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Waiting For Innovation

Most casino games are derivative. When can we expect something really different?

Waiting For Innovation

Industry legend Dr. Mark Yoseloff raised a few people’s eyebrows—not to mention a few people’s blood pressure—when he claimed during last month’s Global Gaming Expo that casino suppliers haven’t done anything truly innovative in a long, long, long time.

Like, since the Jurassic Period.

Well, OK, that’s an exaggeration. It’s only been since the Cretaceous.

Paleogeographical wisecracks aside, the last instance of someone in gaming having a wiz-bang, non-derivative concept was in the mid-2000s, according to Yoseloff, who is best known for being CEO and chairman of the board at Shuffle Master in, uh, the mid-2000s.

Yoseloff, 70, currently serves as executive director of the Center for Gaming Innovation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he teaches college students how to create product for casinos. That is, of course, when he’s not standing on stage and throwing down gauntlets—like Donkey Kong throwing down barrels—which is exactly what happened during a fiery 20-minute presentation on the floor of the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.

“I challenge anyone to name a casino product in the last 10 years that’s been truly innovative,” Yoseloff said to a large and attentive crowd. “Name it.”

No one did.

As you would expect, word quickly ricocheted around the convention that the past was bad-mouthing the present. And the immediate future, for that matter, as Yoseloff said none of the new products on display made him think the trend of treading water would abate anytime soon.

“I’m talking about something that addresses the unserved and underserved customers,” Yoseloff said. “This isn’t about a new slot game for slot players or a new table game for table game players. This is about coming up with something to attract a person who doesn’t currently gamble in a casino.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff, especially when you consider the guy up there before him was goofing around with audience members, using their suggestions to quilt together some sort of bonus bet for blackjack.

But take it from someone who was in the peanut gallery that day, Yoseloff’s message was more of a rallying call than a dressing down. And it certainly wasn’t old-fogey, get-off-my-lawn, Statler-and-Waldorf-style complaining for complaining’s sake. Yoseloff may not have come to praise casino suppliers, but he didn’t come to bury them either.

Consider the semantics. At the beginning of this TED-style talk, Yoseloff defined certain terms to mean certain things. He used “innovation” in the transformational sense, as in an idea that alters not only the way a business operates but also the customers it attracts. His historical examples for our world included the advent of dice games (3000 B.C.), card games (800 A.D.), roulette wheels (1700), slot machines (1900), proprietary table games (1988), and electronic table games (1990).

So, what you saw at G2E: the dice games, the card games, the roulette wheels, the slot machines, the proprietary table games, and the electronic table games. Are they improvements? Yes. Are they advancements? Absolutely. Are they enhancements? Most definitely.

But are they innovations? Not even close, bud. (At least that’s what he said.)

Yoseloff implored manufacturers big and small, old and new, to shed the same-old-same product paradigms. Absent that, he said, casinos would continue their trend of being a shriveling piece of the overall resort experience.

This tough-love message was undoubtedly too tough for everyone to love, but the question remains: Is he right? Are gaming suppliers playing it too safe? Is innovation dead? Does he have a point?

Of course he has a point. Up to a point, anyway.

Yoseloff is correct in saying most new devices at G2E were more evolutionary than revolutionary. But that’s typically the case with any mature industry. What’s an iPod if not an evolved version of the Walkman? What’s a Tesla Model S with Ludicrous Mode if not an evolved version of a 1972 AMC Pacer? (Damn, that car was fugly.) And what’s a 70-inch, curved, 4K ultra-high-definition television that streams Netflix over your home Wi-Fi if not an evolved version of a rabbit-eared, black-and-white Philco your mom kept on the kitchen counter?

One man’s derivation is another man’s innovation.

Let the etymologists argue over what word means what, but from my vantage point, there was plenty of wild and crazy stuff at the show to get excited about. Here’s a taste: 1) Gamblit and other companies staked their claims in the skill-based gold rush; 2) One table game supplier had two mechanisms to let players bet on other people’s hands; 3) Several slot manufacturers showed customers their visions of the future through

innovation labs; and 4) There was an electronic baccarat game being dealt by a robot.

Tell you what: whether you agree or disagree with Yoseloff, you’ve got to give him huzzahs for his chutzpa. To stand tall in the belly of the beast and shake your first with such defiance takes a level of conviction (see: cojones, brass) that’s in scant supply these days. Particularly during trade shows, where controversy and muckraking curtsey out of the way to make room for butt-kissing and networking.

Besides, even if Yoseloff is 100 percent correct, suppliers can still chillax. At least for a bit. If you accept the evolutionary chronology referenced during his presentation, there have only been six inflection points for gambling innovation since 3000 B.C. That’s one every 833 years. Therefore, the next great innovation isn’t due until about, oh, 2823.

My money’s on the “under.”

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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