All of that started to change in the mid-1980s, but the changes really took off in the 1990s.
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1. “Time On Device” (TOD) is the #1 metric that casinos and slot machine manufacturers are concerned with.
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Casinos and slot machine manufacturers have realized that the #1 predictor of a game’s profitability is the average amount of time a gambler spends on that machine. When designing new games, slot machine manufacturers (IGT, Bally, WMS and others) focus on features that will increase this number.
One way to look at a game with high “time on device” is how well it gets the gambler into “the zone.” This is a state of mind where there is only the gambler and the machine. According to some anecdotal reports, this type of thinking replaces worry about the big win.
You can think of this zone as a space where time and normal social stresses cease to have meaning.
Most casino games use a deck of cards or a pair of dice or something similar to generate their random results. These are examples of games where you know the odds of winning a bet.
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After all, there are 52 cards in the deck, so the odds of getting a particular card are 51 to 1. All other probabilities can be calculated if you know the composition of the deck.
In the dice game, there are only 6 sides on the dice, so there are a finite number of combinations. Calculating the odds for any outcome is relatively simple math.
But on a slot machine, you have symbols that pay out at a certain rate when you get certain combinations of those symbols on the screen at the same time in a row. But you have no way of determining the odds of landing a particular symbol on any particular spin.
As a result, the house edge for slot machines is often higher than the house edge for other games. Blackjack has a low house edge of between 0.5% and 1% (assuming you play well). Even if you play poorly, the house edge in blackjack probably reaches 4% or so.
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But the house edge on most slot machines is 5% or more. And you have no way of knowing whether the game you’re playing has a 5% advantage or a 25% advantage. In fact, 2 identical machines sitting next to each other can have dramatically different payback percentages.
The casino industry changed dramatically in the mid-1980s. At the time, vending machines were considered a nuisance to women. The boyfriends and husbands were real gamblers and got stuck into games like blackjack and craps.
The slots in those days didn’t even have stools in front of them. They were placed in the corridor or near the elevator – the idea was to avoid taking up space on the gambling floor. They were located in spaces where people moved from point A to point B.
It only took a decade for slots to start generating twice as much annual revenue as all table games combined. By 2003, slot machines generated 85% of casino revenue.
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By the way, you will often see 65% or 70% quoted on various websites. My best guess is that this number was correct at one point, but the internet is like a giant echo chamber. Once someone somewhere writes a page citing statistics, other webmasters publish similar pages paraphrasing those earlier pages. Few writers on the Internet spend a lot of time doing actual research from legitimate print sources.
A progressive jackpot game is one in which the size of the largest jackpot increases with each spin of the reel. You can find 3 types of progressive slots:
The local progressive system is networked with a group of other slots within the same casino. Playing on any of those machines causes the jackpot for all those games to grow. If the jackpot is hit on any of those machines, the jackpot on all machines resets to the starting point. (It’s a shared jackpot.)
Wide area progressive games are games that are networked across multiple casinos. These are games where the jackpots become high enough to compete with lottery games.
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The biggest example of a progressive wide area is Megabucks. The jackpot for this game starts at $10 million and grows until it is reached. The jackpot has grown to over $30 million on at least 2 separate occasions.
Although the odds of winning a progressive jackpot are significantly higher than the odds of winning the lottery, a progressive jackpot is still a bet where the odds are stacked against you in an almost understandable way. The odds of winning the lottery are about 1 in half a million. The odds of winning the MegaBucks jackpot are about 1 in a quarter of a million.
Another difference is that you will see smaller payouts more often when playing the MegaBucks slot machine. It’s a slot machine after all.
Modern slots consist of over 1200+ individual components assembled by more than 300+ people from design to manufacturing and assembly of those components. The included parts now include items that Charles Fey, the inventor of the slot machine, would not even recognize:
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These games used to be simple. You inserted the coins, pulled the lever and searched for a combination of symbols across the payline. Now you have to choose how much you want to bet, insert paper money or tickets and press the buttons or the screen to start the game. You can bet as little as a penny per line per spin or $100 per line per spin—on the same machine.
Reels are 3D animations on a video screen, and instead of one payline, you have potentially dozens of ways to win (and/or lose). The pay table is also available on the screen, but you have to navigate to another screen to view it.
And many of these games are now linked to other games and computer programs that collect data that goes directly into the hands of casino marketing departments.
Several factors have contributed to the growth in popularity of these games across the United States. Some of it has to do with the economy during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
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Those two administrations cut federal funding to most states during the recession. The governments of those countries had to find ways to generate revenue without directly raising taxes. Legalizing and taxing gambling income was an easy way to do this.
While this was happening, the popularity of video games in general exploded. And since most machine gamblers were women and older people playing for small stakes, industry spokespeople began discussing their industry using a redefined term—”gaming” rather than “gambling.”
The combination of these factors with the technological innovations occurring at the time created the perfect storm that made slot machines the largest source of revenue in the United States gambling industry.
In 2000, slot machines were legal in only 31 states. They have since been legalized and regulated in an additional 10 states. Other states are also considering legalization.
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But these close to a million machines are not the only example of industry at work. There are countless underground machines available even in states where slot machines are not legal. These games are unauthorized and unregulated – you’ll find them in bars, gas stations and restaurants in states like Texas, where there are no legal casinos.
These unregulated games are often billed as “entertainment devices” or “sweepstakes.” In Texas, the colloquial term for them is “8 lines,” and entire businesses (“game rooms”) are dedicated to giving gaming enthusiasts the chance to play for prizes that you can easily buy at Dollar General. I visited an arcade where you could win a dozen cans of creamed corn or some garden tool.
800,000+ vending machines in one country seems like a record. But it didn’t. That alone makes the United States #2 in the world.
The number 1 country for slot machines is Japan. They have close to 5 million slot games in the country. And with Japan having roughly 1/3 the population of the United States, the number of slot machines per person is significantly higher.
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For every 27 people in Japan, you will find a slot machine. In the United States, you will find one slot machine for every 350 people.
So yes, we have a lot of places in the United States. But we’re not even close to having the slot machine fever they have in Japan.
Another example of how the gambling landscape in the United States has changed is the rise of the local gambler. The population of Las Vegas quadrupled from 1980 to 2010, from 450,000 people to 2 million. But 2/3 of Vegas residents gamble.
And 2/3 of THOSE gamblers play at least once a month, 4+ hours per session.