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IN-DEPTH 5 November 2015
Which is the better slot option?
When a provider is faced with the choice of supplying in-house or branded slot content, it can be difficult to decide which is the more viable for both short and long-term gain. David Cook searches for answers via the help of three industry experts
By David Cook

When a player walks into a land-based casino or signs into an online gaming site, they are likely presented with a variety of slot game choices. For an operator, the importance of a player’s choice of game should not be underestimated. It could be the difference between whether they are likely to continue playing at the casino or not, regardless of whether they win or lose. Providers are fully aware that even the name of a slot game can have an effect on whether a player will want to play it or not, and for these providers, this is where the choice of in-house or branded content comes in. But which is the more likely to draw a player to a slot game and keep them playing?

The industry’s providers are split as to whether there is value in striking a deal to create branded content, or whether the fruits of their own creation could be more of a profitable option. While it has been argued previously that branded content is important in the process of acquiring and retaining players, particularly if a player has been attracted to a casino for the sole reason that it is offering a branded slot game that the player has a particular interest in, there is always an element of risk involved. When an agreement for branded content comes to an end, as was the case with operator PartyCasino’s deal with Paramount Pictures Digital Entertainment, which included four of its most well-known brands, the operator must then retain players without the content that may have driven them to their casino in the first place.

With this being a pressing issue that providers are required to deal with, we are aiming to decipher the differences between branded and in-house content, and ultimately find out from those in the know which type of offering best suits them. Is a player more likely to follow a name that they would recognise instantly, or is it first and foremost the design of the game that matters? Given that a particular brand may only be in the public eye for a short period of time, does branded content have long-term value? Is branded content actually giving the player a unique experience compared with what they are accustomed to with regular slot games? Does this even matter?

To shed light on the issue, we have compiled the views of a panel of three industry experts, who hold the relevant knowledge and experience to debate the topic. As you will see, there certainly doesn't seem to be a simple solution to this dilemma.

Each of our contributors answers the question: Which is the stronger slot offering: branded or in-house content?

What's important to stress is that a branded game doesn’t become a success overnight, and if produced poorly it might not be successful at all
Mike Hebden
Head of casino games, Microgaming

There is no doubt about it – branded content is incredibly important. To put it bluntly, if branded content wasn’t performing well, why would we still be developing branded games a decade on from signing the industry’s first brand partnership (for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)? Moreover, our competitors have followed in our footsteps in creating a branded portfolio; they’ve cottoned on to the fact that these games have a variety of benefits and ultimately form a key part of an operator’s game offering.

We know players like branded content. Our market research indicates that players often look for familiarity in games, be it a TV programme, film or iconic character. Faced with literally hundreds of games at an online casino, to see a game which provides a sense of familiarity, for example Batman from The Dark Knight, could naturally influence the player’s decision to play a particular slot. That’s why branded slots are utilised heavily for operator marketing campaigns and specifically acquisition campaigns.

But what’s important to stress is that a branded game doesn’t become a success overnight, and if produced poorly it might not be successful at all. It’s a complex process and you have to put a lot of resources into developing these games. This ranges from finding the right brand to partner with, to negotiating and signing contracts, to learning about the brand, to choosing an appropriate game mechanic, and developing the maths engine to make sure everything is approved by the licensor. A branded game can take over a year to get to market.

Take our most recent branded slot, Game of Thrones. Launched in December, it has become our most successful game to date. But its triumph isn’t solely because Game of Thrones is a modern powerhouse of a brand, but for the reason that we’ve combined the brand with an appropriate game mechanic, rich feature set and simultaneous launch on desktop and mobile.

With this in mind, does this mean that branded content is the stronger offering? Absolutely not. It’s about striking the right balance. Branded games only account for a handful of our 800+ casino games. Why? Because it’s about quality, not quantity.

By far the strongest slot offering is a mixture of branded and in-house content. Neither is more important than the other and neither can be neglected; they work hand in hand to form a diverse, exhilarating portfolio of games. It really is a case of juggling the two.

Unfortunately, game design often suffers when big bucks are spent on acquiring a licence for the brand
Thomas Nielsen
Head of game licensing, Magnet Gaming

The debate over which provides a stronger slot offering, branded or in-house, has been raging for some time. But there is no simple answer. They both have their strengths and they both have their weaknesses.

Branded content is first and foremost an acquisition tool. It uses a popular film, cartoon or music group to get people playing slots. For developers, it’s a way to stand out from the crowd when pitching their games to an operator. For the operator, it’s a way to stand out from competitors and a way of tempting new players. For those players, a known brand is a source of familiarity.

For all but the most devoted of a particular band of film fans however, the novelty often wears off. When that happens, a player’s devotion is only maintained by good game design. It is this that will keep them playing.

Unfortunately, that game design often suffers when big bucks are spent on acquiring a licence for the brand. The hope among those who favour brands is that players will hop across to another game on the casino. But I’d argue they’re just as likely to change casino.

It often takes a little longer for a player to grasp the nuances of an original, in-house game. But, with development budgets often larger, there’s more chance the game has been better designed. This produces a better return on investment.

The game and its characters can also be tailored toward the best possible player experience, as there are no pre-determined expectations as to what can and can’t be done. This freedom allows good games designers to break new ground. This really strengthens a game’s monetisation and retention rates. Admittedly, you may have to work harder to attract players in the first place. But once you do, they’ve got the buzz.

At Magnet Gaming we spend a lot of time on game design, creating different maths models, themes, sounds and functionality for players. We don’t currently have any branded games but are not averse to the idea if the right brand comes along. When it does, we want to make sure players feel we and it are a sensible match that adds value to both the game and the brand.

Personally, I believe we should strive for a healthy mix of branded and non-branded content. But the reality is that good game design keeps players coming back for more, and for both supplier and operator, that is more important than anything.

The introduction of major branded slots has been innovative to some degree, but the games themselves aren’t very different from each other
Nick Barr
Sales director, Genii

There has been a dearth of innovation in the slots sector over the past decade or, to be honest, even further back than that. Have they really changed that much from the one-armed bandit? They look prettier and more enticing, but fundamentally they haven’t really changed.

I suppose the introduction of major branded slots has been innovative to some degree, but the games themselves aren’t very different from each other. The actual mechanics and functionality of a game like The Dark Knight or South Park are very similar. There’s no differentiation as you can’t change anything about the game due to the commercial rights. So, essentially, that means everyone’s got the same game and it’s very difficult to stand out from the crowd.

I accept that these big Hollywood brands are good from a marketing and acquisition perspective. They help to pull people in, but I think the majority of slots players prefer playing more creative in-house slots.

At Genii, our strategy is very much focused on in-house content. We have over 130 games in our portfolio and we find that clients like having that variation. It also means that we can tailor games to suit a specific client’s demands. They may want a slightly higher variance version of a slot, or just for the look and feel to change slightly. That degree of flexibility is a major advantage for operators.

We have also recently launched our Spin16 product range, which effectively changes the way people play slots. Never before have players been able to interact directly with the reels, spinning them in any direction rather than just pressing a single button. The growth in mobile and tablet gaming has been huge, yet players still just sit there pressing a spin button or auto-spin.

Both players and operators are more demanding now, and so they should be. We expect to be able to do everything via our mobile phones, and the bespoke nature of in-house content is appealing for operators, especially when this can be applied consistently across all channels.

There is certainly a place for branded content in the market – it helps to attract new players. But on the whole I’m confident that in-house content is the stronger option for both operators and players.

THE BOTTOM LINE
One sign that this debate has proved to be a particularly thought-provoking, nuanced and relevant one is that two of our three contributors chose not to side with either branded or in-house content as the stronger option for the online casino industry, while the third, Nick Barr, couldn't completely overlook the merits of branded content, despite favouring the in-house option.

Microgaming has a strong background in creating branded content, and Mike Hebden uses the provider’s experience in this field to emphasise the advantages it has brought to the company. He does however note that branded slot content is not guaranteed to be successful if the correct level of care and attention is not put into the design and production of the games in question. He concludes that providers should offer a combination of in-house and branded content to deliver a portfolio of games that can be enjoyed by varying types of players.

Thomas Nielsen of Magnet argues that in terms of importance, good game design should lead the way above all else. He believes that, while branded content may be more likely to make a short-term impact as an acquisition tool, over time the novelty will wear off and players' interest is only maintained by strong game design, which he says can suffer when big money has been spent on acquiring a brand licence. He doesn't share the notion that branded content is likely to lead a player into playing other games at a casino, and believes that they are in fact just as likely to leave the casino entirely.

Genii's Barr cites what he sees as a general lack of innovation in the creation of slot games in recent years. He accepts that the introduction of branded slots has been innovative to some extent, but still sees the games themselves as broadly similar, adding that the majority of players will likely prefer a more creative in-house offering. He acknowledges that branded content does have its place as a method of acquisition, but all things considered comes out in favour of in-house content as the stronger option for players and operators.

If you don’t agree with any of the three positions taken by our panel of experts, why not write to us at [email protected] with a synopsis of your own informed opinion. If we like it, then perhaps it will appear on these pages in the not-too-distant future.
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