G3 taps into the creative expertise of Todd Haushalter, Chief Product Officer at Evolution, to understand the thought processes behind some of the most successful live casino and game show-style titles ever created.
From blockbuster titles including MONOPOLY Live and Crazy Time through to authentic gambling experiences such as Salon Privé and Live Craps, Todd explains how every game serves a unique purpose and why the concept is the core.
How have Evolution’s game show and live dealer games evolved during your time with the company?
When we first entered the game show realm the singular objective was not to create a whole new genre of games but to offer something to players that didn’t like table games. At the time, we had Blackjack, Baccarat, Roulette and Three Card Poker.
If we had continued to create the type of content players could find in a casino table game, we were always going to miss out on the slot player, bingo player and sports bettor that doesn’t like table games. When designing a table game for players that don’t like table games, our first thought was Casino War due to its simplicity. However, it still has a deck of cards and it’s simply not fun enough.
We then considered taking the Big Six wheel and making it look cool. This worked and paved the way for us to experiment a little bit more, so we made Lightning Roulette – taking a classic game and spicing it up. It was a smash.
I had been wanting to make the game for a long time, but we just had other things in the way. I knew Roulette needed something for the next generation and wrapping it in a lightning theme fit perfectly. This was game show number one.
Now we had successfully pushed the boundaries, we went on to create MONOPOLY Live via a sub-licence from Scientific Games in partnership with Hasbro, Inc. If we weren’t before, we were directly targeting slot players now.
We badly wanted to bring the MONOPOLY board into the game, so it started out as a dice rolling game. We then subsequently iterated upon this formula as we didn’t want to make another wheel game.
However, then we found a mechanic which really worked which opened the floodgates. From there on, we officially started calling these titles game shows and the genre was born. It all originated from trying to create live games that slots players would like.
What has driven the surge in popularity of Live Casino?
Video. Video is all the rage. In 2021, if people want to bake a cake they don’t go to Google. They go to YouTube. YouTube is more popular than television. Facebook has effectively transitioned to a video app. TikTok, the biggest threat to Facebook, is all about video.
Attention spans are shorter and shorter and video offers a rich way to tell a story. We are visual creatures so it’s such a natural thing that Live Casino would one day become the dominant form of gambling.
What is your process for creating a new game? Where is the starting point?
The concept is the core. The concept is what everything gets built around and it comes up at every design meeting. On a concept level, we begin by asking what we are trying to achieve. Who is our customer?
For a game such as Lightning Baccarat, we were targeting the next generation of Baccarat players. However, for these next generation players, Baccarat is too boring. There is a player and a banker where you can win even money and when there’s a tie you can win 8/1 and that’s the game. The next generation of player wants to bet small and win five or ten thousand times their bet.
Despite this, it’s a Baccarat game first and foremost. Who is the Baccarat player? Traditional, so female-only dealers. Even though it’s a Lightning Baccarat game, we are going to turn it way down and offer a chilled experience with calming music.
It’s got to be respectful. For the UI, I wanted a traditional Baccarat display road with a classic user interface. It needs to feel like classic Baccarat, but with something a little bit different. I hear people talk about math being critically important and it is, but sometimes I think it is said simply to sound mysterious, in slots particularly.
If you talk to a great songwriter and asked what the most important part is in their craft, they will say everything. The singer, the song, the drums, the guitar, the chorus, the melody. You know where you want to get to with a song and it’s the same with game creation. The initial concept permeates everything.
What influences and shapes the concept?
The player is our guiding light. It sounds obvious and simple but there is a lot of noise out there. You have operators in both ears telling you they need a specific type of game designed to target certain markets. You feel like there is stuff coming from all sides and you have to step back and ask yourself – what do I want? As a player, what do I want to play?
For example, take the transition from MONOPOLY Live to Crazy Time. I like MONOPOLY Live – it’s a great game. What does the player want now? More bonus rounds and excitement. But you can’t just have more. Each of the bonus rounds has to have their own unique personality. A Coin Flip has to be different from a Pachinko. Each has to have their own purpose to satisfy all audiences.
A game has to serve a purpose. You don’t just want to create MONOPOLY Live 2. Obviously, operators are critically important to the process as there are no players without them, but ultimately what they want is players who love to play their games.
How important is a game’s name?
You want to have a congruency of a game feeling as it’s named. You can call your restaurant Le Cirque, but if you serve hamburgers, you’re going to head fake people.
There is a dishonesty that comes with that. I’d rather players didn’t play the game than trick them into it. It’s better to call the restaurant Bob’s Burgers. You meet customers’ expectations when they come in and then serve them a delicious burger that was a little better than they were expecting.
With Crazy Time we got lucky as you can run into numerous intellectual property challenges. I had gone away on a game making bonanza where I effectively go into a hotel for two weeks with a big stack of paper to scribble game ideas continuously. On the original document, I actually wrote Crazy Time at the top.
When I returned to the team, I described it as Crazy Time. This game was going to be in your face with as much carnival craziness as possible without overdoing it. Crazy Time was the original ethos for the game, but I never expected it to be the actual title. It was a working way of describing the game’s concept that stuck.
Are games being played by the same type of player, or has the player evolved?
Players want a good old fashioned honest gamble. Games have got to be fair, easy to understand, fun and entertaining – whether it’s on the phone, super exotic cabinets and everything in-between.
However, a lot of companies get distracted and burn money trying to let technology rule the day. Take VR as a case in point. Why does VR make the gambling experience more fun? People will still bet on Coin Flips, Blackjack and Roulette.
You have to adapt to where players are. They were on desktop, then moved onto the phone. They demanded landscape, then wanted to play one-handed so games were converted to portrait. You constantly have to innovate. We need to look and feel as a mix between YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and apps that people play because these are how players are defining fun and entertainment.
Some games are familiar with a little twist and others can be paradigm changes that might fail. But that’s okay too. If it finds an audience, however small, then we are in good shape. What many don’t realise is that if 15 per cent of players liked a new game it would be the most successful game we have ever launched.
Not everyone has to like a new game – it can be very polarising and for a specific audience.
Lots of companies say they are mobile-first and I feel that is so ancient. Sorry – you’re an everything-first company. When you launch a game, it has to work on apps, the top 75 phones in the world in both directions, desktop and tablet. That is the minimum expectation.
How do you iterate upon games to create new experiences for players?
Players want options. Not only are there different types of player, but there are different types of moods for the same player.
We have twenty different types of Roulette including multipliers such as Lightning Roulette, Roulette with two zeros, Roulette with two balls, Roulette with immersive slow-motion replay, Speed Roulette, Auto Roulette, Instant Roulette dealt by twelve auto machines so you can player super-fast or super slow, and Roulette with 15 different spoken languages. Every possible iteration of Roulette you can imagine.
Take Salon Privé as an example. Salon Privé has a €1,000 minimum bet. The host is intentionally told to only speak when spoken to, call the numbers as they were, not to be chatty or focus too much on one player. These are serious players betting serious money so keep it tight.
Contrast this with regular Roulette where the host will talk about movies and video games. Everything is highly curated all the way down to how dealers are told to dress and their communication style.
How does the management of risk and fraud in Live Casino differ from land-based?
Prior to coming to Evolution, I was in charge of all the gaming for MGM Resorts on slots and tables. We were sophisticated – we owned the Bellagio, The Mirage, and Mandalay Bay with casino operations from Macau to Detroit. We were very good at catching fraud and making sure games were run tight.
However, that doesn’t even come close to how we do it at Evolution. I was blown away. Every time there is a shuffle, it is tracked to see how good and random it is. Have cards been redealt in the same sequence as before? Has there been a sufficient shuffle?
We have wheel tracking to ensure the ball never develops a bias. What we used to do every week at MGM, we do every hour at Evolution to rebalance the wheel. The operational requirements are so intense.
In some jurisdictions, it is illegal to use an electronic device to count cards in land-based casinos. Online, everyone is doing it. You have to be so good to detect all of the shady stuff whilst also tracking 8,000 game presenters to ensure their game speed is good and mistakes are minimised. Dialling in those balances is very tricky. A lot of companies mess it up and have the scars to prove it.
The studio used for one of Evolution’s latest games, Live Craps, is set in 1920s America. How do you settle on a studio’s design? Where do players want to spend their time?
The last five per cent of getting all the finer details into studio design takes up half your time. Whilst Live Craps was launched for a European audience, people think of Craps as a proper American gambler’s game.
Unlike game shows, this is authentic gambling played by experienced and predominantly male players. Although we try as hard as we can to strip away a lot of the intimidation, first time players are unlikely to stumble onto a Craps table.
When designing a studio, we ask ourselves what players are expecting before they come to the table. What do they think it is going to be and how do we exceed their expectations? With Craps, players expect it to be old school.
We then asked ourselves how far back we should go. After settling on a 1920s, speakeasy feel, we knew it couldn’t become a childish and cartoony theme. We didn’t want Live Craps to be themed, but instead comfortable.
It has to be balanced just right and it would be very easy to mess up. We entertained the idea of a gentle smoke machine for cigars but felt that may have been going a little bit too far.
How do you gauge and respond to player feedback?
A game’s launch is not the end of the story. We’re always looking for ways to make games better based on player feedback. For example, in Craps Live, players were asking in the chat whether they could turn off the bets in the come-out roll.
Despite it being an advanced superusers feature, enough people have requested it that we are going to integrate the feature in a couple of months. In Deal or No Deal Live, players said they no longer wanted to qualify for the bonus round. We’re now changing it so players can pay money and go straight into the game.
On Mega Ball, you can currently buy up to 200 cards. As there are so many people now buying the maximum number of cards, we are upping it to 400 cards. Despite certain phones not being able to handle the extra processing power, we are going to offer the option to those whose devices can.