The hidden complexity of video game slots
Slot Players Are Not Reckless
Slot players are reckless. Pressing the SPIN button, although it looks like a simple action, mental processes are not. Gamblers base their decisions on how game features work and what kind of winnings or “almost-winnings” they get. This is called the potential of the mathematical model.
All casino games have a certain percentage of slot return to player (RTP), therefore, how players win and how often they do it becomes an important differentiating factor. How else do individual games become more popular than others? Due to the volatility and distribution of payments - the basic mathematical terms used in the development of slots.
Design first, then math
The developers of the slots have a saying: "visual style attracts players - mathematics holds them."
Like a storefront with a bad sign or a book with a bad cover, a very good mathematical model can suffer if the design does not attract new customers. However, what attracts one person may be completely indifferent to another. Therefore, it is not so much the design that matters as the diversity to reach more players. Superimposing a new visual theme on the same mathematical model is called a skin. A new promising mathematical model can be released on several skins.
Once, a beautifully executed Chinese-themed game failed during the first month after release. The skin of that model, made by another team with a unique, pre-rendered 3D design, was already at the final stages of development. We did not want to change him, because he had just received the approval of GLI, the industry watchdog, and the marketing and sales departments were ready to start the campaign. So we released the skin, and you won’t believe it, but it stopped. The same mathematics, the same elements rendered differently, gave completely different results.
In the end, people get tired of math. We tried to introduce new skins to give the model a new life, but none of them worked. Lessons learned? Never rely on a single topic to determine the viability of a mathematical model, and do not underestimate the importance of design to create a hit.
So why not just make a new skin of a proven mathematical model every time? Some games have many skins so that they continue to generate revenue. But it’s worth overdoing it, and it will look like a street with different restaurants serving the same food, or a shelf of books telling the same story. Players have different tastes and over time they get bored with their choice.
When a player sits down for the next slot machine, he first looks at the visual style, and then pays attention to the features that he saw in the advertisement or on the slot’s start screen. These features are exactly what distinguishes one slot from another. They are patented and registered as trademarks. When a feature is successful, it can be reused in combination with other features or on a different set of reels with slightly different volatility and distribution of payments.
The feature is often a small change in the rules, which creates a misleading impression that the game will pay you. These can be unique symbols, re-spin, push reels, pay side bonuses or increase the number of free spins, etc. Whatever she does, she does not change the total percentage of return of the slot to the player (RTP), but only the perception of your chances of winning.
This interaction with the player makes slot machines more difficult than just pressing the SPIN button.
When a player notices a feature that he likes or that he has never seen, he can sit in a new slot. It can be expressed differently depending on how it was combined with other features or a unique type of drum. If players realize that this is only the skin of an old game, they are less likely to try it. And even less will be interested in the appearance of the next game. When a player sees the inscription "NEW GAME", he expects new experiences.
For this reason, developers prefer to experiment a little with successful mathematical models, and not just change skins. This is useful for populating a machine bank with an already successful mathematical model, but it is unlikely to repeat success. Thus, each original game, each new change in a popular feature is nothing more than another attempt to repeat success.
Casino game companies want all math models to work perfectly. So DO NOT HAPPEN. There is no ONE SECRET RECIPE. Partly because of the diversity of the players, but more so because they are getting bored, and they are looking for something new. An effective game may pay the company’s bills for a while, but ultimately sales will decline anyway. Companies take a haphazard approach - they combine innovative design, derivatives of mathematical models and changes and skins of old effective mathematical models. They constantly compete, read sales reports, track down successful trends, invent and patent new ideas, and secretly decompile or steal math from each other.
Thus, an important metric for all companies developing slots is the number of original mathematical models that they produce. Large companies in the slot market are targeting 50-100 new slot machines per year. From a third to half of them have new original mathematics or changes to previously successful mathematical models.
Progress in the slot machine
The player must have periods without victories in order to create tension, followed by bursts of intensity. This puts players on an emotional roller coaster. A shooter with a poor balance can constantly throw enemies at the player, mixing each next wave with the previous one, creating a very intense, but ultimately quickly annoying user experience.
Progress in a good slot machine is similarly controlled by emotional slides that correspond to the volatility of the mathematical model. The player must lose as much - if not more often - how much and win in order to experience more pleasure from victory. Such gains tend to be larger.
Slots that constantly give small winnings worsen the gaming experience. They are called "dribblers." There are players who prefer such slots, unlike casino operators, because they lead to a very long time on the device with the same twenty or forty dollars with which the players entered the game. Players who love these slots can have fun all night for the price of a movie ticket. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are usually popular in bars and local casinos.
Gambling mathematical models are more volatile. In these games, there may be a long series of zero or very meager winnings before a large win or bonus occurs, where players can wager their money. The right moment and a little luck - and you can hit the jackpot or get a lot of bonuses and leave with a lot of money.
Of course, most players usually just give money to the slot machine, as if it were free money, completely forgetting that they might have lost hundreds of dollars in previous trips to the casino. This is how a casino makes money.
A huge mistake is to exaggerate a small victory. As in the case of progress, if a player constantly gets big winnings, character animations, bells and whistles, they make every victory an everyday occurrence. Players will no longer notice big winnings. For this reason, slot machines do not animate the winning combination if the winnings are lower than x2 (doubled the bet), but they show a huge coin fireworks and fountains of jewels when you win x20 or more.
The simple appearance of a bonus, which players will patiently wait for, because it is from him that you can often get a win, often will be accompanied by a special animation. If you need 3 symbols to get a bonus, the games use such special effects during rotation: animation of the indicator and sound on the first symbol, even louder on the second, and then a special animation of subsequent reels with highlighting, acceleration, and adjusting the time they stop to really create the effect of anticipation of victory. If the bonus has fallen, the bell will ring - a piercing sound that occurs in all games when a player receives a special win.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, players learn to listen to these sounds and expect such effects in anticipation of a big reward. They will continue to return to the game, hoping to recreate these feelings, repeat their victory, or receive a greater reward.
Other players will hear the call and see which game pays the cash reward. They can stop their current session to see the ringing of coins on the top screen (they are specially set to cover a larger audience). They will remember this machine to try to repeat the success of another player.
Thus, games constantly compete for the emotions of players from victories. The visualization of a winning compartment with a winning size is critical to the success of the game.
Understanding Player Demographics
In slot machines, especially in offline casinos, unlike online or mobile social slots, older women tend to play (50+). The average age of a female player is 53 years. Thus, they will not necessarily be interested in the latest trends in computer graphics or in the same topics that you, as a developer, would like to work on.
When I first joined my company, I worked with many artists and animators who would like to work on a Pixar movie or a console shooter, but the reality was that their average age (25 years) did not match the average age of the players in the slots. Is it any wonder that cartoon games and youth steampunk themes performed poorly?
I insisted on 3D graphics because it was my background, but of course, this is not necessarily what would make a 50-year-old grandmother play. I had some success with 3D slots (“Goddess of the Woods”), but not with all 3D games, and given that they took two, or even three times as much time and effort, it was hard to convince a manual that pure 3D makes financial sense. They would rather see two or three games with a simple 2D theme than a single 3D game. They saved 3D for premium or licensed titles.
This moment was confirmed by my other game ("Gold Dragon Red Dragon"), made in 2D in After Effects and Photoshop, which was released and tested in less than a month: it sold at times better than games that were spent on the development of more time.
Of course, dragons are almost always popular because they represent the fantasy genre and also symbolize wealth. We started releasing a lot more dragon games after Gold Dragon Red Dragon.
Then come the licensed titles. Companies like IGT, Aristocrat, and WMS have released games with movie, television, and other celebrities. However, if they do not overlap with the target audience, as is done in Wheel of Fortune, Sex in the City, or Monopoly, then they are not very successful. Even despite the fact that in the Dragon's Lair game I created, there was a well-known dragon, popular in arcade machines of the 80s, it did not find a response from the female audience 50+. We overestimated its popularity among players in slots.
Of course, preferences change, and quirks come and go. One excellent mathematical model on a topic can breathe new life into it. Asian themes always left and came back again, until there are so many that they will bore everyone. High 5 Games with IGT released slots with the most realistic characters. The top screens looked more like covers of romance novels than slot machines. Given the popularity of the novels, is it any wonder that such games were successful among 50+ ladies? All the rest of the companies began to do the same so that elaborate cartoon or sci-fi themes began to stand out. Thus, themes and design come and go, but always keep abreast of the latest trends.
The importance of research and understanding
To play the games of competitors is necessary. This is a common truth for ordinary video game designers. Although they can be blamed for creating similar games, they all must first learn to be players. But just like video game designers, slot makers, being savvy in mathematics, still need to understand what the players want and what they think. Any good mathematician can make the game reach the intended percentage of return on the slot, and a good slot designer will invest in it “almost-misses”, the balance of wins and losses and the frequency of occurrence of features and bonuses to get a big win.
Understanding is closely related to the player’s expectations. If it is felt that the game can potentially pay a lot and sometimes does, the players will continue to play and return to this machine to repeat this experience.
Volatility reflects how brutal the mathematical model feels. Players may feel that math is draining their money. But if this happens with several “almost-misses” on a feature or bonus along with several decent x5 and x10 wins, then it seems that one day the stars can converge: you will cash out the win equal to the next payment for a car or a monthly rental of housing. If you have never seen such gains, then the fault is the mathematical model with high volatility, in which only 1 out of 5 players (or sessions) win. This leads to the fact that players spend very little time with such a machine.
Typically, casinos love such cruel games because they get your money faster, but at the same time a smaller percentage of players return to them. This is ideal for targeted casinos, like the Strip in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, which players visit only once or twice a year. Unlike local casinos and bars with lots of weekly returning traffic, which prefers less volatile math. Manufacturers often offer different volatilities and return percentages of the return slot of the same game in different casinos.
Instead of a conclusion
Since I have gone from offline and online casinos for real money to social casinos on Facebook and on mobile devices, I try to take into account the lessons learned. However, I found some significant differences.
Mobile players are a different audience. She is younger and more male. They play more often, but their sessions are shorter. They play while watching TV after dinner, during a break at work or while sitting on the toilet.
Paying real money to win and lose virtual money - it still amazes me. Some players intentionally do this, and it fits well with free-to-play and shareware models that rely on whales, which make up 1 to 2% of all your paying players. As it turned out, the mathematical models that make casinos rich also make players lose chips and money in mobile games.
Players love to win, even if it has no real value. Slot players get something from winning, even if it's just the result of pressing the SPIN button.