When Double Down Interactive President Glenn Walcott gave a speech about building a successful business at this year’s Casual Connect, he started it off by shooting 1,000 one-dollar bills into the audience. Judging him only on that impression, one might draw the conclusion that virtual gambling is all people make it out to be: a money-hungry space obsessed with the bottom line.
As Gamezebo owner Joel Brodie and I sat down with Walcott, however, we were given a different look entirely at what drives the company to bring people into the doors of their digital casino.
Joel: Give us the run down on Double Down and where it is today.
Glenn: “This week we finally hired our 100th employee, which from a scale perspective was really exciting. It’s odd because as you grow not many people know how big a company you are. If you’re very successful does that mean you have 5,000 people, 500 people, five people? So for us 100 is a milestone we’re really happy to be able to celebrate.
“What’s interesting is that we had a party for the employees at the offices, but that wasn’t the big hit. We also hired a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck to pull up out front of the office and give out 1,000 free cones to the neighbourhood. And so looking back on the day, I went and asked some of our team if they liked the gifts we had given out to employees, or the food and catering, and all of them said, ‘oh definitely the ice cream truck!’
“And you’d think, ‘what’s so special about an ice cream truck? It’s just ice cream.’ But what I’ve learned with Double Down is that one of the best ways to build a company is to create an environment where it’s not just you, but your friend’s saying ‘oh wow! You work at the coolest place.’ The thing I like about Double Down is that we’re a very entrepreneurially-spirited company without all the worries of one, because of the strong backing from our parent company. We can go out and try crazy things.”
Joel: Could you elaborate a little? Tell us what that ownership structure is like?
Glenn: “So we’re owned by IGT, which is one of the largest manufacturers of slot and casino machinery, as well as video poker. The synergy that exists there is that we’re a virtual casino company with what we think is really great content, and they’ve been around for 30 years and know a slew of things about these games, and they know all the mechanics that people really love.
“We’re going to be able to take their incredible content and tweak it for a virtual currency space. In the next six months I think we’re going to continue to come out with awesome games that are, hand-over-fist better than our last titles. And to me that’s what it’s all about: finding out how you can constantly innovate. When you think of poker, right, you’d think it’s easy to build a poker game. What it’s hard to do is build a poker game that maintains the fundamentals but feels unique to all the other poker games available.”
“I think Zynga’s taken a step in the right direction with their strength meter [which monitors your skill and level of proficiency]. Because at the end of the day after you’ve spent your money on virtual items or bought a cocktail for a friend in the game, all you really care about is: will this game make me a better poker player in real life?“
Eli: Would a good analogy be something like Rock Band? By the third go around, they were consulting with Sean Lennon and had invented a new “Pro” mode whose mission was to remove the ‘colored button’ schema and actually improve your quality of play of real instruments.
Glenn: “That’s exactly it. The idea is: how do you make something so mechanically strong that it sets itself apart?”
Joel: Okay, so if poker is the kind of thing where ultimately you can have your version of the game, and people can see that it’s making them a better poker player, what is the appeal of a game like virtual slots? Why play a game entirely of luck for virtual money, with no chance at improved skill?
Glenn: “It’s really funny, and here it is: why do you go to a movie? You go to a movie for some form of entertainment – whether that means to escape, or relax – and you’re putting into it but not getting anything tangible out of it. And our slot games are entertainment like a movie, where you feel the lift of the joyful scenes and the downturn of the sorrow. In our slot games you feel this pure up of winning, and you get to really feel the downs of losing, but with virtual currency.”
Eli: It’s like Schrodinger’s win, then. In between the pulling of the slot and win or the loss, you have both achieved and failed to achieve victory. And you need to know the outcome enough to keep pulling.
Glenn: “It’s like I’m waiting for an emotion, and I don’t know when it’s going to happen. And it’s the high of that anticipation. And for those who do choose to pay – the small percentage of users – it becomes even more of a thrill-seeking experience. They can’t win any real money, but they’re attached to this idea that they’re winning time with the money they’ve put in.”
Joel: There’s a fine balance it seems between thrill and obsession. As a closing remark, what would you say to people who view the proliferation of this type of content across the lines of social and mobile as a “gateway drug” to real gambling and addictive tendencies?
Glenn: “So you hear a lot about this theory in the press. For me it comes down to: do these style of games appeal to kids? And the overwhelming answer is no. Kids are less looking for escapism at a young age and more for the kind of experience a Disney game can offer them. Games that feel like toys. Our mechanics aren’t interesting to them…they want to live in a world of fantastical characters. I tend to laugh at the idea that we’re targeting 15 year olds with this long-term strategy of addicting them to gambling. By the time they can gamble, who knows what this industry will be like?”