Hitting the jackpotWhat makes a good online slot? It’s a subject that keeps the casino software companies busy, not to mention an interesting psychological debate. Robert Blincoe investigates why punters keep coming back to certain slots while disregarding the rest
Car mechanic Charles Fey was a genius. He invented the first mechanical slot machine, the Liberty Bell, in 1895. Not only was the idea great in itself – the Dragon's Den team would have been trying to chisel a greater percentage of his business off him – but he used the diamond, spade and heart symbols on his three spinning wheels, plus the image of a cracked Liberty Bell. These were instantly recognisable graphics to get the player's interest.
Things have moved on but it’s still recognisable games and graphics that draw the players. If you check Arcade A-Z on Betfair you can see which the most popular games are. At the time of writing it's Cluedo and Monopoly by a mile. These are board game brands which have passed the test of time and everyone knows guarantee a good game. Sam Downey, Boylesports' casino operations manager, says the same games are big successes on his site too.
Dr Mark Griffiths, chartered psychologist and director of Nottingham Trent University's International Gaming Research Unit, says that when he started doing his research into slot machines 25 years ago, the favoured names were suggestive of devices that gave out money – Action Bank, Cash Point, Money Bank, Piggy Bank.
“Now have we have characters and themes that people can instantly relate too, be it the latest video game or movie or board game,” he says. “The whole psychology is to make the game instantly familiar. Psychologists call it attenuation – it makes you want to look at it and see what's going on with it.”
Casino software business CryptoLogic really understands this. The company has licensing deals with Warner Bros, DC Comics, Paramount, Marvel, Activision, Capcom, Bejeweled, Cubis and King Kong.
In the last quarter of 2009 the super heroes from DC Comics will hit Internet casinos, as CryptoLogic is creating games featuring characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash.
Brian Hadfield, CryptoLogic’s president and chief executive, says. “It’s all about doing what we do best: branded games are the fastest-growing part of our business.”
He's not kidding. Since 2005 the company has launched more nearly twenty slot games featuring classic Marvel Super Heroes — including Spider-Man, the Hulk, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Blade, Sub-Mariner, and The Punisher. In March CryptoLogic announced a multi-year agreement with Paramount Digital Entertainment, which means it has the exclusive rights to offer online slot games based on over twenty of Paramount Pictures’ collection of feature film titles, including Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Beowulf, Beverly Hills Cop, Ferris Bueller, and Ghost.
Justin Thouin, is the vice president of product management and business development at CryptoLogic. He is responsible for player research to drive game development and for developing the partnerships brands, and he knows a game with instant recognition will only take you so far.
“The brand will bring the player to the game,” he says. “All things being equal, the player will choose the branded game over the unbranded game. But what keeps people coming back is the game mechanic [a construct of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game].”
“We spend a lot more time developing innovative game play to keep the players coming back. The true driver of a game's success is the game play.”
Griffiths has a psychologist’s take on this, and knows that there's more to people's drive to play the slots than the cash prizes. “Playing slots is more about engaging in the activity, the act of playing. It's about trying to stay in the game as long as possible. People wouldn't play them unless they found them enjoyable,” he says.
“On slots people are buying entertainment, so the rate they lose at is worth it for them. Losing doesn't mean having a bad time.”
It perhaps goes some way to explaining the appeal of Monopoly and Cluedo. These are recognisable brands, but they're brands associated with great game play. It's a double hit. Around this idea, CryptoLogic has licensed the game Jenga which it promises is “true to the Jenga experience: a surprisingly daring game that builds to a suspenseful climax”. The game is an 18-payline slot game incorporating rich graphics, animations and sound effects.
Another thing about games such as Monopoly, Cluedo and Jenga is that they aren't necessarily male focused, something which can't be said of CryptoLogic's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In the UK, playing slot machines offline is dominated by men. A reason for this is that unlike the rest of the world, it is possible to learn the machines, observe how they're paying out, and play them at the right time and make some cash. They're not governed by random number generators like most of the word's offline slots, and all the online slots. The house still always wins, but so do some players.
A very broad psychological generalisation is that men gravitate towards games of skill and women prefer bingo and the lottery. Online, the slots can appeal to both sexes. This can be either through the brand and theme, but also through the gameplay and payouts.
Thouin says that on average, his customers will play a game for three months, and the gender split is pretty much equal. “Bejeweled, Cubis, and Jenga have a higher percentage of females,” he says. “With the Marvel characters there's a greater proportion of females than we expected, and it’s closer to 50/50. Call of Duty is absolutely male.”
Boylesports' Downey sees a similar split on his slots, and his business is part of a sportsbook which is definitely a male domain. “I don't believe slots are based on one kind of player,” he says. “From our site it’s a good split between male and female.”
Another hot slot on Boylesports is Da Vinci Diamonds. Even though the gameplay doesn't conjure up the bloodline of Christ, and murderous albino monks, it can be argued it successfully suggests the film and novel The Da Vinci Code. Kevin Dale, the chief executive of GameAccount and CasinoRip, certainly thinks so, and applauds the concept.
Downey says it’s the most popular slot at the moment, but beyond whatever levels of familiarity it suggests to players, he's sure it’s the game design. It has a tumbling reels feature, with symbols falling from the top of the screen instead of spinning upon reels. Winning symbol combinations disappear and new symbols tumble down to replace the vanished symbols giving the impression you can win again and again on a single play of the game.
GameAccount is pushing its reputation as a developer of games of skill by adding this element to its slots. It’s also gone down the branded route with a blast from the past in the shape of Wicked Willie (the cartoon penis drawn by Gray Jolliffe).
CryptoLogic also recognises the gameplay dimension. “Everyone, when they're gambling, has two goals,” says Thouin. “If they can they want to make money, and they're looking to be entertained, and have excitement. In everything we do we really try and elevate the entertainment level, so players feel they had a fantastic time and had value for money.”
In some of its games, on the bonus rounds, it aims to deliver a video game experience. “It feels like you're playing the X-box or Playstation,” says Thouin, “But you're winning money at the same time.”
Of course the payouts are important. The promise of life-changing jackpots is a big driver to players. In May 2007, one lucky player on InterCasino.com, playing CryptoLogic's Millionaires Club slot, scooped a pot of more than $8 million.
Millionaires Club is an example of a progressive slot whereby the operators seed the game with a jackpot sum, but then this grows as the players contribute to it. “At any casino site you'll see the importance of the progressive,” says Downey. “It’s a question of risk versus reward. Our jackpot [Mega Jackpots] is about to hit the £2 million mark. It started building from £1.5 million.”
The record Millionaires Club payout was followed two weeks later by a second payout of $4 million. The popularity of the game had meant the jackpot climbed very quickly, and also put paid to the slots myth that once a jackpot had been hit, it wouldn't come round again for months. The software developers try and make the jackpot such a rare event, but random number generators mean it will come up anytime.
An interesting point here is that if there are branded games on a casino, it engenders trust in the players that they'll get paid, no matter which slot they're playing. “Branded slots are really important for us,” says Thouin. “And the first reason is trust. It's the biggest barrier to online gaming. Only five per cent of people who gamble offline gamble online – and a reason is they're not sure if they are going to get paid. If they see the likes of Marvel, DC Comics, and Paramount have associated themselves with a casino then they think 'my money's safe with them'.”
The big payouts also point to perhaps the biggest psychological question about slots. What kind of payout frequency maximises player action. Griffiths and Dale bemoan the lack of empirical research in this – though for different reasons. The feeling is that women and older players prefer regular smaller payouts, and men like the infrequent monster paydays.
The Las Vegas casinos know what works for them, but for online Dale says, “I'm convinced this industry isn't mature enough yet to have researched it. It's a complex area and I wish I knew more.”