This is part of a series on the convergence of video games and the casino industry and opportunities for non-casino game developers. Part 1 focused on mobile games. Part 2 focused on skill-based games. This is the final article in the series and focuses on esports and virtual reality.
Esports and virtual reality are coming to casinos. At the Downtown Grand in Las Vegas, esports have already arrived and at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) esports and virtual reality were on display in major ways. Multiple panels were dedicated to the topic of esports and Gamblit Gaming showcased the possible future of VR and esports on casino floors with their G-Sports station and Virtual Reality Cube (VRC).
The social casino gaming track at Casual Connect Europe brought together big-name leaders and independent innovators for a focused look on how the social casino industry can continue thriving.
Playtika SVP Elad Kushnir’s fireside chat with GamesBeat reporter Jeff Grubb set an introspective tone for the track. The two discussed multiple challenges that the social casino market faces and how they might be overcome — including overall growth, different platforms, foreign markets and the top-heavy nature of the sector.
Becoming involved in the game industry was a chance development for Yuval Ziv, COO of SafeCharge International. He happened to be working for SafeCharge when the company discerned the dynamic, trendy nature of the game industry, particularly from a payments perspective, and made the decision to focus on this vertical. Ziv particularly enjoys the fact that it is such a vibrant, fun industry with enormous potential for happiness through playing cutting-edge games and interacting with fellow developers and players.
Uroš Banješević, together with his co-founder Nenad Tomić, shared the story of their company Mad Head Games during Casual Connect Eastern Europe 2014. “What we were looking for was a one-night stand with the girl called game development, and we ended up married to her”, he says.
Uroš Banješević is the co-founder and CCO (Chief Creative Officer) of Mad Head Games. Together with friends Nenad Tomić and Aleksa Todorovic, he founded this company in 2011, and now proudly claims, “We are currently the leading HOPA developer in the world.”
By the time they founded Mad Head Games, Banješević had worked with his co-founders for six years in a journey that brought them many experiences, a great history together, and a store of knowledge. With these assets, they knew they could create beautiful games. At the beginning, he was officially the art director, but as the company has grown, his position has become more difficult to define; basically whenever someone needs help, he is there to assist. He is someone who is an endless source of energy, always looking for a new adventure and new ways of doing things.
Their optimism has definitely been born out, with Mad Head Games named as the Best Casual Developer of 2013. And when their publisher Big Fish Games revealed its list of the greatest games of all time, six of the top seven were from Banješević and his team.
The Value of F2P
Banješević is a strong proponent of the F2P model for designing and distributing games, and notes as well the importance of the platform spotlight moving from PC and consoles to handheld devices. This is the route Mad Head Games is determined to follow, moving from developing primarily for PC and consoles to mobile, and from premium games to the F2P business model. He believes F2P offers the best rewards, and that Mad Head Games is more than equal to the challenges of being the best in that arena.
F2P and mobile are the trends making the biggest impact on the games industry today, according to Banješević. But he emphasizes, “F2P is not just about the business model, it is about the entire design of the game.” Since Mad Head Games considers game design their strongest proficiency, they believe they will be able to raise the bar and create completely new experiences.
A second trend Banješević finds exciting is virtual reality, with ground-breaking technologies like Oculus Rift, although he suspects it may not be widely accepted. Even so, he admits, “The first time I put Oculus on my eyes, I was blown away. It was a completely new experience.”
All Work, All Play
Banješević’s passion for playing and creating games encompasses both his work and his free time. As a game developer, he finds his life complex and extremely busy, so his iPhone is now his preferred platform due to these advantages: it is always accessible, the play sessions are short, and the games are pure fun. Previously, the games he enjoyed were AAA titles on PC, but the time commitment these require is no longer feasible.
He has enjoyed many mobile games, but currently the game that keeps him returning to his phone is Clash of Clans. And it is certainly the one that has enticed him to spend the most money.
Banješević has many hobbies that are not directly related to game development, although he believes these all contribute to making him a better developer. His unique assortment of activities includes playing basketball, playing guitar, writing and singing, as well as studying ethnology.
At Casual Connect Eastern Europe 2014, he announced Mad Head Games latest creation, Minibang. This is the game he feels will create an entirely new world and redefine the genre of Point’n’Click adventures.
Igor Degtyarev is a senior R&D and graphics engineer at Targem Games, the largest game development studio in the Urals. Since much of his career has been closely tied to Targem Games, he identifies his success with the company’s success, including such achievements as shipping their product to different consoles and platforms, evolving their technology base, and expanding to new markets. In his nine years of game development experience, Igor has been a part of the creation of a number of games, including ExMachina, Armageddon Riders, Star Conflict, and others.
Like many in the games industry, Igor began his career without any relevant experience. However, he had burning passion for games and the desire to create them. He has since developed the skills to fill many different roles, from the automatization of processes to new platform support. Because the company is not large, he must function in a variety of areas. But whatever facet of the work he is engaged in, he emphasizes, “Only hard work and concentration on specific goals allow me to reach the expected result.”
Igor finds his work and his free-time activities blend together seamlessly. As a curious person, he is always thinking and acquiring new knowledge in a range of subject areas. But no matter what he is thinking about, he finds it connects in some way to his work.
Passionate About Games
When Igor is gaming these days, he is using a PC, although, until recently, he preferred his PS3. He can’t quite explain why, but he feels his preference is an obvious choice. However, he intends to purchase a PS4 as soon as he finds one attractive game for it, a statement which certainly reveals his opinion of the games now available.
Recently, he has become especially passionate about indie games, particularly the rogue-like ones. He appreciates the constantly changing game mechanic as well as the progressive disclosure of new game features. His current favorites include Risk of Rain and The Crypt of the NecroDancer.
As they plan for the future, Targem Games is focusing on next generation consoles and virtual reality. Virtual reality is of particular interest since, according to Igor, it appears to be rapidly evolving, but the direction of its evolution is still not clear. Targem Games is making every effort to keep up and stay on the edge of this exciting technology.
In the next few years, Igor believes virtual reality will come closer to representing real life and will be a significant part of the entertainment and game industries. “The necessary ingredients are already in place,” he insists, “All that remains is the time it will take for VR devices to become widespread and the effort necessary to ensure virtual reality will evolve in the right direction.”
“We see this great opportunity between the smaller and the casual games that you see on mobile and the big Triple A budgets,” Ian Vogel told his audience during Casual Connect USA 2014. “There’s a huge market in the middle which I think is very exciting to me as a gamer and to me as a business person.”
Ian Vogel has been creating games for the past sixteen years, including work on Age of Empires Online, Bioshock, System Shock 2, Swat 4, and Thief: The Dark Project. He has held key roles at Microsoft Game Studios, Irrational Games, Airtight Games, and Looking Glass Studios.
Learning the Ropes
Recently, he was promoted to Studio Head at Amazon Game Studios, where he leads first-party game development and is focused on giving players fun, innovative experiences. He insists that he could not be in this position if he had not started out as a designer, and he feels fortunate to have begun his career working with Doug Church, Tom Leonard, Ken Levine, Jon Chey, and the others at Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games. He emphasizes, “Building a lot of games over time, killing some, and succeeding and failing along the way – It makes for some tough skin.” He sees this as good for consumers because developers focus less on how incredible, amazing, and infallible their idea is and instead learn to look at it through the consumers’ eyes. What are they going to feel? Where will they be confused? Where will they be frustrated? He insists, “You need some wins and losses to get good at that. I’m still learning!”
Vogel gains the most enjoyment in the games industry through seeing the impact his work has on people. He talks about an incident that occurred when he went to GameStop after Bioshock was released.
“There were 3-5 enthusiasts talking about the game, and I asked them ‘What do you like and not like about the game?’ About 45 minutes later, they had told me everything they loved and hated about the game, and loudly and emphatically asserted ‘You must buy this game!’ Which I did. And I left the store never having told them I worked on Bioshock for two or three years; it was immensely gratifying to listen to them appreciate the craft of the game and talk of deep personal experiences in that world. I didn’t need to talk about myself, that day was about them. And it made my day, and is a great example of why I do what I do.”
He reveals that being promoted to Studio Head at Amazon Game Studios has been very gratifying and a challenge he is eager to take on. He has always had opinions on how to do things, and this position is his opportunity to put them into practice. “Amazon is full of intense, brilliant people so it will be a heck of a ride,” he says.
Competing For Time
The biggest challenge Vogel sees in the games industry today is the competition for people’s time. There are hundreds of great indie games, too many copycats, and expensive, but intriguing console titles, all clamoring for attention. It becomes harder and harder for a game to actually make money. He points to the many lay-offs in recent years, with very talented studios and people gone. He would love to see the industry solve the problem of discovery and get interesting games in front of the people who want them, at a regular, dependable pace. He notes, “The barriers to succeeding at either mobile or console get higher every year. We have to help games find their audience.”
But Vogel sees a huge opportunity in the middle space, between casual/mobile games and AAA console titles. Indies are venturing into this space, but he believes there are markets we don’t know about that are looking for smaller, crafted games in that middle space. He emphasizes the need to understand this market and be ready with good titles when the opportunity arises.
Virtual Reality, Micro Consoles, and Hardware
For the future of the industry in the next few years, he is interested in the possibilities of VR, but needs more experience to understand the ups and downs of the tech.
For the future of the industry in the next few years, he is interested in the possibilities of VR, but needs more experience to understand the ups and downs of the tech. He also likes the trend to micro consoles; he thinks they are great products and looks forward to exciting possibilities as the hardware ramps up. He believes procedural games like No Man’s Sky and similar efforts will drive the potential for smaller teams to make bigger games. If that can be done at reasonable prices, the games industry will grow even more than it has in the past.
Vogel is an eclectic gamer, using every variety of device and game. He plays FTL and 10,000,000 on his iPad when he wants an engrossing but snackable experience. When he wants to sit down after dinner and play a game, he plays Badland or Double Dragon on his Fire TV. For a few hours of concentrated play, he uses his Xbox 360 to play NHL games, Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, or Demon Souls. But when he is looking for a total forfeiture of normal life and 13 hours of getting lost in a different world, he plays XCOM, Civilization, and (he hopes) upcoming space sims, like Star Citizen and Elite.
He believes exposure to different experiences, different art forms, and other cultures of the world would make everyone better creators, so travel is extremely important to him. Some of the interesting places he has visited are Istanbul, Romania, Paris, and Fiji. One of the art forms he immerses himself in is music. He plays and records music on bass and guitar. One of his bands, The Model Sons, was on the original Guitar Hero. He also sails, hikes, and takes improv comedy classes.
Jamison Selby shared his knowledge and views on real-money gaming during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “By 2018, less than .01 percent of commercial mobile apps will be considered a financial success by their developers,” he said.
The best thing about being a part of the games industry, according to Jamison Selby, is, quite simply, that he gets to make games. He says, “I spend days creating new recipes for fun and testing them out.” He heads the Games team at b Spot, but refuses to divulge the secrets of how he joined up and exactly what he does there. State secrets, he claims. Or could they be industry secrets? But he admits that for years he walked the line between the video games space and the real money gambling world, an experience which he has found the perfect ground for his current endeavors.
He also reveals that he has had some great moments along the way in this industry, but he hopes the best moments are yet to come. He says, “Someday, I’ll get to show my kids what I’ve done. Ask me then.”
This busy father clearly makes his family a priority. With two young children, he spends his time chasing, splashing, running, dodging, reading aloud, and cleaning. And occasionally sleeping.
But he does find time for some game play. However, these days GTA5 on the Xbox often gives way to Wonder Pets and Octonauts. Currently, he is playing Wasteland 2 Beta and Broken Age. And his preferred platform is whatever happens to be available.
There seem to be quite a lot of choices available, since he says he has all the usual consoles, including his Nintendo DS which “shall never sunset.” For mobile gaming, he uses both Android and iOS depending on which game he is playing and claims the most interesting place he has played mobile games was in the crew bar of a cruise ship late at night in the middle of the Baltic.
It Started With The TV
Selby became involved in the games industry while working on TV game shows. The trivia content was the jumping off point for him to dive into the games industry. He became the head writer for ODVD games, working on a series of trivia titles published by Hasbro. He states, “It was a big creative challenge and offered a very different path from the feast or famine world of TV production.” He believes if he had not joined the industry, he would be producing questionable reality TV shows or possibly teaching drama at a small Northwestern college. Or even serving drinks at a bar on an island without a zip code.
Here Come The Wearables
The next big trend Selby sees affecting the games industry is the explosion of wearables and VR technology. He believes this will bring huge opportunities for new content creation in the years ahead. He insists, “Every new innovation opens up creative possibilities, and we’re constantly dreaming up new ways to play.”
Selby has years of experience leading cross-disciplinary design and production teams to create multiplayer social games and interactive entertainment. He founded and leads the International Game Developer Association’s Real Money Gaming SIG. Previously, he launched the Monkey King Games consultancy and was the senior producer at TimePlay Entertainment, creating a new generation of multiplayer gaming in casinos, cinemas, cruise ships, bars, clubs and stadiums.
Brian Lee shared his reason why he co-founded Team Signal at his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “After several years of working in the game industry, I decided to start making games pictured in my heart,” he said. “Now I am the artist/producer in Team Signal.”
Brian Lee is the producer and artist of Team Signal, a company he co-founded with a group of graduate school friends who love indie games. Their biggest reason for starting the company was their determination to control their own lives and make the games that truly speak to their hearts.
Waiting For A Miracle
Lee had experience working in an MMO company before becoming an entrepreneur. Soon after the project he was working on went online, it was cancelled. This experience was a life lesson for him: If he was determined to create the games he really wanted to, he would have to go after it for himself, rather than sitting and waiting for a miracle.
The most exciting moment of his career came when their game, Hyper Square, won the Casual Connect Asia Critic’s Choice Award. Hyper Square is a different game app than most of the mobile games in Asia. Usually games in Asia try to maximize value through extending the gaming hours rather than creating valuable content for players. Team Signal put a lot of effort into exploring interesting and unique mechanics of Hyper Square to achieve the goal of creating valuable content. When they were selected as the winner of the Critic’s Choice Award, Lee knew their efforts had resulted in well-deserved success. He says, “It was really the greatest encouragement.”
Trends and Impacts
Lee believes the trend that will most affect his company in the future is the F2P business model. He is not terribly familiar with this area, so they will try to start learning about it by making several small titles using the F2P model. He feels a small free game with ads would be a good start.
During the next few years, he expects the industry as a whole to be greatly impacted by the Hud display headset, such as Oculus Rift. This could bring the games industry into an entirely new era and expand the boundaries of visual reality.
Art and Gaming
When Lee is gaming, these days he is playing FTL on mobile. He is a huge fan of sci-fi stories, and FTL strongly simulates the feeling of a galaxy adventure in a simple but powerful way. He has also played Clash of Clanswith his most expensive purchase at $19.99 for a pack. When not gaming, he enjoys manga drawing and reading, especially on topics related to economics and mythology.
At Casual Connect USA 2014, Lee announced that Team Signal is currently finishing an exclusive Android version of Hyper Square. It will be a freemium game.
Dave Bisceglia looked at game jam methodologies and how they can apply to development in his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “Game Jams don’t have to end when all the devs pack up and head home,” he declared. “In fact, these principles can and should be applied to your dev process. Get access to dev kits and set aside time for your team to start exploring new technologies.”
At The Tap Lab, he heads strategy, business development, and administration. He is also actively involved in game design and QA. With his co-founder Ralph Shao, he started making games after graduating from Boston University in 2009. Since then, they have hired talented people and made some great games, including Tiny Tycoons and their upcoming release, Bigfoot Hunter, which was part of the Indie Prize Showcase at Casual Connect USA.
And yet, with all these accomplishments, the moment in his career that Bisceglia remembers with the most pride was meeting his childhood hero, Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, who has now become his advisor and friend.
Leveraging New Technologies
Bisceglia is excited about several emerging trends in the games industry. These include micro-location (iBeacon and BluetoothLE), indoor location (WiFiSlam and ByteLight), and augmented reality (Qualcomm’s Vuforia and Google’s Project Tango). At The Tap Lab, they see a huge opportunity with these new technologies, especially in gaming. They have already begun experimenting with micro-location in gaming. They are also looking forward to creating augmented reality games that take into account your physical location, both indoors and outdoors.
He sees the biggest impact in the next few years in the games industry coming from virtual reality, saying it is a very exciting frontier. Bisceglia says, “We’ve just started to scratch the surface with Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus. Games like EVE: Valkyrie and No Man’s Sky look like they’ll be very interesting proving grounds for the technology.”
When he is gaming, his favorite platform is mobile (for obvious reasons, he says). Currently, he is playing Supernauts from Grand Cru. He recently made his most expensive F2P purchase, a gem pack in Boom Beach for $49.99. Bisceglia also has an Xbox One and just about every retro console in existence. He and his friends usually buy the same consoles so they can play online together.
With all his work related activities, he has very little time to spare, but he manages to fit in time to sing karaoke and to play Big Buck Hunter: Safari with his friends at the local dive bar. He also likes to show off his skills in a game of bocce ball near the office. At The Tap Lab, they take this game very seriously. Recently, they bought a custom set of bocce balls embroidered with ‘The Tap Lab’.
“My experience has been that most people who’ve come up through the video game industry in the West tend to be very new-game oriented, and I think that comes from the fact that many people in the packaged goods industry would associate job security and success with the start of a new game,” Dan Fiden said in a panel at Casual Connect USA 2014. “Whereas in Asia, the culture is completely different. The on-going operations of a game generally mean job security and financial success.”
Dan Fiden is the chief strategy officer at FunPlus, a Beijing-based developer, operator, and publisher of social and mobile games. It now has offices in Vancouver and San Francisco and more than five million daily active users.
Fiden has always been interested in games, playing a lot of them as a child in the 32-bit console days and earlier. When he began in the games industry, there was no formal education in making games. He started with a company called Jellyvision (now Jackbox), the makers of You Don’t Know Jack. He says, “It was an incredible experience with some really fun, like-minded people. I was hooked thereafter.”
As CSO, Fiden’s main objective is to build the team through hiring the most talented people he can find and by forming partnerships with people and companies that share the same goals as FunPlus. This means he spends a lot of time traveling and meeting new people.
The focus at FunPlus is on giving consumers games that put players and fun first. They are in the business of nurturing and maintaining communities, meaning that they treat their players well. Their international ops team is dedicated to making sure the players are constantly engaged in the game.
Fiden believes the same game can work all over the world, but the game operations and the people who interact with the players in whatever language on a day-to-day basis and manage the game must be 100 percent dedicated. They need to understand their players and be able to essentially run that game. So at FunPlus, they never outsource operations behind player volunteers. Instead, they have full-time employees whose entire responsibility is managing the game.
Because FunPlus wants every player to have a great experience in their game, they emphasize treating users well. Social media helps them to communicate with players, so it is a fundamental part of their business.
When well done, online games create a community around a shared experience. And social media, and the way people are constantly connected on their mobile devices, creates opportunities for players to engage with your services anytime, anywhere. This will continue to increase, so Fiden believes any game that fails to take that into account and foster it won’t work much longer.
Knowledge of the East and West
When Fiden first worked in China 10 years ago, the industry was dominated by Tencent’s PC instant messenger client QQ. People played games primarily in internet cafes, and most of the games were very casual multiplayer games like Link Link or low fidelity MMOs. The development community was dominated by outsourcing or insourcing studios for the big western publishers. Today, the situation has completely changed. Chinese developers are concerned mainly with the Chinese market, and that market is focused on mobile. He points out that there are now 80,000 development studios in China, and they release about 100 games every day.
The differences in the games industry between West and East are very familiar to Fiden. In the West, most game companies and game developers came from the packaged tradition. Since those games generally couldn’t be changed once completed, there was a strong focus on craftsmanship and polish. But in the East, video games have been online services for much longer, so Asian companies really understand what it means to focus on player retention and satisfaction. He says, “They interact with their users like a resort operator movie company.” Great experiences and services lead to customer loyalty. At FunPlus, Fiden emphasizes, they try to combine the best qualities of both East and West: great, polished, innovative games and incredible, memorable service, whether players are in Timbuktu or Toronto.
Excitement of Innovation
Fiden believes the most significant innovation in the last few years in the games industry is the free-to-play business model. He claims, “The significance of the free-to-play model has been understated. It’s not just a pricing model. It changes the nature of how you build a game team and what you think of as a game. It radically expands what we can do with game experiences and stories.” He would like to see the dialogue become less about whether it is predatory and more about how it necessitates an ongoing commitment from game makers to support the game and the players, and how that introduces really interesting creative possibilities.
“Games will no longer be generalized; they will be relevant to each player on a global scale.”
In the near future, Fiden believes developers will have the ability to tailor the game to the player. Already, with Barn Voyage, they were able to create the game in fifteen languages, making it global from the first day on the market. There are community managers creating events in each country; these events will reflect an individual country’s culture, pop culture, and personal experiences. He foresees, “Games will no longer be generalized; they will be relevant to each player on a global scale.”
The coming games technology Fiden is most interested in personally is VR tech, such as Project Morpheus. However, in terms of impact on the industry, he selects the rapid proliferation of mobile devices with high speed internet connectivity as the most important trend. An example of what this can do is the amazing large scale battles of games like EVE. He enthusiastically speculates, “Imagine what that will look like when the real, addressable audience is nearly everyone in the world, and all of those people will be able to join in whether they are at home, on a train, or at work because it’s accessible on their mobile device.”