Over the past 12 weeks NetEnt have released a number of premium quality video slots into the market: Aloha, Bob the Epic Viking (ED – yes, ‘Bob the Epic Viking’, you read right), Fantasini, Guns N’ Roses, and Drive. The Swedish slots titan are, on average, launching at least 1 video slot every 3 weeks. Every slot looks great, every slot has a unique feature set and thus slot maths model, every slot is is very polished, and some even have exception brand licensing attached. So why is it, when I read a new PR about a Net Entertainment slot, I am nothing but apathetic?
NetEnt do, and have produced some fantastic slots over the years. You don’t grow a business to a market cap over £1bn, employing over 700 people, with a portfolio of over 200 games across 100 global customers, without doing a lot of things right. But I think NetEnt’s success may also be the start of its main weakness.
Net Entertainment is a big multinational corporate machine and I feel that crystalises itself in the content that it churns out. Net Ent’s slot games feel so polished and manufactured that you can imagine they have invested in robots to build their slot games… Robots who have to produce a number of games to an annual schedule based on a fixed set of rules and criteria. That is, I believe NetEnt’s games lack soul.
Some of my favourite casino game developers at the moment are the likes of: Quickspin, Yggdrasil, Big Time Gaming, Thunderkick…even smaller newer developers like Foxium or Lost World Games really float my boat. Whilst writing this I was trying to put my finger on what it is about these titles that I like. In some cases the slot maths might not be the best, the presentation and UI might not be up to standard,..hell even the graphics might look obscurely abstract. But what I notice from all games that come from these developers is that they have soul, they have a certain charm and they were clearly made with passion and love. This is of course a problem with big business that I reference in relation to Zynga, in that the objectives change from producing innovative, considered content, to just having to get something out for the sake of it or because the release schedule states that they should.
If NetEnt produce a game that doesn’t do the numbers in the market then I suspect the game producer has a slightly tougher annual review, the marketing team send a few angry emails, and the corporate relations team have to plan for a more arduous general meeting with the shareholders… If it even makes a dent in the share price. The casino won’t remove the slot, hell the casino might not even playtest the next game from NetEnt, and just release the slot due to the power of the NetEnt brand.
For a smaller/medium sized developer, like those referenced above, if a slot release is not commercially successful, then it has a real impact on the business, the job security of those that work there and the strength of the brand. So each and every game has to ensure that it encapsulates the passion of the people building it. If you happen to follow the video game sector then you may be aware of the FireWatch Refund Incident. I won’t go into detail but essentially a player was speculating whether to request a refund on a title for being too short. One of the developers posted a conscientious and honest reply. Within that reply they talk about the trails and tribulations of making games and I’ve extracted some of the key elements from the developer’s reply – although it’s worth reading the full transcript:
“…We all could have had much better paying jobs elsewhere, but we all thought this game idea had potential to be something special. We seemed to like each other ok, so we all took a big leap of faith…Two years +. We are all crammed in a tiny office, sharing one bathroom. It is not a glamorous thing, making an independent game. It is just a small room full of computers and a used microwave and $10 office chairs we luckily got from craigslist… We were excited, but terrified. We felt free, but were constrained. I have been in this industry for 15 years almost, and this is the hardest I have ever worked. We all gave it our all, to make this weird thing, and we had no idea if it was any good to anybody else. All we could do, was try the damn hardest to make something we are honestly proud of…”
The Campo Santo dev team clearly put everything into building the Fire Watch game, and when/if you play the game, you’ll see that the game definitely has soul. This also helps prove the point I’m trying to make that slot games are still games like any other. They still require a dedicated team, they require investment and once released you have no control over how the market will respond. The difference however is how you as a developer respond to the market critique.
If you care about critique, if it hurts you as a developer, you know you are on to a good thing and you know that you are developing the games in the right frame of mind. Nothing is guaranteed as a success but if you are pouring your heart and soul into each and every attempt, sooner or later that will be recognised and that breakthrough moment will come.
If you are building slot games purely because your shareholders expect you to, or there is a marketing angle that needs plugging, or because you have a licence sitting by, or any other reason that is commercially driven, then the content you are producing will never truly resound with the audience. Your games will lack that certain ‘something’ that adds the icing on the cake. That can take the form of the charm of the slot characterisation or slot narrative, or whether it’s a theme that you can tell is much loved by the developer such that is deeply explored in the game presentation. It can also be a game feature that is so avant-garde that it can only have come from the brain of a slot designer who is either crazy, or fully engaged with their trait and fully understands their industry. Whatever it may be charm or soul is what I feel sets some games apart from others, and this is something that never jumps out at me when I play any new NetEnt game.
Maybe this will never become a problem for NetEnt, maybe that boulder of success will never stop rolling down the hill; Maybe it’s just a problem for the creative sector when you move from small indie studio, to large multinational. All I know is that when I started writing this post it came on the back of being excited about the release of Yggdrasil’s ‘Seasons’ game and Quickspin’s ‘Genie’s Touch’…not any of the past 4 NetEnt games. For me, that is an issue that the Swedish slot giant needs to fix.