Branded slots have been around for almost 20 years now, and we’ve seen some of the world’s most recognisable faces immortalised on the reels of our favourite games.
Here we’ll take a look back at the history of branded slots including how they came to be, the state of branded slots in 2022, whether they’re actually worth the cost of licensing, and our honest opinion on whether they’ll hold up as the future of iGaming.
Without further ado, we start at the beginning, when branded slots were first introduced to players online back in 2004.
There are two major online slot developers that can be attributed to the rise of branded slots - Isle of Man-based studio Microgaming and Swedish studio NetEnt.
Microgaming, the oldest slot studio of all time, were responsible for releasing the first branded slot in 2004, Tomb Raider, which of course, is based on the classic nineties Sega Saturn (and later PS1) game of the same name. Three years later they followed this release with Hitman.
Looking on admirably at Microgaming’s success, NetEnt then opted to go down a similar route with branded slots. The Stockholm megastars signed a big-money multi-year licensing deal with Universal that saw them gain access to popular Hollywood movies and top TV shows.
NetEnt’s first branded slot was based on notorious drug lord Tony Montana, AKA Scarface. Such was its success, additional licensing deals were signed with studios such as Colombia Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Sony Entertainment, and more incredible games were released.
In a string of big wins for NetEnt, branded slots such as South Park: Reel Chaos, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Phantom’s Curse wowed players with their stellar graphics and recognisable characters.
As part of the company’s 20th-anniversary celebrations in 2016, NetEnt pulled strings with the top brass at Universal to gain access to three of the biggest names in the music industry, releasing three online slots based on rock stars Guns N’ Roses, Motörhead and Jimi Hendrix.
Again, NetEnt found themselves with three much-loved games that provided them with a boost as thousands of players flocked to play recognisable games based on their favourite musicians.
As has always been the case within the world of slots, when something works well others emulate it in the hope of enjoying a piece of the pie themselves. A host of top developers such as Playtech, Blueprint Gaming, Play’n GO, SG Digital and IGT have since released branded online slots based on famous television shows, movies, video games and musicians.
At first, the vast majority of these online slots were based on niche brands, such as Frankie Dettori, CSI, Nitro Circus and Lothar Matthäus… Whilst they’re all popular in their own right it’s fair to suggest that most branded slots would only really appeal to a small sub-section of fans.
It seemed to make good financial sense for studios to license smaller brands with a hardcore fanbase, as many people were opting to play these slots based on name recognition alone, even if they’re not a name or brand that players were particularly interested in.
Branded products elicit more trust when it comes to online slot games, something that many players still find questionable, despite actively playing them.
It’s usually the consensus that if a brand puts its name to a slot then surely that slot can be trusted not to rip them off. In fact, all slots are tested and audited for fairness (and randomness), provided they’re being played at a licensed casino. That doesn’t stop some sceptics from believing otherwise, however.
As the popularity of online casinos and slots have skyrocketed in the last couple of years, so has the budgets of development studios. As a result, most of these companies have been able to seriously improve the standard of brands and celebs that appear in their games.
In the last two years, we’ve seen a number of A-list names sign lucrative brand partnerships that have led to some very exciting new online slots based on Gordon Ramsay, Joe Exotic, Street Fighter II, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones and Alice Cooper…to name just a few.
Whether or not this levelling up is a result of big names such as Gordon Ramsay and the WWE having more trust within iGaming, or because there’s just more money available to throw at A-list names, it’s incredibly positive news for the industry as a whole as big names bring legitimacy to a sector of the industry that’s often looked upon dubiously.
We’ll be completely honest, we don’t know the full costs associated with licensing an online slot, but when big-name brands are involved we have no doubt that these figures are reaching well into seven figures.
In a recent interview on the iGaming FM podcast, Yggdrasil CEO Fredrik Elmqvist and Relax Gaming Chief Product Officer Simon Hammon retold a story about their time working together at NetEnt, when they were trying to get the official Scarface slot licensed.
Initially, the board of directors shot down their suggestion to licence Scarface due to the fact that they didn’t want to make a game associated with drugs and crime. But, after the duo approached Unibet, who confirmed they were very keen on having a Scarface game in their casino lobby, mindsets were changed.
Knowing that there was a genuine appetite for the game, the board performed a U-turn and gave the duo the green light to go ahead with the slot. However, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be a cheap endeavour.
Whilst the actual cost was never revealed, the duo explained that Al Pacino himself demanded the full sum of money to licence the movie upfront before development could even begin.
Whilst Scarface is no longer available online following the retirement of Flash, there’s absolutely no denying that the investment was worth it, because this, alongside a handful of aforementioned branded NetEnt slots, proved to be super popular with players and operators alike.
Most of these slots make significantly more money than they cost to licence (over a sustained period of time). It’s just as likely that a successful unbranded slot could earn just as much, if not more, given the right amount of attention and innovation.
Interestingly, during the same iGaming FM podcast, it was mentioned that most online slot developers have moved on from branded slots in favour of their own native brands.
To argue whether or not the future of iGaming sits with branded slots is a difficult one.
On one hand, you have industry veterans such as Elmqvist and Hammon agreeing that studios are moving in a different direction, but then, on the other hand, you have Blueprint, Microgaming and NetEnt releasing new slots such as Alice Cooper and the Tome of Madness, WWE Legends: Link & Win and Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen.
It’s evidently clear that there’s a notable resurgence in the number of branded slots arriving in casino lobbies across the internet right now. This is great news and we welcome more big brands finding their way to our favourite slot sites. However, we don’t necessarily believe they’re the future.
The future of online slots likely lies with innovative new online slot games that feature exciting gameplay mechanics such as Infinity Reels, Gigablox, Cluster Pays, Slingo or Link & Win. You can package a slot with some of the most famous faces the world has ever seen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything if the games aren’t actually all that groundbreaking or entertaining.
One of the biggest hang-ups we have with some branded slots is that they’re often cookie-cutter games that have just been repackaged to feature real-life characters. Until this trend ends completely then we can’t really consider them anything other than a welcome novelty.