I was saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Jobs, who died earlier the past October at the young age of 56.
Few individuals can claim as strong a footprint for moving how society lives, breathes and works. He belongs in that elite peer group of inventors along with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford. He invented products that were instantly part of the culture, that profoundly affected our lives, and that will impact us for generations. But his passing is more than just a lesson in gratitude and humility, he also taught us about the essence of innovation in a way that carries a golden thread of enlightenment.
One of the key conceptual ideas that lead Jobs to his incredible success was his notion that the market is not driven by the consumer; it is driven by the inventor. The consumer doesn’t know what he wants until it is presented to him. The iPod, iPhone and iPad are perfect examples of this concept. His view was that it is not necessity that drives innovation; it is creativity that drives necessity. Jobs knew that his concepts were what people wanted, even if there was no need for them yet. Like the light bulb, telephone and car, Job’s devices became necessary because they existed.
Imagine if Jobs was in the casino business, creating new slots, video poker and table games. What could his way of thinking teach us about the gaming products we offer consumers? What is his iGame? Of course if I knew that, I would invent it. I can’t even speculate because I can’t reach that far inside of my own mind. I can’t get inside of who I am deeply enough to figure out what I want that doesn’t yet exist in any form whatsoever. That was his genius. He knew me better than I will ever know myself.
In the case of slots, the paradigm of invention is what might be best called the shotgun evolutionary approach. Casinos throw everything they can at the consumer and see what works. The sheer volume of ideas that pepper the average casino floor is overwhelming. If a game catches hold, then the inventor clones it into myriad variations. Examples include community bonus games, themed games, progressives and games with features like exploding wilds. Often the manufacturer doesn’t know why a game works. They may experiment with versions using the same math model and new bonuses, or a new math model but with the same bonus features. They may package the same basic game branded as fantasy, sex or nostalgia. They may go in search of an unused iconic real or fictional character. The games are tweaked back and forth endlessly. Turn this around and it looks as though slot manufactures really knew something about human behavior when they started their designs. It appears in hindsight that slot manufactures looked into me and knew me. But they didn’t and they don’t. This is not creativity and innovation the way Jobs approached it.
In the case of table games, though new game ideas are produced by the hundreds, there isn’t the time or space to put a lot of games onto the floor and see what works. A slow moving market gradually and reluctantly accepts a new product. In truth, most table games look the same. They involve some rules, a strategy, some wagers, some cards being dealt, some result and a resolution of the wager. The design of the game may be modeled after a common game like blackjack, poker or craps, or it may be some brand new rule set. It may be a version of an existing game, like EZ Baccarat or Card Craps, which does away with some pesky mechanics of the game, like collecting commissions or using dice. It may simply be a side bet for an existing game.
For most table games, it takes years of hard work by the inventor to get enough placements of the game to get noticed. It must be very satisfying for Derek Webb (Three Card Poker) or Geoff Hall (Blackjack Switch). But the real test of a Jobs’ game is, “would the casino be forced to change how it operates without that game?” There is nothing near Jobs’ level innovation in modern table games. It is the pedestrian equivalent of a horse and buggy. Better buggies do not make a car.
What about the other new ideas? Electronic versions of games, like Shuffle Master’s Table Master, use an integrated audio/video interactive environment. Thanks Steve! Jobs helped to develop the Apple Macintosh, the first computer with a graphical user interface, and the first system that used a mouse. (Do you remember the prompt “C:\>” ? I still see this pop up on legacy PC’s.) How about the newest buzz of using iPads and iPhones for remote or casual gaming? Thanks again Steve! How about those stunning animated slot graphics? Thanks Steve! (Did you forget he owned Pixar animation studios?)
If Jobs was a game designer, his level of innovation would be the invention of dice, playing cards or the slot machine. His level of game concept would be blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps or hold’ em poker.
Younger casino customers grew up with Jobs handing them one incredible product after the next, to the point where living virtually has become synonymous with living. Meanwhile slot machines come in unnecessary boxes, table games use unnecessary tables, currency is no longer necessary, chips, cards, dice, wheels-everything in a casino is now dispensable. What’s left? The unifying concept of casino games is that they allow the customer to purchase the opportunity to win an amount greater than the purchase price. The cost of this opportunity is the house edge. The golden thread is the pathway of communication between the gaming event and the player-nothing else is absolutely necessary to this transaction.
Whatever the innovative idea that re-creates the casino, we had better find it fast or else we risk losing the younger generation. This idea will have to be big enough to change how we view the product being purchased in a casino. Just as the Macintosh changed the personal computer industry, Pixar changed the animation industry, the iPod changed the music industry and the iPhone/iPad changed the communication industry, the idea that changes the casino industry will make itself necessary because it exists.