A revolution in revolution

“Casino slots haven’t changed much since the dawn of the one-armed bandit,” says the video demo. “There has been very little innovation in this, the most popular category of casino games. Today we have high-resolution touch-screen devices, yet still we perpetuate a game idiom that limits game interactivity to poking a single spin button. We can do so much better… Introducing Spin16.” That was just the YouTube clip I fired up before heading into London to see Genii’s new Spin16 product in action. As with most slots, unless you actually see the reels spinning it’s hard to get particularly excited about yet another one, but having been promised ‘revolutionary’ by my PR contact (I said I’d fine him £100 cash if this wasn’t the case) it seemed a trip into town was justified JUST in case this did change the way people play slots. Perhaps in years to come I’ll look back – from atop a mountain of discarded old slot machines – and shout “I was there at the new beginning!” and laugh at how foolish humans were to have ever played slots any other way than… well… whatever it was I was about to see. “We’re trying to reinvent slots for the modern market and technology of today, but we’re not trying to develop a new genre of games,” says Devan Govender, Director and CTO of Genii. “Were not trying to tap into new markets of players, what we’re saying is that as an industry we can do a lot better for existing players in terms of slot mechanics.” Devan pulls out a tablet featuring one of the first Spin16 games: Age of Spartans. “So Spin16 products should be instantly recognisable as a slot game, but with some clues that there are some slight differences to it – the little markers around the outside for instance. What we’ve basically done is make it so that you interact directly with the reels as opposed to the reel just being a visual aspect and you’re poking a button at the bottom…” Devan sets the reels spinning, but he does so by picking either a column and pushing it up or down with his finger on the screen, or by picking a row and swiping it left or right. The rest of the reels follow suit… “You can move any reel in any direction and the mechanic moves from spinning to actually swiping. The common mechanic has been that you hit spin and the reels spin 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and then stop in order afterwards, but there’s a difference to it when you can swipe side-ways for example as we can progressively reveal from that direction. But the key to all of it is that you’re now interacting with the whole of the screen and you develop muscle memory, using your thumbs and swiping your favourite way, so there’s a new element in this kind of tactile experience rather than having a separate trigger button. The name Spin16 comes from the 16 different ways you can spin a 5×3 slot, but your choice of reel and direction isn’t just to show you a different way of spinning, it has a real influence on the outcome of the game, and that brings in this second phase of play…” Which brings us to the markers that appear on the top, bottom, left and right of each column and row. As Devan swipes – for instance – the central row to the right, a golden arrow appears on the marker at the end of that row. If he picks the far left column and swipes up, the golden arrow appears at the top of that column as the reels spin (and so on). The second phase of play – once the reels have spun and landed – sees a new green arrow spin around the outside of the reels reminiscent of a roulette mechanic as the house randomly chooses one of the 16 positions. “If that turns out to match with your choice of reel and direction you get a times-ten multiplier,” explains Devan, “if it matches just the direction you get a x2 multiplier, and if it matches just the reel you get a x5. So there’s a second phase of anticipation and reward; your first one is just waiting for the reels to stop and you get the normal pay-line mechanic, but even when you don’t win we still play out that ‘near miss’ emotive  aspect [of the second phase] because… well, there was a study in Cambridge a few years back where they hooked up brain activity monitors to gamblers and looked for where the biggest activities came from, and it wasn’t from big wins and losses – it was actually from near-misses. Two cherries and nothing… and so on. So if you have actually spun and not won, but then the second phase shows that you would have hit a 5x multiplier, you see that the win would have been much greater.” “There’s also the possibility that when don’t win anything on the pay-lines but hit a multiplier a message plays on that outcome,“ [the point being proved as Devan hits nothing but gets the direction right, receiving an “Ooooohh, that could have been great!“ message from the games teasing inner voice! “These two phases together bring in quite a different balance of experiences through the game,” continues Devan. “You’ll also notice ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ reel indicators [a burning red marker and a frosty blue marker respectively]. What that does is give a real-time view of what other players are actually hitting on, so the hot reel is the one being hit the most and – obviously – the cold reel is the one that hasn’t come up in a while. The closest analogy here is like a roulette wheel’s history”. Spin16 players can chose to spin just cold of just hot reels from the main buttons and play on that history. The data for these categories comes from the whole group, so operators running multiple brands will have all that data coming together to show what’s hot and what’s not.  “We’ve kept the game very much a slot game, so it’s all based on slot mathematics. We’re building models that are high volatility models for the VIP high-end players, and high hit rate, low volatility models for the general playing population – they fit very well in to existing market segments, we’re just bringing this new mechanic to it.”  The auto-spin function is also based on the hot or cold options, so players chose to auto-spin one or the other along with how many spins desired; the auto-spin will then follow that ‘heat’ dynamic as it changes in real-time, so players can chose to stick with the popular choices or chase the cold spins. I ask if the swiping mechanic affects the results of where the tiles land. “It’s still perfectly random,” answers Devan, “You can imagine it like this: when i swipe right it makes no different to the ‘spin’; all the swipe is really doing is setting up where your arrow marker will fall for the second phase of play. Gennii is licenced in Malta and the UK, and for Spin16 games to fall into the slot gaming category and for it to be licenced and so on we needed to be sure it’s familiar enough without needing to sit in a test lab for months. So we’re working with the various authorities and because they follow all these slot principles we’re having a much easier time getting through that process.” “We have a patent on this aspect of the game [the swiping mechanism], and the interesting thing is – if for instance I swipe right – that the moment a single reel stops it’s fully definitive whether you’ve got any wins on that pay-line, so you can start progressively displaying what those pay-out are, delivering animations and so on. It’s a far richer experience in terms of that win/loss emotional roller-coaster that you want to give players. We’re really punting this as the way slots will be played, so the patent covers the mechanism that we’re running – and we’re going very big initially online – which is our market – but within a year we want to expand this into land-based as well.”  I ask about the Spin16 user experience for those not on touch-screen formats. Devan explains: “Even for land-based players we are going to focus on the touch-screen format, but that said it works really well with a different kind of mechanism. With a mouse you are simply grabbing the reel you want and ‘flinging’ it in the direction you want, and that’s what we want to get to – that, however you are playing, there is a much greater range of movement involved that just poking a ‘SPIN’ button.” “We’ve run through a few thousand players using this, and there comes a point when players’ ‘lucky swipe’ [i.e. far right column going up!] happens to be right and they feel like they’ve got the biggest reward possible. And then you see people playing on a smart phone and you can see them using their thumbs… flying up and down; it becomes a far richer gaming experience.” Being devil’s advocate – and considering how little some slots players seem to want to do, right down to simply setting auto-spin off and sitting back – I ask if there is a strong indication from Genii’s research that slots players are actually looking for more to do in their slot games. “There was a study done in fruit machines,” replies Devan, “and the act of tapping the button was the biggest attraction rather than the lights or features; it was that physical act that drew players. If we take our numbers and the data we’ve collected in terms of use of auto-spin… it’s not your hard-core players using that.” “For a lot of our games we look at it much more from the entertainment aspect rather than ‘I turn on auto-spin and see where my £20 is going to take me’. In terms of revenue and the players that really stick, that’s not what we were aiming for; we’re looking to make that entertaining part much stronger. But yes, auto-spin exists for people that just want to sit back and watch things unfold.” “The innovation in slots in the last ten years has been about getting to the feature game. It’s not even about the slots any more, it’s ‘let’s see what the feature game looks like’. And that’s where things like auto-spin come into play. It’s like “stick it on and it’ll stop when I get to the feature game, and that’s what i want to look at”. We’re trying to get back to where every spin has that level of excitement and be interesting enough that you don’t need to get to that feature game – it’s about making that core slot experience better… and that’s where we are.” In April the first three Spin16 games went live, with Casino Dukes being the sole UK operator for the platform. Genii’s game portfolio is around 150 games across Windows, Mac and mobile, with plans to launch Spin16 across desktop with native downloads for windows and Mac, across all browsers and then ios, android, windows, etc. and also in both app stores and as html5.  I ask if you can easily retrofit already-popular games to Spin16. “Well Age of Spartans [the game being demoed today] is one of our popular titles, and this is a Spin16 version of it,” explains Devan, “so we’re launching with two games that are very popular existing games in Spin16 format and one new title, so we need to understand across those where the player population actually goes.” “Bringing an existing game to the Spin16 mechanic is effectively developing a new game; new html etc. However, we know Age of Spartans’ demographic so we made sure that the volatility is in the same kind of range. We make sure that the frequency of certain combinations that come up and result in those animations and audio tap into an experience that’s working for that segment. We need to be sure those things still appear, but now it’s richer with that second phase of play.”  Spin16 spent nine months in development but was very much under the radar for a large percentage of that time because of the patent application and the non-disclosure that goes with that. The concept has been through several iterations with very little changes in terms of the core game and the second phase, but a lot in terms of the user interface and making it easier to pick up and understand right off the bat. Devan explains: “Things like the gold target and showing you what’s happening – that has probably been through ten… maybe twelve… different iterations. We also had to keep development within our team so we progressively exposed more and more of our own people to the concepts so that we could get a fresh perspective from people who’d never seen it before to balance how important the main game was with the feature game.” “Also originally we just had the history bars separate and the second phase of the game happening high up on the screen, but we then brought it down into the main game more tightly. Even after we launch we’ll watch the players carefully; some people open the game and don’t like the background music; some people don’t like the look of a game and simply won’t even bother spinning. We can measure one game against another in terms of how well it does and first impressions.” “We’ve had it in the past where games have a big drop off and we’ve just had to totally redo the audio in a game because that turned out to be the turn off. We had one game with a leprechaun where the guy’s laugh just turned out to be too crazy for players. Every time he turned up with some random comment it was too grating for players! So even after a game ships we’re constantly looking at it and fine-tuning the game; there will be a lot of analysis going on.” Genii plan to release up to ten Spin16 titles before the end of 2015. “There’s a lot of legal work to be done on the patents and then we’ll be taking them to land-based,” says Devan, “and of course there are all the other territories to deal with. I think ten is a conservative number.”