Chasing Goldilocks

Our ride on the skill-game rollercoaster

The year 2017 marked when casino games representing the first true intersection of skill-based interactivity and gambling finally started appearing on casino floors in multiple jurisdictions.

GameCo released its VGM cabinets in New Jersey and later in Connecticut; we at Gamblit Gaming deployed our Model G multi-player interactive tables and TriStation multi-game systems to Nevada and California locations. A variety of skill-based offerings—both by up-and-coming startups and industry heavyweights—cropped up at the Global Gaming Expo, and just recently, Competition Interactive debuted its skill-based racing game at Planet Hollywood.

It’s clear that each of these products, launches and milestones involved years of preparation and the extraordinarily dedicated work of many people.

While I can’t speak for all these projects, I can certainly offer a cursory peek into our own journey, which has proven to be far more challenging than we could have anticipated.

The bulk of our released content so far has actually been developed internally by the company’s own Game Studio.

The studio came into being about four years ago with only a handful of people. Its original mission was to function as an R&D lab—to act as a test bed for integrating with our proprietary gaming platform and to create prototypes to illustrate the process of turning interactive games into viable gambling propositions. As some of these early efforts were met with an enthusiastic audience reception, the team expanded to focus on full-scale content development.

Today, the Game Studio consists of 21 very capable and creative people across a range of disciplines: engineers, artists, designers, mathematicians, producers and QA.

It functions as a flat hierarchy centered around trust, and has a somewhat unconventional operational philosophy that strives to amplify the inherent strengths of small, agile teams at the expense of more formal corporate processes.

Just in the past two years, we have designed, developed and produced 17 titles for our two platforms. Six of these titles have already launched, with the rest scheduled to roll out over the course of the year, starting with two new games based on the iconic Deal or No Deal license.

We embarked on a journey of developing an entire catalog of diverse content equipped with plenty of prior expertise in creating fun, polished, emotionally engaging game content, but finding workable ways to apply all that to the context of a new kind of casino gaming still turned out to be a humbling experience neatly wrapped into a monstrous learning curve.

Releasing some of our earliest content as real-money mobile apps in the United Kingdom represented an important turning point, as it allowed us to field-test our assumptions by collecting large amounts of player behavior data.

Many “aha!” moments ensued, and the experience also strengthened our commitment to continuous iterative improvement.

Of the many quirks involved in designing these types of games, probably the most characteristic one is the constant need to reconcile factors which normally tend to be at odds with one another: chance versus skill, determinism versus player agency, wagering frequency versus play experience, simplicity versus lasting engagement and so on.

When skill is thrown into the mix, it comes bundled with the natural expectation that better performance must equal better rewards, which in turn invokes the need for some form of quantification of player skill to determine the appropriate outcome.

This happens in an intuitive and elegant manner in head-to-head multi-player games (such as our Model G tables). As the skill-game and the wagering proposition complement each other seamlessly in multi-player games, players measure their skill against the skill of other players, and if they prevail they collect the prize.

This type of zero-sum arrangement presents another unrelated set of challenges of its own, but it does yield the kind of high-energy, unabashedly competitive social experiences these games are known for.

However, things get a lot trickier once we venture into the realm of house-backed single-player games. Obviously, players can’t just be showered with big payouts every time they do well, and ironically, even effectively defining what “doing well” exactly means is no trivial task.

If the game is balanced to cater to one particular skill level—or if the impact of skill on the results is too pronounced—the hold may end up fluctuating unpredictably, tracking ebbs and flows in the aggregate skill performance of the player population.

Adjusting returns based on comparing the player’s performance to historical aggregate player performance could address this conundrum, if it wasn’t for the fact that it would also qualify as non-compliant adaptive behavior. Ouch.

If the significance of skillful play is overly marginalized in an attempt to keep chaos at bay, the entertainment experience invariably turns dull and sterile.

This is the area where the tug-of-war between opposing factors truly intensifies, and the audacity of skill ends up being counterbalanced by the sobering influence of cold, hard math.

When things ultimately converge in a proverbial “Goldilocks zone,” very compelling experiences can manifest.

The ingredients of this process are highly specific to each game, but one thing successful solutions tend to have in common is that they manage to decouple the player’s evaluation of their own performance from the anticipation of a guaranteed reward.

After a lot of trial and error, player observation, data collection and tinkering with various abstraction techniques, reward mechanics, degrees of player agency and math models evolving in parallel with the games’ interactive core, we believe a set of workable formulas and best practices is emerging.

While it’s very encouraging to witness players—particularly crowds of previously elusive younger players—enjoying our games, we are still in the rapid improvement phase of this new market, and we continue to obsess over its many building blocks that simultaneously present great opportunities and demand increasingly better solutions.