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By Land or Cyberspace

Whether creating games for land-based casinos or the online gaming space, the game design process is similar—to a point

By Land or Cyberspace

The Penn State-Michigan game on October 15 attracted a full house at the stadium in Ann Arbor. Others watched from home or from sports bars. Still others took in the game on their phones, a tantalizing alternative to chilly weather.

And that’s the point. You have options to experience the same game, says Joe Kaminkow, chief innovation officer for Aristocrat Gaming.

The same approach applies to slot games, land-based or online. Though online gaming goes back almost 10 years, it gained strength during the Covid pandemic when online betting was the only game in town. Growth continued even as casinos reopened. The advance in both iGaming and brick-and-mortar gaming speaks to the enhanced roles of each moving forward.

A dozen years ago, Australia-based Aristocrat unveiled a buffalo-themed game in a retail setting. It proved a huge success. The once-powerful beast of the Plains states will soon bring its stampeding act to the U.S. online casino market, according to an announcement October 10 at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

Buffalo slots have grown to 35 variations. Once the online version hits the marketplace, you can play among the buffalo on your tablet or phone and on a bigger screen in a casino.

The majority of International Game Technology’s PlayDigital themes originated from land-based games and then were adapted for the online casino environment, says Gil Rotem, IGT president, iGaming, citing Wheel of Fortune, Cleopatra and Scarab.

“There have been a few exceptions over the years where successful iGaming games were later adapted for casino play, but that is not the standard,” Rotem says.

But even that is changing. IGT’s recent acquisition of iSoftBet doubled PlayDigital’s portfolio with many of the additions designed specifically for iGaming, Rotem says.

In 2016, IGT introduced the world’s first omnichannel wide-area progressive, Powerbucks, in Canada. Since then, the popular game has paid out more than $3.4 billion, Rotem says. “The game has always been popular in Canada, but during the pandemic, when brick-and-mortar casinos were closed for an extended period of time, Powerbucks gained even more popularity and was able to still reward lucky online players with life-changing jackpots.”

The Powerbucks link is supported by a large library of base game themes including Wheel of Fortune slots.

“Inspired by the success of Powerbucks, we will soon launch the first omnichannel Wheel of Fortune linked progressive in the U.S.—IGT’s Wheel of Fortune Triple Gold Gold Spin game,” Rotem says.

The product will link all land-based Wheel of Fortune $1 wide-area progressive games with online and mobile Wheel of Fortune games across New Jersey. “This type of omnichannel content gives players the option to win those legendary Wheel of Fortune jackpots, anytime, anywhere,” Rotem says.

The popularity of online gaming has accelerated, Rotem says. “I think the expansion of sports betting, coupled with individual states’ need to generate revenue, has also increased the dialogue on expanding iGaming in the U.S. I would expect this trend to continue for the next several years. The long-term success of online gaming will ultimately come down to three simple things: accessibility, user experience and quality content.

“There is plenty of room for both,” Rotem says. “There will always be players who prefer one channel over the other, but that is OK.”

Just as a person visits a movie theater to catch a film has a different expectation than if he or she was watching a movie at home via Netflix, players expect different experiences from the two gaming channels.

“An online player may spin for a few minutes at a time throughout the day, whereas a player in a casino could enjoy slots for a couple of hours and go home,” Rotem says.

For most of IGT’s products, land-based games serve as the source material for online versions, or development on each side takes place on an equal basis. And at times, a retail version will follow the success of the online one, Rotem says.

Sometimes converting land-based games to the online arena can be relatively fast, says Aristocrat’s Kaminkow. “It gives us a little edge to get the game out there quicker,” he says. “We can easily move one side to the other.”

With the online space, you gather data quicker and decision-making faster. Land-based games provide information at a slower pace, Kaminkow says.

Chicken or the Egg

“This type of omnichannel content gives players the option to win those legendary Wheel of Fortune jackpots, anytime, anywhere.”Gil Rotem, President, iGaming, IGT

Of course, many suppliers decide on online game introduction during the design process itself.

“We have the approach of developing some online and some land-based games first,” says Sigmund Lee, chief technical officer for AGS. “How we decide the quantity for each is based on our capabilities and product category goals at the time. There are pros and cons, mostly driven by user experience and platform restrictions.”

Land-based content requires more effort. “I think you will continue to see a convergence of both styles that end up being a unique offering to mobile and land-based platforms,” Lee says.

“Players now have the opportunity to play market-leading content once only found by visiting a brick-and-mortar casino from the comfort of their home or waiting for a bus,” says Gary Hardy, vice president of business ops, interactive gaming at AGS. “In return, we get access to an ever-widening player base.”

Says Rotem, “The industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, so it’s hard to say where the balance between online and land-based gaming will be in five years. I think we’ll see iGaming continue to grow in popularity as more jurisdictions legalize it, especially in the U.S.”

IGT PlayDigital has expert game designers working in studios dedicated to creating high-performing games. In the last year, “we have increased and diversified our in-house talent, and we have significantly increased the cadence of releasing games,” Rotem says.

Over the next year, IGT plans to add more than 60 games encompassing a mix of omnichannel games.

Land-based and online game design are very different animals, says Kurt Hansen, head of Aruze Interactive.

“Compare the giant screens and speakers on the casino floor to your favorite tablet or the phone in your pocket, and you will know why we must treat each very differently,” Hansen says. “But the future could bring the kind of convergence in which land-based and online product develops in parallel, using the same graphics team.”

Omnichannel Success

“We are seeing more and more cross-pollination of players between the two environments, which is enhancing the overall value-add proposition.”Kent Young, President, Americas, Bragg Gaming Group

Spin Games, now part of Bragg Gaming, has a long history of deploying both land-based and iGaming titles throughout North America, often with huge success, says Kent Young, president, Americas, Bragg Gaming Group. 

Land-based titles have had great success in the iGaming space, Young says. “We have also seen iGaming-first titles do well. This is often based on titles that have performed well in international markets with strong game mechanics and proven applications.”

The ongoing development of online games in the future will encompass a mix of both land-originated titles and iGaming-first titles. “In the medium term, I think we will see most U.S. suppliers continue to develop for land-based first and deploy across iGaming once performance has been proven in the land-based space,” Young says. “We see iGaming as complementary, and a true value-add to the land-based offering.”

iGaming allows for cross marketing to existing players as well as the ability to tap into new market segments such as a younger demographic, Young says. “We are seeing more and more cross-pollination of players between the two environments, which is enhancing the overall value-add proposition.

“Over the longer term we may see more of a hybrid approach where games are developed initially for both segments, and in some instances we will see iGaming-first titles ported into the land-based segment.”

The ability to bring iGames to market faster and more cost-effectively than on the land-based side enables Aruze Interactive to test game themes, math models, etc., to determine if the iGames are successful enough to build on the land-based side.

Yet, it will not be viable to squeeze all land-based games into a digital footprint, Hansen says.

“At the end of the day, whether we are designing games for land-based or online, our goal is to develop games that people enjoy playing.”

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.