Splitting it five ways

Founded in 2012 by David Newstead and Dan Nyman, Probability Jones is a creative agency focused on the invention and development of original single and multiplayer games for real-world and online wagering entertainment. Billing itself as an “antidote to the relentless rehashing of slot machines with tired old themes and stale ‘bonus features’” Probability Jones has set itself the goal of innovating with distinctive gaming concepts to please both the operators of online betting entertainments and their customers.
Probability Jones’ partner in this venture – 1X2gaming – is an independent gaming software provider, setup by Brian Reid and Sean St John, which created the original Flash-based Virtual Football Gaming product first released on Victor Chandler in 2003. Since then the company has extended its portfolio to encompass a variety of other Virtual sporting events as well as developing innovative and unique Casino and Instant Win Games. Clients include bwin.party, Ladbrokes, William Hill, and Bet365 as well as less well-known brands and startups across the whole of Europe.
The two companies came to be working together on a new Blackjack variant after a mutual friend introduced them. PJ’s David Newstead takes over the story: “Dan and I made the trip down to Brighton armed simply with with the format specifications, a pack of cards and some dice to demo the games.  Probability Jones – as was then – didn’t have any development capability and that wasn’t an ambition at that time. We were keen to focus on the invention and primary development of new gaming formats, which we could then license out to experienced game software developers.
“Blackjack is obviously one of the single most popular single-player card games around, so has a massive potential constituency of players to engage with. We were also attracted to the considerable challenge of finding a way of building a game that retained the core gambit that Blackjack players love, but adding new strategic twists that would catch the attention of skilful players.
“As we are a new name to the industry it was vitally important to us that we debuted with a game that would show real innovation to show our intent to deliver new games was serious and not just arrogant boasting!”

Blackjack Players’ Choice is a unique variation of the classic Blackjack card game that adds new levels of strategic play to the traditional game. Its novel gameplay allows players the opportunity to gain useful intelligence to choose a good hand from one of five possible options dealt at the start of the game, and reveals potentially valuable knowledge of the hand they’ll have to beat. From then on the player is head-to head with the dealer to achieve a winning hand value without busting the magic 21.
“Though quick to learn and retaining most of the core mechanics of Blackjack,” explains Newstead, “Blackjack Players’ Choice sets a new, compelling challenge to skilful players looking for a game that will reward smart, strategic play. As Dan like’s to put it, “Coin tossers, finger crossers and slot botherers need not apply.”
I ask Newstead how the format came to be: “The unique step – that initial deal of five hands around which the Players’ Choice element focuses – came about relatively quickly back in 2010 and remains pretty much intact from that first iteration. However the game’s innovations also brought with them a shift in strategy and ‘perfect play’ that had to be investigated and tested to check (a) they didn’t add complexity that would scare off players and operators and (b) that the final set of game rules delivered a house edge that would likewise not scare off players and operators!”   
Development and refinement of the game stepped up a gear once Probability Jones started working with 1x2gaming in 2012, as Newstead explains: “With their invaluable experience and thoughtful input we were able to hone the format and deduce the subtle changes to the traditional set of Blackjack rules that would meet the twin objectives mentioned above.”
Naturally with any game that involves an element of skill, getting the maths right isn’t as straightforward as a fixed-odds game like Roulette, and there was what Newstead describes as “the odd ‘squeaky bum’ moment” when modelling the game in pursuit of working out its perfect play, but logic and perseverance won out to get the game in a position that it could pass rigorous licencing requirements and be certified by NMi Metrology.  

Reinventing Wheels
I ask Newstead if he was ever worried they were fixing something that wasn’t broken. “We didn’t worry too much about it as we knew we were onto something quite early on from the initial feedback we got from some players and gaming professionals we previewed the early concept to. In our opinion the thing that’s lacking in traditional Blackjack is that the skill element has been somewhat diluted in recent times; you can go to the table armed with a crib sheet for optimal play, and sites like the Wizard of Odds has made it easy for casual players to quickly discover the tools to play well. This isn’t really challenging anyone and you could argue that playing Blackjack has become a little mundane. We hope that our game will inject a bit of a buzz into the experience for players.”
Newstead and Nyman were relieved to receive a majority of reassuringly positive feedback, although some of the more traditional Blackjack players were cautious about the differences between the two games. All the feedback, whether supportive or critical, has been invaluable though, as it affirmed PJ’s thinking and helped them refine how to market and pitch the game to the exceptionally broad church of players that love Blackjack and other popular card-based table games.
A deal was signed with Betsson Group in September, leaving PJ hopeful that the game will be live with them on a number of brands by the end of 2014. “We’re also in talks with numerous other tier one and two operators specifically about this format,” explains Newstead, “but also regarding the wider portfolio that we’re developing. The key challenge for PJ is overcoming some of the current hurdles with distribution; operators are very keen to take the games, but some of the routes to deliver to them can be slow and expensive.”
Right now PJ’s primary focus is to get Blackjack Players’ Choice widely distributed online and begin building a constituency of players that make it their go-to game. “From that foundation we’d be very interested to see an online appetite for the game launch a demand for it as a physical table in real-world clubs,” says Newstead. “If we’re not being too fanciful, a trip to Vegas a few years from now to play Blackjack Players’ Choice at the Bellagio would be a pretty exciting outcome for us!”

In addition to Blackjack Players’ Choice, Probability Jones has also just completed a new set of three games which it’s about to start previewing to potential development partners, plus another couple of ideas currently at the R&D stage. “There are a number of parties that we’re keen to work with, and the process of building relationships with innovative partners in the industry is on-going,” explains Newstead. “Our wider ambition is to carve out a reputation as the ‘go to guys’ if operators or developers want something really unique in their portfolio. We describe ourselves as ‘Game Architects’ and want to surprise people with stuff that they’ve not seen before – as such our aim is quality not quantity so we’re not promising to deliver a set number of new games every year. We aspire to only release ideas when we think we’ve got something genuinely fresh to offer the industry and its customers.”Splitting it five ways