Las Vegas slot game developer embraces innovation

Andrew Pascal is no stranger to gaming — on multiple platforms. As founder and chief executive of PlayStudios, a developer of social and mobile casino games, it took years of experience in Las Vegas integrated resorts and forays in slot machine innovation for Pascal to ultimately form the company in 2011.

Pascal’s career follows the Las Vegas renaissance in the 1990s. After working with his aunt and uncle, hoteliers Elaine and Steve Wynn, to start up The Mirage and other Wynn properties that transformed the Las Vegas Strip, he sought to change how slot machines were played. Experiences in hospitality and game manufacturing ultimately brought him to build products that exist where mobile and casino games meet.

The Review-Journal spoke with Pascal about his career, gaming innovation and the overlap between mobile and casino gaming in a recent interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Review-Journal: Let’s start with talking about your early career. You started in casinos, in different Wynn-run properties. What are you most proud of when you think about your work at Wynn Resorts and the Golden Nugget?

Pascal: I’m proud to have been part of a history and legacy of excellence in terms of the types of places Steve and Elaine built and/or renovated, the experiences they created. But more importantly, what they were able to achieve in terms of talent they brought into the company — and the fact that they were able to recognize they’re just so central to delivering on a really impeccable experience. For me and everybody else that’s been a part of one of their resorts, I think it’s a really important part of the emotional connection you have to the place. It’s really rooted in feeling that sense of pride, knowing that you’re working for people and an organization that fundamentally cares about the customers they serve and about you as part of their team. To have that kind of exposure early in my career really affected the way I also think about the types of organizations that I want to help shape and create.

What led you to leave those initial positions in the casinos and transition to some of your early tech-based gaming companies like Silicon Gaming and WagerWorks?

I spent my high school years in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, which was super formative. I was exposed to the whole startup, very entrepreneurial environment that it is in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I think I was pretty enamored with the idea of ​​just creating something, teaming up with a collection of people from different disciplines and having a shared vision.

But still, when I got out of school I started at the Golden Nugget and was just fascinated with that here, within one integrated casino-resort, you had all these different industries and businesses so it was an incredible place to learn. You want to learn about the hotel industry, you could; beverage, you could; about the casino industry, you could; about all the administrative functions and support of any business. There was so much that you can glean from being in that environment. That’s where I went feeling and thinking that I could acquire skills that I would need to enable me to ultimately venture out and do something on my own.

I then found myself getting more deeply connected to the industry itself, seeing how much opportunity there was within different aspects of the casino industry. What I was really focused on within the casino industry was the fact that the core content was ripe for innovation. When the Wynns created the Mirage, they really brought about the whole renaissance in Las Vegas through the 90s. It was remarkable to see the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars — in today’s dollars, billions of dollars — were being spent on creating these very fanciful places but yet it wasn’t really changing or evolving that much. So, I came at it from the perspective of, we have a really unique and interesting form of entertainment content, and the underlying technologies at the same time felt, to me, to be pretty antiquated. There were technologies that were being employed in video games and consumer gaming that had not yet found their way into the casino environment. It felt like to me, there was an opportunity to really push and do things that were more innovative. That’s when I first had my exposure to guys like (gaming technology visionary) John Acres. We worked together on different game concepts and ideas and things that we could do that would be unique and proprietary to, at first, the Golden Nugget, and then ultimately the Mirage and Treasure Island — the properties we developed and operated. We actually crafted games and content that were as unique to those properties as the resorts were.

It was that experience that gave me exposure to people who were both somewhere up in Silicon Valley, somewhere in Los Angeles. They got pretty excited with the idea of ​​really reinventing the slot machine experience. One of them was this amazing guy, Al Alcorn, who was the main technologist and invented a game called Pong, which many people credit for bursting the video game industry. What’s fascinating was when I first met him, he would talk about his experience evolving the entertainment industry from pinball machines to video games, that he really looked at the casino industry similarly. Here were these slot machines, which appear to be just physical reels: you pull a handle, they spin an index and you win or lose, but so much more could be done if instead you use video display that had richer media and an underlying PC model where you can network the games and start to unlock and create experiences that you otherwise couldn’t support on existing platforms and slot machines. I got excited by the idea of ​​creating an entirely new paradigm and platform.

I teamed up with him and a few other people and Silicon Gaming was the first company that was focused on realizing that vision. We went on this journey where we built what we had imagined, and it was complicated and required a diverse set of people with different skills. That’s what I love about the thing I’m focused on — it’s so multidisciplinary which is fascinating, but it also needed to affect some change within the industry and the statutes and regulations that govern all of the equipment and systems that people must adhere to if they want to craft and deliver products into the market. The hurdles are really high.

It really was a bit of an inflection point in the industry where it really, I think, was a catalyst for a lot of change. The existing manufacturers also took advantage of the moment and said, ‘Look, if we’re really going to keep pace, there’s an evolution that needs to happen here. We, too, need to invest in our platforms and the richness of the content that we’re creating and the story.’

From your position at PlayStudios, how do you see social casinos playing into innovation in gaming as a whole?

The reality is that because it’s a regulated and protected industry, that tends to stifle the rate and pace of innovation. It’s really easy to get comfortable in your lane. With that said, you go and walk a casino floor today and the games are incredible. The variety of them, the richness of them, the depth of them and the mechanics that they incorporate, they’re just really extraordinary. But I would say that a lot of games are still, for the most part, solitary experiences. When you think about social gaming, they’re inherently social. You’re very aware of the fact that there are other people playing these games and you might cooperate with them or compete with them. And in the way that you cooperate and compete with other people is multidimensional, it can be within the game or it can be through these meta layers to the experience that are very rich. I don’t think that any of that has found its way yet into the real world casino industry.

Can you go into more depth on what you mean by a meta layer?

For example, when you come into any one of the social games – and this is true of all sorts of games, not just social casino games but they’re very refined within a social casino — you might come in and you as the player are presented with a collection of challenges. If you complete them, it unlocks more content or provides you with a reward.

I’ll give you an example of one that we did. Royal Caribbean cruise lines, they were introducing a new cruise route down in the Caribbean. We said, well, why don’t we expose it to our community of players? We’ll create a quest that is themed after the Royal Caribbean cruise experience. We’re going to establish unique challenges that’ll highlight these different ports of call or stops along the route. As you then go and achieve those challenges — you have to hit X number of jackpots over certain values, you have to spin some number of times — as you achieve those things, you get rewarded and then you advance to the next node or destination. Then as you progress, they become increasingly more difficult. But then when you finally complete the quest, you’re given this uber reward.

That’s what I mean, there’s a whole meta layer. Someone could come into a casino and they could initiate playing a game, but then be presented with a collection of challenges that encourages them to go and try other games and as they do, we’ll monitor their progress and reward them progressively.

What’s the most misunderstood thing about this niche in the industry?

They’re casino games but they’re not casino gambling. These are really fun games that have really broad appeal. It’s funny because as much as everybody loves the casinos and still actively go visit them and participate in them, there’s still a bit of a stigma with them, which I always found confusing. People misunderstand what these games are. They are not just spin a bunch of wheels and win or lose. In our case, the slot games are a method of progression. It’s the mechanic you engage with that allows you to go do a whole bunch of other things.

In the case of our first myVegas product that we built on Facebook, you could choose from a collection of different slot games that you would play. As you would engage in playing the game, all of a sudden you would find that you’re accumulating attributes to a particular resort. So let’s say it’s the Mirage, you’d be playing and all of a sudden, you’d be congratulated because you’ve collected the volcano and then you’ve collected the porte-cochere, then you collected the marquee and then you collected the tower. Once you completed the Mirage collection, it would take you into this virtual Strip, and the Mirage would appear, your own little version of the Mirage would appear. The more you engage in playing the different slot games, the more resorts can build and populate your own little virtual Strip. Then all of a sudden, you might notice the Strip is populated with people who are walking up and down the Strip and there’s little bubbles. They would reveal my friend. I can send her a little gift and invite her to play. All of a sudden, it was truly my Vegas. My own little virtualized Las Vegas and it was populated with all my friends. I can engage them in play. I played the richer and more interesting version of the game.

What do you think is the future of these social casinos and free-to-play games?

The market is intensely competitive. What’s great about that is that it forces everybody to continue to think about what’s possible and how and what you need to do in order to really distinguish yourself and keep things really interesting and unique. What I love about the space, and it’s a bit what I find most challenging about it, is that it’s so free and open to everybody. There are 50,000 games a year that are published in the app store. I mean, the fact that you got 50,000 discrete, unique games, some being crafted by a couple of young entrepreneurs with a big idea, and the fact that they can have their shot at acquiring an audience and demonstrating to everybody that has that unique idea they had universal appeal and grow and translate to real value for them and be able to impact a lot more consumers, it’s an incredible thing.

Game-making has been so democratized and the fact that it’s so successful for those of us that have achieved some scale, it forces you to stay innovative, forward-thinking and forward-looking. Who knows what the future holds, but I’ll tell you it’ll be very different because the ecosystem really supports and promotes innovation and dynamism. That’s what appeals to me in contrast to a regulated market that just inherently can’t move as fast.

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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