As old slot myths fade away, new ones take their place
By John Grochowski
Have you heard the one about the slot machine that went cold because the player was using hot coins, fresh out of the machine?
How about the one about calculating jackpot frequency by counting the symbols on each?
What’s that? You HAVEN’T heard those? Or at least, you haven’t heard them in a long time?
That’s no great surprise. For the most part, they’re myths from a by- gone era. There aren’t many games around anymore where you drop coins into a slot, so no one talks about whether a heat sensor detects warm coins just out of the machine’s innards vs. cold, fresh money. There never were any sensors, but that doesn’t matter now.
And with video slots having taken over the majority of the slot floor, there are fewer opportunities to try to figure out how many symbols there are on a reel strip. That never really did any good either, at least not since the invention of the random number generator and virtual reel. But good luck trying to figure out how many symbols there are on a video reel strip. There’s no reel size constraint on video.
Technology marches on, and mythology keeps up the pace. New ways to play also give players new chances to try to figure out what’s going on that keeps them from winning.
That’s given rise to new chapters in fact and fiction that apply in any slot age to give us mythology for a modern age.
MYTH: On games with wheels such as IGT’s Wheel of Fortune or Light & Wonders’ Vegas Hits, the wheels are fixed so you only get the low payouts.
FACT: Wheels have random number generators just like slot reels. It is possible to win any of the amounts on the wheel, including the largest jackpots. In fact, one reader even emailed to say she had won the largest Wheel of Fortune prize on two trips to the wheel in a row.
However, even though the wheel segments look equal, more random numbers are assigned to lower-paying spaces, so you will win small prizes more often than the top jackpots.
Let’s make up an example. Say you’re a game maker and you’re setting up a game with a wheel divided into 22 segments, ranging from a $20 pay- off to $1,000.You don’t want to be paying out $1,000 once per 22 spins, so you program a virtual wheel with 1,000 numbers. You could map it so that every time the random number generator spits out number 1, the wheel stops on the $1,000 space. You could map four numbers that will make the wheel stop on the $500 space, and so on until you use 100 numbers to make it stop on a $20 space.
Now instead of paying out $1,000 once per 22 spins, your hypothetical game will pay the grand only once per 1,000 spins. And instead of paying $20 once per 22 spins, it’ll be one out of 10.The game is random, but it’s skewed toward smaller payoffs. If game manufacturers were not able to program virtual wheels in that way, the wheel spins would either have to come A LOT less often to keep payoffs within profitable parameters for the casino, or would have to offer much smaller payouts. With the virtual wheel, the spins can come up often enough to keep the game fun and interesting, while leaving the possibility of a big payday.
MYTH: Video slots pay off less than reel-spinners. They’re just computers, and programmers can do any- thing with computers.
FACT: Reel-spinning games are just computers in disguise, too. Regardless of whether you’re playing a reel slot or a video slot, the real game is being played out on the random number generator within. What you see on the reels or on the video screen is just a user-friendly interface—a visual representation designed to make it all fun and interesting for the player.
By and large, video slots do yield a lower payback percentage than reel games, but that’s because they’re on lower coin denominations rather than any inherent difference in reels vs. screen. Casinos continue to stock penny games that pay less than nickel games, which pay less than quarters, which pay less than dollars, and so on.
That’s offset somewhat by the time it takes to play bonus events. If you’re playing a game with bonus events, whether on video or many of the newer reel-spinners, you make fewer wagers per hour than if you’re playing a three-reel game with no bonus rounds.
Video slots give programmers lots of flexibility, and one key piece of that is the ability to program frequent “winning” spins with paybacks less than the total wager. Because of that, video slots usually have a higher hit frequency than reel slots. That is, you get at least some return on a greater percentage of your video spins. Reel slots have lower hit frequencies but usually offer a better chance at a big jackpot. It’s a choice between extended play and entertainment vs. jackpot chasing.
But it’s not a matter of being able to “do anything” on video. Game makers can design high-, low- and medium-paying games just as well on reels as on video.
MYTH: After a progressive jackpot or a big bonus win, slot machines have to go cold for a game to hit its programmed percentage.
FACT: The machine keeps paying the percentage determined by the nor- mal odds of the game. Over time, big jackpots, hot streaks and cold streaks all will fade into statistical insignificance.
Programmers don’t tell a machine it has to pay out a certain percent- age. They set the odds of the game so that repeated play will lead naturally to that percentage.
Let’s say you’re playing a slot machine where the odds of the game are programmed to lead to a 90 percent return. You bet $1, and get extraordinarily lucky with a $10,000 jackpot on your first play.
Does the machine have to go cold to make up that big payoff? No. If it pays its normal 90 percent over the next million plays, it will take in $1 million and pay out $900,000.Add in your $10,000 jackpot, and it’s paid out $910,000 in a million-and-one dollars worth of play. The overall payback percentage: 91 percent. Go another million spins down the road, and the over- all return becomes 90.5 percent, and after another million it’s 90.3 percent.
The casino is in it for the long haul, and the operators know that big jackpots are just part of normal probability on any slot game. Losing spins are part of normal probability, too, with more losers than winners. With repeated play, the big wins, small wins, losses, hot streaks and cold streaks will lead to the payback percentage determined by the odds of the game.
MYTH: The paybacks on bonus rounds have to be fixed in advance. If your choices made a difference, they wouldn’t know how much to count the bonus in programming the payback percentage.
FACT: Your choices do count on most manufacturers’ bonus events. The programmer sets the possibilities, and just as on the base slot game, that determines the odds of the game. Over a very long time, everything that can happen eventually will, and that will lead to an average value on the bonus event. That average can be calculated into the game’s overall theoretical yield.
The programmer doesn’t have to fix the value of the bonus event; the odds of the game will lead to an average return.
MYTH: Random number generators on the slots really generate two numbers, and then pick one. That’s not random if when it generates a winner and a loser, it can still pick the loser.
FACT: That’s called a “secondary decision,” and it’s not legal in commercial casinos in the U.S. Early computerized slots manufactured by Universal selected an outcome from a pool of all possible winning outcomes, along with a weighted number of losers. If it was a winner, that specific result was shown on the reels. If it was a loser, then a secondary decision was made to show what losing combination to show on the reels.
Nothing in that program was cheating players or changing the odds. Winning combinations were not rejected in favor of losers. Nonetheless, some people questioned the randomness of the games, and that led Nevada to ban secondary decisions. Other gaming jurisdictions followed suit.
MYTH: On slots with mystery progressives where you can win the same amount no matter what your bet size, you improve your payback percentage by betting the minimum. After all, if you don’t multiply the jack- pot, what’s the point in betting more coins?
FACT: Mystery jackpots can be programmed in a few different ways, but one common way is to have a random number select a jackpot amount, within given parameters. If a jackpot must hit at a point between $500 and $1,000 and the RNG selects $798.54, then the player whose wager pushes the pot to $798.54 wins it.
Since progressive jackpots are built from a percentage of wagers, those who are wagering more have more chances to push the jackpot to the winning total. The player who bets the minimum gains no advantage, and in fact keeps his jackpot chance at its lowest.
That’s a myth that could never have arisen before the technology that has given us mystery jackpots. But time waits for no one, and mythology has to keep up.