Inside Asian Gaming catches up with leading land-based slot machine suppliers Scientific Games and IGT, as well as a leader in the online game design space, Pragmatic Play, to learn some of the finer details about designing innovative games that resonate with the Asian market.
1 What themes have you found most popular for Asian players?
The thing that stands out are the Chinese wealth themes. When you think of Chinese wealth you think of longevity, prosperity, wealth and fortune, and some of the iconography that comes with that are the coins, the red packets, the firecrackers, the turtles. Some of these key elements that resonate through are what you find in SG Games like “88 Fortunes” or “5 Treasures” and more recently Jin Ji Bao Xi. Bats are particularly lucky for players, but the way we’ve incorporated bats into our pots they actually fly off the reels into the pot, and that has an affinity with the players. Reimagining elements and bringing them to players in new ways has been interesting.
We all know that players across Asia tend to enjoy games with “Asian” themes as there is a sense that they are “luckier”, plus there is a tendency toward higher volatility games. So IGT has tailored its games to ensure they “speak” to players across the region. Our popular link, Ying Cai Shen, is the best example of this. Built in IGT’s Beijing and Australian studios, our newest games build player excitement and anticipation and truly demonstrate our focus on local players.
Across the whole of the Asian market, traditional Oriental symbolisms for wealth and prosperity continue to be evergreen slot themes. The older generation of slot players continue to resonate with this familiar imagery, exemplified by the 5 Lions Megaways’ guardian lions which went on to become one of Pragmatic Play’s best releases in the Asian market this year.
A good point to note is that the Asian market is not only about oriental icons and themes. We have also increased traction with many modern themes; especially abstract, pop-culture based mobile gaming themes, following the wide appeal of mobile games with candies, gems and sweets. In this category, Pragmatic Play’s “Sweet Bonanza” and “Fruit Party” are making great impact in Asia.
Some market segments in particular prefer fantasy themes and heavy thematics like western dragons, mystical elements or even cute “kawaii” animal characters. This signals the maturing of the Asian market, bringing in a wider diversity of players from non-traditional gamblers with varied player appetites and tastes that may not necessarily be rooted in oriental culture.
2 What slot game play features from your offerings are most popular with players?
Asia is a very diverse region with distinct segments and categories ranging from mass market new players through the premium market and into that VIP segment, which is a more mature player. In Asia you have all three of those segments and players are very diverse within them. Vietnam is more of a VIP style, repeat player market. The things that resonate within this segment include “choose your volatility” where players are able to control their own destiny, feeling like they are picking a feature or an element of luck.
The other thing that resonates are linked jackpots. If you look at the mass market, linked jackpots are great because they provide a big carrot when you walk into a venue – a big prize with a lot of machines contributing to it. Then as you get into the premium and VIP segments, even standalone progressives work well where players like to contribute to their own jackpot and chase it.
Players love our waterfall games – where one spin can affect the next – as they offer the player something to collect or progress towards. Of course, we know most games in the region are more successful if they are linked, so that is a major focus for us.
Pragmatic Play continues to focus strongly on innovating play mechanics as a way to enhance player excitement and engagement in almost all of our new releases. The most successful mechanics that we have introduced in the last year are the large-grid 7×7 pay-anywhere tumbling features. Our hit games like “Gates of Olympus” and “Sweet Bonanza” offer a low volatility base game that can be enjoyed at any pace whilst the frequent triggering of explosive free spin features provide players with the feeling of amazing possibilities, such as bet multipliers to win up to 500x the wager.
Essentially, in the iGaming sector, we understand that our players lack the ambience and environment that a land-based casino experience offers, so we seek to design features that generate more immersive gameplay that provides a sense of excitement build up, using higher frequency actions than a normal slot would.
3 Do players in Asia prefer evergreen features like jackpots or are they looking for new innovations such as bonus or feature buy options?
They absolutely like new innovations and what you’ve seen from us is taking some of those classic games like Duo Fu Duo Cai and putting them into VIP versions. There are also jackpot features where we’ve taken them and put upgrades or boosts there, so it’s a new experience layered on top.
Nearly every player is driven by jackpots, but we are seeing that players are looking for new innovative games and features, and that’s where we are delivering. We are particularly excited about “Fire Dragon”. “Fire Dragon” has a fantastic feature to introduce more players to slot machines by giving them faster gratification than they get on table games. Players can buy Instant Free Games by increasing their bet with the Dragon’s Touch – taking them straight to the feature.
A lot of players in the Asian market do prefer evergreen features, but as I said before the market is starting to mature and tastes are evolving. Whilst we do offer the usual evergreen features, we try to add something innovative to all of our games. We have noticed increasing popularity of the buy free spins and ante bet features with some categories of players and we are now also focusing on “social” style metagame features, such as slot tournaments, bonus missions and random prize drops which again serve to increase engagement by creating a new playing style that appeals to both the traditional slot game player and the metagame enhanced gamification seeking players.
4 What are your thoughts on crossing over game titles and concepts from a global market into Asia, or vice-versa? Does it work?
It certainly does for SG. I would say that is a well identified strategy for us – taking games, leveraging the studios that are attuned and have an affinity for a specific market and putting them out around the world. It has proved very successful for us in taking games global. For example, the pot mechanic for SG, you see that across our portfolio globally. “88 Fortunes” is one of our most successful brands but you also see extensions of “88 Fortunes” called “Dancing Drums Prosperity” and “5 Treasures Explosions” that are some of the most popular games in North America right now.
The other thing is bringing games from global markets to Asia-Pacific. We are making significant investments in global content, creating new categories like Persistent Cash in the Australian market on games like “Kraken Unleashed” or “Cash Falls”. We can take those games, proof them out in markets like Australia and North America, then bring them back to Asia-Pacific.
We do bring games from other markets – such as “Fortune Coin Boost” which recently launched in the Philippines market – as it reduces the risk if it has performed well, particularly in Australia, where there are similar player profiles.
We adapt key game features and innovations from our global studios and tailor these into our Asian product roadmap. Asia is very diverse – both between countries and within each country there are unique player types – so we pick and choose the best features to match the differing player profiles.
However, we are having more success in developing games locally in this region – Ying Cai Shen has been the prime example of this approach. Pleasingly, IGT has also launched Ying Cai Shen into the North American market, so we are seeing concepts from here going into that market too.
Whilst we do focus specific efforts for the Asian markets, we also publish western games that cross over well to the Asian region. We have found that many of the European-release game titles cross over well. Examples of games that have performed very well that were initially conceived for a western audience are the big grid tumbling games like “Gems Bonanza”, “Sweet Bonanza” and “Gates of Olympus”. Other very successful Europe-Asia crossover games are the high-volatility slots which are popular in the European market like “The Dog House”, “Fruit Party” and “Juicy Fruits”.
Asia is populous and diverse enough for many slot game vendors, trends, themes and play styles to achieve success.
5 What are the key adjustments to game themes, imagery and mechanics that developers need to make to have any real opportunity to resonate with the Asian market?
What you see from us is a combination. You see us customising games for the market then also bringing new games and themes to the market that might cultivate that segment. So it is definitely a combination and that comes down to portfolio management and finding that right balance between understanding the market and building for the market versus finding those new trends.
We have to be culturally sensitive with the themes we use across Asia. Having a dedicated studio in China and a local product team enables us to filter out themes and imagery that may come across as offensive or non-relevant. We also actively research player trends so that we can be agile and tailor our games to what local players are enjoying rather than just using what is popular internationally.
We have found that Asian players are more focused on the clarity of the game, rather than just relying on attractive graphic or design and animation. It’s about ensuring that the games are adjusted to be easy to understand, play fast and focus on how the wins are delivered. This is done in order to gain trust in the slot game from the players because a convoluted game with complex graphics and intertwined features can make the player sometimes feel uneasy.
Speed is king in Asia, and we tune all games to play to the highest possible speed optimization. This also ensures that in certain locations where markets are still running on slower internet connection speeds, their experience with our slot games are not compromised.
6 You are a global brand for slot games – are there significant differences between players globally and regionally?
I think because the market is so diverse with well-established markets and more recent markets, you see a dichotomy across Asia and that’s why you see a diverse portfolio from us in the way we approach the market. I recall a statistic from Macau a few years ago that 30% of the people coming through each day were first time players. All the player categories are there to see in Asia-Pacific.
There are noticeable differences between local players and non-local players. For instance, the average time on device and the average bet differs not only when comparing Asia to other regions, but also within different countries in Asia. Another key difference is that games with “Ways” are more popular than with “Lines”.
Lastly, there is increased acceptance of higher volatility games from local players compared with that of global players. However, in some markets in Asia, players prefer an entertainment-driven experience – particularly in the Philippines. Therefore, the average time on device and the average bet differs within different regions within Asia.
Yes, the differences are quite clear. We work with a per market localization system that takes into consideration all aspects of the experience desired by the players there. Different local cultures to some extent will influence player appetites to risk, themes, mathematics and many design factors. So, when it comes to iGaming, Pragmatic Play has developed a wide-ranging portfolio to ensure that casino operators have many options to select from within our offerings. Whilst there are overlaps in the kind of features and games that are preferred, there are many threads we have established in being able to localize and customize the best product for local players – from design and graphics to the types of features that are pushed to tuning the volatility of games and taking into consideration the interaction between gameplay and bet sizing of the market. We work very closely with operators to allow many layers of localization and customization where required.
7 What are some new innovations you’ve introduced to enhance player stickiness/loyalty to your slot games?
We’re introducing the cash on reels concept for the Asian market; we really like that for the Asia-Pacific market. We really like to identify the “what you see is what you get” methodology and the repeat win off the back of that. The other thing for us is a technology and hardware play. We’re creating a more flexible platform called the Argos platform which enables us to build games for Asia and globalise them more quickly or vice versa. What you see with that is an increased amount of content, increased amount of flexibility across cabinets and you’ll also see the SG hardware portfolio coming into the Asia-Pacific region with cabinets like Kascada Portrait, which is launching later this year.
A key innovation was the introduction of the metamorphic and persistence mechanics across Asia to improve player entertainment and excitement – we call these our Waterfall games. Our popular link, Ying Cai Shen, is a testament to its popularity.
IGT has been actively working on new innovations to deliver fresh, engaging content to players, and we are building a series of game brands and mechanics across the region.
We innovate all the time! Just within this year, we developed and introduced the PowerNudge and PowerWays features that are particularly focused on player engagement with the games. These unique offerings are only available to Pragmatic Play and are proven to support player retention for a long-term play experience.
For acquiring and retaining player loyalty, the Pragmatic Play Enhance range of products have shown the biggest impact. From our iGaming casino partners’ feedback, they experienced player retention success due to the way the metagame is set up.
8 What makes a great game designer or game design studio?
That is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many different types of studios, but the best studios I’ve seen are the ones that are attuned to the market. They are in the market, playing the games, attuned to the players and listening to the customers, then taking that back and working on games through that lens. That’s interesting because studios kind of have to look ahead of the market, so these studios are almost future-casting when they are developing these games.
The Elements studio that created the perceived persistence pot and “88 Fortunes”, that studio is not only based out of Sydney but Qin You is also from China and has the Qingdao studio, so you have a studio in China working on Asia-Pacific games. That allows us to really understand the local culture across Asia-Pacific.
The most important aspect is getting the balance right between the expectations of players and the expectations of the operator. Generally, getting the player side
right is the primary driver, however we do have to sell the games to casinos, so they need to fit the operators’ needs too.
Critical in this equation is investing time and effort to understand the market and the way that players think, anticipating what they will want next.
Collaboration is the underpinning of any great studio, as building a game is not a solo project. Within IGT’s studios there are hundreds of people developing and so we need to work effectively and collaborate to develop and deliver the great games that will change the industry.
A great studio is one that understands both players and the individual markets that a game is going to be released into. They must treat each market equally in order to create an eclectic portfolio of products. Most important of all is that the games they make are made for the players. They must provide real win opportunities in a fair way while also ensuring each game is both easily understandable and identifiable.
9 What do you believe to be the future of game themes in Asia?
I think I’ll keep my cards a little bit close to my chest but we have plans to innovate across the Asia-Pacific region and also leverage our franchises that have set SG in good stead. If you look at Duo Fu Duo Cai or Jin Ji Bao Xi, taking those brands, extending upon them and layering in new mechanics, that’s what we are excited to share soon with the Asia-Pacific market.
Well, like everyone, we are assessing the impact of COVID and how it will influence the physical gaming space. If some of the measures taken to deal with COVID – in terms of spacing – are going to become permanent, then we are looking to adapt our game design to this.
We can definitely see the Asian market gravitating more towards global themes and mobile gaming influenced themes. I expect thematic games, like sowing seeds and ideas for a story, to start doing very well along with mobile gaming themes that take influence from fantasy, cartoon, pop culture and funny games.