Celebrating the artistic creativity that abounds in the gaming industry, G3 is beginning a series of articles looking at the core ingredients of gaming titles, from graphics, technology, sound design, performance capture and mathematics. Our first Gaming Creativity article features Jamie Pollard, Head of Games Design at Greentube UK. We quiz Jamie about all the elements that make up a successful reel-based game design.
What’s your background in games design?
I have actually spent my whole career in the gaming industry. I started over 20 years ago, building machines for the UK pub market and then progressed into games testing which took me into games design. You could say I’m a veteran but I’m always keen to keep an eye on the newest technology so that Greentube can keep right up to date with latest developments.
How did you get into this role and how long have you been working with graphics?
I joined Greentube as a games designer 12 years ago. Since then I’ve helped the team develop several fantastic games that have been hot with players and operators alike. The Greentube graphic design team has a combined 72 years of graphical experience, 58 of which are in games. It’s a great team and Greentube is constantly pushing the boundaries, striving to explore the unexplored and bringing an element of innovation in everything we do. We can’t afford – and never intend – to stand still.
Who do you admire in terms of games design and where do you seek your inspiration?
I find inspiration all over the place. Our games are designed to function as slot games, obviously, but the quality of their user interface means that they have the same immersive qualities you would associate with non-gambling titles such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds Match and Pokémon Shuffle. It’s no coincidence that I play a lot of video and computer games to gather inspiration for our new titles.
An example of the two combining is one of our most recent slots, Jinxy Match 3, which is so interactive it allows players to create the make-up of the reels themselves. We hope this will attract a newer and broader audience through genuine innovation. The word ‘millennial’ is probably over-used, but it is a question of reaching out to players beyond those we have at the moment without alienating loyal customers.
Starting from a blank canvas, how do you begin the creative process?
We begin by researching themes for the individual game titles, then follow on by looking at styles that suit those themes. We draw up rough visuals, have brainstorms and discussions with the wider team before commencing the artwork. The trick, of course, is making sure these fit with the maths models. Only when everything is aligned and working in harmony do you hit the real sweet spot with a game.
What are the most important elements in creating an appealing game?
To create new mechanics and artwork that keep the player entertained and engaged. This might sound like an obvious statement, but that is the key thing we always have to keep in mind when developing games. We want to create games with longevity that players enjoy and return to again and again. Especially as the online casino market is so crowded, we must ensure our games stand out in the crowd and then continue to hold their own. Clearly, operators want that too. It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the comet blazes brightly when it launches but has a long tail.
How much do the mathematics of the game determine the graphical elements your team create?
Both are key areas of the game, and one can’t work without the other. Often the maths comes first. Our guys have an idea based on what they’ve seen with player behaviour and want to create a title that performs a certain way. That often affects the volatility, which often affects the look as well as the feel. I’m not a maths expert but it is important to work hand in glove with the people that are, as only together does the magic happen.
How do you choose which elements to animate?
If a character is part of the theme it would be animated, along with any effects that would be needed for the character to deliver different aspects of the game. Game size can determine what and how much we animate. A larger game with modifiers and features usually needs more animations but actual game sizes restrict this.
Is there a standard video slots colour pallet from which you work or does anything go in terms of the design?
Anything goes really! This is an area where we can really be as creative as possible and match the colours with the theme of the game. We know that some are more popular than others and, interestingly, this can vary according to geography. But what you are looking for in a large portfolio like our Home of Games is variety. You need to have something for everyone as you never know who is going to log on.
How many design iterations do you create before selecting the final treatment? And who has the final say?
Following the initial visual stages, asset creation begins. All assets created are critiqued and approved by the graphics team before the games design team is engaged. There may be a few tweaks at this stage, but this is usually determined by a game decision rather than a graphical one.
Is there a great deal of design ‘tweaking’ before the final version is complete?
Once games design is involved minimal tweaking takes place. Video visuals, however, do take a little longer as timings of game play and sounds are incorporated into these.
When you incorporate people within a design, how do you create generic faces? We’ve seen too many slot characters that have an uncanny resemblance to movie stars!
Each character is created from scratch using online images for reference, occasionally these could incorporate facial similarities to celebrities, but our own eye and facial recognition can play tricks and make us visualise a star! Clearly everyone has to be careful when it comes to IP. I guess the trick is to create familiarity, which in a sense is about having an element of comfort around what you’re looking at. That is what you get with a familiar face like a movie star.
How creative can you be within the confines of the video slot screen?
Very! We always try to be as innovative and creative as possible and always aim to develop games with cutting-edge graphics to give players the greatest possible gaming experience. What I will say, however, is that slots players are no different to anyone else: they like familiarity as well as new things. It is not a case of ripping the rule book every time, therefore. Operators want players to take to a game quickly and enjoy playing it. Very few people have time to sit down and read through a long list of instructions before playing. They just want to play!
How much does the hardware play a part in limiting the designs you’re able to create?
Sizes of animations and sizes of assets can be limited, but we use lots of optimising techniques to get around this.
How much more complicated and time consuming is the creation of 4K graphics and animations?
Not more complicated, but sizes of files may take a little longer to render, however this is necessary to allow assets to be used on all platforms and in a marketing capacity.
Does the move to 4K mean that we’ll see more photo-realistic games? Is this a good thing?
Not necessarily, we would always create artwork that suits a theme or game, whether this be a realistic or cartoon style. Again, it’s about creating choice. Too much of one thing is boring and will turn off people who like something else. It is important to see a game portfolio in the round.
Do you prefer to work with IP licenses or create in-house custom designs – and why?
Time restraints and approval processes can make IP licenses a lengthy process. Using our own designs gives us much more flexibility and freedom to be creative. Neither is better than the other, however, and both have their place. Whilst there may be restrictions around what you can do with a brand, many have such huge followings that they can act as a great acquisition tool. But really good games developed in-house can develop a brand of their own. It’s about popularity really, and that what is popular varies from person to person.
How much do you work with the sound design department in creating the finished game?
Very closely. We provide video visuals with sound examples alongside a brief outlining the feel and style of the game. In my opinion, finding a sound that really suits the game play can really lift the player experience.
How influential do you believe the artwork and animation is to the success of a game?
Very influential, but for me, all areas of the game are as important as each other in order to create a successful title that will stand the test of time. A game needs a combination of exciting mechanics with cutting-edge graphics and polished with some excellent bespoke music.