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Narratives in Slots - how to tell a great story

Tom Wood, Chief Creative Officer.

How do narratives work in slots and what are the differences between more traditional story telling techniques and slot design? How do story techniques such as character development, conflict, and story arcs in novels, films and TV classics, for example, compare with the more interactive nature of slot design? How important is story and character and how can they enhance the enjoyment for the player?

Engaging players is the goal at the heart of game development. It’s essential that a game works as a cohesive unit to capture and keep a player’s attention.

At Scientific Games, we want our slot games to be immersive and entertaining to the player. The games originate as short, punchy stories, usually not more than a paragraph, and those stories become art assets, game features, sound, bonusing and more. The final product is a culmination of various techniques and hard work, including the math, engineering, and back-end development. These elements should combine to form one immersive story where every aspect contributes to the larger, entertainment experience.

A few techniques stand out as high performers in terms of player engagement.

The physical behaviours of players, such as the orientation of how they hold the phone, can unexpectedly play a big role, and we use this to our advantage when thinking about how to keep the player engaged. Portrait mode, a pretty recent development in the history of iGaming, empowers new storytelling techniques. A vertical orientation allows for more immersive animations and art, it builds an environment that’s interesting to the player. The ability to switch between portrait and landscape also gives the player some control. They can decide which orientation works best as they experience the story within.

Sound contributes to the narrative as well, and it’s a powerful tool in keeping players interested. Wherever possible, we use high definition sound techniques to build the environment and immerse the player in the game’s story. When sounds travel intuitively for example, if a car races across the screen and the sound mirrors that motion, that little technological touch brings the game to a new plane of storytelling. The foundation is there, but the player experiences it in their own way, creating opportunities for enhanced engagement.

However the narrative is different in licensed properties when there isn’t a single narrative thread from which to pull.

When a licensed brand contains a broad catalogue, our main goal is to capture what makes that particular licensed property so enduring. Why do people love it? Why do people recognize it?  With movies, we curate some of the most iconic scenes and build features or jackpots around those characters or moments.  We try to incorporate those recognisable features whenever possible.

Bottom line, a game should always project its theme to the maximum degree. The symbols, the art, the sounds and the story all need to form one cohesive unit that looks, feels and plays like the licensed property it’s based on.

Many of our products focus on specific icons such as Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Kiss. Iconic performers and beloved entertainers make for excellent slot themes because they bridge gaps between forms of entertainment. When the music of Michael Jackson appears in a slot, it evokes a response that’s unique to the player. Music and movie icons all have distinct emotional value unique to every player, so we use the slot narrative as a way to connect with the player.

Licensed brands featuring instantly recognisable icons tell a different kind of story, it’s a narrative that attaches itself to the performer’s body of work and takes players on a nostalgic journey. When we develop a slot around such a theme, the question is “How do we bring every unique element of this character together?” In a Kiss game, players should feel a similar experience as if they’re in the front row, centre stage watching Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons deliver the energy of a live show. With a Michael Jackson game, players should want to sing along to one of his top hits and dance along with a part of one of his legendary music videos. The story is a moment in time that we guide the player through. It may not be a complete picture, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re letting them connect the dots by playing the game.

Slots use a specific genre to capture the attention of the player in a casino, so land-based properties have to use very different techniques to attract players because every game sits in a specific location. Hardware is key here and constant innovation is essential. A flashy top box, the game art that sits highest on a slot machine goes a long way in drawing a player to a machine. Other captivating physical elements like 4k resolution, curved monitors and light displays can bring new players to a land-based casino games. Online, those elements are either absent or highly condensed.

When a player visits an online casino, they have a library of games presented to them, usually represented by small game tiles. Operators typically promote new titles through page banners or emails announcing new game arrivals, and brands need to stand out based on those few impressions. Having a well-known brand or having a loyal fan-base wins part of that battle, as the game is immediately recognisable in a sea of unknown game titles. It’s a challenge that involves a ton of creativity, subtle messaging and artistic talent. We have to find a way to capture a game’s entire aesthetic in those very small areas.

Bonus features tap into the nature of the narrative theme, but the base game do the same if the bonus is the climax of a story arc, the base game is the build. Just as in a novel, there are ups and downs. In a slot, there are base game wins and losses. The big difference though is the gambling aspect. Within a slot narrative, there’s no guaranteed resolution unless the player acts. A novel ends the same way every time it’s read. A slot tells a different story with every spin, and every story has a different ending, though the differences are subtle.

The base game of a slot is a comfortable setting. The symbols on the reels are recognisable, the characters are familiar, and the situation stays the same unless a winning pay line hits. In a novel, the reader is made comfortable by the setting, just as a base game does in a slot. When conflict is introduced in a novel, the best slot parallel is a random feature trigger or a bonus hit. Even a bonus anticipation, where two out of three needed symbols appear and the third is eagerly awaited, can be a story catalyst. Anything that stirs a player’s emotion contributes to the narrative, even if it’s not a bonus.

The Interactive process begins with a story. We decide who the characters are, why they’re important, and what they do. The setting is equally important at this stage. It’s a small bit of storytelling, but it serves as a stepping stone to the aesthetic elements that will eventually make the final game: sounds, art, animations, etc. as well as a base for the dynamics of the gameplay. In the final product, these elements come together. For example, our Sword of Destiny game features fantasy characters wielding deadly weapons, sometimes surrounded by enemies. In one scene, a sinister king sits atop a dark throne, powerfully clutching a sword with its sharp end in the ground. Fire glows at his feet and sharp rocks levitate around him. His medieval surroundings set a dark fantasy tone. Each character represents a different bonus feature in the base game, so the developer must stay cognisant of the fact that the features they create should reflect the tone and attitude of that particular character.

We view slots as an entertainment form just like any other in that players expect a certain value when they put any amount of money into it. With a movie, viewers may expect two hours of entertainment from $15, whereas with a slot game they have different expectations based on how the game works.

The value in slots comes from the potential for winnings and the perceived entertainment value. Using the same example, a movie ends when the credits end. A slot game ends when a player collects. The player has more say in slots than in any other narrative form with regard to when the experience begins and ends. In this way, the player uniquely determines the value of a slot, both for himself and for the creator. When a story is compelling enough, players will enjoy the game more often and enhance the value to the operator. Players will stay engaged if the story consistently delivers.

When you think of a story as an arc, with an introduction, a build, a climax and a resolution, with many smaller versions of the same within, it doesn’t necessarily compare well to a slot game. A novel or a short story is more predictable in that it has a start, a middle and an end. A slot is more like a roller coaster, but the player decides when to board and when to depart. Say a player hits a bonus in Heidi’s Bier Haus game, earning 10 free spins. The beer overflows, the drinking song’s volume rapidly increases, and the player taps his foot to the beat. A few winning spins may hit, maximizing the fun. The free spins could end with a big win and a rush of animated coins on screen. The player, excited by that win, chooses to exit the game while ahead. A player can win big, but what happens next is triggered only by that player’s choice. If he spins right after that big bonus round, it could bring another win or a loss. The heart of each game is the anticipation that accompanies each spin. The potential for a big win or bonus round becomes a key element of the narrative.

Suspense plays a huge role in slots. We’ve mentioned it a few times already by way of anticipation. Every time the reels spin, the player is left in suspense as they stop, one-by-one, until that final column falls into place. We build games with this in mind, allowing for anticipatory sounds or artwork when the potential for a win comes into play. Contributing to the narrative rounds out the experience for the player and builds the suspense.

The main character in a slot is always the player. They’re the one in control of the narrative. They’re the one experiencing the events within the game. It’s a unique format in that way. The story is built around the capabilities of the player to spin, bet and win. Every player has a different motivation when playing a slot, just as every reader may have a different reason for choosing a particular book.

We see that players like to be immersed in a theme and experience all that it has to offer, the bonuses, the random features and the aesthetics. Of course, it’s probably safe to assume that players want to win big as well!