You are a relatively new player in the game development sector. Can you tell us more about the rapid growth of Yggdrasil and how you managed to carve out a niche for yourself?
I created Yggdrasil in 2013 together with Cherry AB, the holding company of Cherry Casino. The board of our holding company consists of Cherry members and myself, and Cherry Casino was one of our first customers. It has been a rollercoaster ride since then. From the very beginning, we focused on quality. We saw the strategic value of not building on an existing third-party platform, but rather, to create a platform with direct integration. If clients want our games, they must interact directly with us. This approach has been key, and helped us win Mr Green, Vera & John and LeoVegas as clients based on a strategic understanding. We are now fast establishing ourselves as a serious contender to being the industry’s number one online casino supplier. We always strive to be the best, not necessarily the biggest, but the best. In February 2017, we will also inaugurate a new office for our back-end operations, in tech-strong Krakow. We will occupy 800 square metres there, and when I first saw it, I thought it was too big, now it seems too small.
"If staff believe they can't criticise the CEO, then we are doomed. Nothing is sacred."
iGaming operators are in desperate need of innovation. As a game developer, what do you believe is the recipe needed to make innovation happen within the walls of your company?
It is critical that the company culture is focused on looking for the next big thing. I have a mantra: if you have an opinion, you must share it. It is also important to remember that it is okay to disagree. It must be absolutely permitted to hold different opinions, but it's not okay to withhold your views. Anyone can say anything, and anyone can criticise any person in our company. If staff believe they can't criticise the CEO, then we are doomed. Nothing is sacred. People should be able to pitch ideas freely, even if they do not know how to realise them. This is the strength of collaborative creativity and has enabled us to create innovations like iSENSE 2.0, which is an HTML5-framework allowing operators to launch mobile and desktop games simultaneously. In the Malta office, we also have our own company chef. It might seem odd, but we see a clear correlation between our company kitchen and the level of innovation. When our employees have lunch together, they brainstorm in a relaxed environment.
What is your opinion on virtual reality (VR) innovations and what would be the difference in providing VR games?
We take technological developments very seriously, but we haven't found reason to believe that the time is ripe to jump into virtual reality. Customers still lack the equipment, and we are not yet seeing widespread usage. Current trends run in favour of mobile gaming. The opportunity of adding VR will mature once more people have mobile glasses instead of phones. However, I don’t think casino games will drive VR. Sure, it is possible to use VR to make bonus games for slots, but how often will players actually use a VR casino? While VR will allow the player to walk around the slot, they must still watch what happens once the slot spins. I believe VR will be driven by video games, rather than casino.
Within the supply sector, what have been the key topics in 2016?
The key thing has been optimisation. We have always focused on finding better ways of utilising technology to offer our customers as rich an experience as possible. Methodology, processes and attitude outperform the technological side of it. The trend now is moving towards mobile casino, which is more challenging than desktop. We are skilled at mobile and aim to acquire market share from our competitors. As of October 2016, 54% of our game win has been generated from the mobile channel.
How does regulation affect the development side of iGaming and do the provisions of responsible gaming already apply at a development stage?
Regulations have an impact on both back-end development and front-end development in terms of compliance. Responsible gaming comes into play, and we need to adjust both the back-end and the front-end to accommodate that. We are regulated in Malta, Gibraltar, the UK and Romania. Since we entered the regulated sector rather late, we are still in the process of gaining a licence in a number of jurisdictions. We are still catching up in Europe, both in the dot-com and regulated markets.
Why is it that only a few operators have in-house game development units?
To put it simply, I believe most lack the expertise. We recently launched a new initiative, which we call ‘White Label Studios’. The studios allow us to collaborate with operators on the development process, lending them our expertise to create something unique and tailored to their needs. Differentiation is more important than ever. Operators don't want the same content everywhere. We can now offer content that is in line with a brand’s core values. We have one client that has signed up already, and we are planning to scale up this year. White Label Studios requires a strategic commitment from both sides, but the potential of the project is huge.
The viking from the Yggdrasil slot game Vikings Go Berzerk.
How easy or difficult is it to recruit the right talent in Malta?
On the marketing side, it is not an issue to find local talent. But on the game development side, it is hard to find people with knowledge in areas such as 2D, 3D, concept art, and illustrations. In our Malta team, we only have one 3D artist and one game designer from Malta; the others are from South Africa, Canada, Serbia, Colombia, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic and Ukraine. This is one of the reasons we set up the office in Poland. Krakow has a direct flight connection with Malta, and getting a work-permit for non-EU nationals is also easier there. We had to wait a year here in Malta for a recruit from Ukraine. One advantage of Malta, however, is the English language. Our plan is to make it very easy for our employees to move within the company. We want them to be able to work from a different location whenever they are looking for a new adventure.
Yggdrasil Gaming has had a remarkable 2016. What are your plans for the future?
We are a lot bigger than we were a year ago, but in comparison to our major competitors, we are still 20 to 50 times smaller. However, we have invested heavily in technology, and the core focus now is to release more high quality games. Investment in infrastructure is also high on our agenda because demand is increasing. We need to deliver games server-to-client quicker than anyone else, otherwise we will lose market share.
Fredrik Elmqvist has vast experience within the gaming sector, from sports pools to casino and lottery. He is the former Head of Account Management and Chief of Global Market Operations at Net Entertainment. Elmqvist founded Yggdrasil Gaming, building the business from idea to execution in less than a year.