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Extreme Symbolism

Entertainment Value In Video Slots Extends to Symbols And How They’re Used

By John Grochowski


Slot machine manufacturers long ago realized they’re in the entertainment business. Any way they can make the games more entertaining, any way they can make them reach out and call “Play me!” is fair game for designers.

Bonus wheels on top of the machines? Great! Interactive pick’em bonuses that get players involved with the games? Terrific! Free spins, multi-tiered progressives and win-together community games? Bring ’em on.

But bonus events and progressive wins aren’t for every spin play. They’re infrequent events that heighten activity and excitement, events to anticipate and savor. But most of the time, we’re watching the video reels spin. There can be some big hits, but by and large these are not winning times. Most of the time, video slot players lose money on the reel-spinning portions of the games, and make money during the bonus events.

So what can slotmakers do to keep us interested and in our seats during those losing times? Mostly, it’s in the math of the games. Are payouts frequent enough to keep you going? Is there enough chance of a big win to keep you interested? Do the bonuses happen often enough to give you hope, yet not so often that bonus payouts have to be too small to be worth chasing?

Of late, the reel symbols themselves have joined the tools designers use to keep you interested. Not that long ago, you could mark the reels off into a grid. On a video slot game with five reels, each three symbols deep, there were 15 spaces. Today, split symbols give five-reel games 10-of-a-kind possibilities, stacked symbols can fill whole columns and extra-large symbols take up whole blocks of spaces at once.

Take the Mega Symbols line from WMS Gaming, There are six reels, with the first and last being three symbols deep, and the other four each four symbols deep. When a Mega Symbol hits, it fills all four middle reels. One example is the music-themed Baby Dolls, featuring a three-woman band. In one test, the blonde singer Mega Symbol came up, and a single image of her face filled 16 spots. Mega Symbols games pay both left to right and right to left, so if you have the Mega Symbol, a matching symbol either on the first or last reel will bring a big winner.

Other games in the initial Mega Symbols line are Mastodon and Happy Days—you’ll want to see the Fonz giving a big thumbs-up all the way across your screen. And in Mastodon, one Mega Symbol can award up to 100 free games.

IGT has a whole line of games called “Split Symbols,” a gameplay mechanic developed by independent game designer High 5 Games. The main character symbols on Split Symbols games come in two varieties. Some have only image of the character, but some have two within the same space, and those double symbols count twice.

Payoffs start at three in a row, so a single symbol on the first reel next to a single symbol on the second brings no payback, but turn either of those into a split symbol and there’s something added to the credit meter.

Take the Split Symbols game Brazilia, with three female characters and one male. The highest payer is a purple-clad young woman with a gold, bejeweled headband. Let’s say you bet one credit on each of the30 paylines.  If you have one of her on each of the first two reels, you get nothing. But if you see picture once on one symbol and twice on the second, then you have three in a row and get eight credits per winning pay-line. If both have the split symbols, your four-symbol pay rises to 10 per winning line, and it maxes out at 300 credits per winning line if you have five split symbols to make a row of 10 of Miss Purple.

An added feature is that wild symbols count as splits when forming winning combinations with character symbols. So a single image of Miss Purple on the first reel next to a wild symbol is a three-in-a-row win-ner.  However, there are no splits on lower-paying symbols. On Brasilia, those include A, K, Q, and three pieces of jewelry—a butterfly, a gold parrot perched on a fiery jewel, and a snake wrapped around a purple gem. For them, a symbol next to a wild is just two in a row, which is not a winner. The low-payers also have no 10 of a kind possibilities.

One tool that’s become a part of designers kits at virtually very slot-maker is the stacked symbol. IGT has a line of games called Super Stacks with extra-long stacks of repeating symbols, but Aristocrat Technologies has long used stacked symbols, including its Jackpot Streak games Sparkling Royal and Garden of the Amazon, Bally Technologies uses stacked symbols in games such as Ocean’s Glory and stacked multipliers in Wild Rose, and stacked wild symbols are part of the attraction in WMS’ Lancelot and Rome and Egypt.

On a standard video reels slot with five reels that each are three symbols deep, stacked symbols can fill an entire column. And the stacks aren’t just three symbols. They’re long enough that they make an extended, eye-catching display as they whiz buy when the reels spin.

The upside comes when matching stacks completely fill columns. On a 40-line game such as IGT’s Black Widow, if you have matching stacks on the first three, four or five reels, you have winners on all 40 paylines. Even with the lower-paying A-K-Q-J-10 symbols that are common on today’s video slots, and even if the pays are just for three symbols across, 40-line pays will provide a nice bankroll boost to keep you going. And on those rare occasions when the full screen displays the same symbol, the wins are spectacular, with thousands of credits possible even if you wager only one credit per line.

It’s also possible to get smaller pays on fewer paylines. Not all symbols are stacked in all places on the video reel strip. And even with a stack, if the bottom of a stack lands at the top of the playing field, you’ll see only one symbol at the top of a column, with the rest of the stack out of sight. Likewise, you could see the top of a stack at the bottom of a column, with the rest of the stack already passed below.

And, of course, there’s a downside. Stacks can block other small winners. If you have matching symbols on reels 1 and 3, but have a non-matching stack taking up all of reel 2, there are no winners, not even a couple of credits for a one- or two-line win.

What that does is add volatility to the game, with more emphasis on large, multiline wins and less on smaller pays just to keep you going. Adding volality and putting more of your payback percentage is one of the things game makers had to figure out when player demand for video slots shifted from nickel games to penny games. A 200-credit pay on a nickel game is $10 that might buy a lunch buffet, but 200 credits on a penny game is a $2 pay that might buy a couple of bags of chips at the snack bar. Penny slots had to become more volatile, with more of the payback concentrated in bigger pays, to give low-denomination players prizes worth playing for.

Mega Symbols, Split Symbols and stacked symbols all are designed to increase possibilities of large payoffs on the reel-spinning portions of the game. That adds both volatility and intrigue to the games, something to keep you and me engaged while we wait for the next bonus event.

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