New Yggdrasil CEO set outs vision for growth
In an exclusive interview, Yggrasil CEO and 2024 Gaming Intelligence Hot 50 winner James Curwen unveils his new YGG23 game release strategy as the company prepares to launch a real-money version of Slot Masters
It has only been a few months since Curwen took over as Yggdrasil CEO to replace Björn Krantz, who had led the supplier since founder Fredrik Elmqvist stepped aside in April 2022. Having a third CEO in two years might seem less than ideal, but Curwen has been handed the reins with a specific remit to drive the next phase of Yggdrasil’s development.
“My job at Yggdrasil is to accelerate them over the next three to five years,” says Curwen from Yggdrasil’s new offices in St Julians, Malta. “I’ve always liked Yggdrasil as a brand. Even though they have just had their ten-year anniversary, it still feels to me like a young, innovative, brand. I think that’s how most people think of Yggdrasil. I like the content that it does and some of its games like Valley of the Gods and Vikings Go Berserk are blockbusters.”
Curwen is certainly no stranger to the iGaming sector after gaining significant experience on the supplier side through founding slot studio Golden Rock Studios, and on the operator side through stints at William Hill, Superbet and more recently OPAP, the Greek gaming and lottery behemoth.
“I was really enjoying working in Greece, and running lottery was also something new for me,” Curwen says. “We saw great success in those two and a half years – GGR was up 170% and profitability was up over 400% – so I had grown the business there substantially when I was approached. Seeing how the lottery players play and how they behave was a great insight, and I am taking that experience with me here.”
After joining Yggdrasil in October, Curwen immediately set about making some structural changes to the company.
“I believed it was a little bit top heavy and we needed to optimize the efficiency of the work that needed to be done within the company,” he explains. “We reduced headcount and I don’t foresee us doing that again, although we are continually looking at efficiencies and optimizing what we’re doing. Historically, I’m really good at going into companies that have potential for massive growth. That’s kind of my skill set.”
Innovation and technology
With a renewed focus on innovation and technology, Curwen believes that he has the team in place to take Yggdrasil to greater heights. One of his first moves was to promote Mark McGinley to chief product officer (CPO).
“I was very happy that Mark had just started before me, because he’s a massive asset to the company, and he’s just starting to get his hands dirty now,” Curwen says. “He’s already had a massive influence on the team. The first new products from Mark will be coming out in the next month. He’s super excited about what he’s bringing to the table. High engagement and emotive engagement is key, and one thing that I’ve discussed with Mark at length is how do we build that style of content going forward. The focus has to be there.”
Among Curwen’s first external appointments was to bring in Alex Haywood as managing director of Yggdrasil’s Polish business, where the company’s engineering and tech team are all based.
“We have a team of over 120 people there,” Curwen explains. “Previously, we didn’t have any C-levels on the ground in Poland, so Alex will oversee all operations as far as technology is involved. We’ve done a restructure of the teams there, so that we can build games quicker and faster. We’ve also bolstered the team by bringing in a lot more experience, including some key engineering hires.”
Another key focus has been to upgrade the supplier’s iGaming platform as part of Project Phoenix.
“It’s not a rebuild, it’s a rebirth,” Curwen points out. “It’s part of a massive step forward in upgrading our platform from “good” to “great”. We have some great tech already but technology is moving so fast now. One of the reasons I wanted to bring Alex in is because I really want to keep up and be at the forefront of technology, so that we become more like a technology company, not just a company that makes games.”
As CPO, McGinley is in charge of Yggdrasil’s Core games and YG Masters aggregation businesses. While they are essentially run as separate businesses, Curwen is adamant that both are equally important for the long-term success of the company.
“I think that you need to show love to both of them,” he says. “We will be announcing more YG Masters studio partners this year. HungryBear Gaming is one of them and SpinOn is another one that will be producing between 12 and 24 games a year. We have another two or three where we’re in final talks to sign. We’re looking to really enhance our YG Masters program because we have a great reach with our operators, with nearly 800 brands plugged into us.
“We also have a robust platform that’s really good and like I said, Project Phoenix is not about throwing the old one away, but making what we have even better. The last few years, our games have been okay, but they haven’t been blockbusters or spectacular.
“I’m really excited about the new content that’s coming, especially this year,” he adds. “To stand out in the market, you need to have great quality games. People have always thought our art is good, but now we’ve totally rebuilt our UX and UI for our new games, we’re bringing out sequels to some of our best games, and we have remastered some of our really good math models.”
Disruption via Slot Masters
In our interview, Curwen talks a lot about disrupting the industry. While this is easier said than done, he is clearly excited about Yggdrasil’s recent deal with HungryBear Gaming, developer of the massively popular free-to-play multiplayer game Slot Masters. It is essentially peer-to-peer slots, with one player playing against two others in a slot tournament.
“It’s super fun to play and it has massively high engagement,” Curwen continues. “When I was at OPAP, we had it live for a year and had nearly 40% customer loyalty and engagement on that game on a daily basis – something I’ve never seen before. We’ve done a deal with HungryBear to be their exclusive partner for Slot Masters, and we’ll also be launching a real-money version of Slot Masters. It’s a massive deal for us.”
While the free-to-play version of the game has proved to boost traffic for online casino operators, Curwen believes that the real-money version could become more popular than poker.
“So many people don’t play poker anymore because they get eaten by the sharks and they’re playing against computers and everything else, whereas Slot Masters is an RNG. It’s fair, it’s even,” says Curwen. “And what that means is that you get to play a peer-to-peer game for real money in a fair environment. This is real entertainment and an example of disruptive innovation in the market. I’m really proud to say that Yggdrasil will be launching Slot Masters in H1 2024.”
Curwen is also looking to significantly improve Yggdrasil’s marketing efforts by establishing a new YGG23 game release strategy, which will be unveiled at ICE London, and officially kicks off later this month.
“We need to create a story around everything we’re doing,” Curwen says. “From now on, all of our Core games will launch on the 23rd of the month. We just felt it was key to create a space for ourselves in a very congested marketplace, so that operators and players worldwide know exactly when our games are going to go live.”
Rainbow Ryan 2 will be the first game to go live as part of YGG23. It will also be McGinley’s first game release as CPO.
“It’s a fantastic game actually,” says Curwen. “It’s a game that we believe has got massive potential, working on the success of the previous game, which has a significant following.”
As part of its new strategy, the supplier is also introducing a long-term benefit program for operator partners that commit to YGG23.
“Our partners are really important to us, and they should be rewarded for their loyalty,” adds Curwen.
For ICE London next week, Yggdrasil will take over Tapa Tapa – the nearest restaurant to the ExCel Centre – to showcase its new games and content across all three days.
“We’re doing things a little bit differently as it’s the last ICE in London,” says Curwen. “We have a new commercial team and a new commercial director, Jose Kadala, who’s just joined us and brings a lot of energy to the team. They will all be there meeting our clients and showcasing all of the good work that’s going to happen this year.
“We just want people to come in and enjoy themselves, and to realise that Yggdrasil is fighting again and going to be at the forefront of new games coming in 2024,” concludes Curwen. “It’s really important that we use everything to be different and stand out. Not just the games, but the way we market it, and the way that people perceive us. Everything needs to be lifted above the parapet.”
Eleven years after the company first burst onto the scenes, the new Yggdrasil is ready to make its mark.