Last year, with the launch of the game Devil’s Lock, Bluberi demonstrated to the industry at the Global Gaming Expo that it was and is a supplier capable of a major, high-earning hit game. The company even set up demonstrations, complete with storyboards, showing how its game designers go about creating high-earning titles.
This year, Bluberi aims to prove that hit game was no fluke.
Bluberi started as a Class II supplier in Drummondville, Quebec in 1994, but has established new ground in the U.S. since slot veteran
Andrew Burke took over as CEO early in 2020. Burke brought his own experience heading slots at supplier AGS and combined it with a great R&D staff in Canada and a still-growing team of veteran game designers and slot executives in Las Vegas.
The result was that the company arrives at this year’s G2E toting its first two Eilers & Krejcik Gaming Slot Awards—Top Performing Game from an Emerging Supplier for Devil’s Lock and Most Improved Supplier.
The identity tied to the latter award is an ongoing process. Bluberi continues to work on its game design process, employing test banks and extensive player research to pinpoint what players are looking for in a slot game.
That’s why this particular G2E is meaningful for Burke, and Bluberi in general. “I think this G2E for us is a really important one,” says Burke. “We may say this every year, but it’s definitely the Super Bowl for us.
“And for smaller suppliers, it’s always more meaningful. The other suppliers mostly are known in all the jurisdictions, and we’re not. And so one of the things we want to talk about this year is, what do we believe in that maybe others in this space do not? That’s our messaging around G2E—not only do we believe that our little company can become a big company and compete against everybody else, but we have real examples of things that we think differently on.
“We believe that quality should be the focus rather than quantity. We believe in evolving tracks and not clones. We don’t clone games here, but we create tracks, like Devil’s Lock-type products, and create derivatives on that.”
Unlocking the Shark
The most prominent of those to be launched at G2E is an evolution of Devil’s Lock—Shark’s Lock. Mike Brennan, Bluberi’s chief product officer, calls it a “de-clone structure” of Devil’s Lock. “We don’t clone, we break down our games,” Brennan says. “We break down our games and we rebuild them, in a somewhat similar manner.”
He says the effort to “sequelize” and evolve Devil’s Lock was led by Carl Nadeau of the studio, and Brett Vela and Christian Smith, in Product Management. “This started with Brett and Christian, and the team that made the game did an amazing job,” Brennan says. “They started by asking, what made Devil’s Lock great?”
The answers to that question focused on diving into the data and interviewing players on casino floors. This resulted in a strong analysis of the elements of success.
When the devil in Devil’s Lock lands in the middle position, he awards all cash-on-reels coin symbols on the screen, as well as any symbols corresponding to one of the four jackpots. He can also “Rewind” other losing reel spots into jackpot prizes.
In Shark’s Lock, the key elements of Devil’s Lock are represented, starting with the shark character. “The team changed the initial shark from blue to red for more contrast, and based on what we learned,” Brennan says. Shark’s Lock also represents the random rewind feature as an eel that appears on royals or other lower-paying symbols, a symbol-in-symbol. When the shark and the eel appear together, it triggers the Rewind feature. All the reels “rewind” and lower symbols are replaced with cash-on-reels and progressive symbols.
In Devil’s Lock, the pots were pig characters that grew fatter in anticipation of the bonus. In this game, the shark sends coins to two “Scuba Pigs” that were initially puffer fish.
“We loved the puffer fish but reverted to the pigs for more focus and brand recognition; we’ve put them in little scuba masks,” comments Brennan. “We think the cuteness factor will be a big part of this. Andrew jokingly created another new internal tagline—‘cute gets the loot.’ And don’t underestimate the simplicity and power of seeing a piggy bank with a dollar sign on it—the player knows exactly what will happen.”
As occurred with the devil in Devil’s Lock, during the free spins, the shark character remains locked in the center reel, leading to a series of potentially lucrative spins.
Brennan says the shark character adds the same element of anticipation as the devil in Devil’s Lock, appearing randomly to turn losing spins into winning spins. “It means you’re never out of it,” he says. “He’s the quintessential helping-hand character.”
Another G2E highlight is a game on the same “track” as another hit Bluberi game, Treasure Hunter, which Brennan says “cracked open the whole performance renaissance we had about a year and a half ago.”
Rocket Rumble, released in August, has achieved No. 2 status on the Eilers-Fantini Game Performance list. At its heart is a feature in a progressive free-game bonus, which Brennan calls the “snowballing effect.”
Bluberi has made it easy to reach that feature in the free games by providing four different ways to trigger the free-game round. There is a collect feature that accumulates symbols toward the free games—a mystery “must-hit-by” trigger—as well as free-game trigger symbols on the reels and a bonus wheel in which one of the slices is the free-game feature.
The player can earn various free games through these triggers. Once the free games begin, the player is looking for golden rockets on the major symbols. This changes those symbols into the top rocket symbol. Wild symbols can randomly display a 2X or 3X multiplier, and all symbols from up to two reels may randomly re-spin for higher wins.
“As the free spins persist, the reel strips are full of more and more rockets, and the rockets are leading to multiple wins,” says Brennan. “That’s the snowball effect.”
One game to be launched at G2E that is the result of extensive player research is Yokozuna Panda. The central characters of this game are two sumo wrestler pandas. The player picks one to win, and at the end of the fight, a bonus wheel appears. If the player picked the winner, the credit awards on the wheel are higher—but even if the loser is picked, the wheel bonus is still awarded.
The game is designed for the Washington VLT market. According to Smith, it is the result of research into the characteristics of the most popular games in that market. To appeal to broader markets, a specific Class III version is also being developed.
“We sent our R&D team up to Washington, and partnered with a couple of casinos there to really investigate some of the market-leading hits up there,” Smith says. “It’s a very unique market—very penny-oriented, very jackpot-oriented. And we studied the games that we found were the best at delivering those hand pays—the Washington players measure their worth by the amount of hand pays they get.
“We evaluated the attributes of those games that worked, and we started working on Yokozuna Panda using the games that we found as inspiration. We spent about nine months building this game. It’s a great R&D effort by one of our great studios in Drummondville.”
Smith says the researchers took the unfinished version of the game back to Washington, and recruited 24 local players for six focus-group sessions to get direct feedback. “We definitely distilled out what the players really loved about what we created, and what maybe didn’t resonate with them right away. We were able to refine the game because we tested it so early in the development process.”
“Yokozuna Panda is a different type of game,” says Brennan.
“What we did with Yokozuna Panda is we actually added on an element of competition. Yokozuna is a sumo term. So, we get to actually have a sumo fight in this competition—it is a smaller game mechanic in the field that really creates player interaction. And it was added after the focus group that Christian talked about. But this is an element that we think is going to shine in all markets. Which of these characters do you think is going to win?”
There’s even a roulette-style log of who has won the recent sumo battles. “Who do you want to bet on? Zuna’s been on a hot streak—he’s won six out of the last seven,” Brennan says. “It’s such a fun, cool mashup of a panda and a sumo wrestler. If you pick the right one, you actually get a better wheel. If not, you still get a wheel bonus, so the sting of losing isn’t massive.”
“We want players to end bonus elements on a positive note no matter what, because that’s what they’re going to take away when they leave the game,” comments Vela. “This game is really about the free spins and multipliers, but this little extra element adds excitement to the game play.”
Growing the Footprint
In addition to gathering talent, Burke has overseen the launch of new game development studios. Two studios in Drummondville are growing, and a new studio was established in Reno. This year, a fourth studio was established in Moncton, New Brunswick.
At G2E, the other main game launch will be the first game from the Reno studio, Fu Frenzy. At the center of this game is a “Frenzy Mode,” in which multiple winning opportunities result from elements cascading down a “waterfall.” The game also features a free-spin mode in which the player selects the volatility of the feature.
In addition to the new games, Bluberi will continue to feature its storyboard presentations at its G2E booth, in an effort to demonstrate its identity and capabilities to the industry.
“When we did that last year, I think people were stunned,” says Brennan. “It was, ‘Why hasn’t anybody else thought of this before?’ We heard that a lot. It is using a demo to tell operators more of your story. It creates a memory point, too. You walk into a booth, you ordinarily get a repetitive tour—here’s this game, here’s the bonus… When you come to our booth, it’s, ‘Let’s talk about the risk of this game. Let’s talk about where this game came from. Let’s talk about the features and why they’re in there.’
“We also had an ‘R&D Corner’ last year, where we actually made a game and printed a slick. This year, we’re going to use that area to explain slot math. And we’ve got a couple of other surprises. G2E shouldn’t just be bonus, rinse, repeat. It should be an event where if a customer is going to take 45 minutes or an hour out of their day to see us, we want to give them something memorable.”
Bluberi’s G2E efforts occur as the company continues to increase its footprint with new U.S. jurisdictions. Burke says the Nevada license application should be filed by G2E. “We’re moving right along with all the major jurisdictions,” he says. “We should be everywhere by the top of 2026.”
Brennan adds that every new jurisdiction offers a fresh start to educate operators on the company’s strengths. “For example, we’ve been in Minnesota about nine months, and everything’s fresh. Everything’s new. We’re off to a fantastic start there. We don’t have any legacy footprint to worry about; it’s just like freshly mowed grass you can roll around and have fun in. We can’t wait to open up more and more jurisdictions.”
Meanwhile, the company continues its efforts to demonstrate it is capable of competing with the top suppliers in the industry.
“Our goal for this G2E is that we have a product on the most-anticipated list coming out the show,” Burke says. “Everybody has thought of us as sort of a surprise up-and-comer, but I think if we could come out of the show with people saying Bluberi is the next company to watch, that would be a success for us.
“People are starting to chase us, and we’re already thinking down the road. We’ve moved from cute and up-and-coming to a real competitor, and we want to build on that.”