It’s fair to say that the notion of the slot machine has come a long way since the very first three reel machine with automatic pay out was unveiled 1898. The biggest shift, of course, came with the switch from real world slot machines based in bricks and mortar casinos to online slot machines that could be accessed at any time and in any place on an increasingly wide range of devices, allowing consumers to play for real money in real time.
Although video slots, as introduced to land-based casinos in 1975, greatly expanded the visual impact of slot machines it wasn’t until the shift online took place in the mid 1990’s that the potential for video game style graphics in the world of online slots began to be realised. Online gambling as an industry is driven by technological innovation, with developments such as the smartphone and widely available Wi-Fi allowing developers to hugely expand upon the mechanics and aesthetics of the slot machine. It stands to reason, therefore, that the HD graphics available on even the most basic modern tablet or smartphone would be leaped upon by game developers.
What drives the change?
The first question to address is why slot developers feel the need to bother with the expense and effort of constantly introducing new features to their slots? The answer is that online gambling, and in particular playing slot machines, is increasingly looked upon by many participants as being a part of the entertainment industry.
Unlike games such as poker and blackjack, which are perceived to contain an element of skill, or even roulette, which can be played with a particular strategy in place, slots are regarded by most that play them as being completely random. The choice between one slot and another, therefore, unless you’re a seasoned player with in-depth knowledge of the return to player (RTP) percentage of individual games, is likely to be driven by the entertainment value they offer.
This is a perception backed up by any breakdown of the way in which people play online slots. According to a report into online gambling by the Gambling Commission, slots represented by far the most popular form of online gambling in the UK, attracting 13m consumers per year. The make-up of these consumers was more balanced between the genders than for any other form of online gambling with the exception of online bingo, which attracts a majority female clientele. Compared to non-slot casino offering, which attracted an 89% male consumer base, slots were divided 61% to 39% between men and women respectively.
Another statistic which indicates that playing slots is seen as an entertainment or diversion as much as a form of hard-core gambling is the relatively small number of high stake bets placed on slot machines. While non-slot offering attracted stakes of £500 or higher on 0.2% of spins, the figure for online slots was an infinitesimally small 0.0002%.
All of which points to the fact that the increasing ‘gamification’ of online slots – through both the high quality graphics being used and the introduction of the kind of features traditionally found in computer games – is part of a drive to keep appealing to this diverse audience.
The Jack and the Beanstalk slot, developed by NetEnt and released in 2013, was one of the earliest examples of the aesthetics of game play making an impact in the world of online slots. The game opens with the kind of animated ‘cut scene’ beloved of games developers and music is paired with lush visual throughout to increase the genuinely immersive nature of the game.
The game Castle Builder, launched by developers Rabcat, bills itself as a ‘level-based slot’ and the degree to which playing the levels of the game – which involve building castles by hitting particular symbols – takes precedence over spinning the wheels is apparent as soon as you look at the screen set up. The reels themselves are over to one side and the bulk of the screen is dominated by richly detailed and wonderfully animated castles which grow and change as you progress through the levels. As the player completes the building of each castle they are rewarded with a Royal Wedding bonus round, during which they can win the prize pot which has been building up during their castle building endeavours.
Another aspect of computer games which is making itself felt in the development of online slots is increasing personalisation. The game Good Girl Bad Girl from Betsoft offers a prime example of this trend. First of all the high quality graphics feature animated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls floating on either side of the reels. The game-play aspect of the slot, however, comes with the fact that players are free to set their own levels of volatility.
In the world of online slots ‘volatility’ is a concept relating to the number of times a machine is likely to pay out and the ratio of that number to the size of the pay-outs. Good Girl Bad Girl simplifies this concept by enabling the player to choose either a Good Girl and aim for regular, small wins, or a Bad Girl, which triggers larger wins which arrive less often. In addition to this, the player also gets to choose whether they play with 15 or 30 win lines.
Once again, this shows that the boundary between gaming as we know it and playing online slots is beginning to blur. The introduction of high quality 3D visual started the process, and the processing power of the average hand held device or laptop means that developers are free to let their imaginations run riot when it comes to combining game play with gambling.
Other gameplay type features which are occurring more and more frequently in the online casino environment include the likes of leader boards, level-up progress bars, the use of personalised avatars, maps which players are tasked with completing and competition between different players on individual slots.
By combining all of these features developers are creating slots which offer all round entertainment to players and a fully engaging, interactive experience. The statistics regarding the gaming industry being bigger than Hollywood have been around for several years now. The latest developments in online slots are creating a situation in which they seem determined to stake their claim for third place in the rankings.