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Mind Games: The Psychology of Slots

With slots, game designers must create an experience that makes them come back for more.

Mind Games: The Psychology of Slots

In the old days, slot games were pretty straightforward. You deposited a coin, yanked on the handle and hoped for a row of fruit symbols. If you were lucky, you walked away a little richer. If you weren’t, you walked away grumbling about one-armed bandits.

Compared to that primitive model, today’s slot machines are wonders of sophistication. Many games are played on giant, curved-screen cabinets for a more immersive experience. They come with compelling graphics and surround-sound, along with showers of coins, dancing pandas and leapin’ lizards. Some have seats that vibrate in sync with game events.

It’s been said that designers once tuned the audio component to the key of C major, because it created a pleasingly harmonic player journey.

There’s a lot of talk about that journey, which is carefully choreographed. With 70 percent or more of casino revenues derived from slots, the experts make a study of player psychology: the features that attract them and keep them coming back.

That doesn’t mean they get it right all the time—or even most of the time, says Keith Kruczynski, vice president of game development and design for Gaming Arts.

Kruczynski has plenty of successes up his sleeve. In his days at Bally Technologies, he helped produce hits like Hot Hot Habanero, Gaucho’s Gold and Mustang—a roster of games that are still popular today.

“But the list of games that didn’t perform well is probably longer than those that did,” he says. “You’re considered really, really successful—exceptionally so—if you bat .300, meaning a third of your games go out and do well. It’s really tough to make a great game, or even a good, solid game.”

There’s more to the success of a game than math, mechanics and spinning reels. Success also depends on the timing, the market and even the game’s placement on a casino floor. “A game could do absolutely gangbusters in Minnesota but do horrible on the Las Vegas Strip,” says Kruczynski. “But then you have games like (Aristocrat’s) Lightning Link, which are perfect and fantastic everywhere you put them.”

If there’s a rule of thumb at all, he says, it’s this: “The art will get players there, and the math will keep them there. It’s balancing those two things that really makes a game successful.”

‘The Ride’

Creating a great game is a collaborative effort, says Kruczynski. “Whether a person is a game engineer, mathematician, artist, producer or the vice president of game development, all our titles start with game developer. Everyone has the ability to look at game and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make sense to me,’ or ‘Wouldn’t be cool if…?’

“A lot of times, one person comes in with idea A and another with idea B, and A plus B equals a great game.”

From end to end, he calls the player journey “the ride.”

“What kind of a ride is the player going to experience when he puts in $20, $40 or $100? That’s the game identity. That’s the ride.”

“The art will get players there, and the math will keep them there. It’s balancing those two things that really makes a game successful.”
—Keith Kruczynski, Vice President of Game Development & Design, Gaming Arts

Mathematicians must be “immensely creative” in determining where the money goes, he adds. “We have a set amount of money. Whether the game’s paying back 90 percent or 96 percent, whether that money comes from the base game or from a feature that happens every 120 plays, it all makes a difference in the psychology of the game and what the player feels. We tweak with frequencies. The minutiae is so important.”

From the first build through production, where a game may be debuted at G2E or NIGA, “we go through the ‘fit and feel,’ playing the game for multiple sessions, for hours upon hours,” says Kruczynski. “You actually watch the bankroll go up and go down, then get together afterward and say, ‘Hey, I felt like I waited too long to see this feature,’ or, ‘I didn’t see enough big wins.’ It’s a matter of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. If you want more money going to the base game, then it’s got to come out of that feature. That’s the balance.”

Ultimately, for the gambler it’s all about winning—or not losing enough that it hurts. But without fun along the way, who’s going to play?

“Nobody wants to sit there and wait five or 10 minutes before they see something cool,” says Kruczynski. “We really strive to have something fun that’s financially beneficial happen in the first $20—for us, that’s the first eight to 10 or 15 spins.”

He cites Gaming Arts’ “Pop’N Pays” feature as an example of “something cool,” a people-pleasing event in which symbols pop and reveal the amount of a prize. Pop’N Pays go off with enough frequency to keep players on the edge of their seats.

Building on Success

To know what players will enjoy in a new game, “take a look at the successes you’ve had,” says Greg Colella, vice president of games product management for Konami Gaming.

“One of our biggest franchises is China Shores, one of the first games to allow players to hit multiple free games. It’s something people continue to gravitate to. So you see multiple versions of China Shores, where you take a key element and continue to design around it.”

Like other game manufacturers, Konami also conducts focus groups—directly asking players what they like and don’t like—before taking a game to market. “The trick is not to lead people to the answers you’re looking for—you want a genuine unencumbered response,” says Colella. “It’s a critical step in the design of these games.”

So, what keeps slot players playing? What Kruczynski calls “the ride,” Colella calls “the chase.”

“Most of the time when you play, the outcome is not necessarily what you want it to be, so for the player, there has to be a sense that, ‘I could beat this thing.’ It’s a careful balance of rewarding them enough so they enjoy the experience—that adrenaline thrill they get by seeing the first symbol, then the second symbol, then closing in on the third symbol to trigger the feature. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

That’s Entertainment

Kimberly Cohn, director of game development for Scientific Games, is all about storytelling. She says a great slot game “is like a movie you watch over and over again. Our goal is to make experiences that are repeatable and enjoyable.”

A former Disney animator, Cohn was part of the team that created the Titanic slot, based on the film that made superstars of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

So, how do you make an entertaining slot game out of a sinking ship? Easy—concentrate on the love story. Reel symbols include a steamer trunk, a ship’s compass, the famous heart-shaped blue diamond, and that car in the ship’s hold where the randy lovers rendezvoused. Almost ironically, considering the real Titanic’s history, you can buy into the game with first-, second- and third-class tickets. Of course, players can’t get away from Celine Dion warbling the hit theme, “My Heart Will Go On.”

To interpret mega-movies into licensed slot games, says Cohn, “you have to use the content in a way that people can relate to—‘Oh yeah, I remember when that happened, that’s the part I want to see again.’”

The Titanic slot game has realistic graphics and actual snippets of film footage: Rose and Jack dancing, Rose and Jack standing at the prow of the doomed liner.

Scientific Games’ popular Cash Wizard tells a different story, in a wholly different way. Its animation recalls a Saturday morning cartoon, full of candy-colored dragons and unicorns, magic wands and beribboned gifts, as well as the titular boy wizard. An online review notes the video slot’s “longevity,” with multiple bonuses that let players hit regularly, so they can keep winning and top up their balance.

Building anticipation is a big part of the player experience and central to the designer’s job, says Cohn. “You’re telling a story during your play session, with all kinds of peaks and valleys and turns along the way. Above all, a game has to be fun—that’s always No. 1.”

As slot machines continue to evolve and the player base shifts, the innovative game of today may be considered low-tech in a decade. “‘Skill-based’ has really been the term du jour for two or three years now,” says Kruczynski. “I think at some point we’ll really figure out how to combine gambling with that experience—I don’t think it’s been done yet, but people have gotten close.”

Then there are so-called “persistent-state” games, like Gaming Arts’ Dice Seeker, which feature a chase for credits, multipliers, progressives or other rewards within a finite time; the player sees his or her own progress toward a goal, and just has to stay at the game at least until it plays itself out.

“The persistent side is really opening doors for a whole new genre of games,” says Kruczynski. “If the standard game is your starting point and skill-based is your end point, then the bridge between those two could be this persistence factor.”

According to Cohn, her job is “to have fun, solve puzzles and figure out the best possible way to entertain players. We’re game makers.

“Only players know what players like,” she adds. “To understand the psychology of the players, you have to be a player yourself.”

On thing has never changed, and probably never will, says Colella. “If you ask players what they like, almost all the time they say they like winning.”


Reeling ’Em In
Dan Whelan, Vice President of Product Development, Incredible Technologies

GGB: What are a few of your most popular games, and what elements made them catch on big with players?

Dan Whelan: One of our most popular games, Crazy Money Deluxe, has all the right ingredients: great math, art and sound. It was the first game on our Infinity Skybox cabinet, which has a massive overhead screen.

We focused a lot on visibility of the wheel from afar. The biggest key was honing in on the math to create the right hit frequency of the wheel. When the game is in a bank, someone is usually hitting the wheel, which results in a great advertisement to other players to see how the features work.

One of the newest games on our Infinity V55 cabinet, Happy 8’s, does a great job introducing a new twist on the popular “persistent” bet feature. The fact that awards you collect during free spins carry back to the base game feels great. The game does a good job enhancing the persistent bet experience.

How do you get into the mind of the player when you’re building a new slot game?

Since we don’t have a mind-reading app on our phones—yet—playing games on our own is key to understanding the psychology behind player decisions. All our game designers and mathematicians play slots. We also hold monthly player focus testing run by our marketing department. This process is very beneficial to game development.

How has technology changed game design?

High-resolution LED monitors, lightning-fast processors and video cards have allowed us to create any game we can dream up. There’s no limitation to game design. We try to utilize new technology to enhance the player’s experience. It’s critical to marry any new technology with the right math and bet structure.

How do you appeal to younger players’ desire to “level up” in a game?

I feel younger players are used to a high level of interaction with any game they play. They grew up on video games and smartphones. There’s a bar that’s set in their minds when they sit down at a slot game. It’s our job to ensure the experience matches their expectations.

This is true of any player. No matter what age they are. Typically, we utilize bonus games as key moments for player interaction. We’re also expanding our iGaming presence, which I feel may reach a younger audience.

Why is the hold-and-spin feature so popular?

Because it’s simple to understand. It appeals to the masses because of simplicity. I view it as though a new ice cream flavor was invented. Now players expect it to be on your “menu.” We’re constantly trying to invent new flavors. It’s hard to do, but it’s a daily goal of game development.

How do you weigh responsible gaming issues when designing a slot game versus the desire to keep players in their seats and engaged?

We’re sensitive to the issues of responsible gaming. We work very hard to make our games easy to understand. The easier the game design is to understand, the better the information is to make good betting decisions. Our goal is to provide a memorable experience and not take advantage of players. In the end, a clear game design benefits both sides of the equation.