Design Lessons from Vegas

Vegas casinos are monuments to statistics and evil.  They are inspiring, in a way.  Everything is designed.  Everything is polished.  They are well-oiled machines, designed to ride that razor thin margin to massive success.  Spotting those design decisions is a fun game in itself, and seeing how they can apply to game design is an even more interesting task.

1)  “Machine malfunction voids all pays and plays”

This little sticker is on every slot machine.  What does it mean?  It means that casinos don’t like paying money.  Should a player get a high-paying hand in video poker, or a jackpot in a slot machine, the machine locks down.  An attendant is called in, to verify that the jackpot is legitimate.  That’s right.  They get to look at the data and determine if your random number is a legitimate random number.  They don’t give you your money back if you make a mistake on a bet though, do they?

What game design lesson can you take away from this?  Always investigate your outliers.  If a player gets a score much higher than their opponents, it is worth looking in to why.  Do not automatically attribute it to a skillful strategy or a lucky draw.  There’s a good chance that an ability or interaction is broken, and you need to fix it.  Try recording the players’ board state/major actions, and if it isn’t immediately apparent, compare it to other outlier scores to see if you can find a pattern.

2)  Munchkin steps

The steps leading down into the casino are tiny, or, in many cases, are ramps.  They are 4″ tall, at best.  Why?  To make it easier for seniors and retirees to enter the casino.  They are probably the group with the greatest amount of disposable income.

The lesson for this one is simple:  Find your target market, and remove obstacles preventing them from entering.  If your game is designed to appeal to children, keep the colors bright, the text large, and the wording simple.  Even if the mechanics are simple, if the players cannot read the cards, or see a motley assortment of greys, they are going to lose interest.  Looking to make a hardcore gamer game?  Try to design variants that can accommodate extra players, particularly the magic number, 5.  There is a glut of 4 player games, and including that extra player can elevate your game from the “another shelf game” category to the “Hey, a new game we can play!” category.

3)  Shopping Arcades

There’s as much or more space dedicated to shopping arcades as there are to casino floors.  Do you really need a store in every casino that sells $20,000 watches and $50,000 purses?  Why do they rent out their precious floor space, when there’s almost never anyone in the stores?  Aside from a few super rich clients, I think the purpose is selling the dream.  As you walk past the shopping arcade to the casino, you see the brands that scream “Success!”.  If they are in business, there must be people spending money there.  You, too, could win the jackpot and buy that Prada bag.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but I think the game design lesson here is “Sell the Dream.”  You have to show people how to play, of course, but show them how to excel, too.  A great way to do this is with point scoring examples in the rule book.  Show a combination that can give the players a lot of points, particularly if it isn’t terribly obvious.  When it clicks in players’ heads that this is something that they can accomplish, they will be on the look out for it, and more invested in the game, even if they never manage to pull off the combination.

4)  Mazing

I spent almost half an hour lost in the MGM Grand today.  It wasn’t a proud moment.  But it was a testament to their design skill.  Casinos are built to obfuscate.  The temperature is always controlled, the lighting is always identical.  You can’t tell the time, or, often, where the nearest exit is. Does this actually make the players play more?  It certainly turns me off, but if it didn’t work, the casinos probably wouldn’t do it.

I hesitate to mention this one, but not saying the name of the elephant in the room isn’t going to make the elephant go away.  Sunk time.  Mobile games are a particular culprit of this, particularly ones with time walls.  The introduction is easy, to get people invested.  Then once they actually get started, they are hit with constant unnecessary grind.  The purpose of this is to convert casual players into spenders, willing to pay a couple of cents to skip a wait.

This is less applicable to board gaming, but it absolutely exists for collectible games.  If you buy into Magic the gathering, chances are you start with an intro pack.  You are given a deck and a couple of boosters, to give you a small chance to open something to improve your deck.  They ease you into the game, and give you a hint of what is to come when you buy boosters.  As you get more into the game, you start to progress into higher and higher levels of competition, where you need increasingly power cards to succeed.  Eventually you hit the grind (a paywall, in this case, for tournament cards) and cannot progress, but you are so invested in the game by now that you don’t want to exit out.

The next time you are in Vegas, take the time to learn the table games.  Find an interesting one you like, then go online to find out the odds, and the casino payout.  As James Earnest once said “Games exist on a spectrum, from all to no luck.  If you make a game that is all luck, you might have a fun board game on your hands.  If you have a game that is no luck, tell no one, and patent it, because you can make millions selling it to a casino.”

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