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When a Bonus… Isn’t

Bonus events should be just that. If they aren’t, move on

By Frank Legato


We recently received a couple of letters from readers concerning bonus rounds in slot games. One reader asked whether it violated any laws for casino slot machines to advertise something as a “bonus” when a player can get nothing, and can, in fact, lose money in a purported bonus round when the return is lower than the wager on the spin.

The short answer is no, there’s no law against this. As long as the possibility of a bonus larger than the bet is there, it can be advertised as a “bonus round.”

One reader, Landry in Orlando, provided a laundry list of suggestions for us to pass on to the slot manufacturers. Here are two of his bullet points:

  • “When a bonus round is encountered, the winning amount should never be less than the original bet. Nothing worse than going through $300 to finally hit the bonus and only win 3 cents after paying $5 per spin.
  • “No slot machine should ever tell a player ‘You are a big winner’ when they only won a nickel. The sayings should vary according to a player’s win amount. For example, ‘You are a big winner’ should only be reserved when a player wins 10X or more of their original bet. ‘Not a bad bonus’ for when a player wins 5X their original bet. And when a player gets nothing from a bonus round, the machine should reply, ‘This bonus round sucked, but please continue to play.’ You get the picture.”

These are sound suggestions, although the last one would never be encountered in the real world. No slot manufacturer is ever going to draw attention to a sucky bonus round, and like it or not, there’s no real way to avoid having at least a few sucky bonus rounds in there.

Well, there’s one way—make triggering the bonus more difficult than authorizing a nuclear attack. Most players don’t want a themed slot machine that has a bonus event as the central feature to be programmed so you never see that central feature.

Programmers of slot-machine games are, at heart, mathematicians. For each game, they are faced with a mathematical balancing act between the game’s expected earnings and its fun features— while remaining within the parameters that will yield the desired return-to-player percentage, also known as payback percentage.

Of course, there is the creative side of game design: What kind of bonus features should be offered? Should it be a hold-and-re-spin kind of experience? A wheel spin? Cash-on-reels features? A picking game? Cascading reel spots?

It’s up to the mathematician in game design to fit all those factors within a set portion of the overall percentage of wagers being returned to players. The designer must fit in winning line combinations, progressive jackpots and bonus events that occur both in primary games and in those bonus events. If the designer wants a game that returns 90 percent in payback percentage, it must be determined how much of that 90 percent is devoted to primary game wins, bonus wins and progressive jackpots.

If the designer wants a fairly frequent bonus event, the average bonus wins will need to be accounted for within a very small percentage window. If he devotes 10 percent of the payout to the bonus, the primary game is chugging along at 80 percent, a difference players will surely notice.

This is why game designers allow the occasional bonus round that doesn’t pay a bonus; it’s often the only way to pay for other cool features in a game.

That said, the reader’s appeal to slot manufacturers still rings true. You should win more than your bet in a bonus round, with the occasion of a losing result extremely rare. And seeing “You’re a winner!” flash on the screen in those losing situations is rather annoying. While the suggestion of varying messages after bonuses is not realistic, I’m sure game programmers can set it so there is no celebration message under a certain threshold. Landry’s other bullet point for slot-makers: “Have it clearly posted if playing a larger bet will increase a player’s chances in the bonus round.” That’s a good one—there is an increasing number of games coming from the manufacturers in which frequency and odds in bonus events rise with the wager. Not all have what they should—a concise message by the button panel that states “higher bet, higher bonus.”

As for general advice, we always come back to a couple of basics regarding slot bonus events:

  • It’s not a bonus if you don’t win above and beyond the primary game.
  • It’s not a bonus if you never see it.

If you play a slot game centered around a bonus event and consistently win tiny, zero-win or losing bonuses—or if you never see the bonus round after, say, two $20 investments—it’s probably best to move on. There are lots of bonus slots out there.

Raiders Owner Reels One In

Plenty of excitement has been building in Las Vegas as the Raiders welcomed fans to Allegiant Stadium after playing in an empty building in 2020. Win or lose, owner Mark Davis seems to be doing well, with a net worth valued at more than $500 million. He added a tiny bit to that total thanks to a nice slot machine score in early September.

TMZ reported that the new Sin City resident was out for a night on the town at the Mohegan Sun Casino Las Vegas at Virgin Hotels and took a seat at a Wheel of Fortune machine. It turned out to be a nice trip as he hit a small jackpot for $1,800.

As the season got underway, the win may have been a sign of things to come. The silver and black opened the NFL season with a nice overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since 2003 and are a 50-1 longshot to win the Super Bowl this year. However, it looks like Davis’s luck appears to be changing.

Lightning Strikes at Bally’s Atlantic City

It’s all about the bonus round at Bally’s Atlantic City’s new Lighting Links Lounge, featuring 34 Lightning Link slots including player favorites Lighting Cash and Buffalo Link, new comfortable seating, and new décor including carpeting. Plus, all games are linked to a progressive jackpot.

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