As part of G3’s game developer series, this month we talk to Kalamba Games’ Head of Games, Andy Sekula, about one of the fundamentals of design – game mechanics.
What’s your background in game design and how did you become involved in the gaming industry?
The adventure began around nine years ago, when I joined a social casino company called GameDesire. I started working as a community manager focusing mainly on poker players and their needs, but then quickly transitioned into a game designer role, where I was more involved in casual free-to-play game production. My first step into the iGaming industry was with Kalamba Games, which I joined in March 2019 and have never looked back!
What does a typical day look like for you?
When I sit at my desk in the morning, first I go through the latest game performance metrics and read recent reviews on gaming forums if we have just released a new title. This feedback is critical to guiding development of our content, allowing us to analyse the features and aspects that have been well received by players, as well as those which have proven less successful. My role also requires close cooperation with production teams such as graphic artists, developers, sound designers and mathematicians, acting as a creative director to ensure all the different game components are glued together in one holistic creation. This level of ongoing communication is crucial when
working with external vendors.
You have a release velocity of 1.5 games per month. On average, how long does the design process take, from concept through to final product? What is your development framework?
From the conceptualisation to launch normally takes around three to four months, but the design process for each title often overlaps. When we polish game A we are also finishing the concept for game B, while at the same time starting the initial planning stages for game C. Generally, our titles are built on the HTML5 development framework, as we do not yet have our own engine.
Kalamba’s game design process is driven by a focus on integrating engagement and retention features. How do you gauge the success of a game?
There are two pillars of success metrics: the first being how well we distributed the game and second how well the game performed with players. Distribution is where the execution of the game’s graphics, animations and audio comes into play. Essentially, these components act as an acquisition tool, creating the all- important first impression with casino managers who are at times reviewing around 50 games a week. KPIs then track the game performance in terms of engagement and retention, giving an overview of average session lengths, the number of returning players and the game’s stickiness – factors which decide a game’s popularity.
How does having a strong KPI focus affect the creative freedom of developers and designers?
KPIs, or metrics in general, show us what players prefer and offer direction on which practices we should replicate. In my view, they are actually tools that allow us to be more creative within the boundaries set by market feedback.
How do you implement engagement and long- term monetisation in the design process? Is this something that is at the forefront of your thinking from the outset?
The mechanics that affect engagement and monetisation are a pivotal consideration from the very start of the development process right through to execution – it leads the design of the math model. In order to create an engaging game flow, the various mechanical cogs must all be turning to the same tune and that requires attention to detail throughout the design. Our signature HyperBonus and HyperBet concepts, which feature in many of our titles, are designed to boost monetisation in the longer term by allowing players to fast-track to the bonus round or to choose their own volatility. By giving players the ability to customise their gaming experience, our titles have proven to boost average stakes as well as engagement rates – particularly with more experienced players.
What features from social gaming do you incorporate into your games to increase session length and improve longer-term engagement?
Kalamba’s portfolio is heavily influenced by social gaming, reworking concepts such as missions and collections for the iGaming industry. These mechanics provide the opportunity for players to save progress made, thereby giving more incentive to return over time. One of our collection mechanics, for example, promises to trigger a bonus game with a potentially high payout if a certain number of symbols have been collected. This feature offers a reason for players to continue spinning or return to the title in a future session to continue where they left off.
How do you appeal to VIPs and players who are more experienced with your products whilst also catering to those who are new to slot gaming? How do you vary your volatility profile from game to game?
The trick is to have a balanced portfolio. In the early days of Kalamba Games, we traditionally targeted more advanced players with titles that featured complex concepts and high average stakes. We are now developing titles with lower volatility and minimum stakes to appeal to casual players, but with the ability to customise the experience with HyperBet. This allows more veteran slot fans looking for high-stakes excitement to adjust the play to suit their risk appetite, therefore widening the game’s appeal without deterring potential new players.
Kalamba prides itself on having a much higher earning tail than the industry standard. How do you determine which promotional and marketing tools you are going to use to engage customers? What factors are considered?
Promotional tools are an area we are experimenting with as we expand our portfolio with titles that have a wider appeal. One of the most common promotional tools is free spins, which are not as effective with high-stakes games. With the release of low minimum bet titles, however, we will become more active in discussions with aggregators and operators on potential marketing opportunities, as well as developing proprietary promotional functions of our own.
Every player has different mobile devices and connection speeds. What methods do you use to mitigate the effects of such external factors? How does this impact your graphic and sound design?
Vigorous testing is crucial to ensure a game performs well across a spectrum of devices, from lower-end handsets to the most advanced smartphones and tablets. In order to achieve this, we must limit the game size as far as possible without compromising on the quality. Again, it is a balancing act between the game’s heaviness and the standard of animation, visuals and audio.
Kalamba have partnerships with a number of distribution networks, including Relax Gaming, which has a strong Scandinavian presence. In what way does this impact your approach to conceptualising games? Are there certain genres and themes you tailor towards?
We aim to attract global players through market informed design and tailor our games to appeal to local tastes. Currently, our main territories are Scandinavia and Germany, which have very different preferences. To cater to varying player demands across multiple regions we carry out thorough market research, analysing the top performing games of prominent casino brands active in the specific geographies. This approach gives us a solid understanding of the themes and feature sets which are popular locally before we set to designing a new game concept. We have typically avoided culturalised games, however, as we don’t want our content to become too localised.
How do you manage the balance between maintaining a high-volume output and designing games that are unique?
It is a tricky one. Reusing math models will always be noticed by both players and casino managers, so developers need to be innovative with every title. We work hard to ensure our releases offer a new flavour, while maintaining Kalamba’s signature twist.
Content providers are constantly finding new ways to be innovative. What opportunities and challenges do you foresee game developers facing in the future?
In my view, there are two aspects from social gaming which are yet to be employed effectively in casino content. The first is an engagement meta layer within a provider’s gaming portfolio. We can see examples of this at casino level, but there is still a lot to do when it comes to adding gamification layers that link missions and achievements throughout a supplier’s catalogue.
Another feature which is under utilised in the industry is personalisation of the player experience. As a sector, we are still limiting ourselves to a one-size-fits-all approach, when the advent of new technologies such as AI allow us to dynamically segment players. Individualising content based on informed player personas is crucial to competing with other forms of entertainment in the wider arena.
Founded in December 2016, you are still a young company. How do you see the design process at Kalamba evolving over the next twelve months?
For Kalamba, next year is all about experimentation. Our game development process has already become more market informed, but in the coming months we also plan to give individual teams more autonomy and greater freedom to innovate. Of course, innovation can at times risk failure, but it can also bring great success. Either way, it’s going to be an interesting start to the new decade!