Exclusive Interview with Thomas Kolbabek (CTO, Golden Whale Productions)

Home » Exclusive Interview with Thomas Kolbabek (CTO, Golden Whale Productions)

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European Gaming met with some of Central Europe’s most dynamic gaming studio CEOs ahead of the Prague Gaming Summit (29-30 March) to discuss all things 2023. This one is a treasure trove of gameplay gold, covering everything from development trends to mathematics and post-COVID play styles. Continue reading to learn more.

Jan Urbanec, (JU), CEO of Endorphina

Robert Lenzhofer RL – CEO of H o lle Gaming

Alexis Wicen AW – CEO of Unibo Games

We have some of the most brilliant slots minds in Central Europe. Let’s get to it. What do you think is the key formula for success in slot development in 2023?

JU – Every element is important, so you need to have a balanced mix of them all. The basics are essential to this, especially design and mathematics. Studio owners can’t allow this approach to become stale. You need to be innovative to stand out.

However, as a studio, you shouldn’t go too crazy. There have been providers that target certain Asian markets or Sweden, and many can get really wild with their design. They are not wrong, but you have to ensure it is mixed up. I believe that you should keep it for one release, and not go crazy every time you release a new version.

The foundation of any game is mathematics. You’ll be stuck.

RL This is something I really agree with. This question can be answered differently if you compare large studios to small ones. Because smaller studios are less distracted from corporate issues, it is possible to focus on the game. This allows you to be more flexible and focuses on creativity without any restrictions.

It is also very different today to build a studio compared to 10 years ago. The world of tech today is completely different – as shown in the recent releases. Recent stats show that SlotCatalog has added new studios. There were 5-10 studios that were added each year. Now there are more than 50!

That’s because of the technology. HTML5 was once a difficult task, but it is now much easier to create more complex slots. In terms of creativity, I anticipate a lot of competition between big and small. Because smaller studios are more likely to bring games to market faster and have a higher impact, they can also be more creative. On the other side, large studios will feel the pressure because smaller studios are more agile and can take advantage of radical cost changes and, consequently, deliver better quality and delivery.

AW I don’t believe there is one-size-fits all formula for slot machines or any other games. You will find a variety of answers when you ask players why they love their favorite slots. It could be the free spins or sticky wilds. Or the feeling of having won big in the past, and hoping it will again. This is before we get to the graphics options (such as kittens or dogs, or teddy bears), and the narrative. Vikings, El Dorado and ancient civilisations like Aztec and Aztec are all included. The simplicity of the gameplay makes it easy to understand, enjoy, and even more enjoyable.

It is also clear that in certain markets where internet access and data are limited, studios will succeed if they can create light slots filled with great features. It is important to have great mathematics, simple gameplay, and a compelling story. If you are looking to make your slot stand out in mature markets, great graphics and sound quality will be key.

How influential do you think traditional slot themes like Egyptian, Irish or Fruit from the 2010s will be in the future?

JU I believe that there will always be room for the classics. This trend was passed on from the land-based generation of the 2000s and it is likely to continue.

When we look at traditional symbols in slot machines, they are essentially the ‘ancient symbols of industry lore. They are popular because they inspire trust and make players feel at home. A new game must win players’ hearts.

However, this should not be the only thing that distinguishes you as a brand. Imagine being an Egyptian game with your own spin. In keeping with Robin’s first question, I think that smaller and more agile studios will be cleaner in the next few years.

The new generation of players will also have an impact on development. Today’s players are drawn from the worlds of video games. They will continue to seek out games that use the same mechanics as they know. Next-generation players will be looking for products with that transferrable resonance. New players will be tech-savvy and can understand RTP. You’ll get player loyalty if a studio is willing to cater to this demand.

AW. This is what I also believe. I believe that traditional themes based on Mythology and History will always be a part of slots. As it is the symbol that players love and know, classic symbols like Sevens, Jokers and Bells will be around for many years. Some providers swear off using Royals. However, I believe they will continue to be used in future slots. They are the classics. Studio owners should remember that players will always be able to access new games if they have some familiarity with the elements. It’s easy to piggyback on the players’ personal experiences by using classic symbols like Royals.

RL I agree with this. New players are entering an iGaming environment that already contains its core elements. This is not an empty world. New players will quickly become familiar with the environment and begin to see it as part the furniture. This is called “end customers don’t like change” – innovation is difficult because of this. These themes will be around forever because it is part of the history of slots. This is what Wikipedia will show you. The original fruit machines offered fruit-style candy wins. Although it seems random, what began almost a century ago has led to the fruit slots that we see today.

If you stray too far from the original, you will lose your appeal. Jan said that it is a classic favourite that will not change. The good news is that creativity can be enhanced with classics due to decreasing production costs. We’ll likely see more localized versions of those. You can adapt fruits to local markets by using regional fruits and adding visual effects. Let’s take the “Book of” theme. Why not create highly localised versions of this theme now that production costs have fallen to a fraction of what they were five or ten years ago? !

How different is the playing style and behavior of 2020s players compared to those in pre-COVID? What is the most engaging?

AW For me, the COVID program has had a significant impact on how people play online slots. There has been an increase in players, both in terms of their time and those who are able to stay at home.

Additional gamification features, such as Tournaments, Achievements and Prize Drops, will be even more important in 2023. They can help online casinos and game providers stand out and attract players. Therefore, retention is something I believe will be a key focus for iGaming operators in the next year.

JU To add to this, the operator has the complete data picture and it is difficult to know what the operator sees. This question would be rephrased to say that we would be answering it blindfolded! We need to know the player journey. How did they deposit? What was the decision to play the game?

We can confidently say that volumes increased during COVID. That part is evident. Yes, I believe that COVID has shown us that we are recession-proof. Endorphina, for example, has five projects in the casino right now. Player preferences are tied heavily to age.

My view is that players embody the same key themes I’ve seen before. The player demographics remain the same every decade: low disposable income, mid-20s-30s. The only thing that has changed is the device being used. In effect, we have seen a change in player lifecycles, but the habits remain the same.

RL I have seen a smaller impact than I expected. This topic has been the subject of extensive research on the German market. It was found that only a very small number of players were able to switch from land-based to online gaming during lockdowns. This still led to a significant number of players trying out slots for the first time. We also noticed a surprising amount of sticky-ness among these land-based players.

It is clear that people are gradually switching from being land-based to going online. The trend towards online shopping is also growing, just as with e-commerce. This means that there are fewer customers moving to online than we thought. However, for those who did migrate, there was plenty of stickiness and a low churn rate. There would be 3-4 games to test, and then loyalty would be established.

Let’s not forget about game development technology. In order of importance, what do you consider the most important factors in a slot becoming a hit with players? Graphics, mathematics, or ease of playability?

AW To get things started, I strongly believe that maths and gamification can be a great way to go. Studio owners will benefit greatly from great features and good maths. It doesn’t matter how good your features or maths are if the slot is difficult to understand or has poor graphics.

Also, I believe 2023 will see more providers focusing on immersive elements in their slots, especially with great music and sounds. This doesn’t mean just bringing in a band to make a slot. (BTG’s Rasputin Megaways, however, is an excellent example of this being done well! However, you can also use “home-made” high-quality sounds in games that are proprietary. Blue Guru and Elk Studios have done some amazing work in this area.

JU When it comes to maths, we have done a few experiments. If a game is successful, we release it again with the core mathematics and a new skin in order to find out if the maths were the reason it became so popular.

This is the beauty of it: a game that uses the correct maths should work on all skin types. If the maths are fun, the theme of the game should also be successful. For example, if you are making a historical game (egyptian or mythological), you must ensure that the core elements are correct. This is a good example of a studio trying to bring a high-tech game into an emerging market. Because it is new and different from what players are used to, they will distrust it.

RL I agree with Jan. However, let’s add some contrast! Why would you release more than one game per month if the maths are so important? If the maths are so complex, surely one would be fine. The key ingredient is game balancing all elements, not just maths. Candy Crush is an example of a top-level game designer who focuses on the timing and animations that trigger which emotions.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the formula that makes a video game great. But it’s much easier to find the recipe that makes it fail. It all boils down to maths. Or is there something that makes it really work? Here’s where the tech comes in and game balancing. You need game orchestration from PO to ensure that all components work together. This is what is key. You need to do the right thing at the right time and give the right cues. These elements must all be in harmony.

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