Bringing any new product to market is rife with challenges. For casino operators, the risks of introducing a new game are varied: Will a new game outperform an existing one? Will it appeal to your audience? But the most important question is rather simple—will players love it enough to invest their gambling dollars on it?
Every seasoned and successful casino operator has a pretty solid understanding of the performance of each game on their floor. Consequently, there is an opportunity cost associated with the introduction of every new game. In short, when introducing a new game to the casino floor, how do you know that you’re ultimately introducing a higher-earning game than the one you had before?
It wasn’t all that long ago that casino operators had little to go on beyond their gut feeling or the last sales pitch. However, the increasing popularity of online games, alongside the ability to gather real-time feedback from actual players, is helping both game developers and casino operators minimize their risk and ensure that the metric they value most—player satisfaction—remains high.
YOUR GUT IS NOT EMPIRICAL
As an avid and passionate player of video poker, I’ve been fortunate to have launched and tested these games for nearly 20 years. Back in the day, before casual online gaming became so popular, developing a new video poker game was based on “gut feel” without the technical tools to gauge the likeliness of success.
The process itself was relatively straightforward: our game development team would brainstorm an idea for a new game, core requirements would be defined (i.e. pay tables, visual elements, etc.), then we’d work with our development partner International Game Technology (IGT) to polish the game and then submit it to gaming regulators and after their approval, it would be made available to casinos for purchase.
The entire process, from conception to launch, would typically take anywhere from a year to 18 months. Needless to say, it’s a time consuming and very expensive endeavor. Over the course of our company’s history, we’ve managed to create and bring some amazingly successful games to market—though there have also been more than a few duds along the way.
But perhaps the most challenging aspect for making even the smallest change to a game is the complex and thorough regulatory environment that every game must travel on its path to approval. For instance, let’s say you realize after finalizing a game that players don’t like font or the purple background that was used on the screen. To correct these issues, we would have to recreate a submission packet for every gambling jurisdiction and then resubmit the game to all of them. Even the simplest change of a color would require that regulatory authorities to re-test every aspect of the game.
Imagine for a moment you’re JJ Abrams working on the new Star Wars movie. You could release it on thousands of screens and take a chance that you got it right. Or, as is the standard practice in Hollywood, you could test multiple versions with different screening audiences. The difference between the two is that with a film there are no regulatory bodies to worry about. But casino game developers only have one shot to get it right, so you’d be better be sure everything is dialed in to ensure players really love the game you’re bringing to market before you get to this most critical stage.
THE REAL POWER OF COMMUNITY
Our company, Action Gaming, develops and brings a half dozen new video poker games to market every year. If you’ve spent time playing video poker in a casino, you’ve no doubt played one of our games. Triple Play, Ultimate X and Super Times Pay are among a few of the 70-plus video poker games that we’ve developed and are manufactured and distributed by our long-term partner, IGT.
Successful video poker games typically have a few things in common: there is often an element of familiarity but also a measure of novelty. Finding that balance can be tricky to nail down—especially after a game has been launched into the field and it is too late to adjust or fix.
In 2006 Action Gaming launched VideoPoker.com, which lets video poker fans play and practice the exact same games that are found in casinos. The initial idea behind the VideoPoker.com site was to help familiarize players with our portfolio of games so that prior to visiting and spending their hard earned cash in a casino, they would be more comfortable trying something new or feel more confident playing the games they already like to play. Over the course of the past 10 years, the site now has several hundred thousand members, the majority of whom would identify themselves as video poker enthusiasts.
As the site grew in popularity and became a real community, we began to realize that these video poker enthusiasts could be harnessed another way: as a real-time forum to gather feedback from actual players, which would ultimately be fed back into the game development process. Most importantly, it would provide us and IGT with solid user data from real players, enabling our team to work with empirical evidence to guide the product development process and improve the game before it takes final form.
LESSONS FROM SUPERDRAW 6 CARD POKER
One such game that we recently tested, iterated and ultimately improved via the VideoPoker.com community was SuperDraw 6, which offers a variation on our popular Triple Play where players see their first five cards and select their hold cards. However, during the draw, a bonus sixth card is also played for each hand, providing players with new opportunities for higher payouts such as a six-card royal flush.
We held several assumptions about the game during the development phase and were often surprised to find that what held true for one game wasn’t necessarily the same for another.
One piece of vital information we seek from players—are they aware of the bonus feature, how it’s triggered and what they can win? For instance, because the odds of hitting a six card royal flush are very high, we initially didn’t include a payout for that hand. However, the feedback we solicited from the community indicated that despite the high odds of this outcome, they wanted this to be reflected in the pay table.
Perhaps the most compelling insight gleaned from this experiment was the recognition that there was a particular excitement from the community about playing SuperDraw 6 in a live casino environment, with close to 90 percent of those polled saying they would either be “extremely or very likely” to play it if it were available at their favorite casino. Beyond this invaluable feedback, this exercise also served to provide validation for the game concept as well as driving awareness. And ultimately, we believe this will create demand for the game.
Anyone who is developing a new product, be it a software product or a golf club, is likely going to do some type of prototype testing as part of the product development process. If you have a community of users, think about how you can engage them to become a true, collaborative part of the product development process. And if you don’t have one, you ought to think about how you can build one.