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SCi interviews AbZorba’s CEO on whether there’s life beyond the leading gaming platforms:

Despite the wealth of choice available to consumers, social casino operators continue to derive the majority of revenues from Facebook, iOS and Android. SCi examines whether there is life beyond these three leading platforms

When the social casino sector first burst onto the scene a few years ago, Facebook was seen as not only the platform of the present but the platform of the future as operators tapped into a user base which was growing at unprecedented levels.

But in the past 12 months, as Facebook gaming revenues begin to flatline, ‘mobile-first’ and ‘cross-platform’ were two of the most overused phrases in the industry. Mobile revenues have overtaken those derived from the social network for the first time in recent months, and as the sector continues to evolve, could a new platform offer even bigger potential for growth?

As local and emerging markets open up operators will need to keep their options open. “VKontakte and Odnoklassniki collectively dwarf Facebook in Russia and have played a very important role in building our brand awareness and subsequent traction in that market,” Steve Cutler, chief strategy officer at Poland-based social casino operator Ganymede, explains. “Facebook is banned in China, so if it is on your radar, then, from a social network perspective, you would have to be looking at having a presence on Renren or Qzone.”

However, other platforms popular in the core Western markets have always played some role in the acquisition strategies of many social casino operators and look set to do so even more in the future. Platforms beyond Facebook, iOS and Android clearly have some kind of part to play in social casino, but the question now is how big and whether they can ever launch a legitimate challenge to the big three.

Companies such as Playtika, the social gaming arm of Caesars Interactive Entertainment (CIE), have allocated sources to what it calls “tier 2 platforms” from day one and the social casino operator is currently live on 12 very diverse platforms including Odnoklassniki, Spil Games and Windows Phone. And the industry’s current leader is still on the lookout for new platform opportunities as it refuses to be tied down to just the standard Facebook, iOS and Android channels.

Mobile choice

For many mobile-first companies, there are only two operating systems that matter – iOS and Android. But the likes of Windows Phone with shipments of 7.4 million units, although dwarfed by its competitors, still has incredible growth potential, particularly as the worldwide operating system (OS) market is still dominated by Windows with an over 85% slice of the pie. “We wish it would be a game changer because it would be nice to have a third horse but we’ve seen a lot of mobile platforms over the years come and go,” Andrew Hughes, CEO and co-founder of AbZorba Games, says. “I think Windows has got a better chance than most but we’ve seen platforms from the likes of Samsung certainly not perform as well as expected.”

Another major new platform is Amazon, which has recently begun distributing Android apps. The platform is evolving as every year goes by, while the sector also waits for Amazon to make a much bigger push into social and mobile gaming.

“Kindle Fire devices are more affordable than most tablets and similar devices but until they can fully support the richness and quality of some of the casino content on the market, then they may be typecast as more of a product for just reading books and surfing the web,” Cutler says.

But Elad Kushnir, vice-president of business development at Playtika, says Amazon/Kindle is not just a platform of the future but forms an important part of the present for any social casino operator seeking to diversify. “We have been on Amazon for several years and we are very happy [with how it’s performing],” he says.

Playtika has launched all nine of its games on the Amazon app store and there are obviously some key benefits, including easy migration from an existing Google Play app. Amazon also enables integrated customer Amazon accounts within each Amazon device as well as lower cost per installs (CPI), 10%-20% higher 30-day retention than iOS and Google and quicker return on investment (ROI).

Going it alone

There is now also plenty of room for niches in social casino and an interesting development is the increasing number of standalone gaming platforms such as ISIS Labs’ realmoney social gambling network ISIS Friends. Platforms such as this allow smaller developers access to users away from app stores where there are billions of downloads a year but they are ultimately finding it increasingly more difficult to monetise.

And Cutler firmly believes that there is a lot of potential to launching a stand-alone social casino gaming network like Ganymede’s GameDesire site, which hosts its full portfolio of gaming content. “Facebook and the app stores will continue to dominate within the classic social games but the trends are indicating that gamers prefer to keep their social casino gaming away from their social network of friends,” he says. “We see this as a great opportunity when looking at GameDesire and the likes of Yahoo games [see boxout].”

The so-called secondary tier platforms cater to niche markets, specifically regional ones, with the likes of Spil Games to Europe and Odnoklassniki for Russian-speaking markets. Although the gaming market is global in nature, the niche networks have the benefit of being able to customise their platforms for local user preferences. “In the age of personalisation, localisation of both language and features can go a long way if done correctly,” Kushnir says. “This is true for both the networks and our games on the networks.”

Dedicated social gambling platforms help create an engaged customer base that is made up of users who are used to paying for games. However, it’s unclear as to how many social casino operators have the desire, mindset or resources to go it alone and the biggest risk is that operators provide too much choice and diversify core expertise which could lead to a leak in revenues.

Using every channel

A key decision for operators now is whether to focus on a single platform or multiple ones, and indeed many operators such as DoubleU Games and Big Fish Games have achieved phenomenal success on just Facebook and iOS respectively. Ultimately, it will come down to the gamer and what they want, which increasingly points to access on the same account on multiple platforms with leaderboards and other social features.

“By having a cross-platform offering, you will achieve higher engagement and retention among your users, since they have the opportunity to play wherever they are and whatever device they are carrying,” Cutler says. “Users are also regularly updating or changing their devices, as well as buying new ones, so it would be a disappointed customer if they could not play a favourite game on their new phone or tablet.”

A potentially important development is the rise of smart TVs, which could provide yet another avenue for accessibility and according to research by Strategy Analytics, global shipments of smart TVs grew 55% year-on-year in 2013 to more than 76 million units. Unsurprisingly, the fight for market share is being played out by Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast.

However, it appears the technology and hardware is not quite there yet to provide a seamless gaming experience on a bigger screen. “I’d love to play AbZorba on a TV but I’ve tried playing games on it and it’s a clunky experience right now. It’s not a very big community but I think we’ll get there,” Hughes says. “I think the potential is huge.”

Kushnir says that although smart TV is on Playtika’s radar, the Slotomania publisher is not yet convinced that there is enough of a market to warrant an entry into the space, but will be quicker than we might think. “We do believe it will be relevant at some point though,” he says. “The smart TV market and the platforms themselves need to mature before they become relevant – both in terms of the platform offerings and in terms of the scale of their user base.”

For the time being the future remains geared towards Facebook and what Kushnir calls the “defacto global duopoly” mobile operating systems of iOS and Android, and the real winners in the sector will be those that can successfully optimise their strategies across all of these platforms. However, it would be foolish to rule out smaller and upcoming platforms progressively eating away at their market share in the coming months and years. The future is unwritten.

Read the full article online on the Social Casino Intelligence website.

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