Casino International met Mike Halvorson, Chief Development Officer for Sunshine Games, the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Gauselmann Group that is ready to open the door to the US slot market.
The recent NIGA exhibition in Las Vegas was notable for Gauselmann for a very special reason – it marked a Merkur Gaming USstand with gaming product created by its US subsidiary. Game development inthe United Statesis now handled by Sunshine Games, headed up by Mike Halvorson, and based in Las Vegas. The NIGA exhibition showed eight titlesfrom Sunshine Games, a very quick turnaround for the growing studio, and a genuine show of faith from Gauselmann in this young company.
Mike Halvorson explained the company’s evolution and much more in conversation with Casino International at their Las Vegas headquarters.
Casino International: Mike, how did you come to Sunshine Gaming?
Mike Halvorson: I started in gaming in 1997, out of college. My father owned a company that provided 3D software; we lived in Minneapolis, and he loved Las Vegas and visited often. We moved out here and formed a third-party game design firm eventually. My dad did software, and I learned all about software development from him; we did that for everybody, and we got into developing systems for customers. I learned a lot and I don’t think there is a gaming market in the world I haven’t developed something for.
I actually have LinkedIn to thank – I found my previous position on that site, and I found this job there too! I had many conversations with Charles Hiten, the CEO, and he has a different level of experience that I had not really encountered before. I have worked with operators, of course, but Charles has a knowledge of operations and that side of the business that is at least equal to mine in the area of game development. It’s insanely deep, and he has been all over the world.
So, the studio is based here in Las Vegas. It’s compact facility that is very efficient and we are not wasting space.
CI: How was Las Vegas a benefit – apart from being the spiritual home of gambling?
MH: We have a lot of resources in Las Vegas, and I know a lot of people who are in development which helped a lotwhen it came to recruitment. When you are starting up a new studio, you need people you can trust. Starting a studio – even with the backing of a multi-billion-dollar Group such as Gauselmann– is a big challenge, and there is simply no guarantee of success. it is incredibly hard. Starting anything new is hard.
My first instinct was to get the best possible people that I couldtrust. The guys I brought on boardare great, they work as hard as I do.
CI: How do you go about developing a game though – there is no recipe, after all, for success – oris there?
MH: The thing I have learned in over 20 years of making games is that you absolutely do not know what is going to succeed. If you think you do, you are lying to yourself. If you are positive about the product you make, and you are proud of it and you focus on the player experience, up to thepoint of being able to release it to the world, that’s the best you can do.
There are certain factors that can help us be successful, like themedthemes – what’s popular right now?
But there are a lot of games that you can sit in front of and justknow that somebody really loved makingthat game. That’s what Sunshine Games does.
CI: It’s not as simple as just developing the game though, is it? It’s so competitive on the floor once you’re out there, selling the cabinet is not even half the battle.
MH: Artists and developers in our field have anunique challenge; we have to sell an idea to somebody that is walking past,three to 25 feet away. That is such a difficult thing to do. I remember talking to somebody that worked on Halo, which is one of my favourite games. I said, you put that on a 27” screen with stagnant glass and your best image of Master Chief and you tell me if you could sell that in a casino for someone to play. People walking by at the normal bipedal rate of about 3.5 miles an hour in a casino are not looking at slot machines per se, they are looking at the casino and justlooking around. Wehave to get them interested in ourgame and they know nothing about it. We have to hit them with the title, the graphics, wehave to entice them just to sit down… But I can’t say ‘Hey, come over here! Come play my games!’ It’s not like it was back in the 80s, when you had a casino person standing inside a bank of machines saying ‘hey, come try your luck, this machine’s hot!’
The closest key to success in making a game – and it’s intangible – is that people love things that other people love to make.I think that somehow is transcendent through the games. If they are really loved when they are being made, if wehad fun making them, it comes across. You have to have fun to make fun.
CI: So what kind of progress have you been making – not just with the games, but are you using the Gauselmann platform? Are you working on licensed product or original IP?
MH: The platform we have, developed in Germany, does so many things right; with any platform you might want to do other things but it’s not immediately possible, so you have to come up with anunique way to do things and we have been able to do that. There was a learning curve, and the time difference means sometimes we have very late or very, very early meetings, but we have been making games and developing intellectual property. We have already filed a large numberof patents, and the company has added a very experienced gaming attorney, who understands slot machine games, to the team. We have made huge advances with our IP strategy, which is more important than ever.
At last year’s G2E we got to previewour first two games, including Taco Tuesday which is a big thing in the US. We trademarked the term for gaming too, asit’s a very common phrase and we are developing a lot of product around it. Plus,we had Amulet of the Pharaoh – we chose a theme we were sure would work, that has already been accepted and has a wealth link.
At ICE, we had four games ready, including a Chinese-themed game; and at NIGA this year we had eight games. ByG2E we will have around 20 games. We get better over time – and the development stream will becomefaster.
CI: Presumably you, and your team,are the key to Gauselmann cracking the US market…
MH: I think so, yes. The progress of Sunshine Games is directly in line with our strategic vision, local development is a key strategy for our market entry in the US and our first games are right now being prepared for market release. I have a lot of confidence in what we will continue todo here as a team, and with the tremendous support, financial, technical and logistical, that the entire Gauselmann Group gives us. Just a last thought: consider all the truly classic games that are in the casinos of today. Our intention is to have the games produced by Sunshine Games to be regarded in that category: games that are recognised, games that are fun to play and games that are ‘must have’ features on gaming floors, in the very near future.