What’s unique about Aspect Gaming’s vision for the casino floor is that it extends way beyond it
Asia’s slot floors these days are richer than ever with great play experiences, and Aspect Gaming, though a relative newcomer to the industry, is fast winning recognition as one of its premier innovators.
The success Aspect’s Fortune Cats and Backyard Gold have achieved in Macau readily attest to that, and they’re just two standout performers from among more than two dozen colorful Chinese-themed titles winning fans in the region’s largest and most lucrative machine gaming market.
And there will be plenty more, because the company’s Shanghai based designers, a young and energetic team that’s honed its software chops in the larger worlds of video, mobile and console gaming, are dedicated to nudging the bar higher with each new release.
“We try to create a mix,” says Tony Payne, executive vice president, Product Development, “because we feel that the player base in Macau will change over time. Not all players are VIP players. They don’t have deep pockets. They can’t withstand long droughts. They’re not making initial buy-ins of $3,000 to $5,000 Hong Kong dollars. Maybe they’re starting out with $100 or $200. So we try and do some math models where they’re going to have a good experience.”
Kickin’ Kash, unveiled at November’s Macao Gaming Show, is one illustration: a compelling gamble in the form of a bonus that lets you choose between more free games or bigger multipliers, but with something different for engaging the player who’s sat down in hopes of having some fun while trying their luck.
As Mr Payne describes it, “There’s sort of a tipping point in a free games session where you feel like, ‘I’ve gone through six, seven games, and I haven’t won much money, so my session’s probably a bust.’”
But Kickin’ Kash says maybe not, because every time the game’s “girl fighter” symbol lands on Reel 1, regardless of whether it’s a winner, the player who has chosen her increases his or her free games by up to three. The “boy fighter” symbol increases the multiplier by one every time he lands on Reel 5. So the beginning 3x multiplier on any award can grow to 4x or 5x or all the way to 10x.
“By increasing that multiplier it just takes a small win there at the end,” says Mr Payne. “We want to hold the player in to that experience as long as we possibly can and make them feel really good about it. So you might be down to your last spin, but you’ve got a 10x multiplier riding on there, so anything that comes up is going to be more meaningful.”
It’s emblematic of a way of thinking about the player that draws much of its inspiration from that larger game world mentioned above.
OneWall, to take an example that paints on a much bigger canvas, is built upon an innovative widescreen cabinet Aspect calls the Super Ruby. The propriety technology—without the need for expensive video wall controllers—transforms a bank of Super Rubies into something very much like a high-definition movie screen with game and top screens synchronized to stream almost any kind of imagery across the bank—or across an entire wall for an even more dynamic effect.
At MGS it was displayed in tandem with a new four level progressive jackpot game called Sheng Xiao Chuan Qi (“Chinese Zodiac,” roughly translated), the Shanghai team’s most potent graphics package yet. For starters, players get to choose a personal “Wild” symbol from any of the 12 animals of the Zodiac. The interactivity extends also to a feature called Win Track, a win-loss history indicator that encourages players to follow hunches to alter their bets up or down. There’s also a mystery “Neighbor Jackpot” that kicks in during the jackpot round and features a “Flying Dragon” that delivers a random prize to another lucky machine on the link. Last but not least, all five-reel winning combinations are sweetened with additional payouts courtesy of a special “6th Reel,” an innovation first introduced with Fortune Cats.
“What we wanted to do is add some anticipation,” explains Mr Payne, “to allow you to see what’s happening, and then, bang, see if it has any effect on anything else. This can be a multiplier, multiplying your total bet, so it’s not dependent on any win [on the main screen]; it can activate a pay right to left, so any symbols that would not ordinarily be a winner could be a winner if we’re looking at reels 5, 4 and 3; we also have expanding ‘wild’ features.”
What’s doubly interesting about Sheng Xiao Chuan Qi is that it’s not confined to the casino floor. Every game Aspect develops can be played online, either as a cash or free-play proposition, depending on the jurisdiction and the regulations that apply, on the company’s Grand Orient Casino, which is available in Facebook, iOS and Android versions and also offers roulette, blackjack, baccarat and Texas Hold ’Em.
Grand Orient is one of a number of bold initiatives Aspect has launched with a view to positioning itself as a leader in the convergence of land-based and online gaming.
“It has given us great distribution because, based on our surveys, those who play free-to-play games, when they go to a land-based casino they’re going to play them there,” says Christina Hsu, vice president, Products, Social Games.
Ms Hsu came to Aspect from the Game Development Group of Gigamedia’s FunTown Branch, where she helped develop, maintain, and operate more than 40 in-house titles for various mobile and online platforms.
Joining her is Sean Yu, who heads up a strategic play called Parley, a social media platform currently in private beta testing that aims to blend points-based game play with an almost limitless, and still largely untapped, array of lifestyle and crowd-sourced content to deliver a breakthrough experience of merging mobile Internet with traditional broadcast television. Mr Yu was a senior manager at eBay prior to joining Aspect. At eBay he was instrumental in facilitating cross-border ties between Chinese merchants and online consumers, the very model Alibaba has built into a global powerhouse, and Mr Yu was in fact an early member of Aliexpress.com, Alibaba’s first international transaction site, where he helped found its payment and risk management teams.
For a slot-maker to be reaching out to such diverse realms of experience is “a good indicator of both our advantage and our game development strategy,” says founder and CEO Justin Nguyen. “We’ve got some extraordinary people who have come to us from the mobile and console game industries and bring a wealth of knowledge and alternative perspectives with them. We’re all part of a bigger ecosystem delivering entertainment.”
As Mr Payne puts it, “We want good ideas wherever they come from. You can see that certainly in the free-to-play casinos on a lot of the social sites. They add a lot more features to help monetize and help retain players.”
Mr Nguyen is a California-educated software engineer whose background in IT led him into the industry by way of Silicon Gaming, a Palo Alto upstart whose innovative mid-‘90s slot concepts are still remembered for being ahead of their time.
Mr Payne led Silicon’s game studio after parlaying a degree in film and television to become a producer for video game innovator Rocket Science Games. He’s been involved also in the creation of dozens of games for the US Class II, charitable games and lottery markets.
Combined, they comprise a pedigree you’re not likely to find at most slot manufacturers, and Aspect isn’t timid about testing the limits of it, as it has recently with Macaroon Mania, to take one example of a title that wears its casual game roots on its sleeve.
Macaroon Mania is an RNG disguised as a skills game whose object is to “collect” different-colored “macaroons” that pay different values depending on how many the player collects. The monitor shows a kind of serpentine which the macaroons traverse on their journey, with side tubes that let you see up to 35 of them at a time, of which only 25 count toward a payout.
“So as they snake through there you really kind of have a little bit of anticipation of where they’re going to land,” explains Mr Payne. “It could look like something great, when in fact many of the colors that you’re trying to get to land there on the side, they’re not in play.”
Macaroon Mania, in its way, speaks volumes about the bridge Aspect is intent on building between the world of social gaming and the world of the casino, and in the process to inspire the devotees of both to participate in them in entirely new ways.
Of course, Mr Payne will be the first to acknowledge that when it comes to accepted standards of slot design and play mechanics, “There are not a lot of inflection points in our industry.” He’ll be the first as well to tell you that innovations such as Macaroon Mania will have to tread carefully around that fact if they’re to succeed.
Then again, Aspect’s aim is high.
“When you look at the casual games, a lot of them are still probability-based,” Mr Payne says. “So we thought if we can take a game and have it look like a casual game and make that math really align with what we need to offer our customers in the casinos, we can come up with a product that’s going to resonate with players that may not be slot players. Those are the guys that we’re looking for: people who are coming to Macau or other markets for the first time, maybe they have never been in a casino before, they feel like they don’t know how to play a slot machine, maybe they’re not interested in playing a slot machine. But they like the idea of a casual game type of thing and also being able to win money.”