President of Shanghai-based slot machine manufacturer Aspect Gaming, Tony Payne,tells IAG about his fascinatingly unorthodox journey into the gaming industry.
Inside Asian Gaming: Before we talk about your career in the gaming industry, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Tony Payne: I grew up in Los Angeles and spent most of my life there. I went to university in LA and then moved to San Francisco, studied biology and then moved to film. I went to film school, graduated and went into the film industry where I planned on making my living. I worked my way up in the industry and became an associate producer so I was often responsible for budget scheduling and that sort of thing. Oddly enough, I had the opportunity from working on different films to wrangle small parts for myself. The benefit of that wasn’t actually becoming an actor but being able to get health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild! It was a big plus.
IAG: So at that stage gaming was the furthest thing from your mind?
TP: Yeah. I actually worked in the film business for quite some time and then in the early 90s I was recruited by a traditional game company doing games for Sega and so on. They were looking for people that had some production experience and an appreciation for high production values. We wanted to raise the bar for traditional video games away from games like Pong – introducing full motion graphics and that sort of thing. So I went to work for a great start-up company in Silicon Valley and it’s where I really think my entrepreneurial spirit was fostered. I consider myself a start-up specialist. I’m not suited to big companies and I like the adventure of getting to wear a lot of different hats, work around a lot of people who are motivated and high energy.
IAG: So how did you go from traditional gaming to gambling?
TP: I was told by a recruiter that there was another company that had its own hardware looking for someone. My first reaction was that I wasn’t interested because at the time Sega, Sony and 3DO were really trying to fight it out and there was so much battle going on for the market I knew a new company had no chance. But the guy said, “Come on down anyway, I think you’ll be interested in this.” So I went down to Palo Alto and met with this company and it turned out they were doing slot machines – some of the first video-based slot machines. Straight away I said, “Yes, I definitely want to do this.”
IAG: Why the instant attraction?
TP: I’ve always had an affinity for slot machines. My mom was a very simple woman. She grew up in Arkansas during the depression, she never had a passport, never cared about going to the theatre, never went to a museum, didn’t read books. But the one thing she liked to do twice a year was take the bus to Las Vegas. You could take a six-hour bus ride, they would drop you off in Downtown Las Vegas for 12 hours and then you’d ride back for six hours, so it was a 24hour round trip.
She used to take about US$100 and would even change her nickels at the bank and carry it on the bus with her! The whole experience for her was that, from the moment she changed that money and climbed on the bus, she started thinking about whether she would win or not win and what was in store. I loved that about my mom because it was about simple pleasures. She didn’t actually care whether she won or lost, she just wanted it to last
so she even developed her own hypothesis about what she should do – bet one nickel, then three nickels, pull the handle three times. So when I started working for this company, Silicon Gaming, I said, “Wow, this is everything that I thought about entertainment.” For me, entertainment doesn’t have to be an art movie and have so much gravity, be so self-important. I worked
for that company until they were acquired by IGT and then spent time working for other small start-up companies in the US.
IAG: How did your own company, Aspect Gaming, get started?
TP: My partner at Aspect called me out of the blue about nine years ago and said, “Hey listen, I’d love to get together some
time.” I said, “Absolutely, yeah we should do that sometime,” but I’m a guy from LA so when we say, “We should get together” we
don’t actually mean it! But he said he would be down on Friday and when we caught up he told me he was running an engineering
group in Shanghai.
At the time, my wife and I were in the process of adopting our daughter from China so I’d been on this wait list. I had also started studying Chinese because I knew that I would go to China to pick her up at some stage and figured I may as well learn Chinese in the meantime. I mean, the anticipation is a bit like a four or five year pregnancy – you never know when you’re going to get the call.
He said, “Look, I really have an idea to serve players that are currently underserved.” A lot of western companies were putting games in Macau and it felt like there was an opportunity for a company like ours to be based in China and to really serve the mass market. So we were basically three guys and a power point but we got together, raised some money and kicked off the company.
IAG: When you talk about serving the market, are you referring to the themes and concepts you used in your games?
TP: It was really, for us, about themes that resonated with players on a deeper level. We didn’t want to go the way of panda bears and bamboo, we wanted to have something that was meaningful. Our approach is the same today. We couldn’t compete with the big guys on buying licenses and things like that, so we wanted to have something else. For example, we have a game called “Backyard Gold.” It’s a story about a guy who finds 300 pieces of gold and, not knowing what to do with it, digs a hole in his backyard, buries the gold and then puts a sign there saying “There are not 300 pieces of gold buried here.”
It’s a story that is known universally through China so when we did that game, what we observed was players seeing the game and recognizing it. It has borrowed brand equity and it puts a smile on people’s faces which is nice. By doing that, our small company made some games that worked pretty well.
IAG: It seems to me that there is now a lot of similarity between gambling games, computer games and even films in regards to not only telling a real story but also the production values required to stand out from the crowd?
TP: Right, because at the end of the day we’re doing a production. My wife is in the film industry in feature animation and there are many, many commonalities in the production process. We’re doing animations and mapping out stories and possible outcomes. It just comes down to being entertainment. No matter how brief, you’re taking a player from one point to whatever that end point is.
One of the things I love about slot machines – and I’m the first to admit I’m not a table games guy – is that you go into a movie and however much that costs you with some popcorn and whatever, if you’re lucky you see a movie that’s 90 minutes long so you get 90 minutes of entertainment and something to talk about a bit later. Bu that money you’ve given up is gone.
With a slot machine I can take HK$100 and maybe turn that into HK$30 million. And yeah, there is almost no chance of that happening … but there is a chance. That’s not something you can say about movies. Slot machines are aspirational. And the fun isn’t just at the machine. When you sit down and watch players play, there is that hesitation between two spins where it’s like, “Okay, this spin is going to be the one where my life changes forever.” So they are not so quick to push the button always because they want to live in that fantasy for a little bit. It all comes down to being entertainment.
Also, in gaming, we’re all vying for those same discretionary dollars. People have only so much money to spend on entertainment whether it be going to a concert or a movie or whatever it might be. We want to give them something that also gives them a chance at a life changing event.
IAG: So you moved to Shanghai to start Aspect Gaming. Was it a culture shock for you?
TP: I’ve been there almost nine years. Culturally it is quite different but it has just been such a wonderful opportunity to experience a different part of the world and a tremendous culture. I think that Shanghai is the best place to live in China. We’ve got everything there. It hasn’t always been that way. When we first arrived there were certain things you just couldn’t get food-wise but that has changed considerably. The only thing we can’t get is good Mexican food and as Californians we love Mexican food! But some of the biggest challenges were things like hiring people and getting used to the way we needed to work to get the best out of our employees. That was a big challenge.
IAG: How has Macau’s rapid development in that nine years impacted you?
TP: We’ve learnt a lot from gaming in Macau and we’ve seen the transition to what it is now. I used to have a hard time getting a flight from Shanghai to Macau. The last two years it seems like most of the time the planes have been half empty and the tickets cheaper. But that seems to be changing again these last couple of months. I’ve noticed the planes being a bit fuller again. It’s exciting. I see Macau bouncing back and I think the mass market players are starting to show up.
The other thing is that there have been some really fantastic properties opening up in Macau recently. It’s great to see the diversity that we’re now seeing in terms of what is offered and the experience. It’s not just gaming and I think Macau is learning, as Vegas did, that you have to step back and reinvent yourself.
IAG: It would be remiss of me not to ask about your return to acting. I hear you’ve recently starred in a new film?
TP: Yes! I had an opportunity to audition for a part in a movie, I got a part in the movie and I got to film it! I’m now 56 years
old so to have the opportunity to be in a movie is something that doesn’t come along every couple of weeks. I was thrilled to be included in it, I like the movie, there are some really talented people in it and there is already talk of doing a second one and maybe a third one.
The movie is called Pegasus and my art is that of a CIA agent. I guess I just kind of fit the bill. Type-casting! So it was a wonderful experience and I’m looking forward to that film being released here pretty soon.