Game Development and the Target Marketplace
In broad terms, the development of gambling games is not significantly different from the development cycle used in the PC, console, and coin-op games industries. A market segment is identified and targeted, a specification is defined, prototypes are produced, tested, and refined, and if all is successful the title is moved into full production. The unique aspects of game development in this industry involve special math considerations and meeting the regulatory requirements that address almost all aspects of a game. These regulations can have some unusual side effects on the day-to-day production work. Art, programming, and business have always been somewhat tentative bedfellows; adding government to the mix can really shake things up.
The overall demographics of the gaming market are not difficult to identify. The minimum legal gaming age in all jurisdictions is 21, and the baby-boomer and older demographics are the key targets for casinos, given their higher percentage of discretionary income. This tends to make the game designs more conservative than other mediums. Older adults are also typically less computer-literate than younger people, so games must be kept "comfortable" even for the customers who do not know how to program their VCRs. Furthermore, this design parameter also drives significantly less content than is typical for other forms of entertainment. Gaming devices would never have hundreds of levels or dozens of characters, for example.
CDS's Reel Racers video slot machine. The hardware deployed in casino games must
be robust enough to withstand 24/7 operation
in less than ideal conditions.
Within these constraints, target marketplace segments can be identified in several ways. They can be categorized by the nature of the games (reel-spinning slots, video slots, video poker, and so on), by denomination (a game that accepts nickels is designed and targeted differently from a $1 game, for example), or by the targeted player type. In general, the industry has perceived two categories of customers, the "tourist" and the "local." Games designed for the tourist market have traditionally been flashier, easier to understand and play, and higher-earning for the casino. The local player typically looks for games that have the highest payback percentage (often video poker), ignoring the bells and whistles of the tourist-style games. In the past, locals' games received little attention in areas such as game choreography, interactivity, and graphics and sound quality. However, the aforementioned technological breakthroughs, along with improvements in the game design process, have resulted in new titles that have broad appeal to players of all types, and the tourist/local distinctions are beginning to blur. (They have also resulted in significantly shorter replacement cycles. As with the PC gaming industry, the faster the technology advances, the faster it becomes outdated.)
Designing a Successful Gaming Experience
A successful game design satisfies the following objectives:
Initial attraction Why will this game be attractive to players when placed on a casino floor with thousands of other games? Some games lure players simply by offering a large jackpot, while others offer unique themes, recognizable brand names, or just an attractive overall package. These games are typically placed in banks of four to twelve machines and are offered for play 24/7, a rigorous environment to say the least.
Player appeal What are the game characteristics that will keep people playing once they have chosen this game? Again, certain models accomplish this by offering the promise of a huge jackpot, but players are increasingly opting for models that offer a higher level of overall entertainment value.
Completion What is the goal the player is striving for? This again can be simply a large top award, but the trend is to develop games with enhanced secondary features over and above the standard game play. Examples of these features include bonus games: different game levels which are reached by satisfying a specified objective in the primary game. Bonus games typically feature special animation, distinctive music, and most importantly, the opportunity for additional payouts.
Celebration What type of feedback does the game provide when the player wins a jackpot or achieved a game milestone? Casino gaming is typically a very social experience, and providing feedback to the player that he or she has accomplished something special is critical to a game's success.
Not surprisingly, these objectives aren't that different from those established for non-gambling games as well.
Chance from the
Easy Street game shown here with a background scene.
Also similar are the tools utilized for prototyping and development. After game and math concepts are established and storyboarded, prototypes are built using Macromedia Director or similar proprietary tools. Once a game is approved for production, code is typically developed in C or C++ (usually with Visual C++), although code destined to execute from EPROM may be written with legacy or custom tools. Artwork is developed using all of the usual suspects: 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, After Effects, and of course Photoshop. Custom graphics tools may be used to dither images to lower color depths or convert to proprietary file formats.
In an ideal world, the workflow of game development follows closely the procedures detailed in the article "Bringing Engineering Discipline to Game Development" (Game Developer, December 1998). But as we're all aware, factors such as market conditions, personnel changes, and simple deadlines can compress development cycles to something less than the theoretical ideal. Still, it's critical to respect the conventional alpha/beta/silver/gold release process in order to refine game attributes, squash bugs, and prepare the title for regulatory submission. Product development cycles can vary significantly; market opportunities have driven games from storyboard to shipping dock in as little as six months. More typical development cycles run 12 to 18 months.
The distribution channels for gaming devices can be particularly brutal. Unless a title is extremely strong, most casinos demand a trial period before they will commit to a purchase. During this period, which is typically a minimum of 30 days, casinos get to keep and operate the games at no cost to them. Once concluded, they then make the choice to keep or return the game. Often a buyer will request that the machine be converted to another title if they feel the installed one is not earning enough; these conversions are also typically done at no cost to the buyer. Then, should the casino decide to move ahead with the purchase, often a substantial discount is requested (the logic being that they are buying a used game at this point). Most game manufacturers distribute their games directly, although third-party distributors are often used for international markets.