Raising standards

Earlier this year the Gaming Standards Association (GSA) announced that it was making rapid progress in its Online Gaming Committee to establish a universal online gaming standard for the industry. 
For those unfamiliar with GSA, it’s described as ‘an international trade association that creates benefits for gaming manufacturers, suppliers, operators and regulators. It facilitates the identification, definition, development, promotion and implementation of standards to enable interoperability, innovation, education and communication for the benefit of the entire industry.’ Established in 1998, GSA’s members represent a wide cross section of the global gaming industry, with Platinum Members including Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission; Aristocrat Technologies; Bally Technologies ; GTECH; International Game Technology; Konami Gaming; Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation; Playtech and Scientific Games International.
In April the committee came together for two days in London for a rare face-to-face meeting of the members. The meeting was hosted by GSA Platinum member company Playtech, whose Technical Consultant, Valery Gelfman, is also Chair of GSA’s Online Gaming Committee (OGC). Prior to the meeting Valery said: “A successful online gaming operation requires multiple integrations with third-parties including external content providers, monitoring authorities and, in many cases, brick and mortar operation. Playtech is pleased to work with GSA and help drive the effort towards establishing integration standards based on best practices. Such standards, without a doubt, will benefit all constituencies in the industry and help create value.”
GSA’s Protocol Director, Ethan Tower, added: “The new standard will provide support for third party gaming interfaces, external interfaces, including geo-location and payment processors, and central monitoring for regulators”, while the GSA’s President himself added: “GSA is moving forward quickly with the creation of standards to support the online gaming industry. This is not the time for suppliers or operators to sit on the sidelines. We encourage all interested parties to jump in with both feet to ensure that their voices and opinions are heard as these important standards are being created and finalized.”
I caught up with GSA President, Peter DeRaedt, following the London meetings to find out more about the aims of the standard and for an update on progress thus far…

Matt Broughton (MB): Tell us a little about the meeting in London…
Peter DeRaedt (PD): It was hosted by Playtech and was addressing the first of the four initiatives that we are approaching that has to do with integrating third party games servers or content to igaming platforms. Many discussions on this have taken place in our weekly meetings for the online gaming committee, but this was the first time the group decided to get together so that we could more rapidly discuss and advance those topics. In the two days the group made significant progress and a lot of companies participated so that was history in the making so to speak because it was the first time the industry collaborated.

MB: How long has this quest for standardisation been going on?
PD: Setting this particular standardisation for the online gaming accelerated when PlayTech joined, which was I think at the beginning of this year – around ICE – and we now anticipate having a draft set out by August. That’s pretty impressive considering the fact that some larger organisations have the reputation for not moving very fast, so GSA can prove them wrong because we moved very fast trying to support the industry!

MB: What still has to be achieved before you can complete this process?
PD: Well they have to go and sort out technical details and how to communicate it. It’s pretty intricate, but don’t forget that’s only one of the four standards that have been identified to be resolved, and those four standards can only be resolved by the participants, so the larger the group gets – the more companies that get involved – the more problems they identify and discuss, then the more rapidly we’re able to address their concerns and therefore provide value.

MB: Do all the companies bring the same problems to the table or do you have to guide and chair the process quite heavily?
PD: No; in fact I’ve spent 17 years doing this now and I can tell you that at the very beginning of this process, when you bring together all the associations of a small industry like this, there is indeed the friction and the nervousness of competing entities sitting around the table, but I can assure you that it was truly amazing to see in a new committee meeting with a new audience participating, that this nervousness simply did not exist – that’s all gone – and that’s because of the way we are structured; we have IP policy in place, we have experience and have earned trust… we’ve done this for many years. When you witness this you see people really trying to find solutions and discussing things without their company hat on, and that’s very rewarding; to see their engineers and technical staff really forgetting about who they are and who they work for and just focussing on the core issues for the industry. 
When you consider having the IGTs and the Ballys on the table, you could imagine the competitive nature, but all that is gone. They know what we do and they know how we function. They participate weekly, so it’s very rewarding to see how this industry rallies behind the task – but that’s brick and mortar; in the online gaming committee, London was the first time they got together face-to-face. It was a phenomenal meeting; people participated, there was no friction – we didn’t have to do anything in the way of ‘chairing’. It was very nice in that way. We even had an ex-regulator and regulator guests there which was very unusual, but it was very nice to see and we made significant progress. 

MB: How many companies participated in the meetings?
PD: The number of online companies we have signed up is about 15 now. And by ‘signed up’ I mean that they opted into the committee and they follow what’s going on, but they don’t necessarily participate. In London we had eight companies plus the regulator that jumped in.

MB: When the draft standard becomes available, how with that then be implemented? 
PD: Well we don’t facilitate the implementation. What happens is that as people implement the standards, any issue or ambiguities found are brought immediately back to the committee through our systems which enables us to have discussions at our next meetings and continue to improve the standard, or to implement addendums or technical changes. 

MB: And that standard then becomes a ‘reference point’ for the industry…
PD: It is, and within the brick and mortar space it’s already something where a weekly conference is taking place and people share their experiences. In that area we’ve now initiated the creation of a certification tool kit in development, but that’s being developed by a third party – we’re not software developers. We are situation management; we bring people together in meetings and allow them to discuss while we act as facilitators. 

MB: I’m almost disappointed at how civilised it all sounds! I was rather hoping for huge clashes of ego and company posturing!
PD: (Laughs) For anyone who could be there – even just as an observer – you get a first-hand feel of what it’s like, and I hope to see more companies like 888 and Microgaming and some of these larger corporations start joining and recognising that the issues they have are the same as issues felt by other people. 

MB: How much of your own resource has been focused on this specific issue?
PD: GSA has a small team; I’m just the ‘evangelist’ – I go out and knock on doors and try to tell people that collaboration in an exponentially changing world is critically important because we don’t live in the 70s or 80s any more, we’re living in a world that rapidly changes around you. Regulators have to craft regulations that protect the consumers and they’re not necessarily capable or equipped to do that. So how do we do this as an industry without stifling innovation and without stifling the growth of our business? To that effect I’m an evangelist, trying to encourage these companies – whoever they are – to join. My technical guy, Ethan Tower [GSA’s Protocol Director, pictured right] is an incredible individual who’s been with the organisation for a long time; he manages all the technology and facilitates the technology discussions. I was at this committee meeting to observe and get my finger on the pulse and I was very pleasantly surprised.

MB: And I imagine you have to move fast because by the time you’ve agreed on standards for technology a lot of it has already moved on and changed shape?
PD: That is very true, but we are not here to reinvent the wheel. These technology standards that are used in the commercial space… that is what we build upon. We’re not here to reinvent, we are here to try and identify what are the right technologies, and more importantly what is the information that needs to be exchanged that’s unique to this specific industry segment… and how do we do it?
And regulatory implications: here you can already see the significant importance of a closer collaboration with the policy domain makers because we were very lucky – we had one ex-policy domain maker the who used to be the chairman for Malta, and his knowledge is second-to-none because he was able to correlate the technology and the regulatory side. There was a very nice debate and discussion between all parties, but it also highlighted the need for this industry to seriously collaborate and allow collaboration. There was a meeting in Barcelona organised by Clarion where every single guy said “we need to collaborate” but guess what? They walk out of that conference and next year they’re going to say the same thing. I’ve been in this business for 31 years and I’ve listened to all this and I get impatient and say, “listen guys, if nobody is doing this, GSA is THE place to do that!” We were founded on the premise of collaboration. Now, more than ever in the gaming space, we need to do that. 

MB: So what’s next in the process?
PD: For this specific committee there are four areas that they’ve identified. That doesn’t mean that this is an exhaustive list, but the first we’ve already talked about, and the second area is the integration between igaming platforms and the back-end services – geo-location, payment processing, age verification… all that stuff. The third area is the communication to the central monitoring of the systems, and I think this is a very critical one. Basically what that means is: you start with a brick and mortar casino where you can physically walk in and check and inspect procedures, but then the games get certified to a virtual world and suddenly the regulators are challenged with crafting regulations for what I call a ‘borderless and faceless industry’. Their job really remains the same: keep crime out – you want to make sure that the games offered to the public are honest, fair, secure and auditable. If you’re the public you have no idea… if you put money down how do you know that this site, for example, is offering you fair games? To that effect regulators need to be able to centrally monitor what’s happening in real-time in this virtual space, whether that’s collusion detection or tax calculations or anything else. That is a very major standard, but Italy has got that and Denmark is pretty solid so I’m hoping to reach out to a contact there and bring them into a committee we are considering forming called the regulatory committee. Also, with IAGR [International Association of Gaming Regulators] we are trying to get these guys behind at least agreeing what they want at least as a minimum because every country’s regulation will have its own little ‘tweaks’ – and that’s ok – but at least as a global standard let’s identify what we need; this need not be difficult.
The fourth standard is really the migration from brick and mortar to online and it’s more relevant I think in the United States or in countries where brick and mortar play a more prevalent role and where large brands like MGM and Harrahs want to reach out and extend their product offerings to the online world. To that effect we need to be able to exchange player information – account information, points information… all that kind of stuff. Most of that has already been done through our existing systems, but that is the fourth area that has been identified.
So that gives you the full list that this group got together a few months ago and said we need to attack. It can be a daunting task, but we’re not afraid of it and the most important thing for us is to make companies that are in this space aware that we exist. We are not for profit – I’m not selling them anything – I’m telling people ‘we are here to offer a service that is of benefit to the industry. If you have a problem, don’t sit on the side line and point fingers – join us. You can find competing entities that have the same problems and you use that forum to create a standard that you can share with the rest of the industry’. 

MB: I suppose if you don’t get involved in shaping the standards you can’t complain about the situation…
PD: Exactly. We had 1,573 volunteers to-date who have participated in GSA. If you put that in perspective with the 182 companies I think we’ve had over our life so far… that’s a significant level of contribution. That means the standards that have been developed have a level of maturity and input into them unknown to any other process. If we can replicate that with people form the online gaming space – however many there are – the end result will be a solid end result as a combination of all the ideas of these people. 
We’re not in the guessing game. GSA facilitates things, so it’s up to those participants to say ‘this is what we want’. If they don’t know, we can go out to the regulatory community and ask them for their input. It’s a spirit of collaboration that I’m a firm believer in.”