CASINO & GAMES

CASINO & GAMES

Pushing the envelope

It may be celebrating its tenth birthday this year, but Push Gaming has only just started to execute aggressive expansion plans, incorporating a key strategic acquisition and launches with top-tier clients. But amid an increasingly frosty regulatory climate, and in one of the most competitive igaming verticals, how does it plan to continue for another decade? By Robin Harrison

Push Gaming began life in 2010 as a business repurposing land-based content for online play, at a time when there were fairly significant differences between the quality on offer in each channel.

“There was no one who would take those games and redistribute them online,” the supplier’s chief executive James Marshall explains. “GameAccount [now GAN] was coming through, but it felt like a really good opportunity to set up a service taking games online, handling distribution.”

Marshall admits it took a while for him and his business partner, Push operations chief Winston Lee, to get the business going, though insists it was a sound business model for a bootstrapped start-up.

Push is now producing proprietary content rather than repurposing land-based developers’ titles for new channels. Land-based studios shifting online was a factor in this, as was the fact that commercial returns were reasonably weak.

“We didn’t have our own platform so there were two middlemen,” he says. “Before we could take our share, the player, platform and supplier took their cut, so there wasn’t a strong enough commercial model to generate the revenue.”

However, by this point mobile was emerging as the main growth channel, driven by the likes of Quickspin (since acquired by Playtech) and NetEnt. Marshall adds that the early titles were designed to be very similar to “rectangular land-based machines”.

This shift to portrait mode sparked Push’s expansion into in-house development, via a deal to develop two exclusive titles for Kindred Group.

However, Push has since remained fixed on a fairly small content roadmap, focusing on a handful of titles at a time when other studios have gone for a more maximalist approach. In Marshall’s view, these studios provide the volume, so Push can focus on the quality.

“Operators are already being serviced with a lot of content,” he says. “Our approach is, what does the player want? Do they want a lot of similar games or do they want to play something unique?

“I think it’s a bit of both; the competitors deal with the volume, so that’s not an issue for casinos or players. They’ll be getting a new game or five each week. We’re trying to supply something that the players will want, and create new and exciting games, so players and operators can look forward to the latest release.”

He says a “conveyor belt approach” to development would stop his team from creating “really unique” titles. Yet while this is working well for the business, he admits that to become more competitive, it will have to ramp up volume.

“Not by producing 50-plus games, but a release pattern that makes us more competitive in the market,” he adds.

CHASING THE HITS

And while a smaller number of really unique titles may offer something different, it’s no guarantor of success. As Marshall points out, it’s very difficult to create a guaranteed top-performing title.

Push, he says, has a strong hit rate in which 60-70% of its titles perform well. Maintaining that hit rate, though with more titles, will drive the expansion plans.

“We’re never going to get everything right but we need to be into the details: what players like, what they might like next and what they don’t want,” he says.

The battleground, as he sees it, is player engagement, volume of players, and individual game performance, rather than sheer weight of numbers.

Marshall believes this is being aided by the acquisition of gaming technology provider GSI, announced in January this year. This gives Push access to solutions such as the Hive Remote Gaming Platform and Mesh Aggregator, not to mention the expertise of industry veterans (and former OpenBet technical leads) Paul Evison and Paul Beattie.

It builds on an existing relationship between the businesses that saw Push acquire an instance of GSI’s remote games server and integration layer, a collaboration that Marshall claims was “the best due diligence we could do on the business”.

“It didn’t make sense to part ways when the handover of code was completed,” he explains. “The companies just aligned very well. The potential was much greater, looking at speed and the team synergies together, than as separate businesses.”

The deal has had an immediate impact and “definitely played a part” in Push’s supply deals with GVC Holdings – announced in April – and William Hill, for which it launched content that month.

“The UK hasn’t been a main market for us, due to the partners we work with, so we’ve been focused on Scandinavia and other parts of Europe,” Marshall says. “It’s been brilliant to get these deals with such massive brands in the UK. Ultimately the platform just gives us the opportunity to control and operate in the markets we want and to control the distribution in general.”

Having only raised significant funds in the past three years, after spending most of its life to date as a bootstrapped start-up, Push has the clients and the technology to ramp up growth. However, this coincides with a period of significant uncertainty for online casino.

REGULATORY HURDLES

In Great Britain, there is growing momentum behind a cap on stakes of between £1 and £5. In Germany players will be limited to a €1 stake per spin. In Sweden, a SEK5,000 (£440) weekly deposit limit is in force. Regulation could limit growth, or even lead to the vertical’s decline, in the coming years.

Rather than bemoan this climate, Marshall sees new regulations as a good thing. It’s how the industry is evolving, he says. But, he adds, slots are designed as a form of entertainment. If technical changes mandated by regulation take out the entertainment value, the business is no longer viable.

“What concerns me most, particularly with technical requirements, is damaging the entertainment experience,” he says. “With some of these requirements, there’s no evidence of them reducing gambling harms.

“The regulations have to be practical. Regulators need to understand the majority of payers do not have a problem with gambling.

“Damaging the entertainment element so much, whether through stake limits or spin times, will have a negative impact on the entertainment value of that game,” Marshall says. “If you’re taking away that excitement through regulation, it’s almost certain that players will move to illegal sites.”

While he points out that the bulk of regulations affect operators, he feels suppliers can play a more active role in discussions with the wider range of industry stakeholders.

“As a supplier it’s important for us to work with the operators at the forefront of regulations,” he explains. “Most of it falls on the operators but we shouldn’t look to leave that with our customers and see it as their issue. We have to work out ways of supporting them.”

Equally, the operators can help their supplier partners by speaking up for them, especially when it comes to new technical standards. As the B2C businesses tend to interact more with regulators, Marshall believes they need to highlight what happens when technical changes affect the player experience.

Creating a responsible and sustainable industry is crucial, he adds, but equally so is playability. If players don’t have fun, they will find sites that offer more entertainment value.

Even when faced with these issues Marshall believes there is still significant room for growth at Push.

“The challenge for us now is prioritising the opportunities and understanding the potential there is,” he says. “We have a lot of big operators that we are launching with now, and have had many tier-one launches in the past five years.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there. We have already achieved so much, yet there is still so much more we can do, which is exciting for us in this new phase of business that we’re entering.”