Called by iGaming: the Story of Ondrej Lapides and Tom Horn Gaming
Despite being overloaded with innumerable games, the iGaming industry has a firm grasp on reality, and a bold line can be drawn between unique and mediocre content. That is why slot developers who enliven the market by producing new kinds of products lead the pack. One of them is in Slotegrator’s spotlight — game supplier Tom Horn Gaming, along with the captain steering the ship, Ondrej Lapides.
The very beginning of the journey
The iGaming community brings together all manner of success stories, from those who’ve instantly shot to the dizzying heights of the industry to workaholics who’ve paved their path to triumph step by step. All of these success stories have one thing in common — the word “success.” However, the stories themselves are even more crucial for a number of reasons, most importantly the lessons you can learn from others’ unique paths on the twisting climb up to the peaks of greatness. The height and steepness of the mountain vary from one case to another, but the harder the climb, the more inspiration the story offers to those still hiking through the foothills.
For Ondrej Lapides, fate sent him a sign in 2007, when he took a position as key account manager at Tom Horn Enterprise. At that time, for the first time in his life, Mr. Lapides realized the potential iGaming could have in the long run. But before starting out on what promises to be an epic journey, one needs to find out the lay of the land. While charting his course, heedless of the uncertainty and possible risks, Lapides let the idea grow and take shape in his mind.
“Basically, iGaming found me long before the time it was as widespread as it is right now,” Ondrej Lapides said on his visit to Slotegrator in February. “13 years ago, as a part of another IT company, my team and I were involved in acquiring software for casino game development. Nothing was online yet at the moment.” Now, it’s almost impossible to look back at an era with nearly no access to the broad range of internet-based sources of knowledge so easily available today without getting a few goosebumps. In 2007, the world had just started to take its first baby steps towards being the fast-paced, digital environment we have got used to. As a point of reference, consider this: the first generation of the iPhone was released in 2007.
“I took all the knowledge, basically, from what I had seen at conferences. There was no education. No markets, no regulations. That was the start of the journey. At that moment, we began building products based on what we witnessed on the market. We started developing games first and then going through all the necessary transitions. And, to be frank, I still feel like I am at the start of my journey.”
Tom Horn’s metamorphosis
“I remember the days when our games were only available on desktop platforms running Windows applications — on a server-based slot machine in a casino hall or a slot hall. When we migrated our games online, the players usually had to click on the logo in the lobby and wait for a few minutes for the game to download. This was more than ten years ago. Then the integration era kicked off, with games being integrated across different brands and platforms to unlock their potential outside monolithic legacy platform systems. Now we’re at the stage where most players launch games seamlessly on their mobile devices with limited bandwidth and device performance, and an unimaginable range of resolutions and screen ratios.”
In a little more than a decade, the iGaming landscape has experienced significant change in every sense of the word, evolving at nearly warp speed. The same goes for Tom Horn, whose ability to quickly adapt to the constantly-changing iGaming environment appears to be a key factor in the company’s growth.
In 2007, Tom Horn Enterprise expanded their team with a group of casino developers who helped the company release its first gaming products in 2008. From 2011 to 2015, the head of the gaming department was Ondrej Lapides, who still recalls Tom Horn’s tipping point in 2015, when the company experienced a metamorphosis and changed its name from Tom Horn Enterprise to Tom Horn Gaming:
“That was the hardest time for the company: we changed the whole team and infrastructure, we had to come up with a new strategy, to rebuild our application, to get the MGA and UKGC licenses for operating in regulated markets. Basically, to change everything and start over from scratch took us a few years. I’m glad to state that we managed to overcome all the obstacles on our way and went through that inevitable and turbulent transition phase so that now we are very well positioned. We work with most of the major aggregators. We work in many regulated markets. And we have a detailed roadmap for adding new territories for our expansion.”
It’s probably due to Mr. Lapides’ solid iGaming background that Tom Horn Gaming has been able to ride out all the storms that have swept through the industry while keeping their head well above water. The storms include three paradigm shifts, which Mr. Lapides highlights as “movesfrom the land-based to the online environment, from desktop to mobile, and from unregulated to regulated markets.”
Evidently, having regulations in place has become a make-or-break policy for the whole gambling community — game developers, operators, and all others concerned. The vital moment resulted from governments in some regions recognizing iGaming as a profitable source of tax revenues: regulating such a fast-evolving sphere has turned out to be far safer than neglecting or restricting it, as online slot players are unlikely to let any bans or prohibitions stand in their way.
“Generally speaking, regulations are very good: it’s better for us to develop games and bring them to players from a more reliable and protected environment. Also, markets are growing, and with regulations, you can enter new business destinations without any worries that your games are on a market that won’t exist tomorrow. Questions like this have to be sorted out beforehand because it can influence our life as we develop localized games depending on markets. I want to stress the obvious but vital truth: if there are regulations in place, we are in a safe environment. This is a good thing about regulation.
“But an obstacle could be that you need a compliance team to conform to rules, values, and such standards as specifics and requirements of different markets. In other words, you need to change the system and platform, which takes a lot of time and energy.”
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“It must be clear what your target is,” says Mr. Lapides, walking us through his personal business perspective. “There must be a market segment that the one who’s building a studio should consider. As an example, we want to go in this direction because we see some opportunity. We have to admit there are thousands and thousands of games on the market, all of which are certified and licensed.” But while the rules for the competitors are the same, one planning to take a step towards the game content niche has to make a pivotal choice between quality and quantity.
“We prefer quality over quantity. Having said that, as a provider you cannot go ‘into hiding’ and produce one or two slots a year. The competition is fierce. To succeed you have to find a healthy balance between the quality and the quantity of slots you produce.” However, the slot creation process is not the beginning of a developer’s life cycle. To get there takes a lot of time, meaning that any content supplier needs to sort out a host of other things first. First, aspiring developers must attend to conditions like the “partnerships, licenses, certifications, and technical requirements needed to be fulfilled to achieve the goal. And, of course, you need to have a very good and skilled team to be able to succeed in what you are doing.’'
Slot creation development
“At the moment, the market is oversaturated, and quantity trumps quality,” admits Mr. Lapides, exhaling heavily and hunching his shoulders. “Luckily, we have strong expertise in slot development and we’ve identified a host of opportunities and gaps in the market for attractive and highly engaging content.
“Each new game is preceded by thorough research into player preferences and behavior in different markets to establish mechanics, a storyline, and a theme that would resonate with as many players in the targeted territories as possible. Obviously, all markets are unique, players have particular demands, and we do our best to accommodate these in our products, working closely with leading operators to get the most out of their data and knowledge of local markets in order to produce something really attractive and appealing.”
Once players reach the games section page, they can instantaneously see which slots resemble each other and which ones stand out. This reason might not even be at all unique, but simply offer something intriguing that awakens a desire to start spinning, like a theme, title, game art, gameplay, or feature — anything can find its way to the players’ hearts.
Having an international business with offices spread across different corners of the globe may seem like a massive advantage, but only if you know how to organize and synchronize the work processes of all of your teams. At Tom Horn, this was successfully resolved in the interest of all concerned: the platform and certification teams are located in Slovakia, while game teams are in Ukraine and the integration department operates in India.
“Usually, the slot creation cycle is quite a long one. It starts with a strategy we stick to, a market we are entering, and operators we want to partner with. Based on these fundamentals, we define a roadmap for the course of our game development: which features, game mechanics, and teams we would need. Then it’s more about our product team and game producers who come up with the values, ideas, and concepts that are trending in the iGaming space. We conduct multiple brainstorming sessions, usually somewhere outside the office in a smaller group of people, focusing only on defining game specifics, game-related features, and stuff like that.
“We give our creative teams a lot of freedom, so I would say we set up quite broad boundaries and let them choose their own road in terms of what we need to achieve our goals. That’s basically how we allow them to add the personal touch that matters and helps games become authentic.”
It’s in the interest of game developers to attract as wide an audience as possible. However, given that beginners and high rollers are chasing down different goals while gambling, it’s a tough goal to achieve. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. “The reality shows that finding an overlap between the preferences of these two groups is very difficult and each player segment usually prefers a different game type,” Mr. Lapides says, adding “It is no surprise that the more experienced, shrewd players who we label as high rollers go for games that are more challenging and offer more excitement for their money. When it comes to beginners, we can note that they tend to start with more classic games that have stood the test of time but still offer thrilling gaming experiences. Every provider wishes for a game that appeals equally to both high rollers and beginners.”
Once a game is geared up to take the iGaming world by surprise, another crucial process is triggered. Slot promotion is inevitably an essential factor in a game’s success — how popular is the game going to be and what range of players is it going to serve?
“We use different channels and tools to promote our new products and services. Each game is introduced via a marketing campaign that encompasses our social media channels, media partnerships, and bespoke promotions organized in conjunction with our operator partners.”
The question of what players really like is always eating at game suppliers. While it may seem like a simple thing to ask, it often turns out to be the biggest mystery of a developer’s life. Considering how tight the competition on the market is, studios sometimes do not even have enough time to plan out their products the way they truly want. The race to release slots dictates its own strict rules, and going against them is a challenge that many just aren’t ready to accept as the stakes are too high - namely, all or nothing.
Developers, like players, have their own favorite games, features, and themes. Ondrej Lapides is no exception. With the wisdom of hindsight collected throughout his iGaming experience, he definitely has his preferences: “From our games portfolio, it is definitely 243 Crystal Fruits. All your senses are stimulated by playing the game. The game has an engaging feature, which I like very much, and super smooth gameplay that makes playing the slot so enjoyable. My second choice is the golden oldie Reel Rush by Netent. This game has all you want to see in a slot — a special atmosphere, thrilling dynamics, features, and mood stimulation.”
Logically, once we talk about favorites, we have to talk about the reasons for our choice. An in-depth analysis begs the question — if our favorite games are so brilliant, then why not take all of their best elements and give birth to something so exceptional it would take the heart of a player to another dimension? However, reverse-engineering a work of genius is easier said than done. But at least we can imagine what the ideal slot is like or what it should awaken deep down in the players’ hearts:
“The ideal slot features a balanced concoction of all necessary features. It radiates an evocative spell, bringing all the senses together. Math, sounds, visuals work in perfect harmony, delivering an impeccable and complex player experience.” Mr. Lapides continues, “good old classics like fruit slots always hit the sweet spot for players in many markets. In recent years we have seen a surge in branded content that capitalizes on popular films or TV series. The familiar themes definitely help these titles to be recognized by new players. However, I’m skeptical about their popularity among experienced punters. I see branded games as a clever marketing tool that might appeal to new audiences but good old gamblers look for titles that provide them with a thrilling player experience, and the storyline plays second fiddle to the action and thrill.”
At the end of the conversation, we ran through all the topics again so as not to forget anything that might be important. When the time came to thank our guest for his priceless time and energy, a sudden thought entered our mind — what would Lapides say is the key to unlocking players’ hearts?
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