All this began to change in the mid-1980s, but these changes began during the 1990s.
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1. “Time on Device” (TOD) is the #1 metric that casinos and slot machine manufacturers are concerned about.
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Casinos and slot machine manufacturers have come to realize that the #1 predictor of a game’s profit is the average amount of time a gambler spends on that device. When designing new games, slot machine manufacturers (IGT, Bally, WMS, etc.) focus on features that increase this number.
One way to look at a game with a high “Time on Device” is how well it hooks a gambler into the “zone”. It is a state of mind where the gambler and the machine are alone. According to some anecdotal reports, this type of thinking replaces worries about winning big.
You can think of this zone as a space where time and normal social pressures have no meaning.
Most casino games use a deck of cards or a pair of dice or something comparable to generate their random results. Those are examples of games where you know the probability of winning a bet.
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After all, there are 52 cards in a deck, so the odds of getting a particular card are 51 to 1. All other odds can be calculated if you know how to make on the deck.
There are only 6 sides to a die in a craps game, so there is a limited number of combinations. Calculating the probabilities of any given outcome is relatively simple math.
But in a slot machine, you have symbols that pay a certain rate when you get certain combinations of symbols on the screen at the same time on a line. But you have no way of determining the odds of getting 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 is likely to be as high as 4% or more.
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But the house edge for most slot machines is 5% or more. And you have no way of knowing whether the game you are playing has a house edge of 5% or 25%. In fact, 2 identical machines sitting next to each other may have different payout percentages.
The casino industry changed dramatically in the mid-1980s. At the time, slot machines were considered a distraction for women. Boyfriends and husbands are real gamblers and stick to games like blackjack and craps.
The slots didn’t even have stools in front of them in those days. They are placed in the hall or near the elevator—the idea is to avoid taking up space on the gambling floor. They are located in spaces where people move from point A to point B.
It only took a decade for slot machines to start generating twice as much revenue per year as all table games combined. By 2003, slot machines generated 85% of casinos’ revenue.
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You will often see 65% or 70% quoted on various websites, however. My best guess is that this number was true at one time, but the Internet is like a giant echo chamber. When someone writes a page somewhere that cites a statistic, other webmasters publish similar pages paraphrasing previous pages. Few online writers spend as much time doing actual research from legitimate print sources.
A progressive jackpot game is one where the size of the maximum jackpot grows with each spin of the reels. You will find 3 types of progressive slots:
A local progressive area is networked with a group of other slot machines within the same casino. Playing any of the machines causes the jackpot to increase for all games. If the jackpot is hit on any machines, the jackpot on all machines will be reset to its start. (This is a shared jackpot.)
Wide area progressives are games that are networked across multiple casinos. These are the games where the jackpots get high enough to compete with lottery games.
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The biggest example of a wide progressive area is Megabucks. The jackpot for this game starts at $10 million and grows until it is hit. The jackpot has grown to over $30 million on at least 2 separate occasions.
Although the odds of winning a progressive jackpot are better 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 million.
Another difference is that you will see smaller payouts more often when playing a MegaBucks slot machine. It’s a slot machine, after all.
Modern slots are made up of over 1200+ individual components put together by 300+ people from design to manufacturing and assembly of those components. The features involved today include things that Charles Fey, the inventor of the slot machine, didn’t even recognize:
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These games used to be straightforward. You insert coins, pull a lever, and look for a combination of symbols on a pay line. Now you have to choose how much to bet, insert paper money or tickets, and press the buttons or screen to start the game. You can bet as little as one 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 a single pay line, you have multiple ways to win (and/or lose). The pay table is also on the screen, but you have to navigate to another screen to see it.
And many of these games are now linked to other games and to computer programs that gather data straight into the hands of the casinos’ 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 2 administrations cut federal funding to most states during the recession. State governments should find ways to generate revenue without direct tax increases. Legalizing and taxing gambling income is an easy way to do this.
While this was going on, video games in general were also exploding in popularity. And since most machine gamblers were women and older people who played for low stakes, industry spokespeople began referring to their industry using a modified term—”gambling”, rather than “gambling”.
The combination of these factors with the technological innovations that have continued over time created the perfect storm that made slot machines by far the largest source of income in the gambling industry in the United States.
In the year 2000, slot machines were legal in only 31 states. They are now legalized and regulated in 10 more states. Other states are also considering legalization.
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But these close to 1 million machines are not the only example of the industry in action. There are countless underground machines available even in states where gambling machines are not legal. These games are unauthorized and unregulated—you can 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 games”. In Texas, the colloquial term for them is “8 liner”, and entire businesses (“game rooms”) are dedicated to allowing gambling enthusiasts the opportunity to play for prizes that you can easily buy at Dollar General. I visited a game room where you could win a dozen cans of creamed corn or some garden tools.
It seems that 800, 000+ slot machines in one country will make a record. But it doesn’t exist. It just made the United States #2 worldwide.
The #1 country for slot machines is Japan. They are close to 5 million slot machine games in the country. And considering that Japan has a population roughly 1/3 that of the United States, the number of slot machines per person is even more.
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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 many slots in the United States. But we haven’t even come close to having the kind of slot machine fever they have in Japan.
Another example of how the gambling scene in the United States has changed is the rise of local gambling. 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 monthly, for 4+ hours per session.