Independent studios are the lifeblood of the igaming industry through their delivery of innovative concepts, but often face barriers to growth.
Light & Wonder’s Partnership Director, Steve Mayes, is joined by game studio representatives Troy Zurawski, founder and CEO of Design Works Gaming, Rory Kimber, Account Management & Marketing Director at 1×2, and Claire Osborne, Vice President Interactive at Inspired, to look at what support is needed by independent studios to help with their aims of making a large-scale mark on the industry.
Why should platform providers support independent games studios?
Steve Mayes: The main reason we put a lot of effort into supporting studios is to drive innovation. There are hundreds of studios in the market, but there are not many that are producing the sort of stand-out content that carves out a niche for themselves.
As we see it at Light & Wonder, those innovative studios can provide plentiful opportunities for operators. This can range from local, market-specific content to studios producing particular types of games that bigger studios do not tend to cover.
As we are active in so many markets worldwide, it is vital that the scope of content we can offer is both as broad and as market specific as possible, taking in every potential player preference.
Troy Zurawski: Supporting independent game studios is a clear win for the platform. How else can the platform maximise market share or revenue if they do not optimise the performance and relationship with the studio?
In my opinion, ‘aggregation’ is not a word synonymous with success. I much prefer ‘partner’, which defines the winning relationship between Light & Wonder and DWG.
Rory Kimber: I think the ‘why’ is an easier question to answer. Diversity within a product offering is key to success and nobody has the resource to do it all. Independent game studios are also more likely to come up with innovative games or mechanics, I believe.
The larger suppliers with platforms included have bigger infrastructures and risk taking has to be more calculated. In my experience their game development process is often longer, which means hot trends can pass them by a little.
As for how they should support them, I think direct contact with the operator at every opportunity is very important but also using their own network of account managers and commercial staff to draw attention to appropriate content, great new games and pushing the most appropriate games to the operators, whether they’re first or third-party, is the key.
Claire Osborne: Direct integrations can be costly and time-consuming and in many cases the operator does not have sufficient resource to integrate every independent game studio they would like to take games from.
By offering a wide range of games suppliers it makes the platform more appealing to the operator and gives smaller games studios the opportunity to access operators that they may not otherwise have.
How should aggregators work with studios to make their content more appealing?
Rory: Aggregators have such a great amount of data and knowledge about what works for who, and if what markets, that sharing as much of this as the can is the best way to help.
If you look at the different types of games coming into prominence, such as crash games and mine games, knowing where these games will perform strongest helps to steer themes and product improvements which ultimately benefits the operator, aggregator, and the studio. Feedback throughout the development process is also useful.
There are a lot of knowledgeable product people in the aggregation sector and as they often get to see games in the development stage, opinions are always welcome!
Claire: Feedback on what is working well in different markets, what RTP trends you are seeing and the promotional tools that are leading the way are all useful examples.
An aggregator has access to a lot of information that an independent games studio may not, that could help to focus games development in the right areas.
Steve: Data is extremely important. When we build our own games, we spend a lot of time analysing the data, including how the games have performed and what types of titles are working well in particular markets, extrapolating wider market trends.
We share that data with our independent studios, so we are very much shoulder-to-shoulder in working with them as if they were our own in-house teams.
They gain access to our in-house content experts who live and breathe slots, and we hold sessions with them – from both a data and player perspective – to bounce ideas across that will aid future development.
Troy: Aggregators can remove barriers to getting content to market more quickly. They reduce the investment an operator needs to make to test new content.
Additionally, they validate our data to the operator to provide credibility. They can be another source of hype for a product that has been successful.
How important is dialogue between the provider and the studio to meetexpectations on both sides?
Claire: Incredibly important. Many time delays and issues are caused by a lack of communication. We need clear communication channels along the chain and to be able to get on the phone to work through issues is often the quickest way.
Troy: Any successful working relationship requires constant communication and touch points, and that rings true for one between an aggregator and supplier. Light & Wonder is a partner to DWG in many ways.
We communicate on a regular basis to make sure the day-to-day is taken care of and we understand what each operator expects from us and what is needed to push new games live in a timely manner.
We also strategise about what markets to enter next and what is required to get there. It’s very important and more cost efficient to be on the same page.
Rory: Constant contact is an expectation from both sides these days. However, I think the amount of touch points is one of the ways a good aggregator sets themselves aside from a poor one.
Having a Head of Account Management and a Head of Operations being in contact is all well and good to get things done but that funnel can slow things down.
When Account Managers can talk to their counterparts directly and Sales, Senior Commercial and all members of the ops and support teams all have multiple contacts and people who can help them push priorities, then the relationship can blossom.
Steve: It is critical. Generally, smaller studios will not have their own platforms and are reliant on their platform partner in many ways when developing games.
Data is a key element and, often the only insight they will receive will be provided through that partner.
Having open dialogue is vital for any studio and without it, a studio is building games blind – a situation that is never going to lead to sustainable success.
It is also the case that studios will seek different information from a partner, across a range of KPIs. What we provide will be tailored on top of our base level offering, according to where we can provide the most suitable level of assistance.
Can the right level of support within an aggregation platform have a knock-on effect with innovation and quality in game provision?
Steve: Independent studios are filled with creative people and our role within that process is to remove all the barriers en route to market.
Light & Wonder offers them the fastest journey, handling all the complexities of regulation and other heavy lifting so that studios can simply focus on what they do best: building great games.
Our approach is to make sure that everything can move as quickly and smoothly as possible, on top of that leveraging the expertise of our in-house teams and data.
Whether you are a small or a large studio, similar problems exist in that it is a complex industry that is only getting more so as new markets regulate.
It is about finding ways to innovate within that and as smaller studios won’t have compliance teams, they can utilise our own expertise in that area.
Troy: 100 per cent. At DWG, we make great games. A great aggregator resolves the pain points of a startup by supporting the business just the right amount.
It allows the game studio to focus less on the little details and more on building great content. When we are in touch with the right people and have a foolproof method of delivery and payment, we’re unstoppable.
Rory: Absolutely. Innovation and quality are what we’re all striving for but studios are like any company in that they only have so many hours in a week (although for some people, like Kev our CEO, those hours are significantly longer than average!).
If feedback, technical help, commercial decisions, and the other many things that happen away from game production take up a longer period then there is less resource to focus on quality. The key, as I mentioned before, is knowledge sharing.
The best thing about the relationship is that both sides benefit from success, so pointing out something the studio may have overlook, or need to be aware of, means that everyone wins.
A nudge that a similar game is planned in for the same time, or that a certain market is crying out for a type of game that their in-house team don’t have resource to make, can make the world of difference.
Claire: I am sure it can help in some ways if there are platform tools that can be utilised, but in many cases games studios are looking for the next big thing outside of aggregator tools and don’t necessarily want to share that innovation.
Much of the innovation produced by games studios needs to come from within and the studio needs the internal framework to support that.
What more can aggregators do to provide added support for studios of all sizes?
Rory: I think transparency is crucial. There are obviously going to be occasions where in-house content and third-party games go head-to-head and we have to acknowledge that and work around it, rather than leave it as an unspoken truth. Freedom for a studio to operate is also important.
There is little point tying a studio to an operator contractually if a restricted territories or an integration limitation would be a problem.
Aggregators should be encouraging their partner studios to grow everywhere they can, even if in the short term there is no obvious benefit. If that happens, then the studios get stronger and produce better content. The aggregator can gain by playing the long game.
Claire: Improvements in communication around getting both new operators and new games live would be very useful.
Additionally, ensuring that any issues are fed though to the correct channel and that resource is available on the aggregator side to help fix issues when they arise would assist both parties.
Steve: It is important to provide the widest range of options for studios. They are ultimately looking for the easiest route to market and if you can provide the full range of services that allows them to hit that goal, then you will win in that space.
That incorporates the technological framework that allows them to build the full range of games; the selling and marketing of those games, with smaller studios often not having their own sales teams and relying on the platform to achieve the best possible distribution; and the ongoing knowledge based around regulatory changes in the market.
Staying ahead of all of these issues allows them to retain focus on producing a high level of content, fully trusting that the platform partner will take care of the rest.
Troy: One of the most important things in a relationship between an aggregator and a game studio is transparency. Being clear about what an aggregator can provide or not provide up front can help the studio adjust their processes and plan ahead to ensure implementations, changes, etc. are smooth and seamless.
Great documentation, such as guides for development and commercial and pertinent information on contacts, is key.
And for a studio like DWG who is breaking into new markets, being a resource and sharing knowledge about each one, like costs for entering and nuances of that market, is invaluable.