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Casino game design is lengthy process

When I was younger, and I started to learn how to program computers, my dad used to suggest that I create a new video game. Pac-Man had just made someone out there a lot of money, and it was just a little yellow circle with a mouth eating little dots and running from ghosts. How hard could that be to program?

I had to explain to my dad that programming it wasn’t the challenge. The new idea that people want to play was the real challenge.

It’s nearly four decades later and not much has changed. Now, the challenge is to create a new casino game. How hard can it really be? Look at all the successful ones like Three Card Poker, Mississippi Stud and Ultimate Texas Hold’em.

Coming up with the best table game strategy

Over the years, it has become a bit easier to create one. Twenty years ago, casinos were not out there looking for new games. A few people managed to break the ice and the early games like Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud and Three Card Poker managed to get placed. The fact that these games were even given trials was basically an exception and not the rule.

Today, casinos are receptive to new table games. Each year at the Global Gaming Expo, dozens of new games are on display and they will at least get a look. For every game that will get a trial in a casino there are dozens that never make it that far. For every 50 to 100 that get a trial, maybe one will be a commercial success.

Yet, despite being a long shot, people are trying to invent games at a seemingly record pace. I suppose it’s the large payday that can occur for the lucky inventor who hits the jackpot (not unlike gambling itself). An inventor can easily spend $15,000 to get a game ready to hit the casino. With a rental fee of $1,500 per month, if the game can reach 50 tables per month, the inventor can hope for a $75,000 per month, or nearly $1 million per year revenue stream. You can only imagine how much money a game like Three Card Poker with nearly two thousand tables can bring an inventor.

Besides writing about table games, I consult and perform mathematical and computer analyses of developing games for inventors. One of the first questions that I’m frequently asked is, “What do you think of my game? Is it going to make it big?” Usually, the most I can answer is to tell them if I think their games have any fatal flaws. No one has yet figured out a magical formula for new games.

For those of you who are inclined to try, here a few pieces of advice to make sure your game, at least, has a chance.

Fish in the right pond — I constantly hear from inventors who complain that all the new games are either Poker or Blackjack based. This isn’t because no one ever thought to draw outside these lines. It’s because the games that weren’t based in one of these staples has either not been able to draw any interest from the casino or if it does, it does not do well once it hits the floor. Someday someone will break this mold, but for now, the odds are that much longer if you go outside of these two games. Your odds are long enough, you don’t need to go there.

Keep it simple — This doesn’t mean that the game must have little or no strategy, but you want to use concepts that the average player can comprehend quickly. This is why virtually all of the successful new games are Poker based. Most people who go to a casino have a basic ­understanding of Poker. Develop a game that uses eight new symbols instead of Poker cards, and you’ll likely lose most of your potential players.

The game of Pai Gow Tiles never caught on with the American player because if you pardon the pun, the game was too foreign. Players simply didn’t want to put in the effort to learn the rules. When the basic concepts of the game were converted to Pai Gow Poker using cards, the game became a huge success.

Use standard casino items — You want to make sure your game uses standard casino equipment to operate. The idea of using a 65-card deck with a fifth suit might make for a great game, but exactly where are you going to get cards printed up this way in sufficient quantity for the casinos?

Remember as well that the casinos like their logos on items like cards. If securing the equipment to play the game becomes a problem, the casinos will simply pick other games that are easier to deal with. In similar fashion, make sure the game plays on a standard casino table (usually a blackjack table). If your game requires the space of two blackjack tables, it had better bring in as much money as two other table games.

Also, by taking up more space, it makes it harder for the casino to be flexible. If it wants to add another table, it may have to rearrange more space than it wants to, which means they’re going to choose something else.

Make sure the math is right — There is not a respectable casino in the world that will put your game on their floor unless they see the math on the game. In some jurisdictions, there is a gaming commission that approves the game, which includes the math. In others, if you bring the math to the casino and they like the game, the table can be in within days or weeks. In both cases, they will look over the math.

The casinos do not like games in which the player loses too quickly. They want games that give the player a fighting chance. A successful casino game is not only one with the right overall payback, but the right win frequency and the right volatility to create some excitement and enough winning sessions for the player to want to come back again and bring his friends with him.

Even if you are capable of doing this analysis yourself, my advice is to get an independent analysis done. The casinos are more likely to believe someone without a vested interest.

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Patents and trademarks — I certainly will not claim to be any sort of expert on patent protection. I have always told my clients this. A few years ago, a change was made at the patent office that makes getting a patent on a table game nearly impossible. Ironically, one of the things that might make it possible is to violate my earlier rule about using standard casino items.

If you create a deck that can be patented, then you in essence get around this new problem. Without a patent, there is nothing stopping someone else from copying your game, giving it a new name and trying to sell it to casinos for half as much as you are.

The good news is that the success rate of new games is so low that it really isn’t worth it for someone to do this until your game shows it can succeed. Hopefully by this point, your game and its name have made an indelible mark on the casino floor and casinos and players will want to play the game under the name you created.

You can still trademark your game name and this has become an important part of the process with patents being out of reach.

Using the elements I described above will not guarantee your game success, but it will more likely avoid the fatal flaws that can make sure it has a quick death. Then again, as I said earlier, nobody has yet figured out the magical formula that makes a game a successful one, so perhaps the next big game will be the one that breaks all the molds.