Cool Classes: Game Design Students Take Their Coursework to Market

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The casino games industry is booming, generating more than $400 billion in annual global revenue. And with legalized gambling expanding throughout the world, the demand for new and improved casino games is on the rise. Even in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where gaming has been an economic staple for decades, expectations are rapidly changing, calling for new gaming experiences calibrated for a new generation of players. 

That’s where UNLV instructor Daniel Sahl’s Gaming Innovation course comes in. 

A Course Like No Other

Tapping into some of the best minds in the gaming industry, students enrolled in the Gaming Innovation course are bringing viable casino game concepts to the table — literally. It doesn’t hurt that the Gaming Capital of the World is literally at their doorstep!

Offered every fall semester through UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, the course calls on each of its 20-plus students to work individually or in groups to produce novel concepts for the gaming industry. The entire class then works to narrow down the concepts, selecting three or four with the most potential. Depending on the market viability of the chosen games, Sahl (with the assistance of industry partners) will help the students develop a proof of concept of the game (which may include a playable demo) or help file a patent.

“This is truly a unique class,” Sahl says. “There are lots of schools that do game design, but this is the only place where you can learn how to design and commercialize casino games.” 

Course projects to date have shown measurable results. Since the class launched in 2013, 24 patents have been issued to UNLV students.

It is a formula that continues to benefit students in more ways than one.

“Multiple students have successfully commercialized their innovations through a sale or licensing agreement with game developers,” Sahl says. “This is one of the only classes in the world where your final project might actually pay off your student loans.”

An Experience for Everyone

Established as an elective, the Gaming Innovation class is coveted by UNLV students from a variety of disciplines, including hospitality management, engineering, art, and law. Non-degree-seeking individuals with an eye on the gaming industry regularly enroll as well.

Also, the course’s online hybrid format makes it easy for students from other states and countries to be part of the class.

Sahl says the course is set up as a collaborative space that celebrates individualized skills and talents. The student who is doing the programming, for example, is not the same student who is developing the game’s design, music, or overall theme. It’s an environment where no one is excluded.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to be good at math to be in this class,” Sahl says. “I have some students who are phenomenal at math. Others are phenomenal at art and design. It’s really a class for anyone at any skill level.”

Innovation student and Hospitality College senior Joo Yeun Kim identifies “concept development” as her forte. Kim’s game, Baccarat Spin, takes the traditional game of baccarat and adds a twist to appeal to younger players.

“Young people don’t want to play games based on luck only,” Kim says. “I knew that to catch their attention I needed to add an element of skill.” 

As one of the few hospitality programs in the world with a bona fide concentration in casino gaming, the Hospitality College gave Kim an academic outlet for her fascination with the casino industry. Kim’s internship with gaming company IGT has further enhanced this interest, particularly the financial side of the business.

“The way casinos make money is very different from the hotel,” says Kim, who plans to make a career in casino game technology. “And individual games make money very differently from each other. It’s so interesting to me.”

 

UNLV’s Gaming Innovation program creates opportunities for students to bring their ideas to market. Here, student Troy Petite presents during a UNLV Innovation Lab session at a past G2E Global Gaming Expo at the Sands Convention Center.

 

Nurturing Talent

Sahl has been a gaming innovation devotee ever since attending the class in its 2013 inaugural semester. He would go on to complete a doctoral dissertation on casino game design while working under the tutelage of former Gaming Innovation instructor and gaming innovator Mark Yoseloff, who established the Center for Gaming Innovation within the UNLV’s International Gaming Institute (the university’s think tank for gaming research and policy).

Following in Yoseloff’s footsteps as the new director of the Center for Gaming Innovation, Sahl set out to inspire students the same way he was inspired.

“There is a lot of demand among developers for students who have experience and ideas in game design,” he says. “If a student is committed to the process and wants to build their own portfolio of games, I’m here to help.”

Sahl encourages students to develop any and all types of gaming tech, though historically, the most successful games have involved new concepts in table games, slots, sports betting, and lottery. Not every game makes it past the conceptual stage, but Sahl makes sure all students leave the course with a working knowledge of startups, licensing, marketing, regulatory concerns, intellectual property, and other key elements specific to the casino gaming industry.

Built-In Industry Support

The success of the Gaming Innovation class is in no small part the result of strong relationships with casino industry experts.

Hospitality College industry partner Konami Gaming, Inc., for instance, provided funding for the mock casino lab/classroom where the Gaming Innovation course and other Hospitality College gaming classes take place. 

The course also enjoys the backing of mobile gaming company DraftKings, which supports the program and helped establish the DraftKings Gaming Innovation Studio at UNLV. The studio employs students to develop and experiment with a wide range of gaming prototypes.

DraftKings, which has operated a game design facility in Las Vegas since 2020, advocates for students through hiring as well as serving on the course’s mentorship team. 

“They [DraftKings] helped me with my idea,” says Kim, who tweaked her game concept following her first presentation in front of the group. “At first, my game was too simple. After getting their feedback, I changed my concept completely. They were very helpful.”

Not only did Baccarat Spin make it through to the home stretch of the class, but Kim’s game is now heading for a next phase of development: demo creation. Though game development is a long process that spans well beyond the length of one class, the support Kim receives from Sahl and his industry network might just get her to the finish line. 



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