Turning 21 in Las Vegas tends to be epic. Hien Nguyen celebrated her recent birthday in a boardroom, shaking hands with an executive of Konami Gaming, Inc. after signing a “huge deal” for partial rights to her video wagering game Domino Dragon. Not bad for a class project.
Nguyen was one of 17 students in UNLV’s new Gaming Innovation Program. They started with a pitch, just a couple sentences describing a fresh idea for slots, table games or the online market. Refined with help from industry mentors, their ideas ultimately translated to 12 applications in the patent pipeline. (From last July through this March, the rest of the university filed 14.)
Mark Yoseloff, the program’s founding director, says the state Office of Economic Development is “very excited” about the potential for job creation and other economic impacts. Thanks to a Knowledge Fund grant, the course is expanding this fall into a Center for Gaming Innovation that will accommodate 20 students and 20 community members hoping to turn raw creativity into valuable intellectual property. UNLV keeps 20 percent of any earnings, which Yoseloff says is fair. “Not only are they getting a lot of knowledge that’s not available anywhere else, they’re getting patent work done for free; they’re getting mathematical analysis done for free—they are getting to a point which most inventors never get to. And they’re getting there in a really fast-paced environment,” he says, adding, “We can kick doors open.”
Yoseloff can kick doors on his own as a former CEO of SHFL Entertainment, in addition to building and selling several companies and holding more than 100 gaming patents. But he brought other heavyweights into the classroom to share experiences and advice, from patent attorney Mark Litman to game designers Joe Kaminkow (Aristocrat, Zynga) and Roger Snow (Bally) to mathematician Alex Hartl (Global Gaming Group). “We have a creative edge. We have an environment in which most of the experts in the world are in one place. We need to leverage that,” Yoseloff says. “We need to create a new generation of creators.”
We need to because the global industry is worth about $150 billion annually, and Yoseloff says “non-traditional” proprietary games like Three Card Poker account for 25 percent of table game real estate. Plus, younger gamblers aren’t as engaged by what they find on the casino floor.
That’s why UNLV student Aron Kock’s Flip Card Blackjack is on its way to a patent and, hopefully, a sale like Nguyen’s (she has also launched a company with partner/co-inventor Yoseloff). He retooled his idea a dozen times before Yoseloff blessed it. “Any criticism you get, you should take it positively, not emotionally,” Kock says. “Just go back to the drawing board.”
And don’t assume you need to be in a certain field to have the next great gaming idea. SHFL—acquired by Bally Technologies for $1.3 billion last year—grew from an automatic card shuffler designed by a truck driver. “I’m always interested,” Yoseloff says, “because you never know which one’s the one.”