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“Proud of our ability to learn and adapt” - Interview with Steven Matsell, CEO at Leander

This week we've had the opportunity to hear more about Leanders upcoming game Diamond Blast Zone! Steven also dives deep into the competitive landscape and why some games are dismissed for reasons that the players aren't even aware of.

13.02.2021
Steven Matsell, CEO at Leander

Interview with Steven Matsell, CEO at Leander

Welcome Steven and thanks for making the time to chat with us at SlotCatalog! Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about your history in the iGaming sector?

Thank you for inviting me.

I came into the industry by happenstance in 2004 when I attended the wedding of my former boss and friend, we discussed a project he was funding for his son and two technologists. His son was a coder in his early 20s bending Flash, the forerunner of HTML5, to create a virtual horse racing game that based its results on the virtual form of a number of horses, jockeys and trainers. At the time this was cutting edge and very cool! They needed someone commercial to complete the team and invited me to become a shareholder and join the business.

We sold Gaming Technology Solutions Plc, in late 2009 to Playtech and I stayed with the company to affect a smooth transition leaving in late 2012. I considered a few opportunities and decided to invest in Leander and work with a super enthusiastic group of people in Argentina.

What was it like joining Leander eight years ago and what has the journey been like?

There was a small and talented group of 12 people in Buenos Aires, building around 6 games a year on the first version of an inhouse designed and coded Remote Gaming Server (RGS). It was a big culture change after two years in Playtech and was more like the early days at GTS.

The two main challenges have been navigating the increasingly complex and expensive world of regulated markets with licenses, audits, market by market regulator game rules and game certification. Then on the flip side escalating and managing our aggregation and inhouse game release schedule to accommodate the massive demand for games in 2016,17 and 18. Then having to change that in 2019 and 2020 to respond to the glut of content in the market drastically impacting everyone’s game ROI.

What’s the Leander vision and has it changed in any way since you joined?

When I joined Leander, we knew the business had real potential but needed to increase its footprint in Europe, so we adopted an aggregation strategy that included some of the early games from Quickspin, Blueprint, Red Tiger to name just three. This made the whole pitch to Operators more attractive. One integration gets you all this top content and this of course included our own.

We followed this up by pitching and winning a full formal tendering process to become the foundation platform and content for Pokerstars new Casino. The kudos from that deal has taken us a long way and we have integrated with many of the large European online casinos.

The number of 3rd party and inhouse games grew rapidly until 2018 when we delivered over 500 games to our largest operators. Since then we have shifted our focus to quality over quantity, as the games have become a commodity and the only way to drive profitability is through quality.

Given your long experience in the industry you’ve produced a reputable number of slot games. How would you describe your portfolio?

Interesting question. I would say diverse! Mainly due to the variety of projects over the years - from social to freemium to real money – in Europe, LATAM and soon the USA.

I think I can safely say that Leander now boasts a portfolio of games with a profile that is more varied than most competitors and it’s set to become broader.

What changes in player preferences and competition have had the most impact on your game development during the latest years?

Player preferences have been heavily influenced by how we now consume massive amounts of content on Social Media. If something on Insta or TikTok doesn’t grab you, for whatever reason, you immediately scroll up. You have to remember that the player only has a game name and thumbnail icon to make a judgement call and open the game and as so many new games are launched on a weekly basis Players can now adopt that same habit in our industry. It’s amazing how many games are opened and the player doesn’t even spin once! The game has been simply dismissed for a reason the player is probably not even aware of as it was more of a feeling.

What aspects of your games make you extra proud?

I am proud of our ability to learn and adapt our craft as the market has changed. 5+ years ago each game launch was epic in size, with multiple bonus rounds and base game modifiers.

The pay-outs were spread more broadly. These days it’s more about focusing on one aspect of the game – the bonus round. The game needs to be more volatile so that players experience Big Wins in the bonus round. The base game needs to entertain just enough to keep you playing, hunting for that bonus round.

Just watch the streamers on Twitch and you will see them driving the focus of viewers on the bonus rounds and big wins!

Is there a specific area where you are keen to improve and reach a new level in 2021?

We are already on it! We have just launched a new version of our platform with loads of automated features to make handling new regulated markets more efficient. In addition, a new Client Area allowing our Account Managers to demo games for Casino Manager selection, then populate the markets for launch and launch dates, finally adding any specific commercial conditions. That request is then delivered and automatically actioned by the core platform and invoicing system.

Also, we have just successfully concluded our ISO27001 audit. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is the world’s largest and most trusted developer of international standards and this is landmark moment for our future as it allows us to compete in the toughest regulated markets

Finally, on our games – I want one massive hit like BTG’s Bonanza or Quickspin’s Big Bad Wolf! Not much to ask for really!

Which types of players will be the most entertained by your games?

We have great coverage in Italy, our strongest market, with massive success with games like Ave Caesar and Inferno (Dante’s). Both theme and style resonate.

This is followed by Germany with more classic games such as Alibaba, DragonSlot and Apollo just hitting the numbers month after month. Third is the UK with Ave Caesar again proving popular due to its UK style, Kraken Conquest and Wild West Zone.

We also have games live with a regulated lottery in Argentina which are proving surprisingly successful for us.

Your next release will be Diamond Blast Zone, what’s the USP of this game?

We have been building up to Diamond Blast Zone (DBZ) since our first release of our Dynamic Ways mechanic. We wanted people to understand how amazing wins can be achieved with Dynamic Ways. So, for Sigma 2019, which seems another life away now, we launched a simple first game with a bonus round only and followed up adding some less complex features in a couple of games last year.

This 2021 game is the full deal! It’s 5x5 reel set expanding to 5x7 in the bonus round, which is a great size for mobile portrait by the way! It’s set in a futuristic mine filled with gems. The Dynamic Ways mechanic is an expanding and contracting reel set in my view works best with cascading reels. The expanding reels (from 3 to 5 symbols in the base game and 3 to 7 in the bonus round produce extra lines and the potential of larger payouts. We have included a win multiplier and a bomb blast feature to keep cascades going where there are no wins and a mystery symbol feature! Wait until you get into the bonus round and are playing with those extra symbols. I can wait to see the reaction on Twitch!

Looking past that, what other games do you have in your roadmap and why do you think they will be appreciated?

We will launch over 20 games this year. Around four will be using the Dynamic Ways mechanic, the first being Diamond Blast Zone which will be followed by Viking raid Zone in April In between we will launch two more classic games, Pearls of Poseidon and Fortune tellers Charm

We are launching some localised games for 2021 including several for the regulating Dutch market and some Video Bingos for LATAM as we are seeing growth in this region.

If you’re willing to share we would be keen to hear your personal opinion about which competitors you think are producing quality games and in what particular areas they are strong?

Amongst the smaller studios that punch above their weight obviously we must include Big Time Gaming – where Nik has redefined what success means in the industry and there is no need to mention why.

Then I would look at 4 The Player – Chris and Andrew have the band back together and they produce solid games with great features and well balanced maths.

Aslo, we shouldn’t forget ReelPlay for their Infinity Reels mechanic which I really like playing. DJ & Co know what they are doing!

Lastly, I would also like to mention Thunderkick as I have always had a soft spot for them. I just like the way they put games together and their attention to all the small details.

If you were to pick two of your older titles for a new slots player, which ones would you recommend and why?

With new slots players you tend to advise them to try less sophisticated games, so they are not confused with too many features. You also advise a game with a medium-ish volatility so they are not frightened off by the lack of wins. So, I would say Alibaba & the Forty Thieves and Apollo God of the Sun, which have been amazing performers over the years and we consider them classics.

They can progress from that to finding the games to suit them.I always say that finding the right slot for you is like finding the right rollercoaster ride. It should take you just outside your comfort zone with its volatility. Then you know you have been on a great ride!

Do you have any predictions regarding the slot market output for the two coming years?

I am very much hoping that the number of games that are released has peaked, as I don’t think that is helping anyone in the supply chain at the moment. Plus players can’t build a relationship and understand the roller coaster ride on a specific game because it disappears off the landing page so quickly as more new games are presented to them.

Average game performance peaks quickly and dives to 10 or 15% of that peak in a scarily short period of time. This means that game developers have to produce a greater quantity of games to keep their income consistent.

5 years ago, we would have produced 8 games a year. This year Leander will produce over 20 at a much lower cost per game to mitigate the rising cost of regulation.

The industry is pro player protection but at the moment it feels like it’s being hit from all sides. The sheer number of regulated markets means delivering content is now expensive. With regulated market audits and individual game certificates with a few countries now requiring them to be renewed annually!

Also, there are an increasing number of regulated markets changing game rules by introducing low stake limits, reducing or banning autospins and making spin times longer. All reduce revenues.

Everyone feels the impact, but the big guys can ride this out way easier and as a result I am seeing a reduction in the number of smaller studios in the marketplace. Many are being consolidated into the giants, some are just fading away.

We’d like to thank you for participating in this week’s edition of the SlotCatalog Game Provider interview series. Is there anything you would like to say before we round up?

I would like to send a big thank you to my team who have been amazing throughout the last year. They transitioned to homeworking at the blink of an eye and remained positive through the whole of this difficult time. Our output hasn’t changed even though I know how difficult it’s been with home schooling and supporting elderly and/or vulnerable friends/relatives. It shows what you can do when you pull together and are positive.

Our industry attracts people with a zest for life and we see that in our company, in our customers, games partners and suppliers.

We miss working and having fun together and I am very much hoping that some sense of normality can return later this year.

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

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