Joey Hurtado: Revamping Pariplay’s games content

By Gambling Insider

With the launch of its new in-house games studio, Wizard Games, Pariplay is looking to overhaul its proprietary games content. Gambling Insider speaks to the man who came on board to take charge of Wizard Games, Joey Hurtado, about why he accepted the role and what his plans are for the future.

So to kick things off, can you just give us a bit of background about yourself and how you came to be at Pariplay?

I’ve been in the industry since 2004, in online. I started off with 888 in Gibraltar, then I started to get really into the casino side of things in 2014 when I joined Unibet, and I worked for them for a couple of years. I’ve moved through GVC, Betsson and Gamesys and now I’m here at Pariplay. I’ve been involved in the live casino and slots side of things for almost eight years now, intensively. I’ve spent a lot of time working with B2B providers on the game selection side of things, feeding into their roadmaps — feeding back — and criticising a lot. Things have developed to a point where I think the last three roles I’ve had have effectively been different versions of the same role.

I’ve had a feeling inside that I wanted to do something a bit different and probably crossover to the B2B side. That coincided with Pariplay reaching out. They wanted someone to lead the games studio who is from the other side and understands the problems that operators have, and understands how we can sell and retail to operators in a way that is effective and works for them. With such a saturated slots market with so many different content providers, how do we be a bit different in the commercial approach as much as anything? So we had a few discussions and the project sounded really good.

Pariplay has been on a really good trajectory over the last 12 to 24 months. They’ve scaled up, I think they’ve gone from 20 people to 120 people in the last 18 months, so there’s been a big growth in the business. They’re no longer a start-up, they’re no longer a small organisation, and they’re part of the Aspire Group as well — so all of the different elements seemed attractive to me.

If you go into, say, an Evolution, you’re going into a company that’s already quite rigid, already quite set. Their organisation is already decided, their strategies are mapped out for three or four years in advance, but the attraction with Pariplay was that it’s nowhere near that yet. I would be working on the strategy for the slots studio. We want to invest and bring in the right talent, to take it from being Pariplay the aggregator who also does games to being Wizard Games, the studio.

You’ve been on the games development side of the industry for about three to four years now, and you have over a decade’s worth of experience in gaming more generally. How has this sector changed over the years and in particular, iGaming and content development?

Obviously, the biggest change in the industry has been regulation. I think everybody can point to that. That’s triggered all kinds of side effects with M&A, different limitations and restrictions on what content you can do and how you produce your content. Taxation has also brought in margin struggles. Whereas before, a games provider could go out and quote double figures for a revenue share percentage, nowadays no decent-sized operator will listen to that when they’ve got to pay 25% tax and XYZ here, there and the other. But I think the biggest one, especially in the UK, has been around the game design itself.

The Gambling Commission and the gaming associations have been focused on ethical game design and how can we remove predatory features and make games enjoyable to the person who’s spending £20 ($26.71) and the person who’s spending £20,000. So there have been new challenges. One of the early solutions was to stick a big jackpot on it or have a lot of progressive features in there so you could only trigger the biggest win if you played the max bet. Those kinds of things have been removed now, or they’re less prominent, so you have to be more creative. You have to be more innovative.

In the companies I’ve worked within the past, Betsson designed their own games, Gamesys made their own games, so I’ve always had this input in that area. Looking at how do we make games that are fun to play, and profitable, in a way that is cost-effective as well to us, because effectively we are charging less. As a smaller studio — we’re not Evolution, we’re not Play’n Go — we can’t go in there with that kind of pricing. So we have to be competitive in our pricing, competitive in the content we produce and innovative in the features and functionality.

It’s all very well speaking about magic but if your content can be found on 20 other providers in a different form, then there’s not really anything magical about it. We’re looking now to live up to the name and branding. We have some ideas in the future

You’ve been at Pariplay for a couple of months now, so how have things been so far? How does working at Pariplay differ from other companies in the industry that you’ve worked for previously?

The first call-out is that it’s about a tenth of the size. So it’s a lot more hands-on, in a really good way. There can be quite a separation between the decision-makers and the doers in larger organisations. At Pariplay, these people are one and the same. Everybody works as a family to an extent. I know it’s very cliché to say, but everybody does work as a family. There’s no pride or hierarchy in terms of getting your hands dirty.

The targets are very immediate. A lot of companies produce three, four, five-year strategies, we have a one-year strategy with perhaps the next two years outlined. But in reality, we work month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter. We’re looking at immediate delivery. If I wanted to do something technically challenging at one of the previous companies, that would go into five roadmap meetings, a larger board meeting and it would take three months before it was even planned, and then it would be planned for 12 or 18 months down the line. Here we do it.

We’ll have one phone call and say: “Is this worth doing?” We’ll quantify it, we’ll assess the challenge and the opportunity and then it would immediately go into the roadmap and a couple of months later, it would be out there. A case in point is Ontario. I had been on the job for a couple of weeks, and I’d spoken to a couple of operators that wanted to go into Ontario. We had a meeting the next morning and said, these guys are asking for Ontario. We dial in our head of compliance, and we know our papers are in and working on a licence.

It’s great because you get instant gratification. It can be chaotic because there are a lot of priority shifts and a lot of changes, but we need that agility at our current size and scale and position in the market. We need that agility and rapid action to be able to compete with any of the bigger guys. We know that it will take Evolution 12 months of planning to do these kinds of things that we can do in a shorter term. We have that opportunity in the market, and it gives us a buzz — it’s exciting.

Wizard Games, as you’ve already touched on, is Pariplay’s new in-house games studio. How much of that was your brainchild and what prompted Pariplay to go ahead with this rebrand?

The rebrand was already set out as a strategy earlier this year. When I joined, I was presented with the idea and the main focus of doing Wizard Games was that Pariplay games were not really known in the market. They never really had their own identity. Pariplay is primarily known as an aggregator, and then some people know that we do games. It’s always fallen within the full P&L and the resources and strategies have been shared across the whole business. So the content has been quite safe and samey. There’s never been that drive in the games studio to be different, to be leading, and to actually try and be a games developer in our own right.

So part of the idea of this is to pull the games studio out of the rest of the business. Give it its own P&L, its own team, its own leadership, and really put this focus into becoming a tier-one games studio. A lot of the good stuff was there already. We have the distribution, we have a solid platform and solid engagement tools, but now we want to invest. We’re bringing in some new people, some experienced games developers and leadership, and the idea is to revive the studio and drive it forward in its own right. While we’re still part of the main group and we benefit from everything Pariplay has to offer, we can set our own direction, our targets and strategy, and our own goals.

The only real involvement is the platform and Adrian, the Managing Director, checking in with me every couple of weeks to see how we’re doing. But we’re independent to the business and that lets us fly and lets us go forward. In terms of the name, we wanted something that catches and gets attention. There was a lot of focus on experiencing the magic, adding the magic and adding our own style to content. The branding was a project that was already underway but it’s a project that I’ve been heavily involved in over the last two months. The look and feel and everything that’s come out there, we’ve been heavily involved in, along with our marketing team who I have to say have done a fantastic job. I think the site looks great, but now we have to bring the content up to match.

We’re challenging internally, we're challenging externally, and we have some big partnerships that will be announced. So there’s a lot going on. Unfortunately, there are no big flashy headlines, but the goal is basically continuous improvement. Just keep getting better

It’s all very well speaking about magic but if your content can be found on 20 other providers in a different form, then there’s not really anything magical about it. We’re looking now to live up to the name and branding. We have some ideas in the future, we’re looking at our own mechanics and models that are bespoke to us, in the same way that Big Time Gaming has got Megaways, and Nolimit City has xWays. We’re looking at our own versions and the things we can do that will be unique and add in some unique identifiers to our content.

But the primary thing that we want to do, the primary magic we’re bringing at the moment, is being easy to work with, being the guys you want to work with. We work very closely with the commercial team, and we have a very hands-on relationship with most of our customers, especially our tier ones. It’s not formulaic, here's your account manager, this is the answer, this is the process. We look for ways we can work hand-in-hand with our customers. If there’s a particular area they need help in, if there’s particular content they want, if they market in a specific way, if they need games released the next day, if they need something in a certain language or format — however, we can support them, we support them.

At the moment, that’s what I would say the magic we are bringing to things is. A lot of people say they’re service-led but in reality, they think service-led is responding to an email quickly. We’re service-led in that we build bespoke partnerships and bespoke procedures. As we grow, we expect to be able to add more content. I think our current content is solid, it's just nothing spectacular.

Something I’ve heard is that we’re seeing a push from operators, especially bigger operators right now to consolidate games and content development in-house. Is this true based on your experience and if so, how is Pariplay planning to respond?

Yes, it’s something I have experienced. I was quite involved with Betsson’s in-house studio and with Gamesys. I mean, it’s a natural progression for them. Obviously, if you’re paying lots of money for content, a large amount of revenue share has gone out of the company, so trying to target that yourself is a no brainer for the big B2C operators. The thing that we can bring is that they will tend to, for the most part, play it safe. They’ll produce content that will normally replicate whatever they’re spending the most on. So in terms of games that are costing them the most, they will try to replicate them in their own way.

As they’re already part of a large organisation, the same kind of pains that large studios have, and large B2B providers have, will be there — which is agility, flexibility and also the ability to take a gamble. They tend to make safe bets, whereas we can throw a bit more risk out there, we can try and innovate. I don’t really see them as competition. I’d be quite proud if, in 12 months’ time, one of the tier-one B2C operators is copying our games. I’ll be quite happy in that position. It’s complimentary.

There are over 100 different game studios out there; one more or two more, as part of the B2C operators, isn’t really going to be that painful to us. We want to try and compliment them, and give them content that they can’t make themselves, produce content faster than they can, and obviously, provide the service that goes with that, where they don’t have to maintain anything with us, they don’t have to deal with certifications, they don’t have to deal with licensing, and they don’t have to deal with fixes. We can do all of that on our side. So while they will continue to do that, I don't think any of them will ever be able to match the velocity of release that we can.

Regarding expansion, are there any new jurisdictions/regulated markets that Pariplay has its sights set on?

We've got quite a full plate on at the moment, but North America is obviously a key focus for us. That’s regulated Canada and regulated US states. We pretty much either have a licence or are in flight in every North American market. There’s a lot of LatAm markets that we’re exploring now — Mexico, Colombia etc. — and as to your standard European markets, I think we’re in pretty much everyone but Croatia, so we’ll monitor that, and then we have an eye out east as well to see what’s going on in Asia, as well as Africa. It’s part of our ethos, our MO — anywhere our clients want us, we will be there.

We try to get ahead where we see opportunity, but we want to be everywhere. So we’ll just tick them off in order of priority. Our head of compliance doesn’t thank us for it, but it’s part of our service-led approach. We need to be available where our customers want us to be, and we know that we can do this quicker than most, we know that we can do this easier than most. We’ve got a very good tech stack that can easily be made compliant in different markets, we can easily copy a data centre elsewhere, so we position them around the world. This gives us real flexibility to be able to be out there first.

Even if everybody’s going there, at some point, we can get in there quicker, and we can start to establish a presence. We’re already speaking to a lot of the key operators in the markets that we’re going into and establishing the relationships. Andrew, our VP of Sales, is signing people faster than we can move. We work very, very aggressively in establishing those relationships and getting those plans in place. But effectively, it’d be safe to say that any market that regulates, we will go into.

You were just at the SiGMA World’s Gaming Festival in Malta. What was that like? Did you get a chance to showcase any exciting new products or developments?

We did spend a lot of time showcasing the brand itself. We had a lot of conversations with current customers, with potential customers. We’re working on establishing relationships as well. It’s been a couple of years since anyone had a lot of face time, so it was a great opportunity for us to press the flesh and get to speak to people again. Being Wizard Games, we were being quite responsive, so we spent a lot of time rather than pushing our agenda forward, we were listening to the needs of our customers.

We had a lot of conversations, a lot of chats around where our customers feel there are gaps, where they need help, where they need support, where we can drive our content and listen to feedback on what we’ve already had, on what we've been doing and seeing where we can improve, be it in procedure and process or the production of the games. We spent some time touting potential recruitment, looking for people we can bring into the business. We’re growing and we plan to grow quite quickly, so the budget for next year already has quite a few new positions in there that haven’t been filled.

And for the most part, looking around and getting a feel for what others are doing as well. It was a very, very busy week, and we spent a lot of time together as well, as a company. Many of us are dotted around the world, so for a lot of us, it was the first time ever meeting face to face. We spent a lot of time together trying to build our own strategy and build our plans for the next year. It was a very successful show, I think, commercially it was good, but in terms of the overall relationship building, internally and externally, and investigated opportunities, it was also very, very successful.

A lot of people say they’re service-led but in reality, they think service-led is responding to an email quickly. We’re service-led in that we build bespoke partnerships and bespoke procedures. As we grow, we expect to be able to add more content

To add to my previous question, what would you say has been the most rewarding experience working for Pariplay so far?

Up til now, it’s the immediacy of being able to do things. I’ve worked for a lot of tier-one B2C, and very little of what you ever decide to do is immediate. Whereas at Pariplay, I can decide to do something today, and in two weeks, it’s delivered. You’re not planting a tree and waiting for years for it to grow; you basically stick it in the ground, and you’ve got fruit the next day. It’s fantastic. And that’s been a big part of it. It’s a really, really good team, the leadership team in particular.

There's very little ego, there’s very little possessiveness or protectiveness of people’s areas. Everybody just mucks in and gets things done, and you know, watching the way of working and seeing very talented people leave their egos at the door and really get their hands dirty, it’s really rewarding to feel, and it brings the same out of you.

I think the support I’ve had from the leadership team since I joined has been really nice to see. You don’t expect to develop into a company as fast as I have already. So I’d say the two most rewarding things are seeing the support, obviously getting the brand live, which is a key one, and the recruitment that we’ve been able to do in such a short space of time.

Of all the people who have come on board in the last few months, everybody has been recruited since I agreed to join. So when you’re having these discussions about hiring, that we’re speaking to this person and we’re speaking to this person, and then you see them — very talented people as well — already coming in before the end of this year, you feel comfortable that you’re working for a company that’s serious about what they’re doing.

And finally, are there any exciting developments in the pipeline that you can share with us, and I suppose more broadly, what does the future for Pariplay look like?

In terms of exciting developments, there’s not so much that I can share. A lot of new people is the main thing that we’re doing now. We’re doing a lot of infrastructure work in terms of the games engine and working with the teams. We have good teams, but we’ve never really seen that ceiling, or how far they can go. So we’re really now working to challenge them and see how far they can move forward. We have some great ideas in mind that we hope to execute.

I look at the next 12 months and my brief to the team is an iterative improvement. We’re not going to start shooting from the halfway line, we’re going to make smart bets, make smart opportunities and the challenge I’ve set is that every game release must be better than the previous. That’s not necessarily just in the content itself, it’s in the process and the procedure and the things that we’re doing internally. 'Iterative improvement' are the words I’m using a lot internally. the goal is to just continuously improve.

We want to be a tier-one studio next year. That’s the goal, and we need to get there in the right way. Having one really good game, and then every other game being exactly the same as the ones before isn’t what we want. We want to be on a good, consistent trajectory of high-quality content coming up, so we’re building the foundation for that. We’re challenging internally, we're challenging externally, and we have some big partnerships that will be announced. So there’s a lot going on. Unfortunately, there are no big flashy headlines, but the goal is basically continuous improvement. Just keep getting better.

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