Big Time Gaming CEO Nik Robinson reveals all

17th June 2020 11:37 am GMT
Nik Robinson Big Time Gaming

Big Time Gaming released its new Star Clusters game yesterday. Chief executive officer Nik Robinson hopes its new Megaclusters will mimic the success of Megaways.

[GI] What was the motivation for creating a new mechanic? Do you feel the market is becoming saturated with Megaways games?

[NR] The motivation to deliver something fresh to players is key; something that will surprise, entertain and generally drop jaws!

I'm always thinking about what's next and actually feel I've been a little slow on the uptake of late. Megaways is now five years old, which now you've mentioned it, makes me feel as if complacency has fully sunk in.

We got very stuck into innovating Megaways iteratively, pushing the format in many different directions from its debut with Dragon Born.

On one hand, we went out on a limb with the progressive base game feature of King Maker and on the other hand threw the brand into the deep end with the backing of big brands like Monopoly and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

By the end of 2020, if all goes to plan, Big Time Gaming and its licensees will have over 200 Megawaystitles from over 50 providers.

Megaways is an incredible genre, interest keeps on growing and the brand is getting bigger in terms of recognition - a Megaways tab is now a common addition to all major casinos.

In short, the saturation of Megaways is not viewed as a problem, it's taken five years to get here and might just have some way to go still. And at the end of the year we have a massive announcement on the Megaways front. Let's just say the biggest brand in slot machine history is about to get the Megaways treatment. 

What made you think of a grid slot with reactive wins and a splitting mechanic as the next innovation? Was it inspired by Chain Reactors, which was such a success for your first company NT Media?

Chain Reactors was actually the world's first real-money cluster pays grid game to hit the market. I built that over 17 years ago and while the Flash held up, and until HTML5 eventually sealed its fate, it remained very successful throughout the noughties.

Many providers have taken up the gauntlet and added lots of interesting features to make grid games the player staple they are today. Thinking back, I remember a good friend, Robert Skog, the Head of Sales at Play’n GO in their start-up days, come running up to me at a conference. He showed me Troll Hunter and said: "We've ripped you off a little bit but I'm sure you won't mind because you've sold the business.” (I'd just sold NT Media to News Corp).

Virtue Fusion (sold to Playtech) had already taken up the mantle with Bouncy Balls, which without any action from News Corp at the time, set a precedent for real money grid games becoming public domain.

So coming back to the genre all these years later I wanted an angle to make it feel like it could stand up in the 2020s. Megaclusters in its early iterations was way too complex and ahead of itself; we wanted to make it a genre-defining hybrid, a slot and a cluster game at the same time.

The symbols become very small when viewed on mobile. Was this game created specifically for desktop/tablets....will there be another version for mobile?

Mobiles these days have incredible resolution and that has enabled us to fit a whopping 256 Megaclusters on the screen at the same time. Yes, they're small, but they are crystal clear on the screen. We won't be stopping there either as our filed patent goes from 2x2 to exponential, as I mentioned we're working back from a high level of mathematical complexity so we will inevitably go even smaller.

How does the player experience differ from Megaways?

Megaways has always had an issue with being a little too overwhelming. Recalling a meeting in Vegas G2E 2016, revealing a Megaways game to a client from a certain company’s marketing department, they had a few spins and said: "There is no way on earth that's going to catch on, it's way too complicated!" 

That game was Bonanza and I guess the rest is history, but that is still an important message as the customer is usually always right, right?

So with that in mind, Star Clusters' gameplay is super simplistic. It holds the player's hand from spin to spin, so the complexities are easily understood. From the first win, the player knows where they are and where the format can inevitably take them.

Both mechanics are packed with action – what do you feel they have in common and what sets them apart?

They are both packed with fun; players need to have fun, they need to be entertained and they need to have bang for their buck. Once the penny drops with Megaways, players see the potential of getting massively stacked adjacent symbols with the addition of up-rising multipliers. When the potential is realised, the Megaways format will always deliver the motherlode.

Star Clusters presents the opposite at first, with a 4x4 grid it seems like the game has no potential until the first win happens and the symbols divide, the game then opens up and the Wild modifiers can take the pay potential to dizzying new heights.

One thing we have really concentrated on with Star Clusters is the overall vibe of the slot, the music is four on the floor simplistic techno, however, the tones are put together on a Moog Modular synth adding deep complexity to the beat, marrying with the simple/complex nature of the game.

At the same time, we have built a light synth modulator into our code base that is triggered by the beats as they ebb and flow. Everything is driven by the spins and when a win occurs the beat is mixed with overlays to heighten the sense of anticipation. The entire game explodes with light and colour to celebrate each win, as the player hits clusters on their way to trigger the feature. The feature then takes the game to a whole new level of game play sophistication.

Do you expect the game to be played by the same audience with the same results?  Same average bet, session time, same average number of sessions per player?

I think we will see slot fans and cluster pay fans merge together with this slot; it's genre-defining in the fact that it's truly hybrid. It spins in like a slot and then divides on cluster reactions, the new symbols spin into the gameboard like a slot but once all the bigger symbols are exhausted it becomes a tumbling symbol game.

So there really is something for everyone, and not in a way that's been over-processed or overthought. It's simplistic, elegant complexity at its finest.

Will you be licensing Megaclusters in the same way as you licensed Megaways?

Yes, we already have a number of key licensees under agreement.

Did you have any specific markets in mind when you were designing Star Clusters? Do you think there are specific markets where it will be popular?

I think we have proved with Megaways that ‘new’ has no borders; at the end of last year Megaways crossed the pond to become the most popular slot genre in New Jersey, beating the best performing old school mechanics by a magnitude of three in KPIs.

Cluster games are not everyone's cup of tea and have their popular jurisdictions, for example, Sweden has two grid games in the top 30. The UK on the other hand has no grid games in the top 30. So it does seem that grid games are more popular by jurisdictional locale, but I am hoping with something that leans into slots and has a different feel to standard grid games that we can break the jurisdictional divide, as we have with Megaways.

You mentioned another Megaclusters game due in December. What differences will that have? Will licensing happen after that or do you have more games to release before then?

Our next release takes the format in a slightly more complex direction and the theme is bang on, but I'll save that for another time. The scope is most certainly 2021 for licensees as they will want to take time to build something that will resonate with players.

Why jewels?

A lot of our games feature jewels including Extra Chilli, Millionaire, King Maker, Dragon Born and Bonanza. This is the first game since Dragon Born that has not featured our 9 - A Royals. It's funny as a lot of reviewers when they score for graphics or have 'pros and cons' in our game reviews, they say, “oooh they're lazy just using Royals” but in actual fact, every one of our Royals on every game is a unique design piece.

In Donuts they represent Fizzy Soda, in King Maker stain glass, Extra Chilli has the Gold that was stolen from the Bonanza mine (apply back story), etc. We could not use the Royal collection in this game but not strictly because of size but because of the volume of symbols required. However, we still kept our Purples as the top pay. 

Tell us about the music. What inspired you? How important do you think music is in slots/clusters games? Is it underestimated?

As you know, I have a hand in all the sounds and music in our games, love it or hate it! I think it's hugely important to get the vibe right; if you miss the mark then everything, even impeccable math, can fall by the wayside.

I don't stick to any formula, I usually start working on the sound when the initial beta comes together, obviously with licences like Danger I can take cues from the music but in essence, it's always a blank canvas with a splattering of BTG factory sounds, such as our feature bell and our 8bit, big win extravaganzas, that no one wants to hear but always love it when they do!

I used a Moog on Star Clusters, which stands to reason, as any knob you twist can take you into an entirely new spectrum of sound, again that too had to be tamed in its complexity. I’m really happy with how it turned out, the music in this case is really key to the flow of the game.

Similarly, how important is the design around the game to entrancing a player?

Star Clusters looks simple and that's the point, however under the bonnet is a range of really interesting lighting effects that actually pulse and modulate to the groove of the game, the high hats, and bass drum affects the background in a variety of ways, and the retrigger dial has subtly beat controlled lighting built-in. The speed and pace of the game also accelerate as wins get bigger.

What game/mechanic/feature by another studio have you looked at and thought 'I wish I had thought of that!'?  

The great thing about the industry now is developers are taking innovation really seriously. There are many providers that are doing great things at the moment, one that stands out of late and that I've found intriguing is Elk Studio's latest engine that they're using for IO and Cygnus - it's a really novel approach to the grid game format, using a gravity-based system.

There’s no summit to innovation, you just have to keep climbing the mountain!