The very first (physical) slot machine emerged in 1891, the same year that Carnegie Hall and the Wrigley Company were founded, the year Nikola Tesla invented his famous Tesla coil, and the same year that the venerable Swiss Army Knife first went into production. Online casino slots are, obviously, a bit more of a recent development, evolving in tandem with video games and the internet, and only taking the form we know today from 1996 onwards.
But, a century on from the unveiling of Sittman and Pitt’s first slot-based gambling machine, the casual eye might find little difference between the casino slots of the 19th century and the digital versions played today. The presentation of each experience has evolved, with new graphics and ways to win, but many of the rules, mechanisms, and symbols are the same. You can still find online casino slots using the same symbols that Charles Fey’s Liberty Bell slot debuted in 1899, like in The Royal Family slot – though, it’s quite rare to receive a payout of cigars for a royal flush in this century.
While it might be subtle, casino developers have maintained a culture of innovation throughout the game’s history. The first recognizably modern slot, using video reels rather than mechanical ones, appeared in 1976, while Three Bags Full and the still-playable Reel ’em In introduced second screen bonuses towards the end of the millennium. Both of these elements are so common as to be mundane today, featuring in titles as diverse as Viking Runecraft and the Mega Moolah ISIS slot online, so progress has had to take a different path.
Arguably, the need to attract younger players to casino slots has influenced modern game design more than any other factor, placing interactivity and skill at the centre of the experience. Casino games that make use of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have recently appeared at game expos like ICE, while a world-first RPG-based casino title, Dungeon: Immortal Evil, from EvoPlay, is part-slot, part-hack n’ slash game. Dungeon: Immortal Evil is the latest in a series of console-style casino games that began appearing around 2018, following on from Konami’s Beat Square, Safari Match and ZOMBIE$ by Synergy Blue, and Arkanoid, a cash-based update of the 1986 Taito game. Some of these new titles are unusual enough to require their own unique cabinets or dedicated casino floor space.
However, it’s worth noting that, for all the bells and whistles that developers have added to the experience, changes to the actual gameplay in new casino slots are often minimal. Let’s take Dungeon: Immortal Evil as an example. While obviously designed to appeal to players more accustomed to the likes of God of War and Final Fantasy, it’s still a single-click slot game. ‘Spinning’ the reels simply makes your hero run into combat, with the spoils of war or ‘loot’ forming the value of the player’s reward.
There’s no benefit to complicating a game that’s been sold on simplicity for 130 years. And, for that reason, it’s hard to draw comparisons between a luck-based game like Starburst and a skill-based one such as Arkanoid. So, even with new, more complex experiences joining the market, the niche occupied by casino slots isn’t under threat. Changes to the experience are likely to focus more on platforms and presentation going forward, with VR and AR an early example of this. The popular slot Gonzo’s Quest already has a VR version, for instance, albeit as a tech demo.
As the stalls at ICE 2020 demonstrated, both online and offline casinos seem to be focussed more on quality of life improvements (larger screens, better resolutions, more streamlined tech, etc) rather than any seismic changes to the online casino slots themselves. However, with increasingly larger screens, older games are likely to become less visibly attractive, which presents a problem for developers. The size of the new Fixed Odds Betting Machines debuted at ICE, which all have three screens stacked vertically, will be useless for all but bespoke software.
That brings us to VR and AR, two technologies that have been circling the drain for a long time now, yet retain the obvious potential that brought them the limelight in the first place. Unfortunately, with both Oculus’ and Google’s respective decisions to end mobile VR development, casino developers are unlikely to find any reason to continue investing in the technology. Similarly, AR has proven to be a popular but niche tool, with much of its success rooted in location-based games like Pokémon Go and Jurassic World Alive, as well as in architectural and industrial applications.
So, what’s next for casino slots? It’s inevitable that the casino industry as a whole will continue to borrow themes and mechanics from standard video games. The same seems to be occurring in reverse too, with 2K Games sports titles featuring an increasing number of gambling-orientated mini-games such as pachinko. However, while many of the more ‘gamified’ titles have adopted a skill-centric approach to entertainment, simplicity and retro appeal continues to typify the development of new slot titles. As for VR, its overall cost of entry is still too high and its ‘killer app’ is still missing.
One final revelation from ICE was that celebrity endorsements of slot machine remain popular with players. At Betsson, we already have slots dedicated to metal band Testament, Ozzy Osbourne, and Michael Jackson but casino dev Ganapati is currently working with Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt on a new celebrity slot. It’s perhaps this ongoing connection to popular culture and wider entertainment that has allowed slot machines to stay relevant for the past century or more.