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Best of John Robison

Gaming Guru

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Ask the Slot Expert: Today's slots are too complicated

2 March 2016

Question: What’s frustrating for me are the new video type machines that seem complicated. There's no way of learning how to before play beforehand and while playing.

I guess the casinos don’t care as long as the money keeps rolling in.

I stick to the old type single-line machines.

Answer: Gone are the days when a quick glance at the paytable on the top or belly glass on a slot machine told you everything you needed to know about it. But sometimes even these machines were difficult to figure out.

I remember one time many (many) years ago in Atlantic City. My cousin's boyfriend hit a combination that required a handpay. I don't remember the machine, but I do remember that it had wild symbols with different multipliers and different colors for the 7 symbols. Different color combinations paid different amounts.

The people doing the handpay had a great deal of difficulty trying to figure out the base combination whose value was multiplied. When you get two Double Diamonds and a triple bar on the payline, for example, you know that the Double Diamond symbols are substituting for triple bars and not mixed bars. The value of the highest-paying combination possible with the wilds is what gets multipled.

After we tried different combinations that the wild symbols could have stood for, I divided the amount won by the multipliers and found the combination of 7s that paid that amount. That combination was the one whose value was multiplied.

All machines, even today's complicated video slots, have to tell you how the game plays. On the screen there will be a button marked "Help" or "i" or something else that indicates that it will display information about how the game works.

So there is a way to learn how the game operates before playing, but much of the information doesn't make sense until you've actually played the game -- and much of it doesn't make sense because of the way it is written. And some machines have so many help screens, you can really use a table of contents to jump to the section you want.

It's not that the casinos don't care about the complexity of these machines. It's that they care about having machines that people want to play. And, preferably, play again and again and again. As long as players keep flocking to these machines, they'll keep dominating the slot floor.

Speaking of repeat play, I attended an interesting seminar about analyzing slot play at the 2015 Global Gaming Expo. One casino graphed the amount of play a machine got from new players and the amount of play from repeat players.

The new player line will always eventually be in a downward trend because you can only be a new player once. The casino's main focus was on the repeat player line. If that line was also going down, it meant that players were willing to give the machine another try, but they were not coming back to play it again and again. If the line was going up, on the other hand, it meant that players kept coming back to the machine. The casino was able to predict whether a machine was going to be successful for them just by looking at the trend of repeat play after a few weeks on the slot floor.

I've seen a few positive developments to make these machines easier to play recently. One, many machines now clearly display the minimum bet. Many machines force you to play all paylines, so they don't have the button row -- or even the option -- to choose the number of paylines you want to play. Clearly displaying the minimum bet makes it much easier for players to determine if they can afford to play the machine.

Some machine also clearly display how much you have to bet to activate certain features. Two outstanding examples are Sherlock Holmes, on which the base-bet buttons indicate whether the extra-payout features are active (50 cents without features, 75 cents with); and Bally's Hot Shot/Quick Hit hybrid on which the graphics on the button deck indicate how much you have to bet to enable the Hot Shot/Quick Hit progressive payouts ($2) and how much you have to bet to also qualify for the top progressive ($3).

I've also seen a negative development that leads to too much complexity on some machines. I call this trend "too much of a good thing."

I remember when WMS showed their first Monopoly-based games. They said that they had dozens of different variations and bonus games and they would have a couple of new games each year for many, many years to come. Similarly, there are multiple variations of Lord of the Rings, Wizard of Oz and other theme-based games.

Contrast that with today's situation in which it seems like the manufacturers throw every idea they had into a game. That leads to too many gimmicks and too many different bonus games.

A prime example is Game of Thrones, which is the best slot Aristocrat has produced. The machine has three gimmicks that randomly drop extra wild symbols on the reels. And there must be at least five different bonus games. I don't know the exact number because I didn't check all the help screens.

I don't know why Aristocrat threw everything they had into this machine instead of holding some things back for a follow-up machine. So many bonus games, moreover, can lead to frustration. I want to keep playing the machine to play all the bonus games, but after a while I give up on ever playing some of them -- especially when it seems like I keep getting my least favorite bonus game every time I get to the bonus.

I really like how one Lord of the Rings variation dealt with its multiple bonus games. Whenever you triggered the bonus, the machine let you choose which bonus game you wanted to play.

Many years ago when video slots reached critical mass and became the dominant machine type on the slot floor, an audience member at a slot seminar asked a slot director on the panel if he thought reel-spinning machines would ever go away. The director said that they wouldn't because the old-style machines still have a loyal following.

There are still plenty of reel-spinning machines on slot floors and manufacturers are doing some amazing things with the reels. But they're all multi-payline machines.

I think the day will come when you will have very few, if any, choices in single-payline machines for under a dollar.


John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots