’ game. In a way, we’re communicating with the players to say we’ve created something extraordinary and that’s why you should play our games. 

RP: From a platform perspective, we’re seeing a commoditised market and if I were a start-up looking to enter the industry right now, I’d definitely look to be braver and put something new out there. We’re only seeing that more recently with some of the smaller players who have taken the shackles off to see if they can produce something that would stick with players. They excite me more than the other new entrants who play it safe. 

CB: Where exactly does your inspiration come from for producing innovation?

NR: For me, it’s constantly thinking about the different possibilities and the direction in where we can take new products. If you look at Holy Diver, the initial success was good but it waned slightly. That was one of our early innovative titles, combining an arcade game with a slot machine, as well as incorporating Megaways and multi levels. There was a lot of work done with the math model and graphics to make it work.

Innovation is really important, even if your initial concept isn’t so strong”

We could easily have revisited the slot but we moved onto Monopoly Megaways, which proved to be one of the most successful game launches with Scientific Games. Innovation is really important, even if your initial concept isn’t so strong. Thomas Edison and his team tested thousands of light bulbs before finding the right fit, and my advice to smaller studios is to keep trying. 

DJ: We have an ideas hub where everyone in the business is allowed to feed in their own thoughts, and we’ll take some of those and work in a collaborative way. Infinity Reels was absolutely a nod to what Big Time Gaming achieved with Megaways and the expansion options available. What we wanted to do with Infinity Reels was to create a basic set up with the idea of attracting casual players with an easy to follow expansive mechanic. 

CB: What sort of innovation can we expect to see in the future?

RB: I touched on it before and Jackpot Wars is set to launch in the next few months. We’re proud of the new product which our team have worked very hard on. We also have a new game coming out called Demon Code, which is very innovative. It’s a reactor style game that has multiple features and great bonus rounds, and visually it’s fantastic. 

JF: As an operator, we’re very much like the players in that we’re excited to see what’s coming next. The big question that we always have as an operator is what the next big thing is that’s going to storm the market. Whenever we get a big reveal it’s like being a kid at Christmas!  

DJ: This year, we’re working on a new concept, in the way in which a slot is presented. It’s circular in motion and is very immersive in terms of sound and feel. We also have a Nordic style game coming out towards the end of the year which enhances the opportunity that’s available in the second reel set. The one that we’re really excited about though is a new game which marries Infinity Reels with Megaways. 

NR: It’s 17 years ago since I last developed something around the clusters mechanic. When we looked at what we wanted to do next with the format, we took a Megaways approach to it and designed our new mechanic MegaClusters. I’ve been playing it everyday since the initial version was created several months ago and never get bored of it.