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August 24, 2019

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Industry rolls out bonus-heavy slots that stretch playing time

Slot machine

Justin M. Bowen

The “Sex and the City” slot machine, based on the HBO series, is programmed to hit a bonus, on average, once every 25 spins, which exceeds the bonus-payout norm. The game features the show’s title track, and bonuses involve winning virtual jewelry, shoes and champagne.

Promotional video from the slot manufacturer

Global Gaming Expo 2009

IGT unveils its new Launch slideshow »

All gamblers want to win. But there are different definitions of winning.

Some players fixate on big jackpots and don’t care what happens in the interim. Other gamblers, knowing a win is unlikely at best, want to lose their money as slowly as possible and aim for bonuses that serve a role much like a virtual gulp of water for a character in a video game, as they keep the game alive just a bit longer. Still others fixate on bonuses that become their own reward for the time spent on the machine.

It is this third category that the industry, in today’s economy, appears to be playing to, says Michael Shackleford, a slot machine programmer and consultant who runs a Web site called wizardofodds.com.

“The trend in the industry is all about making returns on the bonuses and making them hit more frequently,” Shackleford said. “It’s all about waiting for the next bonus.”

That goes to the casinos’ strategy to drain as much of their customers’ money without disappointing them along the way. It’s no mean feat in a poor economy, when middle-class gamblers who didn’t cut back much in past downturns are now spending significantly less at the slots.

Enter “Sex and the City,” the most talked-about new slot machine at last month’s Global Gaming Expo. It is based on the witty HBO series that chronicled the sexual conquests and romantic pursuits of four working women in New York.

The slot machine version reduces the show to obvious, although visually pleasing, stereotypes that flit by as the salsa-flavored title song plays: animated pink hearts encrusted with glittering diamonds, high-heeled shoes nestled in leopard-print boxes, champagne and chocolate on silver trays and jewelry boxes brimming with pearls and diamond rings.

The device attracted the requisite crowd, including casino managers and competitors familiarizing themselves with new products. Strangely enough, some women looked like they were simply playing for fun (slots are free to play at the expo, the world’s largest demonstration of slot machines, so no harm, no foul).

“I want to get the shoe bonus,” a 30-something woman said to an impatient co-worker who wanted to move on.

They won’t have to wait long. Manufacturer International Game Technology programmed the machine to hit a bonus, on average, once every 25 spins. That’s high, as some industry experts say a bonus frequency from 40 spins to 100 spins is more typical.

Many bonuses aren’t true wins because they pay back less than the gambler’s initial wager, but still the fun of frequent rewards might soften the expense of playing this game.

Although typical slot machines feature one screen of spinning reels, this game divides the screen into four sections, with four games going at once. The game is part of a product line called MultiPlay that encourages gamblers to play multiple games. Playing one game isn’t much fun because only one-fourth of the screen lights up.

Playing multiple games, such as multiple hands of blackjack, is presumably more stimulating but can be expensive. The cheapest spin of the “Sex and the City” game costs $2, as a minimum of 200 credits at 1 cent each will cover all four games. Gamblers can wager up to three credits on each of the 30 “paylines” attached to each game, or $6 per spin. At 5 cents per 200 credits, a spin would cost $10.

One Las Vegas casino manager said the “Sex and the City” machine probably wouldn’t hold much appeal for her typical customers — retired locals on fixed incomes who want their $20 or $50 to last a long time. But it might be a hit with tourists or infrequent gamblers, who are more inclined to appreciate the diversion of showy games, she said.

Indeed, the 30-something woman playing the machine was gunning for a digital pair of pumps as keenly as a big jackpot. (Whether she would spend her own money on the game isn’t known.)

Ah! A pearl necklace. Several, in fact. A sigh of mild satisfaction escapes her lips.

Might as well try for another bonus, or hear that catchy theme song a few more times. Her co-worker would have to wait.

IGT Director of Marketing Julie Brown acknowledges that her company is focusing on bonus-heavy games because they’re more entertaining.

Casinos are well aware of gamblers’ increasingly vocal complaints, even before the recession, that today’s fancy-pants slots swallow their money faster than the old ones did.

It’s a complicated debate.

Bosses contend that the amount paid back to gamblers hasn’t changed much over time and that gamblers are simply more aware of their losses when times are tough. While it’s often true that people tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses, aggregate figures compiled by the state show that payback percentages have declined in recent years. Casinos say it’s because they have replaced older, higher-denomination slots with high-tech “penny” games that pay out less over time but give players more chances to win in the short term. Players fueled the changeover because they overwhelmingly prefer such games, they say.

Experts such as Shackleford contend that leased slots such as “Sex and the City” — which tend to be more elaborate and expensive for manufacturers because of the amount spent on licensing well-known brands and crafting elaborate bonuses around them — also tend to have lower average paybacks than generic slots casinos can buy outright.

Lower average paybacks serve to compensate casinos and manufacturers for investing in more sophisticated features with more entertainment value, he says. With leased, or “participation” slots, casinos don’t own the games but share revenue with manufacturers. That payback theory is sound but difficult to prove, as manufacturers don’t post the chances of winning a jackpot.

Sometimes a virtual necklace is just a virtual necklace.

Winning it was a heck of a lot cheaper than dropping $700 on a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps — a satisfying prospect, no doubt, for thrifty consumers. And yet, buying the real thing is just the kind of gratification the show’s Carrie Bradshaw would have preferred.

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