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Questions & Answers in Slots

Revealing the truth behind some of the most common slot player questions

By John Grochowski


Your choices do matter. Bonus round possibilities are set by a random number generator, but the decisions you make after those possibilities are set will determine the size of the bonus you receive.

Way back in the late 1990s, as video slots were first gaining a foothold on casino floors, players used to ask the same question, over and over. It went something like this:

“How can you tell when you’ve won with all these crazy paylines?”

That was back in the days of five-line games, long before anyone thought of marketing games with 100 paylines, or games like Aristocrat’s Tarzan and Jane with a dual playing field, or Xtra Reel Power slots with 7,776 ways to win. But back then, those five-line games were new, different and a tiny bit confusing.

Nowadays, people are used to all the paylines and other configurations, and if they can’t tell what’s going on as it’s happening, at least they’re comfortable with winning combinations being outlined on the screen afterward.

Slot Machines

The question of how you can tell when you’ve won isn’t asked all that much anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no mystery left in video slots. There are other questions that are still are asked over and over again. So let’s try to answer some of the ones that are most frequently asked.

How can I tell when a machine is ready to pay off?

This is always the million-dollar (or even thousand penny) question with slot machines, isn’t it? The answer is that there is no way to tell when a jackpot is coming, or when there’s about to be a hot streak, or when the bonus round is on its way.

Just as with reel-spinning slots, the results you see on the screen are determined by a program called a random number generator. Nothing humans can design is perfectly random, but the RNG is close enough that we can’t tell what’s coming next.

Do video slots pay out as much as reel slots?

The old formula of slots having higher payback percentages at higher coin denominations holds true on video, just as it long has done on reel-spinning games. Dollar games pay more than quarters, which pay more than nickels, which pay more than pennies. And since most video slots are at lower denominations—penny games are the most popular things casinos have going—they tend to have lower payback percentages than reel-spinners.

One factor to consider: Play is slower on a video slot than on a reel-spinner that doesn’t have animated bonus rounds. Whether you’re getting free spins on Tarzan or racing through Gotham City on the Dark Knight game, you’re getting more playing time without making extra wagers. If you’re betting 75 cents a spin on a video slot, and I’m betting 75 cents a spin on a three-reel game with no bonus events, then I bet more money per hour than you do because I’m not getting that free time.

Is your bonus decided before you play a pick’em bonus round, or do your choices matter?

Your choices do matter. Bonus round possibilities are set by a random number generator, but the decisions you make after those possibilities are set will determine the size of the bonus you receive.

Let’s say you’re playing Jackpot Party and the gift box on the bottom left corner is hiding a 200-credit bonus, while the one next to it is hiding a party pooper that ends the round. When you pick, you have a chance at that 200-credit bonus that will allow you to continue picking. You also have the chance at a pooper that will end it there, and you have a chance at any of the other outcomes hidden by gift boxes on the screen.

Your final bonus is not predetermined. It could be thousands of credits, it could be the minimum for hitting the pooper on the first pick, and it could be anything in between.

The random number generator just sets the possibilities. It does not just give you a set bonus.

 What exactly is a mystery bonus?

Mystery bonuses are awarded not on the basis of the symbols you land on the video reels, but on factors of time or amount wagered since the last mystery award.

The mystery rewards can be trips to a bonus event; progressive jackpots; or even bonus events that lead to progressive jackpots.

Some mystery progressives are programmed with start points and stop points. You’ve probably seen signs at some machines that say something like, “Jackpot must be awarded before $1,000.” If there’s a $500 seed amount and a $1,000 maximum, then the random number generator selects a target between those two amounts. The player whose wager pushes the jackpot to that target amount wins.

Or the game or bank of games could be programmed so that the RNG picks a wager total between a start and stop point, and when the total of wagers on the machine or bank reaches that randomly selected amount, a bonus event is launched. It can even be done with a timer, so that the RNG selects an elapsed time since the last bonus event to launch the next one.

When the bonus event launches, you’ve been given no clues by the symbols on the reels that it’s coming. It’s a mystery.

Should you always bet maximum coins, like on the three-reel games?

Not necessarily. The reason you get the best payback percentage by betting the max on most three-reel games is that there’s a disproportionate jump in the top jackpot. Let’s say a three-reel game’s top jackpot pays 1,000 coins for a one-coin bet, and 2,000 coins for two, but 5,000 coins for three. You can break that 5,000 coins down to say you’re getting 1,000 for your first-coin bet, 1,000 for the second, but 3,000 for the third-coin bet. The payback is disproportionately higher for betting the third coin.

Most video slots don’t have such jumps. For each winning combination, the raise in payoffs is proportionate to the size of your wager.

Most players like to at least cover all the paylines, even if it’s for only one coin per line. Then if all payoffs are proportionate, you get the same payback percentage whether you bet one coin per line, 10 per line or 20 per line. You can stay within your bankroll and bet one coin per line if you like, and not feel like you’re missing a higher payback percentage.

There are exceptions. If you’re playing a machine with a progressive jackpot or jackpots, be sure to read the glass and make certain your bet makes you eligible for the progressive. Progressive machines tend to have lower paybacks outside the jackpots, so if you don’t want to bet enough to be eligible, it’s better to find a different game. Also, a few games activate certain jackpot symbols only if your bet is large enough. You don’t want to line up five winning symbols only to find you haven’t wagered enough to collect. Read the glass and the help menu, and make sure.

Do slots pay more jackpots at night, when there are more people in the casino?

More jackpots are paid during crowded times, but only because there is more play and more chances for jackpot combinations to come up. Your chances of hitting a jackpot are no better during crowded times than when there are fewer people around.

Let’s imagine a casino filled with machines that pay their top jackpots once per 25,000 plays. (In reality, some machines pay more often, some far less, but let’s keep the example simple.)

If 100 people play 1,000 spins each, there are 100,000 plays. On average, that will result in four top jackpots. But if 1,000 people play 1,000 spins each, there are 1 million plays, and that will result in an average of 40 top jackpots.

The odds of winning a top jackpot don’t change. They remain at 1 in 25,000. But there are more jackpots awarded during the more crowded time.

There is no advantage to playing with bigger crowds. Personally, I prefer less crowded times when I can pick and choose the games I want to play, instead of just looking for a machine with am empty seat. Others prefer the energy and excitement of a crowded casino. Take your pick, and know that the odds of winning are the same either way.

Do games with free-spins pay more than games with pick’em bonuses?

They don’t pay more. They pay differently.

There’s some variation within each type of game, but usually pick’em second-screen bonuses are even keel games, with the bonuses designed to give you extra time on device. The bonuses aren’t enormous, but they’re fun, and they keep you in your seat. Free-spin bonuses are wilder rides. With these, you can win thousands of credits at a time, or you can win nothing—or very little. They’re a more volatile experience that give penny players the potential for rewards worth winning, while the pick’ems tend to be more popular with nickel players.

There’s plenty of room for games with different looks and different payback methods. That’s all part of the fun in the video age.

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