Established more than 20 years ago, online gambling game maker NetEnt has grown to become a giant in the industry. Today, the Stockholm-based software company produces visually stunning slots and table games which take pride of place in the portfolios of many NJ online casinos.
NJ Online Gambling recently caught up with Bjorn Krantz, NetEnt’s managing director for North America, to hear about the slot development process, the importance of licensing well-known brands, and whether virtual reality games are the future or just a gimmick.
Today’s online slot games are comprised of more than just a few spinning reels and static symbols; they are incredibly complex with full-blown animations and high-end graphics. Can you give us an overview of how a typical slot is developed at NetEnt?
Bjorn Krantz: The game development process is a well-structured one that we have refined and perfected over a number of years. A game concept can be born from many different areas within the company and we will often go through many ideas before resting on the one that we believe in.
For example, it might start from a good mechanic idea or the concept could be design-led. But before settling on a game design, all concepts are shaped and molded into a solid idea with several math iterations. The game design takes shape over many different stages, with input from a range of people and departments to ensure that the mechanics and graphics marry together well.
And is this when the testing stage starts?
BK: Yes, before reaching an end product, we must go through rigorous testing and certification procedures to make sure every aspect of the game fits the high standards set by not only regulators, but also by ourselves. Once that stage has been reached, we can begin to market the title by giving appropriate notice to our customers to allow for effective knowledge transfer and marketing plans.
For every development, the time scales can vary at each stage, due to the variables involved, and are extended when working with third parties, such as with the development of branded games.
How many people are involved in creating a flagship game and how long does the process typically take? Does this process usually come with challenges?
BK: The size and depth of the team really depends upon the ambition level and complexity of the project. The time taken can really vary, with some games taking several months and others a year, or longer. There are always challenges with making good games, which is also why it is rewarding. Working on a licensed production is one example; we always strive to ensure we are as close to the brand identity as possible. Close liaison is required with the rights holders about which ideas are viable and appropriate for approval.
After all these years, have you developed a ‘secret sauce’ for creating hit slots, or do you have to just wait and see how players react?
BK: Players’ tastes and wants are incredibly varied, so, ultimately, it is the players who decide on what works in the market. That said, a successful slot is not always what ends up being a commercially widespread hit, but rather, a game that really works to the desired player style for which it was designed.
More than 20 years’ game design experience has allowed us to learn some key lessons for what works and what doesn’t in the market. NetEnt has a great deal of business intelligence that allows us to draw educated conclusions about key math parameters, but these can only offer guides as to what will work.
How have slot games evolved over the past decade in terms of design, graphics, animations, sounds and the whole player experience?
BK: Slots are constantly evolving as technology progresses, both from a production perspective, and in terms of the medium in which casino games are consumed. Take the shift from Flash to HTML5 as an example, or desktop to mobile – both of these in recent times have had great influences on how games are played and built.
Meanwhile, the advent of social casino has taken development in another direction, with increased efforts to create an even wider range of different elements to the slot playing experience. Players have always wanted and looked for an optimum experience. That’s what we strive to deliver.
What sacrifices have to be made when creating a slot game for a smartphone, or is this becoming less of a problem these days?
BK: In the past, there were more compromises or alterations that had to be made, however, as HTML5 has improved, and the devices become more powerful, there are many more opportunities to create a harmonized desktop and mobile experience. There is, of course, a lot of work needed to create an excellent UI for mobile – to ensure that the game is fully in-tune with the device – and bring a new dynamic and higher level of experience.
Last month, NetEnt unveiled two new branded slots games – Planet of the Apes and the official Emoji slot. Why are licensed brands important and how much more likely are they to be popular than non-branded ones?
BK: We are extremely proud of the branded content that NetEnt has launched in recent years. We always strive for something special, an industry-first, or iconic offering that sets us apart. The two releases this year are very different and special in their own way. Branded slots are important to our customers as they allow for unique marketing and new player acquisition, but the popularity and long-term success of a game is not necessarily defined by it being a brand or not. A great game will always be a bigger draw than any brand. If you get a great game, combined with a great brand, then you have something very special and we are proud to have several in our portfolio.
An example of a high-performing branded game that has positively supported our New Jersey partners’ objective to deliver the very best player experience is Guns N’ Roses. During 2016, we launched Guns N’ Roses as part of the ‘NetEnt Rocks’ series, which also included the Jimi Hendrix and Motörhead titles. These games demonstrate how we balance game graphics and mechanics nicely to maximize the player experience and entertainment value from each and every signature branded games.
You also demoed the first ever real-money VR slot – Gonzo’s Quest. Can slots really work in VR and do VR slots have a bright future?
We had a fantastic reception to the Gonzo’s Quest VR showcase at this year’s ICE [gambling trade show in London]. The game has been in development for the past year and we are exceptionally excited and pleased with the outcome. NetEnt wanted to ensure that we captured one of our classic games in the new technology, whilst staying true to what players loved and enjoyed.
The prospect of VR opens up a whole different world of enjoyment and experience, but it is one that comes with multiple user experience and visual considerations. We believe that VR is an exciting opportunity for slots and the casino world, yet these are early days and there is a lot that needs to happen to fully realize this, including the increased commercialization of VR generally, and access to headsets in the market.
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