At the end of last month the New York Times revealed that in an attempt to protect a family friendly image Disney will not be renewing any of their licensing deals with gambling developers.
While the focus of Las Vegas Weekly and many other publications looked to Florida where the number of casinos are increasing and spoke of the effect on land-based slot developers such as WMS and IGT, the impact will be felt just as much on iGaming software companies Playtech and Cryptologic.
The Marvel Slots series have taken centre stage in many online casinos since Cryptologic first launched The Hulk, Daredevil and X-Men in 2005 and Playtech signed their own agreement with Marvel Entertainment Inc. in 2009.
When announcing their deal with Marvel Playtech’s CEO Mor Weizer highlighted commercial appeal, cross-selling and attracting new players as some of the major benefits of having such well-known branded games.
There’s certainly no denying that these games are one of the strongest acquisition and marketing products that online casino industry has had. The use of the big name brands in so many free spin and welcome bonus offers is evidence of that.
The impact of the eventual removal of the games won’t simply apply to Playtech, Cryptologic and their operators but affiliates as well. Some affiliates have taken the risky approach of basing their entire sites around the Marvel brand – a move that you couldn’t quite describe as having backfired but it’s along those lines.
Even for affiliates who have a broader content base but have used the Marvel brand to cast their content marketing net wider, the withdrawal of the brand from online gaming will mean that content which may be responsible for a significant proportion of their traffic will cease to become relevant.
But how much value do these games provide and while they might bring players through the door, do they have the ability to keep them there?
Punching below weight
My initial concern with branded games is that they can’t be as valuable to the operators and software companies that house and operates them. Someone somewhere must be taking a lower margin from these games than they do with all other games – the reason being that brands themselves must be demanding a significant slice of profits and that slice has to come from somewhere.
Turning to marketing matters – back in 2011 I came across a list of the most popular games by amounts wagered from two casinos – one running on Playtech software and the other on Microgaming software. In the top ten Playtech games just three were branded slots and only one of these (Iron Man 2) was part of the Marvel series. At the Microgaming casino none of the top ten games were branded slots.
Admittedly Microgaming’s branded slot collection has improved since then but it’s telling that the branded games weren’t among the top few. This suggests that while they are much better to market than other games, they aren’t bringing in the type of money that warrants what are undoubtedly high license fees.
Speaking on the subject of branded content last year Neill Whyte, Microgaming’s head of product channels explained that they don’t simply see branded slots as acquisition.
He added: “A well-known brand is always going to engage people’s attention, but as with all slot games, the content has to live up to expectations if we want players to keep coming back.”
Despite that being the intention, the data mentioned above suggests that this isn’t the case as for all the marketing budget being spent on promoting the big name games you would have hoped to have seen more of them at the top of most played lists.
An arsenal for acquisition?
As well as questioning the retention of big name games, it’s even possible to doubt the quality of these games as acquisition tools. Google’s Keyword Planner shows an average of 480 monthly searches for ‘Marvel Slots’ while ‘Fantastic Four slot’, ‘Thor slot’ and ‘X Men slot were the subject of 110, 110 and 30 monthly searches respectively. So we can assume that few people are searching for them and the SERPs for more general Marvel keywords will be dominated by the company and its brands themselves.
Should players be drawn in through creatives featuring the brand characters then that isn’t a great sign either. They’re likely to remain more interested by the graphics and gameplay that you find in video games than the hardcore gambling mechanics of a slot. While bonus rounds were used to appeal to these instincts, the monotonous nature of slots gameplay means that it’s not going to satisfy the desires of these more casual users.
So while the loss of the Marvel branded games may serve to upset a small number of players, the alternatives available to them are plentiful. While removing Marvel characters from casino sites may leave the marketing and design teams with a few headaches, it’s unlikely to damage the bottom line of any operator.