Kent Young’s team at Spin Games isn’t merely developing content for slot machines.
Instead, the 26 employees of the company — 20 in downtown Reno, six in Thailand — are combining mathematics, animation, sound and software to create stories.
Young, whose 25-year career in the gaming business includes experience as a key executive of both Aristocrat Technologies and Aruze Gaming America, took a break in his office overlooking the Truckee River a few days ago and explained how a slot game comes to life.
Founded in 2012, Spin Games most commonly works under contract with a manufacturer of slot machines — International Game Technology, for instance, or WMS Gaming.
While those companies develop much of their content in-house, Spin Games can move much more quickly — sometimes developing a game from start to finish in less than six months, compared with a year or so for games created by the manufacturers themselves.
Often, Young says, the big manufacturers turn to Spin Games for help in filling a hole in their product lines. Young built his name as a pioneer in penny slots, and his company is known for its expertise in slot games for Asian markets and games for tribal casinos in which the underlying technology is more akin to bingo.
Or the manufacturer may have licensed a brand — say, a hot television show — and wants to strike while the iron is hot.
Contract in hand, the brainstorming about content begins under the leadership of Mike Halvorson, the company’s chief development officer and Tom Ariya, who’s the chief development officer for Spin-Asia.
“They’re the movie theater,” Young says of the manufacturers who make slot machines. “We’re the movie.”
Brainstorming often begins with a look at content that’s previously been successful in the market.
“A lot of game design is about eliminating the risk,” Young says.
And brainstorming also is based on the target market for the machine. If it’s for the Asian market, the story that the game tells might be driven by lucky symbols — dragons, for instance — and the Spin Games developers will scour the Internet for inspiration.
The target market begins shaping some of the preliminary thinking about graphic design as well. A game that targets male players, for instance, will be designed with stronger colors than content that targets women.
The development team is thinking, too, about the story of the slot: What’s the hierarchy of symbols that lead to payouts? What other rewards — free spins, for instance — will be included in the bonusing?
With the basic shape of the game in mind, the mathematicians at Spin Games begin developing the pay tables that are the heart of the game — its script, really.
Again the target market shapes the script.
Young notes that a game targeting males in Asian gaming markets, for instance, will based on all-or-nothing, high-volatility math — bet nine, win none; bet nine, win none; bet nine, win a bunch.
A game that targets older women, meanwhile, probably will be built on lower-volatility math that encourages them to linger at the machine — bet nine, win two; bet nine, win four; bet nine, win 11.
While all this will be working behind the scenes of the new content, players will experience the work of Spin Game animators and software engineers under the direction of Creative Director Dean Kawada.
Much of the creative work depends on a finely-tuned touch that incorporates intuition with science.
What, for instance, is the optimal rate at which the game should spin?
Young points to the classic three-reel slot, in which anticipation builds as the player waits for the final reel to snap into place. That same sense of anticipation among players remains a touchstone for developers of today’s flashy video and animated games.
But the questions become more complex with animation. If the game’s story includes symbols that shake, for instance, which symbols will move? And how much? And how long?
Or take the matter of sound. Spin Games developers draw from an extensive library of sounds that are incorporated into a game — the sounds of reels spinning, the sounds of credits paid. But how long should each sound play? And if the target market is younger players with a short attention span, how should that influence the length of the sound?
New technology only amplifies the number of questions. Will the game include touch-screen features? Chairs that vibrate upon a win?
“The little things become the big things in creating a game,” says Young.
Among the critical little things are days of software coding and days of editing to ensure that a game content works as it was envisioned. Then, too, it takes plenty of patience with regulatory approvals.
For all the work that’s involved, content developers such as Spin Games hope for a steady stream of royalties from solid games rather than a big check from a hit.
“Great games,” Young says, “are very rare.”