GameOn: AGS executive offers some insight into hiring game developers

CDC Gaming Reports

THACKERVILLE, Oklahoma – Generally, at annual or semi-annual casino customer events, you seldom hear about or meet any game designers. They are often locked away in studio labs.

So it was a little unusual at AGS’s GameOn customer summit last week at WinStar World Resort and Casino that there was a discussion on how AGS hires and develops designers.

It wasn’t about the games, but rather the people who create them. These men and women are the unsung heroes of our industry, and we literally depend on them to make us successful.

Despite the money these games generate, few operators can tell you who came up with “Wheel of Fortune,” “Lightning Link,” or “Sex and the City.”

(Note: the answers in order are: 1.  – A whole bunch of folks at Anchor Gaming and International Game Technology.  2. – Scott Olive and a team of folks at an Aristocrat design studio and 3. – Joe Kaminkow (who many mistakenly think he did it all alone).

So, if you want your name listed with the Hall of Fame slot designers above (and the dozens of other unofficial members), how do you start?  

AGS’s Chief Technology Officer Sigmund Lee said if you never gamble, are not too good at math and don’t have a heightened sense of curiosity; you might consider a different career path. Those three characteristics, he says, are mandatory.  While not required, he said a college degree is a great foundation. The fields of study are wide open. One thing that is mandatory is an understanding of the psychology of winning and losing. 

“A great candidate needs to be natural learner, very curious about our business and have sense of how to create the feeling of ‘a chance to win,’” Lee said, adding that it’s very difficult to understand that concept if you haven’t experienced it yourself on the casino floor.

“Good game designers rely on their gut about what will work or not,” Lee said. “But they need to earn that ‘gut’ by investing time playing games with real money.”

From his perspective, it’s difficult to source good candidates. Lee said they would never run a “help wanted” ad or post on a job board for designers.

“We generally go prospecting where we think the best candidates might be found,” Lee said.” That tends to be technology conferences, university forums, and communities known for producing talent, such as Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Santa Clara, California; and Seattle.

Experienced designers are rare, so that’s why he says AGS invests a lot of energy in developing its own team.

Lee showed a video where his designers raved about AGS’s “lack of bureaucracy and micromanagement.” That may be common at tech startups but is often missing at larger corporate vendors. The designers were proud AGS has won two straight “Best and Brightest” awards from the National Association for Business Resources as one of the top national places to work. The company has won the same honor three years in a row in Atlanta area.

Like many business models, a successful slot machine needs to demonstrate the abilities of acquisition, engagement and retention. There is no one in the industry better than the aforementioned Kaminkow in acquisition and engagement or Olive with engagement and retention. The true magic occurs when a game delivers all three characteristics.

If you’re in casino operations, but have a yearning to jump into game design, how do you start?  Lee says to take advantage of where you are now.

“Look at what’s happening on your floor. Why is one game working and another not?  What events on a game seem to be generating interest and excitement? What are players saying? Why are they cashing out? What are the bonus rounds like? Where are players looking on the screen?” Lee said.

They are all queries related to Lee’s comment that one of the most valuable attributes for any designer is “a heightened sense of curiosity.” The basics of a strong work ethic, drive and passion are just assumed.

The gaming industry is dominated by males. While the pace of change seems glacial on the management side, things have moved a lot faster in game design. Despite their relative anonymity, women have played a strong role in slot design for years. Encouragingly, there’s even a higher percentage of talented women working in the field now. Lee thinks that is only natural since women dominate the ranks of slot players.

Lee says today’s emphasis on strong game accounting is just one reason why designers need to be good at math. But art is important, even though many artists don’t love numbers. That’s one of the reasons why good studios have teams working on games, rather than single individuals. The aspects of testing, industrial design, esthetics, audio, lighting, systems integration and compliance are all critical to releasing a good game. It’s also why the definition of “game designer” today is quite broad and open to a wide variety of backgrounds and skills.  As long as each one of them is very curious.