Daniel Kashti tells EGR NA about KamaGames’ plans to penetrate China and the pitfalls of its brand partnership with Manchester United
Up until about three months ago, nobody had really heard of KamaGames. It’s an impressive feat in its own kind of way, since its flagship free-to-play poker game Pokerist has been the top grossing app on the Apple App Store in 89 countries.
Indeed, to still fly under the radar when 81 million players around the world have sat down at the Pokerist’s tables suggests something of an underinvestment in PR.
However the company decided to fix that back in May, opening up a London office and installing in it Daniel Kashti as chief marketing officer (CMO) and Sam Forrest as director of Global PR.
Kashti, formerly head of mobile at PokerStars, has set about growing the company’s user base and product range, while Forrest has been tasked with making sure as many as possible know about it.
In short, KamaGames is a private company, founded in 2010 in Russia and now headquartered in Dublin. It employs more than 220 staff around the world with offices in the US, UAE, and Russia.
Its biggest market is the US, closely followed by the CIS markets (loosely the old Soviet Union) and the Middle East, with its presence in Asia rapidly growing.
Here, Kashti tells EGR NA about how KamaGames plans to take on social gaming’s heavyweights with its innovation-heavy, player-friendly approach.
EGR NA: You recently launched social casino games like Roulettist and 3D Blackjack to stand alongside Pokerist, what was the thinking behind this?
Daniel Kashti (DK): First of all, new games help us grow our player base by diversifying our portfolio. These games also act as the balancing force in the virtual currency ecology by recouping chips from players. We have a social approach so that humans are always playing other humans and the focus is on fostering interaction rather than on the gameplay itself.
In addition, we’ve found that cross selling poker players into casino games increases their lifetime value by around 26%, so you can see why it makes sense to try and do that.
EGR NA: How do you stand out in such a crowded market?
DK: We have three differentiating points –the number one thing is the simplicity of our design. When you launch our app it is so simple and it’s designed to get you playing quickly.
This caters to the mass market. Sophisticated design is a barrier to a lot of people. Take Snapchat for example. The UI is almost designed for a target audience. It filters out people that maybe they don’t want using it, and we try and take the opposite approach.
Another factor is liquidity. We are in the top three in concurrent users, which plays into the third factor, that you will always, in every level and every game, find real-life people to play with.
EGR NA: How do you differentiate your product for different users around the globe?
DK: Western countries like the US are into the mechanics of the gameplay; they want to build their bank roll and progress through the game, whereas in Middle Eastern and CS markets, we see a lot more socialising in the game. They use it as a way to meet other people. To an extent it is almost a kind of dating app.
So to cater for this, we change a few things– one is subtle changes to the marketing. In the US we might promote the ability to advance in the game whereas in other markets we would promote that element of socialisation.
The other thing is the user journey. We want to offer infinite users journeys, and offer different angles of the product to different users.
That comes from segmentation. We look at our user base in metrics and segment on them on different qualities – one is how many hands you play, two is the social element based on how many friends you have; third is how much you invest in tournaments and fourth is how much money you spend. Obviously – there are infinite number of ways to segment the userbase.
We do a lot of smart things in combining those factors. For example, if you just joined and have played less than five hands but have bought lots of coins we’ll show you different invitations and offers than if you have played lots of hands but always for free.
EGR NA: Talk us through your wider marketing strategy.
DK: We have four main prongs. The first is a focus on mobile since more than 90% of our activity takes place on mobile, it’s a strategic priority for us. Secondly we are focusing on brand and IP which we think can give you a differentiating factor in this space. You can try and buy those things – we’ve dealt with the likes of Man United in the past – or you can take a different route and try and develop your own brand, which is what we are now taking.
Thirdly we are focused on retention by segmenting our offers and making sure every segment is treated differently based on their behaviour and gaming habits.
Finally, we focus on distribution and partnerships. To penetrate huge markets you either need to spend tens of millions of dollars or you do it through partnerships, joint ventures and distribution and publishing deals.
For example, we have a deal with messaging service Tango, which has 300 million users. We are a top grossing game for them and that reinforced our hold of the US market. We recently signed another deal with a popular messaging service in Europe and the Middle East which I can’t reveal yet but those apps are very powerful distribution channels.
We are also in discussion with tier one publishers in Asia and when we speak with those guys, what’s appealing for them is our gameplay and KPIs. We are very successful in retaining users, and we outperform our competitors on all the different monetization metrics. Combine that with a partner that can help us scale up, and it has the potential to be very powerful.
EGR NA: So talk us through the Manchester United deal and what you learnt from it?
DK: It was before my time, but we essentially bought access to their IP, social channels and fan database.
Manchester United is a great partner and a massive brand. We have learnt a lot from that partnership but you need to make sure there is the right kind of overlap between your customer base and their followers and the right reach to your target demographics and geographies.
This kind of thing was of value four or five years ago, but with so many brands trying to monetize their channels by giving access to partners, it’s not an effective marketing tool any more.
Organic reach of brands is decreasing year on year and it is at best way below 1%. If FC Barcelona puts out a Facebook post it reaches 0.67% of their followers. And Twitter is even less than that given the chronological nature of the feed. Unless you come up with a solid content-based partnership with a clever activation plan, it’s not going to work.
EGR NA: Why do you think companies like Zynga are struggling?
DK: It’s a difficult business publishing games. Once you are a listed company it changes your business directions and how you operate. You have to operate in two different arenas. One is your games and products and one is keeping your shareholders happy.
You see companies become less in favour of taking risk, spending less on innovation and they stagnate. Giants don’t want to shake the tree too much.But at the end of the day our industry is about fun. We’re trying to entertain someone for five minutes. We’re not saving lives here. It’s about being able to push the boundaries of your space and it’s something that private companies are better positioned to do because they are much more dynamic. We’re trying to disrupt the space and we’re in a good position to do that.
EGR NA: What are some of the innovation projects you’ve been able to try by virtue of being a private company?
DK: We have introduced this new motion capture technology into our games. It’s an engine that informs the movement of the dealers hand and that’s in 3D Blackjack.
We are also looking into virtual reality and how it can play a role in our games. Many people are trying to crack this but no-one in the games industry has nailed it yet.
If you can build a virtual reality where people can come together, that would be great for our social focus. We have a studio working in that but we are also not scared to try new games that aren’t as popular like perhaps Baccarat.
It’s natural and easy to go into bingo and slots, but we see little space for innovation there. The buzzwords around slots are content and licenses. But you see the same content across different products and the differentiation comes from offers and marketing.
To come out with another me-too product is not a part of our strategy. We are entering verticals where we can offer a premium product. We have a few games that are coming up.
EGR NA: Would you ever consider expanding your offering into social sports or entering the real-money gaming market?
DK: I think the social casino business is completely different to real-money, having spent a good few years in that industry.
Going real-money is a lot more complex than just adapting the product. Our RNG is already compliant so there’s no issue in getting a license but the reasons people choose to play blackjack for real-money are completely different to the reasons people play social blackjack.
When you play casino your motivation is to win money or at least not lose money whereas the social version is to meet people and the challenge. We want to nurture an environment of social players and we wouldn’t consider real-money.
On social sport, a lot of companies have tried that and failed. We’ve had quite a few discussions about it but I don’t think it’s straightforward. Coming up with the right core gameplay that keeps you engaged without any money, that’s the tricky task.
Part of the problem is how casual sports betting is already. You see a lot people putting a couple of pounds on the Euros for example and that’s already social in a sense because £5 isn’t much to most.
We’ve played with some concepts but we don’t think the market is mature enough. We want to release products that leverage what we have which is premium liquidity and table games and I’m not sure sport at its current format is a natural extension of that.