6 November, 2023

Jelly Entertainment CEO: Winning big with the 'right' kind of innovation

David Newstead, CEO at Jelly Entertainment, says operator and player demands are going through a period of change. And, while most developers claim to be innovative, changing the game in a meaningful way requires more than just creativity.

Innovation. Everyone says they’re doing it but, in reality, few game developers are bringing a new experience to the table.

Nearly every new title can be likened to another with a feeling of “okay, it plays like X.” Some games will iterate on another by way of varying degrees of step-change, but the question is whether this approach delivers anything that significantly advances the entertainment value on offer within the industry.  

Arguably, popular themes and mechanics are trotted out by the dozen with a risk adverse mindset that leads to middle-of-the-road content. True innovation remains a risk for both developers and operators, with only a few cases where it has truly paid off.

The inclusion of slot games in a portfolio should always be purposeful. High-level differentiation, where innovation is still just one aspect, must relate back to a slot’s ultimate purpose. 

There’s a benefit to taking this approach, which is clear from the number of replicated titles on the market. Players instantly grasp how to play because of familiarity; ensuring the experience feels comfortable while adding enough elements to freshen the content. Operators know what they’re getting and can take a more educated guess on the expected performance with their audience.

This doesn’t, however, breed innovation.  

But where does this hunger for innovation stem from? For developers, it’s a way to stand out amid the clamour. It’s a fiercely competitive field. Hitting on the ‘next big thing’ has the power to swiftly propel a developer’s standing. We’ve seen it – albeit not very often. Considering the multitude of channels and media demanding their attention, operators are now more inclined to explore content that has the potential to engage and entertain the future player base. 

Innovation means starting with a blank piece of paper, coming up with crazy ideas then tempering them to the right degree using a commercial mindset and analytical insights. It means working with the mathematicians to strike the right balance between the base game and features, to keep the gameplay experience engaging and immersive.

The challenge is to encapsulate that excitement within a format that pushes boundaries but doesn’t lose the player within the first few spins. The look can change; the panel doesn’t have to be a 5x3 reel grid - in fact, the visuals can be very different and really punch with a deep storyline that explains the goal of the game. Yet even within an ironically risk adverse industry, innovation is distinctly possible but rare to see in practice.  

Perhaps the most significant barriers to developers taking a lead on innovation is that players are generally unwilling to spend their time, and more importantly their money, learning something entirely new. They might do a few spins on a game that deviates from the norm but without an early win they’ll simply leave the game with no intentions to return.

There is so much content available, the landscape is one where players are spoilt for choice and operators are swamped with options. Yet the cost to create a game has increased alongside the number of developers vying for attention.

The fragmented regulatory landscape levies additional certification requirements and with it, money out the door. So a developer committed to pushing boundaries also needs to be confident that their product will perform. They also need to cut through the noise to grab the attention of operators, secure a decent chunk of real-estate on release, and then keep it long enough for players to discover it and build up the level of rapport that keeps them coming back.

Since operators also keep a close eye on the bottom line, it’s natural that they’ll stock their lobbies with content they feel confident will work.

Operators tend to focus in on a handful of developers they know will help them deliver their targets, leaving enough room for just a few test cases that embody what it is to be innovative at any time. It’s all legitimate business sense; focus on brand building and acquisition, but with both developers and operators inclined to err on the side of caution, it’s innovation that becomes the sacrificial lamb.  

This is the catch 22 the industry finds itself in. Even when most developers strive to be different, once all the above is factored in, even creatives end up with an offering that meets player expectations but rarely exceeds it. This mindset is a breeding ground for stagnation. But, does everyone need to be innovative? Not necessarily.

Authentic innovation involves a risk for both developers and operators, and there are only a few instances where it has truly yielded substantial rewards. It’s important for developers to understand that they’re having to satisfy multiple demographics; operators, their players and the publishers that push their content to the masses. 

The advent of streaming and the increasingly close relationship between publishers and developers should’ve opened the floodgates to innovation. Publishers are influential whether you love them or otherwise; they want content, they want it early and they want to drive traffic.

They’re first and foremost gaming enthusiasts that want something new, or a scoop on the next big title, format or big developer release. They’re often the first to unbox a new slot, prod and pull at it, and give their take on it to players. They have the power to explain and recommend content to their audiences.

While many developers have identified the value, few have seized the opportunity and metaphorically throw out their well-worn pants and put on a disco suit, in broad daylight, without any underwear.  

With so many developers churning out games, anything new that positively lights up inboxes will quickly spawn copycat titles. That developer needs to be onto the next big thing as their flashy brainchild is about to become old news or they need to protect that investment and the rewards it brings. Building a following on a mechanic is a lucrative game, at least while it’s fresh.  

At Jelly, for example, we use several proprietary mechanics such as Super Staxx and Wild Ways. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say these lend themselves to evolution rather than innovation, but they’re super simple to understand and help to offer a more thrilling and entertaining experience to the player.  

Let’s not underestimate the challenges of fostering innovation in this domain. It’s not due to a shortage of creativity or ideas; rather, in an industry that is relatively young and often seen as agile, it’s evident that there’s still a prevailing hesitancy to fully support what might be the next major breakthrough. The stakes are high. 

Our industry deserves space to think outside the box and take inspiration from the worlds of mobile and video gaming to throw some of that variety into player devices all over the globe. No team, whether developer or operator, wants to be on stuck in a churn mill pumping out more of the same day and night.

Here, entertainment is the ultimate prize just as much as it is elsewhere, but our audience has the opportunity to win big and, with the right kind of innovation, so do we.