Can you still launch a profitable standalone Internet poker site in today's world of large networks and the preoccupation with player liquidity? Gioco Digitale, a Cyberarts-powered poker site in the Italian market says you can, and points to its success so far in the Italian real-money online poker market.
Within the first month of going operational a spokesman claims the company passed the 10 000 concurrent player mark and ranks reasonably highly among the poker leaders in terms of tournament liquidity. The Italian market has surpassed all expectations, he said, and the government has recently upped its forecast for revenues in the first year of legalised online poker.
In the months preceding its real-money launch Gioco gained strong brand recognition and an immediate leadership position in the market, supporting over 50,000,000 play hands and 1.5 million tournament hands to prove the software, thus empowering its success in the transition to real-money play.
The brainchild of Internet entrepreneur Carlo Gualandri, who founded Italy's largest internet portal, Virgilio, Gioco Digitale claims it was the first of its type on the Italian market. It initially took some courage as the Italian authorities yo-yoed between online poker prohibition and regulation, but the gamble paid off in the end when the government decided on the sensible course of legalisation.
Gioco Digitale already had a suite of online betting and lottery products, but on hearing the Italian government was going to legalise skill games to include online backgammon, blackjack and poker, Gualandri knew it was time to execute his ambitious plans: "We want to be a serious player in online gaming in Italy. We can't do that in the sports betting market, because, whilst not yet mature, the market is sufficiently saturated that barriers to entry are high," commented Gualandri. "Poker, on the other hand, is fresh in Italy. There are no established Italian brands so it is an ideal environment for us to launch in."
Gioco Digitale's servers had to be located within Italy; every single tournament has to be approved by the government; and only players in Italy can be permitted into tournaments, and the choice of software was therefore crucial. And in addition to the government's caveats, Gualandri, being a keen technologist, wanted to be able to add to modify, customise and integrate functions within a gaming logic that was reliable and robust.
"We decided early on that we would control our technology," said, adding: "We always had in previous ventures so saw no issue with managing and developing it ourselves." It was going to be a tough task setting up Italy's first poker site in such strict conditions, but one that Gualandri was eager to take on.
To achieve Gioco Digitale's vision, Gualandri required a core gaming engine to integrate into their own system: "We evaluated 'make' versus 'buy' options for our technology platform," Gualandri reveals. "But in order to offer a high end product, we realised it would be better to rely on a company who had experience of igaming markets that are much more developed than Italy and our own expertise." After assessing several suppliers, he chose Cyberarts for the task of helping him create a standalone operation.
"I felt there was an affinity of values, goals and culture," he recalls.
CyberArts VP of Engineering, Rudi Diezmann, expanded on the government's requirements: "Italian law requires player verification in real time," he explained. "Within thirty seconds of the table going live, Gioco Digitale needs to have had permission from the authorities that the tournament can begin. If for some reason that permission cannot be given, a message pops up on the screen to say the table has been cancelled and that the players should try again later."
"Whilst this was a new request for CyberArts, it was not beyond our scope, as our platform has provisions to talk between servers. In the States, for example, CyberArts is used to asking servers for permission in regards to subscription based gaming."
In May 2008, four months after development first began, Gioco Digitale launched the first Italian based and owned poker site in an initiative that went off flawlessly. But because the Italian government was not yet up to technological speed, activities had to be confined to play-for-fun.
"I was very happy with the launch. It was flawless," states Gualandri. "In terms of the platform, the site had all the functionality and management of processes required for the real pay-to-play site."
Having conquered one challenge in keeping the Italian authorities happy, Diezmann was surprised to see he had another unusual request to build into the gaming logic that would heighten the customisation of Gioco Digitale's product.
"Gualandri asked us to incorporate the ability for the player to see the best possible hand based on whole cards and community cards," recalls Diezmann. "So when a player mouses over their hole cards, the software computes the best possible hand at that moment for the player. This is done at the flop." He continues, "It can be disabled by the player with a simple check box option."
Gualandri explains why this feature is attractive for the inexperienced Italian poker market: "We had a rich road map of announcements and modifications that needed to be programmed because Italians, whilst curious, are not used to Poker in the same way as Americans, the Swedish or British." He goes on to explain, "In the next version, we will add a feature that shows the player how and why a person won. It's part of the education that, with the help of CyberArts, will make our product stand out."
Market reaction to Gioco Digitale's poker offering has pleased its founders. "Player response has been much better than expected," Gualandri states proudly. "We closed the second month of operation with 30 000 registered users." He is not fazed by the challenge of converting these players into real cash customers. "Assuming the regulatory process goes to plan, we hope to have 100 000 registered users in the first six months of our offering and to be able to convert a significant part to money gaming" Gualandri predicts.
With marketing targets ahead of schedule, Gioco Digitale has already had to spec up the size of its tournaments as it is already experiencing fully booked seats. "For me this could not have been achieved without the flexibility, scalability and robust nature of the software provider," says Gualandri, before concluding modestly, "We understand the internet and have been responsible for some of the most recognisable online brands in Italy. Creating a poker site, however, within the restrictions set out by the Italian government and our own peculiar requirements could have been a nightmare! By choosing CyberArts, the process was extraordinarily smooth. And we are very pleased with our status as Italy's first poker site!"