Find out what lies behind the slot machines and what are the tricks to win

What Lies Beneath Video Slot Games

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Before I begin you must note that these thoughts and opinions are mine and mine alone, you may or may not agree with them, but the article has been written to provide my personal views on what one can find within video slot games. When I was lucky enough to land a job within a video slot game company, I was pretty sure that it would be simple and as I have been involved in the creation of many games across several genres I thought this would be an easy job. How wrong could I be? Thinking that the only interaction required for a slot was limited to pressing the spin button and seeing whether you won, big mistake!

Slot Players are NOT Stupid

Fact, most slot players are gamblers and although the physical action of pressing a spin button is simple, slot games are mentally challenging. Gamblers make their decisions on how the game features play out and what their potential rewards are likely to be. Now that all games offered in casinos must fall within a return to player percentage, often known as RTP, how players can win and the frequency of wins are what players now rely on after all this shows that it stands to reason why some slots are far more popular than others. When it comes to basic slot math this concept is expressed in terms of Pay Distribution and Volatility.

First comes the Art, then the Math

When it comes to slot development, creators believe that the graphics or art are what initially attracts players but it is the math that will keep them playing. This is something that any creation team will tell all rookies and something that will continue to be the first and most important statement told to anyone when it comes to the slot creation side of things.  

If you think about a book with an uninspiring cover, a good math model will suffer if the art/graphics do not attract new customers and what attracts one person may not appeal to others. Therefore, not only are the graphics important, they also need to have the depth to ensure they are attractive to the masses. When developers simply recreate an old slot with new graphics this is known as a skin. However, a new math model that looks promising are likely to be released on several skins.

When I first began many assumptions were made that a good math model would be able to withstand graphics that were poorly executed. However, this was soon proved to be wrong when the company I was working for had a dud that was based upon the original math model and no amount of fixing made it better, all that happen was we were spending time we didn’t have and ended up behind with our schedule!

There was also the time that we had a beautifully executed slot with a Chinese theme, however, within a couple of weeks it failed. There was a skin of the math created by another team with superb 3D art due for release and as we did not want to make changes as the game had already been approved by GLI, the industry watch-dog, and the sales and marketing teams were keen to sell it. We went ahead and released the skin, and unsurprisingly it took off. The same features, same math created differently produced a hit, and the game ended up everywhere.

This was all great until people became tired of the math and the graphics could not keep players playing all it was good for was attracting new players. We tried to skin the math but none of the games faired that well. The lesson we took away from this was that you cannot rely on one theme to determine the math model and never underestimate the value of graphics to create a hit.

Ok, I know what you are thinking, why not just skin a good math model time and time again? It is true that some games are skinned over and over to keep them alive, however, doing this too much would be like having many books that all tell the same story. Remember, players have different tastes and requirements but eventually they will become bored of their choices.

Game Play Features

When players are deciding which slot they are going to play they start by looking at the graphics and then look at the features the game is offering. These features are advertised with branded logos and text across the screen and it is these features that make the math different. It is the features that are patented, branded and trademarked. These features make the pay distribution and volatility unique. When creators hit on a feature that is successful, they may choose to reuse it combined with other features or even on another set of reels with a differing pay distribution and volatility.

One feature that is transcribed as a twist on the rule of slots is to make the game appear to be paying in the players favour, don’t believe it this doesn’t happen! However, this illusion is created by turning symbols wild, nudging the reels, paying side bonuses, reel respins, increasing the number of free spins and so on. Whatever the slot does it never changes the overall RTP, it is merely a perception of your odds on winning to lure you to keep playing. It is this type of interaction that engages the gambler in every player and makes the slot so much more than just a simple spin button.

The player that sees a feature that they have never experienced or some type of feature that they like, will try out a new game. The actual feature may be different due to how it has been combined with the other features or due to a unique reel structure. If the player then works out that it is just a skin of a game that they have played many times before they are less likely to carry on playing, or be curious when the developers releases a new game, and this is because any players checking out machines that proclaim new game from their screens are on the hunt for a new experience.

This is the reason that developers are keen to make interactive twists on the same successful math model rather than simply skinning the game. Skins are useful to fill machines that already have the successful math, but they are not going to stand out. Therefore, each original game and each new twist needs to be on point with trending features to succeed. Developers like casinos want their math models to perform perfectly, however, they don’t! There is no single recipe for success, this is partly due to player diversity, and due to the players getting bored and going on the hunt for something new. Whilst some games will pay dividends for a while, eventually the sales will decline.   Development companies therefore need to cover all bases and for this reason they take the approach of combining innovative designs, copied math models, skins and twists on performing tried and tested math models. They constantly play the competition, mull over sales reports, chase successful trends, patent new ideas and approaches, and if all else fails possibly steal competitor’s math!

Many new math features are thought of every day from unique combinations to innovative designs and twists that add up to an entirely new slot experience or maybe not that new. These ideas are then patented, rolled out and defended in the competitive market of the slot world. “Wheel of Fortune” created by the development team at IGT was based on the Vegas strip and became an instant hit. However, Bally had the patent for the bonus wheel, and sued IGT, although they lost the patent become invalidated and opened the theme for all manufacturers to create a wheel game. “Reel Power” from Aristocrat was a huge success and nearly all developers copied them, and they sued but again lost, because the game was just a variation of scatter pay, which was a common feature. You can see there is a pattern forming, IGT and WMS sued each other constantly and often ended up exchanging patent licenses as a form of settlement.

To this day I am still shocked by the lengths the slot developers would go to protect their designs with patents, but this is the reason that many of my years were spent patenting my ideas and those of others as this meant I had something over everyone else when the game launched.

Is Pacing Important?

There are many great articles about the importance of pacing, however, they all amount to the same thing and this is that players have to have low action periods to create the tension that will be followed by bursts of intensity as this is what creates the emotional rollercoaster that players are looking for. Although a poorly paced a slot may throw enemies at the player throughout, each engagement will bend into the next and although this provides an intense experience it will be a boring experience overall.

Pacing in a good game is driven by the roller coaster of emotion, which is in keeping with the volatility of the math model. It sees the player having to lose as much if not more than they win to make the winning feel like a real triumph. Slots that constantly award players with smaller wins deadens the experience and are known as dribblers. There are players that prefer this type of play, however, the casino operators are not keen as these times of games lead to players being on the same device for a long time or occupying the same seat playing with their original stake. Players that like dribblers can have an entire evening’s entertainment for the price of going to see a movie and therefore it is not surprising that these are so popular.

The gambler math models have a much higher volatility and are games that can suffer from long periods of zero or minor wins before the player hits the big win, or activate a bonus where they can win their money back. However, with a bit of luck and good timing they can beat the odds and land big wins or bonuses back to back, walking off with wads of cash! Obviously, most players end up putting the money back into the machine as if their winnings are free money, whilst forgetting that they may have lost hundreds previously but this is how the casinos make their money and people like me still have a job.

Win Presentation

One of the biggest mistakes is to oversell a small win, in the same way as pacing if players constantly trigger great fanfares, animation and so on every win will feel the same. Players will rush past immense wins without even noticing. Therefore, there is a trend in slot games not to animate winning symbols when the win is low for example twice the players stake, but have grand fireworks and celebrations when the player hits wins of x20 and more.

Triggering the bonus when players have waited patiently is where the math models often pay out and provide special presentation. Say it takes three symbols to trigger a bonus there will be special effects during the spin, playing a bonus animation and sound on the first symbol, then a louder one on the second, and finally going all in on the subsequent reels, speeding them up and highlighting the reels to provide real anticipation.

This creates a buzz and other players will notice and look around to see which game is paying out. Players may pause to check out the top of the screen where the credits rack up and the chances are that they will make a point of playing that game in the future to try and recreate the win for themselves. To this end slots are constantly competing to sell their winning experience and it is the size of the wins that can be critical to whether the slot is a success or not.

The Demographic

Although demographic is not new to developers, what is new is that they may not appeal to the target demographic. Slot games that are based in brick & mortar casinos as opposed to online or mobile are played by older, female players (50+). They are not likely to be interested in the latest trends or graphics or even attracted to the same themes that developers want to create.

In my first creative job, I worked with several artists who wanted to create the aminations for a Disneyesque movie. The reality was that although they were designing great slots for mid 20s, this was not the average age of players. I remember pushing for the inclusion of 3D graphics but this wasn’t what your average 50-year-old lady was looking for.

There are also the license titles, that companies such as Aristocrat, IGT and WMS keep creating, slots that are combined with the film, television etc. However, if you fail to overlap the target demographic like "Monopoly" did, the slot will not fare well. Obviously, preferences and fads will come and go but a single great math model on a theme gives the theme a whole new lease of life.  Asian themes come and go and then come back again until there are so many they get boring all over again! Developers began to release offerings that would have been at home on the cover of romance novels, but given the 50+ ladies they did incredibly well. However, the market became saturated to the point that the odd sci fi or cartoon theme began to stand out once more from the rest. Whilst themes and graphics will come and go, developers keep their finger on the pulse to keep up with the latest trends.

Research and Feel

It is important for designers and developers to play on their competitions games, and although the can be accused of producing similar slots, they must get a sense of being the player first. Slot designers are usually skilled in math but they also need to have a good idea of what players want and how they are thinking. Any good mathematician can create a slot that will hit the intended payback percentages, but it is the good slot designer that can make the game exciting and balance the wins and losses that are required to create a winning slot. If players feel that a slot has the potential to pay out big and it occasionally does, players will keep playing and returning to play again and again to repeat the experience.

Brutal math model feels can be expressed by the volatility, and players are able to feel if their credits are being drained away, but if this happens with a few near misses on a feature then it starts to feel as though they may be able to win. If you see any of these wins bearing in mind that the volatility works out that 1 in 5 players experience a win and this makes this a brutal and short time on device style game. Casinos like the brutal and short time on device games as they get the players money quickly and they are far fewer players returning. This is the perfect solution for a casino where players return once or twice a year. Manufacturers often offer different volatilities and payback percentages of the same game to the casinos to make up for this. This is also why slot designers need to play the games at the casinos where they are hoping to sell their game as this gives them a bigger chance of understanding exactly what the players are looking for.

Finally

I have been blessed to work in bricks and mortar casinos, online real money casino game, Facebook games and many mobile casino games and I have found some significant differences.

When it comes to mobile players they are a completely different demographic, as they tend to be younger men and they play more frequently but for shorter time periods. They will play whilst watching TV or when they are on a break from work.

Paying real money to lose and win fake money is still strange to me but there are players who are willing to do this. This fits into the Free-To-Play micro-transaction which rely on 1 to 2% of the paying players to pay for everyone else. In fact, it turns out that the math models that make the casinos rich can make players lose their chips and put their hand in their pocket to get some more!

Finally, there is no doubt that players love winning, even if they are not actually winning anything real, it is the competing and winning. That is proof that all slot players get something out of winning even if it is only to it the spin button, but you know deep down that they will be back.