EiG Launchpad Q&A: Black Cow – an open plan

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Black Cow’s technical pedigree couldn’t be more steeped in gaming and gambling. It’s founder Max Francis has been working within the sector since 1999, working first with Orbis (now OpenBet) before moving to found his own technology start-up. His product, a gaming architecture system Black Cow calls OGA (Open Gaming Architecture) that comes with its own games development kit (GDK), provides for the first time an open source option for an industry which is increasingly tied to dated monolithic technology stacks. It is revolutionary – speaking to Francis is like listening to a gaming tech evangelist – and has the potential to thoroughly break the mould for games developers and operators alike. Its modular system allows features to be added without having to change the entire architecture – and it can be handed over to the licensee for them to maintain and modify it if they wish. And because it is designed as an open platform, all other systems can be built around it and interface with it. It clearly takes some explaining – there are no shortcuts here to understanding this technology – but Francis does a good job of putting the case for why Black Cow’s product might just answer some of the bigger questions that are confronting the games industry right now.

GamCrowd: When did you first enter the games industry?
Max Francis:
I’m a complete techie, a programmer by trade. Early in my career I looked for a job in web development and found Orbis (later OpenBet) in October 1999. It happened to be working with betting. The company was just 20 people. It was just fascinating. It was a really exciting and pioneering place. People were starting to do interesting things on web sites – sports-betting for Ladbrokes, Paddy Power and early Sky Bet - and the opportunities were just massive. Everything we did opened up 10 other things which could be developed. It was pretty much from scratch. Orbis had to build its own tool kit – the application server, log-in utility, database communication, the lot.

GamCrowd: And you progressed as the Orbis business grew?
Max Francis:
Yes, I became quality manager for Orbis, introducing more process, and after that, an opportunity came up in pre-sales – the technical side of the sales process. Then in 2007 they needed someone to manage the partners – which was anyone connecting to the OpenBet platform, whether it was games developers, or people integrating RGSs into the OpenBet platform, or external products.

GamCrowd: So let’s get around to why you started Black Cow – what was the opportunity that you spotted?
Max Francis:
I’d been looking to start a software company for some time, and in my spare time had kept up my programming skills and kept up with technology. So, one of the things that allowed Black Cow to start was the enterprise-standard open source tools that you get for free nowadays. Whereas before you had to invent things yourself, now you get everything for free. Database, web interfaces, code, enterprise grade things with loads of support libraries. That’s when I started having ideas – that using Python’s modularity, you could redesign a game server from the ground up. Everything in the industry had become very monolithic and very legacy. A huge code base that was very hard to change. This is why innovation has become so stifled over the past 10 years – because it is so expensive to change this monolithic old software.

GamCrowd: What is different about OGA?
Max Francis:
If a game is built on OGA, it is compatible with all versions of OGA. This is what is different. It splits out the game engine entirely from the OGA architecture. there wasn’t a game server system available which treated game engines as completely independent entities carrying their own encapsulated functionality - and this is the key to innovation. OGA enables game developers to create their own features and game libraries without having to share them with other game developers. What OGA does is it makes the engine completely self-contained. The engine just returns its own game state back to OGA in its own format. OGA just serialises that. OGA stores blobs of game state in the database, and then it asks the engine how to render that data to the client. OGA doesn’t need to understand the internals of how a game works.

GamCrowd: So at what stage are you with getting clients on board and what are your target markets?
Max Francis:
We’ve signed heads of terms with two companies but it’s been slow. For someone to take on a games server, it’s a big thing to switch if they already have one. If they have one, they usually have a few. And if they don’t have one, they have to get licensed and sort out an operation. It’s a big thing. It’s not trivial. The most obvious client for us is a game supplier who wants to take control of their own game server. Another thing OGA allows is a micro-RGS, which is where you can install an RGS containing your product into the data centre of your customer. Say an operator wants a bunch of games; you can put a server in their rack. That’s a possibility now, because it is a much smaller technical footprint without extra software costs. It’s much more manageable software that you can install anywhere.

GamCrowd: Do you think OGA goes some way to answering some of the questions with regard to the lack of innovation in games?
Max Francis:
For sure! The message we are trying to get across is that there is a genuine GDK here that allows you to do anything and allows you to be in control yourself. In control of your production line. Or you can allow other game developers to build games on your OGA just be giving them the development kit.

GamCrowd: So it might help bring an end to the endless re-treads of certain themes?
Max Francis:
Yes, that happens because when it is so hard to build new features, no one will take the financial risk of doing so, so the next best thing is to recycle what has worked before. We are taking away the financial risk.

GamCrowd: How do you think the games market will develop in the next few years? Is this a new era we’re entering?
Max Francis:
Yes, I think so, if people embrace these tools. The industry has managed to ignore technical trends before, but there is more pressure now. This is a genuine GDK that actually exists and works. It’s the hardest message – that this system does things differently and really does the stuff we say it can do. It’s like describing the modern world to flat-earthers.