A couple of weeks ago, I two days walking the halls of the Sands Expo at the Global Gaming Expo. If I had to pick one word to describe the event, it would definitely be "SLOTS". Like last year, I think they dominated the show. For those who have been reading me for years, you know my thoughts on Slots from a Player's perspective. But, I do give the slot manufacturer's a lot of credit for creativity. This year, they kept it up, not only in the games that are being developed, but in terms of the marketing. There were zombies everywhere. I'm not sure if there was only one manufacturer who had a zombie themed game or if there was more than one. But there were a lot of zombies in some really good make-up all over the halls.
As much as I write about video poker in my column, my real love is table games and that's what I'm at the show to really see. This year, brought a particular trend to its apex (or perhaps more appropriate, its nadir). Besides the three big table game companies (SHFL, Galaxy and DEQ), there were virtually no new table games. I did see a couple of other new games, but they were almost afterthoughts from gaming companies involved in other aspects. I saw exactly ZERO small independent game inventors showing any new games. I recognize that the cost of a booth at the G2E is not cheap and could easily wipe out the budget of a small inventor, but I always found it fun to talk to someone new about their game. I didn't get a chance this year.
I did get introduced to a few inventors who did not have booths at the game who wanted to talk to me about their ideas. I find that most ideas seem to fall into two categories. The first is the rather 'far-fetched' category. These are ideas that aren't necessarily bad, but I have to wonder about their odds of commercial success. One inventor remarked to me about how all the casino games are poker-based. He found this to be problematic. I find this to be indicative of what is likely to be successful commercially. It is NOT that games that are not poker based haven't been invented and tried, it is that none have ever had the staying power in the casino. Some might be fun and social for a few hours, but they don't seem to have the ability to create repeat customers the way poker-based games do.
The second common category of games are the copycats. People look at a game like Three Card Poker, which is undeniably the most successful proprietary table game (both financially and in terms of number of tables) and try to emulate it in some way. Now, many table games have some form of patent protection on them (many do not!). But I am not talking about copying to the point of patent violation. I'm simply saying that people look at Three Card Poker as some magic formula and try to replicate it. You know this is happening when they begin describing their game with "It is just like Three Card Poker but......."
For the past several years, the casinos have been going through a Texas Hold'em craze. While I think it has peaked overall, it has still left a lasting impression. Games that might have been developed as 7-card Stud games are being developed with 5 community cards in Texas Hold'em style. After the dust settled, there are currently 2 very successful Texas Hold'em table games. The first is Texas Hold'em Bonus Poker - developed by Mikohn/PGIC and purchased by SHFL Entertainment a few years ago, and Ultimate Texas Hold'em - developed directly by SHFL. I did the original math on UTH for SHFL. It was by far the most challenging game I had ever worked on to that point and perhaps since. It was also one of the most rewarding because of the success it has become. It is generally acknowledged as the 2nd most successful game of all-time with several hundred tables in the market place and is the only game on the horizon that has any chance to knock Three Card Poker out of the number 1 spot.
Like Three Card Poker, one of the surest signs of the success of UTH is how many times I have heard the phrase in the past few years from an inventor, "It is just like Ultimate, but....." There is an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I guess if everyone is trying to create a game just like UTH, then UTH must be a pretty darn good game. Is it possible to improve upon Three Card Poker or UTH? I suppose it is possible. But, 15-20 years after the invention of Three Card Poker, it is not a minor improvement to Three Card Poker that might take it out of the top spot. It is a game that while still poker-based, introduce many new concepts. It is a game that has more uniqueness to it than similarity to Three Card Poker. I think if someone wants to knock UTH out of the number 2 spot, it won't happen because someone tweaks UTH, it will be happen because someone comes up with a new and better idea.
To all the inventors out there, don't think of new ways to flatter the existing games by imitating them. Come up with new games with new ideas if you want to make your mark.