Zitro is on the verge of becoming a major player in global gaming; a visit to their Barcelona campus reinforces the impression of a company that is really moving in the right direction.
A modern gaming company must be just that – modern. If you want to recruit hot young talent, you have to have a setup that can compete with major technology companies, and adopt a similar mindset when establishing your surroundings. Casino International visited one of Zitro’s beautiful campuses outside Barcelona and sat down with company founder Johnny Ortiz, and CEO Sebastian Salat, to find out what makes them, and the company, tick.
Casino International: Johnny, what is your background? How did you get here?
Johnny Ortiz: I was a big operator in Brazil and I began there with bingo halls because machines were not allowed – but when they were allowed, I said this is a good business idea so I started putting in video bingo machines because it at that time, slots were not allowed. So we could say that thanks to the government of Brazil we invented video bingo! When that was the only thing that was possible, we did that and we did it very well. We began very small; we didn’t know anything about slots or video bingo, or machines, and we begin to place them; luckily, they worked very well. I started with bingo halls in 1995 and video bingo machines at the end of 1996. Then in 2004, our president prohibited gaming. So that night I went to bed as an entrepreneur and I woke up as a bandit.
It’s unbelievable. Three hundred thousand people unemployed from one day to another.
We worked until 2006 because we went to court. I had invested a lot of money in the best bingo halls in the world; then I thought, why not work in other countries? So I came here to Spain. In the beginning it was very small, ten people, then 20, 40, 80, 106… Now almost 300 engineers, artists, all the people you need to make a good game. We started from scratch in 2007 and now 11 years later we are working toward becoming a global leader.
CI: It’s a very impressive setup you have here…
JO: Well, our facilities are really good. Not many companies in Europe can have these facilities and the number of engineers and skilled people that we have. People would say to me a long time ago, you have very good graphics, you have very good people, why don’t you do slots? I always said, first we are the global leader for our video bingo, but I’m going to do slots in a way that is very far from what our competitors are doing.
Some people see what we are showing now at exhibitions, they say ‘Wow, you’ve done this in one year!’ Of course not, all the research for everything they see began three years ago at least. So we prepare everything, we take care of every detail. The graphics, the sound, the machine. We take care of every single detail. We decided to go forward, because with video bingo you can’t go everywhere – but with slots, you can go everywhere. It was a natural step, but we only did that having in mind that for everybody in video bingo to arrive to where we were, would take them at least three years and a lot of investment and people, so we knew it would be a long road.
I have a lot of passion, and I try to communicate this to our people; the important thing is to have a good team with a lot of passion. They are proud to work here, they see we are growing and that our products are really good. Right now we have the best slots product in the world, Link King; when we place this in a casino it gives double or triple the average, I could not imagine in my wildest dreams having a game like this, but we have it.
CI: Where did the Bryke brand come from?
Sebastian Salat: When I joined the company, Johnny already had games in the pipeline, just not in the market yet. No machines were placed yet. He decided to do the first test of video slots, but he did not want to commit the Zitro name to that, we wanted to make sure that by putting the product on test we were not compromising the Zitro name.
We wanted the players to test the product with neutrality, without knowing it was Zitro; we were so well known as video bingo manufacturers. We did not want any expectations. We placed the first units in Mexico under the Bryke brand, with a cabinet you could buy off the shelf. We placed a few hundred machines, and later on the product was so successful that players were asking for the Bryke machines. We knew then we could not get rid of the new brand, we had created a successful product and it had an identity and personality among the players, so we maintained it for video slots, and kept Zitro for our video bingo. So Bryke started as an attempt to hide our identity, and it has led us to here where we talk about it all the time! Customers understand it, they understand that brand and that it is a part of us.
CI: What does Bryke mean, where does it come from?
JO: My kids’ names – Bryan and Kevin.
CI: What do Bryan and Kevin think of the slots?
JO: They are now 18 and 20, and they are happy because the products have been a success.
CI: Zitro’s slots products have really jumped forward recently; in terms of R&D do you think the video bingo background bring something different to the way you approach slots?
JO: Not really; that’s the reason why they are going to work much better in the future though! We have many features on video bingo that we have not yet used on the video slots, but we are planning to; it will be much better as a result.
SS: It helps us that we are operators. We have a large number of machine in play around the world, and we learn a lot about what players want in terms of comfort, gameplay, winning experience, rhythm, common to any gaming machine. A slot player is different to a video bingo player of course, but ultimately they want an experience, and we are very good at creating those experiences. Video bingo and video slots have a lot of things in common in that way.
CI: When you introduced the Bryke brand, you didn’t have the Zitro ‘safety net’ of recognition; what do you think made them stand out to players? I mean, you’ve done this in the most difficult way possible, without leveraging your existing good name.
JO: That was the reason – Zitro is a strong name, and we wanted to test it not in the best cabinet, just to prove the game. Players could try a Zitro game, but we did not want any assumptions from players we wanted them to try the games for themselves. We were confident, but not overly so.
SS: A good cabinet cannot make a game good, but a good cabinet can make a game better, so we tested the product with a standard cabinet to really test it. Once we saw the results, we knew now was the time to present the product properly with a Bryke cabinet, with upright, with slant for customers to choose. But we started with a proven game and proven math model.
We did the test in our own operation, which distinguishes us. Most of our competitors launch a product to market and if it doesn’t work it goes out on sale; if it works, it goes on a participation-only deal. For us, we test it in our own operation and if it works we offer the product to the customer in the way they want. They can participate, they can buy… But we have tested it in our own flesh, it is like our form of hara-kiri to prove that what we are launching is credible and performs, and we can prove it because we are using thousands of them in our own operations.
CI: What challenges are there for you to become a truly global gaming company?
SS: We have been following a logical plan of expansion; we started in a continent where we already had a strong presence, Latin America. From there, we went to Europe, where there are a number of operators that are references you need in order to convince other operators to buy from you. The names really mean something, they have the respect of all of our customers.
Our plan for 2019 is rolling out product in all European jurisdictions where there are casinos because we intend to get into that market. Then we will start making inroads in some US jurisdictions; not the whole country, but we want to start testing our product in the country because we want to see if we can realise our ambitions and build a position in that market too. We will also look at Asia. We already have a presence in the Philippines Bingo market and it makes perfect sense for us to place our product in the Philippine casinos too.
CI: What about Spain?
JO: We have been here (Spain) since the beginning, in 2007. We have a lot of machines placed that we operate; though we have a factory, we don’t think as a manufacturer, we have a different mentality and we think as an operator; we understand the problems they have. It’s a natural market we have in casinos with slot machines, but now there is a different kind of slot machine, what we call the B market. I think we have a great chance in this market, because it needs completely different maths. We have good local people that understand the market and I think we will have great success here. We showed the machines in Torremolinos, and everybody went wild for it, they loved it, it’s a casino machine. I think we will place a lot of machines here.
SS: Something that is important about Spain is that the large groups on the operator side, are also manufacturers. We have chosen not to compete against our customers, though we have been offered many opportunities. Johnny has said this many times, we just offer our product in participation or we sell the product, it’s a huge difference for us and it serves us well.
JO: We are here to please the operators, worldwide – anything they want, we will do it.
CI: Is online gaming important for you yet?
SS: Online, we have two different businesses – we have a B2B business, making games available to online operators. The same way we don’t compete with our customers in bricks and mortar, we also don’t compete with our customers online. We have started offering our Bryke video slots to our online customers as well, and our video bingo games. In a world with an abundance of digital entertainment, we have to make sure our games are available through the right distribution channels.
Then we have our other business, the B2C, business to consumer business. It’s a social casino, not gambling, an application where customers can play our slots. They can play for free for a while, then pay to continue, and as they play they can unlock more and more games, all for a nominal amount of money. It allows is to meet new players, that might be a different demographic from our casino customers, and we can test our products on them; and we can understand what they like on the games. It’s a great source of information, it is a business by itself, and it’s a way to give our brand a presence to a non-casino customer.
CI: Can you summarise the company’s ethos for our readers?
JO: Difficult question! I think what summarises us is passion, everything we do we do with passion. We want to be a global leader in gambling, but we want to do things the right way. We can’t go into every country in the world and place machines because the service would not be good; we want to grow, not slowly but not too fast. We have a reputation for quality, like Ferrari or Mercedes, you are buying something you can believe in and rely on. Our customers know they are buying quality, and we are responsible for everything that happens to that. Game not working? We can change that for you. We give a lot of guarantees to our clients and we want to maintain that.
SS: We have a guarantee that not many companies can give – we have the guarantee of the owner. Try phoning one of the big gaming companies and ask for the top man on the phone; they don’t exist, it’s some executive who is not the owner. Here, Johnny will take that call, have that conversation and make things right if there is a problem.