When Bluberi Gaming scored two awards in the Eilers & Krejcik Gaming Slot Awards early this year, it may have seemed to some like the company came out of nowhere. Bluberi had been well-known around its Drummondville, Quebec home base as a Class II supplier, but as recently as three years ago, the company was relatively unknown in the U.S.
But not to Andrew Burke.
Burke, in his former role as senior vice president of slot products for Las Vegas-based supplier AGS, became familiar with the Canadian supplier when AGS served as the exclusive U.S. distributor of Bluberi slots. Burke knew quality when he saw it, and Bluberi’s Drummondville R&D team delivered it consistently. So when he was offered the job of chief executive officer of Bluberi, he jumped at the chance to translate what was at the time 25 years of success in Class II markets into Class III success in U.S. markets and beyond.
It was a challenge with which he was familiar. At AGS, he had been central in the effort to grow the company from another small Class II company into a force in the U.S. slot market. In January 2020, he took the reins at Bluberi intent on creating another transformation.
Burke established a Las Vegas headquarters for Bluberi, while leaving the team in Drummondville “to flourish as a center of excellence,” he says. Burke then added veteran talent to work with that team in creating Bluberi’s transformation. In June 2020, Burke brought in slot supply veteran Casey Whalen as Bluberi’s new chief commercial officer.
In 2021, more veterans were added to the Bluberi team. Steven Kohon was brought in to handle Bluberi sales in the West, Mesa Whitehurst for the East. Kohon has since been elevated to Bluberi’s executive vice president of operations and service, and Whitehurst now runs all of sales.
That same year, Bluberi added former IGT veterans Mike Brennan and Christian Smith. Brennan is now Bluberi’s chief product officer. Smith is senior director of product and marketing. IGT and Scientific Games veteran Keith Hughes was then added to start up a studio in Reno.
Meanwhile in Quebec, a core team of key leaders was building diverse skill sets—people like Carl Nadeau, Benoit LaPolice, Fred Gilbert, and Eric Beaudoin. It was learning at warp speed through two decades of peaks and valleys. “We joke that a Bluberi year is really 1.5 regular years,” Burke says, “because of the high-stakes environment we’ve all experienced and the pace to answer that sense of urgency.”
These U.S. and Canadian teams working in concert was the reason Bluberi landed awards for Top Performing Game from an Emerging Supplier for its Devil’s Lock game and Most Improved Supplier at this year’s EKG Awards. And while it may have been perceived as overnight success by some, the fact that Devil’s Lock and other Bluberi games have consistently performed above house average and land in the Eilers top 10 performing slots repeatedly is no fluke. It is, rather, the result of a meticulous, multi-phased growth plan that executives predict will catapult Bluberi into the top echelon of slot suppliers.
The Five-Act Play
Burke and Brennan describe the ongoing Bluberi story as a “five-act play.” And don’t leave yet; we’re only in Act Three.
The first act was the history of quality and earnings of the original Canadian business. “The business was started in Drummondville, Quebec (in 1994) with an eye to being a technology-focused, game-focused studio,” Burke says. “And they attracted a fanatical group of folks that were really dedicated to the best quality, and to pushing the edge at the time on technology, particularly on the Class II side of the business.”
According to Burke, Bluberi was one of the original Class II suppliers in the Canadian market, and had established several hit games by the early 2000s. Ultimately, that led to the distribution deal with AGS.
The core of the Drummondville team is still at the company. “Their loyalty and determination have bred this recent success,” says Burke. “They were starting their careers in that time, and cutting their teeth and learning a lot of really great things in those early days. But what it has done to the nucleus of this business was to establish a culture that is really focused on developing 100 percent player-focused fun games and being creative.
“Creativity within confines sometimes breeds next-level thinking, and, that’s really how the team started. And a couple of years later they really started to dive into Class III.”
When Burke arrived, the company was seeking to recover from missteps that had led Bluberi to declare bankruptcy. In addition to gathering talent, Burke oversaw the launch of new game development studios. A second Drummondville studio was added to the original studio, and a new studio was established in Reno. This year, a fourth studio was established in Moncton, New Brunswick.
The team complete, Bluberi established its first mega-hit with Devil’s Lock, a unique game on the Novus Series b49 cabinet featuring a cash-on-reels bonus and several mystery events hosted by the game’s devil character, which is rapidly becoming a signature character for Bluberi itself.
The die for Bluberi has been cast, and what Burke now calls Act Two, “The Turnaround,” is complete. Now it’s time for Act Three, “The Growth.”
Brennan notes that the growth plan for Bluberi going forward will succeed because of the team, product and market-entry plans formed to this point. “What has happened in the past has given us that strong foundation, so we’ve been spending a lot of time on Act Three, which is growth,” Brennan says.
Burke says what will make Act Three work is the ability of Bluberi’s diverse team to work together. In putting together a team that would produce effectively between the various studio and administrative teams, he says, “It was important to find people I knew would fit into our culture here and be able to work collaboratively. That was one of my biggest criteria—I just want a team that works really collaboratively.”
Brennan adds that throughout Bluberi’s operations, team members have been able to adapt their unique experiences to new roles, in the interest of achieving the best overall results.
“We like to use the phrase, ‘aptitude and attitude over experience,’” Brennan says. He offers Kohon’s transition from sales to operations as an example. “I don’t know how many service and ops leaders have a background in sales,” he says. “It’s a huge advantage for Steve to have understanding and empathy for the end user, the customer.
“Then, there are a lot of examples over in Drummondville with talent rising across functions. Benoit Lapolice is the vice president of game development and R&D. He came up through quality assurance. Again, I don’t think that’s too commonplace. In fact, most of us have taken on stretch roles. So I think we’ve been able to really find people that have the drive and the aptitude rather than check a box with specific experience. And they’ve really flourished in these different roles.”
“We wanted to find people that had a lot of capacity and could really take on a lot of different tasks, and had a different set of experiences,” adds Burke. “We’ve all come from different companies. Casey and Steve worked together in the past, but before that, Casey worked at Bally, Mike at IGT and Atronic. And, we’ve had a ton of different perspectives as we’ve approached the business, all coming together to create a superpower.”
If performance data is any indicator, Bluberi’s growth phase is well under way. The company quadrupled revenue from 2021 to 2023. In addition to the big numbers turned in by Devil’s Lock, the company’s b49 cabinet is now earning 1.75 times house average across a significant sample size.
According to Brennan, those numbers are no accident. Rather, they are the result of strong creative talent and an analytical approach to game design.
“When you look at our product roadmap, it is tied to data,” Brennan says. “We’ve used this term ‘datagility.’ I think we’re in a world that is overinvested in data and analytics, but I think what is unique about us is we’re willing and set up to act upon that data quickly. The people who are moving product forward are listening to it.”
Utilizing the concept in game design, Bluberi uses data on current game performance to reasonably predict game features that most likely are to resonate with players and translate into strong game performance. Brennan calls it “predictive performance.”
“We are working on a 45-point predictive performance model,” he explains. “We’re trying to understand how a game could perform in the field as we’re developing it, before we’re releasing it, to plan our product roadmap. Agility really helps us understand and fine-tune our predictive instincts.”
Brennan says data and research also help create the best sequels and spinoffs to popular games. “It leads to us understanding how a game might perform and helps us understand how we’ll handle a sequel or a game on that same track,” he says. “There’s an intangible element, but there are really four elements to what we’re looking at: Will players try it? Then, how long are they going to stay? Is their session going to be really short; are we going to engage them in that moment that we have them? Can we attract heavy-hitters, and are they going to come back?”
“Our predictive approach has really raised the floor on game performance,” adds Burke. “Our worst game that we’ve put out in the last year has done over house average, and while we haven’t guaranteed ourselves that we can recreate Devil’s Lock every time, the odds are much more in our favor.”
Brennan says Bluberi never develops clones of games, and will not create game pairs. They “sequelize” the strongest games, he says, while taking the strongest game mechanics and features and creating games along what they call the same “tracks”—they are creating new games from tried-and-true mechanics, and even signature characters from their popular games.
“We’re developing on tracks, and some of those tracks highlight a couple of features,” Brennan says. “We need more content, but paradoxically, we are not going to do any clones. We want to be focused, and we would rather sequelize or create what we call ‘de-clone-structions.’ That’s where we feel we can get an edge, because there’s a long story on the track record of clones, and we feel there’s a similar story evolving on the true value of game pairs. We believe that evolving games, breaking them down and building them up with some twists is a better solution.”
“When your biggest competitors spend 70 times what you spend on R&D, you’ve got to be very thoughtful about game design,” adds Burke. “The puzzle Mike and team get to try to solve every week is, how do we get more with less? So, we talk about creativity within confines. It causes us to try to be really clever all the time, and very focused on reusing assets, getting some efficiency into the process. And I think it’s paying off.”
With the success of Devil’s Lock, expect Bluberi to follow this thoughtful approach on a follow-up.
“No shock; we’re working on Devil’s Lock sequels,” Brennan says. “We think we’ve got something there, and the value of this company hinges upon our ability to sequelize and spin off our IP, with our characters even making cameos within tracks. And considering the Bluberi character itself, we have a very unique brand around our character, our mascot.
“(The character) will show up before big wins, and is a part of a giant win celebrations that are rare and legendary—that Instagrammable moment. We’re leaning into the brand and we’re trying develop our characters and our art. We are letting our art talent and our games—that’s really our lifeblood—take center stage.”
Brennan says the company will reveal a name for the company mascot at Global Gaming Expo.
While Bluberi’s growth has “been on the backs of some really amazing game performance,” says Burke, much of it owes to the culture created by top management and filtering through the entire team.
“Culture being the bedrock for us, we’ve talked about the people here, but we’ve really tried to lean into how we invest in our employees and really get the best out of those employees,” Burke says. “We’ve recently hired a vice president of HR (Jenn Bauer) who’s had a ton of tremendous experience throughout the business. She’s just started with us, and one of her big tasks will be, how do we create a six-star experience for our employees?
“We want this to be a place where they do their best work. We’re adding many employees to support the growth, so we’ve got to make sure we have a good foundation for all, and that we’re empowering employees to make decisions at all levels in the business—to make sure that they can seamlessly do their jobs without having to go through a ton of red tape, which I think is one of the things that turns off a lot of folks at bigger companies and may make us a more attractive place to be.
“At other companies, easy things are difficult to do because of bureaucracy. At our company, the things we have to do are hard, but they’re easier to get done. I really think that encapsulates a lot of our culture, and it’s also what we want our culture to continue to be as we go into this growth phase of the business.”
Bluberi’s Act Four will be to maximize the potential of that growth by spreading the company’s footprint. And there is a lot of greenfield space ahead. The company’s current jurisdictions comprise 35-40 percent of all available markets, according to Whalen. “We’re not in Nevada—120,000 slots—not in New Jersey, Pennsylvania. I head up the licensing and compliance committee, but I work in concert with key stakeholders in all different verticals.
“We ask, what makes sense for us? What’s the next place we need to go setting ourselves up for success, making sure that the roadmap marries to the things we’re doing here internally and how we want to grow the business thoughtfully? Do we have the people in place from an infrastructure standpoint? Can we service the games there?”
The company has a clearly defined plan for spreading its footprint. “We’re going after the big licenses,” Whalen says. “Nevada is expected in 2024. New Jersey is lined up for 2025. Our plan is to be in 90 percent of all of North America by 2026.”
“Our growth is very attainable,” adds Brennan. “We can keep scaling what we’re doing, and as we open up more places, we have a fresh start. And so Casey’s team is really hitting hard. And we’ve got some aggressive targets on where we want to be by 2026.”
Adds Kohon, “The great thing with awesome game performance and a great sales team moving product is we now have to build all that product and get it installed, and make sure it goes well with the customer. I’ve spent a career listening to customers in the sales role, so I really jumped into the operations and service verticals customer-first.
“I understand the expectations of our customers on an install. I’m taking the customer perspective back to who are the most important people in the industry—our customers and the players.”
“This growth plan, Act Three, is extremely detailed,” says Brennan. “We planned everything bottom-up and top-down leading to 2026. It’s ambitious, but it’s achievable. And that makes it super special. So, we’re right in the middle of it.”
Act Four will conclude when Bluberi’s footprint is all over the slot sector. Act Five? “It’s open, and it could be anything,” Burke says. “We could focus on more verticals, make an industry acquisition—who knows? We’re keeping it open and looking forward to an exciting future.
“I think we’re going to really surprise people. People didn’t see us coming, and I still think they’re not going to see what’s coming next. There’s a lot more to come from our little company.”