Playtech’s compliance chief Ian Ince tells Hannah Gannagé-Stewart how the platform’s BetBuddy acquisition is transforming not only its own approach to responsible gambling but also that of other industry players
Playtech’s acquisition of behavioural analytics start-up BetBuddy in October preceded a period of heightened rhetoric about responsible gambling and its implications for the survival of the sector.
Later that month the Gambling Commission (GC) and the Advertising Standards Agency cracked down on online gambling firms’ use of images that could appeal to children. The newspapers hyped the story as being tantamount to operators deliberately targeting underage punters, although the relevant authorities accepted that this was unlikely to be the intention.
In November, the GC warned operators to review their terms and conditions to ensure they weren’t unfairly affecting consumers and, at GambleAware’s 5th Annual Harm-Minimisation Conference on 6 December, the charity’s chair Kate Lampard said an erosion of public trust now posed “a serious existential threat” to the industry.
Seen and heard
As head of regulatory affairs and compliance at Playtech, Ian Ince is all too aware of the mounting pressure to demonstrate the industry’s work in this area.
“We’re looking at being the catalyst and saying, ‘Look, guys, we’re going in this direction, this is what we’re actually proposing, do you want to come along and play?’” he says of Playtech’s overall strategy, of which BetBuddy is one very well-timed part.
“BetBuddy has been a useful door opener,” he says. “It’s made people wake up and think, ‘Well, actually, we’ll talk to Playtech.’ Previously, people didn’t recognise the role we had to play when we tried to engage on responsible gambling features.”
Ince says alongside the seven-figure acquisition of Simo Dragicevic’s AI tech company and six-strong team, Playtech has been doing a lot of complementary work on responsible gaming, such as collaborating with charities, sponsoring research, and genuinely trying to put responsible gaming at the forefront of its strategy.
The business is working on thought leadership exercises in and outside the industry, has investigated the alcohol, tobacco and finance industries, and is hoping to steer a co-ordinated industry response.
Historically, Ince says, the tier 1 licensees that use Playtech’s technology have been unwilling to collaborate on cross-industry responsible gambling initiatives but, after the BetBuddy acquisition, they proactively got in touch.
“My team is co-ordinating a project that will pull together a number of the tier 1 licensees in doing some research,” he says. “Two years ago, if I went to them and asked them to commit time and money to a Playtech-led initiative, they probably would have laughed at me.”
However, the BetBuddy acquisition has changed the conversation. And that’s because the software that Playtech is busy integrating with its own platform will enable operators not only to identify problem gamblers, but predict those who might be at risk.
Currently, problem gamblers are identified retrospectively, and often via labour-intensive and long-winded methods. As Ince says: “Because problem gambling is looked for in hindsight, it is after punters have slipped that you discover gambling issues.”
The sophisticated AI algorithm that comprises BetBuddy’s technology should enable accurate predictions, so that Playtech licensees can intervene with warnings or suggestions of more benign games before a consumer has been harmed by their product.
A flexible roadmap
With all the noise and negative attention focused on the subject over the last few months, it’s no wonder that Playtech’s customers are chomping at the bit, but Ince is not rushing things.
“The purchase was done on a three-year earn-out. So the key milestones for Simo to hit are within that three-year period. Content, for example, was plugged in as a deliverable within 24 months, but has been pulled forward.
So, in the next 18 months we’re looking at having something in and around games content and also the full integration into the Playtech platform. But it’s technology, there’s a lot going on, there are a lot of pressures,” he says.
The first job is to integrate the software with Playtech’s wealth of player data, which should gradually make BetBuddy’s prediction capabilities second to none.
“We want to test it properly, we don’t just want to plug it in and throw it out there. It’s got to work, we’ve got to test it, we’ve got to make sure because, ultimately, we’re dealing with vulnerable people,” he explains.
Playtech has already piloted the system with some of its brands, and run trials alongside the platform’s manual systems. Ince says the results showed strong matches on self-exclusion, changes in betting patterns and which players showed signs of developing a problem.
He’s coy about how the system may be monetised in future, saying the acquisition was never directly about seeing a return on investment. “It’s not about selling it on to customers as a bespoke toolset. At this point in time, we plan to integrate it with our platform, but also do other activities around games content, as well as using analytics to identify problem gamblers,” he says.
But he says the number of enquiries after the news broke of the acquisition is testament to the commercial value of having such powerful technology at his disposal. “They see it as a plug-and-play solution to the AI issue and they tick a box with the Gambling Commission,” he says.
“The next commercial steps and whether we sell that as a standalone remains to be seen. The deal was done from a responsible gambling perspective, with a view to realising Playtech’s vision of becoming the most responsible gambling platform globally.”
Ince has been close to the ongoing debate about how best to defend consumers from the risk of problem gambling. In December, during the GambleAware conference, he and 18 other high-profile members of the industry met to discuss the issue.
It is set to be a defining feature of 2018 for igaming companies and will be one of Playtech’s key messages at ICE next month.
Ince wants to see a more productive dialogue between the GC, gambling charities and the industry and is alarmed by the often adversarial tone of regulators.
“I appreciate the industry needs to do more but it is doing more than it ever has. My view is that the industry is not joined-up in the work it is doing and it’s rubbish at communicating the works it is doing,” he explains.
“With a few notable exceptions, and I include Playtech in that, the industry hasn’t done as much as it could have done. Which means change is slow and the expectation of the GC is that we should be moving a hell of a lot faster.
“I have some sympathy for that but if you look at what the GC’s put on our plate since the POC came out – numerous consultations, changes to the RGS, changes to LCCP – there has been a lot to plough through and their approach is a lot more confrontational than it ever was.”
Meanwhile, Playtech’s integration of BetBuddy and its overtures to the industry to become more collaborative in defence of its consumers may just be the kick-start igaming needs to redefine its reputation on responsible gambling.