ARTICLE: 5 Things I Learned from Making Casino Games

After 3 years working in the casino games development industry for one of the most prestigious companies in the world, I leave realizing that I’ve learnt much more than I had thought when I set foot on my very first day. Most of the lessons learnt have improved my outlook on game development as a whole, but some have dug deeper and taught me much about life itself. I’d like to share some of these insights here, but I must disclose that I’ll be interchangeably jumping from game lessons to life lessons in no particular order.

1. Ethical Responsibility

I’ll start with what I’m guessing is the most controversial topics when dealing with casino games. After having experienced it from the inside, there are misconceptions I’d like to tear down and real dangers we need to address.

The Misconception

My father has worked on the leather goods industry all his life, and he once said something that stuck with me: ‘If the Dodo had been farmed, it’d still be alive today.’

Today we see a gradual shift towards vegan, organic and more eco-friendly behaviours in society. This is in large part due to building a consciousness, but this requires a long time and meanwhile we must react appropriately to mitigate impact.

Humans will find a way gamble, no matter what laws you put into place. Unfortunately, the places I’ve visited where gambling was banned only stirred up an underground network of illegal and oftentimes dangerous gambling.

A good example of this is the prohibition era in the USA. It caused more damage than good. People didn’t stop drinking, it simply created a foundation for organized crime.

If gambling is going to exist, I’d rather it exists in a regulated fashion, where state laws do their best to protect both the consumer and the supplier.

The Danger

I also truly believe that gambling is a legitimate form of entertainment when used in moderation. In the same way mmorpgs are, as long as you’re not skipping a job interview because you needed to help your guild. And the great majority of players in the casino do get joy and satisfaction from the experience.

Some industries are easier to demonize than others, simply because their effects are more obvious to the naked eye. But we must avoid falling in the trap of overlooking other potential threats. It is true that some players have found themselves economically and socially ruined because of gambling, but I’ve also stumbled upon that sort of players in mobile, console and pc platforms. Heck, I’ve seen it in social networks, shopping habits and eating habits. Compulsive disorders are easily exploited and we must keep our eyes open for seemingly harmless features in products that have the potential to gravely disrupt human lives.

A good example of an overseen danger is how the fashion industry generates a ridiculous amount of waste every season that is extremely harmful to the planet, but everyone seems to look at that in a bright light. Albeit, many fashion companies are already doing what they can, but the consumer is non the wiser.

2. Familiarity and Innovation

There is something which pretty much every company struggles with: ‘how can I innovate while still delivering safe products that will have a return on investment?’.

Truth is, developing innovative products is an investment on the future of the company. If a company has a long term view, they need to adapt to new times and lead in their field. However, this requires a lot of failing, and that failing needs to be funded somehow. That’s where familiar and repetitive products come in handy.

As a company this means finding a balance in how you budget your strategy. Generally an 80% investment in proven concepts and a 20% on new endeavours is a good estimate, but that highly depends on how much risk you’re willing to take and how much profit margin your safe products are providing.

As a developer, the design of completely new products follows this guideline too. Some very innovative products are simply born too early and innevitably fail. How much do you innovate while retaining a sense of familiarity within the user? That’s where the challenge lays. Sid Meier has a wise philosophy when addressing a new version of a game: 1/3 must be the same, 1/3 must be improvements on old mechanics and 1/3 must be totally new content.

3. Graphics Hook, Mechanics Hold

It’s hard to predict whether a game will do well or not, but it is specially challenging with casino games. At least I personally find it harder myself. Maybe it’s because I’m not a hardcore gambler and I do not reflect the major demographics of a casino players. Nevertheless, I did meet industry veterans who still had trouble estimating the success of a slot game.

One thing that did seem to be the driving force in setting an expectation was assessing the game’s graphics and game’s math (which, in slots, are essentially the equivalent of mechanics). Games with great art but weak math would have a great start, but fall quickly. Alternatively, games that had great math but lacked an attractive graphic package would simply not be discovered by players.

This applies very closely to all sorts of gaming genres. You only have to take the shiny AAA games from huge studios that, although mediocre in its core, by the time players find its flaws, the company has pretty much made their money back in a matter of months (eerily similar to what happens with Hollywood blockbusters). On the other hand you have games such Dwarf Fortress; hard to get into because of its uninviting visual appeal, but hard to get out of once its deep mechanics get hold of you.

It’s a balance that every developer has to keep in mind and make up for in order to get the best marketable as well as long-lasting product. The tail of the game should also be estimated with this. A game with flashy graphics but shallow depth may prefer to make most of its revenue very early on after release. However, a team with heavier mechanics but flimsy graphics may choose to aim for the long-haul and have faith that the game will require time to build an audience.

4. Distorted Sense of Luck

One of the most revealing things I got out of it was definitely my concept of what “luck” means. So much so that, as some of you know, I’ve done talks on the subject. My number one tool during my time making casino games was, unsurprisingly, luck. I therefore had to maximize what I could do with it. During this process I discovered hidden secrets about our perception of luck that not only defines how we play games, but also how we interpret life.

Our sense of probability is very much influenced by superstition. This is understandable though. There are many things, specially in life, that we cannot measure, so it’s easier to make a guess based on personal principles; if you believe in karma, you will most likely believe that people get what they deserve. But the truth is not that simple.

This allows for game designers to skew perceptions on chance and probability with their players, but it also allows people to skew their view on life. I strongly believe nobody is truly aware of how lucky or unlucky you are. Some people, in fact, do not believe in luck at all. I personally do believe in luck, but not luck as some ‘paranormal entity’ or ‘force of justice’. I simply am aware of my chances of being born: among millions of little sperms I, somehow, succeeded. Furthermore, I am aware that the word ‘luck’ itself is neither good or bad – it is neutral. After all, I was born in 20th century Europe, not in the middle ages. One is arguably better “luck” than the other.

I think it’s important to be aware of this existence of “luck”. It’s the best way to know how much power you have as a human being and what you’re able to control through your little hands. In other words, you cannot make a river run upstream, but you can flow with it and use it to your advantage. Not only is it sad to see people who feel completely powerless and believe everything is based on luck; it is also depressing to see people who believe everything happened because of what they’ve done, and that luck had nothing to do with it. We need to be more conscious and realistic.

5. Risk vs Reward

Finally, something that maybe I didn’t quite “learn”, but simply “reinforced my belief in”. I loved my time working at IGT. I loved the people there, I loved making the games, I loved going to conventions, I loved the city I lived in… but eventually I realized I wanted to continue my journey and keep growing. It would have been very safe to simply stay put, but I do not think it would have been good for me in the long run. Instead I took a chance – a risk. But wait, I don’t want this to be one of those “pursue your dreams, never give up” sort of talks. On the contrary. There is a fine line between “pursuing your dreams” and “ruining your life because of an obsession”.

In the same way I would calculate my risk/reward ratio while betting in a casino game, I highly suggest you do the same in your own life. If I was playing roulette, I would never bet a month’s salary on a single number if the payoff is 2 to 1. It’s just a dumb bet. You need to weigh how much the reward truly is worth, and how much are you willing to lose. Have you ever heard of the gambler’s fallacy? I’ve seen people throw away their lives pursuing a goal when it was obvious they had run out of money. The healthiest gamblers are those who walk in the casino knowing exactly the limit of how much they’re going to spend.

At the same time, don’t be an idiot. If there is a good opportunity, take advantage of it. If I have a full house playing poker, I am not going to fold. Alternatively, if the casino just gave me complimentary chips, I am not going to throw them in the garbage – I have nothing to lose! I meet a lot of young people (and not so young) who have very little to lose, but still have an imminent fear of failing. Make sure you sit down, evaluate how much the reward is worth and estimate how much you’d be willing to risk for it. Be a smart gambler.