Frank Floor Talk: The journey to becoming a successful casino game developer (Part I)

November 28, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
November 28, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

At the dawn of the 21st Century, all of the pieces had fallen into place for a bold new frontier of careers in game development within the casino industry: Gambling expansion across the country, ticket-in/ticket-out capability which gave rise to the penny slot empire, and advancements in computer science that were capable of transforming slot machines into never before imagined entertainment marvels.

Keith Kruczynski found himself in the eye of this perfect storm having graduated from college in 2003. Twenty years later he is vice-president of studios North America for Ainsworth Game Technology, the high point of an illustrious career that saw him recognized as a 2018-2019 class recipient of Emerging Leaders of Gaming.

Being in the right place at the right time, however, was not immediately apparent to Kruczynski. Another career path was beckoning him, and if not for the wishes of his parents it was a path he probably would have followed.

“In high school and college, one of the interests that always stuck with me was the theater,” he said. “I was always into being on stage. At the same time, I wanted to make a lot of money, so I decided to be a lawyer. If you want to be a lawyer, you have to take political science. I took one class and discovered it absolutely was not for me.”

Keith Kruczynski, vice-president of studios North America for Ainsworth Game Technology

He pursued his options with his education advisor. When asked what he was interested in, of course he responded with the theater, but at the same time he cautioned that his parents had made him promise that it wouldn’t be his college major because they didn’t want him to be a waiter or busboy his entire life.

“I mentioned to my advisor that I was always into video games and he suggested why not give computer science a try,” Kruczynski recalled. “So, I took my first class and absolutely loved it. Problem solving and coding gave me instant gratification. It was perfect for me. Little steps in writing code to reach the big completion.”

Acknowledging that he probably spent more time with his first love, theater activities, than he did with computer science, Kruczynski nevertheless graduated with his degree and computer certificate.

Ultimately, it was the rare combination of possessing talent as an analytical thinker in addition to an imaginative, creative, theatrical side that led to his career in the gaming industry.

“After graduation I began looking for a job,” he said. “One day I got a call from a head hunter who asked if I would like to do an interview with a company called Bally’s. I got on a call and interviewed with the Bally engineers. It went pretty well, and they told me they wanted to fly me down there to meet with them and complete the interview.”

At the time, the young college grad did not know it was important to conduct research on companies that you were interviewing with, so Kruczynski responded by saying great, followed by “where’s here?”

“I didn’t know they were located in Las Vegas,” he said. “I didn’t even know they made slot machines. My mind was on video games. But I put together slot machines, Vegas, and thought to myself ‘cool’. I made the trip, interviewed for the position, and was offered the job.”

Now, to borrow from the legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey, here is “The Rest of the Story”:

“I came to find out later that the man who interviewed me had been working with head hunters in quest of a candidate who had computer science but also was creative,” Kruczynski continued. “He searched resumes that had computer science and arts, or computer science and design, but there really wasn’t anything.

“He finally typed in computer science and theater, and mine was the only name that popped up. So, you can say that the only reason I got the interview in the first place was because I had computer science as well as the creative aspect.”

It was the beginning of a 12-year career with Scientific Games and its acquired company, Bally Technologies, where Kruczynski served as game producer and software engineer before being named director of game development. Among his many accolades was being named inventor or co-inventor on six Bally Technology patents.

He left to become a game producer at IGT, where he designed and managed the production of games for Evolve Studio. In January of 2018, he joined Gaming Arts LLC where he spearheaded development of the company’s game studio before being promoted to vice-president of game development and design.

It is an award-winning career in gaming for a man whose only prior personal experience with casinos and gambling came when he was a college sophomore.

“I was in a work/study program where I assisted in building sets for the theater,” he recalled. “I was paid a ‘whopping’ $200 for a month’s work. I remember one time after I got my check, I mentioned to my girlfriend at the time that there was a casino about an hour’s drive away that permitted ages 18 and over to gamble. I told her I wanted to put my entire check on red at the roulette wheel.

“We drove down, I cashed my check right there, walked over to roulette and put it all on red and it hit. Now $400 for a college kid in the early 2000s was great. I lived like a king for a couple of weeks. At the time I never thought that I would get into the industry. It was never an option or a thought until I got the interview with Bally’s.”

Kruczynski’s first project after coming on board at Bally’s was doing clones. He would take a game that already exists and make it a new game with different art. It was the ideal way to learn the fundamentals of game development and design.

“Next, they had me join a team that was doing games for the New York Lottery,” he said. “One of my favorite stories is the team lead at the time for the New York Lottery was a veteran in the industry named Terry Daly. Today he is lead game designer here at Ainsworth. I worked with him on my first project and now he’s on our team. Everything comes full circle in this industry.”

Looking back, Kruczynski admits that his introduction to game development was a bit intimidating at first.

“In school you learn all these little programs that shuffled around bits of data, or a middle program that graphically wasn’t very intensive,” he said. “It was all about trying to wrap my brain around going from small coding to giant coding to the point where I told myself: ‘God, I’m lost’.

“By digging in and really tracing where everything goes through all the different paths, how it is playing the graphics, and how it shows what it is doing, took time – but then it just clicked. It’s like when Neo entered the Matrix. All of a sudden, I said, ‘Oh, I get it’. But as I mentioned, up until that point it was intimidating and I got to thinking I was in over my head. I eventually became comfortable with realizing all the neat things I could do.”

Next month, in Part II, you will learn more about Keith Kruczynski’s eventful career as a game developer and what it takes to achieve the success and recognition he has received.

John G. Brokopp is a veteran of 50 years of professional journalist experience in the horse racing and gaming industries