Innovation runs high at ELK Studios


ELK Studios Co-founder Lars Rustemeier speaks to 5 Star about the next wave of online innovation in slots, and the road ahead for ELK.

Could you tell us the story behind ELK? How did it all start?

ELK was started in 2013 as the first Swedish game studio with a focus on casino games for mobile platforms. Coming from very technical environments in the poker industry, we felt that we had a lot to offer when it comes to building really robust systems with just the right expansion paths for creativity andexperimentation, taking slot games to new places.

I would say that we approached the slot industry with an engineering approach. We have studied all that came before us and now have good understanding of most previous mechanisms, except British fruit-machines. There we still have some learning to do. Standing on the shoulders of these giants, I would say that we see pretty far.

After working a few years in the online poker industry I became a huge fan of luck-based games. A beautiful and totally democratic way of enjoying gambling with much broader appeal then is possible with skill based games. Most people do not have the inclination or time to become professional at playing, they just seek casual entertainment and excitement. And of course the sweet feeling that the gods are smiling upon you, when you win. As they say in the east: a hundred dollars won is worth more than a hundred dollars earned.

I find randomness based game mechanisms to be very appealing. Roll a 20 sided dice and I become excited. As soon as we attach some meaning to the outcome of the roll the excitement and depth of the experience start to build.

Random processes have a magical aspect to them. When we chain random events together to form more complex structures of outcomes things start to become really interesting.

The company has shown substantial growth in the past few years. Are there any specific games that have led ELK to where it is today?

One of our core principles is to never repeat ourselves. Every game we release is written from scratch and also always introduces some completely new mechanisms. It would be easier to, as some do, just create a new combination of already developed mechanisms. But for some reason we are not interested in that and make sure that we always comes up with new game mechanisms. It’s a bit riskier, but a whole lot more fun to work that way. Sometimes reality strikes and we have to cut back on the ambition, but those ideas are just get put back in the queue and if they stand the test of time, reappear in later projects. Sometime to the benefit of the feature.

High performer or not your most successful release, what’s your favorite game among all 47, and why?

I am a huge fan of simple machines with combinatorial behavior in the sense that they provide unexpected levels of depth. When done in the right way it can be seen as a form av emergent behavior, like the one you witness in certain scenarios in the classic Conways Game of Life. My favorite games of ours are Route 777 and Win-Win, two games that in subtle ways explore these kinds of dynamics.

Is there any game that you believe had more potential, but for some reason didn’t turn out to be a great success?

I think we still have a lot to learn about cluster-based game mechanics. We have done some modest inroads in that direction but not yet found the perfect modeling techniques. We will continue to explore that domain for sure. Going ever deeper with our analysis tools.

How does the game development start? Who comes up with the idea?

The creative process at ELK is completely dynamic, some would say chaotic. Since we have aimed to form a company where prestige and territorial behavior is non existent, we can honestly claim the cliche that our games truly are group effort. We are all working together under one roof in Stockholm. Anyone can come up with an idea. The short of it is that the best ideas win at ELK. Regardless of which direction they come.

It usually starts with someone pitching a basic idea about a mechanism or them and then we refine that idea in different fora throughout the life of the project. From the initial free flowing of ideas in the beginning to there refinement stages later on, but we are always ready incorporate drastic changes very late in the process cycle, if needed. This is made possible due to the way architect our games.

For many game suppliers, innovation seems to be on top of their list. What differentiates ELK from your competitors within that area?

Without innovation the process of creating these games soon would be very boring. We are not a factory and we are not simply satisfied with cloning other peoples creations. Fundamentally it is the ideas are what creates the value. A delicate process that must be nurtured. Here the flat organisation certainly helps.

How does the creativity at work survive a dark and cold Swedish winter?

The cold nordic winter is of course all Swedish companies secret weapon.  When your only option is either stay indoors and creating awesome games or freeze to death in a blizzard, the choice is simple. The great dynamic range of whether in northern countries is a positive since you learn to appreciate things and make the most of time.

Since innovation at ELK goes beyond the game itself, what’s your overall biggest slot inventions so far? We’ve recently seen something called X-iter™?

The thing you mention are what I refer to as the meta games. We are always trying to improve the meta game. With X-iter™ this concept is taken to a new level and is an experiment to try to change the cadence and exposure of risk over time for the games. Creating new modes and levels of excitement.

Before X-iter™ we used a feature called Betting Strategies that mimicked table game behaviors in order empower the player to increase or decrease the volatility of the games without any need of changes to the underlying math.

Anything big you’re working on this year that you can reveal for us today?

We will continue our experiments with new game mechanics and meta-games, but the most visible thing this year will be our Wild Toro five year anniversary that we will celebrate in a big way. Expect to see our old friend Toro in some new unexpected settings.