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.

What’s Next – The Lock-box Debate – Part 4

Poker Chips

It’s been a very bad week for EA. If I had to pick a company whose greed was going to come back and dropkick them in the head — it would have been EA. That faith in EA’s greed and ineptitude was well placed. Last week, EA’s ham-handed attempt to turn millions of gamers into foaming gambling addicts whilst planning their own Scrooge McDuck-style tower full of gold backfired as gamers finally freaked out because EA pushed the buck too far with Star Wars Battlefront II and lock-boxes.

Continue reading “What’s Next – The Lock-box Debate – Part 4”

Bringing it Home – The Lock-box Debate part 3

Now I’ve looked the what of lock-boxes and the potential increases in profit, whether lock-boxes are gambling or not, and finally what makes lock-boxes in games different? For all the parallels we can draw between gambling and lock-boxes today, they are still different and those differences shouldn’t be glazed over–they are definitely important.

Continue reading “Bringing it Home – The Lock-box Debate part 3”

Is it Gambling? The Lock-box Debate – Part 2

Poker Chips

We’ve established what lock-boxes are and how they are used in games. Next, I want to tackle fiercely debated topic in lock-boxes: Are lock-boxes gambling? After several hours of research through lots of court opinions, the answer is a resounding not yet. I spent an afternoon reading to understand the leg whats and whys of lock-boxes and gambling in virtual worlds.

Continue reading “Is it Gambling? The Lock-box Debate – Part 2”

What is a lock-box? The Lock-Box Debate, Part 1

Because why not beat a dybbuk that just won’t die? 

For a hot minute back when I was in 7th grade, I got really into Magic: The Gathering. A group of us used to play during a study hall (we were definitely the cool kids). I loved the artwork and the premise of the game and it was generally fun. But I began to realize something–my friend who would bring a 10-gallon garbage of cards to school on our battle-days seemed to always win.

Continue reading “What is a lock-box? The Lock-Box Debate, Part 1”

Why EQ2 is Still Worth Playing (even under Daybreak)

I swore up and down that I wouldn’t support Daybreak anymore after the EverQuest Next cancellation. Last week, I caved and re-subbed to play EverQuest 2 on the progression server. The core game is fun and offers features you can reliably find anywhere else. While my druthers quiver in rejection, having fun is all that matters when it comes to gaming.

Continue reading “Why EQ2 is Still Worth Playing (even under Daybreak)”

Cerulean-tinted Glasses in Pokemon Blue

Pokemon Blue


As part of the 20th Anniversary of Pokemon, Nintendo has re-released the original games – Pokemon Blue, Pokemon Red, and Pokemon Yellow on the 3DS eShop. I’m a huge Pokemon fan, so I was pretty geeked out, but a little worried about how the game would play after all the quality-of-life improvements from subsequent generations.  While I agonized over which version to purchase, I eventually succumbed to nostalgia and picked up Pokemon Blue, the version my middle schooler self played.  I have to say, I’m surprised at how well the game has held up over the years.

Continue reading “Cerulean-tinted Glasses in Pokemon Blue”

EverQuest Next’s Cancellation and the Future of the MMO Genre

Everquest Next

This past Friday, we got some news that rocked many the genre–DayBreak Games cancelled what was supposed to be their flagship game, EverQuest Next.  This move, coupled with several other high profile cancellations shows the genre is moving away from the box-office buster style of MMO development.   As the behemoths of the genre lumber on, smaller independent developers who have more tolerance for risk will fill the gaps left behind.

Continue reading “EverQuest Next’s Cancellation and the Future of the MMO Genre”