I grew up playing the fruit machines here in the UK. I used to spend a bit too much time doing that in fact and when I look back now, I was definitely a target market for the slogan "When The Fun Stops". In fact, it's a clever slogan in my opinion and these days, it is always at the back of my mind when I play. It doesn't perhaps affect my decision-making while I am playing, but after a bad session it does make me think about setting deposit limits and I often do. I thoroughly recommend that idea too!
I then stopped playing the fruit machines for a number of years until I stumbled across online casinos, some time towards the end of 2004 and since then, I would describe myself as a "slots enthusiast"! I also joined the popular casino forum, Casinomeister where around 2006, I was asked to become a Moderator. I still moderate there to this day and you'll often find me posting on there as "Simmo!". In a nutshell, I love slots and I love talking about them :)
As a result of my involvement there and as a frequent poster, I was approached by Leander Games towards the end of 2016 who were considering asking experienced online slots enthusiasts to advise on the development of new games. I mean, that's like the dream right? Getting paid to conceptualise a slot game? Although the issue of compliance with the licensing authorities meant I wouldn't be able to own any "intellectual property" within the game, it was still appealing and the ensuing months would take me on a journey that opened my eyes to the fascinating development life-cycle of the slot game that (eventually!) became called, "Afterlife:Inferno".
When we started out on this path, the first thing I was required to do was to "spec" the game out. I appreciate looking back that Leander were taking quite a risk by allowing me to completely conceptualise the game both from a aesthetic perspective and even more importantly from a game-play perspective. Yes, I have played online slot games for over 12 years and yes, I like to think I know what makes a good game but turning that vision into reality isn't so straight-forward.
For one thing, every player is different: some people like volatile games while others prefer low volatitly games that keep them playing for long periods on modest budgets - what I term the "entertainment player". Some like light, happy themes, some darker more atmospheric games. Some like music and sounds, some don't and those that do tend to have preferences. And to make a 'classic' game, you have to have every single element right, not just one or two. So the first thing I had to appreciate is that the game was not going to please everyone. In fact, I decided early on that trying to design a game to do that would most likely disappear up it's own backside and end up in the slots graveyard. While that may still turn out to be the case, it clearly wasn't what either I or Leander would have wanted!
THE RTP DECISIONS
It turns out that deciding on the % RTP ("Return To Player") of the game before you start is very important but for someone inexperienced, it is quite tough. It was easy enough to find out the RTP of existing games that I felt provided a good experience but as it turned out, that doesn't really have any value. The issues are that the RTP can impact on a player's decision to play a game, the features and events within the game need pre-defined chunks of the overall RTP assigned to them and finally there's the commercials. Games like the one I wanted to create do not come cheap. In fact, once I showed Leander my detailed game outline, they estimated the game couldd end up costing well over $100,000, possibly even more depending on how much I got wrong in the first instance! But let's first analyse those issues individually.
Is RTP that Important?
Some players look at the RTP of a game before deciding to play and choose games with higher RTPs. I would agree with that line of thought to an extent, for example, if a game was 93% or less I wouldn't probably play it unless I'd received sufficient motivation to do so, but conversely I feel that when you get to 95% - 98%, the difference you detect is marginal. After all, RTP is not only "theoretical" but it is measured over millions of spins, so I feel that playing a few thousand spins will still give me every chance of hitting something worthwhile.
Another issue is that of bonus play. I don't take casino bonuses myself (I just feel the strict terms make them a hindrance rather than a help) and I hadn't realised there was even an issue here until another Casinomeister member pointed it out to me that many casinos will "bonus ban" games which they feel offer the player an advantage when playing with a bonus. In general, this includes many games with > 97% RTP. Which is a shame, because I wanted to create a 97% RTP game but on the other hand, having a game included in bonus play helps with getting it exposed to new players and that seemed important to me. We managed however to get to 96.57% RTP in the final version which I was pretty happy with.
Now then: here's the bit that for some reason had never occured to me in all my years as a slot player. A typical slot game has at least one feature, whether it be free spins, a random feature or a "pick 'em" bonus or even several features. So when you design a game, you have to make a decision as to how the overall RTP gets divided between the features. When this was pointed out to me, I suddenly realised why so many slot games are crap.
Balance & Hit Frequency
Getting the balance right was the toughest part of the whole project and something I would keep coming back to. The unfortunate downside of this is that it can (but not always) significantly affect the maths, which not only holds up the development process but adds to the cost of production.
Furthermore, you have to decide on "Hit Frequency" - the number of spins that produce a winning combination and also factor in the paytables. Do you have a high hit frequency with lower payouts or vice versa? And how much RTP do you allocate to the base game? The danger here is that if you get any of those 3 things off-balance, you end up with a base game that loses people's interest.
I wanted the game I was developing to have 3 free spin features and a random feature but I also wanted it to be high volatility. I thought about this for an age trying to work out how to split the RTP and when it came to testing the first demos, I would revisit it again and again. Inexperience was my problem. The upside was that my 3 free spin features could be presented as one feature, giving the player a choice (sticky wilds, increasing multipliers and random multipliers). Additionally, if I could find a way to show players quickly the potential for a big win, I could possibly get way with taking some of the action out of the base game and using it for better features.
High Volatility Rocks!
This is the beauty of high volatility games: while they may put the player through lots of dead spin experiences, they have the propensity to deliver something big! I wanted "Afterlife:Inferno" to be able to deliver 5,000x plus wins on an occasional basis so I took the punt to give a little bit extra to the freatures. We still ended up with a base game that contains the majority of the RTP but the features are pretty stacked too. One other note about the base game was that the Hit Frequency ended up being slightly below average in order to provide some bigger wins along the way.
Later, I'll come back to the first playable demos and we'll see how this turned out and what needed amending. I definitely didn't get it right first time, that is for sure!
THE 'MUST HAVES'
When I started out, there were a handful of 'must haves' that I wanted the game to include. Inevitably ,as you'll see below, the odd compromise had to be made to deliver the experience I was after but thankfully, looking back they did not have much of a negative effect and in some instances even improved the game. My list of 'must haves' were as follows:
1) 500x for 5 scatters/Bonus symbols
2) The potential for wins over 5000x
3) A choice of free spin features that didn't force you to unlock them
4) Lots of contrast in the graphics to highlight the more exciting elements
5) High volatility but a good balance between the base game with the features
6) A payout for 2 scatters/Bonus symbols
While we had to drop the payout for 2 Bonus symbols in order to save some RTP for the features, we managed to make the game capable of paying over 8,000x instead of the intended 5,000x ceiling. This was achieved by playing with the hit frequencies in certain features and made the game a little more volatile in the process. I'm never going to complain about too much volatiliy, although Leander kept me in check on that one so it didn't get too silly! The base game perhaps isn't quite as balanced as I first envisaged but that is partly because I initially wanted a 243 ways game and also because we have more than one feature to balance with.
If you ever meet me, you'll find that I am generally a happy person with an optimistic approach to life. What might be less obvious is that I have a fascination with people's opinions of life after death and that I listen to a lot of dark, atmospheric, eerie ambient soundscapes (check out "Ambient Sleeping Pill" radio on TuneIn if you feel likewise)! I am going to guess that when I presented my game spec to Leander there might have been a couple of people thinking 'Was this really a good idea?".
That said, Leander approached me because they wanted something different and hopefully, this is what I gave them. The slot game itself is based on the first installment of Dante's trilogy, "The Divine Comedy" which consists of "Inferno", "Purgatory "and "Paradise" (or to give them their proper Italian names, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso). If you don't know about Dante's 14th Century classic, you can check it out here.
The game was initially going to be called "Dante's Inferno" but I did a bit of poking around and found that EA Games had released a game with that name a year previously and trademarked it. I also found that World Match had created a slot game some years back with that name and although it's rarely found, I felt it would have done neither of us a favour to use the same name. So instead, and after a lot of thought, I decided to go with "Afterlife: Inferno". My hope is that if it turns out be popular there would be scope for the 2 follow-up games. Then again, looking at the budget required to meet my demands on Inferno, it would have to become pretty popular to warrant that I suspect!
Dante's vision of the afterlife is pretty dark as you might expect. In Inferno, he travels through the 9 circles of Hell where tortured souls pay the penance relevent to their earthly sins before he encounters the Devil who is embedded up to his waist in a frozen lake. Reading the complete work provides great subject matter so my graphic ideas and soundscape ideas were submitted to Leander at the end of 2016.
One area we did initially disagree on was how many pay-lines the game should be. I put it forward as a 243 ways-to-win game but Leander said they would prefer a fixed-line game for various reasons. Because I wanted high volatility and didn't want lots of "micro wins" - a win that isn't really a win at all because it's less than your bet - they felt this would be hard to achieve with a 243 ways game. So we went with 20 lines but to this day, I'd like to have known how it would have played as a 243 ways slot. I don't dispute Leander know what they are talking about but I'd have liked the challenge as I am drawn to those games more than fixed-line games.
Anyway, when the designs and sounds came back to me, I was shocked at how close to my vision they had got at the first attempt! Sure there was the odd tweak but the symbols managed to convey the slightly "old skool" style I had wanted to try and achieve, while the backgrounds and animations were simply superb! Even more of a pleasant surprise was the sound palette that came back from them. There were lots of different sounds required and yet I was able to count on two fingers the sounds I required changing!
I was aware up-front that the theme was going to be quite dark so I asked for the important symbols to contrast with the stark backgrounds as much as possible and for the sounds to only intrude when something was happening. Even when I felt that the contrast wasn't contrasting enough (IE: the Bonus symbols reflect Dante's "City of Dis" in Hell as does the background) Leander presented them in such a way as to stand out nicely and convey the excitement required of feature triggers. The "Expecting Reel' animation and accompanying sound is a prime example: look for the subtle hands of the Damned at the bottom of the animation!
There were two notable features of Dante's trilogy that I had to find solutions for. The first was that his vision of Hell had the Devil in a frozen lake - not exactly the traditional vision of Hell. Secondly, his vision of Paradise is actually the solar system. As the 3 free spin features allude to Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, I felt that having a dark Paradise setting in the solar system wouldn't make much sense to people who didn't know the Dante works.
I countered these by making the random Wild Reels feature focus in on the icy lake ("Hell Freezes Over") and went more traditional on the vision of Paradise. I also took a gamble on the sounds for Paradise and replaced the background soundtrack with one of nature sounds. This allows the symbol and game sounds to come to the fore and with the Garden Of Eden style backdrop, makes the mood of the Paradise feature contrast starkly with the rest of 'Afterlife: Inferno". Take a break from Damnation :)
One final note on the features. I wanted each feature to have a different experience, not only in style but in the volatility so that players could choose a feature that suited their preference. We have even put a "Volatility" indicator on the "Free Spins Feature Selector" panel that pops up when you trigger the free spins. The RTP is not affected depending on the feature the player selects, just the volatility. I also felt it was important to have retriggers but the maths meant this was only possible in the "Inferno" feature. The "Purgatory" feature awards extra spins (either 1 or 3) when 2 or more scatters appear but the Paradise "sticky wild" feature had no wiggle room for this.
In fact, because Paradise ended up very volatile, the number of free spins had to be cut from the originally itended 15 to 12 in order to ensure that it didn't end up with lots of boring small-win features! The compromise was worth it though as, along with the random "Hell Freezes Over" feature is where the really big wins are most likely to trun up.
THE FIRST WORKING DEMOS
You may have realised by now that this game was going to require a whole new game engine. This is where games get expensive and time consuming and why many developers re-skin games with perhaps a minor tweak of two that don't have big Maths implications. Bear in mind too that once a game is certified and you change something, it has to go back for certification which itself costs money.
I had hoped that I'd have the first demos within 3-4 months of the spec but for various reasons - notably the complex spec and also that Leander have a deveopment schedule to adhere to - it took closer to 6 months before the first demo arrived and it was clear even then, that there was still quite a lot to do. I think it would have been nothing short of a miracle if a game spec from someone who had never developed a slot game before had got it right first time and while I felt that the graphics and sounds were looking good, the game-play just didn't feel right.
What followed was a number of discussions about how to improve it. This was interesting and frustrating because I felt that I didn't have the experience to know whether what I wanted would work but at the same time felt that Leander's ideas, while they sounded good and were based on experience, would mean that they ultimately didn't end up with what they wanted - a slot game developed from a different perspective. I also felt that some of their ideas would impact negatively on the high volatility vision that I'd had from the beginning. What was obvious though was that we weren't a million miles away from what I was after and we all felt that we could get there with a bit of experimentation.
The real issue was that the volatility, hit frequency and RTP split wasn't quite delivering the feel-good experience I'd hoped for. It was a questiom of playing with these to get the balance right but, as I pointed out earlier in this article, that requires a lot of thought, changes to the maths, time delays and more expense. The good news was that their maths girl much like their design team, is fantastic at what she does and really communicative. She provided me with different maths scenarios based on what would happen if we shifted RTP around or changed hit frequencies and with a lot of study and some guidance from Leander, we came up with something much closer to what I wanted in Demo 2.
This demo also included the "Orbs"! This was a concept that Leander came up with to trigger the "Hell Freezes Over" wild reels feature rather than trigger it suddenly and randomly. The idea was that you would collect 10 of these and enter the feature. This feature started out as being my proudest moment as it took the wild reels concept and threw in a twist in that wilds stayed on the reels and could themselves trigger an extra wild reel spin with the extra reel as a wild reel.
While the game-play still didn't quite feel right, we tweaked some small things and decided to give it to the Casinomeister Slots Focus Group for feedback (see what some of the players have had to say about the game). This is a group of around 12 long-time members who are experienced slot players who would give the game a good hiding and answer some questions on various aspects of the game and provide some feedback. This was a very useful excercise and highlighted the issues quite precisely. It also verified the notion that you'll never please everyone all of the time but pleasingly, it seemed to appeal to the high variance players. Or at least, it would do if some of the changes they suggested were implemented!
As a result of testing, there were several great ideas and lots of useful feedback from which we identified 3 key areas of concern: firstly, while some players saw the potential for a very big win quite quickly and were prepared to tolerate long dead spin sequences, those that didn't found the base game bored them; secondly, players felt that what I had intended as the "killer feature" - Hell Freezes Over wild reels - wasn't delivering enough return and they felt negative towards the Orbs; thirdly, the Paradise feature wasn't volatile enough so they felt getting huge wins would be harder than it probably is.
Demo 3 came along with a number of changes based on the Focus Group feedback. The Paradise feature volatility issue was something I agreed with and was quite straight-forward to fix. We have a much better version of Paradise now that is quite capable of 1000x wins but equally capable of some very low wins!! We decided also to remove the Orbs based on the feedback and change the volatility of the Hell Freezes Over feature too. By slightly reducing the frequency it occurs (typically, other similar games would give you a wild reels feature every 400 - 600 spins depending on the volatility and we stayed within this range) and tweaking the volatility, this too can now produce some huge wins and more regularly than before. Please don't think 1000x wins will be common - they won't - but they can and will happen.
The final big change was to the base game but thankfully a fairly easy one to implement. We went the other way on this and made it less volatile to contrast with the features by moving the wild symbols a little further away from the high pay symbols. Leander had originally suggested this but I was in retrospect a bit tooo eager to provide a high volatility experience! The lowish hit frequency still means periods of dead spins but the potential for some decent payouts remains.
THE OUTCOME: MY FINAL THOUGHTS
So did "Afterlife: Inferno" measure up to my initial expectations? If you'd have asked me after Demo 1 arrived I'd have said no. The sounds, graphics and animations I absolutely love but as far as the game-play went, I hadn't got it right at this point. Demo 2 felt much closer but it wasn't until after we applied the final fixes following focus group testing that I started to feel comfortable with it. I'd still say it's not quite how I envisaged it originally but this is really only down to the fact that I had a 243 ways to win game in my head. In other respects I'd have to say "Yes", it's what I hoped for.
As originally intended, "Afterlife: Inferno" is really about triggering the features but getting to a point where each element of the game feels balanced was much trickier than I thought. My only concern now really is that players who aren't used to high volatility games and who don't hit the features quite soon after starting to play it may not give it enough time to show them what it can do.
I am not allowed to publish the maths involved but some of the figures about frequency or features big wins would probably pleasantly surpise some high volatility game players but it remains a game that you may need to be a little patient with to see it's full potential.
Only time will tell if is popular with players (see some of the early game reviews) but I think that players who are patient and enjoy the thrill of the chase will enjoy this game. I've learned an awful lot from the development and I already have a clear idea how the follow-up game will work but that of course will probably only happen if Inferno does well. We'll see.
- Author: Ian Sims
- Date: May 2018
- Game: "Afterlife: Inferno"
- Launch Date: May 2018
- Developer: Leander Games