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Scientific Games and SG Digital: head-to-head

By - 2 November 2020

Interested in the interplay of dynamics between content creators across different mediums, but within the same group of companies, G3 turns to Michael Mastropietro, Vice President, Game Design, Scientific Games, to learn more about the collaboration between land-based and digital design.

How has the relationship between Scientific Games and SG Digital evolved since the digital division’s inception?

I have been at Scientific Games over 20 years and the digital side of the company has really come into its own and acquired different content studios over that time. There is a lot of mutual respect in the relationship. Although both are in the business of creating slots, land-based and digital face very different challenges.

When we get together and ask, ‘why did you do this?’, you realise just how different the two sets of players interact with the games. This means the way you develop and package the games is distinct. We talk regularly with Rob Proctor and Adam Fox at SG Digital to compare notes on what we are working on, share our respective roadmaps and discuss the trends we are witnessing to see how we can work together.

Why are the development teams separate?

Ultimately, this is due to the way the games are presented and consumed which leads to different types of game design. Hardware is a part of our development philosophy, process, and creativity. We are making games with a cabinet called the TwinStar V75 which is a vertical 75-inch curved 4K display that requires a certain type of game. An old fruit game would look out of place. You need to turn up the sizzle and presentation to make a splash on the hardware.

The flip side is that in the digital space there are hundreds if not thousands of titles on a web interface and you need to convince players to select your game to play. Online, you need to hook players more quickly than in land based. There is also divergence on the trends in both spaces. For example, the volatility profiles are totally different. The games you see in digital can be super volatile and the hit rates low. My feeling is that this type of experience is easier on the digital platform where you can set auto play and watch football at the same time. Translating this experience onto a casino floor is difficult.

Furthermore, the way we develop is different. We develop on C Sharp, whilst digital works on HTML5. Our games have a much bigger memory footprint, so the translation of games ends up based becoming more of a rewrite. Ultimately, these factors determine the development isolation between land-based and digital.

How does player engagement differ between land-based and digital?

In terms of what we are aiming to achieve, player engagement is the same between digital and land-based – we want to keep players focused and engage them. The difference is in how players want to consume their experience. We have more horsepower as we are not depending on the user’s hardware. In land based, we are not tailoring to an iPhone 6 and 11 at the same time. From a display and presentation engagement perspective, we have an advantage as we are building on our own hardware. We put in the processor and memory card and can build it however we want.

How does the game development process change depending on the hardware you are working on?

Firstly, we still make the old slot machines with the mechanical spinning reels with moving parts, so these types of games obviously require an alternate approach. However, even within the video space you have got completely different types of games for alternate hardware. The trend has been towards vertical screens and as this becomes more standard games will not differentiate too much between a 40-inch and 45-inch vertical screen, although there are things to keep in mind. Keeping things in the player’s field of vision is important on vertical screens to ensure the player is not moving their head up and down all the time. The games developed for this type of hardware are flashier and novel as they are bigger and brighter.

Video slots are landscape on what we call dual screens as they have two screens on top of one another. These are less flashy as the demographic of player is more towards the gambling experience compared to the ‘look at me’ kind of player you associate with slots. Video slots players are repeat customers and they tend to like more volatile, cut to the chase experiences. We therefore design these game types for players on that hardware.

Most of the dual screen content we do, such as the Lock It Link series, are tailored for this experience. We do offer some of these games on the vertical screens, but in the main verticals feature licensed games like WILLY WONKA and THE WIZARD OF OZ – more ‘tourist’ types of experiences. We do switch between the two but there are player segments that seem to prefer one piece of hardware over the other.

Slot players are perceived as being older and prefer more traditional games. How has the demographic of land-based players changed in recent years?

The meat of the demographic is still the 55- year-old woman at the casino. There are certainly younger players who now play slots with the rise of YouTube – there is a whole community of slot bloggers who film the games and run their own commentary with large followings. This is awesome from a game making perspective as we can see people engaging with our games without leaving the house. The slot blogger community is younger than your typical ‘core’ player.

The different players within the slot community are less to do with age demographic than the kind of player you are. Are you someone who likes to win big or go home, or are you a value player? I think there are people of all ages in both categories and that has not changed much. There are more discernible differences in age groups on other parts of the casino floor. Table games and ETGs tend to capture younger players than slots do. However, within slots, we cover the whole age spectrum.

How do you capture the attention of slot bloggers and the younger demographic?

This is a tough thing to achieve for several reasons. Casinos want to see more young people playing their games, but younger people spend less as they tend to have less disposable income. There are two drivers to this. We want people to put money into our games so they perform well and casinos are happy with our product. Equally, we also want to bring new people in. However, new gamblers tend not to have the same spending power or desire as your normal player. You then end up making games for a segment of people who are less financially valuable to the casino and these games tend not to perform as well. The casinos then ask why they are spending the same amount of money on new games that are not making as much money as others they have paid the same price for.

If the industry wants to attract new people, it needs to figure out a way to measure the value of irregular players who prefer specific types of games. I think skill-based gaming was an effort to do that but then it ran into the aforementioned financial problem of whether it is worth the investment. It is a tricky balance.

We made a SPACE INVADERS skill-based game a few years ago and will continue to look at these types of opportunities. Typically, we make games for people who like slots and not a specific demographic, developing games that have an appeal with different segments of slot players regardless of age.

Once you create a game that resonates well with one of these slot players segments, how do you avoid repeating the same game?

It is a difficult thing to do with so much content being developed by the industry these days. SG, IGT, Aristocrat, Konami, Everi, AGS – you have five decent sized manufacturers operating in the US who, alongside others, are producing around 500 titles a year. This means slot players have one or two new games being released a day and they need to figure out what they want to play. Like Netflix where you are paralysed by the choices you face, we find players gravitate to things they know such as our Duō Fú Duō Cái or Lock It Link series.

Player behaviour is narrowing not just in slots but across the industry. The prevailing game mechanics have stayed the same for some time now. Our challenge is to service the established content mechanics and introduce new gameplay experiences.

A good example is a new game that has recently been approved called Cash Falls. It has some of the elements of the re-spin where you can win prizes based on the values of the symbols, but it is a persistent game that is totally different to what is out there.

Of course, we are taking a chance going outside of the player comfort zone, but it is important to push the edge of these things in order to find the game that flips the script and move players to a new mechanic. It is one of the things we discuss all the time; giving players what they want but still exploring new spaces and trying new things.

The pandemic has seen many land-based players shift to digital. Are we going to see a permanent change in the future of the player environment? Does this enforced change mean we will see less land-based play?

I think it will come back. Presuming we can go back to visiting bars and restaurants in the way we did at the end of 2019; the casino experience will return. Nor do I think it is one or the other between land-based and digital. In markets such as New Jersey, players are enjoying the same games across both spaces. The two are more complementary and continue to help each other. If online gaming continues to expand in the US, this will be a good thing for land-based casinos.

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