Most of us have played a slot machine at some point or another, and those of us that haven’t, most certainly have seen one. They are ubiquitous and can be found in various locations (depending on where you live), including casinos, bars, pubs, racetracks, service stations, betting shops, and in other retailers.But that’s not all.
Over the last couple of decades, the slot machine has gone digital, with many online casinos adding hundreds of different video slots to their library of games. This means that modern slot games can be played from pretty much anywhere thanks to smartphones. While most of us know what they are and how they are played, few people are aware of the unique history that these games have and how slot machines came to be so popular today.
Wagering was not new when the slot machine was invented. It has been found in just about every recorded human civilisation in history, including the Ancient Romans and the Aztecs. However, up to that point, most forms of wagering had been on card and table games like poker, blackjack, and roulette. The slot machine created an entirely new way to play with its mechanical reels and large handle. Charles August Fey is credited with inventing the modern slot machine while working as a mechanic in San Francisco, California.
However, when Fey invented his “Liberty Bell” machine with its three reels, it actually came after some other early slot machines. The first known machine was made by Sittman and Pitt, a company based in New York, in 1891. It used five reels to display 50 different playing cards, and payouts would be triggered if the player landed on a poker hand. While not the first, Fey’s Liberty Bell slot machine did influence the popular symbols seen in games today, including the bell symbol which resulted in the highest payout for this device.
Without a patent, Fey’s machines were copied by dozens of other companies, each adding their own symbols, including the fruit and BAR symbols seen today. The choice for this was because slot machines in the early 20th century mostly paid out fruit-flavoured candies made by a company called “BAR”. Manufacturers continued to add new features to their machines over time, including automatic payouts and the buzzers and bells that make the games even more exciting.
In the late 1970s, the first video slot games were developed, using a computer screen instead of physical reels. These have evolved over time into the slots we know today and are what allowed online casinos to offer this type of product to their customers. Instead of mechanical gearing, today the payouts of online slots are determined by computer algorithms and complicated number generators that ensure that the games are consistent and fair for everyone.
Not all slot games payout to players at the same rate though, with many variables influencing the outcomes. Some are more “volatile” than others, meaning there is a greater variance in the frequency and size of slot wins. All casinos are also required to show the “return-to-player” (RTP) rate for their slot games. This is usually displayed as a percentage and is a theoretical guide to the amount a player could expect to receive in relation to their initial stake over a very long period.
In practice, short-term variance means a player will never actually experience the exact RTP, with some experiencing a rate above and some below that percentage. However, it is a handy way to compare slot games when you’re deciding which one to play. Casinos have to show the RTP rate, but it isn’t always easy to compare games side-by-side. Thankfully, sites like OLBG have produced guides to the highest RTP games, allowing players to quickly filter the best casinos by payout percentage.
Competition in the market has pushed casinos to increase their RTP rates over the years. While 88% may have been considered generous a few years ago, today, it’s possible to find games like Goblins Cave which have a theoretical return to players of 99.3%. This isn’t the only digital development that online casinos have used to compete with each other. The fact that reels are created digitally and not by mechanical drums also means that the developers can introduce bonus features that are different to the standard slot mechanic.
A great example of this is the slot game created using the story of the famous 1986 Top Gun movie, which includes a dogfight minigame where players fly a plane and fire its guns to unlock bonuses. Other innovations include multiple paylines that give increased opportunities for a payout per spin, progressive jackpots that increase over time until they’re won, and branded games that feature elements from movies and TV shows.
The slot machine has come a long way since the early devices of the 19th century. They’ve gone from mechanical devices that dished out sugary treats in bars, to incredibly diverse digital games, with bonus features, licensed intellectual property, and varied payouts that we can enjoy from practically anywhere with an internet connection.