Gaming’s Suits

Protecting Sin City’s Intellectual Property

Modern games of chance endure plenty of scrutiny and vetting before they make it to the casino floor.

Whether they are electronic games, slots, table games or even card shufflers, there are teams of inventors, lawyers, every-day people and company brass weighing potential pitfalls and profits. And once the worrying about the mathematical calculations is done, the intellectual property deals signed, the aesthetics refined, more tinkering ensues to please individual state, regional and national regulators.

With extensive testing and literally thousands of legal pages created for any one game, it’s a wonder any get made in the first place. But the window from concept to casino floor is remarkably small, all things considered. Many in the business will say a two-year development cycle for a game is actually a long time; most get done in a year to 18 months. And the ideas can come from anywhere.

Katie Lever

Katie Lever, general counsel with Shuffle Entertainment, formerly Shuffle Master, said the company has its own in-house “game wizard school,” or staffers committed to creating games and adding twists to older titles. Employees are encouraged to submit their ideas as well. The company also has a website inviting game inventors to pitch concepts. The development process, above all, works to prove the mathematical formulas behind a game and patent them. Then playability tests with employees and members of the public follow.

“I think people would be surprised at how much energy and effort goes into securing patents and the rest of the intellectual property and all different elements of a table game,” Lever said.

Getting the approval from state watchdogs can be daunting, too, Lever added. State regulations on wager limits, machine or game allocations, cashless instruments and numerous other factors play a part in how a machine is delivered and used in each state.

“We had one game we really liked but … regulators didn’t like some of the elements of it. So we kept tweaking,” she said. “I was actually at a casino last weekend and was watching people play it. That was really gratifying.”

In the slot world, iconic imagery and brands often rule the day. Shuffle Entertainment holds two Australian slot machine intellectual property agreements for The Flintstones and Pink Panther brands. As with many other brands, copyright or trademark agreements often are done by jurisdiction. But with Internet gaming evolving that contract approach could be tested.

Marketa Trimble, associate professor at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, says with the evolution of Internet gaming more and more land-based users likely will crave that incarnation of their favorite slot, electronic or table game online. That could affect how intellectual property agreements are structured in the future.

“It’s really becoming an issue of how to transform and transfer those types of games associated with copyright-protected images and sounds to online games,” she said. “The question also becomes, given that the Internet is somewhat borderless, whether it will be tenable to limit licenses geographically.”

For the time being, land-based games maintain their allure, and the focus to bring a new, unique experience among them remains strong.

Jean Venneman

Jean Venneman, vice president of product management for Bally Technologies Inc., knows that a name, brand or iconic figure can be key to an electronic game’s success. But the industry veteran, who has been involved in her share of negotiations for great brands, said her employer is light on the trigger.

“We tend to look for brands that are a little more classic. It’s dangerous to pick up on the latest craze,” she said. “It takes about a year to a year and a half to create that game and get it into a casino. You have to ask yourself at that point: Will it still be a relevant brand? It needs to have a more timeless appeal.”

More recently, Bally established licensing for its King of Pop interactive touch screen game and Grease, a wide-area progressive slot machine. It also has some unique classics like Skee-Ball and Connect 4 that have done well through the years, along with a Playboy slot machine agreement that’s going on 10 years, Venneman adds.

The company also looks to its player profile to match intellectual property and game types. The Bally player profile tends slightly more toward females, with an average age just over 50, some skewing a little higher or lower in certain markets.

“Generally, there are enough ideas. No single brand is going to make or break a company,” she said. “We want a brand that resonates with the player and player demographics, a brand our player base knows and loves, then translates somehow into an interesting game play experience.”

But the company has also opted for more current trending brands. Its NASCAR Roared to Life virtual racing application is the result of an 18-month development cycle. Bally needed to negotiate a licensing agreement with NASCAR, and about five racing teams as well. Each team had different sponsors that needed to be taken into consideration as well.

“That one definitely had a lot of moving parts,” she added.

Venneman said intellectual property contracts of seven years are common in the business. Plenty of brands actively seek out the gaming environment for exploitation. Venneman said her group goes after brands about 25 percent of the time; otherwise, Bally is being approached.

Intellectual property licensing also comes into play with table games, Lever added. The company’s Ultimate Texas Hold’em is one of its most successful games. As with others, it went through its share of game and naming tweaks before becoming a reality. Texas Hold’em would have required a licensing agreement. Adding the word “ultimate” and additional logo material made the brand unique.

Even after intellectual copyrights are secured, the threat of theft persists. In the past four months, Shuffle Entertainment has shut down more than 15 websites using its games, logos and other game elements, Lever said.

“I have an amazing little team that spends an awful lot of time and energy protecting all the intellectual property that surrounds [our] games,” she added. “We look at intellectual property as one of our most valuable assets.”