A screenshot from Danger Arena, a game developed for casinos by Madison’s Human Head Studios.
If you walk into Caesar’s, Harrah’s or Bally’s casinos in Atlantic City and stroll through the slots section, you’ll find an unusual alternative to simply pulling the lever and hoping for triple bars: a first-person shooter game called Danger Arena, where you can put in coins and earn cash based on the number and type of targets you hit within the game’s time limit.
Here’s another surprise: The game’s developed by Madison-based Human Head Studios.
“Demographically, casinos are losing,” explains Tim Gerritsen, Human Head’s director of business development. “Sixty to 70 percent of the money taken in comes from slot machines, but the younger you are, the less likely you are to play slots.”
That’s the math that drove New York-based GameCo to reach out to Human Head, a veteran, versatile developer with a long shooter pedigree (Prey, Dead Man’s Hand) to create a game that casinos could market to a new generation of gamblers raised on blasting robots with oversized guns.
“We don’t sell the game, we just make the game,” says Gerritsen. “This is not the type of game we normally would work on, but it was an interesting challenge. We had to take the parameters they laid out, including a payout system, and there was a lot of back and forth to figure it all out. It’s still the same skill set we’re applying. On the flip side, these types of games can be quite lucrative.”
Human Head doesn’t see any of the gambling profits — that would be illegal — but was paid to make the game. If the game is a success, more business could follow. GameCo has already contracted with Human Head to develop other types of casino-based video games — a brawler and another type of shooter.
Danger Arena is only one player in a current jackpot moment for the local game development scene. Last month, Perblue Studios sold their mobile role-playing game DragonSoul to GREE International Entertainment for an undisclosed sum. Raven Software, Madison’s largest developer, just released Call of Duty Modern Warfare: Remastered, a reboot of the 2007 franchise classic that’s being marketed as part of the digital deluxe version of the new Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. Speaking of Call of Duty, Raven and Human Head are currently partnering on Call of Duty Live, a free-to-play version of the game Raven’s charged with developing.
“I’m pretty bullish on how things are looking locally,” says Gerritsen, who also remains involved in the Madison Games Alliance, a coalition between the local games development community and the Madison Regional Economic Partnership to keep Madison on the game-development map.
His company’s contract sheet gives him plenty of reasons to be confident. Casino games aren’t the only new branch Human Head’s been exploring of late. It’s pounced on the exploding interest in virtual reality to pair with locally based Madison Avenue Worldwide on a VR-based internal training product for Verizon. Sara Rahn, Madison Avenue’s CEO, says it’s just the beginning of the VR possibilities the partnership could provide.
“We have the expertise on things like return on investment,” says Rahn. “They’re experts in technology.”
Despite dabbling in corporate training and casinos, Human Head’s not leaving the traditional game space anytime soon. It’s partnering with Hipster Whale (of Crossy Road fame) to port Boxy Kingdom, the mobile app it released this summer, to consoles, where it’ll be known as Crossy Kingdom. It also just inked an agreement to develop an experimental action game title with Square Enix for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro and PC, keeping its feet firmly in the gaming platforms where it first made its name.
“It’s different than anything we’ve done,” says Gerritsen. “But you have to be adaptive. We’re known as a narrative action studio. We’re bringing that into other areas of the industry.”
Editor's note: This article was changed to correct the name of Sara Rahn, Madison Avenue’s CEO, and the payment arrangement Human Head had for creating Danger Arena.