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Moving Online

Slot development ramps up in the digital channel.

Moving Online

The creation of successful slot games is a process that remained relatively constant for decades. Software was developed, hardware was developed to house it, sometimes in concert with the creation of the game. The machine would hit slot floors, and players would vote with their wallets.

The rise of online gaming in the U.S., not to mention its continuing growth around the world, has added the digital discipline to that equation. It is becoming more common for slot suppliers to create a dedicated digital division, devoted to achieving success online. Some of the largest manufacturers have entered the space via acquisition; others have built digital business organically—starting with porting brick-and-mortar hits online, but keeping an eye to what’s needed for iGaming success.

“Digital players predominantly consume their content through a mobile device,” comments Dylan Slaney, CEO, iGaming at Light & Wonder. “Making content work on a mobile device presents its own challenges, and it’s this skill set that is key to producing great content. Our land-based teams create amazing immersive experiences, and our role within the digital team is to recreate this on a mobile device. It’s crucial to understand what will work on a mobile device, and it’s where our teams excel.”

L&W has four core studios dedicated to development of content—land-based and online. The company also recently acquired Lightning Box, a digital studio based in Sydney, Australia; and Elk, another digital studio in Stockholm, Sweden.

“These studios all focus on building content for players in the online space,” says Slaney. “We use our IP and brands that players can find in land-based casinos, and also create unique content that hasn’t been played in a casino for digital natives.”

Gil Rotem, president, iGaming for IGT PlayDigital, says his company benefits from a deep digital lineage, including the 2022 acquisition of iSoftBet, which doubled its online content library.

“Everything we do is digital, from game creation to the remote game server to the user engagement and analytics,” Rotem says. “It allows us to scale and also control the quality of what we do—to either build our own game or to make sure that the same experience on land-based will be transformed to the mobile phone.”

Everi first launched its games online in late 2016, and has built on that business since then, creating the Everi Digital division in 2019. “Everi Digital does have a set of staff dedicated solely to online content,” says Marshall Adair, senior vice president and executive producer for Everi Digital. “We like to call it ‘Online First’ because it has been done to bring one of the hits from online to a cabinet on a land-based casino floor. Our dedication to creating gaming experiences that match our customer needs is most pronounced in the ongoing strategy of many of our customers to engage new audiences.

“This has caused us to focus on more and different kinds of content, specific for online operators, that gives them a chance to reach audiences that slots do not. And, just as always, we provide white-label and bespoke content for our customers that are often exclusively for their online enterprises.”

Adair says the biggest advantage of having a dedicated digital team is overall efficiency in game development. “More recently,” he says, “the benefits have become more and more aligned with operators’ topical needs, and so remaining agile and responsive to those needs is a major aspect of our success.”

Headed by Zoe Ebling, vice president, interactive, AGS recently streamlined its entire digital division, bringing on top talent, making important changes in its approach to R&D, and broadening its overall offerings. AGS has had a dedicated digital studio up and running for over a year, and initial hits including Mega Diamond from the in-house studio are prompting discussions to grow Ebling’s team larger.

“With the initial success that we’ve seen, we know that continuing to scale our production is important to us, maintaining and building momentum on the success that we’ve had in this space,” Ebling says. “We want to be one of the top online suppliers, and as new markets grow and as new types of games come out, we want to make sure that we’re competitive.”

Ebling says one of the advantages of the AGS digital operation is the expertise of the team.

“Most of our friends in the industry are using third-party developers, so there isn’t really a leader driving the product that understands it from a technical perspective,” she says. “What we get by having an in-house studio is leveraging the great expertise of some of the industry’s best game designers in the online space who are really focused on making sure that we have a quality product and upholding that standard. I think that’s where we’re really competitive.”

Building on Success

While there may come a time when suppliers will routinely cherry-pick online hits for launch in the brick-and-mortar world, the dominant method for online success still follows the reverse pattern. As a rule, suppliers are achieving success online with games that have proven themselves on casino floors.

“Our digital team works with our land-based teams to select the best possible games for our customers based on the game’s overall performance on casino floors,” says Everi’s Adair, “and then we work hand-in-hand with our land-based teams to port over as best we can the experience that players love from our cabinets. Sometimes, we work with a customer to provide them a game both on their floor and online at the same time, as we did with BetMGM last year with two three-reel mechanical games, which remain top performers both online and land-based.

“Our land-based games do exceptionally well online, and nearly all of our ‘best’ games so far have come directly from land-based to online, and we don’t foresee this changing.”

Slaney at Light & Wonder says collaboration is the key to success, online or on land.

“The R&D teams across our land-based, social and iGaming divisions work in a very collaborative manner,” he says. “They share concepts, ideas, data and insights to provide players with the best content across all three channels in which we operate. We are producing more cross-channel content than ever before, and launching simultaneously across all three channels.”

Rotem at IGT PlayDigital adds that creating omnichannel content is a challenge in itself. “The technologies are different (between mobile formats and cabinets). When we transform the math, we need to do some changes, because when you play with a big cabinet, it’s sometimes not so trivial to get everything on your mobile.”  Nevertheless, Rotem says the best-performing brick-and-mortar games typically continue their success online.

“Cash Eruption is one of the best slots in the U.S. every month,” he says. “Fortune Coin, Cleopatra, and the Wheel of Fortune series have been performing well (online) for many, many years. And our blackjack is the No. 1 blackjack game online. We see that those brick-and-mortar games continue to perform three, four and five years after we release them online.”

Moreover, he says, creating online versions of hits affords flexibility not possible inside a cabinet on the floor. For instance, IGT released a Christmas version of the Cleopatra game, complete with snowy pyramids.

Ebling says some of the tweaks and unique marketing ideas possible with online games has even led a few AGS titles to do better online than on land. “Artificial intelligence allows a site to pull up games for players who have played similar games before,” she says. “Because of some of those kinds of intricacies, you can have a game that does better online than it does on land because of how players are able to find it, where it’s available, and what type of players are playing it.”

Still, she says, the heavy hitters on casino floors will be the same online. “We meet at a high level, and there is a lot of collaboration with (Senior VP, Slots) Mark DeDeaux and (Senior Sales VP) Adam Whitehurst; we take a look at what’s coming out, what’s done well historically on the land side, what’s done well on the online side. And we make a comprehensive roadmap, piecing together puzzle pieces.

“Once we have identified which games we want to bring on both sides, then it’s just a matter of the actual studios talking together.”

Big cross-channel successes have included the Rakin’ Bacon! franchise, particularly Rakin’ Bacon! Odyssey. “That was the first omnichannel launch, which we did with Caesars,” Ebling says. “We knew that game was going to be successful, so we married up those roadmaps more quickly.”

In the end, collaboration between teams producing for land and online is leading to a new era of omnichannel content. “Our land-based content is a core tenet of our U.S. strategy, and we see players engage with content across both channels,” says Light & Wonder’s Slaney.

“Games like 88 Fortunes and recent record launches of Rich Little Piggies and Cash Falls have seen strong success across both channels. Cross-platform launches are a key focus for our growth strategy, and we have dedicated teams who focus purely on bringing our great land-based content to players within the digital ecosystem.”

IGT PlayDigital has done much to foster the rise of omnichannel content. In May 2023, the company launched the first omnichannel wide-area progressive link in the U.S. with the Wheel of Fortune brand in New Jersey. For the first time, players online and on land in New Jersey were playing the same game, incrementing the same big-money progressive jackpot.

“If you have a good stand-alone digital team, it will give you a good omnichannel strategy,” says Rotem.

Into the Future

All of the suppliers seeking that omnichannel strategy have increased their online footprints over the past year, and all are looking forward to growth—as much growth as the legal spread of iGaming allows, at least in the U.S. Rhode Island just became only the seventh U.S. state to authorize online casino gaming, compared to 38 states plus the District of Columbia now offering legal sports betting.

Part of the reason that online casino games have lagged so far behind sports betting legalization is a lingering misconception among lawmakers in gaming states that online games will cannibalize the brick-and-mortar revenues.

“One of the more impactful analyst reports I’ve seen actually shows that when there’s online gambling in a state, it boosts land gaming as well,” says Ebling at AGS. “So I think that our two halves of the business are a lot more symbiotic than most people would expect.”

Despite the slow spread of U.S. iGaming, the overall market is growing, and suppliers are responding by increasing the flow of content. “For the past few months, we’ve focused on going live in Delaware, where we haven’t been live before, and we went live in Rhode Island,” says Rotem at IGT PlayDigital.

“We’ve added content in Romania, in Greece, in Switzerland, and other European countries. We are pushing more content into more countries. We went live with Fanatics (in Michigan), and we’re now pushing forward in Canada as well. We went live with the Prosperity Link in Canada in Ontario, and we’re adding more Powerbucks games and other omnichannel slot and table games.”

“Everi Digital has been growing consistently since we launched in April 2019, both in the amount and type of content we provide, but also where we are distributed,” says Adair. “This year, we enhance our content mix to include a wide range of game types, including many of our land-based premium video slots, mechanical three-reel games, table games, instant win, and even a new genre we call ‘perceived skill.’

“This year also marks our distribution further and deeper into the U.S. with our launch in Delaware, and then most recently, internationally with our launch in the U.K. through Light & Wonder.”

“Our Q4 and full-year 2023 results posted at our earnings call on February 27 shows the continued momentum we have in our iGaming business,” says L&W’s Slaney.

“It was another record year for the iGaming business. We set new records with the launch of digital and omnichannel content. A key driver of this growth was the U.S., and we now have a dedicated studio in Las Vegas that is bringing more of our great land-based content to players within the digital ecosystem. This is a core tenet of our strategy, and one which we intend to build upon in 2024 and beyond.”

As far as the speed of iGaming legalization in the U.S., Slaney says it’s just a matter of time before the spread of iGaming accelerates—and in fact, it already is.

“The U.S. iGaming market has seen tremendous growth during 2023,” Slaney says. “There are very few ‘entertainment’ verticals that are growing at a faster rate, and despite the maturity of these markets, we have seen strong organic growth.

“The proliferation of iGaming into more states has happened at a slower rate than many predicted, but I believe iGaming will come to more states over the coming years; it’s just a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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