Video Games as Slot Machines

Slot machines in a casino

I stumbled across this podcast the other day, TrailBlazers, while I was doing research about a related topic. The episode, titled Jackpot, that popped up first for me was about gambling, in particular slot machine.  I’ve actually written a fair amount about gambling in my series on lock-boxes so I was really interested in this particular episode and it didn’t disappoint. I highly recommend you give it a listen — I’ll cite a few quotes here, but the full piece is worth a listen.

What I found particular interesting was the parallels that I saw between Slot Machines and video games — and the synergy between the two. In particular there was one quote that stuck out to me:

WALTER ISAACSON: Dr. Timothy Fong is an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA gambling program.

DR. TIMOTHY FONG: When you walk through any casino in America that has slot machines and, again, you’ll see things like favorite television shows, and media, and personalities branded in with slot machine.

WALTER ISAACSON: There are slot machines themed after Game of Thrones, Dolly Parton, and Judge Judy. Even the hit movie The Hangover has it’s own themed machine. And all that familiar branding is there by design. It’s meant to get your attention and get you to sit down. There’s something for everyone. With so many varieties, there’s guaranteed to be one to catch your eye.

This is theme we see frequently in mobile gaming. In gaming, it’s commonly referred to as “reskinning,” which generally means to take a game, redo the graphics but leave the gameplay unchanged and market it as a new game. I was confused when I first started noticing this trend in mobile games — why exactly would they reskin a game but not really make any changes? Originally, I thought that it was keep the money flowing by showing frequent releases and therefore landing on “New and Trending” pages on the mobile stores.

If we apply the same principle as with Slot Machines, it actually makes a lot more sense. People will play the same game with a different theme because they like one theme more than another. They will be more likely to spend money on those games. This means that mobile developers such as King, can release a game with a slightly different theme with little to no overhead, and generate additional income from those people who find one theme more appealing than another.

For me, this parallel further strengthens the argument that video games, particularly mobile and Free-to-Play games are increasingly borrowing tactics used in casinos to better part people with their money. Further, I think the psychological manipulation that games employ are driving them on a collision course to government oversight and regulation, because they don’t/won’t regulate themselves.

As of November 6, Candy Crush Saga, King’s flagship game (if such a name can be applied to this exploitative monstrosity), is the number one grossing game on the Google Play Store. Just a few steps down the top grossing is Candy Crush Soda Saga. The game is functionally the same, but has slightly different graphics, and therefore presumable targets a different audience than the original Candy Crush Saga. It’s also worth mentioning that Candy Crush Saga is 52nd on the Top Free Games, despite being the top grossing.

This reads very similar to the techniques applied by slot machines to appeal to everyone by using slightly different themes.  In software development, it’s incredibly easy and cost effective to make these minor cosmetic changes to the games. The ROI on any game past the original creation is significantly higher because the cost of the re-skinnned game is miniscule. The process of re-skinning a game isn’t quite trivial, but it is fairly small.

In fact, in King’s portfolio of mobile games on the Google Play store, almost all of them follow the same general “Match 3+” theme, and at least 7 of them have almost no difference in game-play, only a mild thematic difference. Interestingly, King has also released a single slots games. It’s obvious that King is using slot machine tactic of providing the same general gambling experience with thematic differences to appeal to different audiences and thereby increase revenue.

It’s also worth noting, that as of the same date, November 6 2018, 7 out of the Top 20 Grossing games on the Google Play Store are explicitly gambling. 6 out of the 7 gambling games are slots games, with a lone Bingo game. It seems silly to assume that mobile develoeprs aren’t applying the same principles of Slot Machines in their mobile games.

The issue here is that the policy hasn’t caught up with technology yet. As these games get more exploitative, there’s a greater chance they will end up with government regulation because they continue to use techniques from a highly regulated industry to manipulate people to spend more money. Their greed and inability to self-regulate will eventually catch the attention of policymakers.

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