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Interactive Slot Machine
If local slot players could create a public-service message for the casino industry, it might be: “I want my money to last longer.”
That’s the view of Sandy Sherlock, a Sun City Summerlin resident who has played slots at least once a week since moving to Las Vegas 14 years ago. For Sherlock and many gamblers like her, winning the elusive jackpot is beside the point. Instead, they seek enough small wins to keep the action going — and losses that don’t bust them out too early.
“I never seem to win anyway, so I’d rather sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and get a little entertainment out of it. My $10 might only last a few minutes. Then I’ll get mad and leave.”
In a fantasy world, slot machines would play longer while paying big, frequent jackpots. In reality, slots are built with a house edge and a trade-off: the chance to win smaller amounts more frequently or the opportunity to win the rare jackpot. Most local gamblers would prefer the former, which stretches playing time for casino regulars on a budget, according to Tony Lucas, an associate professor at UNLV’s Harrah College of Hotel Administration.
Casinos and manufacturers aren’t necessarily delivering because they incorrectly label machines as “loose” or “tight” based on what the machines give back to players over time, said Lucas, a statistician and marketing consultant who has spent most of his career studying how slot machines work.
Slot machine volatility — a separate, programmable feature — primarily determines whether players will win or lose money and therefore, how much playing time they will have.
That is the conclusion of a study co-authored by Lucas and UNLV professor A. K. Singh in this month’s UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal that uses results from dozens of simulated slot machines to challenge the widely held theory that payback percentages matter.
Slots are usually defined by the industry and the public in terms of payback percentages. A machine with a 95 percent payback theoretically returns to the player 95 cents out of every dollar wagered. By law, slot machines in Nevada must pay back at least 75 percent.
The study says a low volatility machine extends playing time by yielding smaller wins and losses while a high volatility machine will yield bigger losses and the opportunity to win a higher jackpot. Because big jackpots are rare, high volatility games won’t play for long relative to lower volatility games, Lucas said. One simulation involving thousands of spins of a 97 percent game and an 88 percent game found those percentages had little correlation with play time. Lucas reached similar conclusions after an accelerated simulation that ran for the equivalent of 10,000 days in a row, or about 27 years’ worth of play.
The results, bolstered by previous studies he and others have published, have big implications for how the industry makes and markets slot machines, Lucas said.
Because local players generally seek more playing time, they may end up disappointed if they play highly volatile machines — especially those advertised as loose, he said. Knowing which machines were more volatile might soften the blow, while seeking out less volatile games that don’t pay out as much might satisfy conservative players, he added.
“Casinos need to better match their product to their message. This could be a win-win for casinos and players.”
Although players might say they want more gambling time, they also want to win, said Michael Shackleford, a mathematician and slot machine consultant known locally as the “Wizard of Odds.”
Casinos would probably be uncomfortable with steering players toward conservative games that are unlikely to pay out anything of substance, Shackleford said.
“That’s kind of like rubbing it in the player’s face,” he said. “Imagine a game in which, every time you press a button, it takes away 1 percent of your bet. You could play for a long time, but nobody would play it.”
As a rule, gamblers who want more playing time should stick to simpler games that appear less expensive to build, he said.
Disclosing how slots will perform seems contradictory for a business that thrives on mystery and excitement.
Most casinos don’t disclose the payback percentages or, conversely, their “house edge” on slots. By contrast, some Nevada casinos use such figures as a marketing tool to say their slots pay back more wagers, on average.
Casino bosses aren’t deceiving players so much as they are ill-informed, said Lucas, who consults for casinos and slot manufacturers. The captivating bells and whistles of modern slots don’t necessarily translate into greater playing time, he added.
“Unless you test the math, you’re not going to know.”
Payback percentages also are easier to explain than other components of a slot machine, Lucas said.
Mike Mitchell, vice president of game development at Bally Technologies, can relate.
“When I mention ‘volatility’ to people, I can see the blank look on their faces,” he said.
Still, frequent gamblers can begin to get a sense of whether a machine pays out more or less often, he said.
Slot payback percentages play an important role alongside volatility, which determines how much players can win, and “hit frequency,” which determines how often a machine will hit, Mitchell said.
Although conservative games appeal to some gamblers, many prefer the chance at a big jackpot, he said. Over time, players in older gambling regions gravitate toward riskier, high-jackpot games, he added.
Bally makes all kinds of slots because “there’s no one answer” as to what players want, he said.
Manufacturers in recent years have built interactive features into their machines to give players more control over their gambling experience.
One example is a new Bally game called “Hot Spin” that lets players select how often they want to receive a bonus round. Players can select whether they prefer to spin a bonus wheel more frequently for smaller amounts of money or less often for higher jackpots.
Players can change their selection as frequently as every hand “based on their bankroll and how they are feeling at the time,” Mitchell said.
Lucas said many slot players get turned off if they don’t win often enough. Those kinds of complaints are rising, he said, as new machines have become more volatile.
“A slot machine is really a unique animal and is something so important to Nevada that it’s worth understanding,” he said.
Sherlock is baffled by slot machines that seem to gobble her money while others sitting next to her win big.
Which is why she has switched to video poker.
“At least you can use your brain to try and pick the cards,” she said. “After 20 to 25 minutes playing, I’m happy because I feel I’ve earned some points. I don’t want to lose my money in five or 10 minutes. Then I feel cheated.”