Updated: 26th Nov 2020
Back in 2017 casino gamification was going to be the next big thing in iGaming, promising players entertainment on a whole different level. Very little of it is now on offer to UK players though, so what went wrong? And is gamification a good thing or a bad thing for players?
Gamification is the inclusion on a gambling site – whether it be a bingo site, a slot site, a casino or even a sportsbook – of elements from non gambling games such as dice rolls, levelling up, avatars and in game currency. Although these elements are from games without gambling, they often interact with and enhance the gambling experience, for example:
Casino and slot sites have gamification in order to give players more reasons both to play there in the first place and to continue playing.
Most of us like to collect complete sets of things and /or complete levels, and don’t like to abandon attempts to do so after putting time, effort and (especially) money into it. Just look at the widespread success enjoyed by Pokemon and Candy Crush! Indeed, after Candy Crush became so popular many real money gambling sites tried to cash in on it by introducing lookalike slot games – totally missing the point, as it’s not the candies or the crushing that make it so much liked, it’s the satisfaction of progressing upwards through the levels.
Most people also find it more interesting and entertaining to play against other real people and not just against a machine. That is why live casino games are so popular as compared to regular casino games. Some types of gamification including slot tournaments give players the opportunity to compete against and engage with other players.
Gamification first came into play in the design of the slot games themselves. One venerable example of this (dating back to 2011) is seen in Microgaming’s classic Immortal Romance which has a multi level bonus round, Chamber of Spins. Players can progress through the levels by playing the bonus round multiple times, to unlock the different characters and access all four different versions of the bonus round. Not only does this give players an incentive to keep playing Immortal Romance and not swap to a different slot game, it gives them an incentive to keep playing Immortal Romance at the same casino; if they go elsewhere to play it they have to start at the beginning again and play the bonus round 15 times before they can access all versions. Immortal Romance (in common with many other Microgaming slots) also has paytable achievements to collect. Players do not normally gain anything from collecting these apart from the satisfaction of completing the set, but occasionally they feature in player promotions where prizes are awarded for collecting achievements on a new release.
Slot games which have been released since then have taken gamification much further.
Meanwhile, it was only a matter of time until someone had the brainwave of taking the level up mechanism seen in Immortal Romance and other slots and applying it to the whole casino.
That casino was Casumo, billed as “the world’s first casino adventure” when it launched back in 2012. The gamification at Casumo includes level progression, different areas, and an avatar that changes its appearance as you progress, plus regular Reel Races where players play a slot game alongside others and try to score more than them. Bonuses and spins are awarded as “valuables”.
In 2014, two more sites were launched that made a big deal out of gamification: Spin Genie from Gaming Realms and Slotser from EverAdventure.
Slotser was a hybrid casino – part social, part real money – allowing many games to be played with in game currency instead of or as well as with cash. It was also possible for players to send each other gifts of slot spins.
Spin Genie was themed on Spin the dog and his adventures in a fantasy world; players completed the stages of his journey on the map by playing slots and were rewarded at the end of each stage.
The problems for this type of whole-casino gamification started in May 2015 after Spin Genie advertised on television. The ad, which promised 50 free spins and was shot from the point of view of a player following a trail of coins on a tropical isle leading to a treasure chest, was considered far too likely to appeal to children and the ASA duly banned it. As a result of this, not only was the ad not shown again but the gamification was removed – including Spin the dog himself.
Slotser were also in trouble with the ASA in 2015, but the ad in question was the promotions page on their own website which featured a meerkat and a fairy. They closed in March 2016.
It took the Gambling Commission more than two years to get round to following up on these two cases – but when they did (in October 2017, following the publication of an article in the Sunday Times newspaper about slot games that appeal to children) it was to write to all licensees ordering the removal of all images considered to have child or youth appeal from all advertising materials, including on the web sites themselves. The repercussions of this continue to be felt across the industry as the restrictions get tighter and tighter – for example, in June 2018 Coral were in trouble with the ASA over the leprechaun image on their tile for the Rainbow Riches slot and more recently, some operators have asked us to refrain from using the word “fluffy” when reviewing their site!
It is as a result of the October 2017 action that if you visit Casumo today from the UK without having an account there, you won’t see any of the gamification at all – not even the little Casumo avatar. It is all still there, though, behind the age gate – as you will see if you either have an age verified account there or visit from another European country such as Malta where the rules are different.
These new restrictions put a big obstacle in place for any new casino wanting to launch in the UK with Casumo style gamification. Most of it was going to have to be age gated for the UK and not visible without a login, meaning that it couldn’t be used as a way of attracting players apart from in a very circumspect way. Casino launches can take months or years to come to fruition though, and many slot sites were already in the pipeline with new and innovative ways of gamification which they attempted to bring to the UK market in late 2017 and early 2018.
Larry Casino (seen here being promoted at the SiGMA conference in November 2017) was themed on that most adult of video game characters, Leisure Suit Larry, the operator having bought the rights to use him. Larry’s original 1987 adventures took place in a thinly disguised Las Vegas and involved playing blackjack and slots so who better to front a casino? According to a review of the classic series of video games in PC Format magazine, Larry was “crude, suggestive, full of innuendo and double entendres and designed to appeal to the worst aspects of human nature” so there shouldn’t be any issues with him possibly appealing to children, right? Wrong! The casino was closed to UK players very shortly after it opened – presumably the gamification, which included rewards called “jokeboxes”, a loyalty scheme themed on helping Larry to get a date and regular raffles with a Larry action figure to be won, was just a bit much.
High Roller Casino focused on the fictional world of Metrocity, rife with “pigeons, explosions, newspapers, candy”. Players collected in-game currency every day at login (as well as when levelling up). The twist was that if you stopped playing for 5 days or more, your in-game currency became susceptible to attacks from other players; in-game currency could be redeemed for free spins so this effectively let you steal from other players if they weren’t paying attention.
At Casino Heroes the gamification was based on progressing through a series of levels on three diffferent islands – so not a million miles from Casumo. Casino Heroes went much further though, with a unique level progression mechanic – you had to fight a boss at the end of each of the 70 levels. The fight itself was a bit like a slot game bonus round; you chose from 9 boxes including slot spins and other goodies and if you won, you got to keep all the goodies and move on to the next area. If you lost, the goodies disappeared and you went back to the last checkpoint.
Ikibu was set in a lush fantasy world populated by Ikkis (basically blue cartoon monkeys, so peak child appeal there) and had in-game currency called Seeds which could be collected by winning slot tournaments or levelling up. Seeds could be redeemed for bonus spins or used to gain entry to slot tournaments.
Volt Casino didn’t have a great deal of gamification when it launched in summer 2018, although there were daily missions to complete to collect free spins; its big USP was the lack of wagering requirements. It wasn’t until February 2020 that they went large on gamification with the introduction of Volt City and not one, but two types of in-game currency – Volt Crystals and Vollars. The idea was that you would build and power the city of the future using Volt Crystals, and receive rewards each time you completed a section; Vollars were for buying building materials and Volt Crystals were for powering city sections.
Guess what, though? – by autumn 2020 not a single one of these five casinos was still open to UK players and neither were any of the others in the same vein! Indeed, the MT SecureTrade Limited licence under which Larry, High Roller and Ikibu among others operated is no longer valid (it’s listed at the Gambling Commission as surrendered).
Maybe it was just too difficult to incorporate video game elements into the design without breaching the dreaded CAP code by appealing to under 18s? Or could it be that this type of gamification was considered to be just too addictive, or too likely to cause players to spend more than they intended? (We all know someone who spends too much time playing video games and/or too much money on in-game items and/or loot boxes, right?)
Whatever the reasons are behind the closure of so many casinos with this style of gamification, they do seem to be connected with the gamification itself as no-one has tried to do a casino with anything similar for quite some time now – or not in the UK anyway.
A somewhat different approach to gamification was seen when the Wheel of Rizk was introduced at the eponymous casino in 2016. Rather than using elements from video games, the Wheel of Rizk clearly resembles a gambling game – as they put it “kind of like the Wheel of Fortune, but about a million times cooler”. Players fill the power bar as they play and when it is full they level up and get to spin the Wheel – which has better and better prizes as they climb through the levels. Prizes include cash, free spins with no wagering requirement, and Double Speed Chips that don’t award anything right away, but double the rate of progress to the next level (and therefore the next spin) for a limited time.
Many other casinos have adopted this type of gamification as part of their player reward system. Although sometimes it is free of wagering requirements as with the OJO Wheel at PlayOJO, players do not seem to be too concerned even if a reward system like this has wagering requirements and/or win caps. Good examples of this is are the very popular Jumpman Slots Mega Reel which players can spin whenever they make a qualifying deposit or collect 5 trophies, and the Sushi Train level up game at Casushi.
This type of gamification is much less likely to have issues regarding appealing to under 18s, as it resembles a gambling game rather than a video game. It is possible, though, that some of these player rewards schemes may have to be modified following the introduction of new social responsibility rules in October 2020 to ensure that they aren’t encouraging players to spend more than they intended to or can afford.
Another way for casinos to do gamification is to run tournaments where players play slots against other players. Prizes are typically free spins, but can also be cash or in-game currency. Again, this was started by Casumo with their Reel Races and really got going in October 2015 when Videoslots launched Battle of Slots. These slot tournaments were the first to use play for fun money in the actual tournament spins, and many still do, allowing players to buy in with loyalty points or small sums of real money (in that case, of course, there are no real money winnings from the tournament spins as they are for scoring purposes only).
Slot tournaments are good news for player engagement. Some sites have a slots chat room and others (again notably Videoslots) have tournament chat where players can communicate with each other. Players also sometimes communicate with each other (and spectators) off site via the gamer live streaming site Twitch.
Slot tournaments come in several different flavours:
Although slots play itself is of course ENTIRELY a matter of luck, there can still be some strategy involved in a slot tournament (apart from the obvious one of picking the highest variance slot on the list if the aim is to get the biggest win relative to stake). This is because other players’ scores are generally visible throughout. In a race, for example, a player may decide that they are too far behind for it to be worth completing the rest of the spins – or even that they are too far AHEAD for it to be necessary to complete the rest of the spins! In an equalized leaderboard based on 20 rounds, a player may look at other people’s scores, realise that they would need to trigger the bonus round more than once during the 20 rounds to be in with a chance of winning a prize, and decide not to bother entering at all!
When you play bingo, you ARE playing against real people and you can interact with them via the chat. So that part of gamification is just not needed. As for the levelling up, completing tasks and so forth, the online bingo world is very wary of these aspects of gamification because of the massive flop that was Bingo Godz. Launched in 2013, this much hyped Bede Gaming bingo site promised progression through 6 levels leading to bigger and bigger prizes, to be achieved by collecting Bingo Godz along the way. Unfortunately, not only was the whole idea flawed because you needed to level up to be able to buy more expensive bingo tickets, but the site was launched prematurely, before the gamification was anywhere near ready. It took them a year to get as far as a partial implementation of the level 3 rooms, by which time not only had the moment, well and truly passed, but they’d racked up a seven figure loss. When the site changed hands in 2015 all of the gamification was quietly removed and in 2018 it closed for good.
Another experiment with the levelling up system that would never be allowed today (because of the way it enticed players to overspend) was seen in the elaborate loyalty scheme at another site which has now closed, Ace of Bingo. The idea was to progress through the 52 levels corresponding to a full deck of cards to become the Ace of Bingo and claim a £1000 cash prize. Progression was done by collecting loyalty points at the rate of 1 point every time you spent £1 in a bingo game or £5 on slots, and over 25,000 points would be required to reach Ace of Bingo status, which means that to claim the £1000 cash you would need to spend – well, you do the sums!
Because of all this, you won’t find much in the way of sophisticated gamification at any bingo site in 2021. What is both widespread and popular at the best bingo sites, though, are free daily games, either as permanent fixtures or as part of time limited promotions. Some are instant win games like most of the ones run by Tombola and some are the type where you need to play every day for a week to collect sets of items, like the ones at Gamesys sites.
Gamification is obviously a good thing for operators as it encourages players to stick with a single site rather than sign up with multiple sites in search of bonus offers. But is it really a good thing for the players?
Gamification certainly makes gambling more entertaining and this is a big plus point for any player who gambles for fun (never forget that it’s meant to be fun!)
The danger is, though, that the lure of the level up or the leaderboard may cause a player to spend more money that they originally intended – perhaps much more money. That is bad enough in non gambling games such as Candy Crush where thousands of players every day make unplanned in-game purchases to finish off a hard level. In a gambling game it is much worse as loss of control over spending can be the first step down the road to having a serious problem.
Although slot and casino sites offer a range of safer gambling tools enabling players to set limits to ensure they can’t get carried away and spend too much, it remains the responsibility of the operator to protect players from gambling related harm. If gamification is to have a future in the UK, it is going to have to be in a form that doesn’t entice players to overspend – and here, again, is where those daily free games that do so much to hold a player’s interest fit the bill. You can’t overspend on a free game!
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