When someone brings new ideas and bags of enthusiasm and experience to a sector, you can expect things to get interesting. Matt Broughton met with Extreme Live Gaming CEO, Darwyn Palenzuela.
Extreme Live Gaming is a relatively new company. Its founder and CEO, Darwyn Palenzuela, was at Ho Gaming a decade back as head of development. “Then we broke off and I co-founded Evolution Gaming,” explains Darwyn from Extreme Live Gaming’s plush Brentford offices. “So I was CTO there and I built the whole system from the ground up around 2005. In 2011 I got seconded to another company called Smart [a TV company in the UK that produces Super Casino] and became CEO; I was there a couple of years. Then I decided to start my own company and it seemed like Live was the way to go. Why continue to work for another company when you can do something better!
“When I left Smart my thought was ‘Europe is saturated already’. I wanted to get into Asia so I started developing the product for the Asian market, and I knew the Novomatic guys from before, so we struck up a deal and they ended up acquiring my company in Asia and then I formed it in the UK. It’s a good partner to have.”
“Live casino has been out there;” explains Darwyn, “it’s got the presence, but it’s far from mature… that’s my take on it. I say that because at the end of the day it’s only in the last couple of years that the broadband penetration and bandwidth has increased throughout Europe and the UK, so there’s still so much you can do. But Live itself – as I developed it about ten years ago – started off as small-screen, and I did the first full-screen before PlayTech and the rest copied me, and that was just me as a developer.
“I still do a lot of our prototyping. Some of the concepts you’ll see here are based on my ideas. I’ll show you some of the unique features – and they are unique – that I’ve decided to incorporate in our live element, because from my point of view it’s still emerging not only as a product but as an acquisition tool. I think what better way can you entice players to join than having it presented to them by someone they can engage with.
“With a lot of operators [outside of gambling] the first thing that happens when you enter their site is that a box pops up asking “can I help you?” – It’s immediate interaction because users do need that slight guidance. With gambling, players don’t really want to be harassed all the time, which is different from an insurance site for example where you get that help pop-up so that you can chose.
“So there is that kind of delicate balance of how you approach and utilise the engagement factor on live casino; you can’t go overboard because it’s mass market so there could be a lot of players but they are low revenues, whereas the VIPs are fewer players but represent the higher revenue, which is actually what you’re targeting – that‘s how you survive as a company and as an operator.
“That’s the kind of balance I’ve brought here by having been a B2B provider with Ho gaming and Evolution, and now becoming a B2C as I was at Smart (although they’ve moved away from green screen – they have a practical studio with a flat screen – whereas with me I’ve actually leveraged the green screen quite a lot and you’ll see it on the products).
I ask Darwyn what it is he felt was/is missing from existing live casino products. “I saw a gap as far as being able to provide a live product that’s much more entertaining. When I did the full-screen product, PlayTech just copied that. The only difference now between these companies is the ability to cross sell. With an online operation you’re primary product will be your sportsbook or your casino, not a live casino. What we’re trying to do is somehow leverage the main products to get you to the extra products – the Live Casino – that’s your main challenge. That’s why I’m saying that Live still hasn’t been utilised effectively, because you don’t see, for instance, a live presenter on the sports book page.”
Because of Darwyn’s experience at Evolution, the integration time at Extreme Live Gaming is fairly short. “For us it’s simply branding, and that’s what’s good about it; we can just rebrand and change the skin so we don’t have to really do much technically at our end. The reason I chose green screen is because it means we can have unlimited branding on the same tables.”
I ask if there’s a risk that the more you do to a ‘pure’ game like Blackjack, the more you potentially risk turning traditional players off? “There is a balance,” says Darwtyn, “but the market is changing now anyway purely because people these days can multitask; people are used to reading 17 things at once, they’re used to playing multi-games. That’s why I think to have a balance is the challenging part of it, but fortunately everyone these days are used to using multi-channels. It’s very common to be watching TV and playing on your iPad at the same time, so if you have a game that allows you to bet on roulette but at the same time do some side bets or other activity, I think players will do that.
“At the end of the day players do come to these sites for entertainment, but primarily they come to make money, so if a game is a bit slow they’ll do other things. That’s why RNG [Random Number Generator] is much more prevalent than Live – purely because you control the generation of the game.
“I think the trend now is that people are looking for more entertainment than just playing the game. I really believe that for the market of Live Casino players I’d have a subset of players just trying to make money – so they focus a lot on the fast RNG side of things because they just want to churn that out – and then you have players a bit more on the side of engagement.”
It’s this desire for engagement that drives Darwyn to look for presenters rather than dealers. “A lot of our job ads are on presenter sites rather than standard job sites,” he explains. “We do a combination of say 60% presenters, 40% land-based dealer experienced.
“What we’ve found is that there is more revenue on the standard dealer side of things – the players bet more – but in terms of staying longer it’s on the presenter side. So you’ll get longevity more on the presenter tables because they are just betting and staying there chatting away, so in a way it’s good because you can end up attracting the mass market to your product, which is much more stable than having a VIP in there that can be quite volatile, because he can generate 100k turnover for you in a night and then disappear after six or seven days.”
I ask if there’s a limit to how many players a presenter can effectively ‘manage’ before players lose that personal touch. “We haven’t hit that ceiling yet where the presenters say ‘hold on!’ but there are players in there that require more attention on the chat. Some of our presenters have followers, but that’s good because it’s where the live comes into play; you can utilise the presenters as your face, as your brand… IF they have a big enough following. They can then go on Twitter and Tweet to the people following them, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me say that the promotional aspect of a live dealer has yet to be fully tapped.”
And are the operators happy that players might be more interested in the presenters than the brand being presented? “Yes. What we do is engage with the operators that we have and just say to them ‘ these are your top ten dealers’ and then they can utilise them by, for instance, putting them on the web site. The presenters are always associated with the same brands.”
I wonder if this individual presenter popularity might be a dangerous thing; if perhaps it gives too much ‘power’ to the presenters. Darwyn thinks not: “It’s kind of different because they are online and don’t really see the players, so it’s not like TV where there are ratings that they see. Also a lot of these presenters aren’t into gambling, so they don’t perhaps understand how ‘big’ they are unless they see themselves on an operator’s site!”
Regarding the unique features Darwyn spoke of earlier – the “X-Mode” elements – this is very much reliant on the game being played and the situation. Darwyn explains: “Depending on the game, the X-Mode gives you a one-to-one scenario, because each seat has its own X-Mode. So as an example, after twenty games of roulette, the player that has the most turnover out of that game gets to spin a golden ball and get a promotional prize depending upon the operator.”
We watch a demo where the X-Mode on a roulette table gives the player a closer angle view and, during the golden ball, this camera shot moves to the golden ball which the presenter holds up to the player. The player then clicks on the spin button and she (or he) spins the ball. “The presenter is ‘triggered‘ by the actions of the players,” explains Darwyn. “That’s the engagement we’re looking to give the players.
I wonder if there’s any risk in giving the players themselves a way to exert even the slightest influence on outcomes. “The whole ‘spin the wheel’ thing that I’m doing right now is pretty safe, but if you actually allowed a player to control things it obviously could be a problem, so these are the kinds of things we have to be careful of. That‘s why it’s in a controlled environment. Having said that, that’s why people like RNG: they know it’s controlled, they know they’re not going to win 100% of the time, but yet they still play it for that chance.”
More interesting is the presentation of the roulette table. Everything bar the table and wheel looks a lot like a slot game… “You have a roulette table with side bets generated by a reel based on Novomatic’s Book of Ra slot. So it’s great cross-branding. If an operator wants to push the best performing slot they have, they can bring it to the roulette table as a side bets ‘sponsor’. Also, the presenter starts talking about the winning results too – so that’s the kind of engagement we’re looking for. It takes it beyond standard roulette, and we can go further by incorporating the slot itself into the interface.”
This might start sounding like a lot to fit onto a screen, particularly a tablet screen… “We have a layout that’s specific for tablets, explains Darwyn. “It’s different but you can swipe tabs from element to element rather than try to squeeze it all onto one screen. The quality is just higher than the standard offerings; we really had to increase the production value, which you can see in the games.”
I ask if trying to offering everything with such high production values makes it a more expensive venture. “Fortunately, because of the advancements of technology – and because I don’t have to do a lot of R&D having done it before – not really. I’ll give you an example: We moved into this building in January, and we were live in April – just two months later – so it helps when you’ve done it before!”
At the time of my meeting with Darwyn, Extreme Live Gaming were offering two live Roulette tables, two auto wheels, two live Blackjack tables and one live Baccarat table… “But we have a jackpot version of Baccarat,” says Darwyn, “and again it’s designed for tablet so you can play it in portrait mode. Also, this office makes it easy for us to expand and we own the building so we can expand to different floors.”
To a degree I’m surprised to find everything in a ‘traditional’ office space; I was expecting an aircraft hangar filled with rows and rows of girls dealing in an industrial style. “I wanted to go against that,” explains Darwyn. “I wanted to go away from that type of stigma of live dealer. I think it’s refreshing and people won’t see us as just one of many. With other companies it’s all about ‘the pretty girls’ and that’s about it… and – if you don’t’ have the technology or you don’t want to push the boundaries – that’s all it can be. It’s all about who’s got the most tables and the most girls.
We get to stand (very quietly) in a room where two live tables are being broadcast. At the tables themselves the presenters receive prompts as if in a TV studio to know which player spots are live so that they can look to their camera specifically and welcome players.
Each dealer gets a break every 30 minutes so that they can give their smiles a rest.
There are a mixture of nationalities employed, while new trainees take around two to three weeks from training to production depending upon their experience.
“But all of this is just a part of another product that I’ve got in development,” Darwyn teases, “I have a product for live casino called the Live Box which allows a land-based table to be pushed out for internal use on tablets but through social gaming. I’ve checked on competitors and it hasn’t really evolved much from a CCTV camera streaming live tables to an online site. A lot of these product guys that do development are not from a product background anyway; I’m quite fortunate in that I’ve been developing it for ten years and it’s evolved throughout. Many years ago I did the first live roulette for Facebook and it was quite different: you could bet on a wheel of fortune that had pictures of the player’s friends and they could have one-to-one chat.”
As you might imagine, the building itself is subject to all the security measures necessary to satisfy the various licence and regulation stipulations. All access in the building is restricted to key personnel, with everything being recorded on CCTV at all times and a library of around 60 day’s history.
Darwyn is reluctant to let me photograph much in the studios… “Many years ago I would always be curious about what equipment other companies were using, so if I saw photographs of other people’s set-ups I‘d be like “oh, so that’s the manufacturer they’re using!” So I’m quite secretive about the technology I use because R&D takes ages.
“To be able to do the X-Mode shots you see… people will look and ask ‘how the hell did you do that?’ It’s not a simple matter otherwise everyone would do it. The streaming behind it, the audio side to it… all that stuff has to be looked at. And on top of that it has to run 24/7, so whatever device or software technology you put in place must be reliable.”
Back on the product demo trail we move to a screen showing a live roulette table with quite specific branding everywhere. Darwyn explains: “What we’re doing is taking Lucky Lady’s Charm – which is another big slot title – and putting it into a table game with a relevant background theme. You could then change the game theme and everything will mould around it. We can have multiple theme versions running off one live table so you can heighten the branding. At some point we’ll probably have completely dedicated tables for popular games.
“Depending upon the operator we can set up the green screen just for them to feature the branded product. This is why I keep saying that Live Casino is not yet tapped, because at the moment people are using a single spokesperson to represent, say, their sportsbook – and that’s it. Imagine if you have that spokesperson that carried you through the product range, and then you actually see them on the game. If you have a big enough sponsorship you can get that celebrity to come in and actually deal a game and engage with the players directly. And none of this is in the way of the game the punters came to play – it’s just an influence on the look and presentation. It’s not detracting from the main game.”
Right now Darwyn and his team are busy with the integrations… “Because we’re launching a few operators already [StarGames and Bingocams], and we’ve been working closely with them. For example, the Lucky Lady’s Charms thing wasn’t our idea, it was one of the operators. I asked them what was their most popular game that they wanted to push and they suggested that specific title as it was leading on revenue; it was their number one performing slot, so it made sense. That’s why we have the “Roulette of Ra” – because the Book of Ra game is very popular.”
When asked about where Darwyn would like to be in a year’s time, he tells me he just plans to take it one step at a time. “For me it’s about producing the best product and a product that is different but also very usable. Anyone can make a product that’s different, but do people want to use it? So I want something that is acceptable and have people saying `Wow – that’s a pretty great product that you have there; I never thought about that’ and that it can lead to better things and bigger things. If I can get every operator to realise that THIS is what you can do with Live, to cross-promote products and give products alternative identities… these are the kinds of things i want to be able to achieve.
“Companies have promoted brands – so today’s dealer who’s dressed for William Hill will tomorrow be dressed for 888 – but no one is bringing the GAME brands so fluidly to the live screen. I’m hoping that people will see this and the operators will realise the potential.”