The $4.2 billion social casino industry has attracted the interest of some of the biggest gambling companies in the world. Most notable is Aristocrat Technologies, the Australian manufacturer of gambling machines that has snatched up social casino developers such as Product Madness and Big Fish Games, which it bought from Churchill Downs in an all-cash deal for $990 million. As big as that sounds, the Big Fish Games deal was dwarfed by the $4.4 billion acquisition of Playtika the year before.
That’s good news for anyone who owned stock in those companies, but what does it mean for the social casino industry as a whole? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for social casino players? As a greater share of the industry falls under the control of a small number of very large firms, will the industry be able to keep competition and innovation alive?
It’s a fair question. After all, large firms in all industries aren’t exactly known for experimenting and pushing boundaries. True innovation tends to come from small startups, who have less to lose and more to gain by “swinging for the fences.” Startups tend to be more nimble and flexible, while also being less afraid to take chances. Their edge when competing against large, often bureaucratic companies is exactly the fact that they are not large, bureaucratic companies.
While the deep pockets and large audiences of today’s top social casino publishers might make it difficult for small companies to compete for new users in the current ecosystem, here are several ways that startups are using their edge to innovate within the genre:
Experimenting with new types of gameplay mechanics
Startup developers don’t have to play it safe the way that larger publishers do. With less to lose and more of a gambler’s mindset, they often take chances and experiment with new types of gameplay that can’t be found in traditional casino games. KamaGames, for example, has tried a variation in which poker players are dealt four “community” cards, and the fifth card is a duplicate of the first four, thereby creating better odds for five-of-a-kind, a flush, and other winning hands. Meanwhile, other developers have experimented with allowing gamers to play at multiple poker tables simultaneously, increasing the pace and excitement of traditional poker.
Within the slots genre, we’re seeing companies such as ME2ZEN and Gamesofa experimenting with new types of gameplay mechanics that combine slots with city-building games, for instance, turning the traditional slots game into a whole new experience.
Adding skill-based elements and strategy
It’s no big secret that strategy games such as Clash Royale and Hearthstone are consistently among the top grossing apps on the App Store and Google Play. In fact, a recent Pew Research report indicated that strategy games are tied with puzzle games as the most popular type of video game among adults who play often or sometimes. Whereas traditional social casino games typically offer shallow gameplay and short sessions, strategy games tend to offer more depth and longevity.
Our social casino game Wild Poker, for example, leverages power-ups and journey elements to add a whole new level of strategy to the typical Texas Holdem poker mechanics. By combining these two seemingly disparate genres, the next generation of social casino games mixes the brief sessions of casino-style games with the more in-depth experiences of strategy games to take the genre to another level -- one that offers a wider set of challenges than traditional social casino games and attracts a broader audience.
Experimenting with VR and AR
For many players, much of gambling’s allure stems from the glitz and glamor of the casino environment itself: the colorful lights, the velvet tables, the well-dressed dealers. These elements are hard to replicate within the confines of a mobile or social game, but through the power of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, some game developers are creating social casino experiences that practically transport players to the casinos themselves.
With the growth of VR platforms like Oculus, PlayStation VR, Google’s DayDream and others, game developers such as Alea, Mega Particle and JackpotCity are building games that use headsets to recreate the casino environment. The genre is still very much in its infancy, but with worldwide revenues for the AR and VR market forecasted to increase by 100 percent or more over each of the next four years, there’s obviously a lot of reason for excitement.
Adding more social hooks
The social casino genre came to be named for the social platforms -- mainly, Facebook -- that they originated on, not necessarily because they were all that social. Sure, traditional social casino games let you take a virtual seat at, say, a poker table with other real-life players throughout the world, but the actual interactions between players were relatively limited.
That is starting to change in the next generation of social casino games as peer-to-peer interactions are growing more involved. KamaGames, for example, offers a poker game featuring an innovative voice input interface that lets players chat at the table through the power of their own voice. Meanwhile Fourones’ poker game offers endless customization of in-game avatars so that players can let their personalities shine through. Other games are experimenting with virtual gifts, animated emojis, social replays and more. Today’s games go far beyond simply inviting friends to download the app by encouraging players to interact with one another in much the same way they would at a real world casino table.
Turning the experience into a narrative journey
Real-money casino gamers play in part for the thrill and excitement of the game, but mostly they play with the goal of winning money. That is obviously not part of the social casino experience, so developers must rely on other ways of tapping into players’ intrinsic motivations to get them to keep playing.
Some developers are turning their social casino games into a narrative journey, in which players are given missions or quests. Murka has done this very well by adding elements such as character development, plot twists, unique settings, and other journeying elements to its popular slots games. While storytelling is typically found more in sci-fi or adventure games than in social casino games, its emergence in the genre is a welcome development for players seeking a deeper, longer term experience.
Where do we go from here?
Innovation is crucial to the success of the social casino industry. It is vital to not only keep players interested but also to attract new audiences -- including those who might never play traditional social casino games.
And yet, with the category coming to be controlled by a small number of large firms, the industry is very much at risk of losing its innovative edge and seeing its numbers decline.
Fortunately, a number of startup companies are helping to save the social casino industry from itself by injecting a much needed shot of fun, excitement and innovation into the genre.